Category Archives: Poetry

Stop by My Author Page and Say Hi

My Facebook author page has a brand new cover – it quotes Library Journal saying that Savage Girl is “A fanciful and occasionally surreal take on Gilded Age New York.”

And hey, I just reached 100 likes, a figure I’m a little proud of. But I’d like more likes, more! And more visitors. Come see reviews and interviews as they come in, as well as offers for galley giveaways. Savage Girl doesn’t hit stores until March 6 but there’s a lot going on before then.

I’m always trying to put up something fresh, not only about my books (Savage Girl, The Orphanmaster, Love Fiercely and others) but about writing, reading, and living in such a way as to make those things possible. How do you water an idea to make a book come up? Always trying to figure that out.

watering-can

Something else: please post on my page! I would love to hear what you’re thinking about.

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A Room of One’s Own-Thank You Virginia

A belated happy birthday to Virginia Woolf (born January 25th), a writer whose fiction I idolized when I was around sixteen. I had the firm conviction that her novels To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, innovative, modernist, poetic, were about as good as literature got.

Virginia Woolf cu

When I discovered Woolf’s book-length essay A Room of One’s Own, in college, I was thunderstruck. And I’ve never lost that feeling. I re-read Woolf’s arch 1929 critique of a sexist world, a discriminatory educational system, the need to nurture female talent, and I’m still pumping my fist in the air.

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” A Room of One’s Own

Adeline Virginia Stephen was born on January 25, 1882, to Julia Stephen, a model for Pre-Raphaelite painters, and Leslie Stephen, a well-known biographer. She had seven siblings and half-siblings, and was brought up in an upper-middle-class Kensington household. That she suffered some sort of mental disorder (she was probably bipolar) was clear from her first breakdown at the time of her mother’s death in 1895. She collapsed again when her father died in 1904. In 1912 she married Leonard Woolf and in 1915 she published her first novel. Despite her recurring “madness,” she was able to publish and run Hogarth Press with Leonard and be active in the Bloomsbury literary group for the rest of her life.

Virginia and her sister Vanessa playing cricket

That’s Virginia and her sister Vanessa playing cricket, proving that she had a lighter side.

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” A Room of One’s Own

On March 28, 1941, Woolf filled the pockets of her overcoat with stones and walked into the River Ouse, near her house, to drown. An object that moved me beyond words was the simple wooden walking stick she took with her into the river, found floating near where she went in, preserved in the collection of The New York Public Library and shown in an exhibit of the library’s treasures a few years back.

woolf's walking stick

“When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.A Room of One’s Own

There is one surviving recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice. She delivered a talk called “Craftsmanship,” part of a 1937 BBC radio broadcast.

VIRGINIA WOOLF

Here is Woolf’s take on Judith, Shakespeare’s erstwhile sister, also from A Room of One’s Own. Tell me if after reading this you are not also pumping your fist in the air.

“I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister; but do not look for her in Sir Sidney Lee’s life of the poet. She died young—alas, she never wrote a word. She lies buried where the omnibuses now stop, opposite the Elephant and Castle. Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the cross–roads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here to–night, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh. This opportunity, as I think, it is now coming within your power to give her. For my belief is that if we live another century or so—I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals—and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting–room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; and the sky. too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves; if we look past Milton’s bogey, for no human being should shut out the view; if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down. Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born. As for her coming without that preparation, without that effort on our part, without that determination that when she is born again she shall find it possible to live and write her poetry, that we cannot expect, for that would he impossible. But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.”

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The Power of Words

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is an occasion that celebrates among other things the power of words.

martin-luther-king-2

The man was a Shakespeare for our day.

And so I really like this post by someone who talks about how some good novels lead us, as Wordsworth once put it, “toward obliterating the vulgarity of exclusiveness.” I urge you to check it out. There is a list of 19 books that speak truth to prejudice. The recommendations are far ranging. They include Julie, or the New Heloise by Jean Jacques Rousseau.

rousseau

Dickens’ Oliver Twist.

twist

Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

stowe

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

ellison

And, interestingly, Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson.

jesus son

You may have read one or two of these selections before. Let’s read them again, for their politics as well as their poetry.

