Meet the Editors: Q&A with Dominique Cahn

In this post we ask LPR’s nonfiction editor, Dominique Cahn, some questions on being a nonfiction editor and on what makes a great piece of memoir or essay.

Dominique Cahn was born in Haiti and moved to New York City when she was six years old. She majored in Politics and Latin American Studies at Princeton University and earned her Masters in Public Health Degree from Yale University. After graduate school, Dominique moved to Washington, D.C., where she embarked on her career in health care policy and government relations. She conducted health related studies in Haiti and Belize and represented the medical device and biotechnology industries on U.S. regulatory and and legislative issues. She lived in Kazakhstan and traveled to Russia and other countries in the former Soviet Republics.

Q: When it’s time to start reading the nonfiction submissions for a literary journal, what’s your process?

If I think a piece is worth while, I’ll read it a couple of times, put it aside. Sometimes I’ll discuss it with other readers if I need to clarify my thinking about it. But, after the third reading, I’ll get stern with myself and make a decision. Editor Steven Leyva and I then confer about the final choices. We are fortunate to have two volunteer readers on our team, Emily Rich and Heidi Brotman, who critique submissions in this category, as well. This last round, Anthony Moll joined us as Guest Editor.

Q: I imagine there’s not necessarily something you’re “looking for,” a priori. But in your experience, what are the sorts of things in a memoir or essay that interest you and catch your attention?

I don’t remember who said this, but there’s a quote that goes something like “the pleasure of reading a personal essay lies in the enjoyment we get from the well-ordered thoughts of another’s mind.” I find that to be true, and I am often drawn to voices that, at the very least, seem to have full knowledge of themselves in the stories they tell. Of course, the usual things are important too — a hook in the introduction, plot, characterization, climax, resolution of conflict and ending — all those are essential to works of creative nonfiction, memoir, and biography.

Q: How quickly in reading a piece do you generally know if it’s something you want to publish, or not?

Immediately. It’s incredible how quickly as a reader you develop an instinct about a submission. Sometimes you can work through the bits that strike you as emotionally false, but other times, the issue is not the narrative but the writer. People feel more license in fiction, but in anything autobiographical, people tend to deploy fiction for only one reason, and it’s usually not to enrich or complicate the characters on the page. In other words, it’s like literary airbrushing. The result is that there are emotional gaps. Sometimes it’s fun to do the work of filling in those gaps. Other times it feels lazy and deceitful. Of course, there are some works in which the story and writing are so strong that we know immediately that the submission will be among our finalists. We rarely make a decision until the submission period ends and we have had a chance to review all the works.

Q: Do you work with writers to improve a submission that you would like to publish, or do you generally accept as is or reject entirely?

Some submissions you have to reject entirely. It’s not always worth wading into typos, or trying to sort out messy narratives. Some submissions suffer from a lack of introspection, or a self-consciousness. Some, from too little of the latter. But perfecting the the kind of writing we publish is about clarifying the writer’s vision of their own story, and helping them to find narrative meaning beyond the biographical details. That’s work you can’t do without the writer, and so when I believe in a piece of writing I’m often excited to work with its author. Its wonderful and very satisfying when a good story can be sharpened into something impactful.

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Celebrating Contributor Successes: Q&A with Jona Colson

One thing we love at Little Patuxent Review is to celebrate the success of past contributors. Our latest opportunity comes from Jona Colson, whose poem, “The Orange Speaks,” we published in our Winter 2014: Science issue. This poem will be included in Said Through Glass, a poetry collection released on October 15 which won the Jean Feldman Poetry Prize from the Washington Writers Publishing House.

Jona is an associate professor at Montgomery College in Maryland, and he lives in Washington, DC. His poems have appeared in The Southern Review, Ploughshares, Subtropics, The Massachusetts Review, and elsewhere. His interviews and translations can be seen in The Writer’s Chronicle, Prairie Schooner, and Tupelo Quarterly.

We’re very grateful he’s willing to answer a few questions for us.

Q: Here’s a line from “The Orange Speaks” spoken in the voice of an orange: “I did not know what would become of me.” Did you ever feel that way on your journey to this debut poetry collection? 

Absolutely. I have been writing poems since high school, then seriously in undergrad. I worked and reworked these poems, trying to place them in manuscript form, and there have been many doubts.

Q: How does a poet go from having a bunch of poems to having a collection? I suppose there’s two questions there. First is in terms of the work itself, second in terms of the logistics of publication.

For me, getting the collection together in a form that honored the poems and made sense was the biggest challenge. I, literally, as many writers do, placed all the poems on the floor and fit them together into bunches, into narrative threads, spacing and creating tension and surprise—with the help of many friends. A collection starts poem by poem, and it took a long time to get them all in sequence.

