An interview with the poet Chen Chen!



Chen Chen


On Thursday, June 14th at 12:00 PM EST The Wonderlings spent some time with Chen Chen. Check out our interview with him!


Celeste Helene Schantz  Hi there, everyone, and welcome to our Wonderlings chat with poet and author Chen Chen, who was  longlisted for the National Book Award and won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize, the GLCA New Writers Award, and the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry. The collection was also a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry and named one of the best of 2017 by The Brooklyn Rail, Entropy, Library Journal, and others. His work has appeared in many publications, including Poetry, Tin House, Poem-a-Day, The Best American Poetry, Bettering American Poetry, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading.  Welcome, Chen!

Chen Chen  Hi! Thank you for inviting me to do this, Celeste!

Celeste Helene Schantz  You’re very welcome! OK, folks- who has a question?

David Delaney   How does meter and rhythm enter into your poetry?

Chen Chen  Thanks for the question, David. Meter and rhythm… well I write free verse, but I’m definitely influenced by poetry that has regular meter, especially the iambic pentameter of sonnets. Sonnets fascinate me in general because I tend to be a very expansive (sometimes meandering) sort of writer, so I’m drawn to forms that introduce constraints I then have to figure out how to work within. So writing sonnets has been a great training in that.

David Delaney  And rhyme? I see you are very influenced by music, what do you use musically in your poetry?

Chen Chen   I’m also interested in how poems that are free verse can draw on work that isn’t, or have moments of regular meter… I’m thinking of Robert Hayden’s long poem “Middle Passage” as an example of this… how he draws on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, specifically Ariel’s song, in one section, in order to grapple with the legacy of slavery in America.

David Delaney  Yes there is often that call for lyrical music by meter and sound and that will catch into such free verse as in a musical composition.

Chen Chen   Oh and rhyme… sorry I missed that part in my answers. I love when rhyme is done well, when it’s not too sing-songy, which is difficult to pull off in poems. I love slant rhymes and internal rhymes, rhymes that are folded into a line, rather than  announcing themselves at the end of a line. Some contemporary poets that use rhyme in surprising ways include Jean Valentine, D.A. Powell, Marilyn Chin… I tend to fall into rhymes in the middle of writing a poem. It’s not usually preplanned. I like to see where the music of the poem takes me.

Chen Chen   Other questions?

Celeste Helene Schantz  This week we’re examining poems about parents, especially fathers (for father’s day). In “I Invite my parents to a dinner party” you negotiate the delicate fault lines of parent and child relationships. Can you speak a bit about that poem?

Chen Chen  Sure, Celeste, I’d be happy to talk about that poem.

I write quite a lot about family, as I think those are often some of the most complicated relationships we have… and among the longest. So parts of those dynamics can evolve over time, while some things really seem to stay the same. The poem is autobiographical but also has some imagined bits in it. My parents have had a lot of trouble coming to terms with my sexual orientation. I came out to them as a teenager and it was a big shock to them. Throughout high school we argued about it. They threatened to kick me out. It was a very difficult time.

Over time, my parents have become more accepting. They’ve met my boyfriend, who I’ve been with for a while now. So this poem is about them being in a more accepting place, but still not totally comfortable. And how painful that can be sometimes–when you might want further progress, more change… but people are still learning… or unlearning. In my case, it’s homophobia that my parents continue to have to unlearn.

Celeste Helene Schantz  That’s a great way to state it . . .unlearn.

Mark Ordon   Yes, I agree! If you look at all the unsettling trends that we see every day – homophobia, xenophobia, bigotry, you name it – it seems that there is a lot of unlearning that needs to be done!

Chen Chen  But the invitation in the poem itself is sort of imagined… an exaggeration, for sure, of how I’d actually talk with my parents. I hope there’s humor in that exaggeration. And humor throughout this poem that balances the heartache or actually helps explore the heartache in a deeper way.

David Delaney  Yes that is your fulcrum it seems.

Celeste Helene Schantz  It’s a great poem which communicates the tensions on each side, and also the dynamics of how we often act in situations which are new to us.

Chen Chen  The poem is in couplets, with some longer sentences stretched over several lines because I wanted to maximize potential units of meaning within phrases… and also I think of couplets as a way to highlight tension… each two-line unit has to contain some important part of the overall conflict . . .

David Delaney Your “If I Should Die…” is in tercets – tell me about that.

Chen Chen   David Delaney I love tercets in general, as they seem to me to be in between the tightness of couplets and the stately, orderly boxes of quatrains. Tercets feel wilder to me. So I like using them for poems that seem uncontainable, unmanageable.  Tercets offer that level of organization I want, but also a level of chaos that the poem needs. “If I Should Die…” is a list poem, with some fantastical items in it… but the subject matter is still ultimately mortality. So tercets felt like a good fit for that tension… play and seriousness.

Mark Ordon  I particularly enjoyed the couplets! I am no expert in the mechanisms of poetry (so forgive my amateurish analysis), but your couplets not only highlighted tension, but provided the tension with structure so to speak; rather than feeling an overall numbing pain, you know exactly where it hurts.

Chen Chen  Mark Ordon Thank you! I appreciate what you say about the numbing pain… and yet the structure the couplets provide in order to speak through…

Mark Ordon  Chen Chen Thanks! I hope I wasn’t too harsh on them (the couplets)

Chen Chen  That’s a great point, Celeste, about acting in situations which are new… often, nervousness and fear in those situations can make us revert back to old habits. Like the parents in this poem… the mother’s way of speaking to the son… and the father’s avoidance tactic, hiding behind the comfort of his newspaper.

Celeste Helene Schantz  Dads and their infamous newspaper walls!

Mark Ordon  The everlasting fatherly safe haven!

Celeste Helene Schantz  Can we talk a bit about being longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award? You, Layli Long Soldier and Mai Der Vang were all honored for your very first collections. What has it been like to have that success and recognition? Has your life changed at all?

When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities - BOA Editions, Ltd.

