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Notebooks illuminate creative process behind Billy Collins’s poem “The Names”

By Alicia Dietrich

Among the papers in the recently acquired Billy Collins archive are materials related to his poem “The Names,” which was written to commemorate the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Interspersed throughout the poem are the names of 26 victims of the attacks, one name for each letter of the alphabet, from “Ackerman” through “Ziminsky.”


Collins, a native of New York City, was the U.S. Poet Laureate when the attacks occurred in 2001. He wrote the poem and read it at a special joint session of Congress on September 6, 2002.


One of the notebooks in Collins’s archive contains his notes and early drafts of the poem, along with lists of names for different letters of the alphabet. An annotated typescript shows a later draft of the poem with Collins’s handwritten notes and edits.


The archive will be accessible in the Ransom Center’s reading room once it has been processed and cataloged.


Please click on thumbnails to view larger images.


Ransom Center acquires archive of poet Billy Collins

By Jennifer Tisdale


The Harry Ransom Center has acquired the archive of American poet Billy Collins. The materials span Collins’ personal and professional life from the 1950s to the present and documents in detail his creative development.


Collins, born in 1941, is known as a poet for the people, with a witty, conversational style that welcomes readers and illuminates the profound details of everyday life. He has described the beginning of his poems as “a kind of welcome mat … inviting the reader inside.” This accessible style and public presence have garnered a wide following, and from 2001 to 2003 he served as Poet Laureate of the United States.


“Collins is one of a very few poets whose poems are widely read,” said Harry Ransom Center Director Stephen Enniss, “and it is a great pleasure to extend the Center’s holdings in this way, with the archive of a poet beloved by readers everywhere.”


Within the archive are dozens of notebooks, which include Collins’ observations, notes, doodles, clippings, and extensive drafts of poems, both published and unpublished. It also includes desk diaries or datebooks that document his life as a teacher, poet and public figure. The earliest materials in the archive include childhood compositions and early family photographs. Also documented is Collins’ career as a teacher and his later emergence as a poet in the late 1970s.  Audio and video recordings and drafts of speeches and talks document a full public life as one of the country’s most popular poets. The archive includes extensive correspondence, both personal and professional.


“I am deeply honored and not a little intimidated to have my papers join the literary trails of so many illustrious writers housed at the Harry Ransom Center, several of whom I count among my literary heroes,” said Collins.


Collins will be speaking at Austin’s Paramount Theatre on Thursday, Jan. 23, at 8 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online or by phone at 512-474-1221.

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Notebooks illuminate creative process behind Billy Collins’s poem “The Names”


Image: Undated photo of Billy Collins. Unknown photographer.

Rare French “Cisiojanus” fragment identified in bookbinding through crowdsourcing project

By Alicia Dietrich

Farley P. Katz is a tax lawyer in San Antonio who collects rare books, manuscripts, and “too many other things.” He is one of the contributors to the medieval fragments project, a crowdsourcing research project headed by archivist Micah Erwin to identify fragments of medieval manuscripts bound into rare books at the Ransom Center. Katz describes a recent discovery below.

Recently, I identified a very unusual and interesting manuscript waste fragment on archivist Micah Erwin’s medieval fragments project Flickr site. The fragment was used as a pastedown inside the rear cover of some collected works of Cicero printed by Aldus Manutius in Venice, Italy, in 1514. Its call number at the Ransom Center is Uzielli 99, referring to Giorgio Uzielli. The Ransom Center holds a collection of books printed by Aldus and his successors.

The Flickr posting noted only that the fragment includes a calendar possibly from a book of hours (a medieval devotional book containing prayers, hymns, and religious calendars and often painted miniatures). There was text below the calendar that included French words. I could make out “C’est mon” and “Et tout,” but little else was easily readable. The fact that each line began with a capital letter, however, suggested that it might be a poem.

Usually if a text is well known, it can be identified by searching on Google with a few strings of words (using quotation marks so that only the exact phrase is sought). While reading the words may not be so easy given the antiquated scripts and condition of the fragments, it helps to have some knowledge of the languages the texts are written in and the nature of the manuscripts themselves. Here, I tried a number of searches, but the few phrases I could make out were insufficient for this purpose. Then, I tried searching “C’est mon” and “book of hours.” Success! I found an article by two scholars, Kathryn M. Rudy and René Stuip, about a French prayer book that contained a calendar for each month that was followed by rhyming lines of poetry. Those for March appear to be close or identical with the first four lines on the Ransom Center’s fragment:

Au-bin dit que mars est pril-leux.  (1 Albinus)
C’est mon, fait Gre-goir, il est feux. (12 Gregory)
Et tout prest de don-ner des eaux.
Ma-ri-e dit: il est caux. (25 Annunciation, Lady Day)

They translate as: “Albinus says that March is changeable. That’s right, says Gregory, it’s fire, and quite ready to give water. Mary says it’s hot.”

