Roundup: All You Need is Love (and a Good Story)

As we launch a new blog format for the new year, we’re also looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009. Our roundups explore the archives and gather past posts around a certain theme to help you jump-start your week. This week we have posts on love.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Well, on the fourteenth, but it’s never too early to start spreading the love, and great literature about love, for that matter. Everyone likes a good love story.

  • In her article, “Fleas Are for Lovers,” Ms. Lowe tells that “once upon a time the flea was also a popular emblem of erotic love.” Who knew?

adult male Oropsylla Montana flea

Love Park
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Roundup: Craft

As we look forward to updating the Ploughshares blog for the new year, we’re also looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009.  Our roundups explore the archives and gather past posts around a certain theme to help you jump-start your week.  This week we have posts on the craft of writing.

Many books have been published on the craft of writing.  The topics can range from big picture discussions of the structure of a novel to detailed examinations of sentence structure.  From time to time, our guest bloggers have weighed in on the subject of craft, and this week we’re bringing you some of those posts.

Roundup: On Reading

As we look forward to updating the Ploughshares blog for the new year, we’re also looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009.  Our roundups explore the archives and gather past posts around a certain theme to help you jump-start your week.  This week we have posts on reading.

We’ve been doing a lot of roundups on aspects of writing, so I think it’s time we take a look at the other half of the Ploughshares equation: reading.  A literary magazine, after all, cannot survive without a healthy readership.  Also, at a reading last week at Emerson College, Tobias Wolff said “All the writers I know are voracious readers.”  So whether you are a reader, or a writer/reader, here are some posts on the state of reading.

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Anais to Kansas

Bridget blog OK.jpgGuest post by Bridget Lowe

My adolescence was difficult. I was utterly confused, depressed, and lonely. I had braces and was so vain that I refused to wear the glasses I desperately needed. My parents didn’t understand me, my teachers didn’t understand me, and I still had to share a room with my little sister. It was really quite tragic. And then I discovered Anaïs Nin.

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When I was seven my family hopped the state line, from Kansas City, Missouri to the Kansas side, so my father could attend graduate school. Our new area was very green and we had a creek in the back, and prior to my unhappy teenagehood I spent a lot of time riding my bike around, looking for rats in the creek (I had seen a pack of them once and kept trying to confirm the original sighting) or eating snacks in my tree house, which actually belonged to the family next door. My point is that our town, and hence our library, wasn’t fancy. Overall it was a library of effort–it was trying, and more importantly, it was humble, widely regarded as the most honorable trait of all by the Bread Basket of America.
Anaïs Nin, however, did not seem very humble and did not seem content to accept whatever life threw her way. Instead she was, well, Anaïs Nin, her name now synonymous with the unapologetic sexuality and intellectualism that characterized her works of fiction and her famous Diaries. She was worldly, beautiful, brilliant; what excited me most, she seemed wildly, unthinkably in charge of herself.

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Cynocephali Strike Again

Bridget blog new.JPGGuest post by Bridget Lowe

The friction between our human and animal natures (a dubious distinction from the start) has been the subject of inquiry for a very long time, from Nebuchadnezzar, who loses his wits and wanders as a wild man for seven years, to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which proposes a radical fluidity of form that results in “bodies changed,” to the medieval travelogues and bestiaries that sought understanding through categorization.

One of my favorite prose writers of the 17th century is Sir Thomas Browne. Insatiably curious man, he wrote extensively on religion, medicine, and in my favorite book, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, the silly things that people believe. In Pseudodoxia Epidemica, nicknamed “Vulgar Errors,” Browne spends a great deal of time on the natural world, including animals and their physiology. The earnest inquiry (whether elephants have knees, slugs have eyes, and why Adam and Eve are depicted as having navels), paired with his lively writing style, means more personality than science, and thus an easily enjoyed book. His mission, however, is clear–to sort out once and for all these half-truths that litter the 17th century mind, many of which were leftovers from the inspired yet erroneous bestiaries that rotated so heavily in medieval Europe.

pictures-cynocephali.jpgTaking inspiration and information from early texts like Pliny’s Natural History, these European manuscripts and texts introduced unknown parts of the world to their captive audience. With Christian allegory superseding actual observances, bestiaries are enjoyable today partly because most of the information they contain is so absolutely incorrect. The sciopods (men with one giant foot that allows them to not only travel at great speed but use the foot as an umbrella from the sun), blemyae (headless men with faces in their chests), astomi (mouthless men who smell apples and flowers for subsistence and will die if they smell something foul), and cynocephali (dog-headed men, mentioned by Marco Polo and frequently represented) collectively display a worldview dominated by advances in European travel and, consequently, extreme xenophobia.

