Individual Journaling Assignments, High Notes
1. Which character do you relate most to and why? Which character do you find least sympathetic, and why?
2. The characters of this book are living in a particular time and place. Choose one character and consider whether, if that person were alive today, living where you live, he or she would make different decisions. Explain why or why not. Is this person is wholly responsible for the conditions of his or her life, or are others are responsible?
3. Discuss the meaning of the word “redemption” as it applies to this book. In what ways do you believe or not believe in redemption?
4. In the poem “Jasmine & Jazz,” what is meant by the line “Those ghosts own me”? Do any ghosts own you? Whatever your answer, are you happy or unhappy about that?
5. is said to be addicted to “alcohol, heroin, and grief.” What does it mean to be addicted to grief? Is it morally more or less preferable than the other addictions?
6. Explain how you interpret the last line of the poem “Walking to Her Day Job, Sugar Baby Contemplates Her Dead Children.” Is it wise or unwise for love to “believe in whatever it makes”?
7. Summarize the poem “What the Poor Know” in one sentence. What is it that the poem implies they know? In what ways do you agree and/or disagree?
8. In what way do the Angel and have a similar motivation? If both characters were active in your life, which do you think/hope would succeed?
9. Who or what has the most power in this book and why? Who or what has the least power?
10. What is your favorite poem in the book? Explain what the poem means in general, and what it means to you personally.
Individual or Group Essay Assignments, High Notes
1. In “Jasmine Watches the on TV,” there is a mention of , a 14-year-old boy who was killed in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman. What are the social conditions that led to the death of Emmett Till and how do those conditions affect Jasmine’s life as well? How does his death change her potential future?
2. Many forces are at play in this book: for example, racism, the drug culture, art/music, sexuality, religion, and family relationships. Choose at least two of those forces and explore how they are working in conflict or in harmony to determine the meaning and outcome of these characters’ lives.
3. Analyze the structure of High Notes. Is it a narrative; does it have a plot? How does the behavior of time within it shape your understanding of the book’s concrete and psychological events ?
4. What elements of jazz music are evoked in these poems? How do the artistic principles of jazz (particularly musical time, collaboration, and individual interpretation/ improvisation) contribute to the style and contents of the book?
Small/Large Group Discussion Questions
(Note: Most of these can also be used as journaling exercises)
1. What is the importance of art and music to the characters in this book? What does it give the characters that would otherwise be missing from their lives?
2. Explain the role of the angel in the book. How does the presence of this particular observer change the meaning of events in the poems? What would change if the angel were taken out of the dramatis personae?
3. Why, when the characters are presented, does the author present their addictions?
4. In what similar way do art, religion and drugs offer to fulfill the deepest needs of the characters?
5. The Angel’s addiction is said to be hope. How can hope be an addiction? Is it a positive or negative one?
6. Who suffers more in this book, Jake or Harry Jones? Why? Which of them is less likely to find redemption?
7. How do the men and women in the book experience the conditions of their time and place differently? What different pressures and expectations are driving their perceptions and choices? In what ways are their experiences the same?
8. In “Harry Jones Holds School,” how many ways can you interpret the phrase, “Bring to me whatever needs undoing”? Similarly, in the last line, how can a lesson be unlearned? What makes it hard to unlearn it? Why would you want to?
9. In what ways does the beauty of the poetry in High Notes enhance or diminish a reader’s understanding of the poverty portrayed in the book?
10. Why do you think the author chose the last poem to end the book? What does it imply about the potential future of the characters?
Reader’s Guide for northSight
Lois Roma-Deeley’s second collection of poems
How would you describe "the road" metaphor that opens this book? Where does it lead? Where is it going?
Who are the "traveling companions" on this road?
In what ways is this book mystical? Can you cite specific poems which support this point of view?
Critic Barbara Crooker in her review of northSight writes: "These are indeed words for our time, words to travel by." Do you agree or disagree? Why?
How does each section–which has an epigraph, lines from Lisel Mueller, Denise Levertov, Patricia Hampl, or Robinson Jeffers–become a "blueprint" for each part? How do the sections relate to the theme(s) of the book?
Lois Roma-Deeley is the grandchild of Italian immigrants. Both sets of grandparents arrived in America by boat—from Rome (paternal) and Sicily (maternal). Frances Masucci, Roma-Deeley’s maternal grandmother, was beaten by her father for wanting to learn to read and write–English or Italian. As a consequence, her grandmother was illiterate all her life.
