3 Poems By…Gregory Pardlo

One of the things I run into surprisingly often is people saying to me, “I’ve never heard of you before”…Yet I’ve been publishing in “mainstream” journals and my book won that prize, so what is it that is making me invisible? It’s not the work and it’s not the publishing credits. — Gregory Pardlo in The Guardian.

“That prize” is the 2015 Pulitzer for poetry, and Pardlo’s question is a good one, one I hope we’ll wrestle with when 3 Poems by… kicks off its 2016 season.

pardloIf you’re new to Eleventh Stack you might not know that the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh hosts a spirited poetry discussion on the second Thursday of most months. Pittsburgh’s poetry lovers include a wide cross-section of your friends and neighbors, from casually interested laypersons to (extremely modest) local celebrity poets. Normally the poets we discuss are chosen by a facilitator, but this year the group will be reading the work of writers who will also be reading at Poets on Tour. This reading series, a collaborative Library project with Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures, brings some of the best contemporary American poets to a Pittsburgh stage, and I’m more than a little psyched about being in the same room with a Pulitzer prize-winner.

But first, a look at his work.

Digest, the volume for which Pardlo won “that award,” is a tightly-knit collection of masterful code-switching. Highly structured poems that both mirror and mock academic rhetoric rest alongside the looser, more conversational rhythms of personal lyric pieces. The collection’s initial poem, “Written by Himself,” indicates which voice we are meant to accept as most truthful/genuine:

I was born still and superstitious; I bore an unexpected burden
I gave birth, I gave blessing, I gave rise to suspicion.
I was born abandoned outdoors in the heat-shaped air,
air drifting like spirits and old windows… (3).

Don’t think for a second, though, that Pardlo is bluffing his way through academe. In some ways it is a mask he wears, and in other ways it’s a mask that wears him. Either way, though, it’s a highly conscious costuming that results in some gorgeous images and wicked wit, as in the following passage from “Corrective Lenses, Creative Reading, and (Recon)textual/ization”:

In this course we
will venerate the subjective mind, or rather, examine how subject/
object share the fuzzy circumference of a lone spotlight
beneath the proscenium arch. There is no reliable narrator. For example, tea
leaves or cloudbursts in the shape of ladybirds.

If you’ve ever been anywhere near graduate school, the title alone is pure comedy gold. And yet, the deliberate use of academic language to cut through its own usual fog to a different level of awareness isn’t just amusing: it’s sensuous, gorgeous. Perhaps you can dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools?

Having said all that, what really matters is what you think. If you’d like to read a smart, self-aware, dazzling collection of poetry, click here to reserve a copy of Digest for yourself. If you just can’t wait, click here to register for 3 Poems by…Gregory Pardlo and receive an e-mail with the three pieces the group will be discussing on January 14th at 7:30 p.m.. At the very least, leave a comment below and let me know your best answer to Pardlo’s question: How is it possible so many of us have never heard of him before now?

–Leigh Anne

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Starting the Year with Some Big Magic

I place a lot of importance on the first book I read each year.

(I’m not alone in this.)

I give a lot of thought to this choice. Some years, I start with a collection or two of poetry. Sometimes I need to be inspired or I’m looking for something to help me deal with my  overhead compartment of baggage that I’m flying with through this life. Sometimes it’s a book related to a work or personal goal.  It all depends on the year and what’s happening in my life when we start a new trip around the sun.

If, by some chance, you’re still searching for your first book and you’re a creative type, I’d like to recommend Big Magic: Creative Living Through Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Big Magic.png

I will admit that Big Magic isn’t my first book of 2016, but I wish it was because it would be perfect. One of my personal goals is to focus more on my own writing — the actual writing itself but also submitting more of my work to publications and pursuing creative opportunities that nurture that goal.

You may be thinking that Big Magic is just another gimmicky book about creativity and following your passion, the likes of which you’ve probably read before. And you also may be judging this based on perhaps a negative impression of Eat Pray Love or any other of Gilbert’s work. And you would be wrong on both counts.  (I can say that because I did both of those things.)

Big Magic was refreshing because it was different from other books of this nature — you know, the ones that make you feel that you need to win a Powerball jackpot of $500 million in order to pursue a creative path in life, mortgages and student loans be damned.

(Don’t get me wrong.  I could be very creative with $500 million, or even a portion thereof, in case any of you happen to be holding the golden ticket.)

Elizabeth Gilbert isn’t advocating that we creative types go into the office tomorrow and quit our jobs or commit to waking up every morning at 3 a.m. to write The Best Novel Ever or build a wing onto our house for the studio of our dreams. If you are able to do those things, more power to you. That’s not reality for most of us, however. And if we’re looking to our creativity to solve the bigger questions of our lives, we might be missing the point altogether.

Perhaps creativity’s greatest mercy is this: By completely absorbing our attention for a short and magical spell, it can relieve us temporarily from the dreadful burden of being who we are. Best of all, at the end of your creative adventure, you have a souvenir — something that you made, something to remind you forever of your brief but transformative encounter with inspiration.

