Paul Rucker: Featured Artist for Winter 2018 Issue

One of the most distinctive features of LPR is that we feature an artist’s profile and work in each issue. Paul Rucker, who created the installation on racism called REWIND, is our featured artist for the upcoming Winter 2018 issue. Ann Bracken, LPR’s deputy editor, interviewed Rucker this fall. Enjoy!

An Interview with Featured Artist Paul Rucker

Paul Rucker explains his approach this way: “I want to deal with the truth. The ‘I know’ rather than the ‘I feel’ or ‘I think.’” History is what drives Rucker’s art, along with his passion for educating people on the relationship between slavery, structural racism, and mass incarceration.

Photo of Paul Rucker

Paul Rucker

He’s a visual artist, musician, and collector who likes to tell stories. He uses the objects in his collection to create art exhibits that are designed to present facts and promote discussion about history and societal issues.

Because Rucker’s work deals with the relationship between slavery and the prison-industrial complex, you might expect his collection to relate to these topics. “I have a little museum,” he told me, “and many of the pieces I’ve collected become part of my exhibitions.” One of the objects in his collection is a 50-pound ball and chain that was used to keep the convicts from escaping. After slavery ended, many states leased convicts to do the work that slaves were no longer required to do for free. In a Baltimore Sun article about Rucker’s REWIND exhibit, there’s a striking photo of him holding the iron ball. “I dropped that ball on my foot and broke my big toe,” he told me when we spoke.

Rucker also has a collection of books espousing white supremacy and justifying slavery. Two notable and disturbing titles are The Negro: A Menace to American Civilization by R. W. Schufeldt, M.D., and White Supremacy and Negro Subordination by John H. VanEvry, also a physician. Both of these books are part of the REWIND exhibit, as are branding irons used on slaves. Rucker lets the objects speak the truth of history.

Paul Rucker has a distinguished list of grants, awards, and residencies for visual art and music. In 2012, Rucker became a creative capital grantee in visual art as well as a 2014 MAP (Multi-Arts Production) fund grantee for performance. In 2015, Rucker received two awards—the Mary Sawyer Baker Award along with the distinguished Joan Mitchell Painters & Sculptors Grant. Rucker received the Rauschenberg Artist as Activist fellowship in 2016 and the Smithsonian Artist Research fellowship, which bestows on him the privilege of being the first artist in residence at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Among his many residencies are the MacDowell Colony, Ucross Foundation, Art OMI, Banff Centre, Rauschenberg Residency, Joan Mitchell Residency, Hemera Artist Retreat, Air Serembe, Creative Alliance, and the Rockefeller Foundation Study Center in Bellagio, Italy. Closer to home, from 2013 to 2015 the Maryland Institute College of Art hosted Rucker as the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation artist in residence and research fellow.

Now Rucker can add Richmond, Virginia, to his other two cities of residence—Baltimore and Seattle. Virginia Commonwealth University named him an iCubed (Inclusion, Inquiry, and Innovation) visiting arts fellow embedded at the Institute for Contemporary Art, where he’ll teach a music course in the spring of 2018. Most recently, he was awarded a 2017 John Simon Guggenheim fellowship, and he’s currently spearheading a Kickstarter campaign to fund more exhibitions of REWIND across the country.

Little Patuxent Review: How does the REWIND exhibit speak to what’s going on in the United States right now? In particular, how does the exhibit speak to the societal tensions in Baltimore?

Paul Rucker: The exhibit speaks to more than societal tensions in Baltimore; the same things are happening all across the United States. I live in both Seattle and Baltimore, and both cities have similar problems. The redlining that began in Baltimore moved across the country to Seattle.

Some places are amplifications of the issues; others are subtler. REWIND is about history from a place of “I know.” I created a 30-page newspaper full of historical information and photographs as part of the exhibition. People need to know what came before in this country to understand where we are now. For example, in the 1920s, there were four to five million members of the Ku Klux Klan, all organized to protect white culture. Now we have a variety of groups, widely dispersed and less organized—the Neo-Nazis, Pro-Confederates, White Nationalists. Richard Spencer can barely get 100 people to come out when he speaks. If we look at this a different way, if ten people on a college campus came to hear Spencer’s speech, seven would just be curious, two might be followers, and one person would be there due to taking a wrong turn in the hall.

The people we really need to be concerned about are all of the white suburbanites and even white progressives who benefit from the structural racism in this country.

LPR: How do you see us—as a country—turning that around?

PR: First people have to know that the situation [structural racism] exists and that it affects some people more than others. I was reading the other day that if we allow society to keep going the way that it is now, in 2053 Black Americans will have a net worth of $0. Why is the average white family worth so much more than the average Black family? Is it because they work so much harder? Where are the nice Black neighborhoods? They don’t exist in any city.

Things have not improved in Baltimore despite having a Black mayor or a Black police commissioner, even with the country having a Black president for eight years. Mayor Pugh can give great speeches and she gets a lot of credit for taking down Confederate monuments, but she vetoed a $15/hour minimum wage. Taking down a few monuments does not address poverty, inadequate schools, or systemic racism. We had eight years of Obama, and even he couldn’t talk about race or white privilege. Why can white people’s kids feel free to walk to the store safely without fear of being shot, and buy Skittles and some juice, but Black kids can’t? That’s white privilege.

LPR: I read in one of your interviews that you wanted to do a piece on Freddie Gray. Have you?

PR: I’m still thinking about it. You know, that situation isn’t over yet; things are still going on. The police officers are on trial again, and three of them are Black. Right around the time of the uprising, I did an exhibit with flag-covered coffins at Baltimore City Hall. But when I do an exhibit or a new art piece, it’s all connected. It’s meant for everyone that’s been a victim of terrorism.

LPR: As part of the inaugural Light City Baltimore Festival, you shone a spotlight on places around the city where African men, women, and children were sold, and then you composed a cello solo for each site. Which site was most evocative or disturbing for your audience? How did people respond?

