Seizing Each Moment for Change

When artist Matthew Rice — professionally known as Mateo Blu — was in second grade, he dropped out of school to become a street corner pusher. His drug of choice was candy and he made a mint before his mother caught wind of his escapade. She promptly enrolled him in another school. This was one of many stories Rice told me during our time together this past January, but it was his first question to me which seemed a true testament to his character.

“How’s your son? Is he keeping up with his artwork?” Rice asked me, pulling away from our welcome hug.

We met at the Eubie Blake Cultural Center in downtown Baltimore so I could view an exhibition of Rice’s work. He’s an imposing figure who stands at six foot four, head smoothly shaven. The gray sweats and basketball sneakers he wore were paint-splattered. Even his fingernails showed evidence of recent work.

Matthew Rice with his urban monoliths.
Matthew Rice with his urban monoliths.

Rice and I had met twice before. The second time, my son, who is an artist and also on the autism spectrum, brought his art portfolio along to share with Rice. Although hundreds of people were present and Rice was selling his work, he took time to focus solely on my son and that portfolio, giving advice and encouragement. That memorable interaction set him apart, and I wanted to learn more about him.

The Eubie Blake Cultural Center on North Howard Street might be missed if one wasn’t looking for it. Trash blows along the gutters on the backside of the University of Maryland’s medical school, and the wide avenue is bisected by light rail tracks. Inside, one is greeted with a warm welcome by a man wearing a muted dashiki. The space is divided into two major areas: to the right, a collection of Jazz-era memorabilia and to the left, gallery space.

Close-up detail of one of Mateo Blu's pieces.
Close-up detail of one of Mateo Blu’s pieces.

Rice urged me to look around the gallery while he and his assistant begin taking inventory. The show, twice extended, ended the next day and Rice had to select pieces to be shipped to Arizona for the Smocks & Jocks fundraising event to benefit the NFL Players Association. He selected four or five pieces, one of which was titled, “Breaking Through,” acrylic on canvas, 2012.

The gallery, well lit with a combination of natural and track lighting, had an old warehouse feel to it. The wide-plank wood floors were honeyed with age. On the walls of two rooms, Rice’s paintings hung in vivid hues of royal blue, shocking orange and stark white contrasted against black and shades of gray. Monolithic traffic cones festooned with modern hieroglyphics stood in the middle of the main gallery.

"Seizure" by Mateo Blu.
Mateo Blu, “Seizure,” oil on canvas.

We sat down together, near his painting called, “Seizure.”

“I got kicked out of every school I ever attended,” Rice began, his dark eyes downcast. “Teachers told me I was stupid. They kept trying to put me into special ed where I didn’t belong.”

As Rice recounted his story, he stared at the ground, his giant hands folded between his knees. Most everything he learned in those early years, from reading to multiplication tables, was self-taught. “I wanted to be an engineer, but I was terrible at math.”

Rice, who was born in 1982, lived with his family in East Baltimore. His early years were turbulent, a combination of school troubles and neighborhood challenges. The Rice family was loving and deeply spiritual, but what further separated Matthew from his peers was the talent he displayed on the football field.

“I was one of the lucky ones. My family moved to Prince George’s County [MD] for my last two years of high school where I played football for Eleanor Roosevelt High.”A charter school, Roosevelt focused on academics, and he had to prove his worthiness there. Rice credits this move for putting him in a position to attract a collegiate scholarship to play for Penn State University, where athletics took a backseat to academics.

But the shift from the inner city atmosphere to the farmlands of central Pennsylvania was a culture shock – in more ways than one. For the first time, he found a place where he could – and did – thrive, academically and artistically. When Matthew graduated from Penn State in 2005, he did so with dual majors in Integrative Arts and African American History. From there, he was drafted and spent several years in the NFL before being sidelined with a career-ending, but life-saving, injury. A brain tumor was successfully removed, but Matthew still deals daily with its results: epileptic seizures.

LPR: You attended Baltimore City schools in the 80s and 90s, as a struggling student. What was that like?

MR: I knew I could learn, but I couldn’t do it the way they wanted me to. The overall mentality of the city school system didn’t prepare me to be global contributor or set me up for success. They thought I was stupid. I acted out. I basically taught myself.

LPR: Well, clearly you must be smart. [Baltimore Colt and Hall of Famer] Lydell Mitchell says that you have to be smart in the classroom to be smart on the football field. What was it like for you to go from this place where you felt like you were stupid to rigors of Penn State?

MR: Moving from Maryland to Happy Valley, that was surreal. All that studying after a hard day’s practice. Joe [Paterno] didn’t recruit dummies. For the first time, I started to think maybe I just learned differently. I’d taught myself for so long, but at college I didn’t have to do that.

LPR: Tell me a little more about your college experience.

MR: I chose to stay at Penn State during the summers rather than go home so I wouldn’t get into trouble. Studying African American history, I became of student of American history, and of life. Also, for the first time, I didn’t have to borrow paper when I wanted to draw. I had access to art supplies. I didn’t want to leave that!

