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5 Questions for Jen Michalski, Author of The Tide King

Michalskiblue
Baltimore-based author and editor, Jen Michalski.

When author Jen Michalski was featured in the Baltimore Sun this summer, the headline called 2013 “a prolific year” for her. That phrase is appropriate. Michalski, a mainstay of the tight-knit Baltimore literary scene, will have three books published between January 2013 and April 2014.

But for a writer as hard-working as Michalski, “prolific year” is also misleading. In addition to working on her own writing, Michalski edits the Baltimore-based journal jmww and frequents local literary readings.

Michalski and I spoke about her not-so-sudden success last weekend, and we followed with an email exchange. I had recently read The Tide King, her stand-alone novel (Black Lawrence Press).

thetideking_cover_lorestrials_4Laura Shovan (LS): With three books published within an eighteen-month period and a feature in the Baltimore Sun, one might be tempted to say, “Jen Michalski is an overnight success.” Those of us involved in the local scene know that you are a longtime literary community activist. Over the years, how have you balanced supporting other writers—through projects like jmww, the 510 Reading Series, and the City Sages anthology—with staying committed to your own writing?

Jen Michalski (JM): I don’t know, really! It all works out, somehow. A caveat—I like to keep busy. I have this manic mental itch, and there are so many other things I would attempt to scratch it with if I weren’t so involved in the writing community: I want to learn to play the bass and trumpet, attend the symphonies and opera, surf, and knit. I often wish the days were twice as long, or that there were two of me!

That said, ironically, my projects don’t leave a lot of time for writing. Fortunately, I do a lot of my work internally, in dreams and also subconsciously; and by the time I write it out, I’ve worked it over and over in my head and it’s pretty much the way it will be on the page. Writing also just comes when it’s ready, not when I try to force it, so I don’t feel pressured to set aside an hour a day and wait for something to happen. Finally, it helps that I’m a self-employed medical editor, which means my schedule is pretty flexible for when the writing does erupt.

Ultimately, though, being involved in the community is inspiring to me as a writer. All writing is a dialogue between writer and reader, and when I’ve attended a great reading or accepted a great piece for jmww or just talked with another writer about his or her inspiration or process or even kids, I am compelled to respond in my own way somehow, whether right away or subconsciously, a few months later. I feel like these outside projects fertilize the garden, in a way.

Salon Series, New York
Jen Michalski

LS: We talked about the way different threads of research came together as you were constructing The Tide King: the last “witch” burned in Poland, your family’s immigration story, a National Geographic article about the sinking of the Bismarck, both your grandfathers’ WWII experiences. All of these, except for the Bismarck, are key themes or events in The Tide King. Would you describe your research process? How do you know when something you uncover is going to work for the book?

JM: Research excites me because I never know what I’m going to turn up. In fact, I no longer lock myself in a plotline early on when I’m writing or researching the novel. When I’m researching I’m like a boat in the ocean; I can glide along in lot of different directions and trajectories before seeing land again. And then I might wind up landing in Cape Town when I thought I was going to Madrid!

Even though my research is driven by things about which I’m passionate, I just try to remain open to what I find. If I really wanted to set the novel in Alaska but when I’m Googling I read about a fishing village in Nova Scotia that really excites me, I go with it. In that sense, I know something is going to work when I become excited about it, when the story suddenly opens up and expands. Sometimes, though, the research just gets cut, and I’m okay with that. I wrote about 600 pages of The Tide King and only wound up using 300. I don’t feel they were wasted pages—they were just sort of the outtakes you wind up seeing on movie DVDs. (In fact, a lot of the deleted scenes did wind up being stand-alone stories that were published.)

I also try to stay loose through the various revisions of the novel. The first draft is so different from the second, the second from the third, and so on. Although the characters and the basic plot may stay the same, all the scenes, the setups, can have changed from the first to third draft. It used to be something that frustrated me, because you want to keep the energy of the first draft or idea without watering it down through the revisions. But often the revisions take it to a better place. Now, I try and concentrate on just digging through the research, the draft writing, knowing that I’m going to hit pay-dirt down the road—I trust my intuition will guide me to where I need to be. I am a writer entirely in the moment of writing. I never think about when I should be finished with a particular novel, whether I’ve spent too much time on it, and I also never wish for a novel to end. I try to have so much fun writing it that I’m disappointed when I’ve done all I can and it’s finally finished, that I have to find something else to do.

LS: Early in the novel, Barbara, an herbalist living in rural Poland in the 1800s, discovers a patch of burnette saxifrage that’s been struck by lightning. The herb, she realizes, has extraordinary healing powers. You said that this story, while not scientific, is drawn from both history and folklore. How did this element of magical realism become the novel’s inciting incident, the thing that draws these characters—who span over 100 years—together?

JM: The decision to use the herb, for me, was definitely, the “aha” moment. When I first started writing about Stanley and Calvin in the European theater of World War II (which was inspired indirectly by a story I’d read about the battleship Bismarck in National Geographic), I didn’t know what was going to happen with them. In the back of my mind I knew I didn’t want to write a war novel, even as I wanted to honor my grandfathers, who both served and never talked about it. But I kept writing, figuring that what to do next would occur to me by the time I got to that crossroads. And it did—one day, I was looking through some story files on my computer and found fifty pages of this other novel I had started many years before and forgotten. It featured the enchanted burnette saxifrage. I wondered, “What if one of the soldiers, Stanley or Calvin, gives it to the other?” Burnette saxifrage became the lynchpin—it could tie centuries of family and people together by the nature of its “curse.” It also provided a conceit, the curse of immortality and how humans deal with loneliness and time passing. But I was many months into research and writing before I realized the true story of The Tide King—and it turned out I’d been working on it for years without even realizing it.

LS: The friendship of WWII buddies Stanley and Calvin is central to The Tide King. However, the female characters shape the trajectory of Stanley’s and Calvin’s lives. How did you come up with Stanley’s love interest, little person and country music star Cindy? You said that Cindy’s daughter, Heidi, drives the second half of the novel. Can you explain what you meant?

JM: I don’t really know why I made Cindy a little person. I know I wanted to include country music because I was reading a lot about 1940s and 1950s country music, Patsy Cline and the Browns and Hank Williams Sr. So I knew Cindy would be a country music star. I always am drawn to the different, the “other.” I’ve written before about people with disabilities because I’m interested in their perspectives, so it wasn’t a stretch for me to include this twist in Cindy’s character.

Also, in a way,  although I didn’t realize it at the time, she becomes kind of a foil for Ela, who is also a little person in that she’s a two-hundred-year-old woman trapped in the body of a nine-year-old girl. Ela wants to die but she can’t, and Cindy wants to live on forever, immortalized as a country music star.

