Concerning Craft: Shirley Brewer – Revisited

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.

Please meet poet and educator, Shirley Brewer. Shirley previously contributed to the Concerning Craft series exploring the creation of her poem “Fairy Tale, Interrupted”, which we published in our Summer 2012 Audacity issue. In the interim she released a collection of poetry, After Words, a reaction to the murder of Stephen Pitcairn in Baltimore. When she showed up again in our Summer 2014 issue I wanted to seize upon the opportunity to return to one of our contributors to explore not just their approach to their craft in the present moment, but to observe an evolution in technique and aesthetic. Without further adieu, Shirley Brewer on her poem, “Above Chicago“:

I have developed a daily habit I find most nourishing. Every morning I read The Writer’s Almanac. Starting the day with a poem keeps me focused on my passion. I also enjoy reading the prose tidbits Garrison Keillor includes beneath the poem – birthdays of writers/anniversaries of events in history. I sometimes find material for new poems there.

Such was the case this past January 25th, when I read about the first transcontinental commercial jet flight on that date in 1959. I might have let that nugget pass, but knowing Carl Sandburg was on the plane tweaked my interest. I love Sandburg’s poetry, and once visited his family home, Connemara, near Flat Rock, North Carolina, where I bonded with a newborn goat named Wyatt. The Sandburgs raised goats, and the estate was still flourishing.

In writing “Above Chicago,” I decided to begin with actual items from the flight menu. Have the reader salivate! The names of the dishes had great alliteration: Maine lobsters, filet mignon, macaroon ice cream balls. I courted assonance in the first stanza as well: macaroon, ooze, saloon, fueled troubadour. I could have submitted this to LPR’s Food issue!

Although I have no idea about the actual flight plan, I love imagining the jet flew “Above Chicago,” and I can visualize Sandburg singing lines from his famous poem about that iconic American city. He was quite the musician, as well as a superb poet. I wanted to include crimson, as Sandburg used that word in a number of his poems and I think it must have been a word he liked.

Gin and ink wed inside his journal, a line that just appeared! Sandburg – in his early 80’s at the time – did keep a journal. And the booze flowed freely on that flight. Like all of the other passengers, Sandburg participated in the frivolity of the occasion! One of the pleasures I relish in poetry is selecting a verb that sounds fresh and fits, and wed seemed like a winner.

I decided to end the poem with another reference to Sandburg’s Chicago poem. Hogs and butchers in the last line to balance the filet mignon in the first line! What pleases me about crafting a poem is making word choices, and playing with sounds. It may take at least a dozen or more revisions, but it’s such a joyful task!

The subject of my previous Concerning Craft piece was Cinderella, in my poem, “Fairy Tale, Interrupted.” Poetically speaking, both Cinderella and Carl Sandburg piqued my interest! And when I care enough to write a poem, I’ll begin the process and see where it takes me. I think, initially, I wrote “Fairy Tale, Interrupted” as one stanza of fifteen lines, before I decided it would work well as five tercets. I often don’t decide on the format until I’m well along in my writing. Two stanzas of nine lines each seemed to work well for “Above Chicago.” I wanted to begin the second stanza with Sandburg’s reference to Chicago as City of the Big Shoulders, an image I find miraculous.

I obviously had a long history with Cinderella – a story and movie I have loved since childhood. A blurb on The Writer’s Almanac inspired “Above Chicago.” Whatever the genesis, once the idea set in – I want this idea to be a poem – I go into my space where I just write and see where it takes me.

Both poems surprised me. In “Fairy Tale, Interrupted,” I start by writing about Cinderella. Then, I speak directly to her. I didn’t plan that ahead of time. In “Above Chicago,” I initially thought I would write only about Sandburg on that transcontinental flight, maybe touch on the food and drink, and Chicago inserted itself! I love it when that happens.

In both poems, I pay attention to sounds. I’ve already mentioned alliteration and assonance in “Above Chicago.” In “Fairy Tale, Interrupted,” each tercet ends with a rhyming word.

“Fairy tale, Interrupted,” appeared in LPR’s Audacity Issue. I think of Carl Sandburg as a thrillingly audacious poet. Maybe I’ll write a poem in which Cinderella meets up with Carl Sandburg. And they’ll raise a goat named Wyatt.

Every poem is an internal adventure. Whether the source is family, the past, mythology, an item in the news – the poet invites us to experience the depth of his/her vision. I find the process both challenging and exhilarating. The poem I craft tomorrow may be totally different than anything I have previously written. I can only hope all of my poems carry some freshness into the world. Carl Sandburg once defined poetry as “the journey of a sea animal living on land, waiting to fly in the air.”

