The Scalpel and the Pen

Michael Salcman
Michael Salcman

I met poet, neurosurgeon, and art critic Michael Salcman five years ago. As a CityLit board member, Michael initiated the Harriss Poetry Prize and was its first judge. When I won the inaugural contest, publisher Gregg Wilhelm asked me whether I’d like feedback from the judge. I received more than feedback. Michael became a mentor, friend, and colleague. Little Patuxent Review has benefited immensely from his work as our art consultant.

Poetry in Medicine: An Anthology of Poems About Doctors, Patients, Illness, and Healing, represents the integration of Michael’s three major areas of expertise: medicine, poetry, and fine art. But the book also reflects his generosity. Its pages include luminaries of Western literature: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickinson; and modern poets who place their unflinching gaze on the body: Linda Pastan, Lucille Clifton, Stanley Plumly; side by side with poets from our local community: Shirley Brewer, Clarinda Harriss, Jennifer Wallace.

The book represents six years of compiling, curating, and organizing, but it also speaks to Michael’s lifelong love of poetry. He is, after all, part of an honored tradition of physician-poets who engage in two healing arts: medicine and poetry.

Shovan: This anthology represents several years of work. Would you describe its genesis?

Salcman: For years and years when I would see a poem by Emily Dickinson or by Anne Sexton that was about illness or about doctors, I would put it in the drawer because I was fascinated by their opinions about illness and doctors. Gradually these favorite poems piled up.

Shovan: You were encouraged by the poet Thomas Lux, whom you worked with at Sarah Lawrence’s summer writing program.

Salcman: I started going every year for ten years [beginning in 1998]. Tom would kid me that I was the only published poet who happened to be a brain surgeon… I told him I wrote poetry in order to get away from medicine but Tom would always greet me and ask, “So, have you written any medical poems this year?” Finally he started telling me, “You know, you’d be the perfect person to do an anthology about doctors and diseases.” It felt like a challenge.

Shovan: The anthology isn’t limited to modern medicine or modern poetry. How did you go about selecting poems for a book that covers hundreds of years of Western literature?

Salcman: First, I went through every volume in my poetry library page by page. Of course, I wanted the widest range. I wanted things by non-physician poets, people writing about their own illnesses, people who were parents of patients…poets like Blake and Poe who used the metaphor of medicine and illness to write social commentary.

Then I went through the major online sites: the Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Society of America, Poetry magazine, all of them. People are surprised when I tell them that if you go on any of these sites, medicine, sickness, and health are major themes, major topics.

Shovan: Past anthologies of medical writing have had a more contemporary focus, or have been limited to doctor-poets. How does Poetry in Medicine differ from those books?

Salcman: I thought that it was time for a book that put together the very best poems on the subject no matter who wrote them, from the beginning of the Western tradition to contemporary times. My major criteria were literary excellence and the topic covered by the poem.

Shovan: I know you worked with your editor at Persea on refining the hundreds of poems you collected. Together, you came up with the wonderful thematic groupings for each chapter. The process took six years overall. What were some highlights of working on Poetry in Medicine?

Salcman: To begin with, Michael Collier’s Foreword is the most beautiful and elegant essay. His sensitivity as a poet is just amazing… And it came to him to start the foreword with a discussion of a great Eakins painting [“The Gross Clinic”] and carry the discussion from art to medicine and on to my life as a poet.

Once we had the physical book, I’ve been just really pleased with it. As an art writer and art collector I’m so proud and happy to have the other great medical painting by Eakins [“The Agnew Clinic”] on the cover, I can’t tell you how much that means to me. The book ended up as a dream project.

Shovan: There’s a push in current poetry to use fresh, specific language. I’ve read poems that seem to draw from medical textbooks in their vocabulary. What do you think of this type of realism?

Salcman: The language of science—of which medicine is a part —it’s both a science and an art— creates a fresh vocabulary for both poets and writers, but one has to be careful if one is interested in the music of the poem… Medicine is filled with nouns and not with verbs, whereas a poem seeks a good balance of both and needs to avoid polysyllabic Latinate words.

There’s nothing more real than the body and its complaints and the fate we all share. You can use medical terms or anatomical terms in a way that’s very mysterious.

When Dickinson writes, “The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs,” it’s a terrific example of using simple medical terms to enrich a poem. When she describes the stages of hypothermia she leaves out the word “coma” in favor of “chill” and “stupor,” which are more everyday terms.

Shovan: The poet and the physician both have to be excellent observers. Talk about the up swell of humanities courses for medical students. How do they benefit the doctor? The patient?

Salcman: These courses are also called Narrative Medicine. At Columbia, for example, they take medical students to the great museums of New York and work on their powers of observation by looking at paintings… There are many courses that use short stories and poems. I think these courses are valuable in improving the empathy and sensitivity of the young physician as well as observational acuity.

