Kevin Walker’s sidewalk poem
Here’s a chance for your words to be remembered underfoot. March 15 is the deadline for submitting your short poem to Saint Paul’s Sidewalk Poetry project. Since 2008, Marcus Young and his colleagues at Public Art Saint Paul and the City of Saint Paul have been creating an evolving book of poems under our feet, with our sidewalks as the pages. If you live in Saint Paul, you can be part of it.
Click here for guidelines
Memory as a sport? Give me a break. I didn’t expect to like Joshua Foer’s book about becoming a mental athlete, vying for a championship based on the ability to cram and recall huge amounts of useless information.
But Moonwalking with Einstein is a great read and Foer does far more than just chart his journey into the nerdy world of memory athletes.
Along the way he provides an engaging explanation of how neuroscientists currently understand memory. He shows us how the extreme accomplishments of memory champions build on ancient and (conceptually) simple techniques of linking image, place and memory. He takes us through the history of moving memory out of our heads and into technology…and he’s not just talking about SD cards and smart phones here: As Foer points out, writing and books are also forms of external memory storage.
If the question of memory intrigues you in any way, find yourself a copy of this book.
My parents, Rella and Barney Cohn, in the 1990s. Their wisecracks live on.
I think about my parents this time of year. My mother was born in October and my father died in November. They’ve both been gone years now and on rainy days like this, I think about the inadequacy of my own memory as a vessel for the entirety of their lives. But that sounds somber and serious and even as my memories of my parents erode, I remember my parents idosyncarcies and my father and his sense of humor about the decay of his own memory. Here’s something I wrote about them when they were both still here…
Ten years ago my father couldn’t tell a red light from a green one. We noticed when he asked the same question twice. How’s the weather up there? A minute later, How’s the weather? How’s the weather? Every visit, he was more shrunken, more confused. Stutter, silence, fall. The first time he disappeared in the Field Museum men’s room, for twenty minutes I fretted among plastic dinosaurs, at last asked a complete stranger to retrieve him, zipped, buttoned. Later on, we sought what remained—memories of a former colleague, Hail, hail the gang’s all here, his great strength of will, bald old snapping turtle gathering his endurance, waiting. Like the time my mother went on for twenty minutes about the origins of the name Zanvel. Natter, chat, a steady rain of knowledge. My father sat silent, dull, but suddenly leaned forward, grinned, showed yellow teeth, said, I‘m worried about your mother’s memory.
As fascinated as I am by the processes of memory and forgetting, creating a memorable theater experience based on the encoding and storage of memory sounds like a tall order.
But Red Eye Theater has done just that with Meromyny—it’s heady, witty and poignant and the action literally takes place inside the mind—with the characters scrambling to accept and store the endless stream of new information we’re all bombarded with. (Miram Must as Jargon leads the excellent cast. Steve Busa directs; Rachel Jendrzejewski, playwright)
Go see it if you can.
Just confirmed with Friends of the St. Paul Public Library that we’ll be doing some more Known by Heart programming, exploring poetry and memory. After the May event, people told us they enjoyed hearing poetry presented from memory. The intersection of words and memory is a topic that resonates with people.
Known by Heart will continue as a series of four events in Fall 2013. Expect some new poets presenting work from memory, workshops on presenting work from memory, and a memorized poetry slam. I’m thrilled to be working again with the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library, as well as Zaraawar Mistry, Dreamland Arts, who’s agreed to co-present one of the workshops with me.
I’ll keep you posted as we finalize details.
Wednesday’s Known by Heart event at the Hamline library had a great turnout. Who know so many people cared about poetry and memory?
I loved hearing John Minczeski’s and Andrea Jenkins’ take on the question of the connections between poetry and memory; I loved learning from audience members that some of them get together as a group and memorize poems.
Thanks to all the people who came to the event; to John and Andrea for taking part in the Known by Heart experiment; to Zaraaawar Mistry of Dreamland Arts for his good-humored and amazing mentoring on ways to perform poems; to Jon Skaalen of VSA Minnesota and Morgan Gracye Willow for ASL guidance; to the Thursday night poets Ann McKnley, Lia Rivamonte, Barbara Davis, Sue Kunitz, MaryAnn Franta Moenck, and Alice Duggan; to the Studios of Key West; to Alayne Hopkins from the Friends,to John and the Hamline Midway librarian, to Dona Schwartz and Karen Hering for project and other wisdom; and to Ray for being Ray.