PR: I actually performed my cello compositions at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, so that was a separate event. But the exhibit, which I named “In Light of History,” had eight separate installations along Pratt Street at the Inner Harbor. Each exhibit had an old street light and a sign detailing why the spot was significant. Many of the installations dealt with the buying and selling of slaves, with the text coming directly from old ads in the Baltimore Sun. One document that I purchased is a bill of sale for a three-year-old slave. As soon as you could walk, you were a slave. At the harbor in Baltimore, the point of entry into the United States, you entered as a slave. Location number eight was at

O’Donnell’s Wharf, which was a location for “incoming and outgoing brigs and barques where dockside sales of enslaved people took place.”

LPR: How did the audience respond?

PR: Mostly with disbelief. You never learned this in history class, did you? You know, the Inner Harbor is a place of beauty. People shop, go out to eat. These locations were never marked before, and they’re not marked now.

LPR: What are some other events related to slavery that people find unbelievable?

PR: The early slave trade began in Boston and Richmond, but Baltimore was included as well. People tend to think of slavery as happening only in the Deep South—places like South Carolina and Mississippi—but it happened all over the U.S. Just recently, people discovered a slave burial ground in Tribeca—that’s in New York City. They estimate that between 15,000 and 30,000 people are buried there. Some as young as five years old. The archeologists could see that many of them were worked to death because of their bone structure. White people aren’t buried in mass graves, at least in the U.S.

LPR: Tell me a little about your journey as a musician. What led you to choose the cello, and how would you describe your technique?

PR: Actually, I began as a double-bass player in elementary school, and then I played in college. At some point, I decided I wanted to learn the cello, so I bought one for $1000 and never took a lesson. I play differently from anyone else. I make up ways of approaching the instrument, and I improvise music on the spot. I’ve played with a number of orchestras, including the South Carolina Philharmonic, the Augusta Symphony, and the Ashville Symphony. Right now I have a performance piece called “Stories from the Trees” where I play music to animated postcards that depict lynchings.

My exhibit on the Klan features one actual Klan robe and several others made out of different fabrics. The exhibit was inspired by my time playing with the Augusta Opera in 1989, where I first saw Ku Klux Klan members.

LPR: You were awarded a 2017 Rauschenberg Fellowship for the Artist as Activist to dig deeper into the mass incarceration crisis. Say some more about that.

PR: Well, when people say that the system is broken, they’re actually repeating a false narrative. The system is actually working exactly the way that it was designed to work. People talk about the disproportionality in education from one community to another, but that’s because of the system that’s in place. We need to be asking why the education system disproportionally helps one community more than another. In the last election, the poor whites spoke out. And how do we justify the treatment of imprisoned people? What about when we say “He can do better than that. Pull himself up by his bootstraps.” First, a person needs to have some bootstraps.

In my exhibit “Proliferation,” where I show how many prisons have been built in the U.S. between 1778 and 2008, I use lights in different colors to show how many prisons were built in various time periods. By far the greatest boom in prison construction took place between 1981 and 2008. I get a variety of different responses from people. Some say they can’t believe we waste that kind of money. Other people cry.

LPR: In one of your recent interviews you said, Well, I did a TED Talk over a year ago in Berkeley talking about how they were using the word “thug” to describe Trayvon [Martin]. I said, “‘thug’ is the new ‘nigger.’” It’s a kind of coded language. And even the smartest people are not aware of how this language is being used. It gets into the news, even into the textbooks. How do we work to reclaim language and call out the code words for what they are?

PR: I am reclaiming symbols to tell the truth. I have a collection of branding irons, Klan robes, and books about White Supremacy as well as pro-slavery books that I bought from private collectors on eBay. I want to tell the true story of these items. Think about this language: How does it work when we have a team with owners? When the members of that team can be traded? Why are all of the owners white? Are they working in a field? Think about it.

We need to talk about how the narrative is framed when we discuss people. Who are our archetypes? What does a doctor look like? What does a genius look like? How do we frame history? My family’s been in this country a lot longer than many white people. Wealthy people want to control the narrative to justify the power they have.

LPR: Some public figures are using what could be called coded language to talk about the protests in the NFL regarding police brutality. For example, Owner Bob McNair said, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison.”

PR: I’m glad he said it. A lot of other people think it as well.

LPR: What do you see as an appropriate action for football players to take in response to his comments?

PR: Wouldn’t it be great if all of the Black players formed a superstar team? A Black-owned team? That would be a most amazing thing.

LPR: Your exhibit REWIND draws parallels between police violence and lynching and slavery and the prison systems. For those that haven’t seen the exhibit, can you describe “Excessive Use”?

PR: I wanted to explore what it was like to carry a weapon, so I got a permit for concealed carry and bought a Glock 22 40-caliber pistol. I wanted to know how it feels to pull the trigger, to shoot 50 or 137 bullets into someone. The exhibit features pieces of white paper with the names of people who’ve been murdered by police. Each piece of paper is named by the date and location of the tragedy and has the exact number of bullet holes that the bodies endured. I use my art as a way of showing what happens as opposed to simply talking about it.

LPR: Recently, both Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow and Ava DuVernay in her film 13th have discussed the movement from slavery to the current system of mass incarceration. Talk about how your work addresses the trajectory from slave labor to convict leasing to the current labor system that operates in prisons across the U.S.

PR: While I admire the work of Michelle Alexander and Eva DuVernay, I think we first need to give credit to Angela Davis for her 1997 speech “The Prison Industrial Complex.” You know, this prison system of labor is extremely profitable. Davis warned about that system and said that it would continue to grow. I had to fund my own projects because years ago, no one would fund me to talk about mass incarceration. Then several of my friends told me about the Rauschenberg call for projects. I applied, and I was awarded the funding.

LPR: Since the 1970s, the U.S. has seen an explosion in the building of prisons. Your performance piece, “Proliferation,” deals with this issue in an especially provocative manner. You cite the statistic that the U.S. has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prison population. Describe “Proliferation,” talk a bit about the genesis of the idea, and talk about what you hope audiences will take away from it.

PR: The map that I use in the exhibit came from the Prison Policy Initiative, and they were happy to have me animate what they had put together. I want to show, not tell. There are 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S. People don’t understand this is happening, and “Proliferation” is another way of telling the story. But all of us benefit from the system of prison labor in the U.S. Some of the biggest U.S. corporations use prison labor, including Bank of America, GEICO, Walmart, and ATT. According to the UNICOR website (formerly the Federal Prison Industries) prisoners earn between $0.23 and $1.15 per hour.

