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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

5 Questions with Tina Packer

A series of informal, intimate talks given by literary and cultural luminaries, In Conversation with the Rosenbach delves into fascinating histories, intellectual curiosities, and inspiring ideas. Each program offers the audience a chance to join the conversation after the talk and share their own thoughts and questions. Join us February 27 as veteran Shakespeare performer Tina Packer introduces us to some of Shakespeare's most remarkable heroines.

Author, actor, and director Tina Packer

Rosen-blog: You've had an extraordinary career in Shakespearean theater which includes founding Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachussetts and performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford. What is it about Shakespeare that inspires you?

Tina Packer: Whenever I’ve finished working on a Shakespeare play, my mind has expanded. His work explores all things human: it’s beautiful, it’s vicious, it’s exciting and difficult.

RB: Your book, Women of Will: The Remarkable Evolution of Shakespeare's Female Characters, sheds new light on the roles for women in Shakespeare's plays. Could you give an example of a female character you wish theatergoers knew or understood better?

TP: One of the most obvious ones: Cleopatra. For hundreds of years, our perception of Antony and Cleopatra was that Antony was seduced by this sex bomb, and then he stopped being a great general and died in debauchery. But Cleopatra was not just a seductress; she was a powerful, intelligent woman who chose to unite herself with Antony. What Shakespeare is really writing about is the sexual, spiritual union between the two; it’s not Antony’s tragedy, it’s the tragedy of a love that should have been powerful and instead was crushed under the patriarchy.

RB: You are playing Volumnia in Coriolanus with the Lantern Theater Company this spring. What excites you about this role?

TP: Volumnia is a very powerful, very intelligent woman. She should have been a warrior or a chief of staff, but there is nowhere she can put her power and intelligence, so she puts it all into her son. Her power inspires him but also kills him, and nearly kills everyone else in Rome. She’s a monstrous woman, but if there’s no place for a woman to put her energies and intelligence, she may become a destructive force.

Shakespeare wrote Coriolanus soon after his own mother died. I feel that he couldn’t write a truthful play about the overbearing power of women while she was still alive.

RB: Women of Will was not just a book but a performance, which meant that you've had an experience that other authors might either envy or fear— making your argument face-to-face with your readers! Any good stories from these interactions?

TP: In fact, the book came out of the performance. I’d perform the play and then go home and write. When you’re performing, you’re using the whole of your body and voice. That causes you to write from a different place than if you’re just in your head all the time—more guts, sweat, and tears. Shakespeare was an actor too, so he was performing and writing at the same time throughout his whole life; I felt very much that I was doing the same.

Most of the conversations took place after the performance, during talkbacks. In my experience, men do most of the talking in talkbacks, but after these performances, the female audience was much more emboldened to speak up. I felt that I was in dialogue with the women, and it deepened what I was thinking about for the book.

RB: What have you read recently that sparked your imagination or admiration?

I recently went to a lecture at the American Philosophical Society on The Frontier Country by Patrick Spero. It’s about the frontier of Pennsylvania, which knocked me sideways—one associates the frontier with cowboy films, but Pennsylvania and Virginia and Connecticut were all fighting over borders in the colonial era. I’ve also been reading Enough Said by Mark Thompson. He shows how language in politics has broken down, creating a real problem with debate and communication. How people use language today is very different than it was a few decades ago—and from Shakespeare’s time, too.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Marvelous World of Meggendorfer's Moving Books

Did you know that pop-up books have been around for hundreds of years? The earliest examples of movable books -- some as early as the thirteenth century! -- were used for adult education. Books on subjects ranging from human anatomy to artistic perspective used tabs, flaps, and fold-outs to illustration information that was best conveyed in three dimensions.

But these interactive elements also made useful tools for childhood learning and enrichment. By the mid-nineteenth century, when books like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and the Grimm brothers' fairy tales set precedents for vivid, imaginative children's literature, pop-up books could make colorful scenes come alive for young readers.

This young soldier, charging into battle astride his rocking horse, was drawn and brought to life by Lothar Meggendorfer (1847-1925). Meggendorfer was a German artist and publisher who illustrated weekly comic and satirical papers as well as numerous books, but he is best known for his illustrated movable children's books. Meggendorfer engineered a way to move several tabs at once by layering the page, the colorful paper cutouts, and an intricate system of levers made of a lightweight but sturdy material such as cardboard or copper wire. The reader pulls a tab attached to the side of the page, and the tab's movement activates several levers which guide various motions. For example, in this colorful pond scene, a single tab activates the dragonfly's arc of escape as well as the fish's hungry lunge and widening mouth.

These chickens, each adorned with unique markings and crest, bob their heads for food at different paces and levels.

Lothar Meggendorfer's moveable books are remarkable not yet for their ingenuity and craft, but for the ersatz cartoonist's bright, colorful, often humorous style. Maurice Sendak, an admirer and collector of Meggendorfer's works, wrote about how these creations appeal to children without condescending to them.

Maurice Sendak bequeathed his collection of Meggendorfer books to the Rosenbach, including a book that folds out into a three-ring circus which is now on view in a recently opened exhibition. The videos posted above were all filmed by the Philadelphia Inquirer for a multi-part story exploring the bequest, the importance of select works to Sendak's literary imagination, and the significance of Meggendorfer's marvelous movable books.

