Meet Our Contributors: Q&A with Natalie Illum

Natalie Illum is a poet, disability activist, and singer living in Washington, DC. She is a 2017 Jenna McKean Moore Poetry Fellow, recipient of a 2017 Artists Grant from the DC Arts Commission, and nonfiction editor for The Deaf Poets Society literary journal. She was a founding board member of mothertongue, a women’s open mic that lasted fifteen years. She used to compete on the National Poetry Slam circuit and was the 2013 Beltway Grand Slam Champion. Her work has appeared in various publications and on NPR’s Snap Judgment. Natalie has an MFA in creative writing from American University and teaches workshops across the country. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter as @poetryrox, on her website natalieillum.net, and as one half of All Her Muses, her music project. Natalie also enjoys Joni Mitchell, whisky, and giraffes.

Natalie’s poem, “Reset,” appeared in LPR’s Summer Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link). She read this and two other pieces at our issue launch in June (video below).

Q: Thank you for coming to the launch earlier this month. Before we get into your work, can I ask if there was one reading that struck you in particular?

I really liked Tracy’s piece and the form of the work she was reading. Several of the readers had a theme of clothing that felt really vibrant and necessary to me. And in some way I think we all touched on family as a theme.

Q: You have a lot of experience reading in front of others. How do—if they do—audience and setting change the poems for you as you read them? Did anything like that happen in Columbia?

I definitely tailor my sets based on my audience, especially if I know it is a more family-friendly event. Because I knew the poem you were publishing, I tried to base my selection on that tone. I also really wanted to try out the shark series of poems that I’m currently working on. So when I have readings of late, I bring those to see how the audience receives them. I got a lot of positive feedback from the audience in Columbia, both on the poem in the journal and a particular poem called “Predatory Logic.” So I’m very happy about that—when poems stick with people, especially in a larger featured reading.

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Meet Our Contributors: Q&A with Caroline Bock

Caroline Bock’s debut short story collection, Carry Her Home, is the winner of the 2018 Washington Writers’ Publishing House Fiction Prize and will be published this October. She is the author of the young adult novels Lie and Before My Eyes from St. Martin’s Press. Her creative nonfiction, “Buttons,” was a runner-up in the Bethesda Magazine 2018 essay contest. Her short stories have been published or are forthcoming in Akashic Books, Delmarva Review, Fiction Southeast, Gargoyle, 100 Word Story, and Vestal Review and appear in several anthologies. Currently a lecturer in the English Department at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia, she is at work on a new novel set in 2099. She lives in Maryland. More at www.carolinebock.com.

Bock’s nonfiction, “A Life of Close Critique,” appeared in LPR’s Summer Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link).

Q: “A Life of Close Critique” takes us through a writing workshop into a paragraph packed with memories of the “fog gathering at two in the morning,” obscuring what’s sex and what’s love. So that readers can read for themselves, I’ll ask you instead about writing as part of a critique group. How does your current group operate?

I’m actually part of two critique groups. The one that I refer to in this flash fiction is my “long” critique group. I know it’s a bit ironical that I write short nonfiction about this fiction group. About five years ago, when I first moved to Maryland from Long Island, New York, I enrolled in a short story class at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda and met the core group of my critique group. We meet every four to five weeks in the evening at one of our homes, after circulating pages a week or so beforehand. We share a light dinner. We drink wine. Not too much. We are friends, but even more so, we are writers on this journey together. We often ask ourselves: Will I ever finish this story? This novel? In addition, once every four to five weeks, I meet with my flash fiction group, at lunchtime, no wine. We write up to 1,000 words, usually based on a prompt. I find that the more you write, the more you write; so, I love being part of these two groups. I completed most of the 47 short stories in my debut collection, Carry Her Home, while being part of these critique groups.

Q: That there’s at least some sort of age gap in your group seems from “A Life of Close Critique” like a strength to your group. Maybe diversity in other ways helps as well. Do you agree?