But Cindy and Kate (Calvin’s first love) drive the story. Calvin and Stanley never get over Kate and Cindy, and they are both driven through life by them in different ways. For one, it is a helpful, positive coping, and for the other, it’s not. I think it’s a very human condition, our “muses,” and the thin line between the destructive and redemptive nature of them.

Heidi’s story, even as it comprises the last third of the novel, is kind of a surprise to the reader, I think, and it was intentional on my part. For Ela and Calvin and Stanley and everyone else who comes in contact with the burnette saxifrage over the course of two hundred years, their information is very incomplete. They ingested the herb and did not know it, it wasn’t forced upon them, or they’re not aware of the breadth of its repercussions. Heidi is a character who is given full knowledge of the herb, knows what it can do, has seen how it affects those who take it. And, at the novel’s end, she must make a choice about the herb, and she is the only one, to that point, with the agency to decide whether or not she should take it, what should be done with it. I wanted to explore that freedom to decide one’s fate, through Heidi. To that point, the herb, or the search for the herb, for answers, had been the driving force.

LS: The one question you said most people ask about The Tide King is: Will there be a sequel? Explain why your answer is no.

JM: I think it’s good to leave the reader with questions. Life isn’t tied up in a bow, and I don’t think stories should be, either. There is no happy ever after—life just ends, and there’s nothing we really have to drive ourselves through it except our hopes—our hopes to be happy, to fall in love, to be successful. Which, on the face of it, are all human constructs, not real. And that’s what the characters in The Tide King have at the end—their hopes, however slim and unrealistic. There’s nothing that Calvin or Ela or Heidi could do in a sequel that would change the course of humanity, of the human condition. It’s sort of an old story, the follies and hopes of humankind, that doesn’t need a sequel. I thought that was the most fitting, realistic ending of all.

Jen Michalski lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She was voted one of the best authors in Maryland by CBS News, one of “50 Women to Watch” by the Baltimore Sun, and “Best Writer” by Baltimore Magazine (Best of Baltimore issue, 2013). Her novel THE TIDE KING (Black Lawrence Press) was voted “Best Fiction” by the Baltimore City Paper. She is the author of two collections of fiction, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS (So New, 2007) and FROM HERE (Aqueous Books, 2014) and a collection of novellas, COULD YOU BE WITH HER NOW (Dzanc Books, 2013). She also edited the anthology CITY SAGES: BALTIMORE, which Baltimore Magazine called “Best of Baltimore” in 2010. She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww and hosts the monthly reading series the 510 Readings in Baltimore.

For more about The Tide King, see the Baltimore Sun’s review. Also consider reading up on Jen’s previous book, COULD YOU BE WITH HER NOW, reviewed by LPR earlier this year. Jen’s book FROM HERE is due to be published by Aqueous Books in April 2014.

An Interview with Rebekah Remington

Rebekah Remington
Rebekah Remington (Photo: Stephen Jonke)

I find it hard to believe Rebekah Remington when she tells me that she’s dealt with failure. Rebekah is the winner of the 2013 Clarinda Harriss Poetry Prize for her chapbook Asphalt. It is a solid collection, marked by eloquence and vision. I believe it to be a success but am sympathetic to her remarks.

Of course she has dealt with failure. We all have. Just the process of writing this blog post, my first for Little Patuxent Review, has me pulling out my hair over possible failure. And when I read through “Little Invocation” and “I Call Her Inez,” the chapbook’s first and sixth poems, I think of the first rejection letter that I received. Like the speaker, I, too, “feel enough failure as it is.” I remember thinking, what do I do now?

When I ask Rebekah about the character Inez and the idea behind the piece, she replies that she once watched a video of the Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame speaking about artistic inspiration. What did Remington take away from the video?

I think Gilbert’s main point was to put in your writing time. Don’t get too stuck on the idea of success or the idea of failure. When things don’t work out, blame it on the muse. I had experienced a lot of failure, so I decided to write about my love-hate relationship with my muse.

But who does she see in a positive light? To whom does she turn for inspiration?

“Mainly other poets,” Rebekah says. Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Glück and CD Wright are named. In particular, she mentions the recent collection Space, In Chains by Laura Kasischke, which earned the 2011 National Book Critics Circle poetry award. I have to look up Kasischke but immediately understand why Rebekah is drawn to her work. Kasischke has been hailed by critics for her honest but respectful portrayals of domestic life and the different stages of adolescence and adulthood.

There is a definite presence of the domestic life in Asphalt. And while Remington admits that she is unsure whether the book as a whole has a narrative arc, I can see recurring themes. Remington calls them “obsessions.” Those obsessions include motherhood, childhood, time and death. I thought that I saw some Asian references, particularly in “School Morning,” “Wanting” and the title poem. That is new to Remington.

It’s interesting that you noticed that. I really don’t know that much about Asian cultures. Before I had children, I saw a lot of foreign films. Probably some of the images stuck. I’m thinking of Raise the Red Lantern, Farewell My Concubine, To Live. I love the way film can transport.

More failure on my part? I would like to think of it more as subjective interpretation.

And, yes, a powerful film can transport the viewer. The same way a that powerful poem can transport the reader. For me, it was the beauty of the last two lines of the simple but earnest poem “Goat.” I mouthed the words over and over, loving how they came out.

The sky had taken on a shapeliness like
a flood plain
in an aftermath, an eerie pinkish
erasure.

Of course, I laugh when I learn that the ending of that poem did not come easily to Rebekah. She says that she rewrote it many times before coming to the above.

There is no mistaking the speaker’s role as a mother. Bits of train track and LEGO pieces, piano lessons and the pivotal moment of learning to ride a bike are strewn across the chapbook. And isn’t there an interesting relevance to those previous feelings of failure when it comes to motherhood?

One of the challenges of parenting is getting your children out in the world and exposing them to things. I’m not sure I’m good at that, but I’m trying.

When we place the mundane aspects of domestic life in the context of such serious contemplations, it is no wonder that poetic expressions about the domestic life can be so emotional and riveting.

The concept of time changes as well. Mothers such as the one in “In Praise of the Last Hour of the Afternoon” would “trade pearls for quiet” and cherish just a few more minutes in bed with the bedroom door locked in “January Morning.”

I find it understandable, if not comical, that in more than one poem we find Rebekah’s speaker thinking about how much she wants a drink.

Rebekah is far from being the only mother or writer who has doubts about herself. But, a perk to being creative types is that we have the benefit of blaming the self-doubts and feelings of failure on our muses. Blame it on Inez, Rebekah.

