Wednesday, May 27, 2009

It's BEA Season!

Readers of this blog may have noticed how quiet it's been lately. This is due, in large part, to the fact that BEA Season has held our office hostage for the last few weeks. A shantytown of boxes, posters, galleys, bookmarks, foamcore-mounted book covers, and assorted letterpress giveaways, has been amassing around my desk as the day (this Thursday) approaches. I'm extremely grateful that the show is in New York this year, and not Los Angeles, as in 2008 — removes the momma-bird-like tension of letting all this precious promotional material out to cross the country in the hands of FedEx. I'll tell you what: it was a tense few days waiting for confirmation that everything had arrived in LA safe and sound. No such trauma this year.

We're going to have some really great promotional material available at the booth: galleys for Le Clézio's novel Desert and Robert Reid's memoir Arctic Circle; a set of pages from Yousuf Karsh's Regarding Heroes bound in a letterpress cover that David Godine printed himself; an essay from The Guardian (UK) on the enduring appeal of Lark Rise to Candleford, also with a DRG original letterpress cover; some gorgeous new posters; and a new array of bookmarks. If you're a bookseller in the area (right in the front, to the right of the main entrance as you come in) please stop by to say hello, take a look at our 2009 titles, and maybe even place an order. The list is altogether, I think, remarkably strong this year.

We'll be at booth 4204, hope to see you in NYC!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Sphinx Moths

I am frequently asked about sphinx moths, the most common question, “What is that furry flying creature nectaring at the butterfly bushes?” This week’s column is a recycled version of an older article on sphinx moths, which I hope you will find helpful. Photos of an unusual red form of the Virginia creeper sphinx moth caterpillar, and the eclosed adult, are also included.

We were delighted with the sheer numbers of Snowberry and Hummingbird Clearwing moths nectaring in our gardens this past summer. There were so many clearwings nectaring on a butterfly bush at Willowdale one afternoon that I actually saw two sort of crash into each other. I’ve sent for several snowberry bushes (Symphoricarpos albus var. albus) from a reputable mail order source and will keep you posted on their culture. Snowberry bushes are often seen in older gardens. They are a suckering shrub ideal for a dry, partly shaded location. They eventually grow to five feet, possibly higher. The bush has a lovely habit when, in late summer, the branches arch from the weight of the popcorn-look-alike plump white berries, and are juxtaposed against the deep green opposite leaves. Symphoricarpos albus var. albus is the species native to eastern regions of the United States; Symphoricarpos var. albus var. laevigatus is native to the Pacific Northwest. Snowberry, a member of the Caprifoliaceae (Honeysuckle Family), is a larval host plant for both the Hummingbird and Snowberry clearwing moths and the berries are an important winter food source for quail, grouse, and pheasant. Attention backyard gardeners: unfortunately snowberry is listed by the U.S. federal government as endangered in Massachusetts, Kentucky, Maryland, Illinois, and extirpated in Ohio.

I love plants that have a suckering habit because once they become established, as with our native spiraea (Spiraea latifolia), it is rewarding to dig up a clump and passalong to a fellow gardener. I am looking forward to receiving our suckering snowberry bushes!

I will be signing books at the Ipswich Garden Club’s much anticipated annual plant sale, this coming Saturday morning, beginning at 9:00 am. The plant sale is at the Hall-Haskell House/ Visitors Center.

This weekend only, the Wenham Museum is holding a new fundraising event titled Tablescapes, featuring table settings designed by local businesses. Briar Forsythe, the proprietor of Willowdale Estate, and I have partnered to create what we are calling an Alfresco Birthday Party in the Butterfly Courtyard Garden. For more information about Willowdale Estate, a full service special events venue, and their butterfly and songbird garden I designed, visit my webpage at Willowdale Estate. For more information about Tablescapes, visit the Wenham Museum’s website.

[Kim Smith is the author of Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities!]

