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, www.theredmargins.com, 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.

The Emma Project

Dr. Juliette Wells

Dr. Juliette Wells

Dr. Juliette Wells, Chair of the English department at Goucher College and resident Jane Austen specialist, has a strong interest both in Austen’s writing and in the broader context of her life and times. Dr. Wells also remains fascinated with Austen’s continuing influence on modern readers and writers. In 2012 she published her first book, Everybody’s Jane, which includes her research on the Alberta Burke Austen collection at Goucher and her experiences at the Austen House (detailed in the post of May 8), and explores Austen’s presence in popular culture. When she began teaching at Goucher as an assistant professor in 2011, Dr. Wells also made it a goal to help build the Austen collection and make it more publicly known. The collection now includes modern retellings of Austen books and spinoffs, such as a mystery series with Austen as a detective and the popular fan-fiction sequels to Pride and Prejudice. Academics tend to be hostile toward these modern interpretations, but Dr. Wells sees young readers engaging with them, and through them, with the originals.

Dr. Wells thinks readers love Austen because of both Austen’s writing style and her personal life. The world she creates in her books looks peaceful and ordered. Her good characters marry the right people and her bad characters get disappointed. Though Austen herself never married, she uses happy marriages as the traditional ending to comedy. The personal relationships she shows in her books also resonate with readers. Siblings are very close with each other (Jane and Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility), while parent-child relationships tend to be dysfunctional (the Bennet parents, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park). In her personal life, Austen’s determination to be a serious artist makes her inspiring to many readers, especially women. She comes across as a confident writer, and in her personal correspondence she is strong and certain, in contrast with other women artists (like Charlotte Brontë) who focused on the frustrations and limitations of their lives. Austen also had limited formal schooling and had to develop the skills she had, another part of her personal history that inspires readers.

For new Austen readers, Dr. Wells often recommends Pride and Prejudice as a starting point: it’s one of Austen’s most familiar books, with two strong movie adaptations, and is also one of the funniest. Dr. Wells is also bringing out her own new edition of Emma, which will be published this fall as part of the Penguin Classics series. Dr. Wells sees Emma as Austen’s greatest novel, because it does so much with minimal material. The whole story takes place in one small town (Highbury), and the plot hinges on mystery and the intrigue caused by strangers coming into a tight-knit community. The main character, Emma Woodhouse, has a wonderfully skewed take on herself and her world. It’s both funny and moving to watch her open her eyes to reality. Dr. Wells’s edition of Emma has first-time Austen readers in mind and features a new introduction, contextual notes on Austen’s time and place and a new glossary.

Emma was also the only one of Austen’s books to have a U.S. printing in her lifetime. The first American edition of Emma came out in 1816. The Goucher library is currently working on a digitization of this extremely rare Philadelphia edition, which will be live online in 2016 to celebrate the book’s bicentennial. Visitors to the site will be able to see a page-by-page view of the book and take part in an interactive online exploration. To learn more about this project, visit www.goucher.edu/emmainamerica.

Online Editor’s Note: On Tuesday, November 3, 2015, Goucher will also host a lecture by writer Alexander McCall Smith. Smith is writing a modern version of Emma commissioned by HarperCollins as part of a series of modern Austen adaptations. HarperCollins currently has modern takes on Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility also available.

It’s No Myth: LPR Announces Guest Editor for Winter 2016 Issue

When the Winter 2016 theme of Myth was announced to the LPR staff, I felt a flutter of possibility ripple through my body. I’d just returned from Italy, having done my fair share of cavorting before various Roman temples, and my mind immediately turned to the Medusa myth. As my eldest son tells it, Athena came upon Zeus “getting funky” with Medusa in Athena’s temple. Athena cursed Medusa, hence the snakey locks and turning-people-to-stone thing. Myths take all forms. They are a collected body of stories, told to explain nature, history and customs. Myths occur in every culture. Remember the urban legend of Mikey and Pop Rocks? Thank goodness for Snopes, who confirmed my theory that Mikey lives. (In my home, we’ve got our own faux version of Snopes called reliablesource.com, to which we “refer” whenever some outlandish story is told at the dinner table.)

Patricia VanAmberg, June 2015.

Patricia VanAmburg, June 2015.