Rebekah Remington received her bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University, taking classes taught by David St. John and Peter Sacks. She received her MFA from the University of Michigan. She is currently an adjunct professor at Towson University, where she teaches Introduction to Poetry. (I am sorry that we never crossed paths.) Her work has been published in RattleNinth Letter and The Missouri Review. Once in 4th grade, she won a prize for a patriotic poem that she wrote in honor of the nation’s bicentennial celebration. She lives in Catonsville, MD with her husband and children.

The Clarinda Harriss Poetry Prize, sponsored by City Lit Project, was established in 2009 by poet and neurosurgeon Michael Salcman. He wanted to honor the poet, publisher and teacher Clarinda Harriss and her lifetime of service dedicated to the literary arts. Clarinda is the founder, director and editor BrickHouse Books, established in 1970 and, as such, Maryland’s oldest continuously operating literary press.

Michael is also the Little Patuxent Review Art Consultant and Clarinda a regular contributor to both LPR print issues and our blog, so there are connections. What’s more, the judge for the 2013 prize was poet Marie Howe, who happens to be featured in the upcoming LPR Summer 2013 Music issue. And previous prize winners include LPR print and blog contributor Bruce Sager (2011) and LPR Editor Laura Shovan (2010).

Blue Versus Blue
Carolyn Case’s 2012 Blue Versus Blue, oil on panel.

I know Clarinda as a poetry professor and BhB editor. After taking her poetry class at Towson, I interned for a year at BhB as an assistant editor. She has worked with Ogden Nash, partied with Michael Stipe and taught one of the best poetry classes that I have ever taken. My time spent with her is invaluable to me as a young writer, and I completely get why such a dynamic and delightful individual has a prize in her name.

Rebekah’s book will be published by CityLit Press. A painting by Carolyn Case, an artist teaching at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), will be used for the cover design.

Book Review: Kathleen Hellen’s Umberto’s Night

Umberto's Night
Kathleen Hellen’s award-winning poetry book

Kathleen Hellen’s Umberto’s Night won the 2012 Jean Feldman Poetry Prize. Its black cover, with an apocalyptic image of a city under an atomic fireball, hints at much of the content, made explicit by an epigraph from Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality: “as if along a river, you go by an invaded city…the city burns like a match…everything collapses in flames…”

The flames—sometimes literal, sometimes figurative—describe the pain carried by the speakers and characters observed in these finely crafted poems. There are drug addicts, ex-cons, murder victims, Vietnam veterans, blue-collar workers, slapped children, all vividly detailed in compact phrases. Their stories are stories of violence, whether on city streets, in battlegrounds or echoed ironically on a football field.

Hellen delivers her vivid and sometimes horrific images with exquisite beauty in poems that are meant to be read aloud. Listen to the half-rhyme and guttural consonants in these lines from “Reruns of Lassie”:

No chance of Timmy asking: “What is it, Lassie?
Who needs help?” No dog at all. Or gone.
Devoured by wolves. The dogs with bigger teeth.

The book is divided into five sections. The poems in Part 1 are told in a variety of voices—a teacher, a lover, a woman under arrest. They portray Baltimore as “a town too old for beginnings,” a city that swallows up A-students into unrelenting violence. In “Nine Circles,” a little boy experiences gunfire as a

ringing in his ears

that left a hole
in her thigh
the size
of a button.

In “Eight,” the speaker asks “who got shot in Druid Park? / whose throat was cut?”

Part 2 seems to follow the arc of a relationship that ends, as too many relationships do, in domestic violence. Here are scenes in a courtroom with a blasé judge who “has heard it all,” a victim who can feel her attacker “here in the bones of my throat” and poems filled with images of menacing hands, scars and cuts.

Yet the final poem in this section, “Palpable,” has two lovers in front of a late-night bakery, writing “love / backward on the glass” as they admire a display of glazed fruit tarts and watch the bakers with pans of freshly baked sweet rolls. Are these the same people who, earlier in this section, met on the Internet and then in person? If so, is this a flashback? Or simply a warning that any relationship might end badly, and that whether it will—or won’t—may be foreshadowed by “a drunkard’s quilt”?

Part 3 contrasts the foreignness of war with the domestic, day-to-day coping on the home front. Both soldiers and those left behind search, mostly unsuccessfully, for love. Nightmare images occur throughout this section: a football game morphs into a real battlefield, a year “shell shocked,” Vietnam slipping into innumerable conflicts in the Middle East. People and memories seem to become “[l]iving holographs”:

The night inside a night until
attention must be tipped
to darkness in its layers.

The final poem in this section leaves us in the “blackest Appalachians,” leading us right into Part 4’s mining and steel mill towns along the polluted Monongahela River. The night is lit by “a Frankenstein” of coke furnaces. The air smells sulfuric. Factories close, workers are laid off, their children go hungry. In the poem “A Pillar of Fire by Night,” Hellen gives us mattresses “in exodus,” offices “tight-lipped in their failures,” a way of life that was “there, then it wasn’t.”

Kathleen Hellen
Kathleen Hellen

Part 5 moves between disasters of varying scale, from those affecting millions, such as Hurricane Irene, to a car accident, from which the speaker escapes in the nick of time. Dandelions “implode” as they are mowed down; people, like comets, “burn out long before the accident of touch.” We lose those we love, see their ghosts in puddles or in dust. Through it all, these poems argue, hope persists, sometimes shaped like a daffodil, sometimes the human heart.

In addition to Umberto’s Night, Hellen has published The Girl Who Loved Mothra. Her poems have appeared in a range of journals and been featured on WYPR’s The Signal. In addition to the Feldman prize, she has received awards from H.O.W. JournalWashington Square Review, Thomas Merton Institute and  Appalachian Writers Association. Her work has been supported by grants from the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts and Maryland State Arts Council.

Note: Pat Valdata will appear this Saturday at our CityLit Festival reading.

Dear Elvira: Bad Writing and Every Beholder’s Eye

Elvira Rivers
Elvira Rivers

Before we bade adieu to audacity (the theme of our Summer 2012 issue) and began to entertain doubt (the theme of our Winter 2013 issue), I slipped in something that any literary review of repute requires: an advice column, complete with a fictional columnist. If you haven’t yet met, allow me to introduce Elvira Rivers, whose brief bio appears below, and promptly present the current query.

Dear Elvira,

At a recent book bash, I became increasingly incensed by a bunch of editors carrying on about bad writing. Who do these elitists think they are, making pronouncements about what constitutes a crappy manuscript? I’m becoming convinced that all they want is to prevent people like me, who won’t waste time obtaining an MFA, from joining their exclusive club. You seem like a sensible sort. Wouldn’t you agree that bad writing lies entirely in the eye of the beholder?

