Concerning Craft: Making “Macular Conception”

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.

Destiny O. Birdsong, MFA, PhD

Destiny O. Birdsong, MFA, PhD

I’m a crime TV junkie, and some of the most disturbing stories I’ve ever watched involve fetal abductions: the kidnapping of an unborn child, usually by removal of the fetus from a pregnant woman’s body. Fetal abductions are almost always committed by women, are almost always violent, and the mothers almost always die, but what most fascinates me are the interviews of people who knew the assailants. Typically, when a woman commits these abductions, she has also faked a pregnancy, but family members will say things like: “She had to be pregnant. I touched her stomach, and I felt the baby kick.” The person telling the story is always so convinced. They had to have felt something. And the woman, so desperate to be expecting, must have felt something too. What power can the body harness in the midst of that much belief? Can it become the thing it is pretending to be? I’m not sure, but this is the question that prompted me to write this poem.

There have also been times in my life when I’ve been desperate to be pregnant, usually for reasons other than wanting a child. I’ve wanted to be pregnant to keep men. Or to prove my body capable of something I’m still not sure it can do. I mean, I haven’t always been the most careful, so I’ve often wondered what’s wrong with me for not conceiving. I’ve had some of the moments I outline in the poem. I’ve done things. I’ve said things. I’ve made wishes.

eyeSo “Macular Conception” is a story about the body’s utmost desire and belief, and the title lends itself to this. The macula is the part of the eye where light is transmitted to nerve signals that tell the brain what you see: a word, a stoplight, a baby. It’s also the point of sharpest visual acuity, where we see things the most clearly. But as a person who doesn’t have perfect eyesight, I also understand that acuity is relative: easily compromised, or often misread by the brain.

I started with the first image I knew: the speaker wrapping negative pregnancy tests in paper towels and throwing them away outside her house. She’s hiding them from herself as much as from the guy, a fact that I try to bring home when she also hides her tampons (because her boyfriend isn’t counting her tampons). I wanted to open the piece by illustrating her neuroses, and the listing of these actions with the halting sentence structure is another manifestation of that. I wanted her to be practical about all of it. I wanted her to have checklists, even as she was doing this irrational thing.

pregnancy imageI was also certain that I wanted her to be young. Honestly, I was writing back to a younger self, and I wanted to highlight that naiveté in the speaker as well as in her boyfriend. I wanted him to misread her fingernail imprints on her belly as stretchmarks. I wanted her to see a pregnancy as a “suc[cess] at failure” without truly understanding why the single mothers in her life wanted her to do something different. I wanted her to be oblivious to how dismissive (and inaccurate) a term like “failure” can be. There’s something tragic in that: a girl who wants to take on this massive responsibility but is unable to articulate independently a personal stance on what motherhood means to her. That moment is the most problematic for me in the poem (I’m always a little apprehensive of how readers might perceive it), but I chose to keep it in for that exact reason.

I also really wanted the speaker to have an orgasm, an instance when her body—in all its imagined and hoped-for failure—has a visceral reaction, like the non-existent child kicking in the would-be mother’s womb. I wanted her body to work for her in a moment when she is enraptured by the thought of her holding a part of her lover inside it. The sentence structure changes here too, and clauses get longer to illustrate the messiness of it all: the dirty bathroom stall, the child who feeds on her insides like a catfish, the boy with his painful kisses. It’s unfortunate that this is the place where it happens, when she is alone and hoping, and not with someone who wants to be with her, pregnant or otherwise—or better yet, when she is by herself in some other place, thinking about her whole self, and not about what her body must do in order to be valid. But that too is a part of her story. Not only is her desire overwhelming, but also unwieldy, perhaps because she has never taken the time to explore it on her terms.

It isn’t until the final lines of the poem that we get to something like that, but it is still a problematic moment: an articulation of self-belief, but again, for the unworthy cause of keeping “the boy,” who is only staying because he believes she is having “his” child. I chose the final image of the traffic light and making a wish because she is still so young, and this is a game she’s playing with the hopes of not getting caught, but still doesn’t understand the implications of doing so. I wanted to leave the reader with this final image of youth and self-absorption, but also of an intense, transformative belief—a dangerous combination. Like the television shows I often watch, I wanted to narrate a disaster in the making, in the instant before the light turns red, or the cop pulls out of his hiding place, or the car comes barreling toward her. And I also wanted to give her a voice before the disaster—a flawed one, but not a monstrous one. So often, I too have wanted something that badly, not knowing that my body’s desire alone was proof enough that I was human, haveable, whole.

Macular Conception
by Destiny O. Birdsong

She wrapped all the negative tests in paper towels
And threw them away at the gas station up the street.
Lined the tampons up, one by one, beneath her mattress:
Thirty-six. Doesn’t want to need them; hopes
That in the days and weeks of the summer’s bilious heat
She will succeed at failure. Failure in the eyes
Of the single mothers she knows. Especially her own.

But she wants this. She wants it so badly she imagines
Her skin stretching in sleep. She claws it feverishly,
Awakening to trails of crescent-shaped welts on her belly
That resemble a seascape drawn by the hand of a child.
The boy, who has never slept next to a pregnant girl,
Has seen them, but he believes they’re stretch marks.