When the LPR staff decided to invite a guest to edit our Winter 2016 Myth issue, our choice seemed clear-cut. Baltimore poet and writer Patricia VanAmburg balances literary credentials with scholarly training in classic myths. Lucky for us, Patricia is as excited about the intersections between myth and literature as we are.

Here is guest editor Patricia VanAmburg, to tell us more about her thoughts about LPR’s Myth issue.

I have been a writer/poet since the moment I learned the alphabet. I have been a teacher for most of my adult life. My favorite class has always been world literature because I marvel at the diversity and sameness of its stories—especially those of the ancient world.

One of the defining moments of my life was my introduction, by Maryland poet Edgar Silex, to the Sumerian myth of Inanna. I had been teaching the Sumerian epic Gilgamesh (c. 3000 B.C.E.) for many years before I first read the Inanna text of the same era, a story in which the female hero takes an inward, spiritual journey. Immediately, I started a library of mythology which expanded to archeology because I loved the visual symbols that went with the earliest texts.

This is how I learned about the work of archeologist Marija Gimbutus, who claimed that millions of small prehistoric figurines were evidence of a very early mother goddess worship. A seminar on Gimbutus’ findings in the early 1990s provided my first trek in search of ancient artifact. Soon after, I travelled through Turkey (the Greek/Roman ruins at Ephesus) and the Greek Islands gathering material for a course I would teach at Howard Community College titled Ariadne’s Thread: the link between the images of prehistory and classic Greek Myth.

Patricia VanAmberg on Cyprus.

Patricia VanAmburg on Cyprus.

Later in 2004 and 2006, I arranged student/faculty trips to Greece and Crete. In Athens, we visited museums and ruins including those of the Acropolis and the ancient Agora. On Crete, we saw the ruins of palaces (c. 1600 B.C.E.) at both Knossos and Phaestos and the archeological museum of Herakleion with its wonderful bulls and snake goddesses. We also visited Mycenaea in the Peloponnese, and the ruins of Apollo’s temple at Delphi. Some of these travels will be featured in a slide presentation for the 2015-16 LPR Salon Series.

Aphrodite's birth place

Aphrodite’s birth place

More recently, I have searched for stories and ruins in Italy, France, Brittany, Vienna and Cyprus. In Vienna, I sought the tiny fertility figurine named goddess or woman of Willendorf. On Cyprus, I was searching Aphrodite—sometimes called Cyprus by the Greeks because of her rumored birth amidst sea rocks of that island. I have seen the very place from which the legend sprang, as well as, the temple ruins of Paphos and the wonderful museum of prehistory at Nicosia.

I can tell you that the Aphrodite of Cyprus has more in common with the Sumerian goddess Inanna than than she has with the Venus of classical myth and western art. As a fertility goddess, she also has something in common with both Willendorf and the Greek kore Persephone. It is all about season—season of place and seasons of life—cycles and lapses:

Some Mythic Lapses
by Patricia VanAmburg

Visions of Demeter dangling
darling Demaphon in the fire
causes his startled mother
to lose her faith in the gods.

Metira’s startling lack of vision
causes disappointed Demeter
to turn heels on earth and
lose her faith in humanity.

Envisioning mother burnout
human and divine
causes darling Demaphon
to lose his immortality.

A lovely vision in flame
Persephone awaits Demeter
eats three seeds and
forgets about spring.

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

Excerpts from “Shards of Blue”

"Shards of Blue" by Michael Ratcliffe

“Shards of Blue” by Michael Ratcliffe

Last Friday’s post was an interview with geographer and poet Michael Ratcliffe, whose chapbook, Shards of Blue, will be published Aug. 21 by Finishing Line Press. As a special preview, Michael has agreed to share a couple of poems with Little Patuxent Review readers.

John and Mary, Smith County, Kansas, 1882, just before Mary’s death.

He sits beside her bed,
a prairie of silence between them,
watching her as she sleeps,
gray-streaked hair down,
loose across her shoulders
(the way he always liked it)
framing her face, tanned even in winter.

He has overcome distance,
but cannot conquer time.
The space of years bears the silence;
the words he wanted to say
carried off by the prairie wind
during the ride to her house.
He is glad she sleeps.

He takes a glass from his pocket
and places it on the table next to her bed.
Once one of a pair; now alone,
the other broken years ago.

