Kevin Coval, Chicago & the Poet-Rapper Connection

For this first poet profile of National Poetry Month, I’ll be boosting awareness of someone close to home, Kevin Coval and his latest poetry book, A People’s History of Chicago. Coval is a Chicago area poet and community builder, going out and teaching people the power of expression through poetry. In walking the beat, so to speak, for his work, he’s learned the feeling of Chicago inside and out, which made him capable of producing quite a comprehensive history in his book.

Coval turns out pieces on every notable Chicago figure from the city’s founder, Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable to Kanye West to the Daley dynasty, looking at the history of corruption, the African American culture of the city resisting erasure and the moments of the city that are beautiful for horrible and/or wonderful reasons. The printed words on the paper seem to be spat out with poetry slam energy, a very contagious passion. This energy explains why the book has a forward from Chance the Rapper, a Chicago native himself, for those of you who don’t know. Coval’s work, especially in this exploration of urban Chicago life is an excellent example of the many ways poetry and rap can be kindred spirits.

I sometimes joke that poetry and rap are nothing alike because you can actually make money as a rapper. Fans of rap are always quick to correct me, to declare that rap and poetry are close siblings in the world of words. Well, if you’re stubborn and financially irresponsible enough to want to call yourself a poet, then you’ve really fulfilled the most important part of actually being a poet, caring more about your words and message than practical things like money and your parents being proud of you. So yes, by my personal estimation, rappers are poets, but it becomes even more apparent in practice.

Substantive rappers such as Chance himself, who says Coval taught him “what it meant to be a poet,” create work I couldn’t readily separate from the modern, quick on it’s linguistic foot work poets like Coval make. Often, on further ends of the spectrum, people see rappers only going on about pouring champagne onto stripper booties and poets who only dole out  dreamy spaced-out, cryptic phrases that no one understands. Those polar opposite stereotypes make it seem like the genres should be totally opposed, and yes some types of poetry and rap are very dissimilar, but Coval and artists like Chance the Rapper are artists who use the force of what their medium does to their words to create images and stories what they’ve seen and put some power into their frank, open discussion about issues inherent in their critically undervalued environment and experience.

Coval’s work shows he feels rapper musicians and straight up poets are equally deserving of praise and a part in his People’s History, including both Chief Keef and Gwendolyn Brooks. Where other people might think to raise one of these characters above the other, view them as distinct, different, Coval honors them both in his poetry, showing how they all are playing a part in the same game, a part in keeping the African American community in Chicago alive.

For National Poetry Month, I really hope you guys will check out a seriously talented poet who knows how to write about a city that’s near to my heart. Reading Coval will teach you about the city of Chicago and the power of poetic style in confronting a gritty, urban life, and you get to simply enjoy reading some truly engaging poetry.

How to Celebrate National Poetry Month

Hey everybody, happy April! As you may or may not know, April is National Poetry month, a month to celebrate an art that is far to invisible in this modern world, if you ask me. Naturally, then, I’m a huge fan of April, not just for the weather that’s finally turning decent, but for the valid excuse to encourage everyone to read more poetry, discover more poets (ones who haven’t been dead for centuries would be best,) and maybe even help you find a new favorite in this underappreciated genre.

National Poetry Month isn’t like Hanukkah or Christmas though; there’s no set of traditions that we all know and love to properly celebrate this sort of season. People who aren’t that familiar with poetry might not even know where to start. That’s why I’ve picked a couple good ways to start out your Poetry Month celebration.

Pick a Poet Who’s Still Alive and Read Their Stuff

One major problem with how a great deal of people understand poetry comes from where they might’ve last read it; school. Beyond the occasional Hallmark card, most people rarely read any poetry outside of what they were forced to read in school. I feel that academic resentment, but just leaving behind a genre after high school means you miss out on a medium that’s evolved immensely since the centuries old Whitman or Byron you read in Honors  English.

Sometimes I even see aspiring poets, (myself included at one point) make the mistake of assuming everything about poetry froze in the 19th century, because educational coverage of poetry after that is spotty at best. Sure, poetry was generally overtaken by the novel in that century, but poetry has also quietly grown and changed with the rest of the world as well. Our educational system just doesn’t like to to honor poets that haven’t been dead for a few centuries. Use this month of increased visibility for poetry to check out some contemporary poets, who have voices you’ll have a much better time reading and relating to, as they’re written in your own language and dialect.

I’ll be writing more about my favorite poets this month, but to start you off, some cool contemporary poets who were still alive last time I checked include Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Rupi Kaur, and Lang Leav.