Right now we are all women in my “long” fiction critique group with an almost thirty year age gap from the youngest to the oldest. For a long time, we did have a guy in our group, and having a male point of view was invaluable. I’ve written another story about this group, “The Critique Group,” which is in my new collection, about how the pheromones in the room changed when he entered the room. Now, I understand that this is the slimmest idea of diversity. But it takes effort and luck to bring different voices together. My flash fiction group includes more diversity in terms of the race, ethnicity, and backgrounds—and I will often share the same work in both groups and see the different responses, which is extremely helpful in my revision process. I believe a literary magazine like Little Patuxtent Review does an enormous service to bring diverse voices together. As a writer, I find that one of the most important things I can do is to challenge myself to read diverse voices—and to read widely. I mean diverse authors writing in varying literary genres in order to be in touch with what is happening in the in the literary world—and in the world­—now.

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Meet Our Contributors: Q&A with Faye McCray

Faye McCray is an author and essayist whose popular essays on love, life, and parenting have been featured in My Brown Baby, For Harriet, Madame Noire, Black and Married with Kids, and other popular publications. She is the editor-in-chief and cofounder of Weemagine, a website devoted to celebrating and inspiring all children and the people who love them. Faye is also the author of a collection of positive affirmations for children, I am loved! By day, she is an attorney and married mother of three boys. She is also a master’s in writing candidate at Johns Hopkins University. You can find Faye on the web at www.fayemccray.com.

Faye’s poem, “Virgin in Harlem,” appeared in LPR’s Summer Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link).

Q: I notice you’re a Hopkins writing student (which makes me happy because I’m a Hopkins grad). Did “Virgin in Harlem” originate as a class assignment? If so, how did it change through the publishing process?

That’s awesome! I just finished my first year and I’m taking one class at a time! I feel like I have a long way to go. I actually wrote “Virgin in Harlem” a few years ago before I started at Hopkins. Over the years, I have become a hoarder of writing prompts. I find them and stash them away for an uninspired day. The prompt that inspired the poem in LPR was to write about freedom. I immediately went back to a time when I didn’t feel so free. It sort of just collected dust on my computer until one day I was reading old files and I thought, “This isn’t that bad.” I revised it and submitted it.

Q: I’m seeing the child narrator in “Virgin in Harlem”—watching the dancers, holding her mother’s hand, embarrassed of herself, wanting to be free—and thinking there’s some connection inside of you to Weemagine and I am loved! Yes, no, I’m crazy?

Wow. That’s a really great observation. What inspired “Virgin in Harlem” and what motivates Weemagine and I am loved! are definitely connected. I am still very much in tune with that little girl in “Virgin in Harlem”—afraid of everything but wanting to experience so much! I think my passion for working with and inspiring kids really stems from my desire to encourage that enthusiasm. It’s hard to build up the courage to step into your identity as an artist. I enjoy helping kids see the possibilities.

Q: Your email signature (if I’m allowed to share this) includes this line of James Baldwin’s:

All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up.

Out of curiosity, do you remember when you first read that? And does it mean something different to you now than it did then?

Wow… it’s been there for a while! I probably added that to my email signature before I fully understood what it would mean to me, so what it has meant has absolutely evolved over time. Now, it is a reminder not to shy away from the tough stuff. I’ve learned that readers can pick up on dishonest work. They know when you aren’t telling the whole story… when you’re afraid to tell the whole story. Recently I wrote an open letter to my son that was published in the Huffington Post. Initially, I kind of danced around race because I was afraid to alienate the diverse HuffPo audience. The editor loved the letter but immediately picked up on it. She encouraged me to go there. To talk about the fears unique to me as a black mother of black sons. I did and the reception was amazing. My goal is to be brave in my writing. If it doesn’t make me a little uncomfortable or a little emotional or even a little scared, it probably isn’t worth revealing.

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Meet Our Contributors: Q&A with Tracy Dimond

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Tracy Dimond co-curates Ink Press Productions. A 2016 Baker Artist Award finalist, she is the author of four chapbooks, most recently To Tracy Like / To Like / Like (Akinoga Press, 2018). She holds her MFA in creative writing and publishing arts from the University of Baltimore. Find her online at tracydimond.tumblr.com and on Twitter @snarkysyntax.