Oh, Carl, I’m glad you flew in the air on that first transcontinental flight! 55 years later, I honor your journey – the literal one as well as the metaphorical. I know you’d concur that, in poetry, there’s always a place for cat feet and glass slippers.

Shirley J. Brewer graduated from careers in bartending, palm-reading, and speech therapy. She has served for two years as poet-in-residence at Carver Center for the Arts and Technology inBaltimore County. She also teaches poetry at LitMore in Baltimore, and at Howard Community College. Shirley presents workshops on Creativity, Poetry, and Healing Through Writing. Recent poems appear in: The Cortland Review, Innisfree Poetry Journal, Pearl, Comstock Review, Passager, as well as in Little Patuxent Review and other journals. Her poetry chapbooks include A Little Breast Music, 2008, Passager Books and After Words, 2013, Apprentice House/Loyola University.

Posted in Poetry, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

What You Eat: Better Late Than Never

In preparation for our Food issue (submissions are open until November 1, 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 have been preparing the food that we grew up with all our lives or, as is the case with this entry from former LPR Online Editor and current BrickHouse Books Fiction Editor Ilse Munro, only got around to it recently, 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 Poetry Editor Laura Shovan’s suggestion, each piece in this series features one or more recipes so that you can cook yourself through an experience. 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, Ilse Munro:

My mother and me, drinking champagne at her 90th birthday party in Ellicott City, MD (Photo: David Cash)

My Latvian mother and Latvian me at her 90th birthday party in Ellicott City, MD (Photo: David Cash)

Right before my mother turned 90, she confessed that she had actually wanted to name me “Nora.” After the protagonist of Henrick Ibsen’s A Doll’s Housearguably the most influential feminist character in literature. Only, what with World War II and all, she failed to tell my father, who filled out the registry form. This went a long way toward explaining why I never learned to cook at my mother’s knee. Or her mother’s, for that matter. Born in the seventh decade of the 19th century, Oma became a successful businesswoman after her first husband was killed by a Russian firing squad. But this did not mean that they did not transmit their love of Latvian food to me. Or their strong opinions on how to present it.

So for my mother’s 90th birthday bash, I decided it was high time to go whole hog. I invited the entire neighborhood over to my house on the appropriate Thursday. Along with champagne, I served finger food and raspberries-and-cream chocolate cake, none of my own making. Then I had another bunch over for Sunday brunch, where I served Latvian dishes that I had never in my life made. I started preparations after midnight to keep it a surprise, but nothing could ever get past that woman. I was simmering pork for an aspic and watching dough rise for klinģeris, the traditional birthday “cake,” when she appeared. Her eyes, dimmed by two decades of macular degeneration, conspired to keep my secret.

Whazzat? Whazzat?” she asked, standing on the stairs in her nightgown.

“Nothing, Mom,” I said. “Go back to sleep.”

When she woke in the morning, I knew that the hours of nocturnal labor were well worth my while. Because of beginner’s luck and because, unbeknown to me, I was running out of time to show how much she meant to me, everything was perfect. I had even remembered her and Oma’s mantra: presentation is everything. The scalloped Bundt cake pan that I had pressed into service gave the turned-out aspic the required elegance, and the carved carrots and other garnishes that I had added to the bottom gave it a whimsical wreath. The butter for the bread had taken the shape of sea shells. And the radishes atop the salad had been formed into florets. Oma had taught me that anything worth doing was worth doing well. The better-late-than-never thing was what I learned entirely on my own that day.

Latvian Birthday Brunch Menu

  • Galerts (Pork Aspic)
  • Gurķu un Redīssu Salats (Cucumber and Radish Salad)
  • Kliņģeris (Sweet Saffron Bread)

Source: A Taste of Latvia by Siri Lise Doub

Galerts (Pork Aspic)

