by Katie Haegele, February 6, 2007 4:53 PM
Someone just forwarded me one of those online quizzes
, and even though those are silly I took this one because it's on the always fascinating subject of language. More specifically, it's about regional accents. When you answer the questions about how you pronounce certain words the thing is supposed to tell you where you're from ? or what you talk like now, anyway. Some online discussions indicate that the test gives inaccurate results at least some of the time, which isn't surprising. But I answered the 13 questions and got the exactly correct result: "Your accent is as Philadelphian as a cheesesteak," it told me. Yeeeah, you know it.
I'm telling you about this because one language myth that's taken annoying hold in the popular consciousness is the belief that regional accents are disappearing because of some supposedly homogenizing effect of the mass media. This. Is. Not. True. Accents and languages are constantly shifting, but the variations among our American regional accents have not been erased. (Even in the mass media we hear a variety of accents, for goodness' sake. Dr. Phil doesn't sound like the actors in King of Queens, right?)
In their wonderful book, Do You Speak American?, Robert MacNeil and William Cran travel around the country to talk to people ? and listen to them. Throughout the south, in Boston, California, and among so-called Black English spoken in various regions, they learned, again and again, that language differences between people from different regions, as well as different socioeconomic groups and even between the sexes, are alive and well.
The most interesting thing about discussions of regional accents, to me, is the emotional response they get. A great many people feel ashamed of sounding like where they're from, wherever that is and whatever it sounds like. That's one effect that hearing the unbumpy, quote-unquote perfect speech of people like national newscasters does have: It can give you the vaguely uncomfortable feeling that there's a right way and a wrong way to sound, and that you're in the category of wrong. The linguist Bill Labov termed this "linguistic insecurity," a fact I learned while studying linguistics with him at the University of Pennsylvania (which happens to be in Philadelphia, and which is home to his Atlas of North American English. It shows the incredible language variation in this country).
Now, hardcore Philly people don't think I sound like them. As one friend who grew up in South Philly told me, "You don't have the most pungent version of the accent," and that's true, I don't. I won't lie and tell you I'm sorry about that; English spoken in any intense regional accent gets hard to understand ('member Trainspotting?), and it can limit your social mobility. I can modulate my accent when I feel the need to, which is a useful skill. But regionalisms are interesting, and I like mine. When people talk, they're telling you more than just what they're saying, you know? I enjoy hearing the different stories different accents tell. And I feel good when I hear other people talk Philly, too. When you hear your own accent coming from someone else's mouth, you know you're at home.
Still, as Philly as a cheesesteak? I like a nice steak wit wiz as much as the next guy, but how about As Philly as the Love Statue? Or Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed? Or even old Rocky, as indefatigable as my stubborn vowels.
÷ ÷ ÷
Katie lives outside of Philadelphia where she writes and makes zines. Address love letters to
by Katie Haegele, January 15, 2007 5:32 PM
Christmastime, my mom's living room, visiting relatives, small talk, blah. People I don't know that well were talking about things I don't know much about, like the Eagles and High Definition TV. I just smiled and let my mind drift. Ha ha, I thought. H.D. Like the poet. They should make that
. All Hilda Doolittle
, all the time, like those radio stations you hear about that play nothing but Led Zeppelin, or the stores that open up in September to sell only Halloween stuff. Every channel would have a free-verse story about the Greeks gods or a perfect, striking image of the rain. Yeah, that'd be awesome.
Everyone kept talking and eventually I realized that I have H.D.TV, sort of. I may be a person with a 12-inch TV and no cable hook-up, but I'm also a person who received the Poetry on Record: 98 Poets Read Their Work for Christmas. And let me tell you, the major entertainment around here lately has been listening to poets of the 19th, 20th, and 21st century read their work.
And yes, I said 19th. When I opened the lovely 4-CD set I saw that the first readers were Tennyson, Robert Browning, and Walt Whitman. I was like, That can't be right. It must be someone else reading their stuff. But no, it's really them, in recordings made in the 1890s by Thomas Edison on a wax cylinder. Amazing, but you have to be familiar with the poems for your ear to find the contours of their voices in the warbly, dim recordings.
