An Interview with Joseph Ross


Photo credit: Ted Schroll. Poster created by: Jack Young, Pratt Library, Baltimore, MD.

When Socrates said, “I decided that it was not wisdom that enabled poets to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean” he could have been talking about Joseph Ross, whose observational poetry touches on deep societal wounds, forcing us to look deeper, with an intent on healing.

In 2012, Joseph Ross won the Enoch Pratt-Little Patuxent Review Poetry Contest with “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God.” Sixty years have passed since the killing of Mamie Till‘s 14-year old son Emmett in 1955 in Money, Miss. She allowed his mutilated body to be displayed in an open coffin during his funeral service, where mourners recoiled at the sight of his wounds. Emmett’s death came to symbolize both the brutality and racism in the South. Some days it feels as though we haven’t much improved as a society when it comes to equality.

Little Patuxent Review: What prompted you to ask that question, “If?” What led you to Mamie Till?

Joseph Ross: It fascinates me when ordinary people make extraordinary decisions. That’s what Mamie Till did. She was a mother—not a policy-maker or a politician. She wasn’t a strategist. Just a mother. Yet, she had the sense that the world needed to see “…what they did to my boy.” This caused her to choose a clear top for her son’s casket. So the world would see. Perhaps it was a way of sharing her sorrow with others. Perhaps she thought of it as a small bit of justice. She wanted the world to see her son, Emmett. She made a profoundly important personal decision into one that had extraordinary public consequences.

Her courage becomes evident when we realize that she could not have known the impact of that decision. Many credit that decision, the photograph of Emmett Till’s body, as a powerful spark in the civil rights movement. She could not have known this would happen. Her simple desire that her son be seen opens the world to the brutal racism of the American south in the 1950s.

The word “If” also fascinates me. It might be the most important word in this poem.  It suggests a different reality than the one we see and it opens a poem into wide and unseen spaces. “If” asks the reader to suspend normal thinking and go elsewhere, into the imagination, into what could be, that is not. I love that word.

LPR: I love this Maya Angelou quote, “Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” Your poetry stares problems in the face, yet offers hope, salvation. What are you trying to achieve with “Mamie Till?”

JR: I am trying to tell her story. To lift up the decision she made as the courageous and maternal decision it was. In a way, Emmett Till’s death — and Mamie Till’s decision that brought his murder to the world — has become an icon for all the African American people killed with impunity in America. Sadly, there is an unbroken line of African American people murdered in America — from slavery to lynchings to Jim Crow — and their murderers have rarely been held accountable. The men who killed Emmett Till joked about it and admitted their role in the murder to LIFE magazine. But they were never convicted.

In some ways, the death of Emmett Till and the decision of his mother become a kind of symbol for all those deaths. We hear echoes of Emmett Till’s murder in the murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer. We sadly hear echoes of Emmett Till’s murder far too often these days.

LPR: How did you select the poem’s structure and why?

JR: I chose a tight and lean structure because the details of Emmett Till’s death are enough. They need no enhancement. So I was able to work into the poem various details about his age, the Tallahatchie River, the barbed wire that held a cotton gin fan to his neck. Those details don’t need anything but a lean mention because their own horror is plenty.

I also decided on the litany form because I think it works well with the “If” idea. The litany is a prayer form, using strong images, sometimes titles, and repetition. Often a priest or prayer leader will invoke the first part of the litany and the people will respond with a repetitive response. Think of the Litany of the Saints. A leader invokes the saint’s name and the people say “Pray for us.” I wanted this poem to take the horror of Emmett Till’s death and his mother’s decision and to place those in the unusual place of Mary, a revered figure among some religions. The tight, litany form, using couplets, seemed to work. I hope it did.

LPR: Sixty years after Emmett Till’s murder, the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland must be causing you to ask what kinds of “If” questions. What are you asking yourself?

JR: These days, I ask myself what role white privilege plays in my life. How is it alive in me? I know that it is, and I have to reflect on what I am doing about it. I ask myself why, as you note, after sixty years, do we still see Black people murdered with impunity? Why does it seem that Black lives do not matter?

I think the answer to that question is that while many of our laws have changed and the civil rights situation, in general, is better than in the 1950s, white privilege is still present. Most white people, myself included at times, don’t see our privilege, but it’s still here. In fact, not seeing it, seems to be one of the sure signs of privilege – it’s a benefit to which one is blind.

For example, I hear my Black students talk about being followed in stores and harassed by police. I have never been followed in a store. I have never experienced a security person thinking I might steal something. I don’t “look” like the kind of person who would steal, right? That’s white privilege right there. I benefit from it all the time.

To share a more complex example, my parents were able to buy a home back in the 1950s and pay off that home some years later. That enabled my family to build up a certain amount of assets that many Black families could never build because the rules about home ownership were different for Blacks. This is one of the points Ta-Nehisi Coates makes in his essay “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic. This is a privilege I have benefited from and rarely think about or see.

LPR: You recently read Baltimore’s own Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir, Between the World and Me. You shared reflections on your blog, excerpted here, “Coates uses a semantic move to describe white people in a way I find fascinating and freeing. Believing that race is a social construction that has been shaped in various ways over the centuries, nearly every time he refers to white people he writes of “…the people who believe they are white.” Or “…people who have been told they are white.” As one who has never been content with the term “white,” I am compelled by what he does in this regard. He forces the reader to see his “construction” language before he even gets to the word “white.” I, for one, am grateful for this. I will use that language in my own classroom.” Will you share more thoughts on this fascinating discussion on labels?