  • 2 fresh pork hocks
  • 1/2 pound lean pork, either shoulder or tenderloin
  • 1 carrot, cut into small pieces
  • 1 onion, cut into small pieces
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • 3 peppercorns
  • 1/2 cup chopped tomato
  • 1 or 2 tablespoons unflavored gelatin
  • 2 egg whites
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
  • garnish items such as hard-boiled egg sections and carrot slices shaped as flowers
  1. Bring pork hocks and meat to a boil in plenty of water. Boil for about 20 minutes.
  2. Add carrot, onion, bay leaf, peppercorns and chopped tomato. Simmer about two hours or until meat is tender.
  3. Remove from heat. Remove pork from broth and set it aside.
    Strain the broth with a sieve. Bring the strained broth to a boil again. Turn heat to low and let simmer.
  4. Mix gelatin and water according to package instructions. Add to broth.
  5. Beat egg whites. Add to broth. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  6. Arrange the parsley and other garnish items artistically in the bottom of an aspic mold. A Bundt cake pan is a good substitute. Individual molds or pans can also be used.
  7. Chop the meat and add it to the mold or pan. Cover the meat with broth.
  8. Refrigerate 24 hours.
  9. Place a serving platter over the top of the pan or mold and turn the mold or pan over unto the platter. Remove the mold or pan and decorate the dish.
  10. Slice and serve with vinegar–I used balsamic vinegar, but white vinegar in more traditional–or horseradish sauce and crusty bread slathered with unsalted butter.

Gurķu un Redīssu Salats (Cucumber and Radish Salad)

  • 1 cup sliced, scored cucumbers
  • 1 cup sliced radishes
  • 1/4 cup chopped dill
  • 1/4 white onion, finely sliced
  • 2-4 tablespoons sour cream
  • salt and pepper to taste
  1. Combine all ingredients in a bowl and chill for 20 minutes.
  2. Garnish with dill sprigs and radish florets.

Kliņģeris (Sweet Saffron Bread)

  • Very warm milk (120-130 degrees F) or 1/4 cup warm water and 2 cups warm cream
  • 1 teaspoon saffron
  • 5 1/4 cups wheat flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 ounce packages dry yeast
  • 14 tablespoons (1 3/4 stick) butter
  • egg yolks
  • 1 cup sugar
  • vanilla
  • cardamom
  • dried lemon or orange peel
  • ginger
  • 1/2 cup golden raisins
  • tablespoons cinnamon
  • tablespoons candied peel
  • sliced almonds
  • confectioners’ sugar
  1. Mix warm milk, saffron, wheat flour and salt. In a separate bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water by letting it stand for 5 minutes. Add yeast to flour. Knead dough well. Cover with a damp, clean dish towel and set aside in a warm, draft-free place (about 80 degrees F) to rise for 1 to 2 hours. (If the room is cold, place pan of covered dough on rack over a large pan of steaming water.)
  2. Mix butter, 2 of the egg yolks, sugar, vanilla, cardamom, dried lemon peel and ginger to taste. Beat until foamy. Add to dough. Knead.
  3. Mix raisins, cinnamon and candied peel. Knead into dough. Add flour, if necessary. Set aside to rise again for 45 minutes.
  4. Roll out dough to about a 1/2 inch thickness. Roll into a long sausage. Twist into a pretzel shape or figure 8 and place on a baking sheet. Let rise again for 20 minutes. Brush with 1 beaten egg yolk. Sprinkle with almond slices.
  5. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Bake for 30-40 minutes. Before serving, sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar.

Ilse Munro was born in Latvia and came to the United States as a war refugee. She was a NASA and Defense Department consultant, the online editor at Little Patuxent Review and now serves as the fiction editor at BrickHouse Books. Her short fiction, collected in Cold and Hungry and Far From Home, appears in TriQuarterly, Atticus Review and Wake and made her a finalist in the Glimmer Train Family Matters Contest and the Short Story Award for New Writers. Her novel, Anna Noon, is in the works. She lives in a historic millworker’s house in Maryland. For more, see http://ilsemunro.com.

Ilse and her aspic were immortalized in 2013 by Clarinda Harriss, who gave both walk-on roles in her short story “The Vinegar Drinker,” which was included in her collection The White Rail. For more on Ilse’s enduring relationship with food, see “From Playing with Food to Playing with Words,” one of the posts on DISPLACED PERSON, her site.

Posted in Aging, BrickHouse Books, Ellicott City MD, Food, Latvia, Parents, Plays, Refugees, Short Fiction, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

What You Eat: My Mint Chip Cake

In preparation of our Food issue (submissions open until November 1, 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 unpacking our first heavy box of pots and pans or, as in the case of this entry from Meg Eden, stepping simultaneously forward into adulthood and back into childhood, 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, Meg Eden:

Meg Eden

Meg Eden

I don’t remember the first time I had my aunt’s mint chip cake. I never thought about the fact it was green, or how it was something we only ate at Thanksgiving. I took eating it for granted—I took for granted that everyone in my family could cook, that we all lived within the same mile. I took lots of things for granted, the way kids do.