H.D. is also on Disc One, but Disc Two is my favorite, full of the mid-20th-century poets with their big bright personalities. There's Muriel Rukeyser, whose blunt reading of the wonderful "The Ballad of Orange and Grape" reminds me of my no-nonsense 88-year-old next-door neighbor. There's Dylan Thomas, who I laughingly described as pompous to my friend Frank, a poet and my editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Frank has the same collection, and he defined Thomas' reading style as formal, like an Anglican divine, chanting the verse as if it were part of the liturgy. Anne Sexton is on there too, spooking me by reading "All My Pretty Ones" and "For My Lover, Returning To His Wife" in her husky, been-there voice.
Ah, but then there's Disc Three, with Seamus Heaney, Charles Simic, Ted Hughes, and Sylvia Plath. About her, Frank said: Listen to that reading of "Daddy" and tell me it isn't distinctly seductive ? sexually-charged, even. Sure enough, it's kittenish, coy, electrifying. The fourth CD features the newest poets, including Kevin Young, whose poetry already feels like bebop on the page ? you should hear him do it, all jazzy syncopation, so much like music.
And indeed, you could make the argument that poetry is always better heard than read, that you need to feel the rhythms and hear the intonations to really get the intent. But there's something else besides that I found useful about listening to these people read their poems, hearing their surprising voices, their occasional chuckles, their very human breathing, throat clearing, nervousness. Poems I already knew have new life, now, because their authors are known to me in a whole new way ? as people.
Katie lives outside of Philadelphia where she writes and makes zines. Address love letters to
by Katie Haegele, December 27, 2006 4:41 PM
Dear Mr. Schaeffer,
There's a kid in one of the houses behind my apartment building who's learning to play the trumpet. It sounds terrible. And it keeps reminding me of you.
It's reminding me of how exciting it was to leave class early once a week with the other flute players (the flautists!), especially in fifth grade when we had Sister Mary. It's reminding me of how, unlike us shorter people on permanent lockdown, you weren't there all day, every day, and I always wondered where you went when you left. Did you go home? Did you go to another school to teach kids in different uniforms how to play their brass, woodwinds, reeds, percussion? How in the world did you know how to play so many instruments?
Remember how you always tried to make us tap our toes to keep the rhythm as we played, and none of would do it because it looked dorky? I get that now. I didn't turn out to be much of a musician but I write poetry, which is not that different from music. Or anything else that matters, really. Finding your rhythm is, like, everything.
Mr. Schaeffer, I'll tell you the truth ? when I was 12 I thought you were really old. But it occurs to me now that maybe you weren't, and that maybe that was the reason you sometimes looked more freaked out than our other teachers ? because you were hung over, or lovesick, or wondering if you would ever find a job where the pay wasn't so sucky. You even taught us about sex, sort of, when you took the seventh grade teacher with fluffy hair out on a date and after that, whenever you two were in the same room, you couldn't look at each other ever again. Health class was never so revealing.
Anyway, the reason I'm writing is because of the time I came to class crying. One of the boys had just been making fun of me and my slow-to-get-going womanly figure. I was trying to play but I kept tearing up, and it was really embarrassing. I couldn't bring myself to tell anyone why I was upset, but you decided to start class that day with an announcement anyway. With me and Anne and Maureen and Michelle looking up at you you said, "Right now the boys are busy torturing the girls and the girls are busy learning to be decent, sensitive people. And in a few years those same boys will want to date you but you'll all like the older guys instead, and then those boys will be very sorry." We actually weren't quite ready for that information, which is what made it so great.