Look for Poetry Resources Online

I follow the Poetry Foundation online. They’re a pretty old and venerable organization that publishes a well known poetry journal. Online, they do a lot to reach out to people. You could check out their podcasts, or subscribe to get a newsletter and a poem a day in your email, which is a cut above the spam that normally gets blasted into my  inbox by other organizations. If you live in or near Chicago, their headquarters, you can use the newsletter to learn about events they are holding and attend them.

You also have sites like Poetry Out Loud, which focuses on poetry that’s recited or performed. It’s got a good mixture of old and new works on display, and tips for people reciting poetry themselves. This showcases the dynamic community that’s formed around making poetry live by performing it. They also have teaching resources and information about their poetry performance contests as well.

There are also sites like poets.org or poemhunter.com, which help you find any specific poem you might be looking for. poetry.org is great for looking up poetry by the poet, while poemhunter.com allows you to explore poems according to themes or forms. Each one is dedicated to sharing poetry in it’s own special way.

Poem in Your Pocket Day

This is where we start to get Inception like, with a holiday within a holiday. On April 27th, choose a poem to carry around on a piece of paper folded up inside your pocket, taking it out and sharing it with people whenever you can. It’s a cute idea of a holiday created by the Academy of American Poets to increase awareness of National Poetry Month. There’s a number of posts and sites dedicated to creating cute little templates and layouts. With all the poets and poems you found thanks to the previous two steps, you should have no problem finding a poem to share.

Those are just a few ideas that will hopefully help you start your National Poetry Month off right. I hope you will use this April as an excuse to explore poetry, find new things you like, and share them with people that could use a little poetry in their lives. You’ll be hearing more from me about poetry this month, so keep an eye out for more poetry recommendations and reviews.

Blind Date With a Book

If you’re a book lover, you’ve probably already seen this cool little concept, perhaps in your own local bookstore, library, or even pictures of it online. “Blind Date With a Book” is probably the most common term for it, though I’ve also seen “Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover.” Either way, it’s the same  process; wrap up a book in plain, brown paper, making sure nothing on the book’s actual cover is visible. Then, a description of the book is written on the cover. That description, not the cover and blurbs created by the publishers to give the book a very specific image is what the reader uses to decide if they’ll take it home. As much as the publishers might feel  annoyed at all their hard work getting covered up, for readers it can be a fun, unique experience

I myself just recently made one of my first Blind Date With a Book purchases. Maybe that seems a bit strange. I am a voracious reader after all, and spent plenty of money on books already. On the other hand, I am ridiculously shy when it comes to dating and romance, never one to make the first move. If I’m waiting for an inanimate object, even a book, to make the first move for me, it’s no wonder that it took me a while to try out a Blind Date With a Book.

Perusing the Blind Date books, I happened across one that caught my eye. The description said it took place between a group of nerdy friends at their first con (convention, like ComicCon, for the uninitiated.) That plus the mention of a same sex romance as one of the plot threads intrigued me, made me feel like this was more than just a silly YA Romance book, (I could tell from the description alone that it was certainly a YA book, anonymity be damned.) I’m also a huge fan of the general nerdy, Mecca-like gathering atmosphere some of the bigger conventions have, and I hadn’t really read too many books that used this setting before, so I was intrigued.

When I got home, I opened the books and found this:2017-03-31 13.55.33

To be honest, I’m not sure this is a book I would’ve picked out if it hadn’t been my blind date. Sure, I love the title, Queens of Geek. That sounds like it could be my official title, after all. Still, the pink cover and the fact that it was published by something called “Swoon Press,” probably would’ve turned me off. I’d had my fill of YA romances long ago, way before I left the target YA age range. Romance in general is not my favorite genre, and this book was definitely being sold on that YA Romance angle, with a slight nerdy twist.

On the other hand, the blind description focused on the nerd angle in part but also on the dynamics between nerdy friends and online creators. This isn’t simply another teen romance, although their were reference to the male love interest watching one of the female main characters through “his dark lashes.” A few choice lines like that gave me shuddering flashbacks to some of the pulpier vampire romances I read in my vampire makeout/Twilight phase, but this was a better book. It was well written, creating characters that were more than a sum of any cliches, nerdy or romantic, and really nicely captured the convention atmosphere, as well as the lives of the vloggers, bloggers and panel stars that come to these cons. I was pleasantly surprised and reminded that I could sometimes be too judgmental of books with heavy romantic story lines, especially in the YA realm. I couldn’t have learned that without my blind date.

