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.

A Visit to Magruder High

In April, Nonfiction Editor Emily Rich and Poetry Editor Laura Shovan visited Magruder High School. Students Megan Mitchell and Sam Lee each wrote essays highlighting the impact this visit had on them. First up, Sam Lee.

Sam Lee, Magruder High.

Sam Lee, Magruder High.

The chatter of a room full of creative writing students fell nearly silent when writers Laura Shovan and Emily Rich walked into the room. Our teacher led them to the front and introduced them, even though we already knew much about their writing. Each pulled up a chair and casually sat down. Once they were settled in, Ms. Shovan asked, “So, what are your questions?”

It took a few minutes for the collection of aspiring writers to warm up, asking standard questions as first—“Why did you begin to write?”, “How is writing part of your daily life?”, and “What are your inspirations?” They gave thoughtful and insightful answers from two unique perspectives, but our questions were not very specific yet.

In the weeks preceding their visit, we had the opportunity to read some of their works and familiarize ourselves with their individual writing styles. For Ms. Shovan, in particular, we had many questions about her style; our next assignment would emulate some of her poems. The questions for Ms. Rich pertained more to her content. Her personal essays had captivated us, and we were all curious about her storytelling.

LPR Poetry Editor Laura Shovan's journal.

LPR Poetry Editor Laura Shovan’s journal.

We view them as role models—their lives are something that we, as students of writing, hope to accomplish one day. They answered fully and with grace, frequently elaborating with their past experiences. Ms. Shovan even pulled out her own personal writing journal to show us, and Ms. Rich explained a bit of her writing process as she works on a new piece.

Each left us with a few pieces of advice—to live lives worth writing about, and to be observant of others. Their thoughts and ideas have helped inject more vigor into our writing; seeing and having the opportunity to converse with two kind, successful women was an invaluable experience.

Next, Megan Mitchell reflects.

Megan Mitchell, Magruder High.

Megan Mitchell, Magruder High.

I had the privilege of sitting in front of Laura Shovan and Emily Rich, experienced writers who graced us with their presence. Now of course, we had the typical questions that any aspiring writer would ask: How do you come up with ideas? How important is character development? What’s the difference between prose and short stories?

Ms. Rich and Ms. Shovan shared their extensive knowledge on these topics. Their unique explanations of their experiences were an invaluable aspect to their visit, and provided a diverse image of their individual journeys as writers.

A peek inside LPR Poetry Editor Laura Shovan's journal.

A peek inside LPR Poetry Editor Laura Shovan’s journal.

However, I found that the most striking questions and answers weren’t about the process of writing itself, but the ones concerning our own personalities within our writing. As Ms. Rich and Ms. Shovan shared, writing well is not about being like other popular authors, or what your teacher defines as good writing. Good writing is about putting your own style into your work, and telling your own story through your own creativity.

Ms. Rich and Ms. Shovan’s visit offered incredible insight into the world of a writer, and gave me inspiration in following my own path. I greatly appreciated their presence and generosity in taking time out of their days to inspire us.

Thank you, Laura Shovan, Emily Rich, and Little Patuxent Review!

Online Editor’s Note: A special thanks goes out to Scot Ehrhardt, Sam and Megan’s teacher, who was instrumental in getting Laura and Emily into the classroom and encouraging his students to write, not only about this experience, but about all experiences. We thank Sam and Megan for getting Laura Shovan to open up her journal and give us all a peek inside: we’ve been so curious to get a glimpse of her genius at work!

Unleashing Monsters: The DC Youth Slam Team

Jonathan Tucker

Jonathan Tucker is a transformative power on this planet. As a freshman, lost and lonely in a large student population at University of Maryland, I found my home at the Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House through the open mic series that he co-founded, TerPoets. TerPoets still goes on strong to this day, and Jonathan is still giving the gift of his transformative power. These days one of the recipients of that gift is the DC Youth Slam Team, and they are passing it on. While attending the Split This Rock Poetry Festival in 2012, members of the Team electrified every room they performed in. Seeing them perform was one of the times I’ve most been excited by words. To tell you more about the Team, I give you Jonathan Tucker:

My students wrote a poem about the social norms objectifying women through girls’ Halloween costumes. The video of their “Monster” performance at the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival (BNV) in summer 2013 went viral right before Halloween: over 600,000 views at the time of this writing (Online Editor: Written November 1st, 2013. Now over 1.3 million views as of this posting.) Co-author of the poem, 16-year-old Hannah Halpern summed up the message of the piece:

We decided to write a poem changing the way we see monsters; [to show that] women can be fierce, hot-tempered, or what have you. We connected this to Halloween and how as girls grow older, they are convinced that their costumes must get skimpier and show more skin to be sexy. After brainstorming, we realized that our key point was women should wear what they want. Slut-shaming is not the answer, nor is peer pressuring women and girls to wear sexier outfits if they don’t want to.

