What You Eat: Pesto Change-o

In preparation of our Food issue (submissions open August 1st, after which they’ll simmer ’til winter), I’ve asked members of the LPR community to share stories of what they eat. Food occupies such a central place in our lives, that we can’t help but grow with it. Whether we were stewing in teenage angst while mom burned the pot roast or, as is the case with this entry from LPR’s own Laura Shovan, falling in love with a new family and food together, we can call on the sounds, smells, and tastes of our most formative and transformative foods to walk back into our own narrative histories. And on Laura’s suggestion, each piece in this series will feature a recipe, so you can cook yourself through an experience yourself. If you have a transformative experience with food, leave a comment and I’ll be in touch.

And now that I’ve laid the table, LPR Poetry Editor, Laura Shovan:

Laura Shovan

Laura Shovan

Every year, my mother-in-law says the same thing.

“Pesto tastes of summer.”

She’s right. The basil leaves that give body and color to this light, green pasta sauce are so easy to grow, they’re found in even the most basic summer vegetable gardens.

For pesto and me, it was not love at first sight.

I was seventeen years old. I’d grown up in a house where Italian food was pizza, frozen lasagna, and pasta with sauce. RED sauce.

My British mother had a few recipes we all loved: her hearty beef stew, a traditional shepherd’s pie dish she’d brought with her to the U.S. On busy days, though, it was egg noodles with tuna, mayo, and frozen peas for dinner. If my brothers and I were lucky, we had Swanson TV Dinners. My favorite was the Hungry Man dinner that came with a square brownie.

My mother grew up in post WWII Britain. Food rationing made ingredients scarce. You ate what was in front of you and liked it. That’s how she’d learned to cook, so that’s how she cooked. And I did like it.

Until I met this guy. I was sixteen, a junior. He was a senior at a different high school. It was love at first sight. Rob is an only child and was, at the time, an only grandchild – an oddity in his big, extended family. I found myself adopted by his mother, Linda, and his grandmother, the matriarch of their Italian family, Rose.

Three-generation Sunday dinners were mandatory affairs. It was at one of these meals that I was introduced to pesto sauce. Green. On pasta. It just looked wrong.

But Rob and I had been dating a few months by that summer. I was in love. To say I was willing to try a strange-looking, garlicky dish doesn’t capture my feelings. I was in love with Rob, in love with how readily his family had accepted me, and in love with food for the first time in my life.

No exaggeration. Every dish that passed through Rose and Linda’s kitchens was delicious. Simple fried chicken cutlets for lunch. American recipes like pot roast. Hamburgers on the grill. It didn’t matter. I was learning that when you pay attention to the food you prepare, it repays the favor by tasting amazing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo, the pesto. Just a few dollops of what looked to me like green mayonnaise on a pound of rotini cooked al dente. Yes, I was learning that pastas have names – this is the curly kind. It traps the bits of pignoli nuts and parmesan in the sauce best. With each bite, there is a perfect combination of basil, cheese, nuts, and garlic.

Pesto sauce can be served as a spread on thick slices of toasted Italian bread or French baguette. On pasta, it’s a great side dish for grilled chicken. Slather it over a nice piece of salmon and bake it to your liking.

Rob and I celebrate our 23rd anniversary this summer. He’s the cook in the family. My kitchen specialties are soups made with homemade stock and baked sweets. But I was brave enough to come up with my own pesto. When we served it to Linda, she asked for the recipe.

Pesto Sauce for Pasta

  • 2 cups firmly packed fresh basil leaves
  • 2 tbsp. to ½ cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
  • ¼ cup pine (pignoli) nuts or walnuts
  • 2+ cloves of garlic
  • ½ cup to 1 cup olive oil
  • ½ tsp. salt

Use a blender or food processor. Combine all ingredients except oil. Blend or process with on-off turns until a paste forms or ingredients are chopped small. Gradually add oil and blend/add until sauce has the consistency of soft butter. (If the oil separates, add more of the other ingredients.) Makes three portions. Can be frozen up to one month.