LPR: As a senior, you had your artwork selected for the football season calendar, which got a wide distribution.

MR: [Penn State Director of Branding & Communications] Guido [D’Elio] saw what I could do and made my piece “Bluprint” the poster for the 2005 season. That was cool.

LPR: Let’s fast forward. You’re in the NFL, you get injured and and hear that you have a brain tumor.

MR: That was hard. Saved my life. It’s like I finally could grow and learn to be myself.

LPR: Do you miss playing football?

MR: I miss the lifestyle. And the fun. I enjoyed tackling, hearing the crowds cheering. Being on the field, you feel a thrumming in your body.

LPR: What do you miss most?

MR: (A grin spreads across his face) When I played in the NFL, I had a personal chef. He would come in every other week and plan my menus with me. My refrigerator and freezer would be full of healthy things I liked to eat, so I was never hungry. Man, this is some kind of therapy session.

LPR: Don’t worry, there’s no charge. I’m fascinated by your work, which is like Stuart Davis meets street art. You often use dollar symbols and dates in your work. Are these significant?

MR: Yes, the dollar signs are me making a societal statement about money. Instead of people seeing it for the tool that it is, most people view it almost as a religion of sorts. We need it, but we don’t need to be owned by it. And the dates represent important events to me. For example, in “Focus” two of the dates are when my brother was incarcerated and then when he was released.

LPR: And the tally marks? They’re included in nearly every work.

MR: They represent the number of seizures I had while working on that particular piece. At first, I did it unconsciously so I could just keep track, and then it just became a thing.

LPR: Do you have a particular artists work you admire?

MR: God is the greatest artist of all, but Roy Lichtenstein was the inspiration for my mural work in Lubbock and Tuscaloosa. I like Aaron Maybin, who was also a [Penn State] teammate. [Aaron Maybin was a 2006 graduate from Mount Hebron High School in Ellicott City, MD.]

LPR: How about inspiration?

MR: My mother, my father, my family. God. They all inspire me. My mother, in particular, is my hero. She battled breast cancer twice while I was at Penn State and she struggles with kidney disease now. She’s a strong woman, a teacher who will speak candidly about problems. I take a long view of life, and her challenges give a whole different hue and meaning to me.

LPR: After all you’ve been through and continue to experience, you choose to stay in Baltimore. Why?

MR: I want to draw attention to the city, especially to the kids and the educational challenges. I want to produce work and affect positive change before my time [on earth] is done.

LPR: How would you like to affect change?

MR: I escaped poverty and ignorance, some by teaching myself, some by my talents. I want to help lift others up. Especially kids. I want them to have someone who believes in them and helps them believe in themselves. Through my foundation, I visit schools to teach art and hold classes.

LPR: Kids need positive role models, and your story of overcoming adversity is a wonderful example. I’ve heard that some artists have a hard time parting with their original work, feeling like it’s never really finished. Is that true for you?

MR: I have hundreds of pieces, many in series. But I do sell originals – I like to eat! There are the murals, plus many are in private collections, or at businesses, both in the states and in Europe.

LPR: Have you have a favorite piece?

MR: I haven’t created it yet.

Online Editor’s Note: Matthew Rice can be followed on Twitter at @MateoBlu and more of his artwork can be viewed at www.mateoblu.com.

 

 

Enoch Pratt + LPR = “Sole” mates

When Shaileen Beyer of the Enoch Pratt Free Library contacted Little Patuxent Review to inquire if we’d be interested in partnering for a third year on a statewide poetry contest, we agreed without hesitation.

Inga Lea Schmidt (Photo by: Shannon Finnell).
Inga Lea Schmidt (Photo by: Shannon Finnell).

By the time the contest concluded on March 1, nearly 250 entries from 93 cities and towns, representing 17 counties plus Baltimore City, were submitted in the blind contest. Little Patuxent Review editor Steven Leyva, LPR poetry editor Laura Shovan and LPR poetry readers Evan Lasavoy and Patricia VanAmberg judged the poems. Although they chose three finalists, all of whom will appear in our Summer 2015 issue, “Sole” by Inga Lea Schmidt was the winning poem.

I asked the judges what made this poem a stand out. Patricia, who is also an English professor at Howard Community College, said:

Playful wording of the poem “Sole” appeals in many ways: The first of these is vivid and specific imagery—all the way from a fish that “looks like a tongue”—to the solitary cup of coffee. Consistent themes of loneliness/flatness ensure that the diverse meanings of the word “sole” bond coherently. Sound devices like the judicious alliteration of S (solitary—seven—seconds) enhance the flow. Finally, the poem is well crafted with effective line breaks and transition.

Evan added:

“Sole” is a clever poem that doesn’t get caught up in its own cleverness, doesn’t get smug about it. While it’s structured like a dictionary definition, it reads like a plain spoken explanation. This allows the poet room to explore beyond the strict meaning of the word, to wander off on tangents right from the beginning that open the poem up and give it room to reach out beyond itself. It was the simple, yet compelling, voice of “Sole” that first struck me; its movement and nuance won me.