LPR: In other interviews that I’ve read, you’ve said that your work is not about race, it’s about power. Can you expand on that idea? How does that relate to the current situation in Baltimore with the trial boards and the officers involved in Freddie Gray’s murder?

PR: The system is about maintaining the power that people already have. Let’s think about the Baltimore Police. The Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, but slavery wasn’t officially ended in Maryland until November 1, 1864. In 1862, a uniformed version of the Baltimore Police Department was established. What were the police used for? To keep communities in place first of all. Then they served as the public face to enforce redlining to be sure that “those people” don’t move into white communities. It’s about power.

LPR: What most inspires you to keep creating visual art and music?

PR: I enjoy telling stories. The power of the artist is to make the unseen seen, and I enjoy doing that.

And we need to talk about privilege. Everyone needs to look at their privilege. Look around your neighborhood. If there are no Black folks living in your neighborhood, you need to ask why. Black neighbors matter. If there aren’t any Blacks in your workplace, you need to ask why. Black jobs matter.

LPR: What is the role of hope in your work?

PR: Hope comes through knowledge. You can’t have hope unless you have something to believe in. When you learn that a system is stacked against you, that you’re not here out of any fault of your own, then you can begin to address the system. REWIND gives me hope.

~Ann Bracken, Contributing/Deputy Editor

Videos featuring Paul Rucker and his work

Real New Network Interview: “The System is Based on Profit” 

Paul Rucker at TED-X: An Artist Copes with Reality

Paul Rucker is a visual artist, composer, and musician who often combines media, integrating live performance, sound, original compositions, and visual art. His work is the product of a rich interactive process, through which he investigates community impacts, human rights issues, historical research, and basic human emotions surrounding particular subject matters. Much of his current work focuses on the Prison Industrial Complex and the many issues accompanying incarceration in its relationship to slavery. He has presented performances and visual art exhibitions across the country and has collaborated with educational institutions to address the issue of mass incarceration. Presentations have taken place in schools, active prisons, and inactive prisons such as Alcatraz.

Rucker has received numerous grants, awards, and residencies for visual art and music. He is a 2012 Creative Capital grantee in visual art as well as a 2014 MAP (Multi-Arts Production) fund grantee for performance. In 2015 he received a prestigious Joan Mitchell Painters & Sculptors Grant as well as the Mary Sawyer Baker Award. In 2016 Paul received the Rauschenberg Artist as Activist fellowship and the Smithsonian Artist Research fellowship, for which he is the first artist in residence at the new National Museum of African American Culture.

Ann Bracken is the author of two collections of poetry, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom (2017) and The Altar of Innocence (2015), both published by New Academia Publishing’s Scarith imprint, and the deputy editor for Little Patuxent Review. Her poetry, essays, and interviews have appeared in anthologies and journals, including Bared: Contemporary Poetry and Art on Bras and Breasts, New Verse News, Reckless Writing Anthology: Emerging Poets of the 21st Century, and Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence. She co-hosts the popular reading series Wilde Readings and offers poetry and writing workshops in prisons, adult education centers and schools, and at creativity conferences.



Steven Leyva: The Editor’s Reflections

Three years ago, Laura Shovan called me to offer the position of Editor of the Little Patuxent Review. I was, of course, both flabbergasted and flattered, having only recently been published in LPR through the Enoch Pratt Free Poetry Contest (1st runner up). Laura and I didn’t know each other well, but I knew her reputation as an insightful, kind, and attentive editor of a regional literary journal that always managed to land some pretty big name interviews. That phone call is one of three literary moments that profoundly affected me as a writer. The other two are being selected as a Cave Canem Fellow and finishing my MFA at the University of Baltimore.

Steven Leyva, Editor

From the moment I said yes to the offer, I knew that I was both entering an organization with a good foundation and one that I could help move forward in various ways. I saw my role as twofold – act as a good steward of LPR’s egalitarian ethos and seek out excellent writing from diverse voices. I thought of the literary journal as serving the same purpose as the old town halls. LPR would be a meeting place for the community, by providing an ether of ideas and the physical space for literary events and readings. Get sharp people in the same (metaphorical) room and good things will happen was my unspoken motto.

Looking back on three years of editing with its ebbs and flows, I am most proud of how often LPR had the privilege to publish women of color. One particular issue, Summer 2015, is one where I think LPR grew close to having its pages look like the demographic landscape of central Maryland, and the Mid-Atlantic region as a whole. That issue featured the poets, t’ai freedom ford, Rachel Nelson, Breauna L. Roach, and Mary More Easter, alongside fiction by Nandini Dhar and others. The audience of the launch reading for that issue looked like the 95 corridor from DC to New York. Black, brown, and white faces beamed as authors read their work aloud. People talked, mingled, and shared stories during the reception afterwards. It wasn’t a perfect representation of diversity, but there was growth from where LPR had been. And that growth felt sustainable, without gimmick, and without any whispers of tokenism. And I think beyond any individual examples, honest and equitable growth towards building diverse literary spaces is a goal we reach towards in every issue.

As LPR continues to grow I don’t want to lose sight of the rhizomes that connect the journal to its local communities, but I also want that network of roots to expand. We can to do more to be a welcoming space for LGBTQ artists and writers. We can do more to bring the journal to different economic communities around the region. Not everyone can make it to Columbia, MD, twice a year for a launch event, particularly if you don’t own a car. We can do more to highlight emerging visual artists and put them in conversation with diverse communities. There is always more to be done, but I have come to realize that the literary journal isn’t the finish line. It’s the baton. The goal isn’t to run as hard as you can, passing all others, but rather to hand the baton off well. And anyone who’s ever run a relay can tell you that it requires trust, patience, and practice. I look forward to continuing to cultivate all three in the issues ahead.

Robin Talbert’s Essay: “Please,North Carolina,Be the State of Love”

Robin Talbert serves as one of LPR’s nonfiction reviewers and graciously granted us permission to reprint her essay.  Talbert offers us a lot to consider about making our society more just, welcoming, and inclusive.