I really enjoyed this book and Elizabeth Gilbert’s direct and down-to-earth approach to creativity was exactly what I needed at the end of last year to make this one magical.

~ Melissa F.


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“Everyone can be great because everyone can serve” – MLK Day of Service

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is closed on January 18 in observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. As the volunteer coordinator, it’s a little bittersweet to have the day off, because Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a National Day of Service. Yup, that’s right, the Corporation for National and Community Service (the same folks who are in charge of AmeriCorps) designates a few days each year to encourage people to get out in their communities and get work done.

Volunteering is important all year long, but these national days of service are a great reminder about the value of working together alongside your friends and neighbors to improve our world.

Since the Library isn’t open, we aren’t able to offer any service projects on MLK Day this year.  Don’t let that stop you, though; there are plenty of other opportunities for you to honor the memory of Dr. King through community service, and there’s plenty of time to decide what to do.

Here are a few recommendations:

Life's most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?



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Reading Resolutions for 2016

You may not have noticed, but we sure like to read around here! We also love a good challenge, so here are some of Team Eleventh Stack’s reading resolutions for 2016.

My reading resolutions are to read at least 25 books, to read more nonfiction books, starting with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, and to start to read short stories.

Happy New Year!



snicketAfter totally nailing last year’s reading resolution I’m going to try to read everything written by one author for 2016 (probably either Michael Crichton or Chuck Palahniuk–or both!). Fiction, nonfiction, books under a pen name–everything! To add some variety, I’m also going to try to read A Series of Unfortunate Events in its entirety. I missed the hype-train when the books first came out and with a show on Netflix coming soon, I suppose now is a good time to catch up.


beautifuluglyI’m going to try my hand at a dedicated book challenge this year. Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge has caught my eye – it has a nice variety of topics without being too crazy. I already have some titles in mind for a few of the categories…

Don’t be surprised if many of my posts this year are challenge-related!

– Jess

Alas, I didn’t do very well with my 2015 reading resolution, which was to read more broadly from the Library’s historical fiction and world fiction shelves. I mean, I read at least one book in each of those genres (the most notable ones being The Miniaturist by Jesse Burton and Like Family by Paolo Giordano) but for the most part, I didn’t stray too far from my literary comfort zone. I’d like to give this effort another try in 2016.

Regardless of the genre or format, I’m hoping to read more books in 2016.  As of this writing, this year was my lowest total (52) since 2002, when new motherhood and caring for infant twins impacted my ability to read anything more than board books and nursery rhymes. (Not like there’s anything wrong with those.)

Here’s to new beginnings, do-overs and clean slates, and an adventurous  trip around the sun. To quote Neil Gaiman:

May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and don’t forget to make some art — write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.

~ Melissa F.

lightheadLike Jess, I’m going to attempt the Book Riot’s 2016 Read Harder Challenge. It consists of 24 challenge tasks, which is about two books per month. I have been trying to add variety and diversity to my reading materials, and I think this is a good place to start. I also found a 12-task reading challenge at the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog. There’s some overlap between the two, but enough difference to make it worth doing both.

I did pretty will with last year’s Read Harder Challenge, considering I only found out about in December. I managed to hit 22 of the 24 tasks (well, 23 if you count the fact that I gave up on Wuthering Heights for the second time—that book is just not my cup of tea). I am planning to tackle the final item on that challenge this month, which is to read a book that won a major book award. I picked out Lighthead by local poet Terrance Hayes.)

A few of my picks for the 2016 Read Harder Challenge are:

In addition to my two reading challenges, I plan to make a concentrated effort to read more books by people of color, especially women of color, with a loose goal of one title per month.


I pretty much tanked all of last year’s reading resolutions, and yet somehow managed to complete 205 books in 2015. The problem is that I’ve never met a book I won’t try, and they’re all competing for my attention at once. I get distracted by the shiny title that randomly catches my eye as opposed to the ones I’m “supposed” to be reading. I finish a lot of great books, but I never get around to what I’d planned.

So I’ve adopted a different strategy for 2016:

  1. No more formal challenges! Just pure pleasure and serendipity.
  2. Reading one book at a time instead of fifteen all at once.

massivepissedloveRight now I’m happily snuggled up with Richard Hell’s Massive Pissed Love, a collection of film criticism, art reviews and other cultural commentary, including a number of thoughts on what “punk” actually is/was. It’s the sort of book that leads you to countless other books, films, and albums, so I’m taking lots of notes as I go (The Lady From Shanghai is definitely in my future).

Here’s hoping my new approach will help me hit my goal of 215 books completed by the end of the year. Wish me luck!

-Leigh Anne



What are your reading resolutions? Let us know in the comments!

-Team Eleventh Stack




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If Between the World and Me Had a Soundtrack


Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a wonderful book and a necessary read. It’s very powerful and eye-opening. The book is basically a letter to his son about what it’s like to be black in America. After I was done reading this book, I began thinking of songs that connect to it. So here’s five songs that would be on the soundtrack for Between the World and Me.

This is one of Michael Jackson’s most powerful songs. Jackson is calling out the powers that be and saying that they don’t care about his people. This song fits with Coates’ idea that the “system” doesn’t care about the black community and that it never did from the start.