Overall, my Blind Date With a Book went better than I’ve ever seen or heard of a blind date with an actual person go. I recommend you take advantage of this little novelty if you get the chance. If you already have tried it, I’m curious. How was your blind date? Did I just get lucky? Did you learn anything new about your tastes? Let me know in the comments below.

Book Pilgrimmages: American Gods and The House on the Rock

Sure, books are all about taking you places without physically travelling at all, but what about books you love that take place in real location? Wouldn’t it be really cool to visit these places yourself? Sometimes, you can, and that’s  exactly what I did with the House on the Rock.

When I first read American Gods by Neil Gaiman, I assumed he made up the House on the Rock. It sounded so strange and fantastical, exactly like the sort of place he would create for his mythic America in the novel. Then, in an afterward section, he clarified that it was indeed a real place, which surprised me. Still, I would have no idea how detailed and accurate Gaiman’s depiction of the house would be until years later, when I visited it for myself.

The House on the Rock was one of the most amazing, bizarre places I’ve ever visited. I came away from it not even fully certain how to describe my experience. I decided to refresh my memory of the part the location played in American God’s and reread the small section wherein Shadow and Mr. Wednesday meet with other old gods at the House. When I read the passage just after my visit, I was shocked to find that Gaiman’s words almost perfectly captured every detail of the strange setting, even down to minuscule mechanical displays and and features.

I couldn’t get many decent pictures of all the strange and eerie spectacles at the House on the Rock, because they liked to keep their mood lighting nice and low, and there was so much going on in any given room that even with the flash on I couldn’t capture it all. Still, I took some interesting photos, photos I think are even cooler when you pair them up with Gaiman’s brilliant descriptions of the same spots and props. I may have had a hard time putting to words what I saw in the house, but Gaiman was brilliant, as always.

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“Prim-Lipped Victorian china dolls stared in profusion through dusty store windows, like so many props from respectable horror films.”

Yeah, this is just one close-up glamour shot of a single creepy doll that I was especially sure wanted to watch me while I slept. There were many, many more, and I laughed to myself when I read this quote, happy the eerie Neil Gaiman agreed with me that these dolls belonged in a horror movie.

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“They went farther in, down a red corridor, past rooms filled with empty chairs upon which rested violins or violas that played themselves, or seemed to, when fed a coin. Keys depressed, cymbals crashed, pipes blew compressed air into clarinets and oboes.”

Yes, Shadow was also right to later note in the same passage that the automatic bows on the string instruments don’t always seem to be actually playing the instruments. As far as I could tell, the musical rooms were a mixture of prerecorded songs, and actually played instruments. You can tell a few instruments are really being played because a recording would sound better, actually in tune and all that. The whole picture, no mattered how manufactured or not, is a strangely beautiful one, emphasis on strange.

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they came to a room called the Mikado, one wall of which was a nineteenth-century pseudo-Oriental nightmare, in which  beetle-browed mechanical drummers banged cymbals and drums while staring out from their dragon-encrusted lair. Currently, they were majestically torturing Saint-Saen’s Danse Macabre.”

I was not sure what to call the House’s creator’s fixation on Eastern decor, but in many cases, pseudo-Oriental nightmare was very fitting, both in the unfortunate level of exotic fetishist attitude House creator Jordan exhibited in these displays, and in the way that they genuinely inspired fear and nightmares in me, and probably other guests as well. I would also say “majestically torture” is exactly what these strange robots do to the famous tunes they’ve been created to play.

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…a room that went up for many stories, the center of which was filled entirely with a replica of a great black whalelike beast, with a life-sized replica of a boat in its vast, fiberglass mouth

Yeah, technically the whale beast isn’t in this photo. This is instead the gigantic octopus fighting the three-stories high whale statue, because this house is so crazy that Mr. Gaiman was underselling it on occasion. It was also legitmately difficult to get a decent, well-lit picture of the whale because it was so big, that I couldn’t get enough of the thing in frame to give you a decent idea of what monster you were looking at.

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“…above them hung dozens of angels constructed rather obviously from female store-window mannequins; some of them bared their sexless breasts; some had lost their wigs and stared baldly and blindly down from the darkness.”

Okay, so the angel in this picture, if you can make out against the riot of opulent details in this photo, has both her hair and clothes in this picture, but it was still amusingly obvious that she and her many sisters were probably bought from a Out-of-Business department store, and the wings look incredibly simply and fake as well, but with so many of those strange beings in the same room, amongst all the the other decor, they were still strangely awe-inspiring.