Byline: By Robin Talbert, Reprinted from The Charlotte Observer

When I was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains, I was quietly aware of disparities that seemed both commonplace and unfair. We sang a song in Sunday school that instilled in us the belief that Jesus loved everyone, regardless of color. We took it to heart as we innocently sang the well-intentioned, if insensitive, words, “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

In those days, North Carolina was a segregated society. The rural Appalachian county where we lived was home to neither the KKK nor to civil rights activists, but Jim Crow was the cultural norm. In our small cotton mill town, blacks lived on a dirt road, referred to as the white line. Black men worked as janitors and black women in white people’s homes cooking, cleaning, and caring for children. African-American children were bused miles away to attend the county’s “colored” schools.

Robin Talbert

Gradually, things began to change. Church seemed to be one place where soul-searching about racism and segregation could happen. I’ve never forgotten the night our youth group leader made a confession. He was a young, “cool” high school teacher, and the older teens looked up to him.
Pacing and sweating, he told us about attending a meeting in a town nearby. Both white and black leaders were there. That would have been unusual, perhaps a first for him, as it would have been for most of us. He said that after the event ended, he went directly to the restroom and washed his hands. After some self-reflection, he realized he was washing because he had shaken hands with a black man.

Like a good educator and preacher, he taught us with a parable so vivid, so personal, so disturbing, that none of us could help but wonder if we would have done the same thing. Racism, we learned from him that evening, was a sin we might not even be aware we were committing.

When I started elementary school, my naïve belief that North Carolina was part of the north during the Civil War was shattered. No matter how eager I was to be a Carolinian on the good side, our state had a long way to go. But that young white teacher at my church, and many others, wanted to change. They inspired us. They eventually led us in peaceful integration of our schools. We wanted to do the right thing. We wanted to live up the teachings of Jesus.

“Political correctness” was neither a phrase nor a value in those days. Coming to terms with our history, culture, and personal beliefs and actions on race was a moral imperative.

Over the past several decades, North Carolina has made much progress towards racial equality. Yet there is still much to be done. Minority voting rights are threatened, and now there are new targets for bigotry – including immigrants and gay and transgender people.

It appears to me North Carolina is, once again, at a crossroads. Communities face a choice between values that are forged in fear and disdain, or those that spring from love and acceptance for all – regardless of race, religion, country of origin, gender preference or identity. We all must look in the mirror sometimes to examine the roots of our discomfort, to challenge our assumptions and stereotypes, and to question our actions and reactions.

When our older son was about 10, he figured out that some of his relatives in North Carolina were in a different political party than his parents. “But they go to church,” he said, struggling to reconcile what to him was inconsistent. I explained that good people could have different political beliefs. I want to believe that, and I hope and pray that our nation is able to overcome disharmony by focusing on what we have in common, while also embracing our diversity.

I’m proud of my home state for many reasons – mountains and beaches, music and culture, barbecue and basketball. I hope the good and gentle people who live there don’t give in to the haters. Please, North Carolina, be the state of acceptance. Be the state of love.

End Note: This article was first published by The Charlotte Observer on May 6, 2017.

Bio: Robin Talbert’s work has appeared in The Healing Muse, Chest, Anthology of Appalachian Writers, Better After 50, Global Impact, and Stoneboat, and was included in Ekphrasis,an exhibit presented by the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland.  She is a book reviewer for the Washington Independent Review of Books and a nonfiction reviewer for The Little Patuxent Review.   A nonprofit management consultant, she was formerly a legal aid lawyer and was President of the AARP Foundation.

Introducing Julia Gerhardt: LPR’s New Online Editor

The LPR staff and board are happy to welcome Julia Gerhardt as our new online editor. Julia worked as an intern for us and volunteered as a poetry reader from August 2016 to May 2017.  Desiree Magney, our co-publisher,  and I met her when we all worked at the AWP conference in February of this year. We’re all looking forward to Julia’s contributions and the fresh energy she’ll bring to the LPR blog. Welcome, Julia.


Julia Gerhardt

Dear LPR Readers,

Hello there! My name is Julia Gerhardt, and it is with great pleasure that I write to you as LPR’s new online editor. I’ve noticed that whenever I want to speak honestly with a family member, friend, or beloved, I find myself bent over my desk writing a letter on my old Betty Boop-themed stationary. Now, while I cannot address a letter to every single one of you, the readers, consider this online blog post my personal, open letter to all of you.

Like all the LPR staff, I too, love reading and writing, although my relationship to literature had a fairly tumultuous start. When I was in first grade, I refused to read and write. I have a sister who is five-and-a-half years older than I and was getting straight A’s at the time, so the bar in my family was set pretty high. Instead of trying to reach for it, I gave up thinking that I would never be as smart as her (completely unaware that I would ever get any older and smarter). So, after refusing to read and write, it was either repeating another year or attending summer school. Summer school it was, and I abhorred it. My teacher was tough, the workload was heavy, (for a five-year-old that is) and the summer was hot. Yet, it was that tough-love attitude of my teacher that finally got me to start reading. Her stature may have been short, but her big, frizzy, gray curls, commanding voice, and piercing brown eyes always made her presence known in a room. The best way to avoid that eye contact was planting my face in a book, and so I did, again and again and again until I loved it.

My love for reading and writing continued into Goucher College where I received my bachelor’s degree in English with a concentration in creative writing. Prior to entering college, my only editors were my mother and my sister who were the equivalent of the good cop, bad cop dynamic of writing. My mom was in constant praise of my work (even when undeserving), and my sister would take a literary knife to my essays until they bled red ink, always holding me to a higher standard. In all honesty, while I’m grateful for both types of feedback, my sister prepared me for only half the critiques I would get in college.

I wrote my first short story for a beginning fiction class my freshman year of college. It was a stream-of-consciousness piece from the perspective of an eight-year-old British boy. Friendly reminder: I had never been to England at that time, and all the British vernacular that I used I found on the internet. Needless to say, it was not a success story, and my classmates’ responses were clear on that score. While devastating to my freshman ego, that failed attempt at a story was the best thing to happen to my writing process. I realized that the more people critiqued my writing, the more they cared. After four years of people caring, I’ve grown a tough hide to criticism, but an open heart to feedback. My efforts resulted in my first short story being published during my junior year in a magazine called Sun & Sandstone.


