Madeira Mondays: Fever, 1793 (Book Review)

Ever since Covid-19 broke out across the world, there’s been a lot of talk about the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. I’ve also heard historians, especially medievalists, called upon to talk about the bubonic plague of the 1300’s, and I’ve seen Daniel Defoe’s 1722 book, A Journal of the Plague Year, added to many people’s reading lists! All of this makes sense. People are curious about pandemics of the past and how people coped (spiritually, physically, psychologically) with rampant infectious diseases.

That curiosity is what drove me to read Fever, 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson. This is a YA (Young Adult) novel published originally twenty years ago, but it definitely has a lot of relevance today. It’s about an epidemic that you may not have heard of: the outbreak of yellow fever in Philadelphia in 1793. Continue reading

‘Nothing of Floods’: A Poem

I felt compelled to share a poem with you today.

I recently received the sad news that my grandmother in Texas – who I was very close with – died of Covid, so I wanted to post a poem that I wrote several years ago about her.

Like many poems, it’s a blend of fiction and fact. In many ways it’s about the stories that we tell ourselves to understand the world and each other. My grandma and I didn’t see the world in exactly the same way. She was very religious, a Southern Baptist, specifically, and this brought her a lot of peace and comfort. I’m not religious at all. As I grew up, there were times when this caused some friction and I was really forced to reckon with how I could love and respect someone so much, who saw the world so differently? Who I disagreed with in so many fundamental ways? Of course, I don’t have any ‘answers’ to those questions. But I suppose poems are more about asking questions than they are about offering answers.

I wrote this poem in early 2018. It was commended in the British Army’s Poetry competition on the theme of ‘Armistice’ (to commemorate the one hundred year anniversary of the armistice which ended WWI) and first published in their prizewinners anthology, Writing Armistice. I really liked responding to this theme. For me, it was interesting that an ‘armistice’ doesn’t mean necessarily the end of a war, but instead it’s a formal agreement to stop fighting and to work towards peace.

I loved my grandmother. And love isn’t always smooth or simple, as you know. Sometimes divides cannot be crossed. But sometimes, they can be. I am thinking of her today, and I’m thinking of all of you, hopeful that you haven’t lost someone during this time. But if you have, I’m so very sorry and you’re not alone. I’m doubly sorry if you’re apart from your family and friends as well, which makes these things extra hard to endure.

I’ll be back next week with more historical and literary explorations for you. (I’m excited about this upcoming ‘Madeira Mondays’ in particular, which is about a great historical novel that explores disease in early America). Until then, thank you so much for reading, it means a lot, and I hope you like the poem.

*

Nothing of Floods

Grandma, when I pinched the skin
on the back of your hand
it made mountains, slow to sink
back to land.

We watched movies with kids singing
Jonah and the Whale –
I imagined bone rafters,
swamps of grey stomach sludge,

and Noah’s Ark –
horse eyes through wooden slats,
sea spray in a man’s beard
like dew on grass.

I said, ‘I prefer Tolkien
or Grimm’s’ –
dwarves in damp caverns,
talking trees,
Elf writings on rock.

You screamed, ‘This is not a fairy tale.’

But not as much as you screamed
when I asked why God
was not a woman?

You said
I would go to hell.

I called you naïve,
for believing those things,

as rain clattered down
on your tin trailer roof.

We didn’t speak for a while.

When we talked again
it was about jewelry,
traffic, butter in mash potatoes.
Nothing of floods, sons of God,
vengeful Pharaohs.

Sometimes I dream of a manger –
crisp straw poking holes
in our cotton dresses,
heavy barnyard smell
draped over our shoulders,
slick newborn with fat cheeks
sobbing.

Outside, the moon tugs at water.
I pull up loose skin on the back
of your hand. You kiss my forehead
as stars whir with delight
because they are memories
flung through time,

whether or not
you believe it’s magic.

 

Writing Reflections: Thoughts on launching a book during lockdown

It’s officially been six months since my second poetry pamphlet, Anastasia, Look in the Mirror, was released out into the world! And what an unusual six months it has been…

I wanted to take some time today to reflect on the unique challenges (and opportunities!) of launching a book at such a strange time and a couple of things I’ve learned along the way. I hope this will be helpful to fellow writers who are launching their own books or creative projects right now and interesting to those who want a bit of a peek into the process of releasing a poetry book.