The boy believes her, along with her shift manager,
All of her friends, and two of her professors.
But the stash of tampons is dwindling. She can’t buy more.
Luckily, the flow is weak—red dabs of spit.
If anyone asks, she can tell them she’s spotting.

Squatting over a restroom seat, she wonders
What her body means to say in this remittance.
The possibilities excite her. Standing, she wills
The unshed blood and refuse to knit a net,
Trapping a piece of her lover. This swimming self
Nudges against the folds of her endometrium
Like a catfish nosing algae from the walls
Of an aquarium. She can see it
As clearly as if her womb were made of glass.
She can feel its small, open-mouthed kisses stinging
The way the father’s does: teeth nicking her tongue.
And the bliss of it—the body’s obedience, and the boy—
Brings the rush she never feels. She arches, contracts.

This father, the boy who sleeps next to her, wants to leave
But now he won’t: she’s having a child. Or she will be.
She must be. Beneath yellow traffic lights, she
Scratches the sun-visor and makes a wish
That is much more like a prayer: Please,
Let it count for something that I believe
Myself. Because I believe myself.

Online Editor’s Note: Destiny Birdsong’s “Macular Conception” will appear in the Winter 2016 “Myth” Issue. Also, her poem “Selective Reduction” appears in the Fall 2015 Issue of Rove.

The Reverse Outline

The late Terry Prachett wrote, “Read with the mindset of a carpenter looking at trees.” I don’t know about you, but once I became a serious writer, my reading habits shifted. No longer did I waste time reading poor prose and gorgeous sentences could stop any forward momentum as I decoded their construction. Chekov, Doctorow and Waugh continue to amaze me.

Professor Skip Horak introduced to me the reverse outline as part of my Stanford writing program. Our cohort read Toni Morrison‘s Beloved and Michael Chabon‘s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and were provided with brief examples of reverse outlines on each. They were the ultimate carpenter-looking-at-trees analysis! We then had to select books, which contained elements similar to our in-process novels. In this way, the outlines of existing works could provide roadmaps to inform our own. For my novel Finding Grace, I chose The Tiger’s Wife because she jumped back-and-forth through time, utilizing two point-of-view, intertwining generational stories.

Translation bookWhat exactly is a reverse outline? If a normal outline is written prior to any work being done, then a reverse outline is composed on a completed work. It examines craft and is particularly helpful when one wants to see how the point-of-view, dialogue, and exposition work together to create arcs, tension, and narrative.

If you decide to try this on your own, select a work you admire. As you read, take notes in the form of bullet points. If you’ve selected a book, break your outline down by chapter. In the outline, note the following:

  • Point-of-View, Time, Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, and Denouement. If you are unsure of how to identify these, Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction is an excellent resource.
  • Note how the author moves back and forth in time.
  • What techniques does the author use to signal transitions? Changes in point-of-view? Consider the use of different color fonts to indicate shifts in POV or time, if helpful.
  • Note the use of white space.
  • What techniques does the author use with dialogue? Notice tags.
  • What kinds of imagery is used? Is it straightforward or symbolic?
  • Where does the author use exposition? How much?

In the end, you’ll have a document that likely only you will understand, but this exercise can be extraordinarily helpful as a learning technique.

Have you used a reverse outline before? If so, what was your experience? If not, is this something you’ll give a try? When you do, please come back to this post and let us know what you learned.

Online Editor’s Note: Little Patuxent Review’s Doubt issue included an interview with Columbia native Michael Chabon by Susan Thorton Hobby. You can order a copy of your own here.


Interview with Grace Cavalieri

A Memoir from Grace Cavalieri

A Memoir from Grace Cavalieri

Grace Cavalieri is just as comfortable in the kitchen making gnocchi with spinach and mushrooms as she is in the radio studio interviewing, Juan Felipe Herrera, the new Poet Laureate of the United States. When I talked with Grace about the role of myth in her life and work, she moved easily between making me tea with honey and sharing her latest poetry reviews for the Washington Independent Review of Books—a labor she performs faithfully every month.

During the interview, we talked about her home life, her life as a Navy wife, and her early years as a writer when she was raising her four children. Here’s a brief teaser from a section in Grace’s memoir, Life Upon the Wicked Stage, where she explores the function of work in our lives:

“The workplace is a laboratory for the human spirit that allows us to overcome the obstacles we need to overcome to find what we want. The ‘wall’ people put up for us is a perfect way to find what we want on the other side. It focuses. Desire is made better by the wall. I never said it was easy.”

Ann Bracken: I’ve just finished reading your memoir, Life Upon the Wicked Stage, and want to thank you for sharing so many details of your life with your readers. I found the work engaging, funny, and inspiring. What made you write it at this point in your life?

Grace Cavalieri: You make me so happy! Ken always wanted me to write about my adventures and I thought he was crazy. What would I possibly write about? How to cook chicken cacciatore? But after he died, he appeared to three psychics telling me to write “that book.” I just thought well I can do two pages a day…and that’s what I did.

AB: How long did it take you to write the memoir? What was the most challenging aspect of talking about your life?