Every Thanksgiving – after my uncle read Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation, we would eat brunch and my aunt would bring out the cake. But my cousin and I couldn’t wait that long. Instead, we’d run upstairs and play N64 games until my parents said it was time to go.

During that time, my aunt and uncle’s house was like my house. They lived on the same street as us. My cousin was less than two days older than me. Every Saturday I’d come over and he and I would play video games, trade Pokémon cards, create a new civilization in the middle of the woods, or develop a new company idea and strategize what we’d do once we got millions of dollars. Other people made food for us and we ate it. Thinking too much about it would slow us down from taking over the world or becoming heroes.

Gradually and without explanation there were no Saturdays anymore. Once we were in high school and my cousin got his first car, he drove me around the cul de sac to show me its leather seats, smooth turns, and his stick-shift abilities. Sometimes he’d skateboard over and we’d complain about our teachers or talk about what we wanted to do with our lives. He’d tell me, “You have weird friends, Meg.” But my friends were just normal nerds who sat around and played the video games my cousin and I used to. It was his friends that I worried about. But when I began dating my first boyfriend, those visits ended.

I still came over to the house though. I came over like it was my own house. Now that I had no reason to be there, it became a sacred place. I would go to swim in the pool alone when no one was home. It was there that I recuperated from my weeks which were becoming more stressful, more adult-like.

And my aunt must have understood this change, because it was then that she began making mint chip cakes for me. She made them for my birthday, when I was sick, when I came over and vented frustrations. Every day became Thanksgiving, as Thanksgiving itself began to disappear.

When my aunt was too sick to host Thanksgiving, she prepared a mint chip cake for me and left it in my mailbox. I tried to make it last longer, cutting it into smaller and smaller pieces, but eventually it would all be gone. Was that what it meant, to get older? It was then that the mint chip cake became something large and extravagant to me—something that I was afraid of losing, despite how much I might grab for it. What was it that I was nostalgic for—my relationship with my cousin? My family? Being a girl?

My aunt became more and more sick, and eventually the Thanksgiving brunches disappeared. My mother told me I shouldn’t go over there and bother her, that she needed rest. But I would still go over without her knowing, swimming in the pool, hoping that someone might come outside.

It was when I was graduating college that I wanted to start making my own mint chip cakes. I asked my aunt for the recipe, and she said she’d send it to me, but for several months I didn’t get it. I waited, afraid that she had forgotten, but that Christmas, a large box arrived at my door. Inside there was a bunt cake mold, a cake display, several ingredients, and the recipe:

Mint Chip Cake

Prep Time: 10 | Cook Time: 50 | Makes: 14 | Difficulty: Easy

Ingredients:

  • 1 package yellow cake mix
  • 4oz package of pistachio pudding
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/3 cup oil
  • 8oz sour cream
  • 1/3 cup creme de menthe
  • 8oz chocolate chips
  • 8oz creme de menthe chips or crushed up Andes mints
  • Powdered sugar

Directions:

  1. Mix together cake mix, pistachio pudding mix, eggs, oil, sour cream, and creme de menthe. Stir for 2-3 minutes.
  1. Add chocolate chips and mint chips, mix together.
  1. Pour everything into a greased bundt pan. Bake at 350°F for 45-55 minutes.
  1. Optionally, sift powdered sugar on the top of the cake after removing from the oven.

My boyfriend came over, and we baked the cake. It was full, and briefly tasted like being a girl again.

Meg Eden’s work has been published in various magazines, including B O D Y, Drunken Boat, Mudfish, 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. Check out her work at: https://www.facebook.com/megedenwritespoems

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

What You Eat: Senses Lost and Found

In preparation of our Food issue (submissions open until November 1, 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 getting lost in the smell of summer strawberries or, as in the case of this entry from Lorraine Whittlesey, watching our enjoyment of food slowly slip away, 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, Lorraine Whittlesey:

Lorraine Whittlesey

Lorraine Whittlesey

If you had to make a choice, which one of your senses could you live without?

As a professional musician I always felt that a hearing loss would be tragic; not because I couldn’t continue composing (I can hear music in my head and most of my compositions are already completed before they hit the staff) but because I wouldn’t be able to hear music via a live or recorded performance.

I’m also a synesthete who experiences crossovers for some of my senses; when I hear music I experience textures and shapes, and when I smell and taste certain foods I can often ‘see’ their colors.

It never occured to me that I would, one day, suffer from ‘anosmia': the loss of the sense of smell. As most people know, when one loses their sense of smell, the taste buds are also compromised. The ability to taste is referred to as gustatory perception.