I won’t be talking too much here about what the book is about – for more on that, check out this blog post from July! But these are poems about lots of things I’m interested in: history, art, desire, the unexpected places where the personal meets the political. They’re mostly funny and lighthearted. Gutter Magazine’s Calum Rodger generously described it like this in a review:

Carly Brown’s Anastasia, Look in the Mirror (…) intersperses sharp and funny patriarchy take-downs with ekphrastic poems on the Scottish Colourists. It’s a brilliantly-crafted assemblage full of wit, warmth and panache, ‘a suitcase so full / it would not / shut’.

Thanks Gutter!

Ta da! Here she is! The cover is very fun to stare at, and it was designed by the very talented James T. Harding.

The book came out with Stewed Rhubarb in July 2020. Stewed Rhubarb are a Scotland based independent press which specializes in spoken word poetry. So a lot of their poets (myself included) have a strong performance background and either write for the stage or have performed extensively. It was published as part of a series of four pamphlets, all from emerging poets based in Scotland (like myself!), called The Fellowship of the Stewed Rhubarb. The whole project was the result of a successful crowd funding campaign in late 2019 and the books were all set to launch throughout 2020 and into early 2021. Mine was the second book in the series, the summer book.

Prior to the pandemic, Stewed Rhubarb had planned launches for my book in both Edinburgh and Glasgow in July 2020. AND there would have been launches for the other three books too AND there was meant to be a big party in December 2020 for all of the generous Fellowship subscribers who supported the whole project, as well as our friends and family. However, as you know, 2020…happened. All of those in-person celebrations had to be cancelled.

I was at a bit of a loss, quite honestly, about how I was going to be able to share this book with people – especially when a lot of the way that I’ve sold books (and found new readers) in the past has been at live performances. I’m a performance poet, after all!

Throw back to a live performance I did back in 2017, at the Quotidian Magazine Issue 3 Launch party.

So how the heck were we going to help people find this book?

First of all, luckily Stewed Rhubarb has an in-house publicist, the lovely Charlie Roy, who took the helm for the social media side of promoting the book (I am not the biggest fan of social media, quite honestly, although I do think it can be a useful tool. I’m not on Facebook, I’ve not updated my Instagram in about five years, and while I do have a Twitter profile, I often feel like that website drains my soul, distracts me from writing, makes me feel anxious and a whole host of other negative things. Basically, I use it sparingly!)

So what I set to work doing was finding online places where I could share poems from the book, and actually connect with and talk with readers live – which is what I love to do most of all! I reached out to organizations, universities, and festivals I’d performed with before, and to organizations that I saw were doing very cool online events. (This is something I’d recommend, if you’re launching your own project right now. Think about what resources/connections you already have and also spend some time researching online events/festivals/places you might want to be part of – there might be more than you think!)

Happily, there were many events popping up throughout the latter half of 2020, and I was able to share poems from the book quite often, perhaps more often than I would have if it had just been at local in-person events.

And, on the plus side, I got to share the book at international events and festivals that I probably would not have attended in-person, just out of logistical challenges, such as the readings that I gave at the American University of Dubai!

I’m grateful for the ingenuity of so many event organizers, who rapidly transitioned their events online. Here are some of the places where I’ve shared poetry from Anastasia in the last several months…

The Anastasia Virtual Book Tour

(Or, events where I’ve READ poems from the book, in the last six months)

  • ‘Meet the author with Carly Brown’, University of St Andrews’ Countdown to St Andrews online program for first years, a half-hour poetry performance and then Q and A with St Andrews university students, organized by the university library (August 28, 2020)
  • Sonnet Youth #13 (September 13, 2020), an online performance with the other three other poets in the Fellowship of the Stewed Rhubarb (You can watch this entire event online here!)
  • London Center for Interdisciplinary Research’s Poetry Conference at the University of Oxford, ‘International Poetry Reading’ (September 20, 2020)
  • The Stay-at-Home Fringe Festival, University of Glasgow’s Creative Writing department Open Mic night (October 9, 2020), invited to share poems from Anastasia alongside current members and alumni of the University of Glasgow
  • Inklight: The University of St Andrews’ Creative Writing Society (October 12, 2020), a half-hour performance and then Q and A with Inklight members
  • ‘A Poetry Evening with Dr Carly Brown’ at the American University of Dubai (November 24, 2020), an hour long poetry reading then discussion with the students

Aside from performances, another good thing that happened after the launch of the book was that a poem from it – ‘En Plein Air’ – was republished in Scotland’s national newspaper, The Scotsman, as their ‘Poem of the Week’ in July. The poem is an ekphrastic poem, responding to a work of visual art, and the publication was accompanied by a very good description of what ekphrastic poetry is.