Dimond’s poem, “Landscape / Landscape / Land Escape,” appeared in LPR’s Summer Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link).

Q: You have a chapbook titled To Tracy Like / To Like / Like and a poem titled “Landscape / Landscape / Land Escape.” Is there a word for this sort of wordplay?

Other than repetition, I haven’t encountered a word for it. Most of what I learn comes from reading and learning with the ear–I am influenced by the work of Claudia Rankine, Dorothea Lasky, Brenda Shaughnessy, and Gertrude Stein. Stein especially uses repetition and slight sound changes to create a newness of understanding in her work. I love listening to recordings and getting lost in the sound. Lasky will repeat or rephrase lines to create a feeling. There’s something about Rankine and Shaughnessy that circles back, and then moves forward. If there is a formal term for these techniques, someone should write it in the comments.

Q: In this artist statement you write that you “interrogate the role of the female body and what it means to have chronic pain in my poetry.” That struck me because I hadn’t noticed chronic pain when I first read your poem. I re-read some lines with a new sense of what might be behind them, like this one, “A billboard / screams Go outside and live! Thank you for the / feedback.”

I wonder if that could be part of the point – it can be so easy to miss the pain others suffer beneath the surface. But when we’re aware of that possibility, it creates a new empathy within us. Or I’m totally off, which would be quite normal?

Possibility in new understanding may be why I write poetry. I pull from things I read and overhear to create a feeling for the reader. Saying “this hurts” doesn’t connect in the same way a specific experience does–I’m trying to communicate the physical cost of having a body. Everyday things like advertisements on billboards, in a new context, can create new understanding. They set a tone for how we frame the world, whether it’s accepting or pushing against a role. I hope the unusual syntax that can be used in poetry illuminates how unnatural and imbalanced social constructs are–so we can talk about how to change them.

Q: How did pain become such a topic for you?

It’s always been a part of my life. That sounds so dramatic.

I started swimming seriously at a young age. The sport is built on repetition and refinement, like ballet. Zadie Smith wrote in Swing Time, “Elegance attracted me. I liked the way it hid pain.” Swimming for hours, staring at a black line in a chlorinated pool, is physically and mentally painful, but feels special when the strokes look effortless in competition. I’ve ingrained that sort of struggle–feeling pain, but hiding it–in my writing.

More literally, since my teens, I’ve had intense pain with my period. I’ll be pretty specific here because I’ve seen other women open up or go to the doctor after hearing someone else’s story. By my mid-twenties, I would spend a month (usually feeling some version of awful for at least 2 or 3 weeks a month–if you’re counting, that gives me about a week of feeling OK) with a low-grade fever and sweating from the pain of cramps, probably throwing up. Time is critical when you’re in cycles of pain–you know it’s coming, you have to prepare, you hope it’s different this time. My concerns had been dismissed so often by doctors that I had convinced myself I was being weak. It took until 29 to find a doctor that said, and then confirmed with surgery, that the amorphous pain is/was endometriosis. It’s a travesty that chronic illnesses, especially autoimmune illnesses characterized by pain and experienced by individuals with female reproductive organs, are dismissed. I’m still navigating how I write about my experience in the broader context of illness and disability in writing.

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What’s To Like? Derrick Weston Brown’s “Bruuuuuh…”

George Clack is a board member of the Little Patuxent Review. In this post, he shares one of his “Staff Picks” from the Summer Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link).

At the Little Patuxent Review’s Summer Issue launch reading on June 2nd, Derrick Weston Brown blew me away with his reading of his poem “Bruuuuuh or When Brothers Debate Black Panther in a Safeway Parking Lot: A Found (Overheard) Poem.” It’s a poem that feels as if it wants to be performed but a work that also offers the pleasures of a close reading on the printed page.

Virtue #1: authenticity, the ultimate literary value for me. It’s the writer’s ability to make me believe in his story, his setting, his tropes, his you-name-it. Call it the art of the real. To my ancient white guy’s ear, this poem pulses with authenticity. Brown creates this effect primarily through an old reliable technique, putting the vernacular—or, as some might say, the language of the street—to use for some serious fun.

