Shakespeare Writing Contest!

I’m not a big fan of contests, but this one is priced right and mixes the two things I blather on about ad nauseum! Oh yeah, baby! I’m so there!!!

From The Bard Brawl:

Take the following quote and give us your best poem, story, non-fiction essay or artwork inspired by it.

Make it brilliant, make it bardy, make it brawly.


KING LEAR: Make no noise, draw the curtains. So, so; we’ll go to supper i’ th’ morning.

FOOL: And I’ll go to bed at noon.

The fee for this contest is $5, and submissions are due by October 25th. (More submission info at the link.) A winner and two runners-up will win moola plus publication in Bard Brawl.

As I never win contests, and am sure not to win this one if I manage to enter, I’ll write a follow-up post on where you might like to submit non-winning entries. Because that’s the fun of rejection and losing in the writing world: you always get to send your work off somewhere else!

Also, Mighty Tiny Bill says he’s going to etch the word “bardy” into the plastic of his Original Packaging.

A Few Words for a (Current) Academic

Oh, but academia. You turned this achievement-oriented boy into an anxious wreck of a man.

These are words from Dr. Eric Anthony Grollman, from his recent post about how he’s trying to break away from what he calls “academic stardom,” or that mindset that turns you into a calculating, status-seeking, career-absorbed quasi-lunatic even when the normals outside of your chosen profession consistently look at you like, “What is it you do again? Work for the alumni association?”

My dear, dear friend in sociology, you are so not alone in your sentiments. This quote at the top of my post? Never have truer words been spoken about life in the Land of Perpetual Schooling and Theoretical Betterment. In my experience, you can’t exit a degree-granting program above the Bachelor’s level without becoming a twitchy lump of PTSD and self-loathing. It’s the kind of neurosis caged parrots get when they start pulling all their feathers out. At least, that’s what I felt when I finally gave up the struggle and quit my PhD in English literature. Suddenly, I found myself wandering the streets muttering, “I’m still a pretty parrot, right? Right??”

No, that didn’t really happen. (It would have been much cooler and less pathetic than what did take place, which involved shivering, scattered moments of false hope, and antidepressants.) And anyway, it’s beside the point, since it’s you I wanted to talk about. And what I wanted to talk about was the “trying” part of the “trying to break away from academic stardom” that I mention above. See, I’m not convinced that you’ve fully stopped your ears against the siren call of Academic Perfection, possibly because everything that you mention about yourself in your blog post suggests that you’re Dr. Sociology Adonis. I’m being completely serious here. I know a lot of people with PhDs, and almost none have even come close to racking up the accomplishments you have. I mean, jeez. I wished for academic stardom, and I got my ass handed to me on a platter. Don’t knock what you have, friend!

I totally get the fact that academia insists on gnashing on you like chewing gum, such that your health, personal life, and any other concerns about the outside world tend to slip away. And you should absolutely 100% not let that happen. But remember there are those of us out here in the academic afterlife whose spirits got broken well before mid-chew. You might have progressed further if you had a homemaker for a helpmeet. But hey, you could also have been born the gender expected to be that homemaker. Then you could have had kids and a crippling chronic illness that leaves your psyche twisted in knots. (Anxiety disorder? Oh, yeah, we’ve got that in common, too, my friend!)

I guess what I’m trying to say is, only your own strength could have carried you to where you are today, so don’t undermine that achievement. Please, for those of us who got left behind on the battlefield, celebrate it. Don’t let the dictates of some idealized vision of an Important Scholarly Life drive you insane. We have more than enough insanity in this world as it is. Go have a margarita on a warm beach somewhere and just be.

Good Writing Break: Academic Template Edition

On his blog ThinkELT.com, Luiz Otavio Barros has put together 70 sentence models that were most useful to him when he was writing up his MA dissertation. Now, you Fickle Readers out there can get a glimpse of how academics build their agonizingly crafted, hopefully iron-clad arguments. Here’s a taste:

a. Along similar lines, [X] argues that ___.
b. There seems to be no compelling reason to argue that ___.
c. As a rebuttal to this point, it might be (convincingly) argued that ___.

c. The question of whether ___ has caused much debate in [our profession] [over the years].

a. In this section / chapter, the discussion will point to ___.

f. [X] lies at the heart of the discussion on ___.

c. The issue of whether ___ is clouded by the fact that ___. (clouded = made less clear)

As I recall, I tended to avoid the word “issue” (I think my dissertation chair wasn’t crazy about the term, and one must always follow the dictates of the Chair), but “point to” was a verb phrase I whipped out on a regular basis. Also, along similar lines (wink wink), “suggest,” “reflect,” “indicate,” “demonstrate,” and “evoke.” I also avoided certain words, especially “bespeak,” a verb I loathe with the hate of a thousand suns.