Since graduating college, I took the opportunity to travel and backpack through Europe alone. I should mention that I am so geographically inept, I once got lost in my own city for over an hour. However, this extended trip was an opportunity to prove to myself that I could trust my instincts and my intuition a little more. While abroad, I traveled throughout England, Scotland, and Italy. In the United Kingdom I visited various friends; however, while in Italy, I worked as a farmer for an organic vineyard through the World Wide Opportunities for Organic Farming (WWOOF) network. I earned a fellowship from Goucher College to write a short story based on my experiences working in a vineyard and learning more about Italian wine culture. Now that I am safely back in the United States, I’m happy to report that I have not gotten lost in the city.

So there you have it—my troubled writing past and my hopeful writing endeavors for the future. While navigating post-grad life as a young writer isn’t easy, I’m grateful to be writing and learning the way with you.

Yours truly,

Julia Gerhardt

Interview with Linda Moghadam

To celebrate Little Patuxent Review’s tenth anniversary, we’re highlighting previous posts.

Linda Moghadam, 2015.

Linda Moghadam, 2015.

I used to fear going inside a prison. Like many people, my ideas were fueled by media portrayals of the “hardened criminals” who exist behind the walls, locked away from society. But in recent years, thanks to Michelle Alexander’s fine work The New Jim Crow, I’d learned more about how the prison system operates and could see that, in many ways, our current criminal justice system was stacked against poor and minority populations.

The radio show Crossroads, a weekly radio program on WPFW in Washington, DC, hosted by Roach Brown only reinforced what I learned about prisoners from Michelle Alexander’s work.

Brown identifies himself as a former inmate and a national advocate for the men and women in and out of our prisons. Every week, he relates stories of former inmates who struggle to make a better life for themselves but face tremendous obstacles to reentering society. I’ve learned a lot from listening to Brown’s personal tale as well as the stories of countless men and women—many of whom freely admit to making bad decisions as young people and serving long years locked away. Their stories revealed to me a human side of the people we lump into the category of criminals. After a couple of years as a steady listener, my fears melted a little as I began to understand the complexity of their lives and to hear over and over again how many of them work to improve themselves in prison, much like Brown did, and how many want to give back to society in a positive way.

Because of my feelings, I had been already thinking about visiting a prison and myself offering a writing group even before I met Linda Moghadam and learned of her work at the Patuxent Institution. I felt a kinship with Linda as we sat in her office at the University of Maryland College Park, and chatted about her background, her interests, and her experiences with running a writing group at Jessup for the past eight years.

Linda Moghadam received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees as well as her and Ph.D. in Sociology (1989) from the University of Maryland College Park. She has served as the Director of the Sociology Undergraduate Program since 1989 and also lectures on the sociology of education. Her areas of interest include work and family, inequality issues, and education.

Ann Bracken: Tell me how you came to work at the Patuxent Institution. How long have you been volunteering there?

Linda Moghadam: I started volunteering in the college program at Patuxent (a partnership between Anne Arundel Community College and Patuxent Institution, funded by a small grant) eight years ago.  The college program was active for a little more than ten years and was quite successful.  Over 50 men and women (there is a small women’s unit at Patuxent – kept separate from the men’s) earned associates degrees.  Ed Duke administered the program and ran it on a shoestring.   When the funds ran out, we were able to raise enough money to allow those closest to an AA degree to graduate.

AB: What can you tell me about the programs that were there at the time?

LM: During that time there were several enrichment programs (resumes workshops, social entrepreneurship programs) available.  The end of the college program was accompanied by an end to these programs.  I stayed on and did a writing workshop with a group of interested men, most of whom I had taught in various sociology courses.  The chaplain’s wife, who is an art teacher, also volunteered. She initiated and ran a very successful art program.

AB: How many men are currently in the writing program?

LM: There are ten men in the writing program.  These programs and others could be expanded with additional volunteers.   The members of the writing group are interesting and engaged in their work, the discussions and the work they do are about things that matter.   The time I spend at Patuxent is in many ways one of the best parts of my week.

AB: What has most impressed you about working with the men?

LM: Since the writing and art programs have been in place we have had two joint events that combined presenting the work of the writing group and the art group, along with some musical accompaniment from several of the men.  I have been moved by the energy, hard work and collegiality among the men in producing and performing.  Several of the therapists have also been extremely supportive in helping to arrange these events.  There is a considerable amount of talent among the participants and the opportunity to present their work as well as the opportunity to collaborate with others has had real value.   One of the poets who participated in the first event observed later that it is was the first time he had not felt like a number since he had arrived at Patuxent.

AB: How would you describe your philosophy of life?

LM: I suppose my philosophy of life can be borrowed from the author of the one-act play The Cultivators I sent you.  The play was inspired after the author read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.

“And what does the nettle (seed) need?  Very little soil, no care, no culture; except that the seeds fall as fast as they ripen, and it is difficult to gather them, that is all.  If we would take a few pains, the nettle would be useful; we neglect it, and it becomes harmful.  Then we kill it.  How much men are like the nettle! . . . My friends, remember this, that there are no bad herbs, and no bad men; there are only bad cultivators.”

We read and studying these things, and yet we fail to benefit from their wisdom.

AB: What are the men most interested in learning?

LM:   Just about everything.   Some of the men are voracious readers and are interested in history, literature, science. As you noted during your visit, they put you and me to shame in how well read many of them are. Neither one of us has read Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Proust, yet several of the men had.  They also have an interest in learning more about restorative justice and in finding ways to give back to their communities..

AB: I know that one of the men has written a play. What’s it about?

LM: Actually two men wrote plays. One of the plays was particularly impressive for the way in which it incorporated a vision and understanding of society garnered from literature as well as the social sciences. It’s exciting to observe the ways in which the men have applied what they have learned—both from experience and literature –in their story telling.

AB: What has been the most surprising thing about working with the men?

LM: No real surprises here. When I was growing up, my dad had gotten burned quite a few times by friends – sometimes by family. As a result, his view of the world changed, and he was always telling me that most people were not to be trusted. He was sure that I would learn this lesson eventually.   But working at Patuxent has reinforced my view of the world—most people are good, trying to be better, and sometimes making terrible mistakes. But they’re basically good people. I suspect my father knew this as well, but was trying to protect me.