Chen Chen It was such an incredible surprise and an honor to have this collection longlisted for the NBA, and alongside these stellar books and poets. That recognition has changed some things. That level of visibility. More folks have reached out to me with invitations to read or solicitations to submit to journals. That has been a kind of overwhelming experience, actually. I’m still figuring out how to juggle what I think of as the public side of all this, the “being an author” side. I love doing readings and getting to talk about poetry (and not just my own poetry, but all kinds that I love). At the same time, I have to keep carving out quiet space, meditative space, the space of creativity. So I have to remind myself to get off social media. To shut off my email.

Mark Ordon  I’ve heard (though not experienced) about this paradox of sorts that poets and writers see – as you are recognized for your outstanding work, you start to be pulled in every direction 24/7, so finding the time to continue the outstanding work becomes a challenge!

David Delaney  Interesting and congratulations on recognition. Sometimes I wonder if life experience becomes stifled with success. Your thoughts?

Chen Chen  David Delaney I feel like sometimes I have to pretend that I haven’t had this success. I have to get back into the mind state of when I first fell in love with poetry, as an adolescent, and hold onto that excitement and wonderment. I can’t be thinking about publication and awards when I’m trying to create something from my own heart.

David Delaney  Yes. One needs mental fresh air, the sound of a hammer, or wing, and not just recall it from text. What truth I match to objects is critical as is the object  (sound smell touch … itself)

Susan Pigman  What other poets inspire you? Also, could you tell us a little about your writing practice? Do you write daily? By hand or computer? (I’m sorry to be late with these questions; I was having problems with computer…

Chen Chen  Susan, thank you for your questions!  Other poets that inspire me… oh, so many. John Keats. Pablo Neruda. Marina Tsvetaeva. Gwendolyn Brooks. Louise Gluck. Robert Hass. Amy Gerstler. Nikky Finney. Mary Ruefle. Li-Young Lee. Sarah Gambito. Joseph O. Legaspi. Eduardo C. Corral. Rick Barot. Henri Cole. The list goes on and on…

And about my writing practice… I’m very messy. I don’t have routines or rituals. I do save every draft and have a filing system that’s worked for me since college. But as for the writing process itself, it’s sort of chaotic. I like to think that I’m always writing… and that reading is a big part of that. Also absorbing other things as a writer, a poet… like watching movies, or taking a walk. I like to stay open to whichever window inspiration might fly through.

David Delaney  Yes, that is right to me. The early years perhaps the tools developed and the feet to see, the later years to meld the two. My thoughts are, some stop walking or grasping new sensory issues at the expense of others’ reaches and expose’s

Chen Chen   I don’t write daily, but I’m pretty much a writer 24/7, if that makes sense. Lately I’ve been writing more slowly, now that I’m not in weekly workshops anymore (I’ve been in graduate school forever!). So I might work on just two or three poems for a couple months. I’ll get very obsessive about each poem.

Celeste Helene Schantz  Revision, revision!

Chen Chen  Celeste Helene Schantz Yes, I’m a freak for revision! I’ll create a couple very different versions of the same poem… sometimes to the point where they diverge and really become altogether different poems. But I think of myself as a hands-on sort of writer. It’s hard for me to know what the poem needs until I’ve tried it, and there might turn out to be a dozen kinds of “it.”  I’ll jot down lines and ideas for poems in a notebook by hand. But most of my actual drafting takes place on a computer.

Celeste Helene Schantz  You wrote “Elegy While Listening to a Song I Can’t Help But Start to Move to” for the victims at Pulse Night Club. The structure is interesting: most lines begin with the word “Because ” (which reminds me of Solmaz Sharif’s “Look” in which the word “Whereas” is repeated.) Can you talk a bit about choices in poetry to repeat a word? What power does that lend?

Chen Chen  Repetition is one of the great tools of poetry. The music and incantation and the creating of memory through sonic delight. I love, especially, anaphora. Though I’m aware, also, of the dangers of overusing this technique. It can become something habitual instead of a way to keep the poem growing… So with this poem you mention, “Elegy While Listening to a Song…” I was trying to find ways to make the poem different from my other poems that also use repetition at the beginning of a line. Making the poem look a bit more like an essay was part of this experiment/attempt. There are these longer lines, which are then interrupted or punctuated by these shorter ones that cluster into sudden stanzas. I wanted a sense of unpredictable movement, of lines gravitating towards each other, and then apart… much like bodies on a dance floor.

Celeste Helene Schantz  Yes! Anaphora and epistrophe/epiphora are memorable in poetry and speech. The resonance.

Chen Chen  The repetition of “Because” suggests that it’s difficult to find a reason for why the speaker feels so affected by the Pulse massacre. He doesn’t know the victims personally. And yet, as a gay person, he feels targeted, and he knows what it’s like to feel afraid to express one’s emotions and desires openly. And he knows how intertwined desire and fear are for LGBTQ people.  So the speaker keeps searching for the “why” behind how he feels… “Because… Because… Because…” And this poem is also thinking about the pain of having a place that’s supposed to be safe for LGBTQ people attacked like this.

Celeste Helene Schantz  And there is a struggle in answering the question “why” because there really is no one definite answer.

Chen Chen  Exactly!

Celeste Helene Schantz  Does anyone have any last questions for Chen Chen as we finish up our chat?

Mark Ordon  Chen, I understand that your poetry has already been translated into several languages and fallen into the hands of many readers abroad. Have you had any feedback on how your work was received and understood? Your poetry addresses topics that certainly can be understood on a universal level, yet translation and immersion in a different culture and mentality can open up new avenues of interpretation.

Chen Chen  Mark, thank you for your question! It’s been such a moving experience, to see my poems translated. I grew up in a bilingual household–English and Mandarin Chinese. So I was always doing a lot of translating, back and forth, or codeswitching. I think it’s so important to learn more languages, or attempt to. You learn so much as a poet. Reading poetry in languages other than your primary one. Translating poetry yourself. It shows you that there so many more ways to say something, to sing something.

As for feedback from readers abroad, mainly the connection has been through other LGBTQ people. People finding my work in English or wanting to translate it into another language because of how honestly I write about issues of queerness and family. That’s been amazing, to see that effect, and to get to talk with people very far away.