Fondly,

Fred

Dear Fred,

I am sensible, so I do agree. Bad writing lies in the eye of the beholder. Every beholder. Smack-dab in the eye, making it as easy for even an editor to spot as, say, bad paving.

You see, while I reside in a picturesque place, the road that takes me to and fro is far from pleasing. And the imperfections there are painfully apparent to me even though I never wasted time obtaining a civil engineering degree or even accruing the minimum qualifications required to apply for a flagger position on a respectable road crew. And they are obvious to everyone else in the environs except, apparently, the poor paver.

What often jumps out first in both bad writing and paving is a lack of proper preparation. If a surface is cracked or offers inadequate structural support and our writer refuses to lift a finger (or move a mouse) to correct this, defects will inevitably emerge through the best-constructed overlay and consequent deformations can cause catastrophic failure.

If said writer isn’t ready in terms of craft, obtaining an MFA couldn’t hurt; however, if the shortfall concerns subject matter, graduate school rarely helps. An MFA hailing from, say, Chappaqua who decides to write stories about, say, meth labs in rural Michigan is at a distinct disadvantage to, say, Bonnie Jo Campbell, the author of the award-winning American Salvagewho’s lived in the Kalamazoo area all her life. (And, incidentally, has an MFA in creative writing, as well as a BA in philosophy and an MA in mathematics.)

And, while some would say that writing only about what one knows would merely result in a surfeit of stories about English professors seducing MFA students, those someones rarely insist that writers of such limited experience are as assiduous in filling the cracks in their knowledge as, say, Ian McEwan, who–at the height of his career–spent two entire years–as a matter of course–diligently work-shadowing a neurosurgeon before starting his critically acclaimed novel Saturday. (And, yes, he also has the equivalent of an MFA.)

Bad paving, bad driving, Oella Ave
Bad writing is as easy to spot as bad paving and bad driving on Oella Avenue (Photo: Ilse Munro)

Now, put a bad driver on that precarious pavement and there’s sure to be some serious trouble. You see, my particular road is narrow, sometimes turning into a single lane, with steep climbs and descents and sudden sharp turns. Inexperienced or impaired drivers readily put everything in their path in peril, as do those overconfident ones who show no consideration for objects or persons.

I regularly see the former on my street, their shaky hands at the wheel, wandering across lanes, running out of road and rolling down embankments. The latter I remember from my Boston and Cambridge days, their tall trucks stuck under overpasses on Storrow and Memorial Drives along the Charles River, where large signs say, “CLEARANCE 11FT 0IN.” They’re the same ones that I now observe attempting impossible turns into access roads and ending up wedged between street signs and utility poles, their goods, alas, undelivered.

In bad writing, it’s equally easy to see when an author is out of control. Some use the excuse of automatic writing, citing Jack Kerouac’s notion of “first thought, best thought” and his refusal to revise. (And add that Kerouac was a college dropout.) But a closer look at good writers shows, more often than not, that’s a carefully crafted illusion. In her memoir, Joyce Johnson–who definitely did know Jack–revealed that he revised regularly and rigorously. Which is why his seminal novel On the Road didn’t end up in a ditch.

Similarly, it’s hard to miss the sort of bad writing that occurs when an over-confidant author under-delivers, almost by design. I’m not referring so much to brash early efforts such as A Clockwork Orange that acclaimed authors later repudiate as to works penned at any point in a career that show little regard for readers because, one can only assume, such authors feel that they are so patently brilliant that they deserve a pass. Consider McEwan, whom I normally admire. With Sweet Tooth, he correctly calculated that the clumsy contrivances used in lieu of more potent prose wouldn’t be called out by more than one or so critics the way that they would’ve been were he someone of lesser repute.

Bear in mind that at the beginning of each work–no matter how outré–the author enters into a contract with the reader to render certain goods, the literary equivalent of kitchen cabinets. When that author has the arrogance to violate that agreement through artifices such as dei ex machina, contrived epiphanies or trick endings, the reader has the right to feel cheated. Not that I don’t delight in surprises. But they only constitute good writing when, as occurs with minor masterpieces such as George Saunders’ “Puppy” and Joshua Ferris’s “The Dinner Party,” the reader is complicit every single step of the way.

Speaking of good writing, I maintain that the transportation analogy also works there. It’s as hard to miss as trains rumbling along the track across the river, parallel to my ruined road. In a Poets & Writers piece, a literary agent seconds what another has put in his Publishers Marketplace profile: that what he looks for is a book that makes him miss his train stop. (Actually, it’s “subway stop,” but that’s more or less along the same lines.)

Sincerely yours,

Elvira

PS I could’ve added bad weather, which typically comes from getting too much of an otherwise good thing, to the bad paving and driving but then it would’ve been necessary to address overwriting, which would’ve been a bit excessive here. Fortunately, that and other cases are covered by the likes of David Sedaris, George Saunders and Margaret Atwood in the video Bad Writing, which can be purchased for a pittance on Amazon.

About Elvira

Elvira Rivers, une femme d’un certain age, was born on a certain date in a certain place. Her father was the storied Tony Thames-Avon, a British actor and playwright, her mother the celebrated Latvian beauty Daiļa Daugava-Gauja. When Thames-Avon-Daugava-Gauja met Percy Pocomoke-Patuxent, she made surname consolidation a condition of marriage. The Rivers were inseparable until their divorce two years later.

Elvira went on to cure the common cold, design couturier gowns and write The Great Latvian Novel, while Percy vacillated between painting and poetry, then poetry and prose. He eventually acquired a Harvard MBA and left to run the London office of the venerable Boston investment bank Duck & Cover. Back in the USA, he was convicted on 14 counts of fraud and conspiracy and is currently serving an 11-year sentence.

To encourage her former husband to return to the literature and art he so loved once, Elvira sent him frequent letters. After finding herself uncharacteristically incapable of making ends meet–her nest egg had suffered substantial cracks during the 2008 crash–she approached Little Patuxent Review about writing a column helping creative types such as Percy better navigate life’s unruly waters. She has been with us ever since.

Note: Elvira is not related to the late mother of our online editor even thought her first name and the middle name of that witty woman are identical. She is also not connected to the winking woman shot by Ewing Galloway, though the resemblance is remarkable.

Book Review: Jen Michalski’s Could You Be with Her Now

Jen Michalski explores what it means to be vulnerable in a modern society.

Could You Be With Her Now
Jen Michalski’s new book.

At first blush, it appears that the only thing that the two novellas that comprise Jen Michalski’s collection Could You Be With Her Now have in common is that both are penned by the same author.