JR: I have never been comfortable with the term “white” because, in one sense, it doesn’t mean anything. My father’s family came to the United States from Italy. The Italian culture was alive in my childhood and yet, for many years, Italian Americans were not considered white. The category of whiteness had movable boundaries. However, where whiteness does have meaning is in terms of power and privilege. In one way, as I said, being white doesn’t say where you’re from. But being white does have profound meaning in terms of power. I really don’t think we can move forward in race relations in America, until those of us who have been told we are white, who have benefited from white privilege, can name and face those truths.

LPR: In 1999, Whoopi Goldberg wrote in Book her thoughts on labels, “Call me an asshole, call me a blowhard, but don’t call me an African American. Please. It divides us as a nation and as a people, and it kinda pisses me off. It diminishes everything I’ve accomplished and everything every other black person has accomplished on American soil. It means I’m not entitled to everything plain old regular Americans are entitled to. Every time you put something in front of the word ‘American,’ it strips it of it’s meaning. The Bill of Rights is my Bill of Rights, same as anyone else’s. It’s my flag. It’s my Constitution. It doesn’t talk about SOME people. It talks about ALL people — black, white, orange, brown. You. Me.” It seems that labels divide us. Can we get rid of them?

JR: I think we’re a long way from getting rid of labels. We’d like to—but that desire to be rid of labels can short-cut some of the necessary, honest accounting for the suffering our labels come from and create. With all due respect to Goldberg’s comments, it sounds a little like when people say they “don’t see” color. That’s just absurd. Everyone sees color. We might wish we didn’t. We might wish to be free of the associations we make with certain colors. But we have to see it, so we can name our response to it and then work to free ourselves from those responses when they are negative. If we don’t see it, admit we see it, and admit to the feelings that come from what we see, we will never get beyond them.

LPR: I’m reminded of The Class Divided experiment by Jane Elliott, where after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, she split her class in two, separated by eye color to demonstrate prejudice. The impact that lesson had on those children, not only then but as they grew into adulthood, demonstrates the importance of staring down our prejudices. The LoveHasNoLabels campaign asks us to examine the bias within ourselves. In your opinion, how can we move past labels?

JR: America is a racist country. It’s something we have to work on. The burden is on those of us who believe we are white and we have to get honest about it. To say I have no bias isn’t true. What is important is that I recognize when I’m reacting in a way I may not like and take time to reflect on my automatic response, explore it and figure out where it came from. Then I can decide if I want to keep it. Or, how I can work to replace it with something else more useful to me.

If we explore more deeply the concept of “white,” we notice it is an ever-changing and fluent category, synonymous with the group in power. At various times, Italians, Irish, Jewish and Mexican people would not have been considered “white.” There’s no system for deciding, so it’s basically a useless label. I go back to Coates referring to “those who believe they are white” as such a compelling description.

As a teacher at Gonzaga College High School, I tell my students to not rush to conclusions, to listen to what’s being said, take information in and sit with it. There’s no need to lurch toward a decision. Wouldn’t it be great if we could listen to friends who are different than we are and have an honest conversation about perspective? To be able to ask someone, “How did you experience this?” and invite him to share a situation through his lens.

LPR: Mothers tell their children to “look for the helpers” if they get separated. Now there’s a statistic being floated around comparing fatal police shootings in the U.S. compared to England and Wales. What is your “If” question to this conflict?

JR: If we had a world where everyone felt confident telling their children to “look for the helpers” we would have a very different world from the one we actually inhabit. Many people of color do not tell their children to “look for the helpers” because “the helpers” have not traditionally been so helpful in their communities.

LPR: You’ve just highlighted another example of white privilege, one that hadn’t occurred to me until you shared it. It’s tragic that people of color can’t rely on “the helpers” because their experience is so different. But there is good in this world, even good “helpers.” How do we bridge this gap?

JR: I was brought up that way, too. To look for “the helpers.” The distrust didn’t happen overnight, but rather came about via a critical mass of opinion based upon countless experiences. I believe we must have a massive overhaul of the system of policing in our society. Police officers must be trained in social work and then at least 95% of them must be disarmed. Our police force deals every day with an increasing array of mental health issues, like substance abuse and domestic violence. They, frankly, aren’t trained nor equipped properly to deal with all they face. Ever since 9/11, I’ve noticed an unhealthy worship or adulation focused toward all first responders, to the detriment of having healthy systems. Some philosopher once said, “Certainty is the enemy of wisdom.” We need more wisdom, less reactivity. At Gonzaga, we teach our students to question what they hear: What do I know? How do I know it? It’s a good model.

LPR: Death and killing, hatred and racism. These are ugly links in a chain by which we are slowly choking ourselves. You don’t shy away from these topics, yet your voice comes across as sage rather than judgmental. How do you achieve that balance?

JR: I think sometimes a poet can write about an awful situation and not add to the awfulness. I consciously tried to do that in “If Mamie Till Was The Mother of God.” I often tell my students that a poem can be beautiful without being pretty. When I was reading about the murder of Emmett Till, in preparation for the poem, I came across a man named Willie Louis. He was an 18 year-old Black man in Money, Mississippi who testified against the men who killed Emmett Till. After the trial, he had to leave Mississippi, move to Chicago, and change his name. He even had FBI protection for a time. I think you can tell his story, you can praise him, reflect on what he did, without writing judgment on those who killed Emmett Till. Tell the story of the righteous. That’s what some poems in Gospel of Dust, my second collection, try to do. The murder of Emmett Till was dreadful enough. It does not need any new horror.