Publication wise, I sent the manuscript out for about a year to a few places, and, luckily, it was selected by the Washington Writers Publishing House. However, the collection has been about fifteen years in the making. A writer is ushered into a whole different world through the process of publication. Knowing that a whole body of your work will be available is a bit terrifying—like being exposed on a high ledge in full light. It’s a strange, but exhilarating experience.

Q: Do you think the experience of “The Orange Speaks” might be different when read in your collection versus as it appeared in our issue?

There are a few different engines that drive Said Through Glass. “The Orange Speaks” is the imaginative engine, the engine of play and language. I have a few persona poems like this one in the book that are spaced to provide a rhythm of delight and surprise. What is the orange’s perspective? This view seemed curious to me as a poet.

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Celebrating Contributor Successes: Q&A with Jay Wamsted

One thing we love at Little Patuxent Review is to celebrate the success of past contributors. Our latest opportunity comes from Jay Wamsted, whose nonfiction, “Walls,” we published in our Summer 2017 issue.

The Best American Essays 2018 edition, published this month, named “Walls” as a “Notable” in its collection. Jay is a math teacher in southwest Atlanta, and the majority of his writing centers around race, racism, and the urban school. His essays and articles have been published in various journals and magazines, including Mathematics Teacher and Qualitative Inquiry. He can be found online at The Southeast Review, Under the Sun, and the TEDx YouTube channel, where you can watch his 2017 talk “Eating the Elephant: Ending Racism & the Magic of Trust.”

We’re very grateful he’s willing to answer a few questions for us.

Q: Did you have any expectation of receiving this honor? What’s it been like for you as a writer to return to a piece after it’s been published for almost a year and a half?

A: I was stunned when I received the email. I knew, of course, that there was a lottery-ticket kind of probability I could get that news, but I had to read the email from Steven Leyva three times before I finally got it into my head what was happening. Coming back to the piece has been delightful. Alexis was an important part of two school years for me: the one where I taught her and then the subsequent one where I wrote about her. Getting to revisit her story somehow has been both sobering and encouraging.

Q: It’s my understanding that this piece went through some editing before publication. What was that process like?

A: The biggest thing is that in its original form the essay was in second person. Dominique Cahn, LPR’s nonfiction editor, rightly suspected that though effective at evoking emotion, this constant “you…you…you” was sidelining Alexis’s story in favor of the reader and writer. Dominique suggested we move it to first person, and we had this big a-ha moment: finally the piece felt like it was primarily about Alexis because the pronouns weren’t getting in her way.

The other thing I’ll note is that I have received at times some pushback about being a white writer whose only stories come from teaching black children. I completely understand this fear of a modern-day sort of colonialism, and I try to guard against it in my work as best I can. At the time of “Walls,” however, I was going through a phase where I was muting the subject of race altogether and trying to elide it with the problem of poverty. Dominique saw past that, and surprised me by asking for more about the Mays community in general and about Alexis in specific. For example, she encouraged me up to describe Alexis physically—to let my reader know she was black. I had been reluctant to do this prior, but it was such a gift to write about this young black woman with some sort of candor, to describe her the way I like to imagine a friend of hers might have described her.

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Review of How to Sit, by Tyrese Coleman

This book review is written by Raima Larter, a Little Patuxent Review fiction reader. 

Local publisher Mason Jar Press of Baltimore has just published the debut collection, How to Sit: A Memoir in Stories and Essays, by Tyrese Coleman, a writer based in the Washington, D.C., area. Coleman has a strong engaging voice with important things to say. Her collection of stories and essays is unique in the way it combines fiction and non-fiction to create a true memoir. I was struck by the way the story builds from chapter to chapter, some fictional, others not, showing us how one young girl became a woman while growing up in a world that might have broken a weaker soul.

The book takes its title from the opening story in which the character we later come to know as “T” is taught by her grandmother how a young lady is supposed to sit in Grandma’s house, a home filled with a constant parade of older men, most fueled by alcohol. We follow T to prom night, to college, to motherhood and beyond, at one point exploring her family roots through a DNA analysis that reveals more than a few surprises. The memoir returns us to Grandma’s death bed where T must finally confront what is real and what is fiction. She says, “If this were fiction, we would’ve gotten to this part by now. The part where T pulls back the curtain and sees her dead grandmother’s body…”

All through this book, it is never clear what is truth and what is fiction. I thought this might be a problem, but that was before I read the book and found that it is actually one of its great strengths; Coleman shows us how the truth about one’s own life is sometimes revealed more fully when we take a step outside ourselves and look at our life the way someone else might see it.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Coleman about the experience of writing this book. My questions (RL) and her answers (TC) follow.