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Edward Lear in Flight

The nonsense poet and artist Edward Lear has always been one of my favorites. I remember when I was growing up being fascinated and mystified by The Pobble Who Has No Toes:

The Pobble who has no toes

    Had once as many as we;

When they said, ‘Some day you may lose them all;’—

    He replied, — ‘Fish fiddle de-dee!’

And his Aunt Jobiska made him drink,

Lavender water tinged with pink,

For she said, ‘The World in general knows

There’s nothing so good for a Pobble’s toes!’

And its zesty illustration:

pobble

Now I come across 10 rare sketches from 1860 in which Lear portrays himself getting blown about on a gusty day, from the Frederick R. Koch Collection at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in Yale University. The drawings are so charming. Here are 5 of the 10; click the link to see the whole portfolio.

Lear 1

December 26, 1860.

Lear 2

B.H.H. remonstrates with E.L.on his determination to get out of doors on a windy day.

Lear 3

L. goes out, but finds the wind inconveniently high.

Lear 4

L. is carried off his legs into the hair [sic] all among the birds.

Lear 5

L. continues to fly straight forward.

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Bit by Bit

Stitch after stitch. The easiest in knitting is the knit stitch, worked over and over, row after row, dignified by its pattern name the garter stitch. Time honored and simple, it’s the foundation of sweaters and scarves all around the world. I man the couch (woman the couch?), man up (woman up?) to knit stitch after stitch, a surprise length of comfort for someone who deserves every form of it.

garter

Song after song. Pandora seems to have decided that Ella, Aretha and Etta, with a sprinkling of Emmy Lou Harris, are the mainstays of my acoustic pantheon. Which is fine, as long as Etta James sings Just a Little Bit.

I don’t want much,

I just want a little bit

I don’t want it all babe

I just want a little bit

Just a teeny weeny bit, just a itty bitty bit of your love

Flake by flake. The snowstorm hits. The snow doesn’t give a soft white damn whom it touches, wrote E.E. Cummings. That’s the twisted magic of a white winter, after all, the stuff is so impersonal, impervious, and yet we extrapolate all soft and fuzzy feelings from it. Since I was a child I’ve made snow cream: put out a pot and collect the clean flakes, then mix the white stuff with milk, sugar and vanilla for a wintry treat that’s better than ice cream, especially if you’re a red-cheeked little kid.

Tweet by tweet. You stretch your brain a little and it keeps you young. That’s how it is with me and Twitter, which I’ve been dipping a toe into and coming up sometimes with a sparkly pedicure and sometimes a crab bite. Stephen King just opened a Twitter account, got twenty thousand followers instantly. “On Twitter at last,” he offered, not fully utilizing his 140 characters, “and can’t think of a thing to say. Some writer I turned out to be.” But it all comes down less to what you have to say than to the links, one by one, you make with other people. So follow me. Or at least tweet at me, @jeanczimmerman. And while you’re at it, tweet at Stephen.

Note by note. So much of publishing books is about the relationships with people you have along the way – writers and editors, writers and bookstore people. As an author you’re a cog in a bigger, complicated machine, one whose purpose is to put great books in the hands of eager readers. So I’m writing little remember-me’s to all the friendly, supportive booksellers I met while touring with The Orphanmaster. Letting people know about Savage Girl, that it’s coming out in March, and to look for it. Feral children have always fascinated me, I’m telling booksellers.

feral child

– but in NYC, in a world of Gilded Age opulence? An irresistable mashup.

the-wyndham-sisters-1899

I hope you fall for my Savage Girl, I’m telling my bookseller friends.