Celeste Helene Schantz  Chen Chen, thank you so very much for joining us today! It’s been a real pleasure. If we could end with one last question . . .What is something important you would like people to know about you?

Chen Chen   Celeste, thanks so much for inviting me to have this discussion. Wonderful questions, everyone! And in answer to your last question: I love pugs!! I didn’t grow up around dogs and the only pet I had was a fish. So it’s been a great adventure raising this pug with my partner.

Celeste Helene Schantz (shows a GIF of pug in a birthday hat)

Chen Chen  Ahh perfect . . .

Celeste Helene Schantz Thanks, Chen Chen! And thanks to everyone who particpated!

David Delaney  Thank you Celeste and Chen for this exchange.

Susan Pigman Thank you so much, Chen Chen and Celeste.

Mark Ordon Thank you Chen, for sharing your (valuable) time with us!

Celeste Helene Schantz For those of you interested in Chen Chen’s book, check it out, HERE!

Chen Chen  Wishing you all magic & discovery in your poems!



Check out Chen Chen’s website, HERE


A few moments with Cornelius Eady

Cornelius Eady (Photograph by David Delaney)

by Celeste Schantz

Cornelius Eady doesn’t believe in apologies.  At least not when he’s on stage giving a reading of his work, that is.

The poet and Pulitzer Prize nominee was in town on April 19th promoting his new chapbook/CD combo, Book of Hooks, an eclectic blend of spoken word pieces and music. Through his appearances at RIT and Writers and Books in Rochester, NY, Eady illustrates just how engaging a reader he can be, particularly in consort with Rough Magic (the band of musicians he currently performs with.)

In between an on-air interview at WXXI and a race to catch a flight to his next reading gig, Eady generously spares a few moments of his time. We’ve arranged to meet at Rochester’s 1872 Café. It’s an up-and-coming hot spot right across the street from the iconic Nick Tahoe’s, which figures in one of Eady’s poems.

He makes his way out of the light April drizzle into the warmth and light of the café, a fresh pot of coffee brewing behind the counter.  Settling at one of the tables, we get right down to business.  Every moment must count.

Schantz:  Cornelius, thanks so much for meeting today! Your reading and performance with Rough Magic last night was great.  I know you’re on a tight schedule, so let’s get right to the first question.

Eady: Thanks, Celeste. Sounds good!

Schantz:  Do you feel that there are some poems best read silently on the page and some best performed aloud?  Or is all poetry, due to its bardic tradition, best enjoyed through the spoken word?

Eady:  All poetry can be performed.  Performance is more immediate than words on a page.  We need to get away from the idea that a poem will only work on a page. Some material is more complex than others, but using the lyrical instrument  of voice and an ability to create a “dance poem,” all poetry can be performed.


With Eady at the 1872 Cafe, a coffee shop which sits on the historical site in Rochester, NY where Susan B. Anthony once voted illegally and ultimately received a warrant for her arrest.


Schantz:  What’s one common mistake poets make when reading their work?

Eady:  Some poets make the mistake of apologizing for their work.  Don’t ever apologize!  Do not cower or be afraid.  Even if you are testing out new material, don’t say that to the audience.  The audience is on your side.  You walk up to the stage, you give disclaimers, you think you’re being disarming but with total strangers it’s not going to fly. Reading is an intimate thing…you’re exposing yourself and the crowd will taste the feeling, the energy you put out. There’s no sense in questioning why you’re there…if you ask that question, the audience will too!  You need to be commanding but welcoming.

Schantz:  Do you put poems in sequential order before you read?

Eady:  Well, it was total improve at Writers and Books last night.  It’s fun to do that! But usually, I make sure I know the first poem I am going to read, and the last poem I am going to read.  The rest I base on the audience.

Schantz:  Who is one of your favorite poets to hear reading aloud, and why?

Eady: Patricia Smith is an excellent reader.  You should look her up and find some videos.  She knows how to read a room…instinctively.  She always manages to find a way to draw an audience to her.  She has projection and confidence; she holds her body up, her voice goes out. I recommend observing Patricia Smith.


And with that, our fifteen minutes has come to an end.

As Cornelius Eady gets up to leave, we shake hands, and I thank him for his gracious consent to meet for this interview.  He’s looking around the spacious, well-lit café; new, bright, and inviting, but also looks at his watch. He has that plane to catch.

“You don’t understand” he says, smiling and shaking his head in a bit of disbelief.  “When I was growing up, the idea of having a beautiful place like this in this neighborhood would have been impossible–this is great!”  He searches unsuccessfully in his jacket for a business card to give the manager, who’s standing nearby.  We hand him a pen and a slip of paper. Eady introduces himself to the manager, gives her his contact info, compliments her on how beautiful the café space is and explains that “he’s a poet and he thinks this would be a great spot for poetry readings.” Humility and grace noted.

With that, Eady ’s out the door.

No apologies: just a big smile, a great attitude, and a few well-chosen words, as distilled and meaningful as those in his poems.








This interview originally appeared on the website of Just Poets of Greater Rochester, NY. Eady is an honorary lifetime member of that organization.

Celeste Schantz is a member of Just Poets and a former board member.

David Delaney is a current board member.


An Interview with Ron Charles of The Washington Post!

Ron Charles Staff Photo Washington Post Book World copy

Ron Charles, editor of Book World at The Washington Post


Recently The Wonderlings Book Club was thrilled to announce a very special guest: Ron Charles, of The Washington Post! Mr. Charles joined us for a live Facebook chat on Thursday, March 1st 12:30 (EST) and a great time was had by all.

Ron is a true veteran of the study and discussion of  great books and authors. He’s been a book reviewer for a sum total of more than 20 years combined, at The Washington Post and prior to that, the Christian Science Monitor, During our Wonderlings Book Club interview, we discussed that work as well as the process of book reviewing and who his own favorite authors have been, along the way.

See Ron’s recent visit to a small town book club meeting HERE as they discuss Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones.

