Sunday, March 23, 2014

Writing a Sonnet

I started writing poetry after my baby was born last year. At first I thought of it as a writing exercise, but I grew to love poetry as powerful means of expression. My first poems were haiku, which I shared on twitter, then I experimented with senryu, tanka, and other Japanese forms. After a friend and fellow writer, Grace Wagner, composed a sonnet on twitter, I thought about giving trying this form made famous by Shakespeare.

However, sonnets are a tricky form with strict meter and rhyme. Shakespearean sonnets are written in iambic pentameter--a meter in which there is an unstressed syllable then stressed syllable, five times. The rhyme scheme for an English sonnet is a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g (Italian sonnets, like those by Plutarch, have a different rhyme scheme). Since sonnets are so complex, and I'm very busy, I've only just now finished some. So here's my first sonnet, at least the first one I'm comfortable publishing on my blog.

The Mother I Wish To Be

I wish I was the mother you deserve
With endless patience and constant kindness
I want to count my blessings and preserve
The warmth of love in the beautiful mess

Beloved baby, I'll try hard for you
To smile and laugh and cuddle my darling
To never let go 'till you want me to
And kiss my love, her eyes bright and sparkling

I know that I fail in so many ways
I get frustrated, impatient, and bored
Exhausted, I'm often stuck in a daze
Forgetting to show you how you're adored

So my precious daughter, let me speak clear
In the whole wide world, there's no one more dear

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Who in the World Is George Bridgetower?


As a violin teacher, I want to teach and inspire children of all different races. Diversity is essential to the future of our art form; without diverse audiences and fresh, innovative composers and performers, classical music will stagnate and decline! Yet violin (and classical music in general) is too often seen as predominantly white. This stereotype discourages black or Latino students who might otherwise be interested in studying classical music and instruments like violin, viola, or cello.
It doesn't have to be that way.
The good news is that there are plenty of examples of musicians of color around the world, including the talented Venezuelan musicians in the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. The most famous alumni from the orchestra, of course is, Gustavo Dudamel, conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and violinists like Aaron Dworkin, who's also a MacArthur fellow who founded the Sphinx Organization – just to name two. Celebrating the accomplishments of musicians of color encourages children who don't often see people like themselves represented in classical music to take lessons, attend concerts, and maybe someday become the next great virtuoso or composer.
Children of color who are interested in violin might find inspiration in the story of George Bridgetower, a black violinist from the time of Beethoven. Bridgetower was a musical prodigy and a virtuoso violinist who lived from 1778-1860. He was of Afro-Caribbean descent; his father came from Barbados where he may have escaped from slavery. His father also claimed be an African prince. Bridgetower was born in Poland, but he travelled to Paris for his professional debut at the age of nine. The next year, he moved to England, where his immense talent so impressed the future King George IV that he became the young violinist's guardian and patron. Bridgetower spent the next fourteen years as the concertmaster of George IV's private orchestra.Thus, Bridgetower became a famous violinist in Europe in a time when many black people in the United States still lived in slavery. He and Beethoven met in 1803, while Bridgetower was performing on tour in Vienna.
At first, Beethoven greatly admired him, so when he wrote his beloved "Kreutzer" Sonata, he originally dedicated it to George Bridgetower. They had a short but intense relationship, and Bridgetower premiered the famous Violin Sonata No. 9. He even added some changes to the violin part that Beethoven liked so much that the great composer kept them in the music, saying "Noch einmal, mein lieber Bursch!" ("Once more, my dear fellow!").
Despite their affection for each other, Beethoven and Bridgetower had a falling out shortly after the premier for personal reasons. Beethoven was so enraged he had his sonata dedicated to Rudolphe Kreutzer, despite the fact that Kreutzer didn't care for Beethoven's music and never performed the work. Thus, music that should have been know as the Bridgetower sonata has gone down in history named for a man who refused to play it. Unfortunately, that also meant that George Bridgetower, the violinist who premiered the music so brilliantly, remains more obscure than he should be. 
Regardless, after his encounter with Beethoven, Bridgetower returned to his home in England, where he was elected to the Royal Society of Musicians and helped establish the Royal Academy of Music. He also received his Bachelor of Music degree from Cambridge. His fascinating life story and career has plenty of inspiration for young students, and is a reminder to us all that there is great musical talent just waiting to be found.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Express Yourself: Read It Out Loud