This loss didn’t happen overnight but over a period of a few months due to some serious medical conditions that affected my respiratory system.

Those close to me know I’m a consumer of fine food whether as a customer in restaurants or as a cook. I’m also lucky enough to have several friends who are quite skilled in the culinary arts. Most cooks will tell you that when you use the best ingredients available it’s difficult to go wrong. I’ve maintained (peripatetically) a blog titled You and the Food and the Music and often post about my recipes and restaurant experiences via social media. Some of my favorite reading materials are cookbooks. One could safely say that all things, culinary, have maintained a place of importance on my list of priorities.

As a consequence of not being able to smell the good things, I experienced a greatly reduced desire for food and became mildly depressed. For weeks my culinary range of interest was reduced to sipping on chicken broth or tea. There were a great many inconveniences associated with my condition but my keenest sorrow through this medical morass was my inability to smell, therefore, to taste anything.

After certain medical procedures were successfully completed my taste buds gradually improved and I began to taste the primary properties of salt and sweetness in a more intense way. Then came the other taste experiences of sour, bitter and savory (also called umami).

When my senses were basically restored and I felt as if I could appreciate my favorite dishes I decided my first effort would be a perennial favorite, eggplant parmesan. I planned a special evening with some of my closest friends who would appreciate this repast and share the joy I experienced as I tasted the results of my first serious cooking efforts after several months of simply eating to stay alive.

This is the recipe for the first entree I prepared.

Eggplant Parmesan

  • 2–3 thin eggplants (if too wide the many seeds can make the eggplant taste bitter)
  • 2 1/2 cups good quality tomato sauce, homemade or store bought (I prefer Marinara)
  • 8–10 oz mozzerella, shredded
  • 3/4 cup grated parmesan
  • 4 eggs
  • Bread crumbs
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  1. Preheat oven to 325 F.
  2. Remove the skin and slice eggplants no thicker than 1/4”.
  3. After slicing the eggplant, alternately layer pieces on paper towels and sprinkle each layer lightly with salt. Let sit for about 1/2 hour till some of the moisture has been absorbed.
  4. Place bread crumbs in a deep plate and whisked eggs in another (I incorporate a few splashes of water with the eggs).
  5. In a large cast iron or other skillet (at least 2″ in depth) heat olive oil. Don’t bother with extra virgin olive oil since that’s best used for dressings.
  6. The secret to this particular version of eggplant parmesan is to first dip each eggplant slice into the breadcrumbs, shake off excess crumbs, then dip into the egg mixture before frying. It gives the eggplant a unique texture and sublety different flavor.
  7. Make certain oil is heated to a medium temperature then add 3 or 4 slices of eggplant at a time, turning once when the first side is lightly browned (about 2 1/2-3 minutes). Place slices on a flat plate covered with paper towels to absorb extra oil. Repeat the process until all sliced are browned.
  8. In large baking dish (9×12″) add a few tablespoons of sauce to the bottom and distribute evenly. Add slices of eggplant across the dish then distribute half the mozzerella across the eggplant. Sprinkle a few tablespoons of grated parm across the top. Begin the process again staring with the sauce. Sauce should just lightly cover the eggplant. After the top layer of eggplant has been added, put some more sauce over the top and sprinkle the remaining parmesan cheese on top.
  9. Bake for 40 minutes or until the top layer is slightly browned.
  10. Turn off heat and leave in oven for an additional 30 minutes or so.
  11. Serve with a green salad and sliced Italian bread. A wine of your choice is highly recommended. My preference is a medium bodied Chianti.

Since re-gaining the desire to give my time and attention to serious cooking (about a year ago) my sensitivity to smell has occasionally fluctuated but without too much variation. Certain medications can interfere with some sensations, but for the most part it has been as close to what I’ve ever experienced my adult life. I continue to experiment with new recipes, watch certain cooking shows (I could watch Julia Child re-runs ad infinitum and love Extra Virgin), re-visit my favorite dining establishments, and support newly discovered places. Many of my friends are either restauranteurs, good cooks, food and/or restaurant reviewers or others who are, one way or another, “in the business.”

To my dear family and friends, I intend to resume preparing and serving the traditional holiday dinners. I’ve certainly missed the cameraderie and joy that come with the gathering of the clan. I’m most grateful for the science that identified the source of the problems and was also able to address and remedy the situation.