Shovan: You are part of a great, but small circle of poets who are also physicians. If we look at stereotypes, the doctor is viewed as the scientist, driven by logic, but absent of the empathy we were just discussing. The artist, on the other hand, is viewed as a romantic figure, driven—and sometimes driven insane—by emotion.

Salcman: These stereotypes are based on the traditional battle of the two cultures. I responded very negatively to C.P. Snow’s famous book The Two Cultures. It argued that the West was all about the humanities, warm and fuzzy; the East was all about engineering and physics, which would take over the world. And that these two cultures spoke in mutually incomprehensible languages.

I have never believed that the arts and sciences were opposed to one another. Artists and scientists seek different types of truths, but their working methods are often similar and the objects they produce, certainly in the visual arts and in science, are gradually starting to resemble one another. Through great artists we first suspected that there were multiple visual systems in the brain, separately devoted to color, movement, and form. Calder explored movement, Matisse color, and Mondrian form to maximally stimulate the brain.

This back and forth between how and why we respond to artworks and how we create artworks I consider just one more piece of evidence that art and science spring from the same creative urge and use a similar logic.

Shovan: So, how does poetry inform medicine?

Salcman: Who else sees us in our most painful and intimate moments but doctors and poets? Because of breast cancer, women and women poets became very concerned with body image and the whole issue of whether they remained women after mastectomy. The number of great poems about breast cancer, such as those by Alicia Ostriker and Lucille Clifton’s “Lumpectomy Eve,” is truly amazing. Women patients and the poet friends of patients have really added something to our sensitivity in regard to the body: that we are not just pieces of meat, that we’re not just animals. As a result students of medicine should think of it as something of a holy occupation.

Shovan: In “Poetry in Medicine” we can see how the doctor-patient relationship has developed over time.

Salcman: There was almost a 200 year period in which people like Moliere and Dryden were incredibly sarcastic about doctors and about medicine. Samuel Johnson, who wrote a lovely poem about his deceased doctor friend was an exception—this poem is mentioned in my Introduction. Today doctors and patients enter into a range of person to person contacts beyond their traditional roles. Most poems have been kinder to the doctor in the modern era than they have been to the hospital. The hospital is often unfairly portrayed as the place one goes to die, as in poems by Cavafy and Baudelaire. I think a lot of the poems in the Anthology are complimentary in the way that a sophisticated thinker might look at a physician… in a nuanced, careful way. After all, the doctor isn’t perfect, but he’s what we’ve got and we’re all in this thing together, trying to deal with our ultimate mortality.

Online Editor’s Note: You can hear Dr. Salcman read from his Anthology on June 26 at Zü Coffee in Annapolis from 6 to 8:30 pm. He’ll also participate in a Little Patuxent Review reading at the Miller Branch of the Howard County Public Library on October 20.

A Visit to Magruder High

In April, Nonfiction Editor Emily Rich and Poetry Editor Laura Shovan visited Magruder High School. Students Megan Mitchell and Sam Lee each wrote essays highlighting the impact this visit had on them. First up, Sam Lee.

Sam Lee, Magruder High.
Sam Lee, Magruder High.

The chatter of a room full of creative writing students fell nearly silent when writers Laura Shovan and Emily Rich walked into the room. Our teacher led them to the front and introduced them, even though we already knew much about their writing. Each pulled up a chair and casually sat down. Once they were settled in, Ms. Shovan asked, “So, what are your questions?”

It took a few minutes for the collection of aspiring writers to warm up, asking standard questions as first—“Why did you begin to write?”, “How is writing part of your daily life?”, and “What are your inspirations?” They gave thoughtful and insightful answers from two unique perspectives, but our questions were not very specific yet.

In the weeks preceding their visit, we had the opportunity to read some of their works and familiarize ourselves with their individual writing styles. For Ms. Shovan, in particular, we had many questions about her style; our next assignment would emulate some of her poems. The questions for Ms. Rich pertained more to her content. Her personal essays had captivated us, and we were all curious about her storytelling.

LPR Poetry Editor Laura Shovan's journal.
LPR Poetry Editor Laura Shovan’s journal.

We view them as role models—their lives are something that we, as students of writing, hope to accomplish one day. They answered fully and with grace, frequently elaborating with their past experiences. Ms. Shovan even pulled out her own personal writing journal to show us, and Ms. Rich explained a bit of her writing process as she works on a new piece.

Each left us with a few pieces of advice—to live lives worth writing about, and to be observant of others. Their thoughts and ideas have helped inject more vigor into our writing; seeing and having the opportunity to converse with two kind, successful women was an invaluable experience.

Next, Megan Mitchell reflects.

Megan Mitchell, Magruder High.
Megan Mitchell, Magruder High.

I had the privilege of sitting in front of Laura Shovan and Emily Rich, experienced writers who graced us with their presence. Now of course, we had the typical questions that any aspiring writer would ask: How do you come up with ideas? How important is character development? What’s the difference between prose and short stories?