I have always enjoyed the songs by Tupac where he is talking about the state of the world. This song is almost 20 years old and it’s still sadly relevant. Shakur talks about how the world hasn’t changed, and he mentions police brutality, which is still obviously a problem. This song connects to the book because Coates talks about the many unarmed black men & women who have been killed by the police.

On this song, which is one of my favorites by Marvin Gaye, he’s singing about the state of the world and how it bothers him. This connects to Coates’ book because some of the same things that Gaye is singing about Coates is talking about. It’s sad that 40-plus years later we’re still having these same issues.

This is one Stevie Wonder song that I would consider underrated. It’s a great song. Wonder sings about things like race relations and different issues going on in the world. The themes here link nicely to Coates’ discussions on race and culture.

J. Cole is one of my favorite contemporary rappers. I would consider him not only a rapper, but also a storyteller. In this song, Cole tells of his dream where he was trapped in a city where he got robbed at gunpoint. In a separate dream he and his friends were the ones committing the robbery. This song reminds me of Between The World And Me because there’s a part of the book when Coates talks about when he was younger and he saw a boy pull out a gun during an argument and how that changed him.

Between the World and Me is a book that will make you think. I’d like to believe that these songs will do the same thing. If you’ve read this book, what songs would you add to the list? Let us know in the comments below!




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December Recap

The end of the year is always a good time to look back and reflect on all the challenges you faced, goals you accomplished, and excellent blog posts you read! It’s been an eventful year for us here at Eleventh Stack. We welcomed two new bloggers, Scott M. and Whitney, and said farewell to long-time writer Scott P. as he embarks on a new adventure as Pittsburgh fireman.

Great things have also been taking place at the library. Jess gave us a run-down of the Library’s new video game collection, located at a branch near you. Whitney showed us the Library’s new and growing collection of adult coloring books, and Ginny wrote about a new volunteer program called Reading Buddies that will help kids get interested in reading by paring them with a caring mentor.

To help get us in the holiday spirit, Tara suggested 10 Nontraditional Holiday Movies and Ten holiday albums available to stream on Hoopla. Kayla gave us her five favorite Christmas songs, and Jess made our mouths water with Cookie Time. Melissa F. made us think about consumerism and the holidays with her review of the book Scroogenomics.

In the totally-not-holiday-related department, Sheila explored Napoleonic romances, Scott M. professed his love for all things French, and Scott P. praised Freegal. Leigh Anne gave us an excellent reading list to tackle after watching Jessica Jones, Ross reviewed the new movie Heaven Knows What, and guest blogger Megan took a look at books being adapted into television shows.

Suzy wants you to leave her alone (but only sometimes), Abbey wants you to try listening to an audio book, and we all want you to know how much awesome Star Wars stuff the Library has.

new-years-day-1020125_960_720Finally, check out our own Best of 2015 post, and if this blog has inspired you or helped you in any way, please consider supporting us by making a year-end donation to the Library.

We couldn’t do what we do without you!

Happy New Year!

-Team Eleventh Stack

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It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year… To Listen to Audio Books

Welcome to the end of the year! You’ve made it… basically. There is really only one more day. For me, the past week has been filled with good food (I’m going to take credit for a lot of the baking), good company (I’m hilarious… and I love my family), and a lot of travel (in short, travel increases 23% during Christmas and the New Year). I do a lot of driving during the holidays, and my drives are normally around five hours long (on a good day) but can go as long as… I think 9 hours was the longest on a really bad day. That’s a long time to be alone in a car… or a long time to be with some family, too. I’ve started to download audio books to keep me company, and I’ve found that downloading can be easier than using books on CD, because I never have to switch to another CD and be distracted while driving. Audio books can be awesome, and it helps me start to dwindle my (200 and counting) TBR pile, but they can also be hard to listen to depending on the narrator. The following books I’ve enjoyed because of the story and the plot, but also because I can tolerate the narrator*.

Bone Gap

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby is a great fantasy/magical realism/mystery/young adult book. The story follows a young man who knows about gaps in the town that people can fall through. He believes a person who is important to him, Roza, has been kidnapped and taken through one of the gaps. The question is, can he prove this to a town that doesn’t believe, and can he find Roza before something worse happens to her? This was a book that I really looked forward to reading, and I was happy with the narration overall for the audio book. They did a good job of really giving the different characters voices.

say what you will

Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern is a book about a boy who is struggling with OCD, and even admitting and figuring out what OCD is and entails, and a girl who has cerebral palsy. The book deals with a variety of issues that can be hard to read about, but I found overall that the book was good to listen to.

There are so many audio books out there and so many options. Some will be good and some will be bad, but if you find yourself traveling during the holiday season, it may be worth taking something to listen to.


*Full disclosure, not everyone will like the same type of narrator. I get really frustrated listening to narrators that are all breathy and whispery (it’s a word… I think), you know the type I mean. Some people may enjoy that type of narrator, and that’s awesome, but if you try an audio book and don’t like it at first, try and figure out if it’s the book or the narrator, and try other narrators before you dismiss audio books completely.


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