I guess I'm feeling my version of Christmasy this week, 'cause I keep remembering that one holiday concert in the cafeteria when we all wore Santa hats, including you, and I wanted to say thanks. I can only imagine how irritating we all were, but you were always so decent and sensitive. You were the first person who made me think that it could be fun to be a grown-up. And you know what? Sometimes it
by Katie Haegele, December 12, 2006 5:07 PM
Do you guys remember the story of The Little Red Hen
? I didn't, but a woman I met at a craft fair last weekend told it to me. I was browsing the lovely ceramic hens she had for sale when she peeked out at me from behind her shelf and said, "When she wanted to make some bread, the little red hen asked, 'Who will help me plant the wheat?'
"'Not I,' said the little black dog.
"'Not I,' said the big orange cat.
"'Not I,' said the little yellow goose.
"'Then I will do it myself,' said the little red hen," said the lady. The same thing happened when the hen wanted someone to help her cut the wheat, grind it into flour, and so on. But when she needed help eating the bread, suddenly everyone was very helpful. To this the hen said, again, "Nope. I'll do it myself."
"Women should be proud of their work!" the lady continued, and I was like, Okay, I get it. I'd just woken up and was still a little crusty. But I brought one of the red-painted hens home and now it's sitting cheerfully on my kitchen counter, reminding me every time I go in there to Do It Myself.
But I don't want to get too off-topic here. What I really wanted to talk about is t-shirts.
There are some really clever, subversive ones out there in the do-it-yourself universe, and ? if you ask me ? they're ushering in the long-overdue obsolescence of the bumper sticker dialogue. After all, how many self-respecting punk rock kids have cars? (Oh, how awesome to have just contributed to the what-is-real-punk dialogue. Bring on the angry responses!)
To wit, Microcosm has a nice selection, some of them sweet and some a bit aggrieved: "Thank God I'm an Atheist"; "I heart my bike"; "How Many Dead Iraqis does Your Car Take to the Gallon?"; and my personal favorite, the Zen-riddle-like "Hate driving in traffic? YOU are traffic." (See? Bikes, not cars.)
Slogan t-shirts bring people together. I met a funny librarian this summer who I knew I was destined to like because she was wearing a t-shirt that said "The Internet: A series of tubes" underneath a nice sketch of a uterus and fallopian tubes, made by the good people at the Prometheus Radio Project. Once I fell in love with a cute goth boy I spotted in the park because he was wearing a homemade t-shirt with a tombstone bearing the word "you." I'm pretty sure he didn't mean me. And here's the holy grail of t-shirt making: in 2004 April, the girl behind the zine Cartography for Beginners, designed and screened t-shirts that said "Jon Stewart for President." Then she met Morrissey on his "You Are the Quarry" tour, gave him one, took a picture of him wearing it, and put the picture on the cover of her next issue. Do you think her head exploded, or what?
Oh, I almost forgot about buttons. Buttons are a big thing in the DIY world. At a zine festival-related concert a couple of years ago some wiseacre stood there with his button maker while the band was playing and produced "this sucks" badges on the spot. Rude, but funny. The other day on the online craft store My My I found ones that say "I Love my big ass!" and "I eat from my garden." I thought of getting both for my best friend's Christmas stocking, but I only ordered the garden one. Just to be on the safe side.
The point is, funny t-shirts and buttons = love. The more I think about it, they're not like bumper stickers at all, but like little, tiny, wearable pieces of self-published narrative nonfiction. Hee. I think I need a t-shirt that says "Bullshit artist/mistress of spin."
Katie lives outside of Philadelphia where she writes and makes zines. Address love letters to
by Katie Haegele, November 6, 2006 5:24 PM
Once upon a time last week my friend Meg emailed to ask me if I had plans for that night. I didn't, so she kindly invited me out of my little apartment and we went to see the Wilma Theater
's production of the newest Martin McDonagh
play, The Pillowman
is a London-Irish prodigy-type person. He's the only playwright to have had four plays running simultaneously on London's West End since Shakespeare
, and that was when he was 27.