Ms. Rich and Ms. Shovan shared their extensive knowledge on these topics. Their unique explanations of their experiences were an invaluable aspect to their visit, and provided a diverse image of their individual journeys as writers.

A peek inside LPR Poetry Editor Laura Shovan's journal.
A peek inside LPR Poetry Editor Laura Shovan’s journal.

However, I found that the most striking questions and answers weren’t about the process of writing itself, but the ones concerning our own personalities within our writing. As Ms. Rich and Ms. Shovan shared, writing well is not about being like other popular authors, or what your teacher defines as good writing. Good writing is about putting your own style into your work, and telling your own story through your own creativity.

Ms. Rich and Ms. Shovan’s visit offered incredible insight into the world of a writer, and gave me inspiration in following my own path. I greatly appreciated their presence and generosity in taking time out of their days to inspire us.

Thank you, Laura Shovan, Emily Rich, and Little Patuxent Review!

Online Editor’s Note: A special thanks goes out to Scot Ehrhardt, Sam and Megan’s teacher, who was instrumental in getting Laura and Emily into the classroom and encouraging his students to write, not only about this experience, but about all experiences. We thank Sam and Megan for getting Laura Shovan to open up her journal and give us all a peek inside: we’ve been so curious to get a glimpse of her genius at work!

Jane Austen Celebrated at Goucher

Every once in a while, we learn of something extraordinary right in our backyard. Such is the case with Goucher College’s collection of Jane Austen’s original materials. LPR Contributor Kris Faatz visited with Dr. Juliette Wells in April 2015 to talk about this superb find.

Jane Austen, born in 1775, lived only 41 years. Her parents raised their children to be literate and creative, sending both their daughters, for a time, to boarding school. Austen published anonymously and three of her novels received critical acclaim immediately. Her brother Henry disclosed her identity after she died in 1817, and Austen’s popularity began to soar.

Jane Austen, 1775-1817.
Jane Austen, 1775-1817.

Jane Austen always knew what she wanted. She grew up in an era when young women learned how to paint, dance, write and play music mostly to use those skills as bargaining chips in husband-hunting. Unlike many of her peers, Austen committed herself to serious artistic work at an early age. She wanted to be a writer, and she was lucky enough to have the support of her family: her father’s work as a clergyman meant that young Jane had access to books, and her brothers were able to support her financially as she steered clear of a woman’s usual role as wife and mother. All her life, she stayed close to home and looked out at a small slice of the world, but her keen observation and sense of humor helped her to draw portraits of people and places that still touch readers two centuries after her death.

Towson’s Goucher College celebrates Austen’s life and work with an extraordinary collection of source materials, early published editions and translations. The College Library’s special collections offer a feast for Austen fans, scholars and new initiates alike. Dr. Juliette Wells, Chair of Goucher’s English Department, specializes in Austen and recently sat down with the Little Patuxent Review’s contributor to talk about the collection and her own research into Austen’s life and writing.

Dr. Wells didn’t plan to become an Austen specialist. She did her undergraduate work at Johns Hopkins and Peabody, receiving dual Bachelor’s degrees in English and music. At Yale, where she did her doctoral studies, she focused on eighteenth and nineteenth century women’s literature. Her work in music gave her an interest in how women writers portrayed feminine artistic accomplishment in their books. She looked at female characters drawn by Austen, Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot, and also looked at the influence the arts had in the lives of all three of those writers. All of them were artistically talented in other areas; Austen and Eliot as musicians, Brontë as a painter (Brontë in fact wanted to be a professional painter, but only her brother received formal training). Dr. Wells became interested particularly in what Austen’s work said about education for middle- and upper-class women. Women’s education during that period had controversial undertones; it wasn’t considered entirely appropriate, except as a way to impress men.

When Dr. Wells began teaching, one of her first classes was a seminar on Austen in popular culture. She found that her students connected especially with film adaptations of Austen, and she was interested in how feminine accomplishment translated onto the screen. Women worked hard to develop their artistic talents. The smooth veneer of a polite upper-class life hid an intense element of tension and competition that audiences understood. Dr. Wells saw her students engaging with the films and with modern interpretations of Austen and saw the excitement and sense of connection Austen’s work inspired. She decided to dig more deeply and find out what about Austen’s work makes it so compelling to readers today.

Chawton Cottage, Jane Austen House Museum, Hampshire, England.
Chawton Cottage, Jane Austen House Museum, Hampshire, England.

She became involved with the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), a group for scholars and enthusiasts alike, and received a fellowship for a month-long visit to the Jane Austen House in Chawton, England. Now a museum, the Austen House was Austen’s residence from 1809 until her death in 1817. The security and stability of her life during that time gave her the freedom to write prolifically. Dr. Wells interviewed visitors to the Austen House to find out why they had come to see it. Some were casual tourists, but many were enthusiastic Austen readers. Visitors of all ages, from all over the world, told Dr. Wells how much Austen had inspired them: “Jane Austen is my hero.”