Anyway, for my money, Barros has given the world of writing a gift by showing us all the nuts and bolts of his craft. Many thanks, Luiz! I wish I’d had the clarity of mind to be able to build an argument and thus finish my friggin’ dissertation, but I know that this list will be helpful to many, if only as a structure on which to hang those raging, chaotic thoughts that go along with trying to put together research discoveries (or, in my case, pulling things out of my ass).

Good Multimedia Break: Wonder Woman Edition

You know, there’s a lot of good writing out there. So much, in fact, that often as a reader I feel inundated. Long ago I’ve given up catching up in the writing world (okay, I have a twinge of jealousy every now and again, but then my body craps out on me and I sleep for three days). But reading, hey–I can do that with hardly any effort, right?

Hah! says the Internet. Hahahahahahaha–I think I just peed my Virtual Pants a little bit. And we’re not even talking about the laff riot that printed books, ebooks, and Amazon are having, individually and as a loosely affiliated media conglomerate.

Okay, so reading all the good stuff out there is Nigh Unto Impossible, probably even more Nigh than keeping up with the accomplishments of writers that clamber like ants all over the face of the world. Every once in a while, though, you do get to read a piece that is mind-blowing (in a humbling sense, not in the typical Internet content-mill sense of “40 Ways Toasting Bread Will Blow Your Mind). These are works that not only open eyes but crack open the universe. And, I’m pleased to report, that today’s stunning piece of writing takes as its subject that most dreadfully neglected of superheroes, Wonder Woman.

Now, I gotta admit, I myself have been a tad irked by Wonder Woman in the past. I grew up in the 1970s watching Lynda Carter play Wonder Woman on TV, and I loved her, loved Diana, loved dressing up in my Wonder Woman Underoos with a piece of sparkly rope and a Burger King cardstock crown that my mom cut up to resemble Wonder Woman’s tiara. (Yes, I have pictures of me in my Wonder Woman “costume.” No, you can’t see them.) I loved Wonder Woman with the innocent narcissism of a little middle-class white girl who looked at Carter and thought, “Yes! The only girl superhero on TV isn’t a blonde! Brown hair rules!!!” And yet later, when I started understanding a little more about the way women are portrayed in the media, and I took a closer look at Wonder Woman’s magic jewelry, skimpy outfit, truth lasso (the hell??), and crummy villains made for a “girl” to fight (yeah, that Egg Fu, what man apart from all of them could crack him open), I became, shall we say, disenchanted with the crime fighter from Paradise Island. She became an embarrassment, yet another vision of the perfect woman created by men, a cause of that queasy feeling you only get in the presence of something once adored by a younger, half-rejected version of yourself.

I will also admit that recently I’ve been coming to terms with my feelings for Wonder Woman. A terrific geek-girl band (yes, world, geek girls DO exist!!!) called the Doubleclicks came out with a tribute song called “Wonder” that always brings a tear to my eye, so perfectly does the song capture the superhero sentimentality that Five for Fighting and Crash Test Dummies, among others, gave to Superman.

And now, we have Jill Lepore’s article “The Last Amazon”.

Man, does this piece of reporting deliver.

Not only does Lepore examine Wonder Woman’s unusual beginnings in the mind of a polyamorous, women’s-rights-espousing male psychologist in the 1940s, not only does Lepore follow the line of inspiration back to famous first-wave feminists like Margaret Sanger, Lepore manages to work in little nuggets of pure-gold irony like this:

Last December, Warner Bros. announced that Wonder Woman would have a role in an upcoming Superman-and-Batman film, and that, in a three-movie deal, Gal Gadot, a lithe Israeli model, had signed on to play the part. There followed a flurry of comments about her anatomical insufficiency for the role.