GC: It took not quite a year from first my scratchings to the fourth proofing and production time. I kept criticizing my writing, not my life. That I could not change—but I knew I could not reach lyricism with the form I’d chosen, which was reportage. There are some nice moments in it, I’m sure, but being a practicing poetry person, the prose seems to like wearing a suit of armor while trying to fly. The chapter (three) about birthing my daughter Angel, under great duress and negative conditions, made me cry. I got acquainted with my PTSD kept so nicely undercover all these years.

AB: Throughout the book, you talk about breaking through boundaries in the arts, especially related to women’s roles. Can you describe the first boundary you crossed? Perhaps when you got the DC Arts Commission Grant?

GC: AR Ammons (winner of the National Book Award in 1973 and 1993) said “If you are nothing you can say and do anything.” He even misspelled “do” to make his point. So I knew, in 1966, that I was below everyone’s radar, and I had Ammons’ credentials. I learned that the DC Commission said it supported artists, so I wrote to them: I NEED SUPPORT. Ken and I had four children, and I was not working at a job, so I felt guilty spending money trying to mail my daily poems and plays out. The Arts Commission surprisingly invited me to tell my story. And I got $200. From that day forward, they set up a mechanism for funding artists. But I bought a maxi coat with the money. I figured they’d certainly want me to look like an artist instead of a homemaker.

AB: You grew up in Trenton, New Jersey, and then married your high school sweetheart, Kenneth Flynn. You and Ken lived all over the United States as a result of Ken’s Navy service. You also raised four daughters and became an acclaimed poet, playwright, and radio host. Were there any cultural myths that shaped your early years? Your years as a Navy wife?   What myths were you determined to challenge?

GC: Remember that I grew up in the 1930’s, and movies ruled our lives in the 1940’s, and beyond. The idea that someone could make up a story, and make us believe—it enchanted my imagination. I wrote to all the movie stars. I wanted to get backstage and see how it felt to tell a story.

And I believe writers are born wired to language, so any book I read could sail me to dreamland –wanting to understand how that book worked on my heart. What was the process of inventing those hieroglyphics on the page that could change my feelings so much? That was childhood.

The Navy was pure survival for me; alone for nine months, books were my friends. I was both parents for my children and very much alone.

As a practicing artist, after that tenure, I was ready for action. All the energy building up in me wanted out. I, once again, didn’t care what people thought of me (because I was nothing) so I was free to write what I wanted for the stage. Very few women playwrights were seen in 1967, and 1968, and those of us who were writing plays had to step on people’s feet to be heard. Our voices were too loud, and not ladylike. We were breaking walls. I don’t know if we made art or just noise. But desire can give writer lots of power.

AB: You were a working artist while you raised your children and ran a household. What advice can you offer women who struggle to do the same things today?

GC: I don’t even know that answer yet. Balance is what we try for, but it isn’t what we achieve.

I was a product of a 50’s marriage, so I was into structure. And I couldn’t write until the children were in school, and the meat defrosted for dinner, and ”real life” things were accomplished. Then I would give myself to myself.

When I needed to be out in the world, I missed some of my daughters’ events. Ken was both parents on those occasions. It is said, “Women can have everything they want, just not all things at the same time.”

I think Art is a dark horse we ride, and we have no choice, and we have to forgive ourselves for that.

AB: In your memoir, you say this about your dual challenges of writing and raising children: “If I was guilty of anything, it was sewing the light of poetry, and some days, leaving the children only the cloth.” Say more about this.

GC: Even when I was physically in a room with my children if my mind was elsewhere, was I present? Even if this is only at times — if you are staring at the ceiling thinking of that last line, what must that be to a little girl waiting for your attention? Being present is something I came to, thankfully, not too late.

AB: Your poetry book, What I Did for Love, deals with the life and career of Mary Wollstonecraft. What was it about her story that spoke across the centuries to you?

GC: She’s my girl. First, I could not believe, when I discovered her in 1974, that very few people knew she was the first woman to write a serious book of prose. Now she’s quite well served, thanks to some interim biographies. She stood shoulder to shoulder with men in the 1700’s! She was very real to me; she suffered trying to be a decent mother; she wanted the love of a male partner, and she was constantly living without financial means. In the beginning, she supported herself in London writing for a newspaper. Imagine her small room. The first 18th-century female journalist. She died in childbirth, frankly because doctors didn’t bother washing their hands, unless of course, a woman was a bluestocking.

AB: What myth is yet to be written?

GC: What a great, great question. The myth that needs to be explored is that this life is all there is; that our dimensions are physical: length, width, depth, breadth ,height; that there is no invisible world surrounding us; that the dead have gone away; that eternity is not somewhere colored blue and far away, instead of around us every moment in the living room.

AB: Much of your memoir is woven with stories about your marriage to Ken Flynn and how the relationship fed you both personally and professionally. In the memoir, you talk about the afterlife and messages from Ken. What led you to write these lines in the poem “Messages From the Other World”?

“…I agree I’d put everyone’s mind at ease to call it
coincidence, or parallels to life
from undercurrents of thought, but did I tell you that tonight
I put the last log in the fireplace—although
it’s well into Spring—and without a match, I returned and
it’s already alive with flames?”

~from The Man Who Got Away

GC: As I’ve already revealed “I am a believer.” And that’s because every time I get lost from that, something will happen to let me know that all energy— past, present, future— exists at every moment. And Ken went nowhere at all.