For a list of my favorite local restaurants please contact me at privatesector(at)verizon.net

Lorraine Whittlesey, a former member of the Peanut Gallery for NBC TV’s Howdy Doody show, is a classically trained pianist and studied T.V. and Film Scoring @ UCLA. Her commissioned works have been performed by the Baltimore Symphony and Concert Artists of Baltimore and have been premiered at Carnegie Hall. She scored and performed the original music for the Baltimore documentary “We Are Arabbers” which was filmed by Joy Lusco Kecken. Arista Hip Hop Artists “Naughty By Nature” used her music on their Album “19 Naughty 9.” Her collaborators include Michael Salcman, Clarinda Harriss, and Joyce J. Scott. She wrote “Zippy the Pinhead: the Musical,” based on Bill Griffith’s syndicated comic strip and is in the process of adding two more acts.

Posted in Food | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Concerning Craft: Greg Luce – Revisited

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.

Please meet LPR veteran and award-winning poet, Greg Luce. Greg’s work first appeared in our Water issue, a poem entitled “A Decent Happiness”, and was among the first contributors who explored their craft in this series started by Ilse Munro over three years ago.  We recently published another one of Greg’s poems, “Failing to Sleep,” (click link for text) in our Summer 2014 issue, and I decided to seize upon a unique opportunity – to return to one of our contributors to explore not just their approach to their craft in the present moment, but to observe an evolution in technique and aesthetic. So without further delay, Greg Luce:

Greg Luce (Photo: Naomi Thiers)

Greg Luce (Photo: Naomi Thiers)

“Failing to Sleep” combines two of my favorite themes (some might say obsessions): insomnia and birds. Those who remember my poem “A decent happiness,” published in the Water issue in January 2011, and the accompanying craft essay that I wrote shortly thereafter, will note some significant differences in the style and treatment of content.

I wrote “A decent happiness” many years ago, long before it found its home in LPR. As I described my process in my earlier essay, at that time I was intensely concerned with concision and brevity, suggestiveness rather than explicit statement. That poem showed the strong influence of W.C. Williams and Robert Creeley in particular. “Failing to Sleep” is a rather more recent poem and reflects my desire to loosen up my approach and try some new things in my writing.

While I did not and do not disavow my earlier work or the continuing importance of Creeley, Williams, and others for me as a reader and writer of poetry, I was beginning to grow bored with what I was able to write within the guidelines I had set for myself. I felt that I could write the short, intense poems like “A decent happiness” pretty easily but I was in danger of becoming too facile. In short, I was in a bit of a creative rut.

One element I was especially desirous of incorporating into some of my poems was narrative, tell a bit of a story rather than just describe a scene or an emotional experience. I had always admired Frank O’Hara’s work, especially his deceptively simple-seeming accumulation of events and details culminating in a humorous or moving epiphany, such as in “The Day Lady Died” (a great favorite of mine). So I began writing poems that told little stories, mostly drawn from my own experiences, though a few of them are fictions that synthesize various observations of and reactions to people, places, and situations I encounter.

“Failing to Sleep” is an example of this new direction. It describes a typical night-into-early-morning in which I drift in and out of sleep, the various thoughts, feelings, and images that run through my mind as I drift in and out of sleep, and wake up too early with birdsong in my ears. A new craft element in this piece is the attempt to render a few of the songs that arise in the speaker’s thoughts and capture his attention when morning finally arrives. On the other hand, a carry-over from earlier practice is my use of linebreaks (and fairly short lines) as a formal element in the absence of fixed meter or rhyme; in the case of this poem my intention was to impel the reader forward almost headlong and keep up a steady if not exactly fast pace. To further push the pacing, em-dashes provide one slight pause midway through, but otherwise there is no punctuation until the closing period. This sparing use of punctuation is another part of my practice that has been fairly constant from my earliest work until today.

As in my earlier reflections, I must mention the readers who read all my poems prior to my launching them into the world and without whose feedback I would have been far less successful in publishing. Foremost among them as always is Naomi Thiers, who has also published poems and a craft essay in LPR and whose keen eye and ear never fail to discern potential improvements. I would also like to thank Laura Shovan, LPR’s eminent poetry editor who made a couple of very useful suggestions before accepting this poem, just as she did for past submissions. Such incisive editing, along with this opportunity again to write a few notes on my approach to craft, are among the reasons why it is such a profound pleasure and honor to be counted among the LPR community.

Gregory Luce, author of Signs of Small Grace (Pudding House Publications), Drinking Weather (Finishing Line Press), and Memory and Desire (Sweatshoppe Publications), has published widely in print and online. He is the 2014 Larry Neal Award winner for adult poetry, given by the Arts and Humanities Council in Washington, D.C., where he lives and works for the National Geographic Society. He blogs at http://enchiladasblog.blogspot.com.