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“And then there was the carousel. A sign proclaimed it was the largest in the world, said how much it weighed, how many thousand lightbulbs were to be found in the chandeliers that hung from it in Gothic profusion.”

Yes, the carousel, the climactic centerpiece of Gaiman’s tour through the house. It is as outrageous and beautiful as he makes it sound, but I didn’t sneak on to ride it, so I’ll never know if it can take you into some other godly dimension or something like it did in the book, but Gaiman was incredibly accurate in his description of the rest of the House, so this could very well be true. Someone just has to go to the House on the Rock, jump the barrier around the carousel, ride one of the crazy animals, and let me know what happens. Thanks in advance guys, really appreciate it.

 

Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with Books

Some people like to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by dying everything green and getting hideously drunk, and while one of those things is definitely an Irish tradition, I say you’re missing  a lot in a celebration of Irish culture if you’re just using it as an excuse to get blackout wasted.

Maybe it’s just me in my little book nerd camp, but there are so many brilliant Irish authors that taking a look at some of their work on St. Patrick’s Day is the best way I can see to celebrate the holiday. There’s plenty of of obvious classics to go on about, and newer names as well. Here, I’ve collected just a few names to start out with if you want to celebrate some quality Irish authors.

Emma Donoghue: Yes, this is a newer name, and she’s one of my favorites. Born in Dublin, Ireland but now living in London, Ontario (yes, there are two Londons,)  she’s  Irish-Canadian, but I won’t disqualify her on that account. Her most famous book is probably Room, which was turned into an award winning film starring Brie Larson, which Donoghue also wrote the script for. It’s an emotionally brutal experience on and off screen, but one written well enough to make the pain more than simply brutal or exploitative.

She’s written plenty of other books well worth a read, and several of those have won awards as well,  mostly for LGBT representation. One book in particular, though, should get you in the St. Paddy’s Day mood. Her newest book is Wonder, about a young girl fasting for months and becoming a “miracle girl,” with a nurse coming in and trying to see if she can keep this girl alive, or perhaps even prove this miracle a hoax. This one takes place in 19th century Ireland, so it’s a nice book to keep you feeling very Irish.

Seamus Heaney: I can never resist encouraging people to read more poetry. Of course, W.B. Yeats is usually considered the quintessential Irish poet, but you’ve probably already read him in school, however long ago or not that was. I’m trying to introduce you to some figures you probably haven’t tried before.

Okay, technically you probably actually read Seamus Heaney in school, but not his original work. Heaney wrote what’s currently one of the definitive translations of Beowulf. His work made this millennia old poem an action-packed engaging read when I had to read it for school. I mean, sure, the monsters and dragons were already in the poem, but Heaney made these warriors and their battles into something readable and enjoyable to a modern audience, something I definitely missed when I had to take up a bunch of dry and archaically written medieval epics and romances later in the poetry timeline. His own poetry isn’t typically about slaying dragons and warriors parting in mead halls, but don’t hold that against him. He wrote some truly vivid, picturesque work. Some of his collections include North and Field Work.

Tana French: Now here’s for you mystery lovers. Tana French is a popular mystery writer. She was born in Ireland, has lived in a couple different countries since then but now resides Dublin. Before she started writing, French was actually convinced she should be an actor, and spent years in that field. Lucky for us, she took to writing in her 30’s, crime and mystery books specifically, a genre she’d always liked.

She has six books out as of now, all a part of her Dublin Murder Squad series, starting with In the Woods in 2007 and ending, though hopefully not ending ending, with the most recent The Trespasser. They all center around a group of homicide detectives in Dublin, the titular “Murder Squad.” A quality series with a solid reoccurring cast of characters is always a nice, comfy book-home to come back too, even if that comfy home is full of grisly crime and murder.

There, that’s three Irish writers to enjoy this St. Patrick’s day, if you’re looking for something to do between getting drunk at the St. Patrick’s Parade and getting drunk over corned beef and mash potatoes that have been died green. Maybe you’ll find something you want to pick up and stay with after the holiday too.

Jane Austen and the Reverse Bechdel Test

Jane-Austen-portrait-victorian-engravingHey everyone. I hope you’ll forgive me, but I have to start my Women’s History Month post with a fact that is technically about men. In all of Jane Austen’s books, there is never a scene of men alone, talking to each other. There are men, of course, in her books, and they do talk to each other on occasion, but always in mixed company, with men and women present. It’s not a perfect reverse Bechdel test fail, where two men don’t talk to each other about something other than a woman, but it’s close. Austen, of course, being a proper Regency-era lady would never have been able to witness men talking to each other without any women around, and being the brilliant author that she was, she wouldn’t settle for secondary resources illuminating the matter.