So he sits, watching, while she sleeps.
With each faltering breath of hers,
and each expectant breath of his,
the silence deepens and closes
the space between them.
Time stops in the fading afternoon.
They are together again.

The sons arrive at her door to break the silence.
Pa, it’s time to go. We’ll take you home.

The fading sun glints off the glass
and casts a pale blue light across her face.
She will not thirst again.

Mary, Smith County, Kansas, 1877

Look at you now, broken and bitter,
no spark of the free-soil radical
who, “Beecher Bible” in hand, led us here.
Your dark eyes that once burned with life
now see only shadows.

When you went to war to free the slaves,
grand on your horse like the other men,
you said you’d be fine, and I cried.
You said you’d come home soon,
but you came home changed.
The pain from your wounds paled
to the pain in your heart,
and as the years went by
you sank into darkness,
forsook the vows you made to me,
and I decided I was done with you.

Look at me, sunburnt and hard
from years working our farm.
Here I am, pushing my plow
on my quarter section of western Kansas.
The boys rarely speak of you.
This is our life now,
amid the cottonwoods and the shallow creeks.
And you, alone in your bitter world.
Gene and John said they’ll look in on you.

But don’t come here and darken my world,
for I plan to turn this prairie green.

Online Editor’s Note: Michael’s chapbook, Shards of Blue, is available for pre-order from Finishing Line Press, with shipment expected August. 21, 2015.

Voices of his past: An Interview with Michael Ratcliffe

Michael Ratcliffe

Michael Ratcliffe, 2015.

Mike Ratcliffe is the kind of man one loves to spend the afternoon with, whether biking or hiking the rolling hills of Central Maryland or – as in my case – meeting over coffee, grown cold, as we discussed everything from poetry to how people identify with place. His bottle brush hair, brown, is shot with gray as is his goatee. Smile lines frame both his piecing blue eyes and his wide mouth. It’s easy to feel comfortable in his company, and sink into the depths of weighty conversation.

Born in 1962, Mike grew up keenly interested in people. He graduated from University of Maryland with a degree in geography before heading to Oxford to earn a master’s degree at St. Antony’s College. His day job as an Assistant Division Chief at the Census Bureau may seem at odds with his poetic leanings. But the intersection of people, landscape, and meaning – the backbone of geography – aligns perfectly with Mike’s love of words.

LPR Poetry Editor Laura Shovan introduced me to Mike via email several months ago, saying our shared interests in genealogy and history were two sure-fire conversation starters. Mike sent me a draft of his chapbook, along with links to his previously published works, and I devoured it all. An email correspondence began. We met in person one sunny Sunday in late April at a noisy, crowded coffee shop in Fulton, Maryland to talk about his forthcoming chapbook from Finishing Line Press, Shards of Blue, which is based upon his genealogical and historical research and focuses on two ancestors: John and Mary Ratcliff.

LPR: Which came first for you: interest in writing poetry or genealogy?

MR: Genealogy came first.  History has always been one of my favorite subjects.  One of my father’s uncles was very interested in genealogy and various items that he collected or prepared came into my father’s possession.  I can remember poring over those items as a kid.  But, for me, the interest has always been in connecting people in my family’s past to the eras in which they lived and trying to understand their lives as individuals.  I suppose that’s the social scientist in me.

The progression from genealogy to poetry, though, was not linear.  I wrote some poetry in high school and college; took a couple creative writing courses in college; and then wrote some poetry after college.  Looking back, it was rather mediocre poetry.  Apart from poems written for my wife and a few ditties here and there, I stopped writing poetry for about 15 years.  Poetry and genealogy came together, though, when I decided to write my family’s history in verse.  That idea of combining history and poetry came after reading a few of Rita Dove’s “Thomas and Beulah” poems.

LPR: You’ve said, “Growing up, I always thought of my family as a typical middle class, suburban family.  Nothing exciting.” After your research, you’ve found the opposite is true. What is your message to other poets, writers or researchers?

MR: We tend to focus on big events, important individuals and leaders, and we lose the longer view and all the other people, the “ordinary” individuals who participated in history.  History was not a few great people doing great things and pulling the rest of us along.  Everyone in the past was a participant in the creation of history, just as we are the contemporary participants in the creation of some future’s history.   Once we understand and approach history at that level, we – and people in our pasts – cease being ordinary.  Everyone has some sort of story to tell or be told.