AB: At the very end of your memoir, you paint a memorable scene, and you relate that event to learning to do the impossible. Tell us about that event and how it has shaped your perspective.

GC: I think you’re referring to Ken’s return from his first 6-month cruise to the Mediterranean. I hadn’t seen him since our honeymoon. We wives welcomed the aviators from the carrier, and the Admiral did us a huge favor by saying we could tour the ship. I, of course, had spike high heels on and a pencil slim skirt. I followed everyone until we got on a metal ladder hanging between decks over the Atlantic Ocean— NO backs to the steps–just a view of the water. I climbed and froze. Everyone was stuck behind me with a 30-meter view of the waves beneath. I have no memory of how I got up or down. I must have, because, here I am.

AB: How did that experience prepare you for the life and work still to come? What is your current paradigm?

GC: Frankly, it was not an act of bravery but stupidity. I have learned how to opt out of any area I cannot manage. It’s ok to say “ I cannot climb 30 meters over the ocean, thank you. I’ll wait here.” It’s ok to say, “I can’t play chess, speak Chinese, or program your computer.” In years past we were taught we had to climb every mountain, never admit limitations. Some people need to stay in the camp at the base of the mountain and cook delicious food for the climbers.

My present paradigm in life is to be mindful, connected to the moment, and admit the work I have on my desk is the greatest gift one could imagine. Whether it’s radio production, poetry, editing, or reviewing—imagine how great it is getting to do what I’ve been practicing for 50 years. That’s the definition of happiness. I have a poem titled “Work Is My Secret Lover.”

AB: Grace ends her memoir with these lines. They serve as powerful inspiration for all who strive to follow their dreams.

“In a way, that is where I am today. Between levels. Not frozen now, and able to do the impossible, as we all are able, making art, creating some new things that never existed before; trusting that there’s something at the top of the stairs, and a hand to pull me in. It’s what makes me take the next step.”

Online Editor’s Note: Poet Grace Cavalieri is an Italian-American writer and host of the radio program The Poet and the Poem, presented by the Library of Congress through National Public Radio. Life Upon the Wicked Stage: A Memoir (New Academia Publishing/Scarith Books, 2015) is available now. You can read a another interview with Grace Cavalieri by Ann Bracken in our Food Issue.

One Day It Will Be Too Late

Lemony SnicketLittle Patuxent Review was created to foster and encourage a community of writers, poets and artists, which it has done brilliantly for nearly ten years. We’ve held readings and workshops, attended book fairs and festivals, and published themed and unthemed journals, highlighting work submitted by creators all over the United States.

The current themed issued, Myth, closes to submissions at midnight on October 24, 2015. That’s one day from today. As much as our community celebrates you, we can’t submit your work for you. Some things stand alone in the “one” column.

Myths like:

  • Yeti.
  • The Loch Ness Monster (affectionately known as “Nessie”).
  • Slenderman.
  • The Great Pumpkin.
  • “I didn’t sleep with woman.”
  • Donald Trump.
  • Someone knocking on your door to discover you.

If you’ve been contemplating a submission to the Myth issue, now’s the time. Our editors and readers look forward to sinking into your work.


Our Designing Woman

Anne Frank wrote, “No one ever became poor from giving.” This is especially true of our volunteer staff at Little Patuxent Review. Each works tirelessly behind the scenes to read your submissions, edit the draft and design the final printed journal. In other words, it means something to them when your work gets published (almost as much as it does to you). Our submission period opened on August 1, so I thought it might be a great opportunity for you to meet them. Over the next several months, look for fun and interesting posts about our stalwart volunteers.

Deb Dulin, 2015.

Deb Dulin, 2015.

Deb Dulin became LPR’s designer in 2011, and the legend of her joining is worth retelling. Co-publishers Mike Clark and Tim Singleton were meeting with then-editor Laura Shovan on the lower level of the Ellicott City Barnes & Noble book store. The journal’s designer had just resigned and Mike was lamenting this loss. Deb, heavily pregnant at the time, leaned over the balustrade and said down to the group, “I’m a designer.” The rest is LPR history. We’ve been grateful for her fabulous work ever since!

When you design the issue, how do you start? We start with a cover design to release in advance of the issue. For the interior pages, I work from beginning to end. There is at least one or two poems in each issue that have very specific requirements for layout, and I work with Steven and the contributor to get as close as possible to their original intent while working within our print guidelines.

What’s your process for selecting the cover? The cover is a collaborative decision among the art editor for each issue, Steven and myself. They narrow down the artist’s selections and then I review each piece to determine the best fit for the cover. The cover itself is secondary to the artwork presented on the front. More often than not, the chosen piece is not perfectly proportioned to a 6” x 9” publication, so I determine how to present it in such a way that the rest of the front and back covers complement the chosen selection. Color options are selected from the art’s palette, and we narrow it down to the final look.

When you’re creating a layout, what draws you in most? To me, layout design is problem solving and each issue is a unique process. For designing the journal, there is a lot of background work in placing text within a text box, but then making several adjustments to create maximum readability. With poetry pieces, there is compromise on longer lines of copy—we work with the poet to make layout adjustments that retain the meaning and look of their work. For the more creative pieces, such as promotional postcards, I enjoy finding ways to make each one unique while retaining certain elements that make LPR recognizable—the logo, the fonts, etc.