AB: How has the work changed them? How has it changed you?

LM: At the first program where we did readings, one of the poets made an observation that he found it ironic that he would have to come to prison to find that people would actually care about him. In a subsequent meeting of the writing group, he said that in presenting his poetry, it was the first time since he had arrived at Patuxent that he saw himself as something other than a number.   I hope that both through the college program and the writing and art program – and also the therapy that is provided at Patuxent—they have an opportunity to believe in themselves and discover what they are capable of.

This experience has changed me in all sorts of ways. The men helped me choose a book for my grandson’s 5th-grade graduation. I’ve developed an ongoing appreciation for the many undeserved breaks I’ve had. I realize that great company comes in unexpected places. And I feel a push to read more to keep up with the group.

AB: Anything you’d like to add?

LM: These types of program are important, but, even more, important are policies that stem the flow of our citizens into prison.   You can see from just one meeting with the writing group how talented they are and what they could contribute to society had their early lives been different.

Linda’s words about what the men could contribute once they can return to society reminded me about a program I attended a couple of months ago with Betty May, a theatrical director, writer, high school teacher, circus coach, and clown from Columbia, MD. Betty did a presentation on her book Faces, which details how she worked with women in the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women and helped them put on an original play. May supported the women, all of whom were serving life sentences, as they wrote and performed their original play “Faces,” which was performed at the prison and also found its way to the Kennedy Center Stage. The play told their collective stories to serve as a warning to young people who were on the wrong path in life. The women had one simple wish: “If we can help just one kid, all the work we do will be worth it. “

I feel the same way about the work Linda is doing with the writing group: If a few people are moved by the men’s stories from the writing group, it will be worth it.

Editor’s Note: If this interview interests you, check out LPR’s Issue 21: Prison


Interview with Naomi Thiers

Naomi Theirs

Naomi Thiers

I met Naomi Thiers at The Nora School last February when we both participated in a reading. Naomi’s poetry spoke powerfully as she read her stories about women and girls who are marginalized and forgotten, as well as her poems about her grandparents. Her gift lies in getting beneath the surface to reveal and then polish the tales that so many people never get to tell.

Naomi is one of the featured poets in a new anthology, Veils, Halos, and Shackles (Kasva Press) edited by Charles Ades Fishman and Smita Sahay,  which features the works of international poets addressing the topics of  women and sexual abuse. I spoke with Naomi recently about the anthology, her work, and her hopes for abused women.

 Ann Bracken: How do you see the collection of poems in Veils, Halos, and Shackles being used in creating a dialog and awareness about rape and the many other forms of oppression and violence women confront?

Veils, Halos & Shackles (Kasva Press)

Veils, Halos & Shackles (Kasva Press)

Naomi Thiers: The editors of this anthology began collecting poems about the oppression of women, especially sexual assault, after the gang rape on a bus in New Delhi of 25-year-old Jyoti Singh Pandey—a rape that led to her death. When you read about details of this assault—it’s just a gut punch. This rape launched huge protests around India and elsewhere and led to some changes in the Indian laws about sexual assault. The editors—and I and everyone involved in the anthology—hope it will lift awareness of how widespread oppression against women (of many kinds) and assault are–and how deeply that violence damages all of us.

Just as important, we hope the book brings the voices of women who’ve experienced assault into the light in a concentrated way—so their voices, their experiences, can be heard, respected. So they can hear each other and understand viscerally they’re not alone. Many of the poets are survivors of rape or other gender-related crimes that affect women and girls daily. And I think it’s key how international the anthology is, that the editors took time to collect poems from so many countries. This book is part of a global effort to confront gender-based violence.

Just the act of speaking up as a survivor of sexual assault, pushing past that sense that the victim should feel shame or embarrassment—which I certainly grew up with and is still with us—is powerful. Indian laws don’t allow newspapers to publish a rape victim’s name, so Jyoti Singh Pandey’s name originally wasn’t used when the crime was reported on and discussed. People in India began referring to her as Nirbhaya (meaning “fearless”) or Jagruti (“awareness”). Then her parents said that because they—and she—had nothing to be ashamed of, they gave permission to disclose her name. Reading that brings tears to my eyes every time.

AB: If you could give a copy of this collection to any political figure, who would you give it to–and why?

NT: I can’t think of one person I’d give it to. If any one leader read all these poems about women’s pain and fighting back, it wouldn’t hit that person instantly, like a thunderclap, and make them change the course of their policies–the way the writer of “Amazing Grace” turned his slave ship around. I think the deeper awareness, anger, and a commitment to work to stop violence against females would infuse gradually into a person–or more likely many people—making significant change slowly, person by person. I guess I’d like to have many young men–particularly in societies where men and women are kept very separate and there’s a lot of mutual misconceptions—see the collection.

AB: The editors of the anthology, Charles Ades Fishman and Smita Sahay, said, “In editing Veils, Halos, & Shackles, our focus has been on finding poems that tell the truth about the violence and oppression women are subjected to. . . poems that ask us to protect and nurture women through intelligent laws and the transformation of cultures.” Can you think of one law you’d like to see changed that could significantly improve the lives of women?

NT: Not any one law. I think the second part of what the editors say “the transformation of cultures” is much more important. But I think the most important overall policy to change is the many laws and customs that prevent women from getting a formal education. When all women are allowed to be educated, many, many other things will change.

AB: What sparked your interest in writing about women who are oppressed? What would you like readers to know about the women you write about?

NT: I never set out to write about women and oppression, or even poems about women. But something must’ve sparked my interest because—like most people—I write about what I’m interested in whether I mean to or not! When my daughter was about 8, we were just walking one day and I guess I was telling some story, and she suddenly said, “Geez, Mom—you just like women, don’t you?”

Last time I put a manuscript together, I wanted to gather poems focused on some theme and I had on hand enough for a manuscript in which every poem focused on an individual woman— a friend, someone in the news, or just someone I noticed in passing. So that became She Was a Cathedral. The title is the last line of a poem by Denise Levertov. In that poem, Levertov is feeling raw and discouraged and she remembers the indomitable spirit of her late friend, poet Muriel Ruykeyser. She commands herself “Remember her now/She was a Cathedral.”