So I was excited. I wore a crazy, flouncy dress and Meg wore a dress and pants and legwarmers (she gets cold easily). As we queued up to enter the cozily small theater an announcement came over the PA: "The running time of this show is two hours and forty-five minutes." Meg and I looked at each other. Oy, we said with our eyes. An old guy, the usher, caught the look as he handed us programs.
"You won't be happy when you leave, either," he said drily. "It's not a happy play."
Well, no. The Pillowman is about this guy, Katurian, a writer, who's been taken into police custody in an unnamed totalitarian state where he gets questioned and tormented because the effed-up content of a few of his short stories exactly matches the description of three recent child murders. Practically everything that happens in The Pillowman is dark and, as promised, not happy, and the whole thing ends rather badly for old Katurian. Plus, nearly three hours is a long time to sit in a little theater seat. But I'll tell you something: We weren't bored. And I think it was because of all the stories.
The police stack Katurian's stories in front of him on a table: his life's work. There are 400 of them. And since the content of the stories is what's in question, we get to hear a lot of them. Some were reminiscent of fairy tales, others were like morality tales, and most of them were creepy and horrible and, uncomfortably enough, deeply, darkly funny at the same time. I was mesmerized listening to all of them, waiting to find out what happened in the end. Yeah! They were those kind of stories, where something happens! (Have I mentioned that Martin McDonagh is also really handsome? What are the chances?)
Seeing this play got me thinking about the pleasure of listening to stories, and the fact that telling them is like casting a spell. I'll spare you any theorizing about it because a) I hate that; and b) that was the genius of what McDonagh did. There were a lot of crisscrossing messages darting around on stage, plenty of interesting things to think about regarding how fictional fiction really is, and about the power we give it, or it gives us ? and whether that power is always a good thing. But on another, much more primal level, we were being told stories. Like little kids, my friend and I and the other people in the audience got to sit in the dark and listen. There's a satisfaction in that that no amount of intellectualizing can provide.
That same night Meg told me that a bar here in Philly was about to host what they were calling a fiction slam. The organizers were seeking fiction writers, entertainers, and "b.s. artists" to come and perform an original story for no longer than five minutes so that the audience, or maybe a few judges, could choose a winner, which means that you get to go and sit in the dark and drink and listen. Which proves that someone in Philadelphia is an even bigger genius than Martin McDonagh.
by Katie Haegele, October 16, 2006 4:51 PM
Well, happy birthday, Noah Webster. On October 16, 1758, Noah was born in Hartford, Connecticut
, the son of a farmer and weaver, and he grew up to edit the first American dictionary, a project that took him 27 years to complete. His book was special because it wasn't just a speller for Americans to use ? it was a record of the English used by Americans, which in colonial times was already distinct from British English.
Last year I spent a few months in Ireland, during which time I was delighted to hear all manner of Dublinisms being used. But apparently I too sounded funny. One day I was taking a walk with a friend when out of the blue he asked me, "Do you ever use the word ornery?" Hm. "Yeah, when it applies," I told him, thinking of the disagreeable shop girls in just about every store I'd been to in Dublin that day. Turns out ornery is an American word, which my friend knew but I didn't until I got home and looked it up in my housemate's (British) dictionary. Most etymologies put ornery's date of birth at 1816. It comes from a variation of the pronunciation of the word ordinary, which then picked up a negative connotation. And indeed, as one history of the word put it, who wants to be just like everybody else?
Not Noah Webster. Instead of becoming a farmer he went to school, then to Yale, and later studied law. But he wasn't all that impressed with American schools, which used books from England. He thought Americans should learn from their own books, so he wrote A Grammatical Institute of the English Language ? a huge success that was outsold only by the Bible and over the course of several years taught millions of American kids how to read and write. A rebel word nerd; gotta love that. At the age of 43 Webster began compiling his dictionary. Some peculiarly American spellings he included remain in use today, such as color instead of colour, catalog, and plow. (Some of them didn't catch on, like wimmen for women, but tell that to Mary Daly.)