Note: Stale pignoli nuts have a bitter after taste. Before adding this ingredient to your pesto, do a taste-test. The flavor should be slightly nutty, slightly sweet.

Laura Shovan is Poetry Editor of Little Patuxent Review. She will be publishing a novel-in-verse, The Last Fifth Grade Of Emereson Elementary, with Random House Children and keeps a blog about children’s literature and education at Author Amok. Laura was a finalist for the 2012 Rita Dove Poetry Award. Her chapbook Mountain, Log, Salt and Stone won the inaugural Harriss Poetry Prize. She edited Life in Me Like Grass on Fire: Love Poems (MWA Books) and Voices Fly: Exercises and Poems from the Maryland State Arts Council Artist-in-Residence Program, for which she teaches.

Posted in Families, Food, Parents | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

The Language of Food

Sashimi. Injera. Pasta e fagioli. Tagine. Bibimbap.

How many tongues can you access only through the language of food? How many minutes could you commune with a family at a foreign table, supported only with the language of food? What ancient miracle can you invoke by calling out “godisgood“? Let poems and stories ferment in your mind. Our next submissions period, opening August 1st, will focus on food.

Design by Deb Dulin

Design by Deb Dulin

As a brewer and baker, I feel food to be a powerful and lively symbol. The acts of producing these ancient and fundamental foods connects me through all of my senses with humans everywhere and everywhen. When I am kneading my dough, I feel a duty to French refugees in Antoine Saint-Exupéry’s “Flight to Arras” who do not flee their homes for fear of invading Nazis, but because the town’s baker has already evacuated. When I feed flour to my levain, I feel a duty to Martín Espada’s oppressed and downtrodden whose symbol of salvation is the angels of bread. I draw a deep meaning from this duty. As I wrote to a friend today, “If I don’t bake, the village will starve.”

A few years ago, I was a student in a workshop taught by Stanley Plumly who had given us the prompt of writing an homage. One week later, a student shared a poem with us expressing her gratitude to everyone who has ever shared food with her. Listening to her read, I thought of my father, whose expressions of love through careful cooking were unintelligible against my expectations of games of catch and a treehouse. I thought of  homes where I’d felt most welcome once invited for dinner. I thought of the chocolate chip cookies a friend baked me as a parting gift, sustaining me during a drive from Minneapolis to Portland with a maxed-out credit card and too little cash.

I remain mindful of that poem and Saint-Exupéry and Martín Espada, not only for the beauty of their language and expression, but for the effect they have in putting me in contact with one of the most concrete and tangible conduits we have for experiencing and sharing life—food. I am certain that the contributions of the LPR community that will create this issue will only broaden and deepen these feelings of mine, and already I cannot thank you enough for that.

Posted in Food, Submissions | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Print Issue Preview: Summer 2014 Unthemed Issue

A portion of Lee Boot's "Brick Garden Series" appears on the cover of the Summer 2014 issue.

A portion of Lee Boot’s “Brick Garden Series” appears on the cover of the Summer 2014 issue.

This summer Little Patuxent Review will release its first unthemed issue, but as incoming Editor, Steven Leyva, writes in his first ever Editor’s Note for LPR, “I trusted that thematic elements would emerge.” In my own experience as editor of the University of Maryland literary journal, in picking well-written poetry and prose that is thematically rich, it’s impossible to avoid the confluence of concerns of human beings. Blessed by a community that consistently delivers us just such writing, Laura and Steven both speak of this issue as being shaped and guided by change and transition – not just in terms of the transition from one Editor to another, but manifest in the lives of the characters our community has presented us with. To remix both Laura and Steven’s Notes [i], I invite you as readers to take your first steps with these characters and stories through doors opening onto vistas we weren’t expecting.