Excited me with The Scotsman

Two poems from Anastasia have also been re-printed in the American University of Dubai’s Poetry Journal, Indelible, in their issue on the theme of ‘Escapism’ (god knows, we all need a bit of escapism right now!). You can read the whole journal here. AND I’ve recently been approached by another writer about translating one of the poems from Anastasia into Spanish – so I’ll share more about that when I can!

It’s also gotten some very positive (and beautifully written) reviews, such as the one I mentioned earlier from Gutter, as well as this lovely piece in Sphinx Review.

Another delight, aside from these publications, reviews, and meeting people through the online performances, was seeing pictures and hearing stories of people reading the book in locations all over the world. While I’m not able to travel myself right now, Scotland is in serious lockdown, it made me so happy to hear friends from all over reaching out and telling me that they were reading the book. They sent me pictures of the book in their homes, with them at the park or on vacation, and told me stories of how they read it aloud to one another on camping trips. One friend shared that she had read a poem each morning with her morning coffee.

These stories were a joy and made me feel like I was connecting with people at a time when that’s what we all so desperately needed! It also made me happy that the poems could travel – even though I could not.

Anastasia hanging at the beach in Massachusetts, USA with my friend Emma

Anastasia chilling in my friend Miranda’s cozy window seat in rainy Glasgow, Scotland!

Anastasia travels to Bahrain! My friend Laala generously took this photo in front of the Bahrain World Trade Centre (which, fun fact, is apparently the first skyscraper in the world to integrate wind turbines. So cool!)

 

I don’t have any overarching take-away from this, except to say that I’m grateful to everyone who has bought and read the book, and everyone who has invited me to perform at their events.  While it is not the same performing over Zoom, it has opened up a whole new world of possibilities and I’ve certainly met new people, from all over the world, that I would not have encountered otherwise. And, in such a dark year, that was a beautiful and surprising thing.

I hope that Anastasia has brought some joy, entertainment, and even companionship to those who have read it. While most of our worlds are physically small right now, books can open up our intellectual worlds infinitely and remind us that we’re not alone.

Have you read ‘Anastasia, Look in the Mirror’ and, if so, which poem was your favorite?

Fellow writers and artists, do you have any tips for me on how you’ve been sharing work with audiences during this unusual time? 

If you’d like to grab a copy of Anastasia, Look in the Mirror, the easiest way to do so is to order it online on the publisher’s website here (they ship internationally!!)

Further links:

  • My blog post from July 2020 about launching the book
  • A blog post where I explore the historical research behind one of the poems, which is about the Salem Witch Trials (this one is perfect if you want more of the nitty gritty of writing one of the poems!)
  • Lots more general info about the book and what it’s about here
  • My editor Dr. Katie Ailes wrote a really fascinating post about the processes of editing the pamphlet together, you can find that on her website here
  • Stewed Rhubarb’s website, where you can find lots of excellent poetry pamphlets and full-length collections (if you enjoyed mine, you’ll probably find many others there that are right up your alley!)

Stay tuned for more ‘Writing Reflections’ this year, my friends, as well as more of my ‘Madeira Mondays’ series about 18th century history and historical fiction reviews. Please do subscribe to the blog so that you don’t miss any of that – as well as for news of upcoming performances and publications. Hope you’re having a good day!

 

‘I hope yet I fear’: John and Abigail Adams on living through turbulent times

‘I feel anxious for the fate of our Monarchy or Democracy or what ever is to take place. I soon get lost in a Labyrinth of perplexities, but whatever occurs, may justice and righteousness be the Stability of our times – and order arise out of confusion. Great difficulties may be surmounted, by patience and perseverance.’ – Abigail Adams to John Adams, November 27, 1775

John and Abigail Adams were, in many ways, an unlucky couple. They had to spend a lot of their married lives apart: when John was serving in the Continental Congress (which declared the American colonies independent from Great Britain), when he was later serving as an Ambassador to England. Although this time apart is unlucky for them, it is quite lucky for us, because they wrote some of the most beautiful, profound, romantic, and insightful letters to each other during those turbulent times.

Although Abigail’s gender kept her from engaging in the public sphere directly, she was hugely intelligent and followed the developments of the American Revolution closely (as well as experiencing, first hand, the effects of the war: the loss of friends, food shortages, the constant threat of violence). She wrote about all of this.