So, what did I find?  My great-great grandmother, Mary Townsend Ratcliff, divorced her husband after 25 years of marriage and the births of seven sons, and took out her own 160-acre homestead in western Kansas.  She and John were part of a Quaker, Abolitionist community that moved to Kansas in 1854 — they didn’t just move west to farm, they moved west for a deliberate, politically and socially motivated reason— to keep slavery out of the Kansas territory.  I have Quaker ancestors in Virginia who lobbied the state legislature for religious freedom; Welsh Mormon ancestors who crossed the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains twice—first on their way to the Salt Lake Valley and then moving east to Kansas after they realized life in Utah was not according to the communalistic vision they had in Wales; and last, I learned recently that my grandmother—my mother’s mother—helped organize the union in the pickle cannery in which she worked—my petite (5-foot tall), soft-spoken, Southern grandmother.  That became the basis for my poem “Of Cobblers and Unions” (Deep South magazine, 2014).

LPR: You’ve said that you intended to chart your family’s history, but the more you learned the more the story took on a life of its own. Tell us more about this. At what point did you decide on whom to focus and that poetry would be your vehicle to tell these stories?

MR: Yes, I started with the idea that I’d cover all the generations, all the eras from at least the 1700s to the present.  Why 1700s?  There are fewer documents with which to work prior to then, so fewer story prompts, but more importantly, there is a complete break at 1739 when my g-g-g-g-g-grandfather, William Ratcliffe, was born.  His story is interesting and provided one of my starting points, both literally and literarily. He showed up in York and James City County records in the 1760s as William Heathan, William Hathan, and William Ratcliffe Hathan, first in a deed in which William Ratcliffe gave land to him out of “affection for him as his son” and then in a deed in which he gave land to the Quakers in Skimino, Virginia, on which to build a meetinghouse.  There was an entry in the Bruton Parish (Williamsburg) records about the birth of a William Haythorn, mother Mary, but no father listed, on the same date as that given for William Ratcliffe in Quaker records.  All of this led me to assume he was illegitimate (DNA testing confirmed that my DNA matches that of other Ratcliffe lines, so I and other researchers are certain he was not adopted).  Anyway, William Hathan/Heathan disappears from county records soon after receiving the land, but William Ratcliffe continued to appear in Quaker records.  All information across various documents led me and other researchers to conclude they refer the same person.

"Shards of Blue" by Michael Ratcliffe

“Shards of Blue” by Michael Ratcliffe

My vision was to cover all the generations in a series of poems called “The Skimino Cycle.”   About five years ago, though, I realized the bulk of the poems were focused on John and Mary, and that their story really was the more compelling story from a broader perspective.  That’s how I came to write Shards of Blue.

LPR: What are you trying to achieve with your chapbook Shards of Blue?

MR: I started off just wanting to tell John and Mary’s story.  Something to record their lives beyond pension, census records and scraps of family stories. When I would read poems from the series in public—especially those from Mary’s perspective—I found they resonated with people.  She was a strong woman—she had to be to divorce her husband and set off on her own at the age of 45, four young sons in tow.  People found things in various poems with which they could connect.  My sister, for instance, keeps a copy of “The Wheat Field” in her desk drawer.  This poem was one of the first that I wrote.  Mary is the speaker; she’s in the field on her farm in Smith County, plowing, and basically is unloading on John, who is not present.  The poem ends with her saying “but don’t come here with your darkness…I plan to turn this prairie green.”  It’s a statement of strength, which my sister, who had just gone through a divorce, found empowering.

LPR: Shards of Blue is a sad story in some ways, but there’s also a sense of strength, especially with Mary. You did such a great job showing us this, particularly in “The Wheat Field.” I think it makes us stop and take a look at our preconceptions about all women in the 19th century not having agency. They did have it in ways that women today may not even be aware of.