LPR: Coal Hill Review wrote about you and your poetry, “What makes Ross stand out is his voice as much as his subject matter. His voice is wise and caring; it’s humanistic and loving, even towards those who’ve done terrible wrongs. Not to seem condescending, but Ross writes about things that matter.” How do poems come to you?

JR: Some years ago, I made a deliberate decision that most of what I write would involve themes of social justice and fairness. I am drawn to the places where humanity suffers. I think writing poems that try to honestly enter places of human suffering can be helpful. In the poetry world this is sometimes called “Poetry of Witness.” I think it’s an essential task for poetry today—to bear witness to the suffering we see.

A couple of summers ago, I read about Gilberto Ramos, a 14 year-old Guatemalan boy who died crossing the Texas desert. I was drawn to his story because it hurt me, personally. I was also drawn to it because it says something about all of us. We all yearn for a better life. We take risks for it, at times. And as a country with many resources, we are often small in our attitudes toward immigrants. So I was drawn to his story and wanted to tell it to a larger audience.

LPR: What keeps Joseph Ross up at night?

JR: Ha! I generally sleep pretty well. But like many people, I’m deeply concerned about the growing wealth among a very small few at the top of our economic ladder– and the growing poverty among the rest of us. I’m also very concerned with the state of race relations in America today. I worry when I see how differently our institutions treat people of color. I worry for young people when they’re endlessly on social media—which tends to elevate trivial things. There are powerful problems all around us and we have to be serious and smart and committed if we’re going to improve our country and our world.

The solution to police brutality isn’t going to happen on Twitter. It’s going to happen when thoughtful people get serious about it. I worry sometimes that we’re not creating thoughtful people. That, sometimes, keeps me up at night. I should add that I have the opposite feeling sometimes when I hear from former students who are doing great things in the world. I know many young people who do magnificent work in the world. There is always hope.

LPR: What are you working on now?

JR: I have a new collection of poems called Ache that I am trying to get published. It contains poems about human longing, yearning, aching. I am also working on a poetry project about Martin Luther King, Jr.

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

JR: I would just add that I am very grateful for the chance to reflect and write about the concerns present in “If Mamie Till Was The Mother of God.” That poem means so much to me—her story means so much to me—that I’m always glad for an opportunity to think and write more about her. Thank you for the opportunity.

Leo Buscaglia once said, “The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing, and becomes nothing. He may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he simply cannot learn and feel and change and grow and love and live.” Joseph Ross embodies active love, you can feel it when he reads his poetry and you cannot help but be affected by his words. They leave you changed.

Online Editor’s Note: You can learn more about Joseph’s work and where he’ll be reading next by visiting his website  


A Partial List of Voices I Stole

Tyler Barton. Photo credit: Natalie Morgan Sharp.

Tyler Barton. Photo credit: Natalie Morgan Sharp.

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.

An excerpt from “Lease,” which appears in Little Patuxent Review’s Summer Issue:

What Miss Allens don’t realize is eleven is just two ones next together. Mean, she don’t know basic maths. One and one is two. Followed by a zero means twenty. So I walked right up through her yard, past the sign advertising the bike and slapped a Jefferson in her left hand. She spit into her bucket mean the way she does at strays, and she crumbles it up, tosses it at me. Starts shoutin.

  1. Holden

If you really want to hear about it,[1] I have this complex about third person narrators. Who the hell’s talking to me, and where the hell are they?

These are questions I started asking myself a few years ago, when I was first trying to write, feeling a need to justify my tendency toward the first person. There was something repulsive to me about reading a story or novel and picturing the words coming from a writer, narrating from her desk, or—god help me—his favorite coffee shop. I wanted the words to come from somewhere (that at least seemed) real-life. When a character is a narrator, I see them talking to me—something people do every day in my real life. They’re right there. It’s as if I just happened upon them.

When I sat down to write, it was nearly impossible to write third person, so I didn’t. It’s not that I didn’t respect third person, but I didn’t enjoy it. It didn’t feel natural. It didn’t feel found.

  1. George Saunders’ dad characters & artifact fiction

Having just turned 40, have resolved to embark on grand project of writing every day in this new black book just got at OfficeMax.[2] Then thought: what if stories were strictly documents? Fiction felt double authentic if contained in some seeable/knowable document. Diaries, letters, memos, lists, quizzes, social media, textbooks, etc. etc. etc. (possibilities endless!).

It was far from a unique idea, but that made it no less intriguing. I wanted to read a story that was a thing. A character had created some textual artifact, and I was reading that artifact. I found writers doing this everywhere (Saunders, Egan, Danielewski, Davis, Greenman, the entirety of tNY Press) and it made me want to put every story into a form. This made voice everything. I had to make the thing talk. No time for exposition, setting, what color shirt are they wearing. Just voice, distilled into something that voice created. And this was all I wrote for a while.

  1. Bone

You’ll probably think I’m making a lot of this up just to make me sound better than I really am or smarter or even luckier but I’m not.[3] I milked that formal thing for a while before I was back to writing 1st person stories with characters talking talking talking and shutting up when the story had finished finally.

Photo credit: Tyler Barton.

Photo credit: Tyler Barton.

Things changed, as they do. I write in coffee shops now. I read a lot of third person. Sometimes, I can even find a way to write it. But I’m still drawn to the voice of a character/narrator. Often, I hear a voice saying a single, unique sentence, and I go from there.