“It’s been said that you’re too skinny,” an interviewer told Gadot on Israeli television. “Wonder Woman is large-breasted.”

“Wonder Woman is Amazonian,” Gadot said, smiling coyly. “And historically accurate Amazonian women actually had only one breast.” (They cut off the other one, the better to wield a bow.)

And this:

The modern woman, Crystal Eastman explained in The Nation, “wants some means of self-expression, perhaps, some way of satisfying her personal ambitions. But she wants a husband, home and children, too. How to reconcile these two desires in real life, that is the question.” You can find more or less the very same article in almost any magazine today—think of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 2012 essay, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”—which is a measure of just how poorly this question has been addressed. A century ago, though, it was new. Between 1910 and 1920, Virginia MacMakin Collier reported in 1926, in “Marriage and Careers,” the percentage of married women working had nearly doubled, and the number of married women in the professions had risen by forty per cent. “The question, therefore, is no longer, should women combine marriage with careers, but how?”

Here’s how. Marston [Wonder Woman's creator] would have two wives. Holloway could have her career. Byrne would raise the children. No one else need ever know.

And this:

In the spring of 1942, Gaines [publisher of Wonder Woman] included a one-page questionnaire in All-Star Comics. “Should WONDER WOMAN be allowed, even though a woman, to become a member of the Justice Society?” Of the first eighteen hundred and one questionnaires returned, twelve hundred and sixty-five boys and three hundred and thirty-three girls said yes; a hundred and ninety-seven boys, and just six girls, said no. Wonder Woman joined the Justice Society. She was the only woman. Gardner Fox, who wrote the Justice Society stories, made her the society’s secretary. In the summer of 1942, when all the male superheroes head off to war, Wonder Woman stays behind to answer the mail. “Good luck boys,” she calls out to them. “I wish I could be going with you!” Marston was furious.

And, oh, yeah, this:

Marston died in 1947. “Hire me,” Holloway [Marston's official wife] wrote to DC Comics. Instead, DC hired Robert Kanigher, and Wonder Woman followed the hundreds of thousands of American women workers who, when peace came, were told that their labor threatened the stability of the nation. Kanigher made Wonder Woman a babysitter, a fashion model, and a movie star. She gave advice to the lovelorn, as the author of a lonely-hearts newspaper advice column. Her new writer also abandoned a regular feature, “The Wonder Women of History”—a four-page centerfold in every issue, containing a biography of a woman of achievement. He replaced it with a series about weddings, called “Marriage à la Mode.”

“The Last Amazon” is a long article, but an important one. Read it before the Subscription techies at the New Yorker stuff it behind a firewall. Afterward, feel free to get all nostalgic for the gains in women’s lives that were dreamed of but never happened, or that happened but didn’t stick. Then listen to the Doubleclicks and remember to hang on to a little of that queasy, kid-like hope, that awe for the marvelous being who, every once in a while, resembles you.

Shakespeare Is Everywhere: The Pam Smart Edition

Even when I ought to be going to bed, I just can’t escape the lure of Shakespeare…

…and apparently, neither can the folks who created Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart, a new HBO documentary that examines how media intrusion may have interfered with justice in one of the first trials in history that became a gavel-to-gavel reality TV spectacle. Here are two mega-humdinger passages where Shakespeare pops up, one from the film itself:

“At its highest level, you have competing Shakespeares portraying characters in stories that may or may not be true. And of course, justice might miscarry if we wanted the defendant to be something maybe different from what she is.”

–Richard Sherwin, Professor of Law, New York Law School, speaking about testimony in the Smart case

and one in the intro to a Salon interview with Jeremiah Zagar, director of Captivated:

Zagar…told Salon that he hadn’t been interested in crime stories before getting hired to make the film–and that he sees the story as about more than guilt or innocence. “I’m interested in the trial as a narrative device, as a way of telling a story,” he said, “And the story that was most convincing was that [Smart] was a Lady Macbeth.”