Dr. Wells also received a fellowship from Goucher and spent 2009-2010 as the college’s Austen scholar-in-residence. She researched the college’s Austen collection and the story of the woman who had compiled it, Alberta Hirscheimer Burke, who attended Goucher as a student from 1924-1928. Burke and her husband Henry visited London in 1930, shortly after the first Austen bibliography was published, and visited Charing Cross bookstores to start collecting first editions. From 1930 until her death in 1975, Alberta collected not only early printings of Austen’s books, but also personal Austen correspondence, her own correspondence with book dealers, and translations of the books. The translations in particular set Burke’s collection apart from others; no one else had started gathering those. Burke also developed her own particular interest: immersing herself in Austen’s world. She researched and collected period magazines and books that featured hand-colored illustrations of private homes and the clothing of the period. Those original materials are still available in Goucher’s Austen collection. Students and enthusiasts can explore them and get an insider view of Austen’s life and times.

It’s clear that Alberta always planned to build an enduring Austen collection, because as early as 1935 she wrote to Goucher and offered the college her materials in the event of her death. In spite of that, she never reached out to scholars or wanted to be recognized as one herself. She was very private and kept her research to herself, creating her own field of study and becoming an expert in it. She knew that scholars in her time wouldn’t be interested in the broader historical perspective on Austen’s life. Scholarship has only started to move in that direction recently. She never had formal training in putting a collection together or cataloguing it, but Goucher’s collection is now recognized as one of the finest Austen resources available. The private Austen correspondence that Alberta collected is now part of the Pierpont Morgan collection in New York, and is considered the best private collection outside the Austen family.

Visitors are encouraged to come and explore Goucher’s Austen collection for themselves. The library welcomes specialists, fans, students and new Austen readers alike. In August 2015 the library will run a special exhibit of the Alberta Burke collection, which will be open to the public through the 2015-2016 academic year. To learn more about the exhibit and other public events, or to learn about scheduling an appointment to visit the collection, visit www.goucher.edu/specialcollections.

Concerning Craft: Five Ways of Considering Craft

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.

Steven Coughlin
Steven Coughlin. Photo by Brian Kellett.

Please meet poet and essayist, Steven Coughlin, whose flash fiction “The Next 32 Years” will appear in our upcoming Summer 2015 Issue. Steven is an Assistant Professor of English at Chadron State College in Nebraska. His book of poetry, Another City, finalist for the FutureCycle Poetry Book Prize, will be published this summer by FutureCycle Press. And now, Steven Coughlin:

  1. “Don’t ever waste your life in a factory.”—John Coughlin

Boston Gear still exists. In the early 1990s the company relocated from Massachusetts to North Carolina. Employees were given the option of uprooting their families or unemployment. My father chose unemployment.

Boston Gear
Boston Gear

He had worked at Boston Gear since dropping out of high school a month before graduation. During his 32 years of employment my father got married, bought a house, and started a family. He also became an alcoholic, battled depression, lost his oldest son to an unsolved murder, and watched as his marriage became months of silence.

It would not be logical to blame Boston Gear for my father’s struggles. Where else would a man without a high school diploma be able to support a family? But I remember those sixty hour workweeks—all that overtime to pay bills already months late.

When I was ten my father took me for a tour of his factory. I remember looking up at several stories of red-brown brick. We climbed eight flights of stairs before my father finally led me to his machine. He pulled a lever. We watched the machine warm up. We watched it spit out a 1/4 inch gear—then another and another. And we just kept watching, not sure what else to do.

  1. “The lyric essay partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language. It partakes of the essay in its weight, in its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form.”—Deborah Tall and John D’Agata

I was taking a graduate seminar at the University of Idaho. I had never heard of John D’Agata but we read an anthology he edited, The Next American Essay, a collection of lyric essays. The teacher was Kim Barnes. She also assigned Abigail Thomas’ memoir Safekeeping. The book is constructed as a series of vignettes, each chapter no longer than a couple hundred words. Instead of following a linear sequence, Thomas organizes her memoir like memory: chapters arranged by association, not chronology. Emphasizing memory as the primary recorder of truth is a concept that stuck. So did our class discussion on Thomas’ use of parataxis: writing in short, clear sentences.

In truth, everything about that class stuck.

  1. “Masters’ conceptual framework for [Spoon River Anthology] was as startling to American readers of the time as was his form—a blunt free verse considered graceless by many of his critics.”—May Swenson

I have been reading Spoon River Anthology for fifteen years. It’s a collection of poems I keep returning to. First, there’s Edgar Lee Masters’ unsparing realism. Here’s an excerpt from “Minerva Jones”:

I am Minerva, the village poetess,
Hooted at, jeered at by the Yahoos of the street
For my heavy body, cock-eye, and rolling walk,
And all the more when “Butch” Weldy
Captured me after a brutal hunt.
He left me to my fate with Doctor Meyers;
And I sank into death, growing numb from the feet up,
Like one stepping deeper and deeper into a stream of ice.