Although his style is decidedly fun-loving,  lighthearted and satirical (as we see in the delightful  The Totally Hip Book Review, which he produces with his wife, Dawn), Charles is a veteran of all things literary.

Born and raised in St. Louis, Ron Charles earned an M.A. in English at Washington University in 1986 and began teaching American literature at Principia College (Elsah, Ill.). After the birth of his second daughter in 1991, his family moved back to St. Louis, where he taught English at the John Burroughs School and began writing freelance book reviews. Those essays eventually led to a job as the book section editor and lead critic for the Christian Science Monitor (1998-2005). In 2005, he became a senior editor and weekly critic for The Washington Post Book World. In early 2009 when The Post closed its stand-alone book section and integrated reviews throughout the paper, he was appointed deputy editor and given a weekly column in Style. In 2013, he was promoted to editor of Book World.

In 2009, he won the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. He was also a judge for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction (the year Donna Tartt won for her novel, The Goldfinch.)

Ron also hosts Life of a Poet, a series of interviews in conversation with some of today’s most prominent poets, co-sponsored by Hill Center, The Library of Congress and The Washington Post. He’s interviewed everyone from Jeffrey Eugenides and Joyce Carol Oates to Margaret Atwood, and many, many others. And last week, we were lucky enough to be able to interview him!


The Interview:

Celeste Helene Schantz Today The Wonderlings Book Club is very happy to welcome our very special guest, Ron Charles of The Washington Post. Ron is the editor of Book World, and we’re very pleased that he’s joining us on Facebook today as our guest for this half hour. Ron, welcome!

First, can you speak a bit about what it’s like to serve on the judging panel for the Pulitzer Prize? What was it like? What was the process?

Ron Charles  The Pulitzer process is really exhilarating — and exhausting! The books flood in — more than 400, as I recall. (It turns out all you need to enter your book for a Pulitzer is $50. And a lot of people have $50. Or did. There were three of us on the Fiction committee. We read widely and tried to point each other toward books we really liked.

Shabnam Mirchandani  Ron, I love your “stand-up comic” approach to book reviewing in the videos. Such an eclectic combination of raucous fun and sparking intellect! (and your wife is now my hero!) How on earth do you wade through an ocean of material and come up with such sassy, smart, and crazily addictive productions?

Ron Charles Thanks for watching!

Ron Charles Totally Hip Video Book Review 

Those have been a blast for Dawn and me. We’ve been trying to create one a month. But a lot depends on the books I’m reviewing and my wife’s busy schedule (she’s a high school teacher). Not all books lend themselves to zany comedy, of course — so that’s the first hurdle.

Susan Pigman  Ron, The Washington Post book section is always alerting me to books I would have otherwise missed. How do you choose which books to review out of the many possibilities published?

Ron Charles That’s our major challenge. We get about 150 books a day, but review only about 17 a week, so, as you can see, most don’t make it….. but we’re trying to create a rich selection of reviews on a variety of subjects to meet the interests of our audience. We rely on the trades (PW, Library Journal, Kirkus) and a few publicists we trust, and we poke around and see what we like. Once I identity a book for the THVBR treatment, I write up the review and then spend about a week working on the script and collecting all the props and costumes we’ll need. Come Saturday morning, we film all day and sometimes into Sunday. Then it takes me about eight hours to do the editing.

Shabnam Mirchandani  Wow!  How do you balance comedy and seriousness when confronted with the implications of a “post truth” moment?

Ron Charles I feel entirely free to add little satiric zingers about “post truth” when appropriate. My favorite was a scene of Tom Sawyer/Donald Trump promising to build a fence and get Mexicans to paint that fence. The Post has been very kind about supporting them online, but the audience is still, like Milton’s, “fit though few.”

David Delaney  With that in mind, do you have a specific reader in mind when you review? T. Kooser said he wrote for his secretary. If she didn’t get it , it needed work.

Ron Charles  David Delaney Ha! Kooser is always great. But no, I don’t have a specific reader in mind, though after two decades of doing this every week, I have a pretty good idea who my 18 or so readers are.

Celeste Helene Schantz Well, now you can add the members of our little group!

Ron Charles I’m writing for smart people who like literary fiction and are willing to step outside their comfort zone once in a while; people willing to take a chance on a novel if they think it has a serious enough intent and it done with enough skill.

David Delaney  How has reviewing changed in the last hundred years — if it has?


David Delaney  At least old enough!

David Delaney  I mean has the skeleton of the profession altered over the years?

Ron Charles  The big change, of course, is the death of most of the nation’s newspaper and magazine book sections. And the rise of many, many new online review sites and the prevalence of costumer reviews. That’s a sea-change. Most of the reviews that remain have to be much shorter, much more consumer-advice oriented. People want lists of recommendations, they want thumbs up or down. They want recommendations from celebrities and, especially, their friends, broadly defined.

David Delaney  When you write a review I notice you really strike a chord on the opening line. Is that critical in the material you review?

Ron Charles For various reasons (i.e. our click-based economy) I think reviews have also gotten much more promotional, much more positive, much more happy, much more “shareable.” If you write a meh or negative review of a midlist novel nowadays, so few people will read it that the CIA could store secrets in it. David Delaney,  I spend half my time on the first two paragraphs, so thanks for noticing!

David Delaney It shows.

Susan Pigman  Ron Charles I still miss Book World. But I appreciate the WP commitment to book reviewing, although I wince every time I have to look under Entertainment for them. Also appreciate the reviews of off-main-street books like Poetry and Science Fiction roundups.

Ron Charles  Susan Pigman I miss Book World, too! But the times, they are a-changin’. Print is yesterday. Online is now. I’m glad you enjoying our monthly coverage of Poetry and SF. I instituted those columns because I felt those books were falling through the cracks in our regular coverage.

Shabnam Mirchandani  Comedy as community service and conscience preserver is a fascinating phenomenon at the present time. Your thoughts?

Ron Charles Indeed, I think comedy — satire — may be the only possible response to America’s descent into madness over the last two years.