Inga shared her own thoughts about “Sole.”

I love when poems veer off course. With the first few lines you have a pretty good idea of where the whole thing is headed, you know exactly what you’re looking at, and then it happens: a turn. It can be subtle at first, but soon the poem is turning and twisting away from you and before you know it, you are so far from where you started.

This is the effect I wanted to achieve with “Sole,” which was inspired by Phillis Levin’s beautiful “Part,” another poem that breaks down the definition of a word. I began with the structure of a dictionary entry, straightforward and dry, then gradually introduced bits of myself and what the word “sole” means to me personally. I liked the idea of something so clinical — a dictionary definition — becoming something revealing and human. The flatfish turns to feet, turns to solitaire, turns to intimate feelings of isolation and unsettlement. I hope when readers finish the poem, they feel they are far from where they started.

“Sole” can be seen on display in Enoch Pratt Free Library’s front windows starting next week. On Saturday, May 2 during the CityLit Festival, please join us at the Little Patuxent Review session in the Poe Room (11 to 11:45 am) where Inga will read “Sole.” In addition LPR editors Ann Bracken and Steven Leyva will joined by contest finalists James Carroll (“Nick’s Diner”) and Micia White (“Rest Stop”).

Enoch Pratt Free Library Poetry Contest Winner:

SOLE

By Inga Lea Schmidt

Sole: a flatfish,

small fins, small eyes,

small mouth, it looks

like a tongue. Also

a shoe’s solid base or

the undersurface of a foot,

a calloused pillar where

the weight of a person

is carried, where the one hundred

and forty eight pounds of

blood and bone and brain

and too much thought and fear

rest. An adjective:

having no companion: solitary.

A card game I can win

in two minutes and

seven seconds. From the French

seul, meaning only, as in,

being the only one, as in,

am I the only one? Sole:

having no sharer. Sharing

with no one. Use it in

a sentence: I make a sole cup

of coffee, sit at the window,

and wait.

Online Editor’s Note: Inga Lea Schmidt is a poet and fiction writer living in Baltimore. Her work has appeared in Off the Coast, Puerto del Sol, and Best Indie Lit of New England, and, in 2013, she received the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ Intro Journals Project Award. When she isn’t writing, Inga works as a mediator resolving conflicts in Baltimore prisons. In the fall, she will begin an MFA program in Creative Writing at Hollins University.

To learn more about how the collaboration between LPR and the Enoch Pratt began read “Meet the Neighbors: Enoch Pratt Free Library.” 

Concerning Craft: Ten Ways to Sabotage Your Writing

With all the top ten lists floating around and their cheery “how to succeed” mantras, I thought it might be interesting to take a contrary view. Using John Dufresne‘s “Ten Commandments of Writing” as a launchpad, here’s a twist:

  1. shutterstock_118595482Don’t back up your work. After all, you’ve never lost anything before.
  2. Use passive voice and exposition. Exclusively.
  3. Choose laundry and errands over your writing time.
  4. Make characters arbitrary.
  5. Be obscure (do you know what I mean?).
  6. Spell everything out for your reader, in detail, with stage direction.
  7. Never read anything else. Ever.
  8. Submit early and often. Especially your first drafts. Include as many tpyos as possible.
  9. Only cheerful stories with happy endings are worth sharing.
  10. Kill off your characters at random.

It’s true confession time. How do you either follow John Dufresne’s Ten Commandments  or sabotage your success? Your secret is safe with us.

Online Editor’s Note: John Dufresne’s list, and so much more, can be found in his book, The Lie That Tells A Truth

Poetry Panic

nationalpoetrymonth-2358It’s April. National Poetry Month. First a confession: until recently, my limited exposure to poetry dated back to high school, where we focused on the classics —Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Shakespeare. Back then I even tried my own hand at writing poetry. What came forth was the typical angst-ridden teenage rants and love schemes with forced rhyming patterns. They’ll be perfect someday for inclusion in a Drivel-like expose.  My acknowledged later love for Robert Burns (Ode to a Haggis) evolved from a developed interest in genealogy and Scottish heritage. A month ago, I didn’t know a pantoum from a poetaster (though I admitted relief at not seeing my photo next to the latter for the aforementioned crimes against humanity).

Since assuming the role of online editor of Little Patuxent Review, I’ve come to realize just how lush the Mid-Atlantic region is with poetry readings and literary talent. If one wanted, one might attend every week, in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, a poetry reading, hosted at places like LitMore, Spiral Staircase, Busboys and Poets, to name only a few.

About a month ago, I attended a Spiral Staircase event in Annapolis where LPR contributing editor Ann Bracken read from her book The Altar of Innocence. She was one of two featured readers that evening. Leading up to the headliners were dozens of local poets, each of whom stepped up to the open microphone and read or recited his work before the audience, which threatened to overflow into the parking lot. Poets ranged from high schoolers to pensioners, and hit every demographic. Some wore pocket protectors, while others oozed beatnik cool. Topics made listeners swoon, gasp, cringe, and laugh. I sat in awe of the collective courage to openly share intimate words combined with the community’s warmth as each piece was embraced.