What makes you cringe when you look at a poorly designed layout? Text that is over or under kerned (words that are very stretched out or too tightly squeezed in). Or words that have unnaturally large spaces between capital A, V or J and the next letter.  I have to suppress the urge to manually adjust the letter spacing!

Who has informed your design tastes most? Why? Paul Rand has created so many iconic brands that have stood the test of time. I try to follow the philosophy that good design is timeless—you might be able to spot the trendy font or stlye, but it shouldn’t be badly dated within 10 years. I also enjoy reading Brand New (, which is edited by Armin Vit. It’s a good source of constructive criticism of logos and brands of all sizes and nationalities. He covers major companies but also highlights smaller studios that do very creative work.

Do you doodle in your spare time? I do! I have three different sketchbooks at the moment—a spiral-bound book, one with grid squares, and a pocket-sized Field Notes. My projects tend to be scattered throughout, depending on which one is most handy when I get inspired.

What’s on your nightstand right now to be readBrandraising, by Sarah Durham, Color for Designers by Jim Krause, The Three Marriages by David Whyte, and Star Wars: A New Dawn by John Jackson Miller. I have a lifelong habit of reading several books at once.

Are you also an artist/writer/poet? If so, tell us more. I dabble in watercolor, charcoal and pencil drawing. One day I will commit to painting and drawing on a regular basis!

What’s your Six Word Memoir: Work in progress, excited for tomorrow.

Do you have any superpowers? If not, what do you wish you had? The Force would be pretty useful in my day-to-day living. If that’s not an option, I want to understand animals. I would love to know what my dog is thinking.

Online Editor’s Note: As Little Patuxent Review approaches its 10th Anniversary, we’ll be showcasing past covers in the upcoming months. Be sure to let us know which were your favorites and why.

An Interview with Novelist Angela Pneuman

Angela Pneuman (Photo credit: Alex Lauren)

Angela Pneuman (Photo credit: Alex Lauren)

Every once is a great while, if you’re lucky, you get a professor like Dr. Angela Pneuman. Her own short stories have been compared to Flannery O’Connor’s work, which is high praise, and her debut novel, Lay It On My Heart, was reviewed by Oprah’s O magazine as, “Biting yet optimistic, this first novel will knock you sideways with its Southern charm and quiet humanity.”

She’s the kind of caring instructor who knows — and remembers — her students and their novels, each in detail. Not only does she attend graduation ceremonies, she stands up and speaks off-the-cuff about those she mentored and then attends the private parties. If you didn’t already guess, she’s a gracious and giving woman.

Angela Pneuman is the author of a book of short stories, Home Remedies, and a novel, Lay It on My Heart (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Her work has appeared in Best American Short Stories (2012 & 2004), Ploughshares, Los Angeles Review, Iowa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, New England Review, Glimmertrain and many other literary magazines. Angela has received the Stegner Fellowship from Stanford, the Presidential Fellowship from SUNY Albany, and the inaugural Alice Hoffman Prize for short fiction from Ploughshares.

I caught up with Angela this summer in Lake Tahoe, where she graciously agreed to be interviewed from her home this fall in Napa Valley, California. (Sadly, we couldn’t do the interview face-to-face!)

Little Patuxent Review: Home Remedies, your collection of short stories, involve themes of evangelical Christianity, abandonment, grief, and childhood innocence. Are the subjects in these stories important to you personally, and why? How did writing these stories prepare you for crafting Lay It On My Heart?

Angela Pneuman: Yes, I think you’ve thoroughly listed the preoccupations of my first two books! In a way, I hope I’ve exorcised them at this point, if we ever fully exorcise our demons. I think evangelical Christianity has come to suggest a very narrow way of viewing the world, when one hopes that religious/spiritual practice expands one’s view of the world. However, I think this particular culture has become an easy target—there are so many ways that the rest of us narrow our worlds, aren’t there? Pointing out the narrow mindedness of evangelicals is a bit convenient, no matter how much their disgraced ambassadors set themselves up for it. It’s a bit like pointing out the racism of the South. The rest of the country gets to feel pretty good about that…the mote in someone else’s eye, the log in your own, etc.

I guess I think of the culture of evangelical Christianity (and its stories) as less exceptional and more of a visible index to more universal human dilemmas.

As to abandonment—it’s sort of an index, too (as opposed to a metaphor), of loss, of mortality. It shouldn’t happen to children, but when it does, it opens the child’s eyes to something very real about the world before the child has the skills to fully take it in. and before the child has the skills to mask it as an adult would. For me, something shows up in a specific way that makes it easy to see. The child acts out, blames herself, seeks answers, attempts control, draws rudimentary conclusions—all with very little perspective, right? I sort of got at moments of this with the stories, but in the novel I sat with the consciousness longer, and perhaps with more vulnerability? I don’t know.

LPR: The main characters in Lay It On My Heart are evangelical Christians. Why did you choose to write a story about an evangelical family?

AP: Well, for the above reasons, and also because it’s a culture I know well. My father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all ministers. My great-grandfather was a circuit rider, way back when, riding on horseback to a bunch of different churches in South Dakota, though eventually he returned to Kentucky. I’m sort of looking back on the culture I grew up in and trying to figure out how else it shaped me, since I didn’t stick with the belief system.