My idea was to honor each individual in these poems as someone complex, sacred, able to lift up our vision–as a cathedral does. There’s also a specific woman the title refers to—my friend and fellow poet Patty Bertheaud Summerhays, who died six years ago, very young. She was an immensely generous and spiritual person. You felt lifted after being with her! The book honors Patty.

I’ve often noticed and thought people who are kept down or outsiders in some way—they get under my skin. I sometimes feel beckoned to write about a person who is marginal to bring that person into focus, to make a portrait. That’s the start of coming out of being oppressed–being fully seen.

Women are still, in so many places, kept from exercising their rights and abilities as humans, or even from having decent lives—they aren’t seen or taken seriously. I’d like readers to really see each woman I write about in all her complexity. And if there’s one quality I hope readers see in every woman I write about in Cathedral and elsewhere—it would definitely be: resilience.

AB: In your poem “Little Sister” that’s in the anthology, I was particularly moved by the way the speaker in the poem identifies with the young high school girl who was raped.

NT: I wrote that poem after hearing on the news about a rape of a young girl in the DC neighborhood where I lived at the time, Mt. Pleasant. I couldn’t stop thinking about it; I walked to where it happened, near the old Lincoln Middle School on Irving Street and on Park Road, and I began getting lines in my head, and it became a monologue from a Salvadoran woman living in the neighborhood. The details in the poem about the attack are from the news report. The visual details are what you’d see walking those streets in 1990.

AB: It seems the speaker is talking about dissociation—a form of detachment from a physical or emotional experience—when she says, “I know that ceiling she had to look at/ how the black cement swells in and out/ against your face while he moves on you/ and when he gets up, the cement/ comes down and touches you.”

NT: That’s interesting. Sexual assault is so hard to speak about. What I was trying to express there is that when you’re feeling overwhelming pain, assault, and fear—especially fear—everything compresses, sensation gets distorted, perception shrinks to a wall of fear.

The poem seems grim, but I think there’s resilience in it–in the fact that the Salvadoran woman, when she hears of a girl being attacked in her neighborhood, instead of just closing up, thinks about reaching out to that girl. She goes to the school and thinks about talking to her; she wants to somehow connect and say “I’ve been there, too. I know how this is.” So in “Little Sister” there’s a seed of hope for the thing Veils, Halos, and Shackles is all about—women across cultures speaking up, reaching out to say “You’re not alone. You don’t have to feel ashamed. We are all resilient.”

AB: What do you wish to send out to the readers with this anthology?

NT: That women who are being oppressed aren’t primarily victims. We are primarily survivors with something to say.

Online Editor: Naomi Thiers has published three books of poetry, Only the Raw Hands Are Heaven(WWPH)In Yolo County, and She Was a Cathedral (Finishing Line Press). Her poems have received many awards, including an Evangelical Writers Association award.  She has had a go at many art forms, but poetry is the one that stuck, the one she’d never be without in a cell or on a desert island. Poets whose work she’d want on that desert island include Hopkins, Maxine Kumin, Denise Levertov, Phillip Levine, and Pablo Neruda.  She is a mom, a yoga and music lover, a magazine editor, and a member of Langley Hill Friends Meeting.



Interview with Grace Cavalieri

A Memoir from Grace Cavalieri

A Memoir from Grace Cavalieri

Grace Cavalieri is just as comfortable in the kitchen making gnocchi with spinach and mushrooms as she is in the radio studio interviewing, Juan Felipe Herrera, the new Poet Laureate of the United States. When I talked with Grace about the role of myth in her life and work, she moved easily between making me tea with honey and sharing her latest poetry reviews for the Washington Independent Review of Books—a labor she performs faithfully every month.

During the interview, we talked about her home life, her life as a Navy wife, and her early years as a writer when she was raising her four children. Here’s a brief teaser from a section in Grace’s memoir, Life Upon the Wicked Stage, where she explores the function of work in our lives:

“The workplace is a laboratory for the human spirit that allows us to overcome the obstacles we need to overcome to find what we want. The ‘wall’ people put up for us is a perfect way to find what we want on the other side. It focuses. Desire is made better by the wall. I never said it was easy.”

Ann Bracken: I’ve just finished reading your memoir, Life Upon the Wicked Stage, and want to thank you for sharing so many details of your life with your readers. I found the work engaging, funny, and inspiring. What made you write it at this point in your life?

Grace Cavalieri: You make me so happy! Ken always wanted me to write about my adventures and I thought he was crazy. What would I possibly write about? How to cook chicken cacciatore? But after he died, he appeared to three psychics telling me to write “that book.” I just thought well I can do two pages a day…and that’s what I did.

AB: How long did it take you to write the memoir? What was the most challenging aspect of talking about your life?

GC: It took not quite a year from first my scratchings to the fourth proofing and production time. I kept criticizing my writing, not my life. That I could not change—but I knew I could not reach lyricism with the form I’d chosen, which was reportage. There are some nice moments in it, I’m sure, but being a practicing poetry person, the prose seems to like wearing a suit of armor while trying to fly. The chapter (three) about birthing my daughter Angel, under great duress and negative conditions, made me cry. I got acquainted with my PTSD kept so nicely undercover all these years.

AB: Throughout the book, you talk about breaking through boundaries in the arts, especially related to women’s roles. Can you describe the first boundary you crossed? Perhaps when you got the DC Arts Commission Grant?

GC: AR Ammons (winner of the National Book Award in 1973 and 1993) said “If you are nothing you can say and do anything.” He even misspelled “do” to make his point. So I knew, in 1966, that I was below everyone’s radar, and I had Ammons’ credentials. I learned that the DC Commission said it supported artists, so I wrote to them: I NEED SUPPORT. Ken and I had four children, and I was not working at a job, so I felt guilty spending money trying to mail my daily poems and plays out. The Arts Commission surprisingly invited me to tell my story. And I got $200. From that day forward, they set up a mechanism for funding artists. But I bought a maxi coat with the money. I figured they’d certainly want me to look like an artist instead of a homemaker.