Seated just behind me were two rock stars in the poetry world: Grace Cavalieri and Le Hinton. Seated just next to me, the reason I’m writing this post: Laura Shovan (she recommended me for the online position). Submerging myself into their world felt like sinking into a lavender scented bubble bath after a long day. Never before have I felt so welcomed into a community.

I lamented to Laura later that evening on the ride home, “I’m surrounded by poets, and yet feel I utterly lacking in my knowledge of the subject. How did this happen?” She assured me I wasn’t alone and my ignorance curable.

Not one to shy away from learning, I threw myself into the task of filling in my educational gaps. I subscribed to Poetry, the oldest literary journal dedicated to verse, begun in 1912 by Harriet Monroe (might she be a distant relative of my Munro clan? I wonder in brief). I began to read poetry blogs, like AuthorAmok and Anthony Wilson, and paid attention to Aaron Henkin on WYPR’s “The Signal” as he interviews LPR contributor Michael Salcman. Naturally, I had to listen to Grace Cavalieri on her Library of Congress radio show, The Poet and The Poem. I studied Howard County’s own lost treasure Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me.”

I noticed that poets hid in plain sight. By day, they were geographers, neurosurgeons, army captains, teachers, professors, journalists, pilots. Yet they had in common a deep need to share their experiences with language so haunting, so beautiful that it stops us in our tracks. If we stop for just a moment and listen, what we hear might will forever change us.

When did poetry become so cool? Because that’s what it is. One of the poets who read at the Spiral Staircase event said —  and I’m paraphrasing here — poetry carries with it peace and love. As I reflect on that evening, here’s what the room was filled with: a community who came together from all walks of life to share words, thoughts and ideas over a common platform. The collective embrace felt palatable, uplifting, especially to this observer, a writer of prose. That’s just about as cool as it gets, pocket protectors not-withstanding.

Words — carefully selected, linked together, rhyming or not, with emphasis placed on syllables, drawn out for effect — matter.  You, too, can delve into Little Patuxent Review’s rich archives to listen to Clarinda Harris read, “Locust Songs” at a LPR launch and Little Patuxent Review panelists reading their poetry at the 2011 Baltimore Book Festival. Comb through the pages of the journal and find Anne Harding Woodworth and Kelli Stevens Kane poems. You’ll be glad you did.

Who knows, someday, somewhere you might even read a poem written by me.

 

Book Review: Meg Eden’s A Week With Beijing

10703867_366566943505699_4637561000111228413_oI’ve never been to Beijing, so Meg Eden’s invitation to take a trip there via poetry was exciting. My exposure to Eden’s poetry, particularly her collection The Girl Who Came Back (which draws heavily on the Enchanted Forest, a dilapidated abandoned amusement park in Ellicott City) made me feel confident that even in a foreign land she would guide me with an expert eye to the private, hidden, and silent features that define the places I’ve known.

Eden’s Beijing is a woman expending outrageous effort and demanding complete control for the sake of her appearance, heightening the stakes of Eden’s attempt to take a candid look at her. But Eden does not shy away, leading the collection with “A List Of Banned Chinese Social Media Search Terms,” which additionally serves a short list of themes that seem constantly just behind the lips of Eden’s Beijing as she says, “there are some things that shouldn’t be talked about.” She proceeds to lead us on a tour of Beijing’s bedroom where bras and other sundries litter the floor.

megeden_headshot
Meg Eden

However, the strongest moments of the collection aren’t Beijing’s moments of vulnerability, but the speaker’s own. Through the collection, Eden’s speaker moves from a position of enthusiasm and excitement to disappointment to distance and detachment. The language that accompanies these transformations is insightful and inventive:

If we are name-stealers,
then call me Wendy Zhang.
Let me be twenty poets.
Let me run whole-heartedly
through pavement-seas
with this dangerous freedom.

From the picture Eden paints, I would be disappointed too. Beijing, both personified and as a setting is dirty, mean, judgmental, and inconsiderate. Inhabitants of the city are hustling bootlegged CDs, bootlegged restaurants, and bootlegged theme parks (the phrase “copyright infringement” appears twice in three pages). But these are many of the same pictures painted by American media, which reminds me that in reading this collection I haven’t really left the US at all. At times Eden constructs scenes that feel uncomfortably close to stereotype. I have no point of comparison to know whether Eden’s representation is accurate, and if it is then more power to her for having courage to broach the uncomfortable (which is explicitly mentioned in the dedication), but I felt like some poems weren’t giving me the whole story, that there was a side I wasn’t seeing. For example, despite the mentions of “infringement” there was no discussion of shanzhai.

Florentijn Hofman's contemporary pop-art icon Rubber Duck was copied several times over by shanzhai artists (Photo: http://hyperallergic.com/75107/how-pop-art-got-ripped-off/).
Florentijn Hofman’s contemporary pop-art icon Rubber Duck was copied several times over by shanzhai artists (Photo: http://hyperallergic.com/75107/how-pop-art-got-ripped-off/).

