Book Review: Meg Eden’s A Week With Beijing

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

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

megeden_headshot
Meg Eden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concerning Craft: The Odd Hobby That Spawned My Book

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

Photo by Steve Strawn.
Photo by Steve Strawn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tenacity of Robert Montgomery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Our Sensibilities Through Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Lingering Taste: Two Interviews, Two Women

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

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Jane Hirshfield. Photo by Nick Rosza. © Nick Rosza

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Meet the Neighbors: Litmore

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

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

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

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

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

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

Litmore2
Photo by: John Kevin III

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

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

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

Interview With Ann Bracken

Generous LPR contributor Ann Bracken has out a memoir in verse called, “The Altar of Innocence.” New Academia Publishing/Scarith published the book on January 30, 2015, and it’s available on their site as well as Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

Bracken most recently appeared in LPR’s Food Issue with an interview of Grace Cavalieri. She interviewed Nancy Naomi Carlson in our Music issue and contributed an essay “Crafting a Bridge to Healing” to our Social Justice issue. Her poems “Adultery” and “Wine and Water” appeared in our Make Believe and Water issues, respectively.

I had the opportunity to catch up with Ann just as she began another semester at University of Maryland.

Ann Bracken knows about healing. As a writer, teacher and expressive arts consultant, she is skilled at harnessing the power of creativity to bring light into the darker areas of our lives. So it is no surprise that her new book, The Alter of Innocence: Poems, emphasizes spiritual empowerment and recovery. Despite the dark subject matter—her mother’s mental illness and suicide attempt, her own struggle with depression and an unhappy, sometimes verbally abusive marriage—it is a tone of compassion, not resignation or resentment that runs through the beautiful poems in the collection. “The book was an instrument of forgiveness,” she tells me as we chat on the phone on a chilly January day.  She says she had long ago come to understand the role her mother’s illness played in her behavior. But through writing, she gained greater insight into her husband’s actions, which she believes were partly the result of his fear and an inability to influence the course of her depression. Most importantly, in coming to see her depression as a spiritual illness she has learned to forgive and heal herself. It’s a message she can now share with the rest of us.

ER: Congratulations on your new book, The Alter of Innocence! The writing is lovely and poignant. The poems in this collection all relate to one another and tell a definite story, like a memoir in verse. How did you decide on this structure?

 Ann Bracken: Thank you, Emily, for reading The Altar of Innocence and for this chance to talk about my process. I’m glad you found my story moving.

Originally I started to write a chapbook that would cover my growing-up years and lay the foundation for another book that would deal with my own depression and the eventual decision to leave my marriage.  As I looked for contests to enter and reviewed the guidelines, I realized my collection was too long for most of the chapbook contests.  I decided to keep going and put the two sections together.  One goal that I had was to use the poems about my childhood to foreshadow similar events in my  adult life.

ER: I admire the way you apply adult understanding and compassion to the nightmarish and heartbreaking events of your childhood. I wonder if your attitude toward your mother evolved as you were working on these poems or did you start out from a place of forgiveness?

AB: I think I always had compassion for my mother. Over the years, I realized that she made choices in her life, and even though they seemed to lock her in an endless prison, I really tried to understand her.  When I was growing up, one question that haunted me was discovering the cause of my mother’s depression. Somehow the idea of a lifelong depression that began in her postpartum experiences did not add up.  In the late 90s I discovered a series of original watercolor dress designs that were more or less buried in my parents’ basement storage room. I was so taken with my mother’s designs that I had them professionally framed and then took them to her in the nursing home. When Mom saw the paintings she told me—for the first time in my life—that she had always wanted to be a fashion designer.  One of the saddest memories I have is when, as a child,  I would ask my mother to teach me how to draw, and she answered by hanging her head and saying, “I can’t.”

ER: Your mother was a talented young woman who sacrificed a lot of herself to her family. Would a creative outlet have helped her?