MR: There’s some fascinating history of women on the Great Plains on just their ability to take control of their lives. When I was researching, I spoke with colleagues who worked at the Minnesota Population Center, which has made lots of historical census data available. I was talking with them about divorce and also just interpreting historical census data. In the 1880 census records, Mary was listed as widowed —there was a “W” on the form. It was obviously wrong. There were a lot of inaccuracies in that census record for the family and they said it was possible that she was not the one answering the questions. And, as a census employee, I know that sometimes you can’t contact the resident so you get the information by proxy from a neighbor. But because in the past, enumerators interviewed residents and filled in the census form, it’s likely  that the enumerator interpreted her response incorrectly when writing it down. She may have said, “My husband’s not with me,” which could have been interpreted using the morals of the day as she’s widowed rather than divorced. The folks from Minnesota told me that in the 1880s western states and territories had the highest divorce rates, in part because women could take out their own homesteads. They had the ability to be financially independent, whereas in other areas, they didn’t have the same economic opportunities. Yes, farming is tough and extremely risky, but you could obtain your own land. And that’s what Mary did. She took out her own 160-acre homestead.

LPR: And she was successful.

MR: And she was successful. But had she been back east, she might have had to live in an unhappy marriage.

LPR: So they get divorced. Was John able to keep his homestead?

MR: No, they sold the farm in Marshall County as part of the divorce. He moved to Jewell County, Kansas, which is a little further west. I don’t know exactly what he was doing because he couldn’t do physical labor due to his wounds. He wasn’t farming. He eventually moves to Smith County, where Mary and most of their sons were living, and he bought land, which he then rented out. So in some of the Kansas census records, he’s listed as a landlord. In one, later on, he listed himself as a glasscutter, which had been his occupation in Wheeling before moving to Kansas. I don’t know if he went back to making glass or cutting glass. There are a lot of interesting anomalies with how he describes himself later on in life. He gets his age wrong in some of the pension letters. I don’t know exactly what was going on. He wasn’t old enough for Alzheimer’s, well — maybe he was. He was in his fifties or sixties by then, but there were no other indications that his mind was going. So I don’t know. He’s an interesting character. I found it fascinating that he identified himself as a glasscutter after so many years.

LPR: Maybe that’s what he really felt he was.

 MR: That’s why I kept that theme and the glass cutting theme going throughout the poems. Maybe he really saw that artist aspect to himself.

LPR: I think it’s beautiful — the whole imagery of the beveled edges, the sharpness, the rawness and the broken glass.

MR: With “The Glasscutter” (The Copperfield Review, 2015), I felt I needed something positive. I have another similar poem focused on Mary. I felt like I wanted to say something about their personal interests, their occupational interests, neither of which made it into the book due to limits on length. John’s glass cutting and the theme of glass came out in other poems, so I didn’t see the need to include “The Glasscutter.” With Mary, I see her more as a scientist but that doesn’t come through quite as much. Mary’s uncle was a surgeon in Wheeling. In 1850, John and Mary were living with her uncle, Dr. Thomas Townsend. He’s an interesting guy: a self-taught surgeon, well-known and well-respected in the Wheeling area. He was a Quaker, geologist, and botanist who had one of the best botany and geology specimen cabinets in the Wheeling area. He was a bachelor, who was often seen wandering around the mountains collecting things, and putting them in his hat to bring home. He had this reputation as an eccentric, but he was also part of the team that excavated the Grave Creek Mound, which was the first scientific archaeological excavation in the United States. In fact, he wrote the report. Here he is this all-round natural scientist and they’re living with him in 1850, and Mary is listed simply as “housekeeper” in the census records. I decided to go beyond the facts and imagine that she came to live with him to learn medicine and learn science. In the poem, “The Mountains were My Meetinghouse” Mary uses the Latin terms for the plants. I felt like that gave a nice juxtaposition with John, the artist, and Mary, the scientist. Her side I didn’t work up quite as much, but in building up the artistic side for John with the glass cutting helped to bevel his negative edge.

LPR: John coming back terribly wounded was tough. I did notice that you pulled in other voices, and in some cases, you didn’t include date markers. In some places you have dates and locations and sometimes you didn’t. Tell me about structure.

MR: The voices of other individuals add a little variety. In earlier drafts, I had a name, a date, and a location preceding each poem. I felt like that was a little too much structure, and a little unnecessary. So where the date wasn’t important, I removed it. It could be inferred based upon the placement of the poem. The poems are all chronological, except for the first one. Originally, the first poem, “Separated in Death, Even as in Life,” was actually last. As I worked through the drafts and dropped certain poems, I decided to move “Separated at Death” first to give the book a more contemporary viewpoint, looking back. I think that worked better.