One pair of poems particularly felt like a missed opportunity in this respect: “A List Beijing Composed Of Her Phobias” and “A List Of Beijing’s Discovered Phobias”. The former is totally blank. The latter includes “the young and their lack of fear,” “foreigners and their voices,” “the uncovering of infringed dolls,” and “the compounding of questions.” Both poems are exciting conceptually in allowing space for Beijing to speak both on and off the record, and while they are sharply executed in their current form, both poems seem dominated by the common American conception of China. The first poem a Chinese wall, the second implicating the communist goverment’s efforts to expunge the relative social and economic freedom of the West. But China is more than its government, even if Beijing is the seat of power, and I’m left wondering what the “the young…the derelict…the disabled” of Beijing are afraid of. We never hear from them except as objects and images.

In spite of this limitation, Eden’s eyes would give the government good reason to be afraid. Another pair of powerful poems will likely double as beautifully worded journalism for many readers, myself included. Eden works imagined quotes and quotes reimagined into twin reports on the harrowing details and broader socioeconomic context of a factory fire. And in these twin poems, Eden’s careful wording deftly lays out the facts of the tragedy, in this case creating space for the reader to navigate the confused and complicated structure of Chinese society.

Meg Eden’s work has been published in various magazines, including Rattle, Drunken Boat, Eleven Eleven, and Rock & Sling. Her work received second place in the 2014 Ian MacMillan Fiction contest. Her collections include  “Your Son” (The Florence Kahn Memorial Award), “Rotary Phones and Facebook” (Dancing Girl Press) and “The Girl Who Came Back” (Red Bird Chapbooks). She teaches at the University of Maryland. 

Concerning Craft: The Odd Hobby That Spawned My Book

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Photo by Steve Strawn.
Photo by Steve Strawn.

Please meet nonfiction writer and essayist, Sue Eisenfeld, whose essay “Wild Feast” appeared in our Winter 2015 Food Issue.  Sue’s writing has also appeared in the New York Times, Gettysburg Review, Potomac Review, the Washington Post, the Washingtonian, and many other publications. She teaches for the Johns Hopkins University MA in Writing and MA in Science programs. And now, Sue Eisenfeld:

“Strange seizures beset us,” Annie Dillard wrote in The Writing Life, followed by the affirmation of and permission to write about “your fascination with something no one else understands.” In fact, she says, the reason no one has written “about that idiosyncratic thought you advert to” is: “Because it is up to you.”

ShenandoahAnd so it was that I decided to write Shenandoah: A Story of Conservation and Betrayal, featuring my weird obsession: finding historic cemeteries and other relics in the woods.

This interest started during my childhood in Philadelphia, where my mom brought me to Independence Mall, the historic house of the future Dolley Madison, the basement home site of Benjamin Franklin, and the Christ Church Burial Ground where Franklin and other founding fathers are entombed. That was where I spent my weekends in the 1970s reading every last acid-rain-washed marble tombstone, line by line.

After I moved to Virginia in 1992 when I was 21, my colleagues brought me to Shenandoah National Park my first weekend. It was there I found, over what would become more than 15 years of hiking, camping, and backpacking, that there was a story—a backstory—sketched upon the landscape: old rock walls, stone house foundations, stone piles from farming, and fieldstones in old graveyards. One time, my husband and I set up our tent in the backcountry only to discover that it was situated in the middle of the outline of an old chestnut log home.

Who were the people who used to live here? I wondered. Why had they left? Where did they go? I hiked in that park year after year, on trail, off trail, searching for these sites, wondering about these finds, before it would dawn on me to write about the quest I had become entwined in, discovering and understanding the story of how Virginia used eminent domain to evict residents and create Shenandoah National Park (SNP).

A well-maintained old cemetery in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
A well-maintained old cemetery in the Blue Ridge Mountains. © Sue Eisenfeld, 2015

A mentor once told me that when selecting a topic for a book, you should plan to live with it for at least five years. Back then – in my mid-30s, with no real hobbies I could identify and still struggling to find myself as a person and as a writer, I wondered what I could possibly be interested in enough that I could live with it for five years? I felt I led kind of a boring—or at least ordinary—life. Then, because I happened to be reading A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, because I love outdoor adventure and hiking stories, it dawned on me that maybe I should write about what I had been doing for fun for more than a decade: plunging through the trailless backcountry backwoods of SNP looking for signs of the hidden history, the people who had been living there for 200 years before being forced to leave.

This activity was so multi-faceted that I wouldn’t have to live with just one monolithic thing for five years, I realized; this story involved human history and historic maps and hiking and natural history and geology and federal park history and Virginia history and all kinds of nuances I never imagined I’d have to delve into, like calculating the longitude and latitude of properties to determine locations of boundary lines and other esoteric endeavors.