LPR: How has your viewpoint of religion changed over the years and how has this informed your writing? What has evolved for you?

AP: Very much so. I might say I’m spiritual, now (if pressed), but not explicitly religious. But for a long time I was angry towards evangelical religion. I wished I’d been raised with a different set of ideas so that I was more prepared for, say, Hegel, when I got to him. It was not a super intellectual upbringing, though it did me some favors with its unremitting analysis of the text (meaning THE BIBLE). But writing from that place of anger wasn’t effective—it was geared towards judgment and ridicule rather than understanding.

LPR: You’ve said that, “As a writer, I probably get closer to the core of what I’m trying to discover or express when I make stuff up than when I share something that actually happened to me.” Will you share an example where this was especially true?

AP: Well—the novel is a good example. A lot of people find out some of the things that have happened to me and tell me I should write a memoir. But I can’t find the real story in what actually happened, and if memoir doesn’t achieve story, then it has to do something with the way the writer processes things, a sort of directly ruminative accounting. I don’t think I’m so good at that. I process things through the indirection of story—or the type of story I am drawn to. Some novels, it’s true, take a direct approach—they suggest memoirs, and indeed the authors seem to invite the comparison. I enjoy reading those authors: Elena Ferrante, Rachel Cusk, Elisa Albert. But I don’t think I could pull it off.

LPR: Lay It On My Heart is set in the rural, evangelical Kentucky town of East Winder, which is itself a character.  What aspects of this town are most important to you personally, and why?

AP: The town is a lot like where I grew up. I’m so far from it now, having been peripatetic for years, but for the first 20 years of my life, this town and its landscape was really all I knew. I remember so viscerally what it felt like not to know anything else, and thinking about that place almost always feels like a kind of temporal vertigo. The actual town is very beautiful, in the middle of horse country. Unlike the town in the book, there’s a seminary AND a religious college, with just about every brand of Protestant imaginable, and not much else.

LPR: The novel spotlights the mother-daughter relationship between Phoebe and Charmaine Peake. How much of their relationship was informed by your own relationship with your mother?

AP: I was definitely interested in what happens when a parent-child relationship becomes one-on-one. It’s how I grew up—my mother and I co-existing in a sort of aftermath of the sudden end of her marriage. But I also think that the mother-daughter thing is intense for lots of people, especially as one comes of age. I remember desperately deciding against breasts and my period, and thinking that my mother just didn’t know enough to have refused them. Just like I thought she didn’t know enough to grow long legs, etc. It’s hard to face the irrefutable nature of what is out of our control! Perhaps we hate its evidence in others?

LPR: What has been your mother’s reaction to Lay It On My Heart?

AP: Haha! She’s very proud. She wishes I were a Christian, but aside from that I think she feels it’s a generous book with people who struggle but really care about each other.

LPR: Charmaine’s father is mentally ill and through his illness abandons his family.  Your father left the family when you were quite young.  Share with us your process for writing these scenes, which you did with compassion and love.

AP: I had at first written sections from David’s point of view, and Phoebe’s, too. I struggled to get out of my own way, there. One needs compassion for the unwell. But if it takes everything a person has to manage him/herself, then there’s often not a lot leftover for the people in their life. I don’t mean that as a criticism, only to say that there are casualties—and no one, really, to blame. Children, of course, blame themselves, and that’s what I was trying to reckon with in the conversation between Phoebe and Charmaine at McDonalds, the second one—where Phoebe can see Charmaine internalizing David’s abandonment as having to do with her own (and Phoebe’s) undesirability. Phoebe is trying to get across the concept of what it means to be unwell, but it gets back to the issue of control, I think. It can be less scary to think one is defective than it is to think that one actually has no control over what others do. If one believes one is somehow the reason others behave the way they do, then one can believe that others’ behavior is in their control. I think if I keep saying “one” it will sound less like this is all coming from me, LOL.

LPR: You capture the universal awkwardness teenage years with empathy and humor. When layering on top of teen angst the evangelical viewpoint, there’s the risk of becoming farcical (I’m thinking of Christopher Moore’s Lamb). Share your craft thoughts on how to achieve the honest portrayal using dark humor.

AP: Well, I haven’t read Lamb, but now I’m curious. I appreciate the compliment, and wish I had a good answer for this. I guess I suspect that if you go to your own honest spots then they are very often funny, whether you’re going for that or not. People recognize themselves, I think, when other people are very honest about themselves, and that usually plays as funny…I have had the experience, more than once, of reading to a group and getting laughs where I didn’t expect. I think Tobias Wolff, more than almost anyone I have read, does a great job of humor through a sort of relentless examination of honest, secret, embarrassing character motivations…

LPR: Your own evangelical upbringing kept you from many aspects of the average American lifestyle. But in 1991, you discovered Best American Short Stories, which included a story by Lorrie Moore. Later, Lorrie said of your short story collection in Home Remedies, “These amazing stories have an inviting surface and a complex core that is in bitter conversation with it. They possess intelligence and grace of every sort. Angela Pneuman must surely be one of the most gifted young writers around.” Plus, you got to interview her for The Believer magazine. Share with us your feelings at having one of your first literary idols give such high praise to your work, and then agree to be interviewed by you. What did you learn from her and this experience?