And little by little. The bones in my left foot are healing but won’t withstand an ounce of pressure or weight. It’s a good place to be, my couch, with my foot on a pillow, Etta on the box, a rollerball pen in my hand, knitting bag by my side, a fire in the hearth and a curtain of snow out the window. Bit by bit we move along, and today that’s just about right.

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Gil’s Prize-Winning Apple Crumb Pie

Apple pie is the chicken soup of desserts. It fixes what ails you. Even if you didn’t know something was ailing you. And that is true of some apple pies more than others — Gil’s recipe for a towering crumb-top makes you lick the plate. Then you feel good, apple-pie good. His pie won first prize in a very competitive contest — I still remember Gil pumping the air with his fist when the victory was announced in the library parking lot. It wasn’t typical apple-pie behavior but it was all Gil. And his is the kind of pie that will make you want to stand up and salute. Torching the top to caramelize it just a little is optional.

BonTon Roulet Apple Pie

But before I share Gil’s recipe, a dip into history. Apple pie, you know, was not always the totem it is today. When apple pies first were baked, the outsides, called coffins, weren’t meant to be ingested. Sugar wasn’t numbered among the ingredients, it was too pricey. Still, in 1390 A.D. a recipe was devised by the master cooks of King Richard II for Tartys in Applis:

Tak gode Applys and gode Spryeis and Figys and reyfons and Perys and wan they are wel ybrayed colourd wyth Safron wel and do yt in a cofyn and do yt forth to bake well.

medieval-pie

Pies were spectacles, and apples weren’t especially spectacular. The four and twenty living blackbirds zooming out the broken top crust were not just a nursery rhyme, they were real, at least for those wealthy enough to afford a feast.

Pie

By Tudor times more sugar was available and we find another recipe for “pye,” this time with green apples.

Pies in colonial america were first called puddings. By 1759, when Swedish parson Dr. Israel Acrelius made notes on a visit to the Delaware, pie was a staple: “It is the evening meal of children.” Until European stock got established, though, American apples were crabapples.

child holding hornbook

Amelia Simmons rendered her classic apple pie recipe in the 1796 cooking bible American Cookery. With its cinnamon and sugar it sounds contemporary, but the inclusion of rose-water was a throwback to the middle ages.

Apple pie became a compliment in 1590, when poet Robert Green praised a lady in a piece called Arcadia. They breath is like the steame of apple-pyes. That might make a good pick up line even today.

cooking kitchen

A century or so latter Apple Pye itself is praised by poet William King:

Of all the delicates which Britons try

To please the palate of delight the eye,

Of all the sev’ral kings of sumptuous far,

There is none that can with applepie compare.

Gil’s BON-TON ROULET APPLE CRUMB PIE

Special ingredients: Northern Spy apples, Tipo “00” flour, Ceylon cinnamon, Stone Hill Farms leaf lard

Oven at 350

Crust:
2 1/2 cup flour (mix of Tipo 00 and regular)
2 tspns cinnamon
1/2 tspn salt
2 sticks butter (the high-fat European-style stuff)
1/4 cup lard (I got my hands on some leaf lard, but the faint of heart can use shortening)
1 tspn vanilla
5 tbs ice water

Filling:
3 lbs-plus apples (tart ones, I used Northern Spy, Cortland are good too, in a pinch Granny Smith)
Juice of one lemon
2 tspns cinnamon
½ tspn nutmeg
½ cup sugar
3 tbs arrowroot or cornstarch

Topping:
1/2 cup walnuts crushed
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup flour
Half stick melted butter

Crust: Mix dry ingredients, cut in butter and lard, add vanilla and sprinkle in ice water until you can gather the dough into a ball. Chill, flatten ball slightly and roll out flat with rolling pin. Use a greased nine-inch pie pan — you’ll have extra, but make a generous edge. Bake for 30 minutes (pie weights or beans on wax paper or greased aluminum foil will keep bottom crust flat).

Filling: Toss peeled, thinly sliced apples with lemon juice. Combine with dry ingredients and mix well. Bake for 30 minutes, stirring every ten or so.