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Meet Our Contributors: Q&A with Anthony Moll

Anthony Moll is a poet, essayist, and educator. He holds an MFA in creative writing & publishing arts and is completing his PhD in poetry & Queer theory. His chapbook about the melancholy of the modern workplace, Go to the Ant, O Sluggard, is available from Akinoga Press. His debut memoir, Out of Step, won the 2017 Non/Fiction Prize from The Journal and will be available in July 2018 from Mad Creek Books.

Moll’s poem, “A Jumpmaster in DuPont Circle,” appeared in LPR’s Winter Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link). He read this poem and other work at our issue launch in January (video below).

Our Summer Issue 2018 launch is on Sunday, June 3, at 2 p.m. (information on our events page).

Q: You said at the launch that this was your third try submitting poems to your friend and our editor, Steven Leyva. Can you say something for our readers about the persistence required for publishing?

Yeah, at the launch reading I mentioned how even though the editor of LPR is a close friend of mine, I twice had poems rejected from the journal before this poem was accepted. For readers worried about rejection, I think this demonstrates two (sort of conflicting) ideas:

1) Rejection can be an act of love—to have a piece rejected that isn’t yet ready can be a good thing for writers submitting their work. In the long run, I’d rather have a smart editor say no to a piece that isn’t yet done than to have work with my name on it out there in the world when it isn’t yet fully polished. BUT,

2) Editors have their own tastes and biases too, so writers really need patience if they’re going to find the right home for their work. Sure, in some instances that work might not be ready, but there are also cases in which a writer is submitting solid, well-developed writing that just doesn’t fit an editor’s taste, a publication’s literary aesthetic, or an issue’s vision/theme.

One of the skills that writers need to develop (and continually recalibrate) is the ability to determine when one needs to keep looking for a home for a piece, and when one needs to pause and turn back to revision.

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Meet the Neighbors: Q&A with Meera Trehan

Meera Trehan was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in nearby Virginia. After attending the University of Virginia and Stanford Law School, she practiced public interest law for over a decade before turning to creative writing. Her work for children has been published in various magazines. Her first novel is The Science of Seeing. Trehan lives in Maryland with her family.

Q: When you were working as a lawyer, were you also writing on the side?

No. A lot of my work as a lawyer involved writing, but even though I was an avid reader and loved the idea of writing creatively, it didn’t occur to me that it was something I could actually do.

Q: What gave you the confidence to focus on creative writing?

After thinking about it for much too long, I took a class at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda and then another and then another (and then one at Politics and Prose). I also worked through the exercises in Steering the Craft by Ursula LeGuin, as well as other books on craft. Eventually, I joined SCBWI (Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) where I had my work critiqued by authors, agents, and editors. All of these things were crucial to my development as a writer.

But I don’t want to imply that I always feel confident! Confidence is elusive. One day you have it, the next day you don’t. Part of writing, in my experience, is pushing through on those harder days, knowing you can revise, and if there’s an aspect of craft that’s holding you back, working on that.

 Q: How did you end up writing for children and young adults?

I had an idea for a YA book with a teenage protagonist during the first class I took at The Writer’s Center and when I gave the one-minute summary to Susan Land, my teacher at the time, she told me that was the book I should be writing. I didn’t believe her at first, but after a few years of the characters rattling around my head, I got there. Joining SCBWI was also instrumental to teaching me about the children’s market and connecting with other writers.

Q: Does writing for younger audiences require any sort of special approach?

Yes and no. I think about the audience when I first get the idea for the story and particularly when I’m developing the protagonist(s)—who for a middle grade or young adult book will be about the age of the targeted readers or a little older. Getting that perspective and that voice right is critical. And when I have a close-to-final draft, I edit with my audience in mind, in case I’ve accidentally slipped into my lawyer-voice. But when I’m in the middle of drafting, I just focus on trying to tell a story that moves, with characters who are real, and that ultimately feels true.

I think it’s important not to underestimate young audiences or write down to them. The basics of craft are equally important for any readership.

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