When I sat down to write “Lease”, what I had was: “Mrs. Henderson always starts my oranges for me.” It lodged in my brain like a song lyric. Maybe it was applying the verb “start” to a fruit that made it shine in my mind. There was something off about the description—something incorrect. The voice saying those words came in sideways, with a little accent and attitude. When I heard the words in my head, they could not come without a touch of country slack, slur, and twang.

  1. Taylor Greer & my father

I been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Hardbine’s father over the top of the Standard Oil sign.[4] Until last year (when I read The Bean Trees, Lindsay Hunter, Scott Mclanahan) I had been afraid to write how the people I grew up around spoke. I’d just learned this term—appropriation—and was afraid of being cheap or mean. But these authors showed me sincerity in voice and respect for character. They were never laughing at their narrators.

Photo credit: Rob Westaby.

Photo credit: Rob Westaby.

I grew up in rural, southern Pennsylvania, where it wasn’t a requirement to speak with a bastardized southern drawl, but it didn’t hurt your chances of fitting in. There was an annual event where my classmates rode their tractors to school. I grew up spending precious Saturdays at a go-kart racetrack. I often hear these accents, these tones, in my memories.

I also used to notice the way setting morphed my father’s voice toward a slightly southern accent. At the racetrack, in the garage, at Christmas, it was there. When he sang, there it was. When we camped, I heard it. The rest of the time it was gone. This gave me the idea that a voice could convey a character’s setting without the narrator outright pointing you to a map.

  1. Bogart, Man-man, Hat and The Gang

Where the voices coming from? I really can’t say, boy. Is a real mystery.[5] Which ones hit and which miss? The only book I’ve read more times than Catcher is Miguel Street, where every voice is recorded as it sounds.

I think that every sentence of a first person narrator needs to sound said. I’m inclined to write it like it’s said (this being why, in “Lease”, I chose to drop “g” from a lot of present participles). I read the lines of this flash over and over, out loud, trying to nail down the mannerisms, transitions, and emphases. It took a lot of time for the character’s voice to tell me what he cared about. For this character it was justice. Although he isn’t 100% honest (I think he manipulates with his airhead act), he has a determined sense of justice. It’s the battle between justice and dishonesty that give his voice its shape.

That was only the first step. I had to figure out what it was he wanted. I waited for him to tell me, in his voice. Then I wrote down what he said, just like he said it.

[1] Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

[2] “Semplica Girl Diaries,” George Saunders

[3] Rule of the Bone, Russell Banks

[4] The Bean Trees, Barbara Kingsolver

[5] Miguel Street, V.S. Naipaul

Online Editor’s Note: Having had the opportunity to both read and hear Tyler Barton’s “Lease,” I found his use of voice reminiscent of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, one of my all-time favorite novels. Order your copy of the Summer Issue online to read “Lease” in full.

Meet Tafisha, a Cave Canem fellow

Jane Goodall wrote, “What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of a difference you want to make.” Our volunteer staff at Little Patuxent Review works tirelessly behind the scenes to read your submissions, edit the draft and create the final printed journal. In other words, it means something to them when your work gets published (almost as much as it does to you). Since our submission period for Winter’s Myth issue opened on August 1, it’s a great opportunity for you to meet them. Over the next several months, look for fun and interesting posts about our stalwart volunteers.

Tafisha Edwards.

Tafisha Edwards.

Today’s highlighted volunteer is Tafisha A. Edwards, a Guyanese Canadian poet and producer who lives in Washington D.C.

How long have you been a volunteer reader for LPR? I’ve been a volunteer reader for LPR since August 2014.

What’s your process for going through submissions? I first have to ensure I’m in a neutral and receptive head space. Then I make a goal for myself about the amount of submissions I plan on reading and set aside an hour or two to get to work, and of course remain flexible about that goal. I take notes on the emotional temperature of a submission as well as its stylistic thumbprints and then give myself a break and return to the submissions for a final check in with myself. It’s very easy to get fatigued.

When you’re reading a submission, what draws you most about a piece? A strong opening line coupled with an uncanny knowledge of how to employ line endings. A poem that forces me to across and down the page and holds me in escrow until the last line and then still doesn’t release me.

What turns you off immediately when you read a submission? Vagueness. There is a distinction between selective obfuscation of the emotional/narrative/structural landscape of a poem and a poem lacking definition.

Also “my lover” poems. My lover does such and such. My lover is at such place doing such vague thing. I’ve written far too many of those, where the lover is a device and not actualized in any significant way. Now I demand details from myself and from the submissions. Why do I care about this unnamed lover? If you won’t tell me a name then I want the most sublime and foul details in that poem.

Who has informed your reading tastes most? Why? It’s not so much who as what has informed my reading tastes. I am drawn to the mystic, for poetry and fiction that is rooted in the intangible as much as it is rooted in the physical and the particulars of its creator’s, speaker’s or characters’ lived experience and/or politics.

What’s on your nightstand right now to be readI’m notorious for beginning a book and then becoming distracted by another books, so it’s not so much what is on my nightstand but what is slowly taking over my house like vines and taking up psychic space. I’ve promised myself by the end of the summer I would finish Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World, Mary Ruefle’s Trances of the Blast, Aracelis Girmay’s Teeth and Kingdom Animalia as well as Dawn Paley’s Drug War Capitalism.

Are you also a writer/poet? If so, tell us more. I am a poet. What that actually means in my life is constantly in flux; at this moment poet means I am a truly my mother’s, mother’s mother, mother’s mother’s mother’s daughter. I am my maternal aunts and cousins. The women in my family dream dreams and tap into a non-academic, non-linear, intangible stream of information and can translate it for those who may not have honed that ability, the only difference being I transcribe and publish and they do not. Being a poet also means I am familiar with writing my poems in my own blood.