To me, the greatest of ironies in both of these quotes is that, whether or not you think that Smart paid her then-teenaged lover and his friends to kill her husband, the speakers use Shakespeare as a shorthand for “virtuoso performance”–even though the reality of Shakespeare doesn’t sync up with the meaning they’re attaching to performer or text. Sherwin’s “competing Shakespeares” might emphasize how much all the participants in the trial, from the lawyers to the witnesses, were putting on the greatest show of their lives. But “characters in stories that may or may not be true”? Since when is Shakespeare, in text or performance, supposed to represent fact? How about never. Shakespeare wrote plays. His audiences knew that. The fact that Sherwin can so easily see Shakespeares in court proceedings should tell you how completely screwed up the Smart trial was, and maybe how broken the U.S. justice system is in general. Ideally, you would have zero Shakespeares in a courtroom, because Shakespeare never tells the truth, at least not in the sense of unvarnished, unperjured reality. In the sense of “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

Am I right, America? Shakespeare is entertainment–we can all agree on that, yes? Anyone? Or am I just a sentimental twit?

Yeah, I was afraid of that…

On to quote #2: Pam Smart as Lady Macbeth. I’ll give you that the viewing public probably did want a Lady Macbeth on their TV screens. But it may be wise to point out at the same time that Lady Macbeth did not murder her husband. No, despite being one of the greatest villainesses of literary history, Lady M was not a seductress or a femme fatale in any conventional sense. In the play, she encourages her husband to kill the King of Scotland and take the throne for himself, a rather unfeminine scheme concocted by a woman with a famously “masculine” desire for power. (In fact, Lady Macbeth is so unladylike, she even has a monologue where she begs the gods to “unsex” her–that is, take away her nurturing female qualities–so that she can help her husband kill the king.) Pam Smart, on the other hand, was supposed to be a vixen who used her feminine wiles to lure a pack of innocent teens to commit heinous acts on behalf of her terrifying, insatiable lust. Or something like that.

No, the analogy doesn’t make any sense, but it’s Shakespeare, and if Shakespeare made a really, really bad woman, then she must be the model to fit our murderess, because Shakespeare was the greatest, by gum! And if all of us Shakespeare-obsessed types got a nickel for every time a Shakespeare play was misapplied to some real-life situation, a lot of Ren faire-loving English nerds would be swimming in a crapload of nickels. Because Shakespeare is so heavily ingrained in our culture that whenever a female murderer is in the news, there’s always going to be some talking head out there who gets the brilliant idea to spice up his newscast by waxing philosophical about Lady Macbeth.

Shakespeare Is Everywhere: Card Game Edition

Found out about this one through Wil Wheaton’s Twitter feed. Oh my God, I think I might have to get this strictly on principle.

Council of Verona (image from BoardGameGeek)

Here’s a description from BoardGameGeek:

The citizens of Verona have grown tired of the constant quarrel between the houses of Capulet and Montague. As ruler of the region, Prince Escalus has formed a council to help mediate the conflict and bring lasting peace to Verona.

In Council of Verona, players take on the role of influential citizens of Verona and act to use their influence to either add characters to the council or cast them into exile. Through thoughtful hand management of their cards and clever placement of influence tokens, players gain victory points based upon the agendas of the characters at the end of the game. The player with the most victory points wins!

We’ve all heard the story of Romeo and Juliet – now is your chance to steer the story and determine who will rule Verona once and for all!

Someone turned Romeo and Juliet, the sappiest of all love tragedies, adored by teens and pre-teens the world over, and turned it into a contest for political power? Oh, yeah, baby. Mama likee. (There’s even a “poison expansion set.” I think I might have drooled a little on my keyboard just now…)

For added ironic fun, check out this picture of some adorable little players who (according to the caption) were “very excited” their mother had “gotten a game about falling in love.” You can’t make this stuff up, I tells ya.

Post-Vegas Catch-Up: News Poetry Edition

Hey, Fickle Readers! I’m back from Vegas, where my oldest and dearest friend Donnabella Valentino and I had an amazing couple of days of eating, gambling, listening to the Beatles, and watching sprays of water dance to cheesy melodies. (You wouldn’t think water would be capable of acting cheesy, but then, Vegas can bring out the cheesetacularness in any given molecular construction.)