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The Acrostic: A Love Story

Bridget blog new.JPGGuest post by Bridget Lowe

Most of us wrote them in grade school, our names printed in large letters down the left margin and traced over with marker, our early views of ourselves summed up in a handful of lively adjectives. A few years ago, when leaving for graduate school, I received a particularly excellent one from a young person I’m close to, the “R” of my name yielding the memorable “rosy.” I was flattered by the poem–what a rare gift–and in addition, by how specific the poem was to me. I am rosy, I thought. This poem is about me.

The acrostic has a way of doing that to you–its flattery is complete and convincing. Because the acrostic (often) incorporates the name of its subject into the form, the poem essentially honors its recipient twice, in both form and content. More powerfully, the effect of seeing one’s own name written down appeals to our conflation of our name with our “self,” as if the written letters that make up our name are somehow a transliteration of our identity.

According to the always trusty Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, the acrostic form didn’t originate in written texts but is speculated to be linked to early mnemonic devices developed to encourage oral transmission of sacred texts. In addition to such a utilitarian explanation, the entry also allows for a certain “mystical significance” to the form as well. However you interpret terms like sacred and mystical, one thing is certain–the acrostic form has been around for a very long time and has kept some very good company.

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Ride, Sally, Ride

Bridget blog new.JPGGuest post by Bridget Lowe

As a child of the ’80s, I was keenly aware of that vast region of “somewhere else” called space, and the astronauts who donned special outfits to venture into it. This hyper-awareness was in part due to the famed Sally Ride, the youngest and first female astronaut to journey into space in 1983. In my memory I seemed to be getting the message from all sides that I could now, as a girl, be anything I wanted–as long as I wanted to fly into space. But all I knew about space was that it was off to the left or right of earth and that it was vast. And that it terrified me.

When I was younger I would often lie in my twin bed, my sister asleep in her bed across our small room, and imagine “the universe.” It is a practice others have told me they also engaged in, so I am certain the impulse to test the world’s boundaries in this imaginative way serves a particular need in young people. My test usually began as a black sky peppered with stars and milky swirls, and I would eventually push past that layer of stars into someplace behind the blackness, and then behind that blackness, until it was too much and I couldn’t conceive of it anymore.

Poems seemed then, and still do seem, a perfect solution to the terror of nothingness. They took the raw, floating material in my small head and ordered it a bit. Besides, I was in love with terms like “the Milky Way,” and even felt a certain bodily satisfaction at the name “Sally Ride,” which conjured a 1950s girl-gang leader mixed with the bonny lasses of yesteryear. The simple “Sally” paired with the command to “ride” suggested to me she was riding off into space on a horse.

I even remember all the renderings of her, drawings in books and on worksheets I completed in grade school, a great posed photo in her NASA jumpsuit with a model rocket beside her. But in my favorite image she looks totally unposed, her jumpsuit just a little unzipped, her hair wild and her nose crinkled. I could imagine this woman riding her horse into space for sure.

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Samuel Pepys’ Penny Merriments

Meet our second new blogger from the Spring 2010 issue: Bridget Lowe. She recently became a “Discovery”/Boston Review winner, and has poetry you can read online in Boston Review and Nth Position.

Bridget blog new.JPGGuest post by Bridget Lowe

I recently stumbled upon a used copy of Samuel Pepys’ Penny Merriments, Being a Collection of Chapbooks, full of Histories, Jests, Magic, Amorous Tales of Courtship, Marriage and Infidelity, Accounts of Rogues and Fools, together with Comments on the Times. This collection of seventeenth-century goodies, mostly broadside ballads, was selected from 115 tiny chapbooks the famous diarist and collector had labeled Penny merriments (referring to the cost of such fare) at the time of his death in 1703. The collection, selected and edited by Roger Thompson and published in 1977 by Columbia University Press, includes 30 of the original woodcut illustrations as well, these woodcuts being one of my favorite things about the book and the period that produced them.

Thompson’s full title is truly reflective of the range of topics these slim publications addressed, serving as sources of politics, history, news, music and humor for the “ordinary person” of the period. Thompson’s full title also mimics the verbose titles typical of the genre, such as this, one of my favorites from the book:

Pepys 3.JPGIn addition to the astrological insights of Mr. Lilly (William Lilly, a superstar in his day), subject matter of these broadsides included everything from cuckoldry, divination, travel tales, and lost virginity (usually lamentable), to doctors of physick, the mad-men of Gotham, and Dr. Faustus–ultimately, the broadside ballad had something for everyone.

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