AB: Mom’s paintings have hung in my living room for the past fifteen years, reminding me of her unrealized dreams. And I can see myself as a teen observing her very physical manifestations of anxiety—hand-wringing, hunched posture, and hyperventilation.  I remember thinking, “I’ll never be like my mother.”  In my mind, I think I meant I would never fall apart the way she did. Or at least I wouldn’t look like I was falling apart!  Years later, when I thought about my own writing and how I only wrote when school was out for the summer, I realized I would be like my mother if I didn’t do more to make my dreams come true. My own dreams about being a writer. Ultimately, Mom inspired me.

I have thought a lot about whether any kind of creative expression would have helped my mother, and of course, I’ll never really know.  Even though she did not ever create any more fashion designs or do figure drawing,  I think my mother’s artistic sensibilities infused her work as a homemaker.  But was that enough to feed her soul?  I do think every woman, every person, deserves some time to express themselves in deeply personal and satisfying ways.

ER: As a society we’ve gained a lot of understanding about depression and especially post-partum depression. And yet I think a lot of mothers today probably feel a sense of isolation and sacrifice. What would your advice be to young mothers based on the experiences you’ve had?

AB: Oh, I would like to hug them and just say, “Ask for help. You’re OK to feel overwhelmed and kind of sad.”  No one said that to me, and most likely, no one said that to my mother. Even when I had my own children in the 80s, there was not that much support for women with postpartum depression. When I think about the tremendous physical and hormonal changes, coupled with the massive responsibility of a new baby combined with sleep deprivation, I have the utmost compassion for any woman who sinks into postpartum blues or depression. I think framing the situation by taking a look at the very real physical and psychological demands is the place to start.  Then we need to look at creative ways of offering women a strong support network, either with family and friends or with professional help.

ER: One of the poems that really affected me was “Time Travel,” in which you write this about your mom:

Maybe I could even
lead her up to the roof
where we would sit together
touching the green of trees
and Mom could see that anything is possible

Could you expand on the imagery here? I felt your desire to get your mother back in touch with the sensual world. She had retreated so far into herself.

AB: The roof image came to me as a way to speak about showing her more of the world, a way of getting her out of the house.  In some ways, the house and her flower garden became her whole world, especially as she got older.   And maybe I saw the idea of touching the green of trees as offering a connection to her love of nature, and a way to reignite my mother’s long-standing love of color. She had a fabulous color-sense, which I now realize was probably developed even more in a color theory class in art school.

ER: We watch you mature throughout the book. Your voice changes. Your understanding changes. Your desires change from wanting your mother to play with you at the pool to wanting her to go to AA. I think you capture the voice of each age so well. Was this difficult to do?

AB: I did not think about voice too much when I was writing the poems. I focused on the experiences and I think the voices just came through me. It was really a mysterious process. One thing that I did was to make a list of incidents that had stuck in my memory and then use them to brainstorm images and ideas that could reveal some character or desire. I adapted a few exercises from Visual Journaling by Barbara Ganim and Susan Fox.  My favorite involved  doodling with colored pencils or oil pastels to capture the mood I was aiming for—curvy pink and teal lines for soft feelings,  jagged orange or black lines for pain or anger.

ER: I was really struck by much of the imagery in your poems. You write about trying to

…ignore the thought about slipping the pointed end of the seam ripper
under the white flesh of my forearm
and ripping out the veins

As a writer, how do you arrive at these sorts of images?

AB: It seems like I am talking about a different person when I say this, but those were my actual thoughts when I was deeply depressed and plagued by what the psychiatrists call “suicidal ideation”.  I had a dressmaking business at the time, so I spent many of my days making clothes for other people.  When I was in my darkest moods, I could not stop thinking about suicide—the only way it seemed possible for me to escape my pain.

ER: Tell me about your ex-husband and the role he plays in these poems.