No, she made her books about women and their lives. The men could be there but they couldn’t expect any solo time on screen. This is a gross over-generalization, but the men were mostly there for the women to coyly flirt with and consider marrying. This, I think, is why Austen could be a very important educational tool for dudes  during Women’s History Month.

If you have a Y chromosome, here’s a fun little sympathetic exercise you could do next time you’re wondering why women  complain so much about Women’s Rights when they’re obviously totally fine today. I bet some of you dudes might already have experienced reading Austen in high school or for some literature class. Unless you’re an unusually intense English-lit nerd, it was probably an unpleasant experience. Sure, lit classes specialize in ruining old books for readers by forcing the classic down the student’s throat, but with Austen, there’s usually a different complaint. “Ew. It’s all about a bunch of chicks, just talking about what dudes they’re gonna marry. Boring!” Yeah, Regency-era  marriage politics were never my favorite part of Austen books either, but this illustrates an interesting point. It’s a point that you could illustrate with just about any type of chick-lit, but I want to show here with something that has more substance and staying power than that.

See, guys, how boring it is when the only men that are around are introduced for the sake of a love interest with the main protagonists? Really boring, isn’t it? Really, even an Austen book has a more male presence in it than the average movie has a female presence, so you’re not even experiencing the worst possible time here in this bizarro flipped universe that is Pride and Prejudice, Emma, or Persuasion. People can go on and on about the brilliant themes and character arcs Austen has in her books, but it just doesn’t feel like written for you dudes at all, so it’s really all so boring. How do women, (and people of color for that matter too,) deal with this stuff everyday? Well, women have managed, for quite a while now, with the help of society telling us our stories or less important and less interesting. So yeah, we’re doing great guys, no worries, (she says, before breathing in and out of a paper bag with Gloria Steinem’s face printed on it for a couple minutes.)

Women  find it notably easier to identify with male characters because that’s mostly all they’ve been given in any sort of story; books, movies, television, etc. Sure, books have a way better rate of female representation on average because, according to statistics, women read slightly more than men, but I’m bringing up the Austen of it all to illustrate a point. Literature, not just books but fine literature and books considered good enough to one day end up in that classy Western literary canon, is a field dominated by male authors and male characters. Sure, we’ve been given tastes of well written female characters in literary classics, and a smattering of female authors strong enough to be included in the literary canon, but with a vast and imbalanced history, women still have a seemingly impossible amount of catching up with the men folk if something like an equilibrium is to be reached.

Okay, so we’ve got a long road to go, still, when it comes to women being represented in literature, as characters and as writers. In the mean time, let’s try to actually celebrate Women’s History Month, not just by posting encouraging hashtags and reblogging posts about inspiring Women’s Rights activists, but by reminding people why we need this stuff. We may no longer live in a world where I need to plot out husbands and marriages in lieu of careers, but we do live in a world where not enough people realize that representing women isn’t as easy as putting a pink bow on one character or making kids read one incredibly talented Regency-era romance novelist in school. We can change that, one Reverse Bechdel test experience at a time.

Conjuring a Brilliant Finale

There’s not much better about being a book lover than that sudden rush you get when a book that you’ve been waiting forever for, (or at least, it feels like forever,) finally comes out, and you let a sudden, crazy rush of energy fuel you as you run and pounce on the nearest copy of the book you can get before devouring it. I got to indulge myself in this geeky rush earlier this week when I discovered A Conjuring of Light, the final book in V.E. Schwab’s  Shades of Magic series was released. Schwab dastardly ended the previous book in the series, A Gathering of Shadows, on a seriously high-stakes cliffhanger that left me tearing out my hear, so my excitement for this final book was even higher than normal. I’m in the thick of reading it right now, and so far it’s been more than worth the wait.

I don’t plan on giving a fully comprehensive review because I haven’t finished reading the book, which is notably longer than the other two, and it is the finale. I want to convince you to read the series, not spoil the whole entire thing.

I’m definitely not complaining about the book’s length. That’s just more time I get to spend in a fantastically inventive world, or worlds. As I mentioned in passing before when I referenced the series, these books take place in a couple different worlds, all layered over each other, all very different and unique, but all with a city called London in the exact same place. Red London is where the bulk of the action takes place, Grey London is actually our own London during the tale end of the reign of King George III. White London is a dangerous, magic-starved world and Black London is best left unspoken of. The series has dueling magicians, pirates, nobles, pirate nobles, and plenty of royal intrigue.