Celeste Helene Schantz Ron, today’s book reviews primarily focus on commercially successful novels. Our book club, The Wonderlings, currently focuses on provocative short form works (short stories, poetry, essays and novellas.) Is there still a place in book reviewing for shorter writing? Do you have a favorite short story or a favorite poem or poet?

Ron Charles I’m not a big short story fan myself. And novellas are extremely rare nowadays. But I try to make sure we do roundups of short stories periodically so that people know what’s out there. I find reviews of story collections are often exceedingly dull and plot bound….But please don’t tell anybody that.

I’m a big fan of poetry, and have, for the past five years, hosted a series called Life of a Poet, co-sponsored by the Library of Congress. They stream the interviews, but that’s a pretty dead way to experience them, I’m afraid. In the room with the author, it’s pretty electric, I think.

Celeste Helene Schantz  On the other hand, poetry used to be a feature in major publications. It was poetry for the people, accessible and enjoyed by many . . .and stories were serialized and had cliffhangers . . .

Ron Charles  Celeste Helene Schantz , We used to run a popular column called “The Poet’s Choice.” Trouble is, now we can know *exactly* how many people are clicking on each thing. I can tell you that poetry reviews are not burning down our server. But I remain committed to it! Just posted this interesting piece yesterday:…/a11e4558-1657-11e8…

Shabnam Mirchandani Ron, please accept a Wonderlings Oscar (as the mirthful transcender of all categories) from us! Looking forward to your acceptance speech/video!

David Delaney When you read do you read at the speed of dialogue ?(when there’s dialogue of course)

Ron Charles I read about 35 pages an hour when reading for a review. But I can attain much, much higher speeds when reading for other purposes.

Celeste Helene Schantz  Any last questions for Ron?

Rick Williams What writers make you laugh? And has your “Book Monkey” carefully selected any totally hip favorite books for 2018 yet?

Ron Charles Comic novels are disappointing rare, I’m sorry to say. The best recent example is Andrew Sean Greer’s LESS.  Thank you so much for remembering the Book Monkey! She’s in this episode, I think:…/feab7cfc-bd5e-11e6..

I’m happy to hang around longer. If I stop talking to you all, I have to go back to editing….

David Delaney The best critic you have read?

Ron Charles The best literary critic is James Wood at the New Yorker.

Shabnam Mirchandani  As a newly minted honorary Wonderling, do you have suggestions for our next read?

Ron Charles  Sing, Unburied, Sing is very powerful.

Celeste Helene Schantz As a former English teacher, you’ve studied your share of excellent literature. In the world of modern, commercially successful novels, do you still see glimmers of literary greatness and beautiful prose in the novels you review?

Ron Charles All the time! Honestly, I’m amazed at the literary talent! In fact, I think our real problem is a shortage of readers, not great books.

Celeste Helene Schantz Yes! I work at a library (I’m there right now . . .) and I would say the majority of patrons are online playing games. There are very few people in the stacks 😦 That’s one reason I started this group, to gather readers together.

Ron Charles Celeste Helene Schantz You’re killing me….

Mark Ordon On that note, is there anything that can be done? I recently came upon an opinion that there should be more focus on shorter forms, or at least books “in installments” to cater to a readership which is regretfully more distracted and has a very short attention span.

Ron Charles Mark Ordon I seen a few of those attempts (and written about them at least once) but none has survived for long that I know of.

Shabnam Mirchandani Nevertheless, we (the readers) shall persist!!!!!

Ron Charles If you love short fiction, you must subscribe to the wonderful ONE STORY magazine.

And here’s a picture of my desk at The Washington Post:


Le desk du Ron Charles

Rick Williams Nirvana…You probably have not complained of boredom recently!

David Delaney Where’s the desk?!

Mark Ordon Who needs the desk when the books are there?!

Ron Charles That’s our wonderful office manager, Nicole Chung, in the background.

Shabnam Mirchandani Let’s build a wall (of books)…

Ron Charles  MARA! (Make America Read Again!)

Celeste Helene Schantz Okay, that’s our new slogan!

Ron Charles Celeste Helene Schantz I’ll sell caps in the Totally Hip Gift Store.

David Delaney  Thank you Ron. This has been a great treat for me.

Ron Charles  Wonderful to talk with you all. this has been great fun for me — and a little crazy trying to see what’s coming in. I’m always available on Twitter and email: @roncharles  and

Rick Williams Fantastic! What a Great Guest‼

Shabnam Mirchandani THANK YOU!

Susan Pigman Thank you!

Mark Ordon Thank you for being with us!

Celeste Helene Schantz Ron Charles of the Washington Post, thanks so much for joining us today, and feel free to be a Wonderling for as long as you like. This has been great!

Ron Charles My pleasure! I leave you with this disturbing image:


Gaga bacon-head RC


Shabnam Mirchandani  Meat head?  Tribute to Lady Gaga’s sartorial adventures?

Ron Charles Shabnam Mirchandani Yes (Lady Gaga). It’s really weird for me to look back at some of the older videos and see once-timely gags that have grown so stale that I now have no idea what I was talking about!

Shabnam Mirchandani Ron Charles, you have a (die hard) fan in me..

Ron Charles  New video coming next week (if the predicted wind storm in DC doesn’t destroy my house this weekend.)


Mark Ordon Whatever it may be, it will certainly keep me up all night


Ron Charles Mark Ordon Then my work here is done!


The Wonderlings book club sincerely thanks Ron Charles  for his willingness to be a part of our crazy book club, and we look forward to more of his videos and book recommendations. Thanks, Ron!

Week Forty-Five: The Works of Jamaica Kincaid






Excerpts from “A Small Place”

This week The Wonderlings will take a look at both physical and emotional landscapes, through the eyes of well-known Antiguan author, Jamaica Kincaid.

First up is an excerpt from A Small Place, a work of creative nonfiction published in 1988. A book-length essay drawing on Kincaid’s experiences growing up in Antigua, it can be read as an indictment of the Antiguan government, the tourist industry and Antigua’s British colonial legacy.

Susan Sontag once described Kincaid’s writing as “poignant, but it’s poignant because it’s so truthful and it’s so complicated … She doesn’t treat these things in a sentimental or facile way.”¹

Here’s an excerpt from A Small Place.