In the first novella, I Can Make It to California Before It’s Time for Dinner, the protagonist is a 15-year old intellectually delayed boy named Jimmy who thinks that he has walked to California when he happens into a house where a bikini-clad girl is sunbathing in the yard. The girl, Jimmy thinks, is his favorite TV character Meghan, and his encounter with her sets off a series of events akin to silent, miniature explosions of mounting small destructions that can’t be undone.

In the second story, May-September, perspective shifts between an older woman, Sandra, and a younger one, Alice, who initially come together over a business transaction—Sandra hiring Alice to help her launch a blog about her life for her grandchildren to read. Their interactions slowly transform into something else, a relationship that indelibly changes them both.

In both stories, Michalski deftly explores what it means to be vulnerable in modern society, what it means to be invisible, powerless, voiceless—either from mental or physical frailty–but struggling to matter in the world just the same. How carelessness and resentments on the part of family members can inadvertently thrust their vulnerable loved ones into situations that bring unexpected, unwanted, painful consequences.

What sets Jimmy on his misadventure is his older brother Josh’s careless selfishness. Josh, who wants to watch the TV that Jimmy is already watching, pushes him out the door with the directive to find the TV character Meghan, a directive that Jimmy takes seriously. Jimmy, of course, gets lost, but this is the experience with the girl he believes is TV Meghan and that sends him down the rabbit hole as a modern-day Lenny:

Megan bites my hand. I push her away. She is smaller than me and falls against the glass door. I feel bad and put my arms around her to pick her up. We are half the way up. She hits me in the chest and the face. I get mad like when Josh hits me and leaves marks. She hits me in the face again and it hurts bad. I put my hands on her neck and twist real hard, back and forth. She puts her hands on my hands but I am bigger. Her face turns all red and its’s kind of funny how red.  She keeps moving and kicking and I try to stop her. We are half the way when she falls asleep on me. She is so heavy I let her fall and then I wait for her to stop make-believing because people on TV are always doing make-believe.

Later, after Jimmy returns home, unaware that he has fatally hurt the girl, Josh once again puts Jimmy in harm’s way through a misguided attempt to protect him. Josh’s carelessness about Jimmy’s feelings and thoughts, about Jimmy as an individual prompt him to decide what’s best for Jimmy in a way that emphasize Jimmy’s vulnerabilities, bringing about inadvertent consequences—including his brother’s abduction–that change Jimmy and his family in ways that cannot be undone.

Similarly, Sandra, the older woman of May-September, realizes how narrow she has allowed her world to become after meeting Alice. Neither Alice nor Sandra can explain their sexual attraction, but in the short time that they have to develop their relationship, Sandra emerges, bit by bit, from the shell in which she has spent years encasing herself and Alice begins to feel less lonely and more purposeful after a bad breakup.

Just as Sandra is on the brink of re-discovering herself, she suffers a health setback that enables her daughter Andrea to rob her of the one thing that vulnerable people lack the most: choice. Under the guise of looking after Sandra’s best interests, Andrea treats her not like a child but an object, deciding her future and fate without discussing it with her, effectively imprisoning her behind the bars of the vulnerability that aging brings.

Sandra, on the brink of becoming a butterfly, sees her chrysalis turned into a thing from which no butterfly can ever emerge. And a piece of Alice, who lovingly nurtured Sandra’s transformation and was affected by her forced future, dies with Sandra’s dreams. Here Sandra comes to terms with the future that she neither wanted nor envisioned:

It was getting colder now. She played the piano, a little bit at a time. Until she got her strength. Haydn and Gershwin and Mozart. Mozart for Jack, always. No Beethoven.  She played the piano while the women Andrea hired packed her things, while men took her furniture. She played the piano until they were ready to take it, and when they did, she left.

Although the vulnerable characters in both stories suffer for their susceptibility to the careless hands of others, fate and time, the book offers hope. If Jimmy fails to understand the extent of the hurt that he inflicted on the girl, he also fails to grasp the hurt that was inflicted on him. If Sandra’s future becomes the one that her daughter envisions, she still retains the one thing that cannot be stolen: her music. And Alice, who hibernates after the abrupt end to the budding love with Sandra, emerges into the light of her own spring.

Jen Michalski
Jen Michalski

Michalski’s double novellas, written in a deceptively simple but lyrical style, are aptly paired in a book that deserves to be added to anyone’s must-read list.

In addition to Could You Be With Her Now, Jen Michalski is the author of the novel The Tide King, a winner of the The Big Moose Prize, and the short story collections From Here and Close Encounters as well as the editor of the anthology City Sages: Baltimore. She is also the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww, co-host of the 510 Readings and the Lit Show and an interviewer at The Nervous Breakdown

Print Issue Preview: 30 Authors and Artists Address Doubt

LPR Doubt Cover
Introducing our Winter 2013 Doubt issue. Cover art: The Ideal City, Fra Carnevale (?), at the Walters Art Museum. Cover design: Deb Dulin.

For our first 12 print issues, you’ve had to wait for the launch party to sneak a peek at what’s inside. But seeing that 13 is a lucky number and our Issue 13 comes out at the start of 2013, a most auspicious year, it’s time that you caught a lucky break. Therefore, we’ve set it up so that you can preview the text of two pieces in advance. And, unwilling to leave things entirely to chance, we’ve armed you with cheat sheets, as well.

All you need to do is turn to our Winter 2013 Doubt issue page, where we present the complete table of contents, and click on two highlighted items. Those are Laura Shovan’s “Editor’s Notes” and the Clarinda Harriss poem. Then see what these two literary ladies have to say about that in the sections below.

Of course, if you’re one of those rare individuals who’s completely comfortable with uncertainty and doesn’t doubt his or her ability to make it to the launch, we wouldn’t want to spoil any surprises. Simply skip what’s written here and head straight for Oliver’s Carriage House this Saturday, where we’ll be sure to save you a good seat.

Your Cheat Sheet for “Editor’s Note”

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but doubt is the agent of change.

In our 13th issue, 30 writers and artists examine the role that doubt plays in marriage, religion, art and identity. Doubt can be triggered by small moments such as watching a handyman at work fifteen feet in the air [i] as often as it comes from the force of a failing marriage [ii] or a tsunami’s destructive power [iii].

There are those who live in a perpetually agnostic state, calling into question everything from religion and community to the self and one’s perception of reality [iv]. For these doubters, something as simple as a taste of honey harvested from a backyard hive can be enough to restore faith in society [v].

Human culture would not evolve without such proof-seeking minds. If nobody questioned status quo thinking about how the autistic mind works [vi], what it means to be a painter in 2013 [vii] or who created a Renaissance masterpiece [viii], human history could not move forward. Whether the results are “correct” or not, the process of change begins when one doubter pulls apart what is accepted and puzzles together facts and observations to create a new theory.