Even when seeking transformation, by its nature change eludes prediction.  Characters seeking to be transformed may still not expect the processes leading to that transformation [ii] or what the endpoint of that transformation may be. [iii] Similarly Michael Salcman explores how artist Lee Boot has come to an integrative approach combining painting with multi-media by first shifting among the dazzling array of digital possibilities. [iv]

But many times, the transformations are ones our characters did not choose at all. They are pushed, sometimes stumbling, over a threshold by an act of violence. In Cynthia B. Greer’s “Doris and the Dolls,” smoldering self-loathing from society’s rejection of Black Americans leads an eruption of bullying of “white girls” among Black schoolchildren, robbing the speaker of her identity and compounded the feelings of rejection. [v] In Jerri Bell’s “Vigil,” the speaker is raped by an ex-boyfriend and adopts the position of a sentry isolated in the peaks to guard against attack. [vi]

Of course, many other thematic threads emerge as well in the upcoming issue. I am confident that no matter what our readers are grasping for in their literary lives right now, their hands will land on something that holds fast in our new issue. You are invited to join us for the launch of the issue at Oliver’s Carriage House, 5410 Leaf Treader Way, Columbia, MD 21044, on Saturday, June 21st at 2:00 pm. We will have the issue for sale and contributors will read their work, followed by light refreshments and opportunity for discussion between contributors and those in attendance. The launch reading is part of the Columbia Festival of the Arts.

[i] Laura Shovan and Steven Leyva’s Editor’s Notes set the transitional tone of the issue.

[ii] Alison Turner’s story “A Runner” follows who finds her body and mind transforming during a vacation in Peru.

[iii]  Benjamin Burgholzer’s* essay “Don’t Go Over Your Hip Boots” narrates a son’s slide into drug addiction and subsequent recovery by rediscovering his roots.

[iv] Michael Salcman explores the transformations of artist Lee Boot* in his essay “Time Machine: Lee Boot’s Multimedia and Conceptual Art in Service to the Urban Ideal”

[v] Cynthia Greer’s* essay “Doris and the Dolls” recounts personal and interpersonal struggle among Black schoolgirls during the Civil Rights Movement.

[vi] Jerri Bell’s* essay “Vigil” follows her up a volcanic caldera where she guards herself against rape.

*These contributors will be present for the June 21st launch reading at Oliver’s Carriage House. Details of the launch reading can be found here.

Posted in Essays, Events, Readings, Short Fiction | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concerning Craft: Mary Jo LoBello Jerome

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.

Mary Jo LoBello Jerome

Mary Jo LoBello Jerome

Please meet Mary LoBello Jerome. Mary Jo’s fiction has appeared in Short Story and Center magazines. She currently teaches college writing in New Jersey and is working on new poetry and short fiction. She lives in New Hope, Pennsylvania.

We published her short story “Dermis” in our Winter 2014 Science issue. She read her story at our launch event, so be on the lookout for a video when they become available. (The video is now available. Please find it below.)

Mary Jo shared these insights about her approach to the work with the title “Thinking On Skin”:

I’d been working on the story “Dermis” for a while because I was intrigued with the idea of skin as a metaphor. I knew a chemist who worked in a lab on skin samples, and she was frustrated with her job for reasons related to her career such as salary and advancement, not the emotional or harassment issues, real or imagined, that disturbed my character Mary Ann. And once I had that weirdly pleasing image – of a young troubled woman in a lab coat looking at skin – well, that’s a fertile Petri dish of narrative possibilities.

Skin. We mostly don’t think of it until it gets irritated, the same way we don’t think of our hearts pumping or the neurons firing in our brains when we taste a piece of cake. But once we slow down enough to observe anything closely, so many beautiful and frightening and perplexing questions arise. Scientists know this. So do poets and writers. For a while, I was obsessively thinking about and looking at skin. Two early discoveries: One of the fastest ways to isolate yourself at a cocktail party is to move in close during conversations to study pores or beauty marks. And, if you’re squeamish, don’t ever Google images of skin diseases.