The work has received great praise for it’s no-nonsense-let-me-spell-it-out-for-you prose style, but has also been a source of controversy and criticism from both the white, western community as well as from native antiguans.  Let us know what YOU think, as well.




A study question: 

Why does Kincaid’s narrator employ the second person point of view, addressing the reader as “You?”


“Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid


Once you’ve encountered Kincaid’s  often seething view of the tourist industry on Antigua, her birthplace, it’s worthwhile to explore a very brief (600 word?) but well-known exploration of Kincaid’s emotional territory, in a memoir of her mother.

Here is “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid.


The life lesson narrated by the mother is a set of imperative instructions for how a young woman should conduct herself to be acceptable and agreeable to the world, to a husband and to society. It serves as a wonderful poetic prompt for writers to create their own lists and in a very short space serves as a narrative of what cisgender obedience should look like.


Kincaid’s tone is often described as sarcastic, sometimes even as “rant.” Yet what the author delivers is more a frank, low, steady sarcasm with a cynical undercurrent; often as much at the expense of Antigua as it is of tourists. Regarding criticism of her tone, Kincaid has said  “No one asked Norman Mailer why he was so angry or ranting. No one ever asked Philip Roth why he was so angry.” Her point is well-taken. The very sort of gender-based criticism she receives as a woman is ironically precisely what she caricatures in “Girl.” When her male counter-parts use a dry acerbic tone they are given awards.

Check out two interviews with the author,  here:






Other works by Jamaica Kincaid:




Kincaid is probably best known for Annie John, the biography of a girl growing up in Antigua.

Her writing explores such themes as colonialism and colonial legacy, post-colonialism and neo-colonialism, gender and sexuality, renaming, mother-daughter relationships, British and American imperialism, colonial education, writing, racism, class, power, and adolescence. In her most recent novel, See Now Then, Kincaid also first explores the theme of time.²


. . .A bit about Jamaica Kincaid . . .



Kincaid (Source: Pinterest)

Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson on Antigua in 1949.

In 1965 she left Antigua for New York to work as an au pair, then studied photography at the New York School for Social Research and attended Franconia College in New Hampshire.

In 1972 she changed her name to Jamaica Kincaid and was a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine from 1974-1996, publishing her first book, At the Bottom of the River, a collection of short stories, in 1983. Her first novel, Annie John, followed in 1985 – the story of a wilful 10-year-old growing up on Antigua. Further novels include Lucy (1990); The Autobiography of my Mother (1996), a novel set on Dominica and told by a 70-year-old woman looking back on her life; and Mr. Potter (2007). A Small Place (1988), is a short, powerful book about the effects of colonialism. My Brother (1997) chronicles her brother’s batlle with AIDS.

Her love of gardening has also led to several books on the subject, including My Garden (2000) and Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya (2005), a memoir about a seed-gathering trek with three botanist friends. Her novel See Now Then (2013) won the Before Columbus Foundation America Book Award in 2014.

Jamaica Kincaid teaches in the English, African and African-American Studies Department at Harvard University and lives in Vermont.³










¹Writers Digest


3British Council on Literature

Ron Charles, Book World Editor of The Washington Post, joins us on Thursday, March 1st!

Ron Charles Staff Photo Washington Post Book World copy

Ron Charles


The Wonderlings Book Club is thrilled to announce a very special guest: Ron Charles, editor of Book World at The Washington Post!



The Wonderlings Book Club is thrilled to announce a very special guest: Ron Charles, editor of Book World at The Washington Post! Mr. Charles will join us for a live Facebook chat on Thursday, March 1st 12:30 (EST) so get your questions ready!

Ron is a true veteran of the study and discussion of  great books and authors. He’s been a book reviewer for a sum total of more than 20 years combined, at The Washington Post and prior to that, the Christian Science Monitor, We’ll discuss that work as well as the process of book reviewing and who his own favorite authors have been, along the way.

See Ron’s recent visit to a small town book club meeting HERE as they discuss Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones.

Although his style is decidedly fun-loving,  lighthearted and satirical (as we see in the delightful  The Totally Hip Book Review, which he produces with his wife, Dawn), Charles is a veteran of all things literary.


Ron Charles interviews Lauren Groff (author of Fates and Furies) at the 2016 National Book Festival


Born and raised in St. Louis, Ron Charles earned an M.A. in English at Washington University in 1986 and began teaching American literature at Principia College (Elsah, Ill.). After the birth of his second daughter in 1991, his family moved back to St. Louis, where he taught English at the John Burroughs School and began writing freelance book reviews. Those essays eventually led to a job as the book section editor and lead critic for the Christian Science Monitor (1998-2005). In 2005, he became a senior editor and weekly critic for The Washington Post Book World. In early 2009 when The Post closed its stand-alone book section and integrated reviews throughout the paper, he was appointed deputy editor and given a weekly column in Style. In 2013, he was promoted to editor of Book World.

In 2009, he won the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. He was also a judge for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction (the year Donna Tartt won for her novel, The Goldfinch.)



Ron speaks on “The Business of Book Reviewing” at the Virginia Book Festival (March 20, 2010)


The PBS NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown talks with book reviewer Ron Charles of The Washington Post about what he considered four of the best works of fiction (from 2011)


Ron also hosts Life of a Poet, a series of interviews in conversation with some of today’s most prominent poets, co-sponsored by Hill Center, The Library of Congress and The Washington Post. He’s interviewed everyone from Jeffrey Eugenides and Joyce Carol Oates to Margaret Atwood, and many, many others.

We are pleased to welcome him to The Wonderlings on Facebook next Thursday! Be sure to tune in, then, to participate in our interview!


And check out more of Ron’s book reviews here . . .

Week Forty-Four: two poems about snow and “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by Conrad Aiken



This week, our themes are snow and winter. Let’s begin with two poems about snow.


“The landscapes of winter can seem bleak and unforgiving to many people, but Pablo Neruda latches on to an image that blazed through a Berlin winter–an image of horses. As the poem ends, “I have forgotten that dark Berlin winter.//I will not forget the light of the horses.”                (Writer’s Digest)





. . .A bit about Pablo Neruda . . .