The product of doubt, whether one has scrutinized a childhood memory [ix] or re-envisioned a character from the Bible [x], must be a new way of looking at the world. Our hope is that you, the reader, will engage in the inter play between doubt and change as you read this issue of Little Patuxent Review [xi].

                                                                                                — Laura Shovan

…And another for “Blasphemy is the Child of Faith and Doubt”

Because of or despite the fact that I come from agnosticQuaker/atheistEpiscopalian parents, I have always been obsessed with the what-ifs implicit in biblical lore. And I have always been fascinated by the much underrated or downright dissed female leads in that lore–Eve, Lilith and, of course, Mary Magdalene, who I have known since childhood was the wife of Jesus. (What is UP with a few current scholars acting as if they had just discovered that Jesus was married?) In addition, I love to re-tell old stories with some crucial part left out–like, suppose Cinderella got zapped to the ball WITHOUT THE DRESS? In a poem written years ago and published in Sybil-Child, I envisioned her standing ragged and astonished at the top of the stairs descending into the ballroom, then pulling off her filthy kitchen togs. Standing there gorgeously naked. No wonder the Prince fell for her.

  — Clarinda Harriss

Note: You can pre-order copies of the Doubt issue now from our Individual Issues sales page. And order some back issues, too. Check out what’s in those in our Issues section.

__________________

[i] Award-winning poet and children’s author Jacqueline Jules makes her first appearance in LPR with the poem “Standing in the Air.” It explores the way in which everyday moments, in this case observing someone repair a roof, can create self-doubt. Jules uses dialogue to establish the character of the workman, which contrasts with that of the speaker. (p. 50)

[ii] The short story “Mediation” by Lisa Lynn Biggar was submitted for our Summer 2012 Audacity issue, but Fiction Editor Jen Grow felt that the piece was a better fit for the current theme. Biggar uses dramatic irony to explore a modern love triangle. (p. 70)

[iii] “Japan 2011” is one of two poems in this issue by Elisabeth Dahl of Baltimore. Dahl’s use of form in the poem mirrors the poem’s theme, the devastating 2011 tsunami. (p. 30)

[iv] There are several pieces in this issue that examine the nature of reality and how it affects views of the self. I particularly like the use of pop culture detail in Kim Jensen’s poem “Perimeter.” (p. 45)

[v] Cynthia Grier Lotze’s timely poem “When You Began Keeping Bees” is filled with sensory images. Home beekeepers in our local community, Howard County, Maryland, recently won a battle against a zoning law that limited backyard beekeeping. (p. 80)

[vi] Lauren Camp’s poem “The Dam of Asperger’s” uses spacing and other form elements to mirror the difficulties a teacher or parent might face communicating with a child on the autism spectrum. (p. 46)

[vii] This fall, LPR art expert Michael Salcman and I visited the Baltimore studio of painter Leonard Kogan. See the LPR Facebook page for photographs from our conversation. (p. 16)

[viii] In the first LPR essay featuring a classical work of art, Michael Salcman posits an alternate “author” of The Walter’s Art Museum’s masterpiece, The Ideal City. (p. 35)

[ix] This  issue includes several pieces in which contributors view a childhood experience through the lens of adulthood. Check out P. Ivan Young’s “Nerf Football,” one of a series of poems about urban childhood friends, and Bruce Alford’s evocative prose poem “What to Leave Out.” (pp. 27 and 68)

[x] Frequent contributor Clarinda Harriss acts as a voicebox for the biblical characters Eve, Lilith and Mary Magdalene in her three-part poem “Blasphemy is the Child of Faith and Doubt.” (p. 66)

[xi] Among the powerful pieces not mentioned is Le Hinton’s poem “No Doubt About It (I Gotta Get Another Hat),” a tribute to the late Baltimore poet Chris Toll, who leaves behind a rich legacy of visual and linguistic experimentation. (p. 82)

There’s Reading, Then There’s the Reading

Paul Durcan
Poet Paul Durcan (Photo: Susanne Schleyer)

I’m told that I overthink things. But once you start thinking, simple things can become complicated. So you have to think some more. Take the literary reading. Of course, you have to have one. Even if there are perfectly good print copies available. Or the more convenient electronic ones. Even though a blizzard’s been forecast for that day (or it’s meant to be hellishly hot). Both poetry and prose started with the spoken word, so that must be the more natural, accessible form. Or did the oral and the written diverge somewhere along the way for some really good reasons?

Let’s start with poetry, where how things sound may matter more than with other types of writing. And one of my favorite poems, TS Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” which– à propos this piece–was once called “He do the Police in Different Voices.” The poem is so complex, so full of obscure literary allusions that countless annotated versions exist. There’s even an iPad app for that. (Really.) But look–or rather, listen–to what happens when it’s recited. How easily it goes down, as the commentator observes. First by Eliot himself, which offers insight into how he intended it to be taken. Then by two other readers, who make it their own, much the way that you and I would. Only a bit better.

So anything complex is helped by being heard? Maybe not. Let’s take one of my favorite fiction writers, George Saunders, and one of his recent short stories, “Victory Lap,” which I’ve downloaded from The New Yorker. It opens with a look inside soon-to-be-15-year-old Alison’s head, then shifts to that of a dorky neighbor boy. Listen to Saunders read his own story. If you make it through to the end without your mind wandering to, say, the deer in the woods that I can see from my study window, good for you. But if you’re one of those who can’t quite, see if you don’t breathe a sign of relief when you can click on the link I’ve provided and read this captivating story in words provided on a printed page.

So complex poetry is best heard, and complex prose is best read? Would that it were that simple. Poet Paul Durcan, whose image I’ve inserted above for reasons other than that it’s a formidable head shot–but isn’t it, though?–writes narrative poetry and has been described by Fran Breaton in The Guardian as “… a charismatic performer whose voice, once heard, haunts the printed pages of his books. If there were a prize for the best reader of one’s own poems, he would probably win it hands down.” The only problem is, Durcan says that he doesn’t write to be heard. And we should take him at his word.

Speaking with Colm Tóibín in The Writing Life, a cable TV series produced by our local Howard County Poetry & Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo), he insists that he writes not for his public voice but rather for “the silent reader.” That–unlike Yeats, who read his work aloud as he wrote–he never listens to how his poems sound until an entire book is published. And that, as Tóibín helps him formulate, he gives readings only to build an audience specifically for that silence. So, it’s complicated. And requires more thought.