AP: So far, the most rewarding thing about this career—other than having to do the work itself—has been meeting many of my literary heroes. I met Lorrie after she chose my story “All Saints Day” for Best American Short Stories 2004, and was star struck. I admire her a great deal, and I find her utterly un-imitate-able, though it doesn’t stop people from trying. She also read the story aloud for the CD version of the anthology—and I loved that, too. You get someone’s take on your story when you hear them read it, and it’s often made a little strange to you, in a wonderful way. And it gave me a way to interview her for The Believer, which I really enjoyed. She’s so smart, and the intelligence is delivered so gracefully, that it’s scary.

LPR: Your short story “Occupational Hazard” was selected for the 2012 edition of Best American Short Stories. How did it feel to have one of your stories published in the annual anthology that turned you on to great literature?

AP: It felt great! That was the second time for me, and you just feel so lucky and grateful that some terrific writer, like Lorrie Moore or Tom Perrotta, really liked your story. It’s also neat that they usually say something about why they chose it. And has always been close to my heart—so that felt special. I took one creative writing class I took in college, where we read BASS 1991, and that teacher invited me back to her class last year to speak, and the text was BASS 2004, with my story.

LPR: You wrote about music the following, “It’s obvious that music does have power — not unlike the seductive power of narrative, as the theorists tell us. It is capable of carrying us away. And an open heart is a defenseless heart. As much as I enjoy music today, I don’t entirely trust it.” I’m curious to know more about the trust factor of music and a defenseless heart.  Is there a fear of being carried away that keeps you from letting go and leaning into those feelings?

AP: I guess there could be a bit of fear, there—maybe more of a respect for my own immoderate responses, I suppose. I think when one is easily carried away one learns to guard against it, a bit, or one wastes a lot of time. Most writers let things in, I think, or learn to. I think I have always naturally let everything in, and my task has been to learn where to draw boundaries. You work with your own nature. Perhaps another way of thinking of my response to music might be that I should have pursued a career in it? Not that I have any musical talent. I did play the trombone for a few years…

LPR: You wrote in Salon: “Sex scandals are particularly powerful, in part because of the strength of the whole wedlock injunction and the desperate measures taken to prevent extramarital fornication from about the age of 12 on. In my town of about 3,000, largely if not exclusively evangelical, prayer was our first line of defense against the call of the body. And as a 12-year-old, once you figured out that something felt good “down there” you didn’t have to go through a church seminar to know it was probably against God’s will.”  How has this fundamentalism during your formative years impacted your adult day-to-day life?

AP: Not much these days, but more in my 20s. My ex-husband was my college boyfriend, a wonderful person, but the decision to marry young is possibly not one either of us would have made under other circumstances. Like any decision with consequences, you spend some time recovering—and sometimes it’s time you wished you had back. If only my early marriage was my only regret!

LPR: How has your background uniquely set you up for success as a writer?

AP: I would say that feeling at odds, at an early age, in your native community is something I experienced and something that many writers I know speak to—everyone feels that way a bit in adolescence, but it’s not always so intense and motivating. I had no idea what I wanted but I knew what I didn’t want, from a pretty early age.

I would say that growing up as an only child, with a mother who encouraged a lot of reading, really helped me tolerate the necessary time alone that it takes to write fiction.

LPR: In addition to a Ph.D. from the State University of New York – Albany, which you use to teach at Stanford, you also consult for wineries in Napa Valley as a wine PR expert. And to take it even farther, you are actively involved in the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, looking to co-lead the 2017 event. Share with our audience your vision for the upcoming conference and how they might become involved.

AP: Yes! I do handle PR writing for the wine industry, but most of my work is marketing writing of some kind—vintage notes, websites, educational materials, back labels, app work, etc.

The Napa Valley Writers’ Conference celebrated its 35th year this summer. I love this conference for the way it retains its tight focus on craft. It’s known for attracting serious writers, many of whom already have their careers underway—admission is pretty competitive. We have a great faculty line-up of fiction writers and poets who give craft talks and readings in addition to workshops, and the conference is purposefully kept small and intimate. And of course it’s in beautiful wine country, with all our fantastic restaurants and wineries. Readers should apply!

LPR: What was it like to work on a TEDxNapaValley campaign?        

AP: Funny you should ask—as soon as I’m finished with this interview I go to work on the language around our theme ideas for this year. It’s fun to work with a group of talented, local people who are passionate about ideas. So much of the work you do as a writer is solitary that I really enjoy working on teams, wherever I find them. And one thing about the TEDxNapaValley team, is that they’re hospitality and event pros—it’s a very well-executed example of TEDx!

LPR: What else are you working on now?

AP: I’m not quite sure if what I’ve just started is a novel or a story, and I have one other thing that I’m pretty sure is a novel—sure enough that I’ve now stopped talking about it. A good sign!

LPR: Is there anything else you’d like us to know?

AP: No, but thank you for the interview! Lots of great questions!

Online Editor’s Note: Little Patuxent Review submissions for “Myth” remain open through October 24. 

When words save

As a literature person, I often feel like the church lady at the door: “Hello, I’m here to tell you about a book that can save your life.” Slam.