Friday, May 8, 2009

Think Native Asters in Spring

We tend to think of asters only in fall. Surrounded by spring’s emergent beauty, it is easy to lose oneself in the flowering tree families of Magnoliaceae, Rosaceae, Cornaceae, and Fabaceae. Add to that the living picture of nesting songbirds, blossoming shrubs, bulbs, and wildflowers, then followed by summer’s luxuriant bounty — understandably so — we often fail to adequately plan in spring for fall blooms and butterflies. I encourage you to consider integrating native species of asters in your overall garden design. Plant aster seeds collected, a nursery-grown pot, or a pass-along from a friend, and, come next fall, you will be richly rewarded for your foresight. The luminous lower angle of light gilding the late summer New England landscape creates an ethereal haze when seen through the purples, lavender-blues, rosy-pinks, and white inflorescence of calico, New York, New England, late-purple, and smooth asters, to name but a handful, transforming roadside, meadow, and garden.

Asters are one of the most important plants for providing nectar in late summer and autumn for all categories of pollinators. Listed on the website of the Connecticut Botanical Society are perhaps thirty or so asters native to New England. The following three beauties I have in mind for your gardens not only provide nectar; they are also larval host plants for many species of Lepidoptera: smooth aster (Aster laevis), flat-topped white aster (Aster umbellatus), and New England aster (Aster novae-angliae). The neatly compact Wood’s asters that are commonly available at garden centers have their place in the landscape design when a low mounding plant is desired. We see comparatively far fewer butterflies on Wood’s asters than the three aforementioned straight species.

The flower clusters of flat-topped aster are usually flat, but occasionally may appear dome shaped. The lacey white ray flowers surround the yellow disk florets and the leaves are a larval food plant for the Harris Checkerspot butterfly (Chlosyne harrisii). Aster umbellatus grows anywhere from 2 to 7 feet. Typically, in the well-tended garden, it will grow towards the taller side, as does New England aster. Plant both in the back of the border. The foliage on the lower part of the stems of New England aster tends to dry out towards blooming time; plant lower- growing perennials such as Montauk daisy and goldenrods in the foreground to disguise the ratty looking foliage. Flat-topped asters, New England, and smooth asters begin to bloom in September. They tolerate a variety of soil and light conditions, however, they will thrive when planted in full sun and in rich, moist soil.

New England asters bloom in shades of deep purple and pink, more intense in color when compared to other native asters. I can’t talk about New England asters without mentioning my friend Joe Ann’s patch. Hers runs along the back length of her luxuriantly lush vegetable garden. In mid- to late September, the blossoms become a nectar magnet for all manner of pollinator on the wing. The combination of masses of Persian pink blossoms, bees, and butterflies are truly a sight to behold.

Not only are smooth asters a top source of nectar for Monarch butterflies (and many species of butterflies) during their annual fall migration, they are also a larval host plant for the Pearly Crescentspot (Phyciodes tharos) butterfly (see photo in last week’s column) and Northern Crescent (Phyciodes selenis). If I had to choose a favorite of the favorites, it would have to be smooth aster. The cheery lavender-blue ½ inch button-sized flowers are a lovely addition to the butterfly garden. I like that they reseed prolifically throughout the borders, realizing however, that this trait may not be to every one’s taste. Smooth aster is a common sight in our neighborhood and grows vigorously along the shoreline, particularly in wet swampy areas.

Generally speaking, the majority of native wildflower seeds will germinate without pretreatment when planted outdoors in fall or early winter. To plant in spring or summer, a physical modification to the seed’s coat is often needed to allow the embryo to mature or break dormancy. New England aster seeds require a period of moisture and cold after harvesting before they will germinate. If planting in spring, this period is artificially simulated by placing the moistened seed in a refrigerator for a certain length of time. Place the seeds in a small container with moist (not wet) sand, peat or vermiculite, and leave in the refrigerator for four to six weeks. This procedure is known as stratification, because of the layering of the seeds within the medium. Look at the seeds from time to time. The seeds must be kept moist while pre-chilling but it doesn't usually benefit them to be actually in water or at temperatures below freezing. Light is also beneficial after pre-chilling. Pre-chilled New England aster seeds should have only the lightest covering of compost or soil, 1/4 to 1/8 inch.