AB: You grew up in Trenton, New Jersey, and then married your high school sweetheart, Kenneth Flynn. You and Ken lived all over the United States as a result of Ken’s Navy service. You also raised four daughters and became an acclaimed poet, playwright, and radio host. Were there any cultural myths that shaped your early years? Your years as a Navy wife?   What myths were you determined to challenge?

GC: Remember that I grew up in the 1930’s, and movies ruled our lives in the 1940’s, and beyond. The idea that someone could make up a story, and make us believe—it enchanted my imagination. I wrote to all the movie stars. I wanted to get backstage and see how it felt to tell a story.

And I believe writers are born wired to language, so any book I read could sail me to dreamland –wanting to understand how that book worked on my heart. What was the process of inventing those hieroglyphics on the page that could change my feelings so much? That was childhood.

The Navy was pure survival for me; alone for nine months, books were my friends. I was both parents for my children and very much alone.

As a practicing artist, after that tenure, I was ready for action. All the energy building up in me wanted out. I, once again, didn’t care what people thought of me (because I was nothing) so I was free to write what I wanted for the stage. Very few women playwrights were seen in 1967, and 1968, and those of us who were writing plays had to step on people’s feet to be heard. Our voices were too loud, and not ladylike. We were breaking walls. I don’t know if we made art or just noise. But desire can give writer lots of power.

AB: You were a working artist while you raised your children and ran a household. What advice can you offer women who struggle to do the same things today?

GC: I don’t even know that answer yet. Balance is what we try for, but it isn’t what we achieve.

I was a product of a 50’s marriage, so I was into structure. And I couldn’t write until the children were in school, and the meat defrosted for dinner, and ”real life” things were accomplished. Then I would give myself to myself.

When I needed to be out in the world, I missed some of my daughters’ events. Ken was both parents on those occasions. It is said, “Women can have everything they want, just not all things at the same time.”

I think Art is a dark horse we ride, and we have no choice, and we have to forgive ourselves for that.

AB: In your memoir, you say this about your dual challenges of writing and raising children: “If I was guilty of anything, it was sewing the light of poetry, and some days, leaving the children only the cloth.” Say more about this.

GC: Even when I was physically in a room with my children if my mind was elsewhere, was I present? Even if this is only at times — if you are staring at the ceiling thinking of that last line, what must that be to a little girl waiting for your attention? Being present is something I came to, thankfully, not too late.

AB: Your poetry book, What I Did for Love, deals with the life and career of Mary Wollstonecraft. What was it about her story that spoke across the centuries to you?

GC: She’s my girl. First, I could not believe, when I discovered her in 1974, that very few people knew she was the first woman to write a serious book of prose. Now she’s quite well served, thanks to some interim biographies. She stood shoulder to shoulder with men in the 1700’s! She was very real to me; she suffered trying to be a decent mother; she wanted the love of a male partner, and she was constantly living without financial means. In the beginning, she supported herself in London writing for a newspaper. Imagine her small room. The first 18th-century female journalist. She died in childbirth, frankly because doctors didn’t bother washing their hands, unless of course, a woman was a bluestocking.

AB: What myth is yet to be written?

GC: What a great, great question. The myth that needs to be explored is that this life is all there is; that our dimensions are physical: length, width, depth, breadth ,height; that there is no invisible world surrounding us; that the dead have gone away; that eternity is not somewhere colored blue and far away, instead of around us every moment in the living room.

AB: Much of your memoir is woven with stories about your marriage to Ken Flynn and how the relationship fed you both personally and professionally. In the memoir, you talk about the afterlife and messages from Ken. What led you to write these lines in the poem “Messages From the Other World”?

“…I agree I’d put everyone’s mind at ease to call it
coincidence, or parallels to life
from undercurrents of thought, but did I tell you that tonight
I put the last log in the fireplace—although
it’s well into Spring—and without a match, I returned and
it’s already alive with flames?”

~from The Man Who Got Away

GC: As I’ve already revealed “I am a believer.” And that’s because every time I get lost from that, something will happen to let me know that all energy— past, present, future— exists at every moment. And Ken went nowhere at all.

AB: At the very end of your memoir, you paint a memorable scene, and you relate that event to learning to do the impossible. Tell us about that event and how it has shaped your perspective.

GC: I think you’re referring to Ken’s return from his first 6-month cruise to the Mediterranean. I hadn’t seen him since our honeymoon. We wives welcomed the aviators from the carrier, and the Admiral did us a huge favor by saying we could tour the ship. I, of course, had spike high heels on and a pencil slim skirt. I followed everyone until we got on a metal ladder hanging between decks over the Atlantic Ocean— NO backs to the steps–just a view of the water. I climbed and froze. Everyone was stuck behind me with a 30-meter view of the waves beneath. I have no memory of how I got up or down. I must have, because, here I am.

AB: How did that experience prepare you for the life and work still to come? What is your current paradigm?

GC: Frankly, it was not an act of bravery but stupidity. I have learned how to opt out of any area I cannot manage. It’s ok to say “ I cannot climb 30 meters over the ocean, thank you. I’ll wait here.” It’s ok to say, “I can’t play chess, speak Chinese, or program your computer.” In years past we were taught we had to climb every mountain, never admit limitations. Some people need to stay in the camp at the base of the mountain and cook delicious food for the climbers.

My present paradigm in life is to be mindful, connected to the moment, and admit the work I have on my desk is the greatest gift one could imagine. Whether it’s radio production, poetry, editing, or reviewing—imagine how great it is getting to do what I’ve been practicing for 50 years. That’s the definition of happiness. I have a poem titled “Work Is My Secret Lover.”

AB: Grace ends her memoir with these lines. They serve as powerful inspiration for all who strive to follow their dreams.

“In a way, that is where I am today. Between levels. Not frozen now, and able to do the impossible, as we all are able, making art, creating some new things that never existed before; trusting that there’s something at the top of the stairs, and a hand to pull me in. It’s what makes me take the next step.”

Online Editor’s Note: Poet Grace Cavalieri is an Italian-American writer and host of the radio program The Poet and the Poem, presented by the Library of Congress through National Public Radio. Life Upon the Wicked Stage: A Memoir (New Academia Publishing/Scarith Books, 2015) is available now. You can read a another interview with Grace Cavalieri by Ann Bracken in our Food Issue.