She’s amazing, clearly. As a teaching artist and coach of the DC Youth Slam Team, a program of Split This Rock using poetry to empower teens to speak up about issues of social justice,  I couldn’t be more proud. The overwhelming positive response from feminists around the world via twitter and facebook is sweet. The exponential growth of our online following is dope. The small fame our teenage poets are garnering is not what makes me proud though; it’s the lesson they and half-a-million viewers of their poem are learning that makes me the most proud papa poetry coach.

Poetry matters. Youth voice matters. Combined with passion for social justice issues like challenging the rampant sexism in our world, they are most powerful.  Poetry is not only relevant, real, and important, but it can be fun and entertaining too.

Along with my fellow coaches and teaching artists at Split This Rock, I’ve been teaching this lesson for years. It’s difficult to be convincing when the rest of the world sees poetry as confusing emotional babble from dead white men. To many people, it has no bearing on their lives besides an English class once or twice in grade school and maybe a scene in a movie like Love Jones. But for the teenagers in our programs, often marginalized youth who feel like their voice isn’t heard and doesn’t matter, the empowering lesson learned through poems like this Monster piece, and the response to it, are life-changing. In my humble opinion, helping students learn to value themselves, their thoughts, and creativity is more important than anything the schools test them on.

Spoken word and performance poetry, such as the slam at BNV where that viral video was recorded, changes the way young people experience poetry. It is, just as it began thousands of years ago, a living, breathing art form. It speaks directly to them when teaching artists like myself and other poets from the community visit schools and coach after-school poetry clubs. Yes, we write like all poets, but we also speak directly to the students and perform our poems with a passion and intensity comparable to that of Shakespearean (or hip-hop for that matter) theatre. We encourage everyone to write, not just the talented or advanced students, using whatever language, grammar, or spelling they desire, to express themselves. After all, that is the point, right? We help them tell their stories and use famous works of art (including music, theatre, film, and visual arts) and movements for social justice, to inspire them. We rigorously workshop, revise, and rehearse poems. Then we do something dangerous, silly, and possibly stupid: we compete. Our goal is for every school to have and support a poetry slam team just as they do their sports teams. This might sound crazy, but the passion and poetry of our young people is just as important, if not more so, than their ability to tackle one another.

The DC Youth Slam Team (Photo: Jonathan Tucker)

Poetry slam was invented in the mid-1980’s by Marc Kelly Smith and it turned performance poetry into a sport. The goal was, and is, to gain a larger and wider audience for poetry. The goal has never been to rank, categorize, and demoralize poets, though that can and has unfortunately happened sometimes, just as it does in sports. What’s also happened, as my students on the DC Youth Slam Team have experienced firsthand, is that being a poet on a team has transformed the lives of many people who never would have otherwise thought of themselves as poetic, talented, or valuable. The tragic feeling of losing a poetry slam by one-tenth of a point dissipates quickly. The empowerment created by a room full of people, often your peers, applauding you and your poetry, does not fade as fast. It builds confidence, character, and self-worth. It helps survivors of traumatic and violent experiences process their emotions and strengthen their healing process. For me, as a young poet, it helped me find myself, my voice, and my purpose. As a coach and host of an open mic, it also helps me build community. We came in 2nd place this year, out of 50 teams at BNV, losing to Denver, CO by less than one point. Though we were certainly disappointed that we didn’t claim 1st place and champions of the nation, we’re far more concerned with the world hearing our poetry and the important messages therein.

As a teacher of poetry I’m working to help everybody realize their potential as brilliant, critical-thinking, passionate poets. They may not have known that they wanted to be a poet performing on stages across the world, but something about putting their truth on paper through poetry opened them up to the possibility that they are indeed as great as they imagined, as their teachers told them they were. Indeed, these young poets are monsters; powerful, compassionate, and talented monsters who have survived terrible and surreal experiences and are no longer scared of the blank page or center stage.

You can find more videos of the DC Youth Slam Team’s performances at their Youtube channel. You can learn more about the team and support their work by visiting their website.

Jonathan B. Tucker is a poet, educator, and youth programs coordinator for Split This Rock, where he coaches the DC Youth Slam Team. Two-time winner of the Community Oriented Underground Poet (COUP) Award from the National Underground Spokenword Poetry Awards, JBT is passionate about using poetry as a community organizing tool. His book, I Got the Matches, and other poems are available at jonathanbtucker.com.