There’s also Masters’ use of monologue. The collection consists of 244 voices—each with their own contradictory perception of truth.

I often have my students read selections from Spoon River. I try to make them love it. I make grandiose claims. I say, “Besides Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, there’s not a more important collection of American poetry.”

  1. “You should write a memoir.”

Joe Wilkins (author of the terrific memoir The Mountain and the Fathers) said this about six months ago.

“I write poems,” I thought. “I could never sustain my voice.”

Instead I tried to write a lyric essay but had no idea where to start. For an entire week I stared at my empty notebook. I drank coffee and sighed deeply.

  1. The Next 32 Years

Then, a few months ago, I rediscovered Bruce Springsteen’s “Factory.” It’s a two-minute deep cut from Darkness on the Edge of Town. With standouts on the album like “Badlands” and “The Promised Land,” for years I paid little attention to “Factory.” But there I was, December 2014, driving around the Great Plains, a landscape I had moved to for a tenure track job that fall, listening: Through the mansions of fear, through the mansions of pain / I see my daddy walking through them factory gates in the rain. It’s a barren, at times hopeless landscape, and I couldn’t stop replaying the song: End of the day, factory whistle cries / Men walk through these gates with death in their eyes. I was driving one gravel road after another only passing the occasional failed town: a few shops abandoned decades ago; houses falling further into ruin. I kept thinking about my new job. I kept thinking about my father and his 1/4 inch gear machine. It felt like I was never going to escape.

 

Seizing Each Moment for Change

When artist Matthew Rice — professionally known as Mateo Blu — was in second grade, he dropped out of school to become a street corner pusher. His drug of choice was candy and he made a mint before his mother caught wind of his escapade. She promptly enrolled him in another school. This was one of many stories Rice told me during our time together this past January, but it was his first question to me which seemed a true testament to his character.

“How’s your son? Is he keeping up with his artwork?” Rice asked me, pulling away from our welcome hug.

We met at the Eubie Blake Cultural Center in downtown Baltimore so I could view an exhibition of Rice’s work. He’s an imposing figure who stands at six foot four, head smoothly shaven. The gray sweats and basketball sneakers he wore were paint-splattered. Even his fingernails showed evidence of recent work.

Matthew Rice with his urban monoliths.
Matthew Rice with his urban monoliths.

Rice and I had met twice before. The second time, my son, who is an artist and also on the autism spectrum, brought his art portfolio along to share with Rice. Although hundreds of people were present and Rice was selling his work, he took time to focus solely on my son and that portfolio, giving advice and encouragement. That memorable interaction set him apart, and I wanted to learn more about him.

The Eubie Blake Cultural Center on North Howard Street might be missed if one wasn’t looking for it. Trash blows along the gutters on the backside of the University of Maryland’s medical school, and the wide avenue is bisected by light rail tracks. Inside, one is greeted with a warm welcome by a man wearing a muted dashiki. The space is divided into two major areas: to the right, a collection of Jazz-era memorabilia and to the left, gallery space.

Close-up detail of one of Mateo Blu's pieces.
Close-up detail of one of Mateo Blu’s pieces.

Rice urged me to look around the gallery while he and his assistant begin taking inventory. The show, twice extended, ended the next day and Rice had to select pieces to be shipped to Arizona for the Smocks & Jocks fundraising event to benefit the NFL Players Association. He selected four or five pieces, one of which was titled, “Breaking Through,” acrylic on canvas, 2012.

The gallery, well lit with a combination of natural and track lighting, had an old warehouse feel to it. The wide-plank wood floors were honeyed with age. On the walls of two rooms, Rice’s paintings hung in vivid hues of royal blue, shocking orange and stark white contrasted against black and shades of gray. Monolithic traffic cones festooned with modern hieroglyphics stood in the middle of the main gallery.

"Seizure" by Mateo Blu.
Mateo Blu, “Seizure,” oil on canvas.

We sat down together, near his painting called, “Seizure.”

“I got kicked out of every school I ever attended,” Rice began, his dark eyes downcast. “Teachers told me I was stupid. They kept trying to put me into special ed where I didn’t belong.”

As Rice recounted his story, he stared at the ground, his giant hands folded between his knees. Most everything he learned in those early years, from reading to multiplication tables, was self-taught. “I wanted to be an engineer, but I was terrible at math.”

Rice, who was born in 1982, lived with his family in East Baltimore. His early years were turbulent, a combination of school troubles and neighborhood challenges. The Rice family was loving and deeply spiritual, but what further separated Matthew from his peers was the talent he displayed on the football field.