AB: We met in college and were married for 25 years. For much of that time I was dealing with bouts of depression. It took me a long time to recognize how unhealthy our relationship was. In the first place, in those days verbal abuse was not recognized as true abuse. But also, I realize we were fundamentally a bad match. My ex-husband is a builder. He sees things in black and white and he likes to have control over his environment. My physical illness and journey into the darkness were things he couldn’t control and I think it really frightened him.

I’m actually grateful for my depression because it served to exacerbate his verbal abuse to the point where I could finally see it.

ER: How long have you been writing poetry? What made you want to become a poet?

AB: I have been writing poetry since I was an adolescent, but only sporadically until about 1993.  I wrote the first poem that seemed pretty good when I was on a retreat. I didn’t realize until years later that my spirit knew I was depressed long before my mind identified it, or even my doctors. But the  poem speaks clearly about my inner state.  I think what made me want to write poetry was a desire to have a voice. I felt silenced in so many ways and writing offered me a way to speak.

ER: Who are your influences?

AB: My paternal grandfather wrote a poem for each of his grandchildren up until he died in 1955. His poem for me hung in my bedroom and I memorized it at a very early age.  I have so many poets I admire—Grace Cavalieri for her unflinching honesty and heart, Sharon Olds for her magnificent use of imagery, Lucille Clifton for taking on the underside of life with simplicity and plain language, and  Mary Oliver for two poems-“The Journey” and “The Wild Geese”-that helped me to find a deeper meaning in my experience of depression.

ER: You’ve channeled what you’ve learned from your difficult past into a dedication to help others. Tell us a little about the work you do through the Possibility Project. What do you find most rewarding and what is most challenging?

AB: I trained to be a poetry facilitator through the International Federation for Biblio/Poetry Therapy. In going through my own depression, I found poetry and literature to offer an in-depth understanding of my spiritual, psychological, and emotional journey.  I can’t say enough about the fabulous CD by David Whyte called “The Poetry of Self Compassion,” where David explores many poems and literary works that speak of  the gifts in the darkness, the necessity of entering the darkness without fear.  David was a keynote speaker for the association, which is where I learned about poetry therapy as a field.

My own work is simple—sharing my love of poetry and its rich ability to both reveal and conceal as a tool for self-discovery and healing. Over the years, I have moved away from a focus on poetry because so many people are afraid of it—they think they can’t understand it. So I have developed workshops that incorporate improv, journaling and simple art projects as a way in to the layers we are sometimes called to explore. Some typical issue I work with are negotiating life transitions, processing grief of many kinds, and deepening one’s own artistic expression. I’ve also been a poet in residence in an elementary school and offer journaling and art workshops at creativity conferences.

ER: You’ve addressed the issue of sexual violence in some of your writing. What are your thoughts on the attention being paid to sexual assaults in the military and on college campuses? Is the culture changing?

AB: I think the culture is inching toward a new place, but we have much work to do. The mainstream  media and many of the voices of authority engage in victim-blaming, especially when they talk about how women should dress less provocatively and avoid  excessive drinking. But what about the men? What responsibility do they bear?   I believe we need to talk about mutual respect in relationships. No more wink and nod that “No means yes.”  We need to educate both young men and young women about the need for mutuality of consent.

When I interviewed a former Marine about her experience with sexual assault, I was shocked to hear about the way she hid the events, even from her husband, and the way she was harassed and hounded by her commanding officers. The incident caused her to suffer from PTSD  for years, but eventually she was able to help others with her Fatigues Clothesline Project, where female vets write and illustrate their stories of trauma and assault on the inside of their uniform blouses.

Last semester, I discussed the issue of sexual assault as a topic for research and suggested that a male student might take on the issue. I stressed that sexual assault is not just a female issue, and that male have an important role to play in changing  attitudes and behavior. Thankfully, one young man stepped up and his research was excellent.

ER: I’m interested in the work you do with journaling. On your website you talk about using the power of story to harness life’s goals. Can you talk a bit more about the healing power of journaling?