But the role of skin as a permeable shield was the most powerful aspect of questions that kept popping up for me. I allowed the character Mary Ann to voice those thoughts from a scientist’s perspective full of awe about the miraculous biological organ we’ve evolved. Skin breathes and absorbs nutrients while protecting us from the most dastardly, pervasive and invasive little microbes on the planet. But a shield that is so permeable or easily damaged? There’s an oxymoron for you.

Further questions fell in line pretty readily as I was discovering the story while writing. What are the other shields we put up to protect us emotionally? What if one of those emotional shields isn’t as strong as we would like it to be? How does someone protect herself or create barriers between her inner world and the “real” world? In the story, I purposely left ambiguous the motives of the secondary character, Dev, the supervisor who is infatuated with Mary Ann. The serious problem of sexual harassment in the workplace is a question most women must grabble with. As a writer and a feminist, I challenged myself to set the story as fully as possible in the workplace, where our private selves – for both men and women – are necessarily concealed and protected while we get on with the practical duties we are assigned. Later, the story moves to a short scene in a mundane, public mall — another edifice that seems a natural spot these modern days to protect or lose our selves among the crowds. Sadly, we know how easily assailed these places really are. (Tragically, there was a mall shooting just one mile away from the LPR reading on the day of the issue’s launch.)

This is not to suggest that these narrative steps occurred with purpose at first. Writing is a messy process. I wrote scenes, which I revised out, that followed Mary Ann to her apartment and explored her love and family life. To paraphrase Gardner, I cut those scenes that distracted from the dream world I was conjuring. It didn’t matter in the end what her relationship was with her mother or that she did or did not have a serious love relationship in her past. The reader didn’t need to get that far under the character’s skin to believe and feel the conflict. Focusing on setting gave the story structure, and when I revised, I tried to develop the details of place to support the emotional pull without, I hope, overdoing the metaphor.

When LPR announced its science issue, this story seemed a good fit. I’m a little disappointed, however, that I didn’t have access to the recently publicized research about skin microbes. A recent story in the NY Times detailed the micro-biome of helpful ammonia-eating bacteria that live on our skin and feast on some of the odor-causing bugs that populate our extraordinary – and in my case increasingly wrinkled – natural wrapping. What interesting narrative turns could have evolved if either of the main characters in my story were just a little bit smelly? Would there have been face licking? These new scientific findings may yet cause a narrative itch that needs scratching.

Note: If you enjoyed Mary Jo’s story and want to read more poetry and prose from our Science issue, you can purchase copies of that issue and others online.

Posted in Craft, Gender Equality, Prose, Science, Short Fiction, Social Justice, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Citing the Coelacanth: How Research Feeds the Poetic Process

Whitney Gratton

Whitney Gratton

At some point or another, most writers have heard the phrase “write what you know.” Lately, I’ve found another inspiring mantra to be “know what you write.” In other words, look at the act of writing as an investigation, whether its into a topic, idea, event, person, or worldview. The end result may not be certainty—to me, the unknown and uncertain have an important place in both the reading and writing of poetry. But the act of immersing myself in a subject has become a useful and delightful part of my writing process.

My sestina “Mother,” which relates a story of an octopus’ reproductive cycle, is the first in what would become a series of poems focused on sea creatures. One of my motivations in writing this poem was that I had recently come across a science article describing the surprising reproductive habits of the female octopus, and I felt compelled to share what I felt was a rather remarkable story of how the mother cares for and ultimately dies for her offspring.

Because communicating this fact-based story was a main goal of the poem, I prepared for writing by gathering all the information I could about the octopus’s life cycle from online journals and articles, podcasts, and videos. In doing so, I realized to my delight that not only was doing all this background research personally fascinating but researching a subject provided a useful framework within which to find inspiration and enter the state of wonder and continued contemplation that helps propel poems into being.