“I was one of the lucky ones. My family moved to Prince George’s County [MD] for my last two years of high school where I played football for Eleanor Roosevelt High.”A charter school, Roosevelt focused on academics, and he had to prove his worthiness there. Rice credits this move for putting him in a position to attract a collegiate scholarship to play for Penn State University, where athletics took a backseat to academics.

But the shift from the inner city atmosphere to the farmlands of central Pennsylvania was a culture shock – in more ways than one. For the first time, he found a place where he could – and did – thrive, academically and artistically. When Matthew graduated from Penn State in 2005, he did so with dual majors in Integrative Arts and African American History. From there, he was drafted and spent several years in the NFL before being sidelined with a career-ending, but life-saving, injury. A brain tumor was successfully removed, but Matthew still deals daily with its results: epileptic seizures.

LPR: You attended Baltimore City schools in the 80s and 90s, as a struggling student. What was that like?

MR: I knew I could learn, but I couldn’t do it the way they wanted me to. The overall mentality of the city school system didn’t prepare me to be global contributor or set me up for success. They thought I was stupid. I acted out. I basically taught myself.

LPR: Well, clearly you must be smart. [Baltimore Colt and Hall of Famer] Lydell Mitchell says that you have to be smart in the classroom to be smart on the football field. What was it like for you to go from this place where you felt like you were stupid to rigors of Penn State?

MR: Moving from Maryland to Happy Valley, that was surreal. All that studying after a hard day’s practice. Joe [Paterno] didn’t recruit dummies. For the first time, I started to think maybe I just learned differently. I’d taught myself for so long, but at college I didn’t have to do that.

LPR: Tell me a little more about your college experience.

MR: I chose to stay at Penn State during the summers rather than go home so I wouldn’t get into trouble. Studying African American history, I became of student of American history, and of life. Also, for the first time, I didn’t have to borrow paper when I wanted to draw. I had access to art supplies. I didn’t want to leave that!

LPR: As a senior, you had your artwork selected for the football season calendar, which got a wide distribution.

MR: [Penn State Director of Branding & Communications] Guido [D’Elio] saw what I could do and made my piece “Bluprint” the poster for the 2005 season. That was cool.

LPR: Let’s fast forward. You’re in the NFL, you get injured and and hear that you have a brain tumor.

MR: That was hard. Saved my life. It’s like I finally could grow and learn to be myself.

LPR: Do you miss playing football?

MR: I miss the lifestyle. And the fun. I enjoyed tackling, hearing the crowds cheering. Being on the field, you feel a thrumming in your body.

LPR: What do you miss most?

MR: (A grin spreads across his face) When I played in the NFL, I had a personal chef. He would come in every other week and plan my menus with me. My refrigerator and freezer would be full of healthy things I liked to eat, so I was never hungry. Man, this is some kind of therapy session.

LPR: Don’t worry, there’s no charge. I’m fascinated by your work, which is like Stuart Davis meets street art. You often use dollar symbols and dates in your work. Are these significant?

MR: Yes, the dollar signs are me making a societal statement about money. Instead of people seeing it for the tool that it is, most people view it almost as a religion of sorts. We need it, but we don’t need to be owned by it. And the dates represent important events to me. For example, in “Focus” two of the dates are when my brother was incarcerated and then when he was released.

LPR: And the tally marks? They’re included in nearly every work.

MR: They represent the number of seizures I had while working on that particular piece. At first, I did it unconsciously so I could just keep track, and then it just became a thing.

LPR: Do you have a particular artists work you admire?

MR: God is the greatest artist of all, but Roy Lichtenstein was the inspiration for my mural work in Lubbock and Tuscaloosa. I like Aaron Maybin, who was also a [Penn State] teammate. [Aaron Maybin was a 2006 graduate from Mount Hebron High School in Ellicott City, MD.]

LPR: How about inspiration?

MR: My mother, my father, my family. God. They all inspire me. My mother, in particular, is my hero. She battled breast cancer twice while I was at Penn State and she struggles with kidney disease now. She’s a strong woman, a teacher who will speak candidly about problems. I take a long view of life, and her challenges give a whole different hue and meaning to me.

LPR: After all you’ve been through and continue to experience, you choose to stay in Baltimore. Why?

MR: I want to draw attention to the city, especially to the kids and the educational challenges. I want to produce work and affect positive change before my time [on earth] is done.

LPR: How would you like to affect change?

MR: I escaped poverty and ignorance, some by teaching myself, some by my talents. I want to help lift others up. Especially kids. I want them to have someone who believes in them and helps them believe in themselves. Through my foundation, I visit schools to teach art and hold classes.

LPR: Kids need positive role models, and your story of overcoming adversity is a wonderful example. I’ve heard that some artists have a hard time parting with their original work, feeling like it’s never really finished. Is that true for you?