AB: I started journaling many years ago, before I had ever heard of it as a practice for self-reflection and healing.  I remember choosing various materials for journaling that matched my emotional state.  Once when I was especially frustrated and angry, I spread newspapers on the kitchen floor and wrote in huge letters with thick crayons.  I felt better afterwards.  When I went through my last depression, I kept a journal which really helped me to make sense of all the craziness of  finding the right treatment and struggling with my ex-husband.  Even though I now do all my journaling by hand, at that time, I  typed all of the entries as a way to work on my writing skills and to become a better typist.  When I worked on the second part of my manuscript, I hadn’t read the journal in 20 years, and I was amazed at what a resource it was for details about significant experiences that could illustrate my journey. I even used snippets of dialog that I had recorded.

I remember being terribly depressed and despondent for many of the four years of that depression, and keeping the journal offered me a way to objectify the experience by reflecting on significant events. I also began to play with metaphors and images that helped me more than I realized at the time.  I still journal on a daily basis, but now I handwrite everything. I use journaling to get rid of frustration, to make sense of puzzling events, and to set and keep track of my goals.  I often talk to my students about the value of journaling when they are upset or overwhelmed as a way to quiet their internal chatter.

Thank you, Emily, for your thoughtful questions and your careful reading of my book. Thank you for the opportunity to talk to your readers.

ER: Now that The Alter of Innocence is complete, what are your next projects?

AB: I was a special ed teacher for years and my next book of poems will be a collection about some of the significant students I taught. I’m excited to tell their stories.

Ann Bracken is a writer, educator, and expressive arts consultant whose poetry, essays, and interviews have appeared in Little Patuxent Review, Life in Me Like Grass on Fire: Love Poems, Reckless Writing Anthology: Emerging Poets of the 21stCentury, Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence, Pif Magazine, Scribble, New Verse News, and Praxilla. Ann was nominated for a 2014 Pushcart Prize. She serves as a contributing editor for Little Patuxent Review and leads workshops at creativity conferences, including The Creative Problem Solving Institute, Florida Creativity, and Mindcamp of Toronto. 

She is the founder of the Possibility Project, which offers expressive arts and creativity workshops for women of all ages, as well as poetry workshops in schools. Ann Bracken is a lecturer in the Professional Writing Program at the University of Maryland, College Park. She lives in Columbia, MD.

What You Eat: Shopping Cart to Table

This is the story of many of our meals. We pace aisles, snag this and that from shelves, hand some cash to the cashier, and make our way back home to roast, fry, braise, or microwave. But even a home-cooked meal is far from homegrown, and the modern agriculture industry in Western capitalist society has distanced us from the origins of the food that keeps us alive.

A la Art 1
Photo credit: Kristyna and Marek Milde

While walking alongside the Brooklyn Bridge, I came across several shopping carts repurposed. The carts carried a bounty of potted plants. In place of prices, ingredients blooming out of the carts were tagged with growing times. I stopped to snap a few photos, noted the name of the project, and went home to research further.

Á la Cart, a participatory workshop and installation, was a project of Kristyna and Marek Milde, two Brooklyn-based artists raised on the uniform food of communist rule in Czechoslovakia. “It always appeared to us that in the West there was a universe of choices; however, here the unification and monopolization is clearly happening too—for different reasons but with similar results,” Kristyna noted. For the Mildes, food is an inherently political vector, representing both “the powerful weapon or tool of self-reliance” and the act of eating as “agree[ing] to [the] highest degree [by] making the subject part of our body.”

To the Mildes, this political significance amplifies the already intense emotional role food plays in our lives. Created as part of Smack Mellon’s exhibition FOODshed: Art and Agriculture in Action, the project was focused on community and human interaction from the outset:

We have started by inviting members of the local community in DUMBO Brooklyn, inexperienced in gardening, to actively engage in the process of growing ingredients for a single dish of their choice. Each participant adopted one supermarket shopping cart filled with soil that served as [a] garden bed, and attempted to cultivate ingredients for his/her favorite recipe. The development of the project was documented and the participants were asked to take notes about the experience. . . . The project took place in the growing season of 2014 starting in May and was finished in late September with a public event presented at the Dumbo Street Festival that featured the harvest and a gathering of the participants, who met to eat and to share their experience and ideas about the urban gardening and sustainable food production. The idea of Á la Cart is to serve both as a living sculpture and a platform for growing food. It is not meant to be a farm or a professional gardening course but rather a playground encouraging new experiences while reconsidering the limits of consumerism.