LPR: I liked having that poem first. It drew me immediately into your story.

MR: That came from when my dad, my uncle and I were in Smith County in 2005. I had never been out to the homestead. My dad and uncle had been out as boys, because their uncle had farmed it until the 1940s. We went to the graveyard in Gaylord, which is the town nearest the homestead, and were standing at the family plot when we realized that John’s buried at one end and Mary was at the other. During that visit, a cousin, Sandra, who lives in Hill City, Kansas  mentioned that when Mary died in 1882, she was originally buried on the homestead. Sandra said that when John died in 1905, George and his brothers bought the plot in the Gaylord Cemetery. They then moved Mary and re-interred her in the family plot. They made this conscious decision to move her and put her at the opposite end from John. That because the focus of the poem: why? Did the brothers decide to bury John and Mary at opposite ends of the plot so they would eventually “embrace” their sons, or did the sons keep them physically separated to honor her? And there’s absolutely nothing on the tombstones that says that they were related. It doesn’t say “Mary, wife of John.” Or “John, husband of Mary.” There’s nothing. If you didn’t know, you’d look at these two tombstones and you’d see well, here’s John Ratcliff and Mary Townsend Ratcliff and you might infer that they were husband and wife, but you couldn’t be sure. It was also Sandra who had a glass that was said to have been made by John. It was her grandfather, one of the four sons Mary took to Smith County, who took it from John’s house after John died. He kept it in the family. But there’s only one. That became the launching point for some of the other poems. Was there another glass?  I’ve imagined there was, and in “The Glass” Mary lets it slip from her hands and break when she decides to divorce John.  In “She Will Not Thirst Again” John brings the remaining glass to Mary when he visits her prior to her death.

LPR: I love that you take these questions and ponder them and that they then become these stories, these vignettes that you can then piece together to fill in the blanks.

MR: Thank you. That was what I was trying to do. I wanted to fill in the missing pieces of the family history and all those gaps. That became part of this challenge in writing family history because I’m imagining, I’m filling in and all along thinking, “How will the family take this. Am I going too far?” So far, everyone in the family has loved it.

LPR: I think because you’re going back so far there’s just no way to know, and that’s probably part of it. When you’re dealing with memoir, it’s a little different, especially when the subjects are touchy. The fact that you’re using poetry to create and say what it may have been like and you’re not saying it’s a literal truth, but rather a figurative truth. You’re capturing these experiences through the ordinary, yet extraordinary lives, in that they transcend just John and Mary. They speak to others as well. That’s the beauty of it.

MR: I always had the idea in the back of my mind that I’d like to publish this, but it was when I started reading the poems, especially the ones I’d written about Mary that I realized that they were resonating with others. That’s when I knew I had something other than history for my family.

LPR: That must have been a great feeling.

MR: It is a great feeling. Going back to the 2005 trip to Kansas and the challenge in writing this story— I always had the image of Kansas being as flat as a pancake. Originally, the poem “The Wheat Field” started off with Mary saying, “This field, flat and broad as the Ohio” and she’s remembering back to Wheeling. But I got out to the homestead and it’s not flat. They’re up in the uplands! That part of Smith County, just south of the Solomon River, is more of a rolling landscape. It wasn’t flat and broad. There was a stream running through the 160 acres, so the field was flat, but you had to go down a hill to where the house sat. It wasn’t a broad, flat field where you could see for miles. In the hotel that night, I was revising the opening to the poem.

LPR: It’s so interesting that when you have an image of what something is like and then when you get there it’s not what you envisioned. There’s such value in actually walking where your story takes place, even if the landscape is completely different now than what it was. It could be that 200 years has passed, but there’s value in putting your feet where someone else has trod. Being in that space allows you to hear the echoes of the past.

MR: That’s where my training as a historical geographer comes in. I trained with British geographers. They are trained to read the landscape.

LPR: Tell me what you mean by “reading the landscape.”

MR: The British historical geographers are trained at understanding the contemporary landscape and how that translates to or evolved from the past. So the subtle shifts matter. What a stonewall might signify or why it might be in a particular location. Here’s a great example: a slight dip in the land and you’ve got a fence line running on one side and a row of trees on the other. Even though the space is all grassy now, that dip was probably once a road. You put together a variety of clues to figure out the past.