I once heard Margaret Atwood describe the process of writing poetry in a way that has stuck with me. She said that poets spend a lot of time doing what looks like absolutely nothing. But what they’re actually doing is creating a space inside themselves into which the poem can come. I’ve started looking at research as a way to intentionally contribute to this incubation process and invite the poem to come, like leaving out a trail of breadcrumbs to coax a shy animal closer. For instance, for my poem “Coelacanth,” I was initially captivated by the idea that this species of fish could live for millions of years unbeknownst to scientists and decided to try to write a poem about it. I began reading what I could find about it—its discovery, habitat, and behavior—in an attempt to simulate the often-haphazard process of incubating various facts and ideas in the back of the mind.

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The coelacanth.

Incubation aside, this background research serves a few more straightforward purposes. One happy result is that it tends to turn up new or unexpected language that might not find its way into my work otherwise. The term “Lazarus taxon,” used to describe a species like the coelacanth that is rediscovered or reappears in the fossil record after seeming to have died out, ended up being an important element in the resulting poem.

Perhaps the word I spent the longest trying to find was in the line “If he sees me at all, I’ll be the lantern fish’s / last sight.” I knew I wanted to highlight the coelacanth’s seeming invisibility and the idea of seen vs. unseen using an organism that it would prey on.  Originally I had chosen “amphipod,” an order of small crustaceans, as a general and scientific-sounding example of the unfortunate prey. Eventually, I thought perhaps it distracted from the language of the rest of the poem, and I looked for alternate options. Fortunately for me, the coelacanth is an opportunistic eater, feeding on whatever it can find as it drifts, including the more linguistically approachable lantern fish, which ultimately won the place of honor.

Though the envisioning of the coelacanth’s perspective is imaginative, I wanted the details of the poem to be accurate and serve the subject by being true to the reality of the species and the events of its discovery. In this way, background research served both as a source of inspiration for the poem’s content and as a sort of fact checking at various points along the way in the poem’s evolution. I admit I feel a little uneasy even calling what I do “research,” as it’s a somewhat informal and unofficial process. The main rule I have for myself is that each important fact I include needs to be verifiable by at least two different sources – preferably, ones with established credibility like news outlets, museums, and science journals or magazines.

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Stamp commemorating the coelacanth’s 1938 discovery by Western scientists.

In some cases my initial knowledge gathering has taken the form of library books—from a popular science book on the biology and social history of eels to an image-rich coffee table tome showcasing little-known creatures of the deep. A more immediate method—and admittedly the most common for me—is meandering through the Internet, always evaluating the sources as I go. Although I lean most heavily on sites by well-recognized authorities, I enjoy the occasions on which I end up on a site with no apparent attachment to an organization that appears to have been created and maintained solely out of an individual’s passion for a sometimes very specific and obscure subject. One such page that I came across while delving into the coelacanth was part of an entire site dedicated to postage stamps from around the globe featuring this particular fish.  Another I kept coming back to contained a wealth of information on all aspects of the coelacanth, but I was unable to track down much about the site owner aside from his first and last name.  Expertise aside, the thoroughness and diligent passion he displayed for the fish only compelled me to read on with increased fascination.

I was thinking again about research as I read about photographer John Yoder’s experience capturing the night sky at the world’s largest astronomical project in the Atacama Desert. He says, “Do we photographers go witness such things to take pictures, or do we take pictures in order to experience such things?” I’m beginning to think that as important as research can be in informing a poem, there may be even more value in the poem’s potential to give my ongoing explorations meaning and serve as a way in which they can be shared.  I can only hope that one of my poems will move the reader to continue—or begin—his or her own exploration.

Posted in Craft, Creative Writing, Internet, Poetry, Research, Science, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Safe Space for Students: The Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House

As a sophomore at the University of Maryland, I joined the Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House, a living-learning program that puts students interested in creative writing in one dormitory and conducts workshops and classes in the same building. The people I met there, staff and students alike, not only dramatically improved my writing but catalyzed a mental revolution in how I thought about language and art, all while fostering close friendships (in New York I still live with two of my friends that I met through Writers’ House).