Milde, A la cart, 2014, Smack Mellon, Galelry, DUMBO 01 copy
Photo credit: Kristyna and Marek Milde

Challenging participants to truly bring up their food from the soil, there were some surprises on the way to the table the Mildes laid in September. In the four months of growth, one cart of eggplants never got larger than the size of pickling cucumbers, and another grower found that they could not produce enough strawberries to sufficiently flavor their ice cream. But far from failures, Kristyna shared that “having eggplant since [the street festival] is different, and part of the meal is appreciation of the farmer who patiently took care of this plant for such a long time.” And despite the fact that the Mildes call their own backyard garden a “rather symbolic operation,” they produced a delicious caprese salad and a refreshing mint lemonade. What’s the difference that made their tomatoes so much more appetizing? Kristyna says,

The tomato of today is not the tomato of yesterday; it is a completely different product, a different species with different chemical content rooted rather in the drug and oil industry anchored by the patent office than in the soil and trellis. The change is not limited to tomatoes; it extends to the whole commercial food production controlled today by few companies. Therefore we think that it is time that we reconsider the passive position of the consumer and claim back the power connected with producing food, in the sense that we support active engagement and awareness for the ways and methods food is grown and processed.

A la Art 3
Photo credit: Kristyna and Marek Milde

As someone used to strange looks from roommates about pickles bubbling on the countertop or about the pot of yogurt in the oven, I can certainly get behind advocating for a deeper level of involvement with food. In our current culture, foods that have been everyday staples across the world for millennia are now largely believed to be impossible to cook in one’s own home without the wizardry of a high-tech gadget. Gadgets may be how industry gets it done, but as a culture we can choose to cultivate a deeper relationship with our food rather than have it dictated to us by corporate or political interests. Artists like Kristyna and Marek Milde can help lead the way.

A la Art 4
Photo credit: Kristyna and Marek Milde

You can read my full interview with them about Á la Cart and other projects here. The interview further explores their experiences in communist Czechoslovakia, the aesthetics of Á la Cart, and the dangers that the artisanal food movement faces from marketers seeking the next trend.

 

Concerning Craft: Poetry as Practice, Poetry as Life

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.

irene1Please meet poet and novelist, Irene Latham, whose poem “Artichoke” appears in our Winter 2015 Food Issue.  This is Irene’s first time publishing in LPR, so I wanted to seize upon the opportunity to showcase our newest contributors to explore not just their approach to their craft in the present moment, but to observe an evolution in technique and aesthetic. And now, Irene Latham on her poem, “Artichoke”:

The longer I write poetry, the less I feel I know about writing poetry. Which makes it a bit difficult when someone comes along and asks me to write a little something about the craft of writing poetry. What can I share with other poets that they will be able to apply to their own writing?

Perhaps this: learning to write poetry is a lifelong journey. While I have no doubt accumulated my 10,000 hours, I don’t consider myself an expert. I am learning every day.

My approach to poetry is different now than it was last year, or a dozen years ago, or back when I was four years old writing love poems for my mother. When I was four, I wrote to say one thing: “I love you.” I could argue that every single poem I’ve written since then is also a love poem – but it’s not my job to tell you what my poems should mean to you. Poetry is a gift to the reader who can make it whatever he or she wants it to be.