These were two amazing people who shaped their world and ours. Adams and his peers wrote many of the laws and established the system of government that everyone in America still lives under today. John and Abigail were also quite progressive people by our modern standards (they were both, for instance, very against slavery). Like so many of the founding generation, it’s very easy for them to take on a sort of mythic quality in our imaginations now. But what I love about reading their letters to each other, and Adams’ journal entries, is seeing how freaked out and anxious they were…pretty much all the time.

They were deeply religious people and trusted in God, and they were early New England people so they were gritty and used to physical and mental hardship. But they were also human beings who were, quite understandably, nervous wrecks a lot of the time. Abigail worried about John’s safety, of course, but also about the fate of the war against Great Britain and about what would happen after, even if the colonies won. Who would write the new laws? What sort of government would there be?

Adams greatly missed his family when he was away and worried constantly about the ‘Ocean of Uncertainties’ before him and the thirteen colonies. He worried about the safety of his family, as well as his own safety (although he doesn’t mention this directly, once he’d signed the Declaration of Independence, he knew he’d committed high treason and would be executed for it if the revolution failed). He ends one letter, on May 22, 1776, with the simple sentence: ‘I hope yet I fear.’

In a diary entry from two years earlier, June 25, 1774, he wrote about his fears and his feelings of inadequacy:

I muse, I mope, I ruminate (…) The Objects before me, are too grand, for me and multifarious for my Comprehension. – We have not Men, fit for the Times. We are deficient in Genius, in Education, in Travel, in Fortune – in every Thing. I feel unutterable Anxiety. – God grant us Wisdom, and Fortitude!

‘We have not Men, fit for the Times.’ AKA ‘we’re not up for this challenge’, the challenge of the present. He worries there aren’t people smart enough, cultured enough, good enough to meet the historic moment. This is a peek behind the curtain, as it were, to the very human worries going on backstage, as America was moving towards becoming the first ever colony to break from its mother country and towards becoming a republic that would last for centuries. John Adams was so worried.

The reason I chose to write about the Adams family (the 18th century one, not the TV one!) today is because this past week can be summed up, for me, in those words that John Adams wrote: ‘I hope yet I fear.’

Although it seems like things are moving in the direction which I believe, with my whole heart, is the only way forward for the country – the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris – it has still been a nerve-wracking week. We’ve had a President trying to undermine and stop the voting process – that’s scary. This is, in many ways, a dark moment, and it’s tough during dark moments to find that ‘patience and perseverance’ that Abigail talked about in the opening quote of this post.

I don’t know how everyone else is feeling, but I can tell you that I’ve been nervous, on edge, fearful and have cried…more than once, mostly out of exhaustion and sheer build up of emotions. Like Adams: ‘I muse, I mope, I ruminate.’ BUT I also have so much hope that we can meet the enormous challenges of the present moment: the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change etc.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that even if you personally feel overwhelmed right now, or like you don’t have the energy or the skills to rise to this moment and to affect positive change in the coming weeks and months and years – you are enough. You are ‘fit for the Times.’ And we, as a nation, are enough. We’ll get through this.

John and Abigail’s letters and diaries remind us that it’s very human to doubt one’s own abilities and to fear for the future. But I truly believe, as they believed, that the country is heading towards something very bright indeed.

I hope that you are keeping well during this momentous election season, and, for my readers who are not American, I hope that this post offers something for you to think about too! I am thinking of you all, and hope that you are safe and well.

I’ll be taking this upcoming Monday off from ‘Madeira Mondays’, since I anticipate needing a break from being online next week. But I’ll be back with another ‘Madeira Mondays’ post the week after, November 16th! As always, thank you for reading, my friend.

Further Reading:

  • Most of the quotes from this post came from My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams, edited by Margaret A. Hogan and C. James Taylor (which is an entertaining read and, I kid you not, more romantic and exciting than a lot of novels I’ve read)
  • My previous posts analyzing The John Adams HBO miniseries
  • My post on the TV series Grace and Frankie and its relationship to John Adams and LGBT+ activism

PS Today’s Featured Image is of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, taken on my trip there last year

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: 90’s TV and Rip Van Winkle

This is a blog post about the past.

Yes, you could say that pretty much all of my posts are about the past, but, this one, in particular, is really about the past.