Writers’ House also afforded opportunities to explore other aspects of writing by providing support for programs like a regular open-mic night (the previously mentioned TerPoets) and a literary journal, and taking on the roles of performer or editor also expanded my view of the literary word. The woman who continually protects and develops this magical space is Johnna Schmidt, who recently led her students to the 2014 Split This Rock Poetry Festival. Johnna talks about this experience:

Priya is in my office, explaining that she regrets not being more involved in the Jimenez-Porter Writers’ House. She wishes she had more time, she’s been overcommitted. And it’s true that I have had almost no contact with her. I tell her (a) the door is open, and (b) she owes me nothing. When I look up her record after our meeting I see she is a BIO SCI: PHNB major and I don’t even know what that means, other than that she must have a skill set much more lucrative than mine. This is how it is with college students these days. Having gone through K-12 with the emphasis so firmly set on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math for those of you who have somehow been spared the acronym), many of them reach college starving for artistic or literary engagement but remain too busy putting together their resumes to be able to carve out the room in their schedules for something so unnecessary as art. After all, it won’t lead to a real career, right? And their parents, who are probably sacrificing quite a bit to foot the bill for college, are firm on this point:  You better major in the sciences, business, or technology.

And here am I, teaching poetry and fiction writing at University of Maryland, insisting that such a pursuit is worth your time. I suggest to Priya that she might want to attend the field trip to Split This Rock. I’m only being practical; I have purchased 20 student passes to Split This Rock and am trying to make sure they get used.

A few weeks later Priya is on the Shuttle-UM bus to the metro, surrounded by 19 other students. She is reading Natalie Diaz’ book of poems When My Brother Was an Aztec. We are on the way to meet Natalie and I’ve offered my copy around. I love watching the students read and write. Their attentive bodies. They way everything stops and they become so focused. It’s almost like they enter a different world. I suppose they do.

Natalie Diaz reading at Split This Rock Poetry Festival. (Photo courtesy of Split This Rock.)

Natalie Diaz reading at Split This Rock Poetry Festival. (Photo courtesy of Split This Rock.)

Downtown, in the conference room at the Institute of Policy Studies, Natalie Diaz is suggesting that we need to explode our language. She suggests we crack things open. She confesses that she has tried to write sestinas several times but hasn’t figured out how to break the form yet. She says if we use the word “apple” we need to be aware not only of the etymology of the word but also the mythology, the aphorisms, common usages, and associations. “Apple” is carrying all of that and more to the reader. She finally suggests that we only really know things when they are broken. How many times have we heard some version of “I didn’t know how much I used my right index finger until I broke it.” Even with family members who die or become very ill, we understand their place in the family better when they are absent. It strikes me now that we seem incapable of fully understanding the interconnectedness of things while they are fully functioning.

All of us are listening intently. Priya  keeps asking questions, even after our time with Natalie is supposed to be over. It’s turning into a tete-a-tete between Priya and Natalie. I’m sorry I have to cut them off and let everyone go. Natalie offers that anyone who has additional questions for her can email her.

(Photo courtesy of Split This Rock.)

(Photo courtesy of Split This Rock.)

Waiting for me at my office on Monday is a thank you note from Priya for giving her the opportunity to attend Split This Rock over the weekend. She’s had several conversations with writers she admires over the weekend, and she uses the words “incredible” and “awesome.”  But my favorite phrase is this one: “this festival was one of my first exposures to spoken word/slam poetry, and I’ve completely fallen in love with it.”  She also asks for Natalie’s email address.

Is there any better pursuit for a college student than to fall in love?  Reason tells us yes, there are better pursuits, skills to learn, career enhancements, work to be done. But, dear reader, who I am assuming to be middle-aged like myself, do you remember your body, back before it was broken, when you were 18, 19, 20 years old?  The body will not be denied ecstasy. Do you remember the urgency of youth, how we pursued things so impatiently, how passionately we loved and believed? I have no doubt that Priya has experienced a turning point. That she’s coming away from the festival with more interesting thoughts than ever and perhaps a new set of antennae with which to gauge the changing environment.