MR: I have hundreds of pieces, many in series. But I do sell originals – I like to eat! There are the murals, plus many are in private collections, or at businesses, both in the states and in Europe.

LPR: Have you have a favorite piece?

MR: I haven’t created it yet.

Online Editor’s Note: Matthew Rice can be followed on Twitter at @MateoBlu and more of his artwork can be viewed at www.mateoblu.com.

 

 

Enoch Pratt + LPR = “Sole” mates

When Shaileen Beyer of the Enoch Pratt Free Library contacted Little Patuxent Review to inquire if we’d be interested in partnering for a third year on a statewide poetry contest, we agreed without hesitation.

Inga Lea Schmidt (Photo by: Shannon Finnell).
Inga Lea Schmidt (Photo by: Shannon Finnell).

By the time the contest concluded on March 1, nearly 250 entries from 93 cities and towns, representing 17 counties plus Baltimore City, were submitted in the blind contest. Little Patuxent Review editor Steven Leyva, LPR poetry editor Laura Shovan and LPR poetry readers Evan Lasavoy and Patricia VanAmberg judged the poems. Although they chose three finalists, all of whom will appear in our Summer 2015 issue, “Sole” by Inga Lea Schmidt was the winning poem.

I asked the judges what made this poem a stand out. Patricia, who is also an English professor at Howard Community College, said:

Playful wording of the poem “Sole” appeals in many ways: The first of these is vivid and specific imagery—all the way from a fish that “looks like a tongue”—to the solitary cup of coffee. Consistent themes of loneliness/flatness ensure that the diverse meanings of the word “sole” bond coherently. Sound devices like the judicious alliteration of S (solitary—seven—seconds) enhance the flow. Finally, the poem is well crafted with effective line breaks and transition.

Evan added:

“Sole” is a clever poem that doesn’t get caught up in its own cleverness, doesn’t get smug about it. While it’s structured like a dictionary definition, it reads like a plain spoken explanation. This allows the poet room to explore beyond the strict meaning of the word, to wander off on tangents right from the beginning that open the poem up and give it room to reach out beyond itself. It was the simple, yet compelling, voice of “Sole” that first struck me; its movement and nuance won me.

Inga shared her own thoughts about “Sole.”

I love when poems veer off course. With the first few lines you have a pretty good idea of where the whole thing is headed, you know exactly what you’re looking at, and then it happens: a turn. It can be subtle at first, but soon the poem is turning and twisting away from you and before you know it, you are so far from where you started.

This is the effect I wanted to achieve with “Sole,” which was inspired by Phillis Levin’s beautiful “Part,” another poem that breaks down the definition of a word. I began with the structure of a dictionary entry, straightforward and dry, then gradually introduced bits of myself and what the word “sole” means to me personally. I liked the idea of something so clinical — a dictionary definition — becoming something revealing and human. The flatfish turns to feet, turns to solitaire, turns to intimate feelings of isolation and unsettlement. I hope when readers finish the poem, they feel they are far from where they started.

“Sole” can be seen on display in Enoch Pratt Free Library’s front windows starting next week. On Saturday, May 2 during the CityLit Festival, please join us at the Little Patuxent Review session in the Poe Room (11 to 11:45 am) where Inga will read “Sole.” In addition LPR editors Ann Bracken and Steven Leyva will joined by contest finalists James Carroll (“Nick’s Diner”) and Micia White (“Rest Stop”).

Enoch Pratt Free Library Poetry Contest Winner:

SOLE

By Inga Lea Schmidt

Sole: a flatfish,

small fins, small eyes,

small mouth, it looks

like a tongue. Also

a shoe’s solid base or

the undersurface of a foot,

a calloused pillar where

the weight of a person

is carried, where the one hundred

and forty eight pounds of

blood and bone and brain

and too much thought and fear

rest. An adjective:

having no companion: solitary.

A card game I can win

in two minutes and

seven seconds. From the French

seul, meaning only, as in,

being the only one, as in,

am I the only one? Sole:

having no sharer. Sharing

with no one. Use it in

a sentence: I make a sole cup

of coffee, sit at the window,

and wait.

Online Editor’s Note: Inga Lea Schmidt is a poet and fiction writer living in Baltimore. Her work has appeared in Off the Coast, Puerto del Sol, and Best Indie Lit of New England, and, in 2013, she received the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ Intro Journals Project Award. When she isn’t writing, Inga works as a mediator resolving conflicts in Baltimore prisons. In the fall, she will begin an MFA program in Creative Writing at Hollins University.

To learn more about how the collaboration between LPR and the Enoch Pratt began read “Meet the Neighbors: Enoch Pratt Free Library.” 