These days I reject the notion of writing poetry as my “work.” Work is something one does, an act, something outside oneself. Clock in-clock out. There is no clocking out of my poetic life. It isn’t work so much as practice. I don’t craft so much as listen, play, discover. If I could go back and tell my younger poet self one thing it would be, slow down. Pay attention. Rest. Approach the page with the reverence a bee gives an aster. The practice of writing poetry is a way to love the world – not a way to conquer it.

I know what some of you reading this are thinking: enough with the spiritual murmurations. To which I say, never enough. To write poetry is to be insatiable, curious, passionate. The mechanics aren’t nearly so important as the essence. It’s the message that matters. Keep practicing, and you will discover more effective ways of delivering that message.

As a reader of poetry, and as a writer, what I crave most in the poetic experience is to be surprised and delighted. I want to discover fresh ways of saying “I love you.” I revel in language and imagination and creative presentation. Surprise me, O Lord, as the seed surprises itself.

In my experience the shortest distance between being a beginner poet and a widely published one is not measured by time or determination. It’s in the willingness to learn, the open-ness one has to all the world has to offer. The only way to fail at poetry is to stop writing it. Meanwhile, you must Live Your Poem. How? Find out here.

And how am I different from the poet I was a dozen years ago? Back then I was chasing poetry. I thought I could Make It Happen. As if I have any control over anything. And yes, in those years I have experienced the joy and perils of book deals and readers and my poems being included alongside such loveliness as is the Food issue of Little Patuxent Review. But I no longer take credit for any of it. It isn’t something I did so much as a gift that’s been given me.

These days I allow the world to come to me. I show up every day at the page to meet it. I trust myself as a poet. I practice and marvel and explore. I believe the words will come, and when they do, I will be there to catch them.

And sometimes, if I am very still and patient, I happen upon a call for food poems and the world brings me a new way of seeing an artichoke.

Irene Latham’s first works were love poems crafted for her mother. Her latest collection for adults, The Sky between Us, features poems that explore what nature can teach us about being human. She has served as poetry editor for Birmingham Arts Journal since 2003 and is the author of two award-winning novels for children. Her debut collection of poems for children, Dear Wandering Wildebeest (Millbrook Press, 2014), is set at an African water hole. www.irenelatham.com

What You Eat: Ode to a Haggis

robert-burns
Robert Burns, Scotland’s National Bard.

In anticipation of the Little Patuxent Review‘s Food Issue launch tomorrow, January 24, several members of the LPR community have shared 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’re preparing a brunch, whipping up pesto or, as in the case of my own entry, connecting the past to the present, the tastes of our most formative and transformative foods walk back into our own narrative histories. On poetry editor Laura Shovan’s suggestion, each piece in this series will feature a recipe, so you can participate in each experience. Should you have a story to share involving food, please leave a comment and I’ll be in touch.

And now that the table is set, my story:

Auld Lang Syne.” We’ve all sung it annually as the clock strikes midnight and the old year fades into the new. Our New Year’s anthem is actually a poem by Scotland’s National Bard, Robert Burns, set to the tune of a traditional Scottish folk song. It became popular to sing on New Year’s Eve because Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians orchestra broadcast it live for 33 years from New York’s Roosevelt Hotel. Few people realize that Scots across the globe also gather each January  25 to celebrate Burns’s birthday in a unique way.

Steeped in ceremony, and often a wee dram o’whiskey, the Burns Supper follows a long-standing blueprint, whether the dinner is formal or informal, public or private. There’s always haggis – which, like hot dogs, tastes great, but includes ingredients it’s better not to fully understand – mashed neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes), complimented by rousing bagpipe music and recitations of Burns’s poetry. The evening of merriment is intended to foster a deep love for a homeland many have never seen.

It’s a bit unusual to commemorate the life of a poet with such pomp, especially one born in 1759. The reason that Burns remains an enduring figure to the Scots has much to do with timing. He was born 13 years after the crushing defeat of the Scots by the British at the Battle of Culloden, when Scottish nationalism was at a low point. As punishment for attempting to restore Bonnie Prince Charlie to the throne, Scots were forbidden from wearing their tartans and the kilt, in an attempt to break centuries-old clan affiliations.