Schwab has a big job ahead of her in Conjuring, wrapping up all the plots, subplots and character arcs. That’s always the scariest part of any series ending, seeing if everything can be wrapped up satisfactorily. I find that, especially with popular series, you always wind up finding some people disappointed. I tend to be on the optimistic side with series that I’ve invested so much love and time into, seeing only the best in them. I’ve endured bloody, deadly, tragic endings and, (perhaps even more,) happy endings trying much too hard to adorn every possible surface with sentimental and frilly wrapped-up bows, but I still try to see the best in any big ending.

Schwab, though, is a highly experienced writer who’s written and concluded many books, and even another series, so I have no problem keeping faith in her and encouraging everyone I come across to try this series out. I’ve seen each book get progressively more buzz as it came out, and it warms my heart to see more and more people read and enjoy a series I love so much. That is one of the other chief joys of being a book lover, sharing that passionate frenzy over discovering a new read.

So what are you waiting for? Go check out this series! It’s a great, exploratory fantasy riff that’s original and engaging. You don’t even have to wait the agonizing months I did to resolve the second book’s brutal cliffhanger anymore. Just race out to the nearest bookstore and pick up the next one. Trust me, you’ll want to. This series is that addiciting.

Comic Bookin’ For Grown Ups

I’ve picked up a passion in my young adult life that  I never had as a kid. It’s an experience I can now say I shared with my young, prepubescent father, one I never shared when I was as young as he was though. I’ve slowly but surely become something of a comic book nerd. The thing is, the comics I read would not be ones I’d like to show to my ten-year-old dad, if we were to meet up in some wacky time-travelling comic book shop. The stuff I savor often features graphic violence (looking at you, Walking Dead,) sexual situations, (looking at you, Saga,) and a whole bunch of language my grandma would not appreciate her little boy learning so soon, (looking at you, pretty much all of my comics.)

In a lot of ways, the years between my dad buying The Amazing and/or Spectacular Spiderman issues every week at the local newsstand and my comic book hobby today have really changed the industry. Nerd culture has become more “cool” and acceptable to the mainstream public. Comic book fans have grown up and introduced new, darker, edgier twists to their old favorites, and created original material that added an adult edge to the medium. Think Frank Miller’s edgy Batman, a huge inspiration for the Ben Affleck Batman in the admittedly ill-fated Batman vs. Superman or Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which was also turned into a film, and definitely a more successful one. People eat edgy comics up, even when they aren’t comics.

Sure, just like the Marvel super hero movies are still very much billed as family affairs, there’s still places for younger readers in the comic book world. Still, the scene has changed. Probably the main reason I didn’t get into comic books as a kid was that there was no friendly neighborhood newsstand to grab the latest Marvel or DC comic books from. That practice, along with a whole lot of print media, was already dying by the time I was a kid. Comic books moved to comic book stores, which were intimidating to me as a young girl. Sure, some titles were also stocked in bookstores, which I definitely frequented, but I was so distracted by all the regular old books that the most I ever picked up from the bookstores was a relatively brief but still embarrassing fixation on Archie comics.

I started my love affair with comics when the Walking Dead became a hit TV show, and my nerdy uncle gave me a few volumes of the series to try out. I was then introduced to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, and I slowly but surely started exploring these wild worlds of sex and violence layered over rich writing that introduced characters and plots as beautifully fleshed out as any of the novels I’d be reading. It was all much better written and drawn than my Archie books with two identical hot girls you could only tell apart by their hair color fighting over a less than photogenic red-headed boy that barely deserved either of them.

With that, I slowly started to explore the comic book world. I looked at the comic book sections in bookstores and libraries more closely. I was even brave enough to find comic book shops and face down the intimidating nerd man-cave vibe. Turns the people in these stores were mostly perfectly friendly and didn’t angrily challenge me with obscure trivia facts as soon as I walked in the door. Even if there were less than friendly people, I’d had the experience of growing up a girl and eventual woman on the internet, where I’d gotten used to angry nerds typing out vitriol they’d never spew in person. I could handle the comic book shop, it turned out, although visiting one now poses such a threat to my wallet I still try not to go too often.