Thanks also to the Minnesota State Arts Board and The Friends of the St. Paul Public Libry and the Hamline Midway Library for helping make this event possible.
Naomi Cohn is a fiscal year 2011 recipient of an Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is made possible in part by a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, through an appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature and by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
The window of a church in the neighborhood where I grew up.
One of the poems I’ve memorized for the Known By Heart project is Langston Hughes’ Harlem, better known by its first line, What happens to a dream deferred? It’s a vivid, powerful poem; its strong images and cadences make it memorable. Easy to memorize and well worth sharing.
But Saturday night I had the opportunity to see Are You Now or Have You Ever Been….Carlyle Brown’s stunning and eloquent play about Langston Hughes appearing before Senator McCarthy’s Committee on Un-American Activities. Gavin Lawrence
offers an amazing performance as Langston Hughes. Brown’s script makes great use of poetry and history, wrapping them in a compelling dramatic package. And the topic is chillingly relevant to the present day.
The performances are equally outstanding. I couldn’t begin to bring the heft and nuance to Hughes’ lines that Gavin Lawrence does. So please go see this play.
And if you want to hear what stayed on my own list, please come see me and Andrea Jenkins and John Minczeski in the Known By Heart event this Wednesday, May 9, at the Hamline Midway library. (Sponsored by the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library and made possible by a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board)
(These are plums, not peaches, but certainly juicier than a hatrack)
For the human mind, the issue of memory is actually not just storage, but retrieval as well.
I’ve been wrestling with both storage and retrieval in the Known by Heart project. It sounded like a great idea at the time, create a bunch of poems designed to be memorized and present them from the heart. But as the day draws closer, I’m reminded of a few things about myself. Really, just one thing: How, as a middle-aged person with a fast-shrinking brain, am I supposed to get all this work stuffed in my head?
I started this project with some ideas about what makes poetry memorable. Memorizing the E.E. CUMMINGS, “as freedom is a breakfast food” (I think it’s officially known as 25 in his collection 50 Poems) I noticed how pattern and image make things memorable. For example, it’s hard to forget “as hatracks into peachtrees grow/or hopes dance best on bald men’s hair.” By contrast, I found more abstract lines in the poem, “as the impure think all things pure” hard to make stick in memory.
Pattern is another tool I noticed as I started memorizing other poet’s work. E.E. CUMMINGS’s “as freedom is a breakfast food” relies not only on image. It uses iambic lines, (lubdub, lubdub a pattern as familiar as a heartbeat). There’s also pattern in a repeated line revolving through the stanzas of the poem.
So these tools: image and pattern have helped. But I’ve been learning new tools as well that play on other aspects of how we remember. More on that soon.
Good news…The May 9, Known By Heart poetry performance will be ASL interpreted by Julie Olson Rand (NIC) and Jenn Welna (NIC).
One of the many reasons I’m glad that the Minnesota State Arts Board funded Known By Heart with a 2011 Artist Initiative Grant is that it provided funds for ASL interpretation.
Thanks also to Jon Skaalen (of VSA Minnesota), Zaraawar Mistry and poet and former ASL interpreter Morgan Grayce Willow for their help and suggestions about locating and working with interpreters.
As I mentioned in my last post, I started this project with a few ideas about how to make poems memorable and easier to memorize. But in my work with theater coach Zaraawar Mistry* of Dreamland Arts I keep learning new things about poetry and memory
As a cognitive phenomenon, neuroscientists tell us that memory is a process of revision, that each time we access a memory, we change it. Memory of events is highly fallible, malleable and untrustworthy. One of my favorite examples of this is a friend, in her sixties, telling me that she and her siblings had recently each drawn a plan of their childhood home. They drew different sketches—not just details of where the door was, but rooms in different places.
So, memory as revision, that should come as no surprise. But it’s been a surprise and delight to realize how the work of putting a poem into memory can be an excellent revision tool for a writer. Something about this memory work reveals, with great clarity, a great deal about a poem. Those words that seemed so perfect on the page suddenly lose their shine. But it’s not just that extraneous words and phrases don’t seem worth the work of remembering them. Sometimes the memory work offers clarity about the whole poem—the flow and movement of the thing become clear. At leat that’s how it seems to me. I hope you’ll be able to come judge for yourself on May 9.
*PS: Go see Mistry’s one-man show, The Other Mr. Gandhi, if you possibly can. It’s amazing, it’s at Dreamland Arts, and he’s added some performances in April. that’s all I’ll say about it.