Recent Acquisitions from the Bequest of Maurice Sendak is on view through April 30.

Friday, February 03, 2017

6 Questions with Yolanda Wisher and Dick Lourie

On February 9, poets Yolanda Wisher and Dick Lourie will co-host a program at the Rosenbach entitled Blues for Black Opals. Published between 1927 and 1928, Black Opals was a Philadelphia-based literary magazine founded and edited by young black intellectuals and writers. Blues for Black Opals will celebrate the poetry from that era of social change, merging past and present with readings from poets Quincy Scott Jones, Iréne Mathieu, and Trapeta Mayson, and performances with musicians Jim Dragoni, Sirlance Gamble, and Mark Palacio.

Dick Lourie
Yolanda Wisher

Rosen-blog: How did you first learn about the literary magazine Black Opals?

Yolanda Wisher: A few years ago, I was doing research on Black poets in 19th and 20th century Philadelphia and came across a sentence or two about the Black Opals Collective online. I learned that there were original copies of the magazine in the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University. So I went to pay my respects and makes copies of my favorite poems.

RB: How did the two of you get started collaborating on creative projects?

YW: Dick edited my first book of poems at Hanging Loose Press in 2014. I thought it was just perfect that a blues musician was going to be my editor. We had a lot of great conversations about language and music on the phone as edited the book together. I learned a lot from him about how to put a book together. Afterwards Dick suggested that we do a gig together. I was, of course, ecstatic about that! Our first time performing together was at the Philalalia Festival this past September 2016 at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

Dick Lourie: Hanging Loose, the magazine and small press I started with three other poets fifty years ago (no wonder I feel tired) is always on the lookout for interesting and exciting poets. Along comes Yolanda; we starting having her poems in our magazine, and then about four years ago we were eager to publish her book, Monk Eats an Afro. As her editor, I worked with Yolanda closely by phone and email—editing a book always involves some degree of author/editor collaboration—and we soon discovered a shared creative interest in poetry / music performance. At some point in there we actually laid eyes on each other, and kept talking about performing together, which we did last fall—spoken word, song, chant, trumpet, saxophone, and Yolanda’s wonderful band the Afro Eaters. We had more fun than we deserved, and we decided we should keep it up. So I’m grateful to the Rosenbach for giving us another chance.

RB: You are both known for musical performance as well as for your poetry. How does music inform your poetry, or vice versa?

DL: I write in syllabics—no regular meter, no rhyme, but the same number of syllables in every line (in my case, ten). Thus each line is of roughly the same length, although the spoken rhythm of each is unique. And the music I play, mostly, is the blues, a musical form structured usually in twelve-measure choruses, 4/4 time (four equal beats to each measure). At a certain point I started to realize that each line of a poem could be spoken to fit into one measure of a blues chorus. I began speaking the poems with blues band accompaniment and adding sax or trumpet solos that seemed to fit the mood of the poem. That all seemed to work, so I have kept at it. And those performances kept my mind on music, and on the tradition of the blues, so a number of my poems now are written about blues music, its history, its culture.

YW: Writing poetry is like composing a kind of music with words. And musical performance is a way to share the force of the creative process and to feel it evolve in the presence of an audience.

RB: I know it's hard to choose a favorite, but what is one literary or musical piece from next Thursday's performance that you are particularly excited to share?

DL: I hope we will be again performing one of Yolanda’s pieces, “Cornrow Song,” that we did together in the fall. It’s contemporary in form and idiom, and at the same time takes us all the way back in history (to Babylon...) and on from there, and in Yolanda’s performance, with music, it moves along like a soulful time machine. On the page as well, it is special—that’s why she and I decided it should be the final poem in the book, traditionally a place of honor that sums up the whole achievement. (And besides, in the performance I get to play a trumpet solo).

YW: I'm excited to hear Irène, Trapeta, and Quincy read the work of Black Opals poets like Walter Waring, Edward S. Silvera II, Nellie R. Bright, Bessie Calhoun Bird, and Lewis Alexander. It will be exciting to witness a younger generation of Black poets getting acquainted with these literary ancestors.

RB: What have you read recently that sparked your imagination or admiration?

DL: What I’ve been reading recently are Langston Hughes’s “Simple” stories, about Jesse B. Semple, nicknamed Simple, a 1940s–50s Harlem man on the street. These are lively, funny yet gritty, tales of a particular time period and a particular community. The original stories were part of Hughes’s column in the Chicago Defender, an important African American newspaper of the time. They were later collected, and new ones written. They remain a fascinating look from the inside at the Harlem of that period.

RB: What's your favorite book or object at the Rosenbach?

YW: I held Phillis Wheatley's first collection of poems in my hands the first time I visited the Rosenbach a year ago. It gave me goosebumps! Wheatley was one of my first influences and someone whose life holds enough triumph and mysteries to keep me forever intrigued and rapt. That book is like an amulet or holy grail of African American literature. It was a sacred moment to hold it in my hands.
Phillis Wheatley. Poems on various subjects, religious and moral. London: printed by A. Bell, 1773. Collection of the Rosenbach [A 773p].