Now I’m reading loads of comic books, ranging from the artsy memoir kind like Persepolis and Mausto the outlandish and fantastical, like The Wicked and The Divine or Fables. I read some superhero stuff, but honestly not too much. The super hero comic industry has a habit of treating artists, writers, and their visions as disposable, taking in and kicking out people to best serve what they see as the superhero’s image. So many artists through the ages covering one hero can create an interesting variety, but I more often stick to series written by one author. Like traditional novel series, I feel this practice allows writers and artists to create a fuller story and world. That’s just my personal taste though, and like I said I’m not against exploring DC’s New 52 or perhaps some Deadpool and Ms. Marvel from Marvel comics.

I’m a grown up and a comic book nerd, and I encourage others to try following in my path. The comic book as a medium has a huge variety of genres to explore, and a quality that would shock people around for the comic’s original pulp fiction roots. All your favorite movies are coming from comic books. If you give the real thing a try, you’ll find out Hollywood is, as usual, holding back. There’s loads of brilliant books and series that Hollywood is missing out by not exploring. Don’t make the same mistake. Feel free to check out any of the series I’ve name dropped here, unless maybe you are twelve or younger. Then ask your parents first. This stuff can be pretty grown up.

Better Know a Crazy Writer: Mary Wollstonecraft

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A portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie

Don’t let anyone tell you that you have no reason, no grounds to be standing up for your rights. They might say you are crazy. You might start to feel crazy, even, at your darkest moments, but don’t despair. There have been people speaking their mind, living their “crazy” values and being called unstable way further back in history than you might think at first.

Mary Wollstonecraft was a hardcore feminist before feminists with even the most mildly muscle-toned cores would be accepted by society to any degree. Wollstonecraft was born in England in 1759 and died in 1797, when she was only 38. Yes, an 18th century feminist. It’s a rough gig, by all accounts.

Wollstonecraft was a prolific writer who published many pieces on civil rights, especially as they pertain to women. Her most famous work,  is required reading in just about any course on feminist literature, A Vindication of the Rights of Women. It featured such audacious and outlandish arguments such as “Hey guys, women and men are equal beings. We should really make some changes in the social order to reflect that.” Wollstonecraft was really taking a long shot there, especially with that last part. As intelligent and talented a writer she was, it would take a long time before people would even believe the first part of her claim, that women are equal to men. Her audience was getting revved up on the cries of freedom and liberty that started the French and American Revolutions, but no one was ready to get that crazy.

Wollstonecraft lived a dramatic, somewhat tragic life. She started her career of sticking up for her sex at a young age, when she would attempt to protect her sisters and mother from her abusive father who drained the family finances until Wollstonecraft and her sisters had little to nothing to inherit when they came of age, leaving young Mary and the rest of her family  with a difficult future.

When she grew older, Wollstonecraft tried to open a school with her close, well-off friend Fanny Blood. When Fanny tragically died, she had to close the school and take up work as a governess while continuing her own writing. Much of her work concerned getting girls better educations and doing away with the frustratingly limited career options poor women had in her time. She wrote about the hardships she lived, meaning her work was as passionate and filled with experience as it was rhetorically exacting.

After her time as a governess, she went to France during the Revolution, before it got all bloody and guillotine-y. She fell in love with and had an affair with an American explorer, Gilbert Imlay. She became pregnant with his child, but he left her before the kid was even born. Yeah, classy guy. Wollstonecraft did not do too well trying to live as a single, unmarried new mother in the middle of an increasingly blood thirsty French Revolution for some reason. She got so desperate she attempted suicide, but was prevented. She went back to England eventually, and pretended she was married to the jerk explorer guy so her kid, Fanny, (after her friend,) wouldn’t be considered “illegitimate.”

Of course, when she hit it off with and eventually married radical thinker and early anarchist William Godwin, people realized that she was never married before and they dropped out of the couple’s social circle really fast. Still, the two were a power couple, each radical mind fueling the ideas of the other, and the match was made in heaven.

Unfortunately, Mary Wollstonecraft was not destined to enjoy that relationship for too long. She died giving birth to their first child, a daughter they named Mary, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. (Yeah, they gave her both their names. Do I need to remind you that this was in 1797?!) This Mary would go on to achieve writing fame in her own right. In fact,  while Mary Wollstonecraft is not that well known beyond feminist theory circles today, just about anyone will know her daughter. Technically, they know this Mary by her married name, Mary Shelley. Yes, that Mary Shelley.

So living the life of a radical feminist in 18th century Europe can be hard, but Wollstonecraft proved that it’s a life that can be very fruitfully lived. You might be going through some hard times of your own right now, or in the near future. You might be wondering if you have what it takes to stand for what you believe in. Just remember, you’re not alone. The ghosts of a thousand “crazy” idealists that lived in a time when their ideas fell on mostly deaf ears are behind you, Mary Wollstonecraft among them.