Noah had contempt for Samuel Johnson and his dictionary, partly because it included rude words like fart, and he set out to do a better job. To be sure, Webster's had 70,000 words to Johnson's 40,000, and it included a pronunciation guide, which Johnson hadn't attempted. Unfortunately Webster took a weird approach to word histories. He believed that all languages derived from an original one spoken by Adam and Eve, and he tried to show that English words had developed from the Biblical tongue through Hebrew, which is waaay wrong. When the Merriam brothers bought the rights to publish Webster's dictionary they hired a scholar to rewrite the etymologies.
And that's the story of how America came to have its very own dictionary. In honor of Noah's b-day let's all grab our Merriam-Webster's, learn a funny word, and surprise and amaze our families and coworkers by using it this week. Mine's pettifoggery, but you can use it too. The dictionary belongs to the people, people
by Katie Haegele, October 6, 2006 4:36 PM
A few weeks ago I found an awesomely weird book at a church rummage sale. In a box with other dusty things was this small but serious-looking hardbound book called Man Made Plain: The Poet in Contemporary Society
Apparently during the '50s a Harvard sociologist named Robert N. Wilson made a study of "the poet" and what made him tick. This sociologist, who died in 2002, took a sociologist's approach to his topic: he researched and conducted interviews and even administered a psychological test to a number of poets and other writers.
Turns out Robert Wilson was really smart, and he really liked poetry. Much of his book reads more like a good English class than I imagined a sociological study would sound, but the very existence of it is sociologically interesting. I mean, he wouldn't have needed a study to understand the poet's role if he didn't consider it a marginalized one to begin with. And while I'm well aware that the reading of poems isn't as popular a pastime these days as watching youtube, I didn't really know whether poetry was hurtin' 50 years ago, too. Evidently it was. In the book's foreword psychologist Henry A. Murray wonders if "the sorrowfully narrow influence of modern poets" is indicative of "a drying of the springs of hope, passion, and fecundity." Yikes!
I'm not pretending that I don't understand why readers are put off by poems that seem willfully obtuse, and I know that many people cringingly associate poetry with the things they themselves are embarrassed to have written as teenagers. But it wasn't until I started caring enough about my own poetry to want to share it that I learned how fiercely some people resist it.
As always, I had a blast at the vibrant and inspiring Philadelphia Zine Fest last week. However, I also had the following dispiriting interaction. As I was browsing people's tables I picked up an interesting comic and wondered if its creator would do a trade. (Most zinesters are happy to swap one of their little books for one of your little books rather than take money for it.) So I asked the guy, who was sitting there looking up at me, "Do you like poetry?" "No," he said, sort of brightly and without a moment's hesitation. Um, okay. You don't like any poetry. Isn't that sort of like saying you don't like music? Or any other category of stuff? I don't run around wearing a cape or a stovepipe hat but that doesn't mean I don't like "clothes."
Still, even after this annoying conversation I wouldn't go as far as Murray did in his mostly-cloudly foreword. Poems may have disappeared from most general-interest newspapers and magazines, but they're out there, often in publications that don't aspire to the literary at all. And that's one of the most interesting things about all this, come to think of it. Most of the people who have announced to me that they don't like poetry are also the type who consider themselves trendily intellectual, who'd be happy to chime in with something about postmodernism if they felt the conversation called for it. I wonder what this is all about. Surely all the smarty-pantses of the world haven't forgotten that poetry can be funny as well as dark and sometimes (like life) both things at once. Or that plenty of latter-day poetry is as straightforward
as an arrow to the heart, but that poems written in traditional forms are ageless and wonderful too.
I know a woman who's a performance poet, and once when she was telling me about a spoken word piece she'd recently heard and had found particularly insightful she slapped her thigh and said, "Now that's f***ing USEFUL!" I loved that. Of course good poetry is useful. It doesn't keep ships afloat but, well, yes it does.
p.s. I gave that dude one of my poetry zines anyway. I wonder if he'll read it. Either way I like the idea of it sitting in his backpack or on the tank of his toilet, waiting for him in case he changes his mind.
p.p.s. This is where the title of the sociology book came from:
Was this the poet? It is man.