Assembly: Pour partially cooked apples into partially cooked crust. Mound apples up in the center of the pie. Mix topping ingredients together and mound on top of pie, spreading it around to edges.

Bake assembled pie for another 30 minutes and remove to a rack.

Suggested soundtrack: Sixties top-forty pop (Kinks, Animals, Tommy James, ? and the Mysterians, Hollies, Strawberry Alarm Clock)


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Making Book

Frank Stella’s splashy, enormous constructions line the walls of the lobby where my book publisher has its offices. Three collages, to be precise, of mixed media on a base of etched magnesium. Standing in front of one, you have to crane your neck to see the top of the piece. Standing there, I try to imagine creating something so large as the exploding Stella’s, so imposing. My mind wanders – outside is a dumpling truck with the snazzy legend: “Who’s Your Edamame?” It’s a New York morning, and art and food and commerce jostle for attention.

stella

Books, books, time to think about books. Or one book: my book. Stella’s work depicts the inside of my head as I take the elevator to the fourth floor. We’re going to talk about how to introduce Savage Girl to the world. How can I describe the feeling? Heart-pounding excitement. Trepidation. All shades in between.

Savage Girl comes out March 6th. And all the people at our meeting, editor, publicist, social media pro, literary agent – all of them are invested in making sure that my novel reaches a wide reading public.

So we talk about strategies. Bound gallleys, called ARCs in the business (for Advance Reading Copies) – who has received them so far, who gets them next? Print is no long king when it comes to reviewers – we want people to blab online about the book, on Goodreads, “where bookworms congregate,” as someone at the meeting says, on blogs, everywhere. We want the twitter-sphere to sing its praises. We want the people who read this blog – yes, you! – to get ahold of a copy and make their friend read it too. We want it to be consumed and consumed some more. Come up for air! Someone will say. It’s time to do the dishes. To go to the dentist!  But I can’t possibly, you say, I am too immersed in the adventures of Hugo and Bronwyn.

Savage Girl cover-final

Booksellers who received their early copy are liking Savage Girl, it seems. (Some Hollywood producers are too – shush, don’t jinx it by talking about it.) Authors have weighed in with comments that will appear on the back of the dust jacket. I like this one from Da Chen, the lyrical novelist:

The best historical fiction brings the reader back to a bygone era and  the depth of humanity then.  Jean Zimmerman does all that and more in her elegantly written new novel.  I simply could not put down this this tale of sweet and painful love, of a savage girl and her encounter with modernity.

All I have to do between now and March is a hundred things. Suffice it to say I’ll be writing more here and elsewhere about the Gilded Age, sharing what I learned in the process of researching Savage Girl. Debutante rituals, fashion, feasting, feral children, nineteenth century medical practices, mansions that are architectural marvels… I hope that people who don’t know much about the period will find out something new, and that I’ll satisfy Gilded Age aficionados’  yearning for more on the subject.

Photograph1880

Say you enter your favorite independent bookstore, where the management has carefully curated its collection. You inspect the table when you come in the door and find scads of titles that tantalize you, that beg to be picked up and perused. It may seem that they found their way there by some kind of magic. Not so. Behind every glossy jacket is a team of geniuses who have pondered and sleuthed and brainstormed a way to bring that wonderful volume to you. Like an explosion, like the mixed-media Stella on the wall, the planning all comes together to unveil a bound book.

Riding the subway uptown, I notice a man standing next to me with headphones. Dancing, and not so demurely, either. He is rocking and rolling. He is happy. So am I. I remember a couplet by one of my favorite poets, another Frank, Frank O’Hara, who made New York City the star of many of his poems in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

How funny you are today New York

like Ginger Rogers in Swingtime

Sometimes, when you’re in Manhattan, everything can seem so right. I get off the train at my stop and look from one side to the other, not sure which direction to head on the platform. A woman in black-framed glasses and long black hair touches me on the arm. I don’t even have to ask. She points with her finger and softly, kindly says, This way. This way.

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