November 12, 2021

Who Is Rupi Kaur?

A friend who is not a poet or a poetry reader asked me what I thought of the poet Rupi Kaur. I said I had never heard of her/him. She said she was surprised. "I saw her on TV and she has sold millions of books and hits the New York Times best-seller list." 

I had to find out more. 

Rupi Kaur by Baljit Singh.jpg
Image by Baljit Singh - rupi kaur inc., CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Rupi Kaur is an Indian-born Canadian poet, illustrator, photographer, and author. Born in Punjab, India, Kaur immigrated to Canada at a young age with her family. She is 29. 

She began performing poetry in 2009 and got popular on Instagram, eventually becoming one of the most popular "Instapoets." She has three collections of poetry.

After completing her degree in rhetoric studies she self-published her first collection of poems milk and honey in 2014 and it sold more two million copies and was on the NYT's bestseller list every week for over a year. It has been translated into over thirty languages. Her second collection the sun and her flowers was published in 2017 and debuted as a #1 NYT bestseller. 

Performance and social media savvy is a big part of her popularity. She has performed her poetry across the world and she is also known for her illustrations, design and art direction.

Bestsellers and poetry are not usually connected. Fame for poets can be both a plus and a minus. Popular poets are often dismissed as less than serious writers.

Her poetry has been described as "bite-size, accessible poems. Their free verse poetry eschews difficult metaphors in favor of clear, plain language."

On Wikipedia: "Her popularity has been compared to that of a popstar and Kaur has been praised for influencing the modern literary scene, although Kaur's poetry has had mixed critical reception and been subject to frequent parody; she has been dogged by claims of plagiarism by fellow "Instapoets" and harassment by internet trolls. Kaur has been included on congratulatory year-end lists by the BBC and Elle; The New Republic controversially called her the "Writer of the Decade"."

November 3, 2021

Prompt: From Shakespeare

Ophelia by John Everett Millais - Google Art Project

The plays of William Shakespeare continue to be relevant because his characters' motivations, problems, and emotions are universal. 

When I retired, I felt like Prospero at the end of The Tempest. In one job I had as an administrator, there were some days when I was in a scene from Julius Caesar.  In college, I had a number of young Hamlet moments. In high school, I identified with Juliet and Romeo depending on the relationship. 

I read a poem - Ophelia's Technicolor G-String: An Urban Mythology  - about a reimagined modern-day Ophelia. In that poem, the sad, naive, and mistreated girlfriend of Hamlet is launched into modern times. She became quite different in our time and seems much happier. 

Oh Hamlet, if you could see me now
as I pump and swagger across that stage, cape dripping to the floor,
me in three-inch heels and a technicolor G-string—
you would not wish me in a convent.
They’ve made me a queen here, married me off
to a quarter bag and a pint of gin.

It could be our model poem, but I started reading more about Ophelia and looking for other poems about her. My search turned up a few allusions to Polonius' daughter but no other model poem candidates.

So, for this prompt, I chose only to use Shakespeare's own words. It is the abridged love letter that Hamlet wrote to Ophelia that is intercepted by her father. Polonius reads it - well, some of it - to his wife Gertrude in Act II scene ii. 

“To the celestial and my soul’s idol, the most beautified Ophelia”

“In her excellent white bosom, these...
(here Polonius interrupts his reading and "spares" Gertrude the sexy stuff)

  Doubt thou the stars are fire,
  Doubt that the sun doth move,
  Doubt truth to be a liar,
  But never doubt I love.
  Thine evermore, most dear lady,
  whilst this machine is to him.

Before I get to our prompt this month, some more about Ophelia.

She is a na├»ve girl who wants to please both her father and her boyfriend. Shakespeare couldn't write about there being pre-marital sex between his two young aristocratic characters, but there are reasons to believe that they had sex though her father had warned her not to do such a thing. For instance, Hamlet says "Shall I lie in your lap, my lady?"and "Do you think I meant country matters?” (The latter generally interpreted to mean "Did you think I was talking about sex?. It is also a pun on a C-word expletive) A more definitive piece of evidence comes when Ophelia "goes mad" after her father's murder. One of the mad songs she sings includes the line "Before you tumbled me / You promised me to wed’” (IV.v.). 

Ophelia is usually seen as a symbol of femininity and Hamlet unfairly takes out some of his aggression toward his mother on her. There is plenty of evidence that Hamlet is the cause of her madness. Modern-day feminists view Ophelia as trapped in a patriarchal society that requires subjugation to her father and her brother -at least until she is married, 

Another interpretation bringing her into more modern times is that Ophelia's madness is really that she suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and deserves empathy rather than our pity.  

In "Speaking of the future, Hamlet," Mary Jo Bang imagines the character's future, though not so far in the future to be in our time. 

...My mother, the Queen, will want only
my father, the King. All will be want 
& get. And I will be me. And O, O, 
Ophelia—will be the essence of love. 
The love of a sister. Or, the love of the
brother. Compassion. Forgiveness... 

In "Wild Bees," James K. Baxter briefly imagines our own Ophelia not drowned but  "...on a tarred bridge plank standing / Or downstream between willows, a safe Ophelia drifting / In a rented boat."

In Meghan O'Rourke's "Ophelia to the Court," we wonder why she is in court and saying "First he thought he had a wife, then / (of course) he thought he had a whore."

For our November call for submissions, we are looking for poems where a character(s) from Shakespeare is brought into our time or the voice of the poem identifies with some aspect from the character's life. Make it clear which character (play?) you are alluding to, and if you use lines from the play indicate that with quotation marks or italics.

Need to brush up on your Shakespeare?
Wikipedi has a list of characters from the plays to get you started.

Submission Deadline: November 30, 2021

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October 27, 2021

Why Does Some Music (and some poetry) Stick in Our Brains?

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

I listened to an NPR episode of Shortwave on why music sticks in our brains and it made me think that some of the current research on music also applies to poems. The connection is emotion. Emotions are important to memory in general and songs - and I believe many poems - can make us feel a range of emotions that help our brain encode information better in our brains.

It was about the neuroscience behind those moments when you surprise yourself by still remembering a song.

Some elements that aid memory are rhyme, repetition and rhythm, which are important because they help us encode information better. 

Music always has an auditory stimulus. Poems sometimes have an auditory memory helper when we hear them read aloud. 

They found that we tend to learn the chorus of a song first - because we hear it over and over in a song. 

In school, children are often given a song memory hook - for example, learning the alphabet "song."

When a song enters your brain, neural activity in your brain stem and into the primary auditory cortex where the music gets processed. Lyrics mean that the language center of your brain will also get involved and tone and fluctuations in speech are also being processed.

If you are also reading the lyrics or following sheet music - or reading a poem as you hear it spoken - then the visual processing center of your brain also gets activated. 

Music also activates your motor cortex, which coordinates body movements. Do you ever tap your feet, sway with a poem, or dance? Probably not.

We know that when we enjoy music, our brain releases dopamine in the pleasure centers of our brain. I'd like to know if that happens with some poetry. With no research to back me up, I think sometimes it does. Deep brain dopaminergic systems like the basal ganglia get activated by narcotics and a great meal. And some areas of the brain, like the amygdala, attach those emotions to our memories.

The part of the research that really connects for me is how music and poems can help us retrieve other memories. Music may be able to connect those bits and pieces of other memories because our brain is able to pull that information from all types of stored spaces because we encoded it in different ways by listening, singing, reading lyrics and dancing.

Some people with Alzheimer's disease who played an instrument when they were younger can still play it, even if they can't remember other simpler things from their past. 

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