What’s your Six Word Memoir? Yours in Fury and in Laughter.

Do you have any superpowers? If not, what do you wish you had? I am, at select times, intuitive. Only if I am in diligent in recognizing and avoiding distractions. I come from a family of women who understand the language of dreams, so we ingest information in non-linear and circular ways. And that is essentially my superpower.

Online Editor’s Note: Tafisha A. Edwards is a Guyanese Canadian poet and producer who lives in Washington D.C. Her poems have appeared in journals such as Bodega Magazine, The Little Patuxent Review, Fjords Review, Fledgling Rag, Vinyl Poetry and other publications. She is a Cave Canem fellow, the recipient of a Zoland Poetry Fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center, a graduate of the University of Maryland’s Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House, and a former educator with the American Poetry Museum.

Five Myths about ‘The Afghan People’

Angie Chuang

Angie Chuang

I was one of thousands of “embedded” reporters in Afghanistan during the post-9/11 years—only I didn’t embed with a military unit, I lived with a family in Kabul (and traveled with them to their rural village in Ghazni) for nearly a month. This family and my experiences in Afghanistan with them formed the central narrative of my hybrid memoir, The Four Words for Home.

We’ve officially withdrawn U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan, and we’re left with a vague feeling that though the Taliban were overthrown from official leadership, our understanding of this complex nation is more tenuous than ever. Perhaps it was easier for the U.S. government and the American Mind to perceive “The Afghan People” as mysterious and inscrutable. That way, we could throw up our hands and chalk up any nation-building failures to the inherent fierceness and ungovernable nature of the Afghan people. Just ask Alexander the Great in 330 B.C. or the Soviet Army in 1988 A.D.

So in honor of Little Patuxent Review’s forthcoming theme issue on Myth, I offer my personal debunking of five myths about Afghanistan and Afghans I’ve commonly heard.

  1. There is such a thing as “The Afghan people.” The country is home to at least half a dozen ethnic groups, each with its distinct roots, traditions, interpretations of Sunni or Shia Islam, and, in many cases, language. The family I traveled with, the Shirzais, were proudly Pashtun, and would speak of their ethnic group before their national identity, though they didn’t consider nationalism and tribal loyalty in conflict with each other. Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbek, Turkmen, and others expressed similar patriotism. But it’s nearly impossible to generalize about one people, because there simply isn’t.
  2. Being a woman in Afghanistan: It’s about the burqa. No one I met in Afghanistan, male or female, denied that the Taliban era was terrible for women. But Amina, the matriarch of the Kabul household in which I stayed, told me when she went out, she preferred to wear a burqa over the headscarf most women adopted after the Taliban overthrow. “It’s easier to carry things on my head because I don’t have to keep adjusting the scarf,” she said. “And if I don’t wear it, the women in the neighborhood might talk.” Women were more concerned about infrastructure (running water and electricity across the country), education, and safety than what they wore or didn’t wear.
  3. Afghan women are either blatantly challenging gender oppression at great cost to themselves, a la Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai, or they have been silenced into obedient submission by husbands and fathers. Many women, especially middle-class women in major cities, are finding their own ways to challenge convention and live their own lives. An excerpted chapter of The Four Words for Home, “Learning to Pray” (online as a Gold Medal Solas Travel Writing Award winner), focuses on two Afghan women—one married, one single—who are each navigating their lives, their sexuality, and their partnerships in their own ways. They don’t have the apparent freedom American women do, but they have a sense of sisterhood, community, and extended family they feel is even more important. I don’t for a minute believe that things are all good for Afghan women, especially the poor and those in more-restrictive families and marriages than those of the women with whom I stayed. But I wanted to shed some light on the complexities of the matter.
  4. The Afghan People resent the U.S. presence and are anti-American. Amina, who was in her sixties and illiterate, reflected the mixed feelings of most Afghans best: “The British. The Soviets. The Americans. The warlords. The Taliban. The Americans again. We didn’t ask for any of them. All we ask of the Americans is that maybe, this time, you don’t leave things the way the others did.”
  5. The Afghan People are passionately extreme, and have no capacity for contradiction. Afghans revel in contradiction. They are proud of and ashamed of their country. They are grateful to and distrusting of the Americans. They embrace progress but fear the loss of traditional values. Americans may have trouble fathoming such oxymoronic thinking, but it is written into the culture of Afghanistan. Rumi, the 13th-century poet often claimed by Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey alike, said it best: The cure for pain is the pain. / Good and bad are mixed. If you don’t have both, / you don’t belong with us.
A kuchi, or nomad, girl in the shelter her family built in a vacant Kabul lot. Afghan nomads have increasingly had to resort to makeshift dwellings in the city, because much of the countryside they depended on to raise animals and survive has been rendered unsafe by landmines or insurgents.  Photo credit: Stephanie Yao Long

A kuchi, or nomad, girl in the shelter her family built in a vacant Kabul lot. Afghan nomads have increasingly had to resort to makeshift dwellings in the city, because much of the countryside they depended on to raise animals and survive has been rendered unsafe by landmines or insurgents. Photo credit: Stephanie Yao Long.