Perhaps it has always been this way, the vitality of the arts spilling into our lives and making converts of us one by one, when we all had more practical uses planned for our time. Art the inevitable interruption; in the face of something really great we drop our Excel spreadsheets. All the parents and administrators in world pushing on the younger generation can’t stop them from falling in love.

My feelings mirror Priya’s. Not only do I feel incredibly grateful for the program that Johnna has shaped, but Split This Rock in particular is an incredibly charged and thrilling way to experience language. It was at the 2012 Split This Rock Poetry Festival that I was first blown away by the DC Youth Slam Team and first learned about June Jordan. At Split This Rock I stood on the steps of the Supreme Court and delivered one line of poetry in a cento of protest. I went home feeling like language and reality were more closely bound together than ever, and that we were all engaged in building that language, that reality. If you haven’t been to the poetry festival yet, be sure to go in future years. Thanks also to Sarah Browning and her staff.

Posted in Busboys & Poets, Craft, Creative Writing, DC Youth Slam Team, Events, Literary/Arts Journals, Poetry, Readings, Split This Rock, Stylus, Teaching, University of Maryland, Washington DC, Workshops | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

No Doubt About It: Le Hinton Picked for Best American Poetry

Le Hinton‘s poem, “No Doubt About It (I Gotta Get Another Hat),” originally appeared in our Winter 2013 Doubt issue, but now has had the distinction of being picked up for the 2014 edition of Best American Poetry. We immediately contacted Le, eager to share more about the story of his poem and the rest of his work with our community in the wake of this momentous achievement. Make sure to give his poem a listen and a read to get the most out of his comments (and because it’s great poetry!). Here’s Le in his own words:

Let’s make this clear. Chris Toll was one of the most creative and gifted poets I’ve ever met. When I found out that he passed away, I cried. If life is meant to be an exquisite sculpture that ages and acquires a lovely patina which enhances its beauty, Chris’s death was like a micro-fracture at its base, the realization that nothing is ever perfect. Some things in life are fundamentally unfair, absolutely wrong. Chris’s death in 2012 is one of those things. As I sat in the audience at Chris’s memorial service, I decided I’d do something I rarely do: write a poem as elegy. There were three keys to my creating “No Doubt About It (I Gotta Get Another Hat).”

In an interview, one of my favorite poets, Dean Young, was quoted as saying: “A straight line, a linear progression, is a fiction and not even a very convincing one. There is no such thing as discontinuity because there is nothing that doesn’t belong, that doesn’t vibrate in this web of connection. Now is always unprecedented and sudden.” This thought is almost always in my fingertips as I begin to write a poem, and it was in this case. There isn’t a linear narrative that runs through the poem.

The second idea that I considered important was that I didn’t want to write an ordinary elegy using a traditional form. Chris was so very unique, so I decided to write about him by using an element of his writing. In some of his poems Chris illuminates words, meanings and moods by taking them apart. In my favorite poem of his, “The Abyss Has No Biographer,” he writes:

How long can I stay
at the inn in innocent?
Love is so hard
and it’s all we came to do.

I wanted to use that technique in my poem for him.

The third aspect of this poem is uncertainty. When someone passes away, especially suddenly, what we feel most acutely is uncertainty, not just about life, but about everything. We question each choice we’ve made and will make, at least for a time. In the poem, I wanted some of the disregarded choices to remain visible. In the poem there are strikeouts that reinforce the uncertainty that is stated by the words.

Non-linear thinking, deconstruction of individual words and a somewhat unconventional visual look  are the three techniques that I wanted to focus on in creating an elegy for Chris.