I've received plenty of writing advice from friends, colleagues, and the omni-present tide of people on twitter who want me to buy their books. Some of it's valuable, some of it's junk, and most of it is terribly cliche. Seriously, 90% of writing advice is some variation of "write every day" or "show, don't tell." While it's probably great to write everyday, let's admit that's not likely to happen when you have a baby, a job, or anything else in your life that doesn't necessarily follow your ideal schedule (mad pet vampire hamster?).

So other than "write often, and don't give up even you can't write everyday," the best advice I've received is to read your writing out loud while you're editing, and find a good critique partner or writing group. I had a great advantage when I first started writing--I taught eighth grade. In fact, I started by writing a series of reader's theater plays for my students to read aloud in class. That meant two things: 1. My writing was regularly read out loud, and 2. I had an audience of brutally honest teenagers to tell me what they thought about it. This inspired, or rather terrified, me into improving my craft.

It's amazing how much you learn by reading your work out loud as well--awkward sentences or blah dialogue becomes far more obvious. If you're writing for a particular audience, say young adult or middle grade, then it's especially helpful to have someone of that age group read your work. It's fine for young people to stumble over words every now and then, but if they have to struggle too hard with your material, or seem confused, then you might want to look at ways to clarify/simplify your writing. Plus, you'll know immediately if they think your story is boring or stupid.

I know it hurts sometimes to hear criticism. I'm pretty sensitive myself. But I'd rather hear the truth from a critique partner or writing group than an angry anonymous reviewer on Goodreads. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

James Joyce's Ulysses: Chapter 7, Aeolus

Chapter Seven of Ulysses depicts Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus in the newspaper offices for several Dublin newspapers, including the Freeman's Journal and the Telegraph. The two men interact with many of the same people, but never actually meet. The blustery, fast-paced, and intellectual atmosphere of the newspaper offices refer to Aeolus, the god of the winds in Homer's Odyssey. In the Greek myth, Aeolus gives Odysseus a bag of winds, ensuring him a safe journey back to Ithaca. But his greedy crew thinks the huge bag is full of gold which Odysseus is keeping for himself, so they wait until he's asleep and open it. All the winds rush out at once, causing a huge storm that blows Odysseus back to Aeolus' island. But instead of helping Odysseus a second time, Aeolus forbids him to land and coldly sends him away. In addition to references to the myth of Aeolus, Joyce references Irish independence, frequently comparing the British empire to Imperial Rome.

Bloom, a canvasser for the newspapers, wants to place an ad in the Freeman's Journal for Alexander Keyes. He tactfully explains to the foreman how the ad should look: a pair of crossed keys at the top. The keys are both a pun on Keyes's name and a reference to home rule (the House of Keyes was on the Isle of Man, which was independent from the British empire). The foreman agrees to run the ad, just as Aeolus agrees to help Odysseus return home, but like Aeolus he has conditions--he wants three month's renewal first. Bloom decides to phone Keyes about the renewal. He passes by a group of men including Simon Dedalus, Professor MacHugh, and the editor of Freeman's Journal, Myles Crawford. Bloom asks Crawford's permission to use his phone while the men begin a freewheeling intellectual discussion revolving around home rule, the Irish language, and the British empire. Bloom leaves to find Keyes, the newsboys capering around him like playful gusts of wind.