Online Editor’s Notes: I met Angie Chuang in November 2014 at the Baltimore Writers’ Conference held at Towson University and purchased The Four Words for Home after hearing her read. At that time, I wasn’t yet LPR’s Online Editor. Worlds sometimes collide as they did for me when in January as I browsed through the LPR website, I saw Angie’s name. An excerpt of The Four Words for Home, “Thanksgiving with the Shirzais,” had been published 2012 in LPR’s Audacity issue. Her story resonated strongly with me, so I took the chance she’d be willing to share once again with our readers. The Four Words for Home just became available on Kindle in July. Published in 2014 as the winner of the Willow Books Literature Awards Grand Prize in Prose, it is also available in paperback. The book recently won the Independent Publisher Book Award Bronze Medal in Multicultural Nonfiction. 

We’re the lucky ones

Gandhi once said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” We’re fortunate at Little Patuxent Review to have a team of dedicated volunteers, who work tirelessly behind the scenes to read your submission, edit the journal and create the final printed product. With our submission period opening on Saturday, I thought it might be a great opportunity for you to meet them. Over the next several months, look for fun and interesting posts about our stalwart volunteers.

Lynn Weber Rehoboth

Lynn Weber at Rehoboth. Photo credit: Jay Kissel.

First up is Lynn Weber, who not only reads poetry submissions, but performs double duty as the line editor for our print journal.

How long have you been a volunteer for LPR? About three years.

When you edit a submission, what reference materials do you use? Webster’s and the Chicago Manual of Style. And the Internet, of course, as specific questions come up.

What’s your process for going through submissions? I tend to read submissions in large batches to keep the competition fresh in mind. It’s easier to see trends—and deviations from the norm—that way. I don’t have a very sophisticated method of reading, however. I just plunge in and see if that spark lights up. I avoid comments or ratings by other reviewers until I’ve cast my vote—and also avoid the names of submitters, to avoid any unconscious biases.

When you’re reading a submission, what draws you most about a pieceMy byword is “different.” I want to experience a fresh use of language. There are tons of beautifully crafted poems with a modest, slightly mournful tone about mortality, dying parents, the evanescence or fragile beauty of the natural world. Lyrics describing the earthiness of gardening or cooking. Poems about the sensuality of vegetables! At this point—and I may be in the minority here—I’d rather read even a poorly crafted poem that is fresh and vital than a well-wrought poem that is safely within our current traditions.

What turns you off immediately when you read a submission? The word “I.” Semi-colons. Lyrical description. Melancholy.

Who has informed your reading tastes most? WhyIn terms of poetry, the textbook anthology Western Wind by John Frederick Nims. In college at Towson University in the 1980s, I took a poetry course with the luminous Clarinda Harriss, the great Baltimore poet and long-time friend of LPR, and Western Wind was our primary text. For ten or fifteen years afterward, I read from that anthology every single night before bed. Anthologies show you how wide language can be stretched, from the beautiful formality of “Dover Beach” to the insanity that is Christopher Smart’s “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffrey.”

What’s on your nightstand right now to be readMostly novels that I review for the magazine Booklist. My favorite book of the last year was Delicious Foods by James Hannaham, a tour de force that exemplifies that byword “different.” I’m also making extremely slow progress on my made-up curriculum of the great works of Western civilization. I started, literally decades ago, with the ancient Greeks and got stuck at the Middle Ages, when everything goes haywire. So many little kingdoms and shifting borders. I’m reading some medieval history now to try to wrap my head around it. I just finished The Plantagenets by Dan Jones and will pick up some Peter Ackroyd next. I also need to read the new one by Ta-Nehisi Coates, our homegrown Baltimore genius.

Are you also a writer/poet? If so, tell us more. I’m an occasional dabbler in poetry writing, a more dedicated writer about culture. I have a blog,, and am working on a book about the feminine aesthetic in popular culture.

What’s your Six Word Memoir? Lucky lucky lucky lucky. So far.

Do you have any superpowers? If not, what do you wish you had? The only superpower worth having is a big heart.

Online Editor’s Note: Submissions for Myth open on Aug. 1 and remain open until Oct. 24.

My Writer’s Center

Desirée Magney

Desirée Magney

On August 1, the Little Patuxent Review (LPR) will be showcasing some of its many talented contributors at The Writer’s Center (TWC) in Bethesda, Maryland. In addition to readings by authors featured in our Summer Issue, LPR editors will discuss the submission and selection process.

writers centerI am particularly excited about this event, not only because I serve on the board of LPR but also because TWC is such an important part of my writing life. I’ve been a member and supporter of TWC for many years, so I am pleased to see LPR expand its presence into Montgomery County via this home of the literary arts.

What transpires day after day in this unimposing, two-story building in Bethesda is remarkable. Workshops are taught in every genre, literary events are held, open mics welcome all writers, writing groups meet, plays are performed, and for the past 25 years it has been the home of Poet Lore, the nation’s oldest poetry journal. But on a personal level, TWC helped form me as a writer and continues to do so.

I’ve always been a reader even though we had scant books in our home growing up. The only bookcase in my parents’ house had three short shelves. It sat under my bedroom window. The matching red bindings of Poe, Shakespeare, and Wilde sat above the green spines of an encyclopedia set someone sold door-to-door. And then, there were the blonde Nancy Drews and the exquisitely illustrated The Fairy Tale Book. I mined them in search of their golden nuggets. As a child, each offered a taste of something different, a world I could escape to behind my bedroom door. I watched spring arrive in the corner of the garden of Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant. I stood in the snow with Vania as the stag in Silvershod, struck his hoof creating gems whose colors tumbled into the night. And I rode with Nancy in her roadster to solve her latest mystery. I became a reader but I wasn’t yet a writer. Yet, even as a child I admired each writer’s ability to draw me in. It wasn’t until well into adulthood, taking classes at TWC, when I felt a writing life was possible for me.