In the meantime, you’d do best to cover all the bases. Attend our upcoming Doubt issue launch reading event to hear 11 authors present pieces we’ve published. Then, talk to the presenters while you munch a cookie and purchase a print copy before you leave. (Hey, the event is free, and a single copy will only put you back 10 bucks.) At your leisure, check out this site’s Winter 2013 Doubt page, where we’ll later link to reading videos, the Sales pages, where we’ll soon offer individual Doubt issues as well as annual subscriptions, and our “Concerning Craft” series, where we’ll introduce you to select Doubt contributors–not just those giving readings–and let them discuss what went into producing what we printed. This time around, I think I’ll ask them to address that sound vs. silence thing.

And since you can’t do any of that until Saturday, January 26, take a little time now to listen to Durcan read his poem “Paul.” And pick up one of his books to read in silence.

Notes:

Delving into Doubt: The Doubtful Virtue of Religious Certainty

Between belief and disbelief, certainty and uncertainty, trust and distrust lies doubt. Doubt can be deliberate questioning or a state of indecision, resulting in a reassessment of what reality means or a paralyzing suspension between contradictory propositions. An uncomfortable condition, as Voltaire observed, but preferable to certainty, which is inherently absurd. Or some surprising gap stretching intellect and emotion, resulting in delight. Join us in this intriguing gray area as we prepare our Winter 2013 Doubt issue.

Barbara Kruger's Belief + Doubt
Barbara Kruger’s Belief + Doubt 2012 immersive exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

If there’s such a thing as a God gene, as Dean Hamer has hypothesized, I must at the very least be a carrier. My father, Viktors Jurģis, once pursued a theology degree at the University of Latvia and a cousin, The Very Reverend Juris Jurģis, managed to catch one at the University of Oxford. But there’s many a slip ‘twixt the genotype and the phenotype, so at an early age I became a confirmed skeptic.

Still, I was attracted to writers who were able to pull back a bit from the constant navel gazing that seems to be an occupational hazard to consider more cosmic questions. Even as a teen, my favorite poet was TS Eliot, whose “The Waste Land” and other works not only defined nihilism for his and subsequent generations but also formed the basis for his becoming a staunch Anglo-Catholic. And as an adult, I’ve frequently found myself wondering why–particularly in the United States, which stands alone among developed nations in its emphasis on religion–literature is so secular. So, I asked Avraham Azrieli, a local novelist interested in such matters, to briefly share his thoughts on the subject.

Here’s what he had do say:

I don’t see how a novelist can write truthfully about people while avoiding their religion. For that matter, I don’t see how a writer of nonfiction can credibly author a book about history, politics, crime or psychology while skipping over the dominant role religions play in human life and death. Most curiously, though, is the difficult choice facing the storyteller: is religion a protagonist or an antagonist?

In my novel The Jerusalem Assassin, the leader of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect, Rabbi Gerster, must prepare his heir Benjamin to take over the leadership.

“A leader must not be timid.”

“It’s my respect, not timidity,” Benjamin said.

“Is there a difference?” Rabbi Gerster chuckled. “You know what Ecclesiastes said about the cycle of life, yes? Everything has a beginning and an end.”

“He also said that there is a time for war and a time for peace.”

“True. And a time to plant and a time to root out the planted.” He squeezed Benjamin’s arm. “All the sages interpret Ecclesiastes as a serious philosopher, but I sometimes think he was writing comedy.”

“Comedy?”

“You could read his pontification as joking about how our scriptures—everyone’s scriptures, in fact—can be read to support contradictory agendas, how the righteous can find divine authority in the scriptures for anything one wants to preach—love and hate, forgiveness and revenge, peace and war. You can find words in the Torah or Talmud, in the Koran or the New Testament, to proclaim God’s divine support of your agenda, whatever it is—and I say this from experience.”

They reached the entrance to the apartment building where Benjamin lived. He leaned against the stone wall, as if feeling weak.

“But Talmud is the absolute truth, right?”

“Absolute truth is in the eye of the beholder,” Rabbi Gerster said.

As a novelist, my biggest challenge is to be true to the way each character would behave considering his or her background, personality and complex identity. Only then does the story become believable to the readers. And primary among those traits is how a character practices his or her faith–is it a tool, a shield or an inspiration? The test is whether a person remembers that faith by its very essence is the belief in something that cannot be proven.

This is even more challenging in the real world. A friend of mine, a devout Lutheran, told me recently that he couldn’t understand how any person of faith could support same-sex marriage. “I believe that the Bible is the one and only truth, and the Bible tells us that marriage is a union between one man and one woman.”

I pointed out to him that biblical marriages did not always involve one man and one woman and often created a union between one man and a bunch of underage girls, sold by their fathers for gold, goods or services, as in the case of Jacob and his wives. Biblical husbands owned their wives as they owned livestock and slaves. In fact, the biblical Hebrew word for husband is “ba’al,” which can mean “owner.”

One can only speculate whether human conflict throughout history would have been less hostile if those who carried the torch of their religion remembered that each faith could not be an absolute truth, not only because faiths contradict each other with equal validity and inability to prove one truer than the other but also because, in the absence of doubt, faith is nothing but an uninspiring alternative reality.

Reflecting on what Azrieli says, I recall that in college my father not only professed the Lutheran faith but also hung out with Old Testament types such as his rabbi pal, who helped him learn to read that part of the Bible in the original Hebrew. That rabbi likely resembled Azrieli’s fictional rabbi, with whom my father would have enjoyed matching wits. In his latter years, my father was limited in his choice of sparring partners. Much to my mother’s dismay, he was known to invite the Seventh-Day Adventists and other proselytizers who knocked on his door inside for further discussion.

Avraham Azrieli
Avraham Azrieli

“What would you do,” he would ask, “if you saw that all the medical books in your doctor’s office were written in the Nineteenth Century?” “I’d definitely get myself a new doctor,” they would say. “Then, would you not at least consider getting a second opinion knowing that the only book that your minister relies upon, which I assume is the King James Bible, was translated in the Seventeenth Century from a First Century work?

Avraham Azrieli is an attorney and author living in Columbia, Maryland. He published two nonfiction books, Your Lawyer on a Short Leash: A Survivor’s Guide to Dealing with Lawyers and One Step Ahead: A Mother of Seven Escaping Hitler’s Claws, before turning to fiction. His novels include The Masada ComplexThe Jerusalem Inception, Christmas for JoshuaThe Jerusalem Assassin and The Mormon Candidate.

For more from this series, see Dylan Bargteil’s “Delving into Doubt: Worship No Idols.” For more about the exhibit in the image above, see “The Unsettling, Text-Driven World of Barbara Kruger’s ‘Belief+Doubt'” in The Atlantic.