The poet is but man made plain,
A glass-cased watch, through which you scan The multitudinous beat-and-pain, The feverish fine small mechanism, And hear it ticking while it sings.
Behold, this delicate paroxysm
Obedient to rebellious springs!
? Ushant, Conrad Aiken
p.p.p.s. Aiken avoided service in World War I by claiming that, as a poet, he was part of an "essential industry."
by Katie Haegele, September 22, 2006 4:36 PM
Editor's note: Katie Haegele lives near Philadelphia, where she writes and creates zines. Obsessive PowellsBooks.BLOG readers (we mean that in the best possible way) may recognize her as the author of an article Brockman linked to in the Book News of August 24. Today we offer the first in a series of posts from Katie. Look for another the week after next.
Every other week I review a new YA book for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and I've been amazed to see how much wonderful stuff is being published for younger readers these days. Case in point: a new William Blake biography by a Canadian writer named Michael Bedard. As a biography subject, Blake is always a crowd-pleaser, I guess: he was eccentric, inventive, and pleasingly in touch with his dark side. But as Bedard tells us, the crowds were not always pleased with Blake. In addition to being a painter he was an engraver ? that's how he put all those fabulously bizarre illustrated poems of his on paper ? but he never got much commercial work as a tradesman. His style was too weird. It was also too labor-intensive, which made him expensive and unpopular as the industrial revolution got underway and even engraved prints got the assembly line treatment. Furthermore, because he worked at a trade, the art establishment never quite accepted him as a "real" artist. They called him crazy and he never made any money and he and his devoted wife Catherine printed up a handful of copies of each of his so-called illuminated books and ate dust for dinner.
The day I finished the biography I happened upon an online interview with another English artist I really admire, also named William, who happens to be totally alive at this very minute. There were some startling parallels. In this interview, the punk musician, painter, poet, and self-publisher Billy Childish talked about attending art school in the 1970s and being laughed at for loving Van Gogh, who wasn't as popular then as he is now. (When Blake attended art school in the 1770s, he got laughed at for loving Michelangelo and Raphael, who weren't as popular then as they are now. Hm.) Childish shrugged off the criticism and went on to write volumes of poetry and novels that he prints and sells himself ? much like Blake, who manipulated the copper-engraving medium he'd already mastered, bought himself a printing press, and produced his own books. I was excited and moved as I thought about the similarities between Blake and the self-publishing revolution that has meant so much to me as a writer (and a reader). William Blake was a zinester, I thought to myself. He was DIY. He was totally punk rock!
For those of you who aren't sure what zines are, the best way to describe them is as small self-published journals or magazines. They can be handwritten or typed, illustrated with original comics or cut-and-pasted images from magazines or old books, hand-bound or stapled. Some look no-nonsense, just black-and-white words photocopied onto plain paper. Many are more like art books, and just one that I know of is made entirely by hand on a letterpress printer. Zinesters sell their creations for a few dollars through zine distributors called distros, at zine gatherings, or at a few very clever bookstores. They've been around since the 1930s or so, when they were mostly for and by fans of science fiction. These days you can find zines about food, feminism, babies ? you name it. Maybe there's even one about science fiction food for feminist babies. It's wide open.
There's another interesting feature to all this. The Internet, with all its opportunities for free self-expression and the potential of a worldwide audience, has not slowed down this interest in handmade books (though it has facilitated their sales). The reason ? I think ? is this: the satisfaction that comes from providing the means of production of your own printed material goes beyond the obvious benefit of bypassing a publishing industry that may have different ideas than you, the little artist/toiler, about what your work should be. The satisfaction of making a zine is at least in part in the MAKING itself. It's physical, it's tactile, it makes use of the knowledge of existing crafts, skills, and trades to achieve a new end. Just as Blake did all those years ago.
Oh you guys, I get so excited about this stuff. I'd love to hear what you think about