You see, recently I’ve been rewatching a favorite childhood show called Wishbone. Fellow children of the 90’s might also remember this show: about a cute Jack Russell Terrier called ‘Wishbone’ who imagines himself in great works of literature and then acts them out, with himself as the main character. It’s an adorable concept for a show, having a dog acting out classic stories (he wears so many cute outfits!!), and the show creator Rick Duffield explicitly said that he wanted to get kids excited about books and reading:

We believe this show can cultivate a new appetite for reading by making kids think it’s fun to get to know these books (…) it’s intended to be fun, action packed, clever and a way to get their first taste of great stories that can become a valuable educational stepping stone in their lives.

It definitely worked for me. It was one of the PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) shows, alongside Reading Rainbow with LeVar Burton, that helped me fall in love with books.

There are always two plots in every episode of Wishbone. One plot is always about something happening in real-life (perhaps with Wishbone’s owner, a boy called Joe (Jordan Wall) or one of Joe’s friends, his mom Ellen (Mary Chris Wall) who is a librarian, or his wacky neighbor Wanda (Angee Hughes)). Then one plot is always a retelling of a classic story. These two plots are intercut with each other, and there are always parallel themes. For instance, the episode about Robin Hood has Joe helping a cafeteria lady in real-life sneaking food away to give to a homeless shelter etc.

It’s an extremely wholesome show, but not cringe-worthy. It’s sweet. And apparently the show was also known for not shying away from the darker elements of the retold stories (the Joan of Arc episode, for instance, has Joan being burned alive at the stake and the Jekyll and Hyde episode is quite spooky. The episode about West African folktales also talks pretty openly about the cruelties of slavery). A uniting theme across many of the episodes is the power and importance of stories.

Another cool element is that they often have behind-the-scenes footage at the end of each episode where the lighting or sound technicians, or the director etc. explain how they made that episode – which adds another educational layer, as well.

The episode that I wanted to talk about for Madeira Mondays is called ‘Digging up the Past’ from Season 1. In it, Wishbone imagines himself in Rip Van Winkle the famous short story written by American writer Washington Irving in 1819. It’s about a Dutch-American man in Colonial America called Rip Van Winkle who falls asleep in New York’s Catskill Mountains and then wakes up twenty years later…having missed the whole American Revolution. Basically, he wakes up in a new country!

I’ll admit that I’ve never read the original Rip Van Winkle story (although Wishbone has succeeded in making me want to read it!). In the episode, the way that Wishbone addresses the themes of Rip Van Winkle in the present day storyline is by introducing the idea of Joe, the main character, having to do a report for school about something from his grandparents’ childhood that he wishes were still around today. He helpfully runs into an older woman, Dr. Brown (great name, if I do say so myself!), at the library. She is back in town after several decades away and Joe ends up figuring out that she used to live at his house, fifty years ago. Together they try to find a time capsule that she buried in the yard. So all of these intersecting plot lines parallel the story of Rip Van Winkle: a person who, like Dr. Brown, returns to his old village after decades to see that much has changed.

IMG_0551

The Talbot family and friends unearth a time capsule left behind by Dr. Brown. Characters from left to right: Ellen Talbot (Mary Chris Wall), Dr. Thelma Brown (Irma P. Hall), Joe Talbot (Jordan Wall), Wishbone (an adorable Jack Russell Terrier called ‘Soccer’ and voiced by Larry Brantley), Wanda Gilmore (Angee Hughes), Sam Kepler (Christine Abbott) and David Barnes (Adam Springfield).

The character of Rip Van Winkle is obviously played by Wishbone and to see him emerging from a bed of autumn leaves with an enormous fake beard was, obviously, very cute.

IMG_0550

Wishbone emerges as Rip Van Winkle from his long slumber

This episode, and indeed this entire series, is lovely. And, in a way, this episode itself is a time capsule for me personally, because I remember watching it as a kid. Looking at it now, it’s a bit like traveling back in time. Like unearthing something long buried that kind of looks familiar but also isn’t exactly how you recall it. But it also reminds me that while so much has changed about my life (from eight-years-old to twenty-eight – two decades, just like Rip Van Winkle!) there are some things that haven’t: I still love stories generally, especially ones about Colonial America, and I still love Wishbone.

Many of us are Rip Van Winkles right now, I think, because time is passing but we’re hibernating in our homes. And, when we emerge, the world will be different. It might be strange and a bit alien to us, like it was for Rip after his very long nap. But I think, like Rip, we’ll be able to adjust to it. Humans, and dogs, are quite resilient and adaptable. Or at least that’s what Wishbone seems to suggest.

PS Today’s Featured Image is Wishbone as Sherlock Holmes, from Mental Floss

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!