Concerning Craft: Ten Ways to Sabotage Your Writing

With all the top ten lists floating around and their cheery “how to succeed” mantras, I thought it might be interesting to take a contrary view. Using John Dufresne‘s “Ten Commandments of Writing” as a launchpad, here’s a twist:

  1. shutterstock_118595482Don’t back up your work. After all, you’ve never lost anything before.
  2. Use passive voice and exposition. Exclusively.
  3. Choose laundry and errands over your writing time.
  4. Make characters arbitrary.
  5. Be obscure (do you know what I mean?).
  6. Spell everything out for your reader, in detail, with stage direction.
  7. Never read anything else. Ever.
  8. Submit early and often. Especially your first drafts. Include as many tpyos as possible.
  9. Only cheerful stories with happy endings are worth sharing.
  10. Kill off your characters at random.

It’s true confession time. How do you either follow John Dufresne’s Ten Commandments  or sabotage your success? Your secret is safe with us.

Online Editor’s Note: John Dufresne’s list, and so much more, can be found in his book, The Lie That Tells A Truth

Poetry Panic

nationalpoetrymonth-2358It’s April. National Poetry Month. First a confession: until recently, my limited exposure to poetry dated back to high school, where we focused on the classics —Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Shakespeare. Back then I even tried my own hand at writing poetry. What came forth was the typical angst-ridden teenage rants and love schemes with forced rhyming patterns. They’ll be perfect someday for inclusion in a Drivel-like expose.  My acknowledged later love for Robert Burns (Ode to a Haggis) evolved from a developed interest in genealogy and Scottish heritage. A month ago, I didn’t know a pantoum from a poetaster (though I admitted relief at not seeing my photo next to the latter for the aforementioned crimes against humanity).

Since assuming the role of online editor of Little Patuxent Review, I’ve come to realize just how lush the Mid-Atlantic region is with poetry readings and literary talent. If one wanted, one might attend every week, in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, a poetry reading, hosted at places like LitMore, Spiral Staircase, Busboys and Poets, to name only a few.

About a month ago, I attended a Spiral Staircase event in Annapolis where LPR contributing editor Ann Bracken read from her book The Altar of Innocence. She was one of two featured readers that evening. Leading up to the headliners were dozens of local poets, each of whom stepped up to the open microphone and read or recited his work before the audience, which threatened to overflow into the parking lot. Poets ranged from high schoolers to pensioners, and hit every demographic. Some wore pocket protectors, while others oozed beatnik cool. Topics made listeners swoon, gasp, cringe, and laugh. I sat in awe of the collective courage to openly share intimate words combined with the community’s warmth as each piece was embraced.

Seated just behind me were two rock stars in the poetry world: Grace Cavalieri and Le Hinton. Seated just next to me, the reason I’m writing this post: Laura Shovan (she recommended me for the online position). Submerging myself into their world felt like sinking into a lavender scented bubble bath after a long day. Never before have I felt so welcomed into a community.

I lamented to Laura later that evening on the ride home, “I’m surrounded by poets, and yet feel I utterly lacking in my knowledge of the subject. How did this happen?” She assured me I wasn’t alone and my ignorance curable.

Not one to shy away from learning, I threw myself into the task of filling in my educational gaps. I subscribed to Poetry, the oldest literary journal dedicated to verse, begun in 1912 by Harriet Monroe (might she be a distant relative of my Munro clan? I wonder in brief). I began to read poetry blogs, like AuthorAmok and Anthony Wilson, and paid attention to Aaron Henkin on WYPR’s “The Signal” as he interviews LPR contributor Michael Salcman. Naturally, I had to listen to Grace Cavalieri on her Library of Congress radio show, The Poet and The Poem. I studied Howard County’s own lost treasure Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me.”

I noticed that poets hid in plain sight. By day, they were geographers, neurosurgeons, army captains, teachers, professors, journalists, pilots. Yet they had in common a deep need to share their experiences with language so haunting, so beautiful that it stops us in our tracks. If we stop for just a moment and listen, what we hear might will forever change us.

When did poetry become so cool? Because that’s what it is. One of the poets who read at the Spiral Staircase event said —  and I’m paraphrasing here — poetry carries with it peace and love. As I reflect on that evening, here’s what the room was filled with: a community who came together from all walks of life to share words, thoughts and ideas over a common platform. The collective embrace felt palatable, uplifting, especially to this observer, a writer of prose. That’s just about as cool as it gets, pocket protectors not-withstanding.

Words — carefully selected, linked together, rhyming or not, with emphasis placed on syllables, drawn out for effect — matter.  You, too, can delve into Little Patuxent Review’s rich archives to listen to Clarinda Harris read, “Locust Songs” at a LPR launch and Little Patuxent Review panelists reading their poetry at the 2011 Baltimore Book Festival. Comb through the pages of the journal and find Anne Harding Woodworth and Kelli Stevens Kane poems. You’ll be glad you did.

Who knows, someday, somewhere you might even read a poem written by me.

 

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.

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