But, since all good things must end with a long, cramped flight across the country, I’m back in the ‘burbs and ready to start churning out random, fickle thoughts, such that my presence will be noted by even more bots ready to fill my spam comment filter with long strings of unconnected words and generic praise.

Today’s first spam-catching post is on the subject of news poetry, or “opinion poetry,” as the L.A. Times calls it. Yes, because I stopped paying attention, and because my short-term memory has dwindled to maybe ten minutes, I managed to miss the publication of the official 2014 L.A. Times Opinion Poetry page. Definitely worth checking out, if only to see what material the Times’ editors chose.* There’s a good balance struck here between professional and amateur writers (although the professionals don’t have a monopoly on the most notable pieces) and between comic and serious verse. Topics are varied, yet most seem not to refer to a specific event but to an overall problem (see “Re-Divining Water” by Fran Davis and “Modern Love Incorporated” by Mike Orlock**) or even to a larger social or political issue that impacts private life (“Facial Heritage” by Elmast Kozloyan, “Sometimes the Urge to Live” by Aliki Barstone, “Veterans’ Benefits” by Brad Rose). Lots and lots of rhyming here, too, which is kinda nice to see–a throwback to the witty epigrams of eighteenth-century periodicals. Not everyone quite nails the forms (there are two “sonnets” in the Times that are not sonnets in the traditional sense), but the poems themselves are interesting and worthwhile. (Peter Larson, by the way, wins the Miss Fickle Form prize for his meticulously metrical poem “Please Pass the Mud.”) Other standouts include “Bridge Over a Bone River” by Lollie Butler and “The Sunflower” by Pam Ward, both longer works and both extremely powerful.

The one criticism I have of this year’s poetry page has to do with layout: namely, whoever transferred the poems to the web site neglected to include any structural details, not even stanza breaks. This means that the entire group of poems reads like one continuous column down the left side of the screen. Come on, L.A. newspeople: you know the importance of the way text looks on a page. Poets put spaces and gaps in their work for a reason. Please don’t ignore them. Otherwise, this is another good showing from the Times opinion editors. Nicely done, folks! Hope you decide to do this again next year!

In other news, news itself is the topic of a weekly feature on the Rattle magazine web site. Called “Poets Respond,” this project is an experiment to see if timely poetry–work written within a week about an event that occurred during that week–can participate in the lightning-quick conversations spawned in the 21st-century 24-hour media merry-go-round. You’ll recall that I mentioned this new poetry series in a round-up of poetry-related announcements last week. You may also recall, a few months back, I criticized Seth Abramson for writing a prose poem about Elliot Rodger, the Isla Vista rampage killer, and how immediately after the event might not be the appropriate moment to start exploring the humanity of a man who’d just shot nineteen people, six of whom died. “This is probably why poets don’t make good first responders,” I wrote at the time. Now, Rattle gives us the opportunity to see if poets can remake themselves into first responders, or, at the very least, as witnesses with valuable perspectives that can’t be conveyed in other forms of writing.

Now that I’ve finally had the chance to see Poets Respond, my report on the viability of news poetry is: so far, so good. Even though these poems are inspired by specific events, as with the L.A. Times poetry page the work on Poets Respond injects public discourse with a sense of the private, interior reactions we almost never get to see. The presentation of the work is gorgeous, with an easily navigable index page and audio files of readings for almost every piece.  As far as the individual poems go, all are high on accessibility without sacrificing craft. I love Lynne Knight’s beautiful, understated pantoum “The Letter from James Foley,” Rebecca Schumejda’s exploration of her inability to explain painful events to her daughter in “Black Banana,” and Jason McCall’s absolutely gut-wrenching tribute poem “Roll Call for Michael Brown.” Overall, Rattle has a great thing going here, and I, for one, hope they continue this project well into the future.

*For the sake of full disclosure: yes, I had a poem chosen this year, and no, it’s not one of the ones I discuss in this post. I’m not in the habit of sockpuppet-reviewing my own work, not only because it’s unethical but also (and maybe more so) because I wouldn’t want to go anonymously patting myself on the back and have my readers say, “Why is Miss Fickle crowing about such a crap poem?”

**Orlock also wins points for these lines about corporations: “For they, my boy, make no mistake / are fickle as young girls. / They need our constant blandishments, / tax breaks instead of pearls.”