LPR: Traveling with you must be pretty interesting! Everyone else is just looking around, but you’re noticing swales and trees.

MR: Yes. I was on a training course in western Maryland for the Census Bureau and we were looking for a boundary. The map said there should be a road. What I just described was literally what we were seeing. The statisticians are saying, there’s no road here. I’m saying, yes, there is. Or there was and look right there. Once I pointed out the fence on one side and the trees on the other, they could see it. I’m sure some of the people in my writing group get annoyed with my geographical comments. They’ll describe things in their stories and I’ll say that they cannot possibly be true.

LPR: That’s actually a wonderful quality to have: perspective. I was in Paris a couple of years ago. As a history buff, I love taking walking tours. One of the things they pointed out was the street signs. There are three sets. I’d been in Paris before but I’d never noticed this. The signs are at carriage level, car level, and street level. Now when I’m in other cities, I notice the old signs like this.

MR: That Paris landscape that we take for granted was created in the middle of the 19th Century to improve living conditions, but also to control riots. Broad avenues. They tore down the narrow streets with older homes that were easily barricaded and created the broad avenues so they could sweep down the avenues with cannon fire after the riots of 1840s. Baron Haussmann created Paris working for Louis-Napoleon (later Napoleon III).

LPR: I love that you said we teach history the wrong way. If we make it about people and you tell the stories, you make it come alive. History is the least boring thing in the universe.

MR: We’re all connected to it. We didn’t spring from nothing. I think we have to engage kids by drawing them back into their own history. How do they tie into history? I’d already realized this from my work as a geographer: people don’t change much. Many of the things that bother and worry us today are the same things that bothered and worried people in the past. So in imagining John and Mary’s lives, we only have to consider how would we react. Behaviorally and psychologically, people aren’t much different today than they ever have been.

LPR: You had a wealth of original historic materials from which to draw. Share with us your research and cataloging processes.

MR: I had access to John’s Civil War pension file.  I was fortunate to have a neighbor who writes histories about the Civil War.  He photographed the contents of John’s file on one of his trips to the National Archives, so I had jpeg images to refer to.  I did make one trip to the Archives and went through the file myself.  I also obtained a copy of the divorce papers filed by Mary. I was able to access Quaker meeting minutes and other documents in the Library of Virginia.  Hinshaw’s Encyclopedia of Quaker Genealogy also was a great resource.  It provides a wealth of information drawn from Quaker Meeting minutes.  I was fortunate to find various secondary sources posted on-line by the Kansas Historical Society that provided historical context—Cutler’s history of Marshall County as well as a book about Albert Barrett, who was the leader of the Quaker abolitionist community that John and Mary were part of.

Historical accuracy is important to me.  The poem “They Rode on Borrowed Horses” (The Copperfield Review,2012), builds off the adage “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.”  When writing the poem, I researched the meaning of the adage.  I learned that brides in the first half of the 19th century wore blue, not white.  When I learned, from census records, that Melissa Hendricks could read, but not write (assuming that was accurate), I researched medical conditions that might have contributed to that. Turns out there is a medical condition that makes it difficult for individuals to form letters, to write.  It was important to me that I get the little details correct in order to make the individuals in the poems more complete.

LPR: What’s next for you?

MR: Good question.  I attended a Geopoetics session at the Association of American Geographers annual meeting last year.  It was fun to sit in a room full of geographers and other social scientists who also had an interest in poetry.  There were two Geopoetics sessions.  Alan Marcus, of Towson University’s Geography Department, and also a poet, attended the other session.  Afterwards, he and I decided to we wanted to organize something around Geography and Poetry.  Alan organized a Geography of Place event at Towson in October 2014.  I spoke about being a geographer and a poet.  Leslie Harrison, Clarinda Harriss, Shirley Brewer, and Barbara Morrison were the featured readers.  It was a big success, bringing together folks from the Geography and English departments.  I’d like to do that again.

I’m sure I’ll find more stories to tell from family history, but I kind of feel I’ve exhausted that line for a while.  I’ve got a number of poems that focus on place, people and place, the landscape—enough for at least another chapbook.   I’ll probably focus in on them, do some editing, organize them into a more orderly series.

~ Deborah Kevin

Online Editor’s Note: Michael’s chapbook, Shards of Blue, is available for pre-order from Finishing Line Press, with shipment expected August. 21, 2015.