May 31, 2021

A Christopher Marlowe Murder Mystery

Two things I learned about the playwright Christopher Marlowe in school that I remember was that he might have written some (or all?) of Shakespeare's plays and that he was killed in a tavern brawl. 

He died on May 30, 1593. There was a fight in a London tavern and Marlowe was stabbed in the eye after a dispute over the bill. That I will never forget. He was 29 years old. He is best known for the plays Hero and Leander, Tamburlaine the Great, Edward the Second and especially The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus

There are plenty of mysteries about authors of that time, especially Mr. Shakespeare. The records just don't exist. tab, no less. I don't think it is really a mystery about the authorship of Will's plays, though much has been written and conjectured about their authorship. I am of the belief that he wrote them but that he may have collaborated with other writers on some, but his name on them guaranteed an audience. If Will was alive in this or the last century, I'm sure he would have gotten into writing for movies and TV and attached his name to projects or adaptations.

It turns out that there is some mystery about the circumstances of Marlowe's death. One theory is that he was assassinated under orders from Queen Elizabeth I because he was a very public atheist. Marlowe was out on bail when he was killed and if he had gone through an inquisition there was a good chance he would have been executed. You may have learned that Shakespeare was careful about writing or saying if he was a Protestant or Catholic in order to not offend, to get his plays approved by the court, and to protect his life.  The Queen gave orders to silence Marlowe and "prosecute it to the full,” and she pardoned Marlowe's murderer, Ingram Frizer, a month later. 

Young, handsome Christopher "Kit" Marlowe had his enemies. Friend of Elizabeth, Sir Walter Raleigh, was supposedly worried about being implicated if there was an inquisition of Marlowe, so he would have liked to have him out of way before that time.

Marlowe’s former roommate was Thomas Kyd. Kyd was also a playwright, the author of The Spanish Tragedy, and an important name in Elizabethan drama. Like Marlowe, Kyd's plays were overshadowed by Shakespeare's works. Kyd is sometimes credited with a play titled Hamlet that was written and performed before Shakespeare's version. About a month before Marlowe's death, Kyd had been arrested and tortured for his connection with Marlowe. Kyd died a year later at the age of 35 unknown and in debt.

But if I ever write my Marlowe murder mystery for the page or screen, I might use that theory, but the more interesting plot is that Marlowe actually faked his own death.

There are some who believe(d) that Kit faked his death and fled the country to avoid his impending inquisition. Once he was safe outside London or out of England, Marlowe would have continued writing and sending his works back to England to be performed. They would need to be attributed to someone else. 

Two weeks after Marlowe’s inquest, the first piece of writing to appear under the name William Shakespeare was published. Shakespeare was very likely influenced by Marlowe's plays as he was the popular writer of the time and Will's early plays seem more like Marlowe's writing. Was Will the name on the script while he was learning to write on his own? 

I once pitched my story idea to a Shakespeare professor and he said there was a book out there that also followed that idea. I did some digging and found The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber. She points out that Shakespeare was rather fascinated with characters who were thought to be dead. 

There are 33 characters who appear in 18 of his plays that are mistakenly believed to be dead for some part of the story, including some deliberately staged deaths and three faked deaths done to avoid real death.

I guess I'll have to collaborate with Ros... or I might just work on my other literary murder mystery about the death of Edgar Allen Poe. We are still not certain what happened to him on those final days - and Poe had such an interesting life before that. 

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May 14, 2021

Ask a Poet

Poets get asked odd questions. They often come after giving a reading. There are the unanswerable questions ("Why do you write poetry? Can everyone be a poet?") and the ones you don't want to answer ("So, what is that last poem actually supposed to be about?") Some of the most unusual ones that I've heard come from students after workshops or readings. Younger students often ask "Do you make money writing poems?" I had a high school student ask me "If I say it's a poem, it's a poem. Right?"

I suspect a good number of poets have written about being asked a poet question. We did this topic as a prompt in 2014 using two poems by Aimee Nezhukumatathil: "Are All the Break-Ups in Your Poems Real?" and "Dear Amy Nehzooukammyatootill." I had forgotten that earlier prompt and was working on the same topic for our May issue. I found two poems as models, so I'm going to share them anyway.

Eve Merriam's poem, "Reply to the Question: 'How Can You Become a Poet?'" addresses one of those unanswerable questions. Well, there are answers "Get an MFA," "Just write," and "Read everything" are all ones I have heard. Merriam gives a more poetic reply.

take the leaf of a tree
trace its exact shape
the outside edges
and inner lines
memorize the way it is fastened to the twig
(and how the twig arches from the branch)
how it springs forth in April
how it is panoplied in July

by late August
crumple it in your hand
so that you smell its end-of-summer sadness

chew its woody stem

listen to its autumn rattle

watch it as it atomizes in the November air

then in winter
when there is no leaf left

      invent one

The second poem I remembered from is "Valentine for Ernest Mann" by Naomi Shihab Nye.

It begins:

You can’t order a poem like you order a taco.
Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two”
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate.

Still, I like your spirit.
Anyone who says, “Here’s my address,
write me a poem,” deserves something in reply.

Have you had a strange question asked of you as a poet? Share in a comment. Answers not required.

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May 3, 2021

Prompt: On the Anniversary of My Death

Palm Jungle - Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden

W.S. Merwin died on March 15, 2019. He died at home at the age of 91, in the house he built, among the thousands of palms he planted. In 1976, Merwin moved to Hawaii to study with Robert Aitken, a Zen Buddhist teacher. He married Paula Dunaway, in 1983, and settled on Maui. For over 40 years, they lived in a home that William designed and helped build, surrounded by acres of land once devastated and depleted from years of erosion, logging and toxic agricultural practices. Together, the Merwins painstakingly restored the land into one of the most comprehensive palm gardens in the world.

On the first anniversary of his death, I posted here a poem by Merwin titled "For the Anniversary of My Death" (from his collection The Second Four Books of Poems  

The poem begins: 

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day   
When the last fires will wave to me...

I found the idea in Merwin's poem of writing a poem that imagines what you would have to say on the anniversary of your death unique. It sounds like a depressing idea but there is the wonderful optimism in the poem of having passed that day every year without knowing it. 

Today might be the anniversary of my death, and considering that possibility, perhaps I should also be "bowing not knowing to what."

I have this quote on a card over my writing desk.

On the last day of the world
I would want to plant a tree
– W.S. Merwin

This month's writing prompt is to write a poem for the anniversary of your death. It could be the first anniversary or any year after. Who is the intended audience?  I think the prompt is more open to possibilities than the title might suggest at first. It could even be humorous.

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