Rudy and Stuip explained that these are not mere amusing rhymes, but actually a complex mnemonic device known as a “Cisiojanus” (from Circumcisio Januarius, referring to the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, celebrated on January 1).  The number of syllables in each poem equals the number of days in the month. So for March, which has 31 days, there are 31 syllables. The most important saints or holy days of each month are identified by name and numerical position in the poem. Thus, the first syllable of the March rhyme starts with the name Aubin and St. Albinus’s day was March 1. Similarly, the twelfth syllable of the rhyme starts with Gregoir, whose feast day was March 12.

Cisiojani (the plural form) originated in Germany in the twelfth century in Latin and were later produced in vernacular languages, ultimately making it into early printed books. Manuscripts written in French of Cisiojani, however, are quite rare. It’s difficult to date the manuscript fragment because the text is obscured, but an educated guess would be fifteenth century.

Although I have not seen the book “in person,” the catalog states that it has a “Fanfare” binding. Fanfare bindings are ornate bindings in which the covers are divided into many compartments often filled with gold tooling. They originated in France in the sixteenth century and spread throughout Europe. Since Uzielli 99 contains manuscript waste from France, it most likely was bound there.

Identifying this manuscript fragment at the Ransom Center thus not only adds to the limited body of knowledge about French Cisiojani but also provides evidence of where an early bookbinding was probably made.

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Archivist declares medieval manuscript fragment crowdsourcing project success

Image: Detail of Uzielli 99 manuscript.

Archivist declares medieval manuscript fragment crowdsourcing project success

By Micah Erwin

During the late medieval and early modern period, it was a common practice for bookbinders to cut out the sturdy parchment leaves of outdated or unwanted handwritten books to reuse those leaves as covers or binding reinforcements in new “cutting edge” printed books. This practice lasted until roughly the seventeenth century, when the sources of handwritten books began to dry up and binding practices continued to evolve.  Today, many of these medieval fragments—or “binder’s waste”—can still be found within the bindings of early printed books in collections throughout the world.


In July 2012, Cultural Compass posted a story about a project in the archives and visual materials cataloging department to survey medieval binders’ waste. As an outgrowth of this project, we took images of those fragments and posted them to a Flickr account in an attempt to “crowdsource” the identification of their texts. We also created a Twitter and Facebook account to broadcast our progress. At the time of that 2012 blog post, the response was promising but not conclusive. Around 16 of the 40 items had been identified in the first few months, but there were many more fragments to identify.


Now, 369 images, several conference presentations, and more than 67,000 views later, there’s evidence that crowdsourcing can work with even the most archaic of subjects. Twenty-eight individuals (from amateur enthusiasts to established scholars) contributed to the project by providing input via comments on the Flickr page. A number of other individuals assisted through emails or phone calls. Thus far, 94 of the 116 identifiable fragments have been identified, and nearly 57 percent of those were identified through crowdsourcing (by date, region, or the text itself).


The fragments span several centuries, regions, and genres. Ranging from choirbooks to Hebrew commentaries to philosophical and legal texts, they provide valuable insights regarding the fate of handwritten books after the introduction of printing. And, thanks to the number of views, a relatively obscure subject has received generous attention. Readers may be interested to note that Google Books played a significant role in identifying many of the texts. While a few items remain unidentified and we come upon new fragments with some regularity, the bulk of the work is complete.


I would like to take this opportunity to express our deepest gratitude to all those who followed or contributed to the success of this project.  We did take the time to confirm each and every attribution, and the degree of accuracy has been quite impressive. It is my hope that people will continue to assist in this effort when new fragments are uncovered.


Crowdsourcing is now moving beyond the introductory phase. And although it is not an appropriate solution for every problem, there is no question that it has the power to bring together diverse groups of individuals to collaborate in ways not previously thought possible. There are many more fragments of medieval manuscripts scattered throughout the world’s great libraries—collaboration and discovery await!


Related content:

Rare French “Cisiojanus” fragment identified in bookbinding through crowdsourcing project


Image: These four volumes of German poetry are wrapped in manuscript waste materials written in Hebrew. Photo By Alicia Dietrich.

New J. D. Salinger biography draws on letters in Ransom Center’s collection

By Jane Robbins Mize

Cover of “Salinger” by David Shields and Shane Salerno.
Cover of “Salinger” by David Shields and Shane Salerno.

In early September, David Shields and Shane Salerno published Salinger, an oral biography of the well-known author of The Catcher in the Rye and infamous recluse, J. D. Salinger. Along with the publication, Salerno released an accompanying documentary film of the same title that features interviews, footage, and photographs related to Salinger’s life and work. The documentary will air on PBS as part of the American Masters series on this Tuesday, January 21.


In addition to the commentary of his family, friends, and acquaintances, the written biography contains photos and personal documents, including letters to and from Salinger himself. A collection of Salinger’s manuscripts, galleys, page proofs, and correspondence resides at the Ransom Center, including manuscripts of unpublished stories and 38 letters from Salinger to Elizabeth Murray. The book references some of this correspondence, which lasted for nearly three decades.