The author at an old home site in Shenandoah National Park.
The author at an old home site in Shenandoah National Park. © Sue Eisenfeld, 2015

It would be many years into the writing the book that I would come to understand that this backcountry bushwhacking thing that I did was my hobby, something legitimate, even though it doesn’t have recognizable name and most people don’t know what the heck I am talking about or find it a strange pursuit. A few others enjoy doing it too, and I formed a group of friends around this activity. Recently, I have found compatriots in this hobby on Facebook and in a local hiking organization. It is, I came to realize, the idiosyncratic fascination that Dillard referred to. She says that a quirky interest like this “is hard to explain because you have never read it on any page,” and, as if directly to me: “You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.” Back when I decided to write a book about this activity and the answers my research uncovered, all I knew was that when the writing sages say, “Write what you know,” this is the kind of thing they must mean.

Online Editor’s Note: Sue will be speaking about her research at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Minneapolis on April 10 and reading from her book at Johns Hopkins in Washington D.C. on April 17. See www.sueeisenfeld.com for events and other information.

The Tenacity of Robert Montgomery

I graduated high school in the early 1980s with an odd fellow called Robert Montgomery. We shared a first period interior design class. Here’s how I remember him: effeminate, floppy haired and overly eager to include me in his movie. The aviator glasses he wore, popular at that time, were tinted amber.

Before class began, he’d amble back to my workstation and ask me in an enthusiastic voice to show up after school to film a scene in which he felt I just had to be in. His sci-fi thrillers didn’t interest me, and I always politely declined. Undeterred, he’d somersault down the aisle back to his own desk, causing our classmates to giggle at his antics. This happened every single morning that spring of 1981.

I never participated in any of his movies, but I’ve often thought about him over the years. When a film I’ve watched concludes, I search for his name scrolling by among the long list of credits. Surely someone so determined must have made his dreams a reality. I hope so.

But more than his antics and dogged cheerfulness, what struck me was his fierce determination to create, despite what others might say. (Many teased him or mocked him, rolling down those aisles.) He loved creating, and went after what he wanted, no matter the cost to his teenage reputation.

When I sit down to write, Robert Montgomery often comes to mind, challenging me. Am I pushing myself, or playing it safe? Is that adverb necessary or just propping up a weak verb? Am I afraid of what others might think? One of my mentors, Joshua Mohr, would urge me, “Be savage on the page.”

John Dufresne wrote in The Lie That Tells A Truth that we must challenge each aspect of our work. Challenge the first paragraph. The last paragraph. Each word choice. Search out pet phrases, or passive voice. Karate chop clichés. Make adjectives stand trial. As Isaac Babel wrote in his “Guy de Maupassant” essay, published in Narrative Magazine’s Spring 2009 issue, “You have to keep your eye on the job because the words are very sly, the rubbishy ones go into hiding and you have to dig them out…Only a genius can afford two adjectives to one noun.” Now, each time I write a sentence containing two adjectives, I hear a voice in my head, whispering, “So you think you’re a genius?” Then I cut one of them. Sometimes.

shutterstock_123861328If you’re like me, you might be feeling discouraged at this point. Don’t be. Think of that shitty first — or seventh — draft as a lump of clay or hunk of marble. You need the raw materials from which to carve or sculpt a — ahem — masterpiece. Just as important as where to place your chisel and how hard to tap the mallet are your word choice, point of view, character arc, pacing and plot. These tools, used with precision, yield your art.

You can’t give up. Neil Gaiman says, “When things get tough, make good art.” (For inspiration, watch Neil’s 2012 commencement speech at the University of the Arts.) Just like I’d like to believe Robert Montgomery never stopped asking, or creating, you and I must show up, do strong work and keep at it until it’s right. Search out mentors, read craft books, and find encouragement.

Because it’s far harder to be an artist who can’t create than one who will. Just ask Robert Montgomery, the guy who daily somersaulted away, rejected, but not dejected. He held onto a dream that one day the answer would be, “Yes.”

Online Editor’s Note: Three additional favorite craft books are Jane Burroway’s “Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft,” Stephen King‘s “On Writing,” and Anne Lamott‘s “Bird by Bird.” What is your favorite go-to craft book or source of inspiration?

Finding Our Sensibilities Through Art

“An Artist’s Date” is a new Little Patuxent Review blog series based upon a concept included in Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way. Cameron believes each person is innately creative and this creativity must be expressed, or it becomes a cancer. One can write or paint or sculpt or solve equations or woodwork or weld or build a tree house – but one must create in some way. When we create, we draw down energy and resources, which must be replenished, hence the idea of the artist’s date. Cameron encourages each person to make a list of potential excursions, which are fulfilling, fun and could ideally be done alone. For example, on my list are cooking/baking, scrapbooking, visiting art museums, going to the theatre, hiking, and attending other writers’ readings. Each of these activities fill me with joy, connect me to my inner child and replenish my creativity well.

An Artist’s Date, then, is determined by the blogger and shared with you, the reader, in hopes of igniting sparks, ideas of places to visit as well as providing a virtual date in the midst of an otherwise busy day. If you have an idea for a date to share, shoot me an email.