LPR’s Exciting New Program for Young Writers

LPR is gearing up for our first-ever Middle School Writers Festival. It’s a project that will be driven by and generate enthusiasm for writing, but we also need some help from you to make it happen. To tell us more about the Festival, I give you Emily Rich:

Emily Rich

Emily Rich

Last February at an LPR reading and fundraiser in Ellicott City, I first heard Editor Laura Shovan talk about plans for a Middle School Writers Festival. I knew immediately this was a project I wanted to support. I had only recently gotten to know members of the LPR staff, but already I was impressed with the energy those involved with the magazine put into getting out into the larger community. When I heard Laura describe the middle school festival as something particularly dear to her heart, I felt an instant connection.

As a writer, parent, and former educator, I have often been concerned that creative writing is an area overlooked in today’s school curricula. When my daughter was in high school in Arlington Virginia, she was fortunate to participate in the county’s Fine Arts Apprenticeship, an extracurricular program for visual and performing artists. But to my knowledge, no equivalent instruction is offered for students with a gift for the written word.

So even though I knew LPR’s pilot project would take place in far away Howard County, I enthusiastically signed on as assistant director.

The Middle School Writers Festival (MSWF) was initially conceived and designed by a trio of literary enthusiasts: Laura, LPR’s grant writer Nancy Berla, and Beth Singleton, a Gifted and Talented (G/T) resource teacher at Murray Hill Middle School and the literary advisor to Our Voice, the Howard County middle school literary and art magazine.

In fact, it was Beth who initially approached LPR seeking some type of collaboration. Beth has been a tireless promoter of writing in Howard County schools. She works with the Writers’ Guild, a county-wide curriculum extension opportunity for 7th and 8th grade students with a passion for writing. Students involved in the Writers’ Guild receive special instruction and maintain a portfolio of work, which they are encouraged to submit to the annual publication of Our Voice.

According to Beth, the upcoming MSWF will build on the foundation established with the Writers’ Guild, providing students with access to published, professional writers. Participating middle school G/T teachers will also benefit, picking up new strategies, resources, and models that they can take back to the classroom.

While LPR has a stated mission to do outreach with local schools, a key impetus for a middle school festival came out of Laura, Nancy, and Beth’s shared desire to align the county’s creative writing program with the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)-sponsored National Day on Writing.

The MSWF, planned for October 21, 2013, coincides with the National Day of Writing; however, preparation for the event will begin up to a month in advance.

In September, authors chosen for this project will visit a writing class in each of the participating middle schools, to become acquainted with the students.  Authors Derrick Weston Brown, Linda Joy Burke, Lalita Noronha, and Patricia VanAmburg will discuss with the students the format and purposes of the National Day of Writing and will help them prepare written work for the festival.  Teachers will be encouraged to guide students in the editing and revision of their pieces prior to the festival. Altogether about sixty students from four middle schools—Ellicott Mills, Clarksville, Lime Kiln, and Wilde Lake—will participate.

The festival itself will be held offsite, at the Howard County Center for the Arts.

The sustained attention that participating students will receive from published writers and poets is one of the things that inspires me about the project. I think about myself as an introverted middle schooler who was “good” at writing. My teachers praised me, but they didn’t have the time and resources to commit to fostering the talents of individual kids. A program such as the one Beth, Nancy, and Laura have designed would definitely have helped me to develop my skills and gain confidence as a young writer.

Another aspect of the MSWF I admire is that it caters to the interests of a broad selection of writers. The festival will include three sessions: two small workshops and one session with the whole group, with lunch in between.  For Session 1, students will have the option to select one workshop from the following areas: Writing in Response to Art and Music, Culture and Mythology, Science and Fantasy, and Personal Experiences/Memory. They will be provided with a list of resources related to the various subjects so they can explore possible opportunities in the many fields.  Through the process of writing about an area, students will develop deeper insights into and understanding of that field. This is a terrific way of encouraging kids to think about writing not just as an art form but as an integral part of daily life.

Session 2 is entitled Workshopping your Writing. During this session school-based groups will have a second meeting with the professional writer, to review and improve their written work.

Following lunch, all attending the festival will meet together for Session 3, “Open Mic.” In this session, participating authors will model what it is like to read before an audience. Students will then have the opportunity to share their own work. Many kids of middle-school age might feel anxious about participating in an activity such as an open mic, but I believe the atmosphere at the festival, with kids collaborating with a community of writers, will allow even they shy to open up and share their creations.

A great deal of hard work and inspiration has gone into developing the Middle School Writers Festival, but like anything else, some funding is required to turn a vision into reality. A generous grant from the Maryland Humanities Council allowed the program to get off the ground.

