Authors and Stories For You and Me

Orange cover of On The Road by Jack Kerouac on the left with a black and white photo of the author on the right with his arms crossed.

By Eric L.

I like books and authors a lot, and periodically I will get on a kick and start reading books by a particular person and then read about the person.  

Jean-Louis Lebris de “Jack” Kerouac has always been one of my favorites, and he was one to celebrate jazz and the outdoors. Kerouac is the person that in theory personifies the “beat generation,” the beatniks, and the counterculture of 1950s America that inspired so many in the 1960s counterculture (which could be argued led to the push for progress in America).  

As a white Catholic from a middle-class background with a deep interest in the counterculture, his work spoke to me. I could feel his guilt for not conforming and appreciate his conservative Catholic hang-ups. His conflicted mind, introspective nature, desire for freedom, and the understanding that he was in some ways the observer and documentarian of counterculture and not so much the progenitor attracted me. 

Revisiting his work over the years, it always changes as the world changes, and more importantly as I change. Thank goodness, I’ve always grown more! I have recently been reading books and articles about Kerouac, re-reading the The Dharma Bums (available in eAudiobook format from Libby/OverDrive) after seeing it quoted in two books I was recently reading. The quote in one was, “Someday I’ll find the right words, and they’ll be simple.” I like this sort of searching and desire for simplicity. 

 

The book cover is a blank and white, bluish-tinted photograph of Jack Kerouac and fellow writer Neal Cassady.
Kerouac and fellow Beat Generation writer Neal Cassady, the inspiration for Dean Moriarty in On the Road.

I also re-watched the recent film adaptations of On the Road and Big Sur, both of which I’d recommend. The former HCLS owns in DVD format; the latter you can borrow using Interlibrary Loan. Some consider Big Sur one of his best novels. It’s the semi-autobiographical account his struggle with fame, depression, and addiction a decade after the publication of his most famous work, On the Road. The raw reality of addiction is sad to be sure, but it’s also a good read and viewing for the description and images of Big Sur. 

To be sure, there’s a lot not to like about Kerouac. The books and film adaptations are misogynistic, self-involved, and privileged in some respects. He drank himself to death at the age of 47, he never found the time know his own daughter, and had become truculent and seemingly illiberal near the end of his life. I could probably find some additional foibles. Conduct an internet search for his appearance on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line in the late 1960s; it’s pretty sad. 

For some reason, many of his contemporaries publicly and negatively commented on him, although John Updike later admitted he was jealous of his fame. James Baldwin described Kerouac’s work as “absolute nonsense, and offensive nonsense at that.” Charles Bukowski, another “beat” writer and poet who is controversial in many ways and the subject of several films, said Kerouac wasn’t that great of a writer, but suggested his fame came from the fact that he looked like a “rodeo star.”  

I’d disagree with Bukowski; there is some poetry in Kerouac’s prose and the performance aspect of it is amazing. Hearing and seeing him read his own work, which was inspired by jazz, is marvelous. His handsomeness certainly did not hurt his celebrity. I was reminded of his style while watching the young Amanda Gorman read and perform her great poem The Hill We Climb at the inauguration.

It was a pretty radical endeavor to hang out in a jazz club in the late 1940s, and I was curious what was so great about this thing called jazz. I now know. Moreover, books concerning his romantic relationships with African Americans and his close relationships with openly gay people were verboten at the very least, and illegal in many places in the US in the 1950s. Moreover, Kerouac’s attraction to and writings about Buddhism interested me very much as a fellow Catholic. 

Kerouac’s explicit mentions of Walt Whitman, Marcel Proust, and other authors piqued my curiosity about these people, and his books gave me a point of reference when reading James Baldwin’s perspective of a similar counterculture from the African American point of view. Really, his work just got me reading, dreaming, and thinking differently than I’d done before. In other words, I’d like to think I was better for it. And I’m fairly certain that these are the reasons why On the Road is still in our reading list section and assigned by English teachers.

I had this conversation with the members of my book group, and they assuaged my guilt a bit for still liking Kerouac. But the times they change, and we change, and maybe Kerouac would’ve changed, too, but maybe not. 

In some cases, there are things that should be left in the past, but I’d contend we shouldn’t dismiss the progressive nature of all art pell-mell. All of us are flawed in some way, and this makes us interesting in my opinion. Indubitably the merits of Kerouac’s work and his reputation are debatable. But Kerouac did reject the conforming ethos of post-war America (something many now want to return to). And personally, he made me feel as though others were attracted to things that don’t quite fit into mainstream American culture. 