End Notes: — Weston Nurseries often carries ‘Alma Potchke,’ a lively, almost hot pink, cultivar of New England aster. Garden in the Woods at the New England Wild Flower Society offers the straight species of New England aster. I am giving away seeds of New England asters with purchase of book. — If you are planning to attend my class (first class is this coming Tuesday, May 5th) at the Arnold Arboretum, “Your Garden as Habitat,” please register at your earliest convenience to assure a spot. — Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities! would make a terrific Mother’s Day gift. Please come join me, if you can, the weekend of Mother’s Day at the upcoming book signings and events: — Barnes and Noble at the Prudential Center, Boston. Thursday May 7, 2009 at 4:30 pm. — Jabberwocky Bookshop at the Tannery in Newburyport on Friday May 8, 2009 at 7:00 pm. — The Stevens-Coolidge Place Annual Plant Sale on Saturday, May 9, 2009 from 10:00 am to 2 pm. Butterfly walks and book signing.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Jane's Walk in Cambridge

I'm still coming down from my Jane's Walk high. It was truly an exhilarating experience.

A couple months ago, Jane’s Walk USA asked us, the authors of Genius of Common Sense: Jane Jacobs and the Story of Death and Life of Great American Cities, if we might organize a walk in our city. Begun in Canada the year after Jane died in 2006, the walks honor the memory and spirit of author and urban activist Jane Jacobs on the weekend closest to her birthday on May 4. According to, the walks offer "a street-level celebration of Jane Jacobs ideas and legacy."

This Saturday, our Jane's Walk here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was a smashing success. We had chosen an urban fringe area on both sides of the railroad tracks between Porter Square and Sherman Street in North Cambridge. Within the last ten or fifteen years, these once crime-ridden, semi-industrial streets have sprouted attractive infill construction and gone through major rehab and reuse of old buildings.

We had forty enthusiastic walkers — many were longtime fans of Jane. And we were thrilled to have Jane's niece and nephew, Nancy and Robin McBride, as well as city councilor Henrietta Davis, former mayor Frank Duehay, and Michael Kenney, reporter from the Boston Globe. Charles Sullivan, the head of the city’s historical commission led us, brilliantly providing historical background, maps, and Winslow Homer’s 1859 engraving of a view along the tracks of Cambridge’s cattle market.

As we walked by a large co-housing project, a resident putting in her “sweat equity” took time from her gardening to describe life in an “intentional community.” One of our walkers, who lived in a converted broom factory that we passed on our route, invited us to see her glorious enclosed garden bordering the tracks. We also unexpectedly bumped into and heard insider views of the neighborhood from Joanna Malenfant, daughter of the late Geneva Malenfant whom Charlie Sullivan called “Cambridge’s own Jane Jacobs.”

Back in Porter Square, a large group of us wound things up at Christopher’s restaurant, not quite Jane’s White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street, but nevertheless an old neighborhood establishment in a nineteenth-century building. We sipped and ate and continued conversation.

The whole event was truly a blast, with its serendipity and lively discussion among the walkers. We loved gathering a group of folks for the sole purpose of strolling through a more-or-less ordinary neighborhood for a little urban exploration and contemplation.

Yes, the walk should certainly be the first of many. It far exceeded any of our expectations — in turn-out, chance encounters, and enjoyment.

Max Allen, a Jane’s Walk organizer in Toronto, had emailed on Friday that there were going to be 140 Walks in that city alone. Other Canadian cities boast many. American cities joined in this year. This feels like the beginning — or continuation — of a movement. Hats off to Jane Jacobs and her books!

[The author of this post is Glenna Lang, co-author of Genius of Common Sense, as well as several other Godine titles.]

Charting the Emotional Landscape


Following the death of my father from metastatic lung cancer in 1991 (he had never smoked a cigarette), my relationship to language changed.

For decades I had forced it to carry the weight of my various frustrated angers, starting with the early poems of Mad Dog Black Lady (reprinted in African Sleeping Sickness). The contradiction inherent in the title of that first book amused me — being mad yet being polite about it. I wanted to "say it plain" as the dictum goes; but, my penchant for complexities, and admiration for the genuinely profound went artistically unsatisfied. I was constantly seeking a way to lend depth and scope to my poetry — particularly after being criticized for (apparently) writing too easily — something I was unaware of doing, since it may have taken hours of intense focus, a dozen revisions, over years, if lucky, to compose a given poem; although I managed an average of a hundred poems per year, in various stages of completion. (This does not rule out other types of writing experiences, such as the "automatic" and "being in the zone." Yet I'd hesitate to classify work emerging from those experiences as "easy.")