More funding is needed, however, in order to provide meals and to compensate participating authors for their time. If you would like to participate to this exciting undertaking, LPR is accepting donations both monetary and in-kind.

Festival Sponsorships are available for donations of $100 or more. All sponsors will be listed in the MSWF program and will receive a one-year subscription to the Little Patuxent Review. In-kind donations of notebooks, pens, and other writing-related giveaways for the students are also greatly appreciated.

I am so thrilled to be able to be a part of this exciting LPR initiative, and I have great hopes for its success this year and on into the future.

Emily Rich is a former federal employee and community college instructor who, after being diagnosed with both cancer and autoimmune arthritis, decided to take some time off to write. Her work has been published in a number of journals including Little Patuxent Review, Greenbrier Review, River Poet’s Journal, and Welter. She has also previously contributed to LPR’s Concerning Craft series. She is thrilled to be working with LPR both as assistant director for the MSFW and as a non-fiction reader for the upcoming Science issue. She lives in Arlington, VA.

A Day with the Editors, A Night at a Reading

LPR Editors Laura Shovan and Jen Grow with Centennial High School students

LPR editors Laura Shovan and Jen Grow (second row, far right) with Centennial High School Advanced Composition students (Photo: Jon Kolp)

It takes audacity and faith in yourself to begin sending work out to publications. We received several submissions from local teens, all for our upcoming Audacity issue. I tracked down these young writers to Corey O’Brien’s Advanced Composition class at Centennial High School in Ellicott City, Maryland. A few weeks ago, LPR Fiction Editor Jen Grow and I visited the class.

Here’s what two of the students in the class, Jennifer Swiger and Lucy Font, had to say about that day:

Every other day at 10:15 am, we write. Members of our class settle into seats, open daybooks and write. The girl near the door could be inventing a fantasy world between the lines of her notebook, while the boy in the back of the room could be filling his pages with a mouth-watering description of what he ate for lunch yesterday. Whatever the case may be, we write.

On Friday, however, we listened. Privileged with the presence of two editors from the acclaimed publication Little Patuxent Review, we learned that writing is about more than pen and paper. Seated before us were Editor Laura Shovan and Fiction Editor Jen Grow. A few minutes into their presentation, we began to scribble furiously, jotting down words of inspiration. As any class would, we had questions. Giancarlo Albano paved the way by asking, “How important is the title of a piece?”

From there, Shovan and Grow elaborated on countless aspects of the writing process, from revision to formatting. Their shared experience as editors and their words of wisdom as well as the diverse publications that they brought, ranging from Shovan’s high school literary magazine to the latest issue of LPR, proved to be invaluable.

Shovan and Grow emphasized a key piece of advice: do not give up. They made it clear that rejection is inevitable and, more importantly, that each rejection should strengthen the desire to persevere. An anecdote that made an impact on us involved a class of art students that had been painting diligently only to be instructed by the teacher to flip their canvases and paint over their work. Why not think of writing as a blank canvas, a clean slate? As Jackie Minehart said, “[the story] touches on the point that we have to have confidence in our writing skills and continue to progress in order to get better. If we realize one idea isn’t working, we must move forward.”

The generosity with which Shovan and Grow offered us their time and expertise was appreciated beyond words. As writers, we gained insight into both the process of publishing and the art of writing. We were taught to be fearless, honest with ourselves and, most importantly, true to our craft. We must write and continue to do so. Thank you, LPR!

Corey O'Brien with students

Three Centennial High School poets with teacher Corey O'Brien at LPR's Wisdomwell reading. From left to right, Jen Swiger, Poulomi Banerjee, Corey and Jackie Minehart. (Photo: Eva Quintos Tennant)

We invited Corey and his students to the following Friday’s Wisdomwell reading and were delighted that they took us up on it. The subsequent Monday, the three students who had read their own poems there–Jen Swiger, Poulomi Banerjee and Jackie Minehart–shared their experiences with the rest of the class. From what Corey later told us, it was clear that the evening had made a lasting impression on the students who had accompanied him. Jen Swiger, he said, had summed it up by saying that the Friday night poetry reading was the first time that she felt like a writer. As a both writer and an educator, I have to love that.

Online Editor’s Note: If you’re a teacher, you might be interested in our LPR in the Classroom Program, which offers our print publication at a discounted price. You might also want to read two pieces on how LPR was used in creative writing classes at Howard Community College: “LPR in the Classroom” and “An ‘Excellent’ Experiment.” In addition, our “Concerning Craft” series, particularly the one with input from a young poet (“Concerning Craft: Dylan Bargteil”), could be useful for classroom discussions.