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What You Eat: The Best Brownies

In preparation of our Food issue (submissions open until November 1, 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 sweating it out over a stove in the summer or, as in the case of this entry from Lisa Rosinsky, finding an unexpected moment with an elder long thought lost, 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, Lisa Rosinsky:

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Lisa Rosinsky

My grandmother, Rita Bella Roberts Shapiro, turned ninety-five this year. She has round-the-clock nursing care and is confined to a wheelchair; she’s mostly deaf and has lost the abilities to speak, use the bathroom, and feed herself. But she’s still living in the house my mother grew up in—the house where Rita raised three daughters, one mentally retarded, and helped my grandfather run a nursing uniforms business out of their basement in the years after World War II. The house where she used to cook her special “cottage cheese contraption” for my sister and me, where she’d overload our plates with buttery home fries, back when we were little and she could still walk and talk. Where she always had a well-stocked cookie drawer in the kitchen.

My mother organized a party the Saturday after Grandmom’s birthday. That morning, my mother and sister drove up from Baltimore and I drove down from my home in northeast Pennsylvania, to converge at the single-story brick duplex in north Philadelphia. My Aunt Dena and Uncle Jeff were there; the head nurse, Donna; the neighbors, who helped Grandmom out with odd jobs around the house when they could. Dena and Donna had been decorating all morning. A “happy birthday” banner hung across the windows in the living room, and framed photographs stood on every surface.

Grandmom sat in the middle of the living room, fuming. She’d try to push herself out of the wheelchair until her arms tired out, and then she’d collapse back in the chair and groan. Every few minutes she’d wave a lethargic hand at the photos and banners and balloons and say something that sounded like “Put it away” or “Go away.”

Donna shook her head. “She’s been like this all day. Two o’clock, and she’s ready for bed.”

It was more than exhaustion. She was agitated at seeing her house out of order, and the photographs were making her unhappy.

“Sometimes it’s easier to forget than remember—especially when not all the memories are good ones,” my mother said. My grandfather had been gone for nearly a decade. His last years were not happy ones. He forgot who his wife was; thought she was trying to kill him; sometimes called the police, who would find him ranting and raving, or wandering around the house naked.

Donna was setting out plates and cups and an enormous fruit salad. My mom and I unpacked the food we’d brought. She’d made a tuna casserole and a chocolate cake. I peeled the foil off the aluminum baking pan I was carrying. “I brought brownies. Guess we’ve got the chocolate food group covered.”

We all tried to stay cheerful and upbeat, patting my grandmother on the hand and singing happy birthday to her when she moaned.

“I think she said ‘Go away,’” my sister whispered.

“She’s been saying that ever since I got here this morning,” Dena replied. “‘Go away’ or ‘Clean it up’ or ‘Put me to bed.’”

Grandmom let people give her the occasional grape or sip of Gatorade, but she didn’t seem very interested in the food otherwise. So I put a brownie and a slice of chocolate cake on a plate and sat down next to her. Even when she’s been at her worst, she’s never lost her sweet tooth. The last time I visited, I brought her cookies. “Yum, yum, yum,” she’d said, biting into one. It was the only lucid thing she’d said that day.

I loaded up a spoonful of cake and held it to her mouth. She obediently ate it, and licked her lips.

“That’s the spirit, Mom!” my mother said, applauding. Grandmom let me feed her most of the cake, then pushed the plate away. But a few minutes later, she gestured toward the plate again, and let me feed her the rest of the cake.

“Someone’s hungry!” I said, immediately hating the patronizing tone of my voice. It’s so easy to treat the elderly like small children. No wonder Grandmom’s tired of it all.

She finished the last bite of cake, and I started on the brownie.

“Which one do you like better, Grandmom?” I asked, mostly to keep up the charade of conversation, to pretend that we were actually communicating.

She looked at me, and for a moment her eyes were completely clear and her voice didn’t wobble. “They’re both good,” she said. She took the last bite of brownie. “Now clean this all up, and put me to bed.”

Best One-Bowl Brownies

  • ½ cup oil
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/3 cup cocoa
  • ¼ tsp baking powder
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • ½ cup chocolate chips
  1. Blend oil, sugar, and vanilla.
  2. Add eggs, mix.
  3. Add everything else and mix till blended.
  4. Bake in a 9-inch greased pan at 350 degrees, 20-25 mins (or until edged pull away from pan).