How, I wondered, does a poet make one's effort evident without putting the reader to sleep? How could I sustain my stubborn purpose and volcanic content without resorting to a traditional form, which might deaden my text in its familiarity? How do I invite the reader into the process, and yet "lock" my language? How do I present familiar emotional content in an unfamiliar form? How do I vent my fury, exuberance or love, all of those, and yet transcend it / them in the same extended moment?

Even as I asked such questions, my answer was coming about on its own — related to my childhood encounters with music (which I discussed in The Riot Inside Me), with an emphasis on the classical music taught in junior high school, coupled with my adult appreciation of the blues and jazz. I had always loved the minor keys, discordance and the contrapuntal as generators of musical ironies — and enjoyed their counterparts in elevated conversation and cultural dialogue. What knitting of a comprehensive musically inclined whole (akin to collage, perhaps pieces of Pound’s Cantos wiggling around in my subconscious and tripping across Theolonious) from fragments, the overheard, snippets of ideas, combined in unexpected ways, offered exciting, challenging and unexpected poetic leaps? My answer was the fugue. In it, one finds the discipline of structure wedded to the freedom of movement. When I went back and examined some of my longer poems, such as "Essay on Language" (6/86, in Heavy Daughter Blues), I realized that I had already begun exploring my version of the fugue.

Since, I've managed to compose five fugues. The playful "The Ron Narrative Reconstructions," a nod to poet Ron Silliman (in Bathwater Wine), was my first fully realized fugue, and was written in January 1995. "Salvation Wax" (10/95, also Bathwater Wine), was the third, the most biographical, and, I think, the most important of the fugues, the longest poem I have written to date; however, the last one, "Amnesia Fugue" (4/99), which appears in Mercurochome, has become my favorite. In these fugues, I am doing what was wished for in Hand Dance (performing 'the ritual of the whole . . . shaping a certainty'), as suggested in the form of the poems "ethiopian in the fuel supplies," "Essay on Language (2)," "Vet" and "Cancer" — poems in which I explore the "shattered narrative."

The series is completed with "Night Widow Fugue" (9/97), my homage to unmarried / unloved Black women of all ages. It is wed to "Sorceress of Muntu" (5/73), the first of the fugues drafted, but which remained unfinished until its revision in August 1997. In it, I pitch a royal bitch about my frustrated "writing career." I had intended to use "Sorceress" as the title poem of a separate manuscript; however, the phrases it apparently "needed" for completion had failed to materialize. I had tried fitting it into other manuscripts, but it overwhelmed them. In Ostinato Vamps (University of Pittsburgh Press) it is not only a perfect fit, but an exquisite climax. It equals "Amnesia" as my favorite of the fugues.

For the years between “Salvation Wax” and “Amnesia Fugue”, I favored the older work. Their common theme is the death of my eldest son from HIV / AIDS. In the first, he is dying. In the second he is dead. As time passes, the latter holds more emotional weight, therefore more impact. It is difficult for me to read it. I often present sections of "Salvation" in public; rarely so with "Amnesia," perhaps because there is still too much painful immediacy in its narrative. Too much sadness.

Will I write another fugue?


The series seems to have ended itself. It’s as if I’ve exhausted the need that created these poems. I don’t know the definitive answer, although I wish I had the luxury of time to worry it onto paper. In the meantime, I regard the fugue as a remarkable way in which to recreate given moments, explore new impulses, expand aesthetic arguments, and refine one’s emotional content in the process of composing the poem. It is a form for those who delight in deepening revelations.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Le Clézio Reading at MIT

For those of you who missed the event, which I discussed briefly here, we've received permission from the author to post this recording of his MIT talk this past Tuesday. If you enjoy it — I think you just might — have a go at his novel The Prospector, before we release his breakthrough work, Desert.