* * *

RL: The structure of your book is one I haven’t seen anywhere else—a mosaic of fictional and non-fictional components that add up to a memoir. How did you get the idea to use this structure?

TC: Honestly, it was not a *completely* deliberate thing. At some point, I looked back at my work and realized that I was writing about the same topics and about my childhood, parenting, or grief and that there was a through line that existed with several pieces of my work. I’d tried and considered different formats of how to do a collection. One iteration was a chapbook of flash creative nonfiction and another was a collection of short stories. I was afraid to put the fiction in with the nonfiction until I realized that other writers had done this. For example, David Sedaris’s Barrel Fever combines some of his stories and some of his essays. That is a completely different sort of collection from mine, but knowing that a book could contain both stories and essays opened my mind up to the possibility that putting these two seemingly different types of writing in the same book wasn’t actually too crazy of an idea. When I first discussed this with Mason Jar Press, we had thought to say which stories were fiction and which were nonfiction, but ultimately decided to leave it a mystery for the reader.

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Concerning Craft: To the Writer Who Is Not Writing

This guest post comes from Alicia Mountain. Her poem, “Without Drawing the Blinds,” appeared in LPR‘s Summer Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link).

Mountain is the author of the collection High Ground Coward (University of Iowa Press), which won the Iowa Poetry Prize, and the chapbook Thin Fire (BOAAT Press). She is a lesbian poet, critic, and educator based in Denver and New York. Keep up with her at aliciamountain.com and @HiGroundCoward.

Hello, Writer.

I know that doesn’t sound like your name right now. It did for a while. When people would ask what you do or what you’re studying you’d say, “well, I write! I’m a writer.” But now that the words aren’t coming, you might feel like you aren’t entitled to your name, like you aren’t earning it. I’m writing to tell you that’s not the case.

So you haven’t written much of anything at all lately. Sometimes a little scrap of an image or a phrase comes along. Sometimes you press it into the pages of your notebook like a foreign leaf. Most days you’re stuck, or busy with the logistics and practicalities of living. Guilt tugs at your sleeve and it’s hard to shake.

Of course, this isn’t the first time you’ve hit a dry spell, but it hasn’t gone on this long before. You’re wondering when the rain will come, if it ever will.

I’m writing to tell you that this is the rain.

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Considering Craft: Adapting From a Whirlwind to a Calm Breeze

This guest post comes from Carrie Conners. Her poem, “Unchained,” appeared in LPR‘s Winter Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link).

Conners, originally from West Virginia, lives in Queens, New York, and teaches creative writing, literature, and composition at LaGuardia CC-CUNY. Her poetry has appeared in Cider Press Review, Steel Toe Review, Aji Magazine, Right Hand Pointing, Rhino Poetry, and the Monarch Review, among other publications. She is also a poetry reader for Epiphany magazine.

The last eight years have been a whirlwind. Well, to be precise, seven of the last eight years have been a whirlwind. I defended my dissertation at the University of Wisconsin in June 2010, moved from Madison to New York City in August of that year, and started as an Assistant Professor of English at LaGuardia CC-CUNY in September. Since then I’ve enjoyed developing my teaching of literature, creative writing, and composition with students and colleagues at LaGuardia while exploring the city and learning to negotiate the subway. (Confession: I still consult a subway app on my phone and would still be lost in the Village if it weren’t for Google Maps.) Working toward tenure is a bit like juggling on a tightrope. Negotiating teaching responsibilities with college, union, and committee service while trying to carve out time to write and publish is no easy feat, especially when working to produce both scholarly and creative writing and, you know, attempting to have a life and maintain relationships. So, after I was granted tenure and approved for a year-long sabbatical fellowship leave to complete a research project, I was presented with a new challenge: how to adjust to having time, how to adapt from a whirlwind to a calm breeze.

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Concerning Craft: A Memory Is Not a Poem

This guest post comes from Tim Hunt. In 2013, Little Patuxent Review published Hunt’s poem, “Thelonious Monk (The Village Vanguard, NY City), Third Take.” This poem will be included in Ticket Stubs & Liner Notes, which is forthcoming in November and which won the 2018 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award. The poems in the collection tend more toward 1950s rock ‘n roll and 1960s rock with some folk and blues mixed in, but there are also poems relating to Sun Ra and Yusef Lateef.  