While Bloom is out, Stephen Dedalus comes in with Mr. Deasey's letter for the paper. Crawford agrees to run the letter, then asks Stephen to write something for the newspaper "with bite in it." Stephen tells him the "parable of the plums," and the men decide to go have a drink at a pub. As they're leaving, Bloom reappears, still surrounded by a "whirl of wild newsboys." He tells Crawford that Keyes will renew his ad for two months. But Crawford rudely blows him off, just as Aeolus dismisses Odysseus when he returns for help.

While this chapter took some effort to understand, it ended up being rich with ideas, images, and humor. For example, as the men reminisce about the great journalists of the past, Bushe. One of the men tells Stephen, "one of the most polished periods I think I ever listened to in my life fell from the lips of Seymour Bushe." I'm not certain whether the character speaking is making a joke (he doesn't seem to be), or Joyce decided to put this dirty little joke in for fun. In another section, the professor recounts an inspiring speech he heard on the subject of reviving the Irish language. This fine rhetoric that makes its most important points by comparing the Hebrews in Egypt to the Irish in the British empire.

Stephen's "parable of the plums" has some very interesting connotations in light of everything that goes on in the chapter as well. It concerns two elderly Dublin "vestals" who go to see Nelson's pillar. They save their money, buy food (including the plums), then struggle up the long and difficult climb to the top of the pillar. Once there, they lift up their skirts to sit down, far away from the edge. Looking up at Nelson's statue gives them a crick in the neck, so they eat their plums and spit the pits out over the railings.

Stephen's parable is full of symbolism. In particular, he calls the women "vestals." Vestal virgins were the high priestesses of Rome, and Romans believed that any vestal who failed in her duties to a sacred flame would bring the wrath of the gods down on the city. In this context, Dublin's elderly vestals seem the embodiment of mediocrity and servitude to the British empire. After all, vestal virgins are from Rome, which the professor earlier links to Britain (while Ireland is more like ancient Greece). Furthermore, they are attending Nelson's pillar, a symbol of the empire, not Ireland. And if the women are Dublin's vestals, they are poor ones--they lift up their skirts immodestly and rudely throw their plum pits off the side of the pillar. No wonder, Stephen seems to imply, the Irish have so much bad luck.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Express Yourself: Autographs

I once had an autograph from Alan Rickman, who's famous for playing Professor Snape in the Harry Potter Movies. I saw him in a play in London at the Albery Theater shortly before the first Harry Potter movie came out. The play was a production of Noel Coward's Private Lives, and both Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan had starring roles. It was the most screamingly funny play I've ever seen in my entire life, and when the play came to New York the next year Lindsay Duncan won a Tony Award for best comedic actress. 

After we saw the play, we stood outside the theater to see if any of the actors would sign autographs for us. Alan Rickman was the only one who did, and he was very nice about it too. He even took pictures with all of us (my mom might still have the pictures somewhere). I remember it being an incredible night, and part of a wonderful trip to London. 

As for where the autograph is now, I wish I could say for sure. I've moved a million times since then, and I mostly left it at my mother's house. She has a penchant for bursts of cleaning that often involve throwing lots of things out, so I'm afraid my signed program from the play is probably long gone. It's too bad, since I love Alan Rickman even more now that he's been such a brilliant Snape in Harry Potter. Still, I'm glad I have the memory of that night, and it's amazing to think I met someone so talented and famous.  

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Poems: Night Terrors, Worries, Forever Changed

she wakes up screaming
tears stream from closed eyes
down reddened cheeks
inconsolable baby
what night terror haunts you

lying awake
terrible fears plague my mind
deep worries
the price of great love

my heart swells
to see her beloved face
the sweet ache
of a love so deep
my life is forever changed

Les Leftovers: The great Medieval water myth

I'm very interested in Medieval History, and this article on Les Leftovers is a fascinating read. Check it out!

Les Leftovers: The great Medieval water myth: The idea that Medieval people drank beer or wine to avoid drinking bad water is so established that even some very serious scholars see no ...