Pablo Neruda was the pen name and, later, legal name of the Chilean poet-diplomat and politician Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto (July 12, 1904 – September 23, 1973). He derived his pen name from the Czech poet Jan Neruda. Pablo Neruda won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971.


Pablo Neruda

Neruda became known as a poet when he was 10 years old. He wrote in a variety of styles, including surrealist poems, historical epics, overtly political manifestos, a prose autobiography, and passionate love poems such as the ones in his collection Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (1924).

The Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez once called Neruda “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language.”

On July 15, 1945, at Pacaembu Stadium in São Paulo, Brazil, Neruda read to 100,000 people in honor of the Communist revolutionary leader Luís Carlos Prestes.

During his lifetime, Neruda occupied many diplomatic positions and served a term as a Senator for the Chilean Communist Party. When President González Videla outlawed communism in Chile in 1948, a warrant was issued for Neruda’s arrest. Friends hid him for months in the basement of a house in the port city of Valparaíso. Later, Neruda escaped through a mountain pass near Maihue Lake into Argentina.

Years later, Neruda was a close advisor to Chile’s socialist President Salvador Allende. When Neruda returned to Chile after his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Allende invited him to read at the Estadio Nacional before 70,000 people.

Neruda was hospitalized with cancer at the time of the coup d’état led by Augusto Pinochet but returned home after a few days when he suspected a doctor of injecting him with an unknown substance for the purpose of murdering him at the order of Pinochet.[6] Neruda died in his house in Isla Negra on 23 September 1973 hours after leaving the hospital. Although it has always been reported that he died of heart failure, on November 5, 2015 the Interior Ministry of the Chilean government issued a statement acknowledging a Ministry document from March of that year indicating the government’s official position that “it was clearly possible and highly likely” that he was killed as a result of “the intervention of third parties”. Pinochet, backed by elements of the armed forces, denied permission for Neruda’s funeral to be made a public event. However, thousands of grieving Chileans disobeyed the curfew and crowded the streets.



“Not Only the Eskimos” by Lisel Mueller

Our second poem is based on the experience of a Berlin winter from a poet born in Hamburg, Germany. Mueller’s “Not Only the Eskimos” is a wonderful poem about language in general and snow in particular. As the poem begins, “We have only one noun/but as many different kinds.” 
What is your favorite kind of snow?

Within the poem, Mueller delights in language and mouth-feel as she creates a list of the many personifications and associations we give to snowfall.

 . . .in an old tale, the snow
that covers a nest of strawberries,
small hearts, ripe and sweet,
the special snow that goes with Christmas,
whether it falls or not,

the Russian snow we remember
along with the warmth and smell of furs,
though we have never traveled
to Russia or worn furs,

Villon’s snows of yesteryear,
lost with ladies gone out like matches,
the snow in Joyce’s “The Dead,”
the silent, secret snow
in a story by Conrad Aiken,
which is the snow of first love,

the snowfall between the child
and the spacewoman on TV,

. . .²


. . .A bit about Lisel Mueller . . .



Lisel Muelle

Lisel Mueller (born February 8, 1924) was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1924. She has had a career both writing poetry and translating. She attended the University of Evansville and did her graduate study at Indiana University. She has taught at the University of Chicago, Elmhurst College, and Goddard College. She has also worked at as a social worker, a receptionist and a library assistant.A German-American poet. She won the U.S. National Book Award in 1981 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for Alive Together: New & Selected Poems.

Her other awards and honors include the Carl Sandburg Award, the Helen Bullis Award, the Ruth Lilly Prize, and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.



“Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by Conrad Aiken




In Mueller’s poem, “Not only the Eskimos,” the poet mentions “the silent, secret snow/
in a story by Conrad Aiken.”

If you’re looking for a pairing this week, here is that famous short story, “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by Conrad Aiken.

What do you make of this snow, and this little boy?

“Silent Snow, Secret Snow”



“Silent Snow, Secret Snow” adaptation for television (Rod Serling’s Night Gallery)


“Silent Snow, Secret Snow” (1934) is not only Conrad Aiken’s most anthologized work, but also one of the most widely read twentieth-century American short stories. The story concerns the degeneration of its protagonist, a young boy named Paul Hasleman, into madness. Critics often view this story in light of Aiken’s childhood, and search for autobiographical aspects to the work. Some interpret the story using a psychoanalytic framework; but it has been noted that the problem of the psychoanalytic interpretation is that it treats the events of the tale too clinically, diminishing the story’s emotional power.

It seems that a valid interpretation of “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” can neither avoid purely psychological issues—the theme of child-parent conflict, for example—nor justifiably ignore the realistic tragedy of a twelve-year-old boy’s world demolishedby madness.³


…….“Silent Snow, Secret Snow” is a short story centering on the thoughts of a twelve-year-old boy as he descends into a psychologically remote state. It was first published in The Virginia Quarterly Review in October 1932.

…….The story is set in an American town in the early decades of the twentieth century. The time of year is December.

Paul Hasleman is a twelve-year-old boy who becomes fixated on thoughts of snow. 

During Miss Buell’s sixth-grade geography lesson, twelve-year-old Paul Hasleman indulges in the memory of a December morning a few days before when he awoke to sounds of the mailman tramping through snow. As the snow mounted, he thought, the world would become peaceful and more and more silent. But when he got out of bed and looked out the window, he saw sunlight and bare streets. He had imagined the muffled sound and the snow. Nevertheless, the comforting feeling that snow had fallen remains with him. His preoccupation with thoughts of snow distract his attention from activities around him.

The narrator tells the story in third-person point of view, presenting the thoughts of Paul Hasleman as he reacts to the external world and withdraws into his imaginary world. (Cumming Study Guides.)