Kind poetry colleagues tell me that I have a broad range of styles within the poetry I write. More honestly, I’m all over the place. I write in free verse for the most part and don’t often write in forms. However, when I attempt to write a poem, I usually look for some kind of organizing principle. It may be an extended metaphor or an overarching mood, however, often it is something about how the poem looks on the page. I am constantly searching for a different way to place emotion and/or intellect on an empty white space. A few years ago, I wanted to write about gun violence. Other than the title, “You Do the Math,” it was written only with numbers. I find some of the work by Mary Szybist a revelation. In her latest book, Incarnadine, one poem is written as a starburst. Another is written as a diagrammed sentence. Poems such as these fascinate me. “No Doubt About It, (I Gotta Get Another Hat)” lives in that neighborhood of visual variations that I sometimes attempt.

Once the poem was finished, I didn’t intend to submit it anywhere for publication, however, I was reminded that Little Patuxent Review’s reading period was ongoing and the theme was Doubt. I certainly was aware of the proximity of Little Patuxent Review to Chris’s world in Baltimore. Submitting the poem here seemed to be almost destined. When the poem was accepted for publication in the Winter Issue 2013, I was more than thrilled. Being published in Little Patuxent Review was no small accomplishment. It was another step up. The poem’s publication was somewhat of a validation of the kind of poetry that I had begun writing in 2006: poetry that is less narrative, more image driven, more concerned with the architecture of the piece on the page.

In January, when I was first notified by Mark Bibbins about the poem’s inclusion in The Best American Poetry 2014, I first thought it might be a joke or online hoax. I don’t have the kind of ego that walks around wondering why the world hasn’t discovered me. When I found out that the poem was chosen by guest editor, Terrance Hayes, whose work I’ve read closely and loved since 2010, I was stunned. I am profoundly grateful to him and series editor, David Lehman, for choosing “No Doubt About It (I Gotta Get Another Hat).” I know that there are thousands of poets in America who write wonderfully creative, intellectually  and emotionally moving poems. I’ve been fortunate and will always remain thankful.

I live in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Amish country, part of the larger South Central Pennsylvania area, which includes the cities of Lancaster, Harrisburg, York and Lebanon.

I host a monthly poetry reading series, the Lancaster Poetry Exchange, with help from a marvelously talented poet, Jeff Rath, that’s been running since October 2007. It has the dual purposes of showcasing local poets as well as bringing in poets from outside the area. Maryland poets such as Meredith Davies Hadaway, Virginia Crawford, Pamela Murray Winters and Cliff Lynn have all read for the Exchange.

I am also the publisher and chief editor of a now-yearly poetry journal called Fledgling Rag. Its genesis was my belief that there are talented, creative poets who reside outside the major and minor metropolitan areas of America. I contend that there are great poems being written by poets who are somewhat invisible to the larger world, such as Harrisburg’s Marty Esworthy, York’s Rebecca Gonzalez and Lancaster’s Jeff Rath. Fledgling Rag, in a small way, attempts to make those poets a bit more visible. There is always a strong South Central Pennsylvania presence in each issue, however, we don’t impose any geographical restrictions in deciding which poets are included in each issue. Each issue has one featured poet. The last three featured poets were Marjory Heath Wentworth, the poet laureate of South Carolina, Michael S. Glaser, former Maryland poet laureate, and Yona Harvey, creative writing professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Three of Chris Toll’s poems, including “The Abyss Has No Biographer,” appeared in Issue 10.

There are diverse poets, with different writing styles and subject matter throughout the South Central Pennsylvania area. There are poets of place, poets of  protest, language poets and experimental poets. Quite of few successful and respected poets use poetic forms as a basis for their work. I’m excited by all of it. That is why my own poetry can be so varied. My work and my non-writing activities seek to bring together my internal world, my immediate world and the larger poetry world together. Isn’t that what we’ve come here to do?

Note: Le additionally supports his larger poetry world (or “extended family“) through his publishing endeavor, Iris G. Press. In addition to being the outlet for Le’s aforementioned Fledgling Rag, Iris G. Press has published several books. Have a look at more of Le’s work and the work of his poetry family there. The Doubt issue where “No Doubt About It (I Gotta Get Another Hat)” first appeared can be found here.

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