Welcome to this installment of “An Artist’s Date” brought to by LPR co-publisher Mike Clark.

Fall 1961, I left Madrid in a rickety bus after spending three days romancing the art of El Greco, Goya and Velazquez in the Museo National del Prado.  Toledo is 70 kilometeres south of Madrid.  I was alone and free to explore my attraction of El Greco’s art.

I  also wanted to experience the Toledo that El Greco had as a backdrop of landmarks of his paintings dramatizing classical or religious themes.

El Greco, "The Disrobing of Christ" (1577-79), Sacristy of the Cathedral, Toledo
El Greco, “The Disrobing of Christ” (1577-79), Sacristy of the Cathedral, Toledo

Losing myself in a maze of Toledo’s narrow streets in the promontory above the Tagus river, I wandered until I came upon El Greco’s art in the sacristy of the city’s cathedral.

He was born as Domenkios Theotokopoulos on Crete, which in his lifetime was under the auspices of the Venetian Republic.  There he painted static, intense icons.  From there he traveled to Venice, where he fell under the spell of  power of color of the Renaissance masters Titian and Tintoretto.  Then on to Rome, where the classical art of Michelangelo further influenced his artistic genius.

El Greco, which means “The Greek,” settled in Toledo in 1577, where his dramatic expressionistic style, elongated figures and capture of light gave an intensity to the religious figures under his intense brushwork.  He died there in 1614.

El Greco, "View of Toledo", 1600
El Greco, “View of Toledo”, 1600

Later that night in Toledo, I wended my way to a plaza with an outdoor café, and all alone I drained glasses of San Miguel beer, gazing up at El Greco’s inky sky with its sheath of clouds.

Four hundred years have passed since El Greco died and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., had an exhibit celebrating the artist who influenced so many artists of modernism, including Picasso. I traveled there as a student of Howard Community College’s Art Museum Field Trips via a bus with little room for my length and bulk.  I gazed to once again upon the works of the master who only 54 years ago sent me wandering a city, searching.

In viewing the sequential development of El Greco’s art, it became clear to me that whatever creativity we carry within us is multi-layered.  We are influenced by brushing up against a wave of artistic expression over our lifetime that with inspirational alchemy comes to define what we deem it to be.

Online Editor’s Note: Mike Clark is a retired Baltimore Sun reporter, who is known best for serving others. He started Christ (Episcopal) Church Link information and referral service to serve Howard County residents in need of assistance.  Along with others, he began the “Prepare for Success” backpack and school supply project for students in Howard County from low income families.  Clark helped start “Alianza de la Communidad” to provide support for Hispanic immigrants in Howard County; worked with county Sheriff’s office in establishing “Howard Holiday” project with sheriff deputies delivering gifts to children from low income families during the holiday season; was co-chair of Healthy Families when the program was managed by Howard County General Hospital; served on the county Homelessness Board; and served on Howard County government’s Grants Committee approving grants for the county’s non-profit organizations. Clark served three years as the editor of American Friends Service Committee’s regional publication on social justice issues. He received the Audrey Robbins award for community service and the Casey and Pebble Willis Making a Difference Award.  He has served as co-publisher of the Little Patuxent Review since it began in 2006.  In 1972, he and his wife, Lois, served a year as volunteers in Appalachia. he wrote articles on the environmental impacts of strip mining in the region and testified on its devastating effects on the mountain ranges  and people in the Southern Highlands before a Congressional subcommittee.   He also enjoys writing poetry.

A Lingering Taste: Two Interviews, Two Women

If you haven’t read Little Patuxent Review’s Food issue yet, it includes interviews with two unique women, one from California and one from nearby Annapolis.  Their stories can be savored, one after another, with the zest of Jane Hirshfield’s and Grace Cavalieri’s lives combining to create a lingering intensity you’ll think about days after you lay aside the Review.

Hirshfield_NEW_hi_res__color__credit_Nick_Rosza_-2
Jane Hirshfield. Photo by Nick Rosza. © Nick Rosza

“I learned that attention changes the flavor of things,”  said Jane Hirshfield, who lives and writes in Mill Valley, California. Hirshfield is a poet, translator, essayist and former cook at the influential Greens Restaurant in San Francisco.

Contemplate the power of her remark, “I learned that attention changes the flavor of things.” Depending upon context, she might be speaking about a stew, a poem, or a relationship. Hirshfield’s word choice in what appears on the surface to be a simple statement demonstrates her ability to layer meaning. All of her writing reads this way. I pulled apart each of her sentences, as delicate as phyllo dough, gasping at their beauty.

As I immersed myself in Hirshfield’s poetry, savoring her words, I found myself slowing down in the kitchen. Grinding pepper, tossing salt, licking the spoon, taking risks by going off book and steeping myself fully in the creative experience. I’m a foodie, but reading Hirschfield deepened my relationship with the cooking process.