Shields and Salerno also reveal Salinger’s unpublished work, which will be published intermittently in the coming years. Ultimately, Salinger, both biography and documentary, provides an opportunity for the public to revisit and re-evaluate the author’s hidden life and widely read work.


The Ransom Center recently acquired 21 new Salinger letters.



War photography exhibition showcases images from the Ransom Center’s photography collection

By Natalie Zelt

Back in November the exhibition WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath opened at its fourth and final venue, the Brooklyn Museum. This exhibition, which I curated with Anne Tucker and Will Michels in my former role in the photography department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, featured over 400 photographic objects dating from 1848 to 2012, including a number of photographs from the Harry Ransom Center’s collections. Our curatorial mission was neither to tell a history of war illustrated by photography nor to present a series on singular photographers. Instead, we hoped to bring together a selection of objects that highlighted the intersections between war and photography.


Photographs from the Ransom Center collections were included throughout the exhibition, enriching the thematic sections that explored daily routine, shell shock, and dissemination, as well as battlefield burial and death.  The Gernsheim collection yielded a chilling 1871 print of communards in coffins, an image likely used to discourage further unrest in the streets of Paris, as well as Roger Fenton’s iconic and controversial 1855 photograph The Valley of the Shadow of Death from the Crimean War.


A Ransom Center fellowship funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment enabled curator Anne Tucker to spend weeks going through box after box of the Ransom Center’s prints, lantern slides, and stereographs. While in the reading room, she could compare the croppings of multiple photographs of Captain Ike Fenton and the U.S. Marines during the Korean War by David Douglas Duncan and share her findings. She also surveyed the collection of prints made at the height of the civil war in El Salvador by 30 international photographers, including Donna DeCesare and Harry Mattison.


The New York Journal- American photo morgue provided one of my favorite photographs in the exhibition. It is a small print from 1918 of a carrier pigeon being released from a tank on the Western Front. The image itself references one of the means of communication (pigeon transport) that is often associated with World War I, but it is also important as a photographic object because it carries the marks and highlights of an editor’s pencil, readying the print for reproduction and the image for dissemination.


Please click on the thumbnails below to view larger images.


“Der Bestrafte Brudermord”: A puppet version of “Hamlet”?

By Harry Ransom Center

Tiffany Stern, Professor of Early Modern Drama at Oxford University, delivers the English Department’s Thomas Cranfill Lecture about her research on the play Der Bestrafte Brudermord (Fratricide Revenged) at the Harry Ransom Center this Thursday, January 16 at 4 p.m.


Stern, the Hidden Room theater company, and the American Shakespeare Center will produce performances of the play with puppets this month at the York Rite Theater in Austin between January 17 and February 2. Below, Stern writes about the history and origins of this production.


In 1781, a manuscript dated 1710, of a play called Der Bestrafte Brudermord (Fratricide Revenged) was published in Germany. Telling a bawdy and humorous version of the story of Hamlet, it seemed to relate to Shakespeare’s Hamlet in debased form. But what was it, and how did it come about?


For years Shakespeareans have been confused by Der Bestrafte Brudermord. Is it a unique record of an otherwise unknown version of Shakespeare’s play, or is it an adaptation of the Hamlet texts we know about? Crucially, what explains its non-Shakespearean features—its slapstick, pratfalls, crazed bawdiness, and wild humor?


Puppeteers have long felt they had the answer. They see in Der Bestrafte Brudermord a puppet play.


As an English professor who works with historical performance, I decided to research the puppet option. Beth Burns and her amazing Hidden Room theater company in Austin have tested that research through practice. They have mounted a unique show: a hilarious and touching eighteenth-century puppet Der Bestrafte Brudermord, translated into English, complete with fireworks, music, and a wonderful compere and showmaster, “the interpreter.”


You are warmly encouraged to hear my talk and then see the puppet Hamlet, Der Bestrafte Brudermord, at the York Rite Theater. Then you can decide for yourself whether Der Bestrafte Brudermord is simply a Continental adaptation of Shakespeare’s text or whether it is the product of what Hamlet so dismissively calls “puppets dallying.”


The play runs January 17 through February 2 at York Rite Masonic Hall at 311 W. 7th St. Performances are on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and on Sundays at 5 p.m. The play runs 75 minutes, and tickets are pick-your-own price between $15 and $30, with a suggested ticket price of $20.


More information about the performance can be found on the website or Facebook page, or you can email


Image credit: Production still from Der Berstraffe Brudermord by The Hidden Room theater company. Photo by Pat Jarrett.


Production still from “Der Berstraffe Brudermord” by The Hidden Room theater company. Photo by Pat Jarrett.
Production still from “Der Berstraffe Brudermord” by The Hidden Room theater company. Photo by Pat Jarrett.