About eight years ago, I signed up for my first workshop, “Creative Writing.” I learned to stop during the course of my day and take in whatever was happening around me with all of my senses. This use of sensory detail is something I try to incorporate to make my personal narratives and poetry come alive. I’ve taken many memoir, poetry, fiction, and travel writing classes. I’ve joined writing groups with fellow students. In a sense, TWC workshops became my personal MFA program. I was given the honor of a “Best in Workshop” reading and published a number of personal narratives in various magazines, and slowly began to feel I was part of the writing community – that I was indeed a writer. My personal essay “The Horn of Freedom”  was published in  The Writer’s Center Winter 2015 publication.

Whenever I walk through the door at TWC, I know I am entering a safe place to share myself and my writing. I’m entering a community of writers who are generous with their time to one another and who are supportive with their praise, critiques, and knowledge.

A perfect day is getting lost in my writing, looking up at the clock, thinking a few minutes have passed, only to discover it has been hours. It took me years to discover this new me and I don’t think it would have happened without the support of TWC and its writing community. So, I will enjoy this August 1st event, watching the confluence of the journal of which I am so proud and the place that is such an integral part of my writing life. Won’t you join me?

Online Editor’s Note: Join Little Patuxent Review editors Laura Shovan, Emily Rich, and Steve Levya, and writers published in LPR as The Writer’s Center celebrates publication of LPR’s Summer issue. The reading will be followed by a reception. 

Readers include Joseph Ross, George Guida, Rachel Eisler, Katy Day, Danuta E. Kosk-Kosicka, Adam Schwartz, and Paul Carlson.


One Hundred Thousand.

One Hundred Thousand. A number so large I can’t even picture having that much of any one thing. When LPR poetry editor Laura Shovan first uttered that phrase to me, I misheard her and instead pictured 10,000 Maniacs, one of my favorite bands. Strains of “Verdi Cries” came to mind. “Are they coming in concert?”

Official poster for 100TPC World Conference, 2015.

Official poster for 100TPC World Conference, 2015.

Ever tactful, Laura repeated herself. “One Hundred Thousand Poets for Change.” She’d been invited to participate in a conference. In Italy. Other details were shared, most of which I didn’t hear. Italy. Images of statues, fountains, fresh pasta and red wine filled my consciousness.

Joking around as I always do when someone mentions a trip, I said, “Let me know if I can carry your bags.” The joke was on me when a few days later, Laura texted me that the conference materials included triple room rates. “Want to come?”

It took all of a nano-second for me to reply that I would love to. Details worked in my favor, thankful as I am for frequent flier miles and a supportive family, and that’s how I attended the first One Hundred Thousand Poets for Change World Conference in Salerno, Italy with Laura and contributing editor, Ann Bracken in June.

Laura sent along another surprise. “You’ve been invited to read, too.”

“But I’m not a poet,” I said, feeling like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. (I secretly wanted to read, knowing that chances to do so come all too infrequently when one is unpublished and relatively unknown.)

Poets are kind and generous people. Michael Rothenberg, one of the two co-founders of the 100TPC, sent me a note, saying I could read anything I wanted. “It can’t be longer than two pages or five minutes in length.”

The next months were spent agonizing over what to read, how to pack and speed-learning Italian. Our trio met and divvied up responsibilities. Laura booked tours. Ann took care of lodging. I handled transportation.

Historic Salerno. Photo credit: Deborah Kevin, June 2015.

Historic Salerno. Photo credit: Deborah Kevin, June 2015.

We arrived in Salerno via a train from Rome. It’s a historic seaside town south of Naples. Our B&B and the Santa Sofia complex, where the conference was being held, were both in the historic part of Salerno. Picture crowded together tall buildings in ochre, cream and buttercup, with shutters thrown open wide to catch the sunlight. Clothes lines hung from every home, bright and cheery. Narrow warrens of streets, more alley than avenue, wore cobbles like uneven teeth.

We stayed in Salerno Antica, where our host Daniele Abbondanza treated us like royalty. A sumptuous Italian breakfast, complete with thick dark espresso, greeted us each morning. One morning, Daniele served grilled vegetables fresh from the market. Never have zucchini and eggplant tasted so delicious! Another morning, we devoured a spinach pie. And always there were fruits, cheese, salami and homemade sweets.

Sunset in Salerno. Photo credit: Deborah Kevin, June 2015.

Sunset in Salerno. Photo credit: Deborah Kevin, June 2015.

As delightful as our B&B was, nothing could have prepared us for the emotional experience of 100TPC. Our first night we gathered together on the roof deck of Santa Sofia for a meet-and-greet party. In some cases, people who’d been talking together virtually for as long as five years were meeting face-to-face for the first time. In others, folks were introduced that night. As the sun set over the Tyrrhenian Sea, turning the sky from baby blue to orange to pink and, finally, to purple, we hugged, laughed and cried. Age, race, nationality, sex — none of it mattered. We shared a love for language, a passion for improving humankind’s lot on earth, and a deep-seated desire to make a difference.

100 Thousand Poets for Change World Conference, 2015. Photo Credit: Ciro Fundaró.

100 Thousand Poets for Change World Conference, 2015. Photo Credit: Ciro Fundaró.

The conference lasted for four full days and included break-out sessions, readings, music and tours. Poets from over 30 countries attended: India, Malaysia, Romania, Hungary, Mexico, Canada, Italy, Germany, Ireland, Australia, France and Ghana to name a few. Even when people struggled to communicate because of a language barrier, they somehow found a way to connect. The conference had a talented translator name Giulia Sensale, who spoke a multitude of languages and worked hard to keep everyone caught up. I was even more impressed to learn she was only 18 years old!