Lisa Rosinsky lives in the mountains of rural Pennsylvania where she is the Associate Managing Editor at Boyds Mills Press, the book publishing division of Highlights for Children. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Little Patuxent Review, Measure, Prairie Schooner, Hunger Mountain, Iron Horse Literary Review, 32 Poems, and other publications. She is working on the second draft of her first novel.

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What You Eat: Pasta Primavera

In preparation of our Food issue (submissions open until November 1, 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 all lost in the supermarket or, as in the case of this entry from Emily Rich, watching a child grown into a different cook, a different person, than ourselves, 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, Emily Rich:

Emily Rich

Emily Rich

Isabel, with my black apron cinched around her waist has effectively shooed me out of the kitchen.

“I got this, Mom, don’t worry,” she says, unsheathing the good chef’s knife from its protective case. My oldest daughter is home from college and wants nothing more than to make the family dinner.

Wine in hand, I retire to the non-serious side of the granite counter and take a seat on one of the low backed stools where I can watch my daughter expertly dice zucchini and red peppers into one parti-colored mound on the cutting board. Her fingers on the knife are pale and slim, well manicured. Her blond hair is swirled up into an out-of-the way bun.

She has categories of ingredients arranged before her, spices, vegetables, fats, but no recipe book. She knows what will taste good, she says.

How fun it must be, I think, to be able to cook with such authority and abandon. It’s a gift I’ve never had.

It’s not that I don’t like to cook, I do. And I’ve long gotten over my food issues, from the days I rebelled against the tense and joyless dinner table of my youth, eating as little as possible of whatever my mother put on my plate. By Isabel’s age I was skinny and finicky and a terrible cook. I’ve relaxed quite a bit, but it was something I had to teach myself to do.

As a wife and mother, I adore my family and want to provide them with good, healthy, even memorable meals. I peruse cookbooks and magazines—or more recently, websites like epicurious.com—I write lists, shop, chop, bake and braise, following every recipe pretty much down to the quarter teaspoon. I’ve never developed the confidence to improvise. My meals are less spontaneous love letters, more well-researched reports.

Whether learned or inherited, Isabel has gotten her cooking skills from her father, a happy and extraordinary cook. I remember Isabel as a child standing beside him in the kitchen as he threw unmeasured quantities of this or that into the veal ragout, stirring, tasting, adjusting the flavor. “You know how you know if something tastes good?” He’d instruct. “Taste it. You gotta go with your gut.”

My husband is a big man with big appetites, whose passion for life’s pleasures mean a good portion of the family budget will always be dedicated to fine food and drink. Not that I’m complaining! If you want to have a great dinner, come over sometime when he’s cooking and pouring the wine. I’ll happily clean up the kitchen for us afterwards.

But my husband can also be undiscriminating. He’ll eat anything. It’s a point of pride. Sweetbreads, pigs head, offal, you name it. Once in Thailand he bought a bag of wok-fried locusts from a street vendor. In Hawaii he ordered something called “difficult octopus” that looked like a bowl full of pale snot and delighted in the reaction he provoked from the rest of the table as he chopsticked the goo into his mouth.

Isabel is more discerning. She is a pescatarian, which means she’ll eat fish, but not poultry or meat. It’s healthier, she says. Usually she cooks vegetarian, like she is doing tonight: A pasta primavera bursting with vegetables, a blueberry-peach cobbler for dessert.

So what is my contribution to the meal tonight? I like to think I provided the haven where everyone’s true selves could flourish. From the time my children arrived, I wanted nothing more than to create a warm and stress-free home, a place so completely opposite from the sad and violent home where I was raised. My kitchen is clean and well-stocked, there’s classic rock streaming on the computer. Everyone is relaxed and having a good time. All I need to do is get out of the way and let Isabel compose her love letter to the family.

Isabel’s Pasta Primavera

I use whatever vegetables I have available, sometimes it’s frozen broccoli and spinach. But my favorite is fresh zucchini, yellow squash, cherry tomatoes and mushrooms. I chop those up and sauté them in white wine (if I have it!), butter and as much garlic as possible. Throw in some herbs like oregano or thyme, salt, and red pepper flakes.

Meanwhile, boil whole wheat angel hair pasta, drain and mix in the sautéed veggies. Top with Parmesan and a fried egg. Finish with black pepper. Enjoy!

Emily Rich is the non-fiction editor of Little Patuxent Review. She writes mainly memoir and essay. Her work has been published in a number of journals including Little Patuxent Review, Welter, River Poet’s Journal, Delmarva Review and The Pinch.

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