Romantic Poems for Romantic Occasions

Finally, Valentine’s Day is almost here. No, I’m not awaiting a lovely romantic evening with someone special. I enjoy Valentine’s Day because, like any excuse to get romantic, it means people will start to pretend they care about something I actually enjoy; poetry. Specifically, we’re talking about love poems. Around Valentine’s Day, people start to look for ways to make grand romantic gestures. Books of love poems are great for that. They’re like a whole bunch of Hallmark cards stapled together, but with even more oomph. You could also just pick a poem from a collection of romantic poetry and memorize to recite to your beloved.

Here’s the thing though, bookstores usually have a relatively small selection of poetry, and as such they only ever seem to offer the same limited selection of romantic poetry collections, three of them by my count. I’ll give you a break down here of what those varieties are and which are good for what kind of romantic fool you claim to be.

First, there’s the Romance Poetry anthology. That’s specifically an anthology of poets from the Romance movement in 19th century Europe, not just a collection of poems that are considered “romantic.” Byron’s “She Walks  in Beauty” will be in there for sure, as well as a smattering of poems by Shelley, Keats, Coleridge and Wordsworth. There may be a few others, but these are the names you will recognize, and the pillars of this poetic pantheon that are almost always included in any collection of that era. These are the poets you had to read in high school. So yes, there is the risk of inducing high school English terror flashbacks, but don’t count this type of collection completely out.

Romance poetry is perfect for the romantic who loves a refined, old fashioned air. These verses are usually as flowery and cherub-ridden as the art and architecture created around that time. If you secretly wish that those flouncy ascot scarf things were still in fashion and think maybe you could’ve put up with wearing a corset for the right flouncy dress, then this is the love potion for you. Also, for those who actually enjoyed high school English, these poems could be a pleasant reminder of better times, and their first foray into poetry.

Next, we have something more modern The love poems of Pablo Neruda are always a big hit. Neruda, born Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, was a Chilean poet who could write quite passionately and beautifully about love. He wrote just as passionately about other things as well, and you will probably find larger collections of his work that include a wider variety of his poetic tastes, but publishers just love a good Neruda love poem collection. Any collection you find in English is a translation, as Neruda composed all his works in Spanish. In many cases, and this isn’t uncommon for poetry translations, the poem in its original Spanish is printed next to an English translation. I, like many others, have mixed feelings about translated poetry. Rhyme and meter are difficult to translate without altering the original poem’s exact phrasing, and poetry also relies heavily on a precise use of language.

Still, there are many well-translated collections of Neruda out there, as he is so popular. Or perhaps you are a part of the sizable population of Americans that can speak Spanish. That works great too. Neruda’s poems are for people who might find Romance era poetry to old and stuffy. His language is far more modern and dynamic, and his form is less rigid. He still shows great poetic skill, of course. His poetry is for the wilder, more passionate romantic.

Finally, we have a blast from waaay back in the past. This poet hails from much further back than the 19th century, but that, somewhat oddly, hasn’t hindered his recent growth in popularity in Western cultures. Rumi, also known as Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī or Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī, is a 13th century Sufi Muslim poet of the Persian Empire. Confused? Well, Rumi was always a highly respected master of philosophy, theology and poetry back in his homeland. Nations like Iran and other places that emerged from the Persian empire can point to the distinct influence Rumi had on their classical poetry and music.  As far as I can tell, the relatively recent boom of Rumi’s popularity in the US probably came from that tendency of disillusioned Westerners to go off and seek wisdom from Eastern gurus and masters, for that extra spicy, exotic enlightenment they just can’t get from reading Shakespeare for the billionth time in a row.

I personally enjoy reading Rumi’s poems. They are two centuries older than Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, those poems that you might remember from high school as being very hard to read and definitely not in any English language you recognized, so his poems do have to be a bit updated in their translation. Modern English translations have a smooth, readable pace to them. I’d say they’re for the philosophical, pondering sort of romantic. As with Neruda, you will find more general collections of poems, but his love poetry is very popular. His sentiments are generally quite timeless, and ironically he sounds a whole lot less stuffy than Romance poets that technically come much later than him.

There you have it, an in depth run down of what’s likely the bulk of your nearest bookstore’s romantic poetry selection. I generalize, of course, but I defy you to walk into a bookstore, find the usually well-hidden single shelf of poetry they have and tell me I’m wrong. Hopefully you’re now one step closer to making the perfect Valentines Day for your loved one.