Richard Botchwey and Deborah Kevin.

Richard Botchwey and Deborah Kevin.

I hesitate to call out by name some of my new friends, because there are so many. But I’d like to share a few people who touched me deeply. I hope you’ll get to meet some of these and more right here on the Little Patuxent Review’s blog.

Richard Botchway of Ghana became one of the conferences most beloved attendees with his ever-present smile and warmth. Orphaned at seven, he has survived the worst experiences to thrive, give back and encourage others to rise above their circumstances. His visa troubles in Germany on his return home had us all in tears, knowing the purity of his soul. Sadly, he is not the only person who experienced visa issues. It made me realize how much I take for granted the ease with which I can travel.

Elaine Foster of Malaysia opened our eyes to the challenges teachers face in that part of the world to simply teach language and poetry. She’s articulate, funny, and passionate. There’s a fierce fire burning in her. When she recited her re-imagined story of Medusa, we sat entranced, spellbound.

Gabor Gyukics, Budapest, Hungary, wore his gray hair long. It’s probably what most people would first notice about him. His kindness, thoughtfulness and intelligence were outweighed, maybe, only by his gentlemanly behavior. Author of many books, several in translation, Gabor was someone with whom I would have loved to have spent more time talking. Budapest has long been on my top places in the world to visit and I know when I get there, Gabor will welcome me, and I will be delighted to see him again. We’ll dive right in, discussing books and world issues, and it will be as though we’ve never been apart.

David Loret de Mola of Sacramento is a slam poet, who struggles with depression. Observing him work and hearing him speak, I learned how one can turn an obstacle into an opportunity. He’s beautiful to listen to and brave for sharing so openly his experience. His voice is an important one.

Lisa Vihos from Sheboygan, Wisconsin was one of those women with whom Laura had been corresponding for years. Seeing them connect was like seeing a college reunion. Lisa’s enthusiasm felt contagious and her poetry transported me. Hearing her cross-roads story felt familiar. You’ll want to read more of her work, follow her story and see where this incredible woman takes us.

Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal, a young Indian poetess still attending university at St. Bedes College, who has also published a chapbook called, Musings of Miss Yellow, to great acclaim. Her quiet demeanor belies a strong, smart woman. Keep an eye on Amazon for her book to become available more readily in the U.S.

Robert Priest from Toronto recited a poem from his book Rosa Rose. It is one every person ought to read (actually, they need to read his book). It was about Mohammad Ali. I loved how he shadow-boxed as he told the story of Ali choosing not to fight in Vietnam.

Siobhan Mac Mahon (do I even need to tell you her place of origin?) read riotous feminist poems, encouraging us to recite the refrains along with her. The last night we were together, she clambered up on a chair to share her poem about Lilith, Adam’s first wife. I think most of the photos I have of Siobhan show her with a fist held high in the air, hair swirling wildly about her head like a Celtic warrior maiden. She’s fierce and determined just like that.

Michael Dickel, late of Minnesota but now of Israel, read his work beat poet style to guitar music, unrehearsed and rather unplanned. He grooved along, digging each moment and we couldn’t help but enjoy watching and listening to him. He continues to be encouraging, even from afar. You can see some of his poetry on Author Amok.

Not all readings were performed in English. Perhaps the most lovely of all were those read in the poet’s native language, like Spanish or Italian. I listened to the rhythm and cadence, the pauses and could hear the yearning. The messages resonated deep within me. Isn’t that how poetry should be?

Things weren’t all rosy in Salerno. For example, in the public restrooms, there were no toilet seats. Karen Alkalay-Gut from Israel immortalized this shocking fact in — what else! — a poem. The young poets, which consisted of a cross-cultural group, made “demands” which must be met by the next conference, among them inclusion of a wine fountain (no disagreements here).

While the large group settings were enjoyable, what I found most suitable for my personality was the smaller gatherings. The “let’s grab lunch or a drink” where we could talk and delve more deeply into who the other was, and hear her story. That’s when the real connections took place. We discussed heavy topics like the responsibility we share to select our words for greatest impact, to not shy away from challenging the status quo, and for banding together to bring about lasting change. And, we ate copious amounts of delicious pasta and drank fair amounts of delightful vino. “When in Rome….”

The three Grace(less)s cavort before the Temple of Athena. Photo credit: Waqas Khwaja, June 2015.

The three Grace(less)s cavort before the Temple of Athena. Photo credit: Waqas Khwaja, June 2015.

Ann, Laura and I played hooky from the conference one day, traveling to the historic site of Paestum with Waqas Khwaja, an English professor from Agnes Scott College in Georgia, who came late to the conference because he’d been traveling with a group of students to historical sights of literary significance throughout Great Britain. Our conversations with him were rich and much too brief.

And our time in Salerno with our  new poetry friends felt all too short. Now it feels as though it were a dream. And my reading? It went pretty well. I read a short essay about autism called, “Seeing Anew.” I felt loved and supported, but most of all grateful.

Online Editor’s Note: September 26, 2015 has been designated 100 Thousand Poets For Change Day around the globe. If you’d like to organize a local event, you can! Simply register your event and you’ll get information and support from around the world to make it happen. Last, but not least, I’d like to give a shout out to Michael Rothenberg, Terri Carrion, Filippo Trotta, Valeriano Forte and Pino Green for all their hard work before, during and after the first 100TPCWC to make it happen so beautifully.