“It was gentler here, softer, its seethe the quietest of whispers, as if, in deference to a drawing room, it had quite deliberately put on its ‘manners’; it kept itself out of sight, obliterated itself, but distinctly with an air of saying, ‘Ah, but just wait! Wait till we are alone together! Then I will begin to tell you something new! Something white! something cold! something sleepy! something of cease, and peace, and the long bright curve of space! Tell them to go away. Banish them. Refuse to speak. Leave them, go upstairs to your room, turn out the light and get into bed – I will go with you, I will be waiting for you, I will tell you a better story than Little Kay of the Skates, or The Snow Ghost – I will surround your bed, I will close the windows, pile a deep drift against the door, so that none will ever again be able to enter. Speak to them!…’ It seemed as if the little hissing voice came from a slow white spiral of falling flakes in the corner by the front window – but he could not be sure.”

(“Silent Snow, Secret Snow”)”
Conrad Aiken, Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural


. . .A bit about Conrad Aiken . . .



Negative, Conrad Aiken, (Paul Nash, The Tate Gallery) Pinterest.

An excellent biography of Aiken exists online at The Poetry Foundation. Please take time to read it, HERE.





¹This poem is difficult to track down.

² “Not Only the Eskimos” by Lisel Mueller, from Alive Together, LSU Press; First edition (October 1, 1996)


Week Forty-Three: “The Golem of Chelm” (traditional) and “By the Waters of Babylon” by Stephen Vincent Benét.


“The Golem of Chelm” (traditional, video)


Good morning!
This week we’re mixing storytelling forms, and we’re going to begin today with an eleven-minute animation.

We’ve studied a number of legends, fairy and folk tales . . .

Have you ever heard the story of the Golem? This particular Golem is The Golem of Rabbi Elijah; also known as the Golem of Chelm.

Listen as the story’s told, and let us know what you think.


For another Golem story everyone will enjoy, try Golem by David Wisniewski.

Golem is a 1996 picture book. With illustrations made of cut-paper collages, it is Wisniewski’s retelling of the Jewish folktale of the Golem (of Prague, this time, not Chelm) with a one-page background at the end.



This picture book won the Caldecott Medal in 1997


The story is set in year 1580, and the Jews are being persecuted. Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the town rabbi, can think of nothing more than creating a being out of mud and bringing it to life, using the holy name of God, to protect them. Once the Golem stops the persecution, Rabbi Loew erases the letters on the Golem’s head, making the Golem “sleep the dreamless sleep of clay”. The ending is ambiguous, ending with the words: “But many say he could awaken. Perhaps when the desperate need for justice is united with holy purpose, Golem will come to life once more.”


The book won the Caldecott Medal in 1997


. . .for movie fans . . .

Check out this old silent film:

The Golem (1920) by Paul Wegener


The 1920 silent film classic, The Golem

This film stars Wegener as the golem. The film was the third of three films that Wegener made featuring the golem, the other two being The Golem (1915) and the short comedy The Golem and the Dancing Girl (1917), in which Wegener dons the Golem make-up in order to frighten a young lady he is infatuated with. The Golem: How He Came into the World is a prequel to The Golem from 1915 and is the best known of the series, largely because it is the only one of the three films that has not been lost. One of the early horror films, the film was sensational upon its release and has left a lasting legacy within the film industry,[citation needed] alongside another early German expressionist horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).¹


“By the Waters of Babylon” by Stephen Vincent Benét



Painting, “By the Waters of Babylon,” Arthur Hacker, 1858-1919.



Looking for a second optional reading to pair with “The Golem of Chelm?”

John, the son of a priest, is one of the hill people. What will happen when he sets out on a spiritual quest to the forbidden place of the gods? Let’s find out in this often-anthologized science fiction story.

Here is “By the Waters of Babylon” by Stephen Vincent Benét.

How would you compare or contrast this to the tale of Rabbi Elijah’s Golem? Let us know!

HERE is Benét’s story



Image result for stephen vincent benet


Why do you suppose Stephen Vincent Benét chose this title for his short story?

Benét wrote the story in response to the April 25, 1937 bombing of Guernica, in which Fascist military forces destroyed the majority of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.[5] This story took place before the public knowledge of nuclear weapons, but Benét’s description of “The Great Burning” is similar to later descriptions of the effects of the atomic bombings at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. His “deadly mist” and “fire falling from the sky” seem eerily prescient of the descriptions of the aftermath of nuclear blasts. However, the “deadly mist” may also be a reference to chemical weapons in World War I, particularly mustard gas, a feared weapon of war that Benét’s generation was very familiar with. The story was written in 1937, two years before the Manhattan Project started, and eight years before there was widespread public knowledge of the project.

Elements of the plot and themes of By the Waters of Babylon appear in the 1970 feature film Beneath the Planet of the Apes.

The psalm is a hymn expressing the yearnings of the Jewish people in exile following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 607 BCE. The rivers of Babylon are the Euphrates river, its tributaries, and the Tigris river. In its whole form of nine verses, the psalm reflects the yearning for Jerusalem as well as hatred for the Holy City’s enemies with sometimes violent imagery. Rabbinical sources attributed the poem to the prophet Jeremiah,[1] and the Septuagint version of the psalm bears the superscription: “For David. By Jeremias, in the Captivity.”[2]

  1. By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
  2. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
  3. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
  4. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
  5. If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
  6. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
  7. Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.
  8. O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
  9. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

The early lines of the psalm describe the sadness of the Israelites in exile, weeping and hanging their harps on trees. Asked to “sing the Lord’s song in a strange land”, they refuse. The speaker turns into self-exhortation to remember Jerusalem: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.” (אִם-אֶשְׁכָּחֵךְ יְרוּשָׁלִָם–תִּשְׁכַּח יְמִינִי). The psalm ends with prophetic predictions of violent revenge.



 . . .A bit about Stephen Vincent Benét . . .



Stephen Vincent Benét (July 22, 1898 – March 13, 1943) was an American poet, short story writer, and novelist. He is best known for his book-length narrative poem of the American Civil War John Brown’s Body (1928), for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1929, and for the short stories “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1936) and “By the Waters of Babylon” (1937). In 2009, The Library of America selected Benét’s story “The King of the Cats” (1929) for inclusion in its two-century retrospective of American Fantastic Tales edited by Peter Straub.