A memory: I’m seventeen. It’s the fall of 1967, and I’m a freshman in a college 3,000 miles from the California hills in a town that I’ve discovered is not called “Eye-thack-uh.” Here, people seem obsessed with whether one’s last name is “Goldberg” or “Kennedy,” “Schwartz” or “Monroe,” and I don’t know why. I don’t yet know what a bagel is. These details are not a poem—simply some recalled particulars of a fairly typical adolescent dislocation as one moves out from one world into another, discovering that there are things you don’t understand but others do. These details could develop into a poem if I were to find an angle, a hook, that would lead to opening this sense of dislocation and drive an exploration that becomes (though from the personal and by means of the personal) more than just these particulars, this memory.  A memory is not a poem.

But a poem may draw on memory to explore things that originate in memory but aren’t restricted to it: That fall, I spent the Thanksgiving weekend with a classmate who lived near New York City. Friday night we took a bus into the city to hear The Electric Flag, the new band of my first guitar god, Michael Bloomfield, play at The Bitter End. It’s a small room, a club, with little tables for drinking—not a ballroom like the Fillmore or the Avalon back in San Francisco. And the room is much too small for the horn section and amps and Buddy Miles’ drum kit jammed onto the tiny platform. But when the band kicks into the first song I’m maybe six feet from Bloomfield, his left hand on the fretboard is electric—as if he’s plugged into the socket and the current is playing him through the guitar and the current radiating out through the band filling the tiny room. I don’t remember what the opening song was that night (“Killing Floor”?). I remember his hand gripping the guitar neck, the tremolo of his fingers, his body trembling as his knees bent, and the guitar line, as if a pure electric current, freed of wires and strings.

Off and on over the years I’ve wanted that memory to be a poem, but it’s always shrugged its shoulders and walked away. As I wrote the pieces gathered in Ticket Stubs & Liner Notes, a collection deriving from encounters with American music of the 1950s and 1960s, I kept trying to write something about that evening at The Bitter End that would be part of the set. I’d pretty much given up hope, when I finally let go of my memory and instead tried to remember (to re-remember) and realized that that evening was also a moment of dislocation: how much I’d felt like merely a customer as I paid a cover charge and minimum for drinks I wasn’t old enough to order, how much the short set made the music feel like a commodity, and how different this was from the Fillmore and Avalon in San Francisco where the bands played for hours and there was that odd illusion that audience and musicians were a kind of community:

The Electric Flag, An American Music Band, Plays The Bitter End (New York City, November 1967)

In New York you are almost old enough to drink
as you sit at a tiny table and your friends
who have showed you how to ride the subway
explain cover charges and two drink minimums
and how the club tosses you out after the set.
Or makes you pay all over again, because here
this is the order of things—in the real City,
where no one means The Golden Gate when they say
the bridge and San Francisco is just Frisco. But you
pay anyway for an overpriced coke because tonight
Mike Bloomfield will play, and he is your guitar god,
and you have worshipped hour upon hour
spinning East-West as if the blues mantra were not
just a Prayer but the revealed Word—an electric Tongue
speaking the modal truth in liquid bends. But
tonight is “Killing Floor,” the fingers scaling
the neck, twisting the strings into a scream
that is, somehow, still the Wolf’s killing floor,
his Delta, Chicago, a West Side slaughter house
and the floor blood-slick as the black men swing
their sledge hammers to crush the bawling skulls
of the cattle forced, one by one, down the chute,
but, too, your killing field, that jungle
where your friends are already dying to the beat
of the chopper blades, the rim shots of spattered
rifle fire and the napalm’s whoosh, the screams
that are not an electric guitar. And this, too, a truth,
as if the guitar string were a live wire, the electric
shock a scream—the guitar’s scream, your
scream. And then Bloomfield drops
his hands, and stares off over your head,
and when you turn you see The Gray Line
Tour being led through to stare at the band
and gawk at you, as if you are aliens
from some unknown planet and you gawk
back at the ladies in heels with their clutch
purses and the gentlemen in jackets
and ties, and they, too, are exotic. But you know
what planet they are from
because you are from there, too.

In my memory of Bloomfield’s hands, the detail of the Gray Line Tour being led through that evening to gawk was a kind of “oh and by the way.” In the poem it matters more, and perhaps it did that evening, too. And in the poem, the way Bloomfield was transforming the racial and economic protest of the blues of Howling Wolf’s “Killing Floor” into a protest of the war in Vietnam is treated as if it was part of the evening, something remembered, when it’s something I came to realize only later, after I’d started listening to Wolf’s music. But that’s also to say the poem is not a record of a memory, even as it draws on memory and remembering.  A memory is not a poem.

“The Electric Flag…” (recording of the poem)

TicketStubs & Liner Notes, Main Street Rag Publishing Company

https://www.facebook.com/TimHuntPoetry/