Burns, fiercely nationalistic, wrote about a national Scottish identity using a Scots dialect. Because he wasn’t of the aristocracy, his poems spoke to the common man using universal themes.  He wrote about a variety of topics, among them love, a toothache, a wayward pastor, and a mouse. During his lifetime, he was beloved. In 1801, just five years after his death, the annual Burns Supper tradition began.

Burns Supper, 2009. Photo courtesy of Leah Gillespie.
Burns Supper, 2009. Photo courtesy of Leah Gillespie.

After having attended several formal Burns Suppers, I held my first informal event at home in 2003. It was a modest affair with only five attendees, including my then quite young sons. My most recent supper included fifteen guests, including several from Scotland, a bagpiper and poetry recitations. While the menu didn’t change much over the years, we added a few more candles, increased the readings, and certainly relaxed into the whole process. Children are included and encouraged to participate in our homegrown affair.

Organized Burns Suppers are more for the grown-ups, with the St. Andrews Society leading the way in formality. Richard Anderson, a member of Baltimore’s St. Andrews Society, describes their event. “We’re all in formal dress, with men in kilts and the women in evening gowns. There are pipes playing, poetry readings, highland dancing, and the formal toasts. Because we now allow women to attend our event, we have a ‘Toast to the Lassies’ and a ‘Reply from the Lassies,’ both of which are pretty ribald.” The event follows a prescribed order and is led by a chairman.

At my event, guests clustered around the dining room table, which was heaped with platters of mashed neeps and tatties, a variety cheeses, and a tureen of Cock-a-leekie Soup. Candles flickered, casting everything and everyone in flattering shadow.

In the next room, my father-in-law filled his bagpipes with air. At the first squawk, we heard chairs scudding across the floor as everyone stood. He played “Scotland the Brave” and marched into the dining room. I followed him, carrying aloft the haggis on a platter. Someone recited “To a Haggis,” while raising a dagger (also known as a sharp kitchen knife) before thrusting it deep into haggis, releasing its innards: “what a glorious sight, warm-reekin’, rich!

After, one of the children led us in the Selkirk Grace:

Some hae meat and cannot eat.
Some cannot eat that want it:
But we hae meat and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit.

We filled our plates and then our bellies as we took our fill of stories about the raw, wild beauty that is Scotland. We planned hikes in the misty Highlands or recalled ghost tales about Edinburgh Castle. Children clamored to hear about the Loch Ness monster or a recitation of “To a Mouse.”

Over Ecclefechan Tart, we listened to additional recitations before our evening sing-a-long to some of Robert Burns’s songs set to bagpipes. Our favorites were “For A’ That and A’ That,” in which Burns compares the rich and poor, reaffirming the humanity of the hardworking, poor man, and “Scots Wha Hae.

My friend, Glasgow native Kenneth Lockie, turned reflective when asked about the longevity of Burns’ popularity and the traditional Suppers. “We’re not just products of our times, but products of all the times gone past. We just forget that.”

I think Kenneth’s right. For Auld Lang Syne.

And there’s a hand, my trusty friend!
And give us a hand of yours!
And we’ll take a deep draught of good-will
For long, long ago.

 Simple Cock-a-leekie Soup

  • 4 cups of chicken broth
  • 2 ½ lbs chicken breast, cut into bite sized pieces
  • 2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced into bite sized pieces
  • 6-12 dried prunes, chopped, soaked overnight (optional)
  • ½ cup barley
  • 1 cube chicken bouillon
  • 2 teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon pepper
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 ½ cup sliced leeks, cleaned well

Add all ingredients, except leeks, to a Dutch oven. Heat to boiling; reduce heat. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Add leeks. Bring back to a boil; reduce heat. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes or until barley is soft. Remove bay leaf. Serve.

Makes 7 servings of 1 cup each.

Download Debby’s Simple Cock-a-leekie Soup recipe.

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