But sometimes, someone lets you in, and sometimes, you’re not alone. I was having tea with a fellow book evangelist and LPR’s on-line editor, Debby Kevin, when she mentioned Buck: A Memoir, and thought the author, M. K. Asante, would make a good interview for the Little Patuxent Review

People offer suggestions all the time (they’re church ladies too), and I dutifully do the research, read the books and make the call. This time, I was redeemed at the pulpit. Buck was not my typical reading fodder: It’s the salty story, studded with rap lyrics, of a 14-year-old gone wild who liberates himself at an alternative school in Philadelphia. He becomes a rap poet, a filmmaker, a writer, and the youngest tenured professor in Morgan State University’s history. M. K. Asante was an amazing interview. (The article appeared in the latest issue of LPR, summer 2015.)

So when I was sitting at a party for a friend, David Barrett, next to an acquaintance who worked with him at Howard County’s alternative school, I mentioned Buck.

Anne Reis is the media specialist at the school, Homewood Center; she’s obviously a book person. She read Buck, then started her network going. She wanted Asante to talk to the kids at Homewood School. First, she called on Barrett, who knew Asante’s father, a Temple University professor known as the father of Afrocentricity. No luck. Then she called the agent. Too expensive. Then she passed the book along to the staff, one of whom was Rayna DuBose, a long-term substitute teacher at Homewood. DuBose read the book and started Twitter messaging Asante. He began to answer and then agreed to the tiny sum that Reis had in her budget.

Barrett, who teaches math at Homewood, explained: “When word got out that author and professor M.K. Asante would be coming to Homewood Center to discuss his book and his life; buzz and excitement were considerable among the faculty and staff.  But there was also some skepticism among the students. They had been audience to speakers in the past with whom they did not necessarily connect.  Why would this one be any different?” Just before Asante was scheduled to begin speaking, Barrett was watching for the guest author on the day of his talk, and saw a young man coming up Homewood’s walk. At first, Barrett thought he was a student coming in late, “but there was something about his walk – head held high, a smooth confident stride – that told me I was wrong.”

And that’s what the youthful 33-year-old Asante wanted everyone to know: He was just like their students.

“When he was young, he was just like them,” Reis said he told the gathered students and staff. “But something clicked for him. He explained that he realized that education was going to free him. ‘It’s what they want you not to have — it’s your freedom,’ ” Reis said he told them.

Asante captured them from the moment he began his rap: “Young buck, buck wild, buck shots, buck town, black buck, make buck, slave buck, buck now …”

M.K. Assante captivates students at Homewood Center.

M.K. Assante captivates students at Homewood Center.

“After that, they were putty in his hands,” Barrett recalled. “The 33-year old Morgan State professor proceeded to tell them that he was born in Zimbabwe; had grown up in Philadelphia and gotten caught up in the street culture of that city. He did not see much of his father after his parents divorced and he was not happy about that. Ultimately he was sent to an alternative school (‘just like you’) where he began to turn around his life after an English teacher gave him a blank piece of paper and told him to write. ‘Write about anything you want. But write sincerely and truthfully.’ He had never before been asked or directed in that manner to write. And he felt challenged and responded accordingly.”

Asante Jaelyn

Homewood student Jailyn Davis was eager to talk with M.K. Asante after his presentation.

After his talk, one staff member asked him how teachers could reach a student, sitting slumped in a classroom chair, on his phone, ignoring everything going on in class.

“I was that kid,” Reis remembers Asante saying. “People were talking to me and I was hearing all of it. I just wasn’t ready yet.”

Asante used the analogy of a garden, Reis said. Gardeners can prepare the soil, pull the weeds and water, but then nothing happens. Suddenly the sun hits and it all blooms.

“That was a great thing for staff to hear,” Reis said.

The most amazing thing was the silence during his question and answer period, Reis said. After someone asked a question, Asante paused to think for a moment, and “you could have heard a pin drop — at our school there’s a lot of bad behavior — that doesn’t happen.”

Homewood Center student Dre Fleeks, who had a copy of Buck autographed for him, with the author, M.K. Asante.

Homewood Center student Dre Fleeks, who had a copy of Buck autographed for him, with the author, M.K. Asante.

Reis had introduced Asante and left her copy of his book on the stage. After Asante had finished answering questions, she said, “he was like a magnet.” Students gathered around him for selfies and autographs. Reis saw one boy with Asante’s book, and said, ‘Hey, I didn’t know you had the book.’ She looked closer and saw that it was her book. She pulled him aside and asked: “Do you want to have it signed?”

“He gave me a huge hug,” Reis said. “In a school where kids don’t read, I found a kid — essentially — stealing my book so he could get it signed. It was really touching.”

The ripple effect of literature can’t be measured quantitatively. But from Debby to me to Anne to David, to the staff and students of Homewood, the waves reached out exponentially, to touch lots of readers along the way. Doors were opened for these students, and the church ladies (and gentlemen) actually spread their message. Maybe, just maybe, a few souls were saved.

Teachers Gillian Crevelle and Rayna Dubose, teachers at Homewood, are big Asante fans.

Teachers Gillian Crevelle and Rayna Dubose, teachers at Homewood, are big Asante fans.