Her poem "The Women I Knew," first published in the American Book Award-winning anthology Looking for Home, is now part of her newest poetry collection, northSight. How does that particular poem explore gender as it intersects with issues of class? issues of race?
In what ways does the poem suggest that gender sometimes supersedes issues of race? Does the poem suggest that role models for authentic womanhood were found in the "sighs" of the Black girls? Please explain.
Roma-Deeley not only chronicles her grandmother’s plight but also examines the larger forces that shape attitudes about women and poverty as well as ethnicity. Indeed, in northSight, many of the poems deal with the lens through which society sees women and how those perceptions are often internalized by women themselves.
Clearly, the trio of poems in northSight titled "Explicit," "Implicit" and "Complicit" illustrate this point. In the first poem, gender perceptions have turned negative and are internalized by the female subject of the poem. In "Implicit," gender perceptions have turned into gender prescriptions. And, by the time the reader has reached "Complicit," the reader is a character in the poem itself—that is, has become complicit in reinforcing the assumptions made about women in society.
Turning to the poem "Apologizing for the Rain," in what ways does the speaker accept—and then reject—society's prescriptions of womanhood and the strength it takes to define oneself on one's own terms? At what point in the poem does the stance of the speaker "turn" from one of passivity to one of assertiveness?
In northSight, there are poems which deal with the consequences of being sick in America—having cancer and no health insurance. Still other poems deal with the struggles of the working poor. How are the poems "Throwing a Chair Through the Hospital Window" and "Like Bullets Not Rain," by turns, arias of helplessness and despair as well as courage and dignity?
Are there other poems which center on issues of class? If so, what are they and why would you classify them as poems about class?
5) Form and Content
The poems in northSight can barely contain themselves on the page. There is a banquet of styles which serve to unify form and theme. For example, "Christina's Pilgrim State" is a formal poem (a sestina), while "Apologizing for the Rain" is a prose poem which employs experimental techniques.
Moreover, in "Obligatory Sex," stanza #1 is nothing but verbs, stanza #2 uses all nouns, stanza #3 employs adverbs, stanza #4 returns to the use of nouns (here, all placed-based nouns), and lastly, stanza #5 is filled with all prepositions. How does the form of this poem extend the meaning of its content?
What other examples of poems can you find which use form as a way of expanding meaning?
6) Poetic Aesthetic
Roma-Deeley says, "One of the goals for my poetry is to challenge the contemporary poetic aesthetic. I want to push the borders and boundaries of what poetry is and can be. I want poetry to be 'bigger.' I believe poetry has the power to shape perceptions: that makes poetry a powerful force in the world. And it is a great responsibility for the poet."
Of Rules of Hunger, critic Peter Huggins writes in Phi Kappa Phi Forum,
"In reading Lois Roma-Deeley's first book of poems, Rules of Hunger, I am struck by the careful precision of her observations. Roma-Deeley marshals these observations in the service of a threshold experience: that moment when you put your hand on the door and then, taking the risk, you push through into the unknown. The poems in Rules of Hunger take us through, and we go willingly."
How would you define a "threshold experience?" In what ways does the entire structure of northSight mimic a "threshold experience?" specific poems?
Reader's Guide for Rules of Hunger
1) In what ways do the poems in this book suggest a "journey"?
2) Explore how specific poems in Rules of Hunger deal with issues related to gender, ethnicity, class, religion and region.
3) One critic has written that "the poet uses poetry as a tool to celebrate both triumphs and defeats. It is a mirror as well as a shroud." Discuss how poetry can be used as a "tool" in today's world. Specifically, discuss how the poems in this book reflect (mirror) and reveal or veil (shroud) issues related to contemporary society.
4) Many of the poems in Rules of Hunger marry form to content. For example, the poem "Compulsions (& Obsessions)" uses a prose poem format to "contain" the relentlessness of the speaker's meaningless-yet absolutely wild-string of behaviors. These behaviors illustrate the psychodynamic of a person who uses repetitive actions as a means of feeling in control of the outer world. The prose "box form" of the poem is an illustration of that pseudo control imposed by the speaker on the world by useless, but contained, action. What other poems marry form to theme? In what ways does the form of those poems enhance the content?
5) Explore how the line between the "real world" and the "enchanted world" is often blurred in this book." What place do the ghosts have in this book? the lovers? the dreamers?
6) Another critic writes that the poet "assures us that hunger not only commands us, but guides and feeds us." In what ways can hunger command us? feed us? Discuss examples drawn from your own life.
7) What are the "rules" in this book?