My hope is that this bolsters the case for diverse stories, viewpoints, and authors. Everyone needs characters and stories they can relate to and find themselves in. I think it’s a magical feeling to realize there are people that are like you, that feel like you do. So keep reading to find relatable characters and stories. Come by the library and tell us about your interests. We might be able to help, or know someone who can, find the books and authors for you! 

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at HCLS Elkridge Branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.

Two Big Books

A line drawing in yellow depicts an old-fashioned square microphone and a bed. Black lettering says, "Gmorning, Gnight! Little pepe talks for me & you"

By Cherise T.

What fits in your pocket, can be read in short bursts, and explodes with wisdom and inspiration? Gmorning, Gnight!: little pep talks for me & you and Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change. These can be challenging times for mustering emotional strength and sustaining a prolonged attention span. In terms of meeting these challenges, both are big books. 

Fans of Hamilton may recognize the author of Gmorning, Gnight, Lin-Manuel Miranda. With more than three million followers on Twitter, Miranda inspired many fans with his brief awakening and bedtime messages. He joined forces with illustrator Johnny Sun to publish this volume of spirit-raising tweets. Miranda wisdom includes, “Gmorning! No exact recipe for today. Gather all available ingredients and whip yourself up something delicious,” and “Gnight. Don’t wait until low power mode. Close your eyes. Close all unnecessary apps. Recharge.” A theater person with universal appeal, Miranda and his notes are irresistible. “Good night. You are perfectly cast in your life. And with so little rehearsal too! It’s a joy to watch. Thank you.” This title is available at HCLS also as a print book in Spanish, as an eBook in Libby/Overdrive and as an eAudiobook narrated by Lin-Manuel Miranda himself. 

A salmony-pink cover has simple black types and grey lines

Keep Moving grew out of a series of social media posts by the poet Maggie Smith. Smith was struggling with personal and professional self-doubt during the collapse of her marriage and subsequent divorce. She thought readers might find her journey significant to their own lives. “Keep moving” was her daily admonition and cheer to herself, and because her messages resonated, the number of her Instagram and Twitter followers grew exponentially, hence the idea to create a book.  It is available through HCLS in hardcover and in Overdrive as both an eBook and an eAudiobook read by the author.  

Smith gained international attention with her poem, “Good Bones.” Written in 2015, the poem was not published until the week of the shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in 2016. Readers connected deeply with the poem in the aftermath of that tragic event. Because of how widely it was shared, “Good Bones” was often referred to as the poem of 2016, and it was later published in a book of the same name. The poem’s popularity surges again during times of crisis, such as the current pandemic. It begins: 

Life is short, though I keep this from my children. 
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine 
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways, 
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways 
I’ll keep from my children. 

The short notes and essays in Keep Moving reverberate with sorrow, joy, empathy, and fortitude. The author conveys that she’s with the reader struggling to start her day and she’s not going to leave that person behind. Together, Smith and her readers will find a way to persevere and grow. “Trust that everything will be okay, but that doesn’t mean that everything will be restored. Start making yourself at home in your life as it is. Look around and look ahead. KEEP MOVING.” 

Cherise Tasker is an Adult Instructor and Research Specialist at the Central Branch. When not immersed in literary fiction, Cherise can be found singing along to musical theater soundtracks. 

At Noon: Poetry Moments

The photograph depicts poet laureate Joy Harjo wearing a bright red shirt and blue jeans, with her tattooed hand across her knee and a turquoise bracelet on her wrist.
Photograph of poet laureate Joy Harjo by Paul Abdoo

by Susan Thornton Hobby and Rohini Gupta

Have lunch with the poets during National Poetry Month.

I don’t write out of what I know; I write out of what I wonder. I think most artists create art in order to explore, not to give the answers. Poetry and art are not about answers to me: they are about questions.” — Lucille Clifton

Lots of people think they need to know what a poem means. Sometimes professors and experts dissect a poem so much that a poem dies before we allow it to live. But what if a poem was written not to answer questions, but to ask them?

Lucille Clifton, a National Book Award-winning poet, wrote from her home office in a townhouse in Columbia for decades until her death in 2010. And she never stopped asking questions with her poetry.