More Words = More Reasons to Revise

Big news! Little Patuxent Review finally upped the limit for fiction submissions to 5000 words. We’ve been gradually heading in that direction over the past few years, but this opens up LPR to even more great stories by talented writers who’ve been unable to pare down their pieces to 3500 words. I can’t wait to see what comes in during our Summer 2013 Music issue submission period. It should make for terrific reading.

I don’t envy myself, though. My role in chosing pieces to publish will soon become more difficult than ever. More words mean more ways that a story can go astray. A higher word count makes some writers less rigorous when it comes to revision, so I suspect I’ll see stories that have expanded to 5000 words when fewer would have done the job very well.

My advice: Before you submit, revise!

Fortunately, revision is my favorite part of writing. No writer that I know gets far without it. Revising is writing. There’s no separation.

Jack Kerouac On the Road
Jack Kerouac’s manuscript of On the Road. (Photo: AP)

“What about Jack Kerouac?” I can hear one of my former students asking as I write this. “What about “first thought, best thought” and the spontaneous purity of the initial draft?” All good questions. I’ll get to them in a moment. But first, try not to delude yourself into believing that you’re a misunderstood genius.

It’s an occupational hazard, I know. I tend to think that my own first drafts are brilliant—that I’m brilliant! Get ready, world, here I come! Until a day or so later, when I reread my words and realize that what I’ve written is dung. Oh, maybe my story has its moments–some beautiful sentences, the kernel of a good idea–but it’s also laden with grammatical errors, huge holes in plot or logic and mixed metaphors galore. And don’t get me started on punctuation: how I love a good dash, can be overzealous with parentheses and am errant with commas.

So I start revising. And revising. And revising.

I put as much space between me and the piece as possible. A few days, a few months, a few years. Because what needs to be changed in a piece is never fully apparent in the first few passes. When I feel that I’m finally finished revising, I go back and do it again. At some point I show my former-masterpiece-turned-modest-work to a writing friend. Based on what he or she says, I revise some more.

Most good writers that I know do this. Yet, there is this notion among new writers that revision spoils the original intent, that it takes away the energy and zip, or worse, that it deadens the personality of a piece so that everything sounds as though it was shaped in the same writing workshop. Kerouac regarded revision as a form of literary lying. (Never mind for the moment that Truman Capote regarded the “first thought” approach as typing, not writing.)

Funny thing about Kerouac. Yes, he typed On the Road on a continuous, taped-together 120-foot roll of paper and touted it as a single, spontaneous, complete draft. But this September, Joyce Johnson, former girlfriend and accomplished author, blew his cover. In The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, she claims that rather than having written his seminal work in a three-week blast of energy, he actually spent years revising it and carefully crafted each paragraph.

Joyce Johnson The Voice is All
Joyce Johnson reveals what “spontaneous” writing really involves.

As reported in “You Don’t Know Jack…,” Johnson reveals just how much of Kerouac’s approach came about through a disciplined and self-punishing journey to find an authentic linguistic and literary style. Fortunately, that style came into being somewhere between the margins of the working-class French-Canadian neighborhood in Lowell, Massachusetts, where he grew up, and the elegant lyricism of the writers he admired. And that–not the myth–is what makes Kerouac a writer worth emulating.

Very occasionally, a story will emerge from me nearly fully formed. Those works are rare gifts but still require the scrutiny of my internal editor. For me, revision is important because it uses a different part of the brain. It requires more decisions, more meditation, more intuition, more listening, more music and rhythm. Exacting and deliberate revision is what adds depth, emotion, texture and personality to a piece.

My point? Being a misunderstood genius gets in the way of being a great writer. Besides, you can save every version of every draft you ever write. If your revised version is not what you want it to be, go back to the beginning and start again. Which is to say, revise.

Online Editor’s Note:

As Jen indicates, revising a piece of fiction is a demanding but subtle process. Books attempt to tell you how it’s done, but I don’t know that I’d recommend them. You’d be better off simply mastering the basic elements of literature and becoming familiar with sophisticated views on the subject. Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them for the former and James Wood’s How Fiction Works for the latter are, in my humble opinion, perfect.

Recommending books to help you with editing your own manuscripts so that they’re submission-ready is easier. Here, all you need is something that tells you how to (1) make sure you don’t get in your own way and (2) not give exacting editors such as Jen peripheral reasons to reject your work. I started out with Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, and that worked as well as any. There are others that would do, no doubt.

Book Review: Tara Hart’s The Colors of Absence

Tara Hart
Tara Hart shows her first chapbook.

If the poetry in Tara Hart’s chapbook The Colors of Absence does nothing else, it should impel parents to reach out for their children, remembering to be grateful for the “maddeningly silken sack,” as Hart calls our babies, who may be grown, who may be young, who may be gone. The book is a journey from the erotic encounter, through the loss of an infant, into the bounding joy of a new family with grief at its core.

Close to the beginning of the collection, the poem “Hearing Sirens” plays with the idea of magnetism, of women’s iron-poor blood drawn to the “good girls’ kryptonite” of some men and their lodestones. But soon after the sex ends, the heartbreak begins.

The poem “Miss Stein Shows a Way” echoes the recurring ebbs and clanging rhythms of Gertrude Stein’s repetitious verse in a waterfall of sorrow that flows to the edges of the page, sketching out the blurred grief of losing a baby.

In the Pushcart Prize winning poem “Patronized,” the protagonist’s voice–both weary and sassy with grief–speaks a sincere reaction to the sentimentalized saint on the prayer card given to a mother. That paper rectangle with its pious picture and all it represents is clearly inadequate to ease her pain. The clever word play and religious imagery contrast and blend to create a poem that both cries out in grief and raises a sarcastic protest to sacred comfort.

That tone of down-to-the-bone sadness living in a world of platitudes continues in the poem “No Such Thing,” which mixes the theory of relativity and paintings of nudes to come up with the idea of moving through misery, just getting ourselves out the door in the morning, preferably with clothes on and upright.

We move with the poet through the brightening of her path, as she gives birth to another baby, a boy, and snarls with a “venom fantastic” at the dangerous drivers paying no heed to the new and precious cargo in the car riding home from the hospital in her poem “Bringing Him Home.”

And the giggles strike when the poet writes “This Girl at Four,” speaking about a daughter, aged four and clad in frog boots, packing a pumpkin flashlight and three strawberry candies for adventure.

The protagonist’s cracks mend, her life teems full with new life, another baby, friends. Ultimately, though, the collection’s last poem is one of gratitude toward the lost baby, for that small life that filled the poet’s own and for the power to say what she means about her loss and gain.

Tara Hart chairs the Howard Community College Division of English and World Languages, where she teaches creative writing and literature. Her poems, including “Patronized,” have been published in Little Patuxent Review. For the full text of “Patronized,” see “Saints Alive, It’s a Pushcart Nomination.”