Grace Cavalieri. Photo by Dan Murano, June 29, 2014. © Dan Murano
Grace Cavalieri. Photo by Dan Murano, June 29, 2014. © Dan Murano

No one knows the value of relationship like Grace Cavalieri. She and her late husband, Kenneth Flynn, were married for 60 years. “He gave me everything. He died so I could have the only gift he could not give while he lived, my independence,” the poet and playwright said.   Cavalieri interviews poets on The Library of Congress radio program  called The Poet and the Poem. “The love, betrayal, hunger, need, refusals, dependence, adoration—it was all ours.”

Cavalieri’s viewpoint that her husband’s death was his ultimate gift to her is a transformative thought. Her ability to comprehend and share a love so deep makes me yearn to sit at her feet, a student.

Like Hirshfield, Cavalieri’s words address the human condition. They both leave you with a lingering taste for living, hungry for new encounters. I wonder if whipping up Grace Cavalieri’s Spaghetti al Tonno is the magic ingredient to creating a love story like hers. Or will following the directions in Hirshfield’s spare but directive poem “Da Capo” teach me how to live more fully? What impact might these powerful women and their words have on you?

Special thanks goes out to all the women who contributed to the Food issue. You can read all about Jane Hirshfield’s insightful, creative life in the interview with Susan Thornton Hobby, a writer of prose and poetry and founding member of the Little Patuxent Review.  Grace Cavalieri’s interview by poet, workshop leader and LPR contributing editor Ann Bracken, speaks to the importance of  living a creative life breathing with possibilities.

Online Editor’s Note: Special thanks goes out to Michael J. Clark, LPR’s co-publisher for his insight, suggestion and seeds with which to sow this post.

 

 

Meet the Neighbors: Litmore

A journal such as ours requires a vibrant literary and artistic environment to thrive—and even survive. In appreciation of the various cultural entities around us, we present “Meet the Neighbors,” a series where we provide you with personal introductions to a diverse assortment.

The Maryland-D.C. area is rich with writing resources. Though I’ve grown up in this area, I didn’t discover 99% of them until recently. Some of this is due to my own short-sight, but the other reason is because many of them are just rising up. One of the most exciting resources to pop up in recent years is Litmore, a Baltimore-based writing center run by Barbara Morisson and Julie Fisher.

?????????????????????I first heard about Litmore through Barbara, as we were both attending the Maryland Writers Association conference. I didn’t know her very well at the time, but asked her if Litmore was looking for instructors and she encouraged me to apply. This was right when Litmore was starting out, and I felt honored  to be part of this venture. Having taught at the University of Maryland, I was excited to diversify my teaching experience and get to lead workshops that focused on the content I was most excited about.

Since then, Litmore has diversified its workshop list, taken on open mike series, and has moved into the heart of Baltimore, sharing space with a beautiful art studio. And let me clarify that this hasn’t been over a span of five, ten years. It’s been not even a year! Barbara does a wonderful job with Litmore—she has a heart for the written word and the writing community. Beyond Litmore, she’s an active member of the Maryland Writer’s Association, and has several successful books of her own.

Many things make Litmore stick out from the other writing centers in the area. First off is its atmosphere. The first Litmore location was a house just north of Baltimore, and I loved the idea of that: inhabiting a house with writing. It was quiet and peaceful, and it’s no wonder Litmore hosted weekly write-ins there. If I lived closer to Baltimore, I would’ve come to those write-ins, hands down! Even the new location in the middle of the city maintains this welcome spirit. This isn’t just because of the coffee and tea set out for guests, the flyers for local literary magazines and events, or even the new poetry library. It’s the events Barbara and Julie host.

Besides workshops, Litmore hosts writing retreats, “writing hours” (which are an opportunity to write as well as network with fellow Baltimore writers), open mikes and reading series, book clubs, book releases, and more. These events revolve not just around the craft but also in developing a community of writers. While I’ve been to other writer’s centers where I’m not sure where I should be or who to talk to, Litmore makes me feel at home. Click here to see the upcoming events at Litmore.

Litmore2
Photo by: John Kevin III

Litmore’s welcoming community is reinforced through their workshops. These workshops are intimate, practical, unpretentious, and reasonably priced. Workshops cover topics including: marketing, publishing, memoirs, workshops for children, and even workshops where editors give feedback on novel excerpts. While many writing centers focus almost exclusively on craft, Litmore hosts a successful balance of focus on both craft and professional development. Their prices are quite low, making them accessible to everyone. They also give discounts for Litmore members.

We need more places like Litmore: safe houses for writing and writers alike. If you haven’t been, take a look at their site and see if any upcoming workshops strike your fancy. You won’t be disappointed.

Online Editor’s Note: Litmore plays host this coming Sat., Feb. 21, to “Get Started on Your Marketing Plan” from 1-4 pm (tickets required) and “Writers’ Alchemy Release” at 6 pm (Cost: $15, which includes a free book). Sun., Feb. 22 you can see LPR Contributor Fred Foote’s multi-media performance based upon his award-winning book, “Medic Against Bomb: A Doctor’s Poetry Against War.”

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