Sometimes, when we talk about poetry, people’s eyes glaze over. Occasionally (or more often) poetry just seems impenetrable. But it doesn’t have to be. Clifton’s poetry is accessible, understood at a first reading, with meaning that grows deeper with a second or third reading, prompting those questions that bring readers to her poetry over and over again.

Once we’ve hooked you with Clifton’s work, we have plenty of other ideas of where to start with poetry. Perhaps with Amanda Gorman’s performances at President Joe Biden’s inauguration and at the Super Bowl, more people are intrigued about poetry, but don’t really know where to go for good poetry beyond inspirational quotes on Instagram. We’ve got your poetry questions covered.

Soon after the Howard County Library’s Central Branch opened in 1981, Clifton read her poetry with three other amazing poets, William Stafford, Roland Flint, and current Maryland Poet Laureate Grace Cavalieri. HoCoPoLitSo (Howard County Poetry and Literature Society) brought those poets and library customers together forty years ago, and we’re still collaborating today. Across those decades, we have together sponsored movies about Gwendolyn Brooks and Seamus Heaney, organized readings by poets such as Josephine Jacobsen and Stanley Kunitz, judged student poetry contests, and even staged a play about poet Emily Dickinson, “The Belle of Amherst.”

Since National Library Week (April 4-10) coincides with National Poetry Month in April, HoCoPoLitSo and Howard County Library System thought it would be the perfect time to launch a new program. Every Tuesday in April, HoCoPoLitSo and the library collaborate to bring you a lunchtime buffet of poetry, virtually.

Join HoCoPoLitSo and Howard County Library System for their newest program, a lunch break of poetry every Tuesday in April. At Noon: Poetry Moments. Register here.

When the pandemic closed everyone’s doors, HoCoPoLitSo created a new video series, both to reach out to people at home who were hungry for the arts, and to amplify the voices of Black poets who have visited HoCoPoLitSo audiences since 1974. With the help of Howard Community College’s Arts Collective, and director Sue Kramer, we produced the Poetry Moment series. Local actors Chania Hudson, Shawn Sebastian Naar, and Sarah Luckadoo offer introductions, then famous poets like Clifton and Kunitz and Heaney and Brooks read their work, with selections extracted from archival video. Ellen Conroy Kennedy, the late founding director and heart and soul of HoCoPoLitSo, started this archive in 1986 when she began documenting the poetry and literature programs she was producing. The Writing Life resulted, with more than 100 full interviews with authors carried on HoCoPoLitSo’s YouTube page.

In April, every Tuesday at noon, we’ll gather virtually to talk poetry. We’ve grouped the poems by theme for each week, and will talk a little about poetry, then watch the videos together and discuss.

Here’s our poetry hit parade:

April 6: We’ll talk about grief, something many people are dealing with this year. Poems we’ll be discussing include “Elegy” by Linda Pastan, “My Deepest Condiments” by Taylor Mali, and “The Long Boat” by Stanley Kunitz.

April 13: History is this week’s theme, and we’ll talk about Sterling Allen Brown’s “Southern Road,” read by poet Toi Derricotte, “In the Tradition” by Amiri Baraka, and “Requiem” by Anna Akhmatova, read by poet Carolyn Forché.

April 20: Many contemporary poets turn to their families as sources for poetry. The poems we’ll read this week are “good times” by Lucille Clifton, “The Pomegranate” by Eavan Boland, and “A Final Thing” by Li-Young Lee.

April 27: Our last week is centered on pep talks in poetry, verse to lift us up and give us strength. We’ll discuss “The Solstice” by W. S. Merwin, “For Every One” by Jason Reynolds, and “I Give You Back” by Joy Harjo.

HoCoPoLitSo and the HCLS are happy to collaborate in bringing poetry to all who ask questions, to any who believe, like we do, that words can change the world.

If we hook you on poetry, consider tuning in to the April 29 Blackbird Poetry Festival, featuring Ilya Kaminsky and sponsored by Howard Community College and HoCoPoLitSo.

Register for the HCLS lunch poetry programs At Noon: Poetry Moments.

Susan Thornton Hobby is a proud library volunteer and HoCoPoLitSo board member and consultant, and with the library’s support, she coordinated this April poetry feast. Rohini Gupta is the Adult Curriculum Specialist with HCLS.