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/

Meet Our Contributors: Q&A with Barbara Crooker

Barbara Crooker’s work has appeared in a variety of literary journals and anthologies, including Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania and The Bedford Introduction to Literature. She is the author of eight books of poetry; Les Fauves is the most recent. She has received a number of awards, including the W.B. Yeats Society of New York Award and the Thomas Merton Poetry of the Sacred Award, as well as three Pennsylvania Council on the Arts writing fellowships.

Crooker’s poem, “Road Trip,” was published in LPR’s Winter Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link).

Q: Pardon my poetry ignorance, but I was surprised when I first saw “Road Trip” that it appears as two big paragraphs of text. You don’t seem to utilize line breaks the way other poets in the winter issue did. Am I right in this observation, or missing something? And is there a name for this sort of style of presentation?

The short answer is, this is a two-stanza poem. And it’s not in paragraphs or sentences, but rather, pretty carefully delineated lines. Let’s take a look at the first couple of lines.

Spring ahead, the weatherman said, which is what we did,
driving down I-95, watching its scroll unroll before us:
purple and yellow crocus in Maryland, a smudge
of green on the trees. In Reston, VA, the buds start popping,

See how differently it would read if I broke it like this:

Spring ahead, the weatherman said, which is
what we did, driving down I-95, watching its
scroll unroll before us: purple and yellow crocus in
Maryland, a smudge of green on the trees.

I typically create my lines based on breath units, where I would naturally pause to take a breath.

Then I think about where the line ends, as that’s where the emphasis should fall. I have an aversion to lines that end in “a” or “the,” or prepositions like “in.” Then I pay attention (usually by reading the poem out loud) about how the punctuation works with the pauses (noun + line break is a shorter pause than noun + comma, for example). Finally, I look at the poem as a whole, looking for shapeliness. . . .

Also, if this were prose, it would look like this:

Spring ahead, the weatherman said, which is what we did, driving down I-95, watching its scroll unroll before us: purple and yellow crocus in Maryland, a smudge of green on the trees. In Reston, VA, the buds start popping, and a cardinal sets his road flare on a bare bush.

Great question!

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Concerning Craft: Alan King and His Sources of Inspiration

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and shares some insights on writing well. Our latest comes from Alan King, who writes that his “creative process” is a “meditative one.” “Poetry still asks me to prove myself, to take it to the next level,” King reflects, and he makes that push in part by “pull[ing] inspiration from two contemporary poets,” Patricia Smith and Tim Seibles, a.k.a. (to King) as Rogue and Iceman.

King’s poem “The Journey” appeared in LPR’s Winter 2018 issue. (In the video above, King reads his poem at LPR’s issue launch.) He is the author of Point Blank (Silver Birch Press, 2016) and Drift (Willow Books, 2012). A Caribbean American whose parents emigrated from Trinidad and Tobago to the U.S. in the 1970s, he is a husband, father, and communications professional. He is a Cave Canem graduate fellow and holds an MFA in creative writing from the Stonecoast Program at the University of Southern Maine. King is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee.

Two weeks ago, I read at the Oliver’s Carriage House in Columbia, Maryland. I was among the contributors helping to launch Little Patuxent Review‘s Winter Issue.

It’s exciting when the list of contributors for a publication I’m in is a reunion of sorts. The reading was no different.

I enjoyed rocking the mic podium with the Black Ladies Brunch Collective. I also got my first face-to-face meeting with folks, who until that moment, I only knew on Twitter and Facebook.

After the reading, thumbing through the pages, I smiled at the Editor’s Note:

“I’d even go so far as to say that poems, stories, and essays” – LPR’s Editor Steven Leyva writes – “when paired with the striking iconography of various visual arts, form an aegis against ‘a boogeyman’s appetite for innocent things.’”

The “boogeyman” quote is a nod to my poem, “The Journey,” which appears in LPR’s latest issue.

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LPR Wins Recognition

What do Salon.com, Vanity Fair, and the Little Patuxent Review have in common?

Answer: all three got the same ranking in the Bookfox blogger’s ranking of the top literary magazines in the USA. Bookfox based his rankings on the number of appearances and mentions in the annual anthology Best American Essays.

https://thejohnfox.com/ranking-of-literary-nonfiction/

Pushcart Nominations 2017

LPR celebrates its writers for all of their imagination and craft. The editors have had the delightful challenge of selecting pieces for the pushcart nomination.  Here are our choices. Congratulations to all of you!

WINTER 2017

Poetry:
“Black Light for Etheridge Knight”  by Peter Marcus
“The Wind Makes It Impossible” by Kendra Kopelke

Fiction:
“Fly the Car to Mars” by Beth Gilstrap
“Locked Out” by Jeremy J. Kamps

Nonfiction:
“Runaway” by Cynthia Greer

SUMMER 2017

Fiction:
“The Laws of Motion in the Heavens and on the Earth” by K.E. Butler
“Mongrel Wood” by Ilya Leybovich

Poetry:
“Sorcerer’s Apprentice” by Clarinda Harris
“Sea Witch” by Margaux Novak

Lisa Biggar: A Good Story

As fiction editor of Little Patuxent Review I am often asked, “What do you look for?” The answer to that is: a good story. But what is a good story? We all have different tastes, different opinions, but what makes art Art? What is it that elevates a piece from okay to good? The fiction readers for LPR tend to agree on about ten stories out of the hundreds we receive each reading period. What is it that elevates these pieces?

I would say that first and foremost is the voice. The voice of the narrative—be it first, third, or second point-of-view—must engage the reader. The voice must draw us in and transport us, make us believe that the story is well worth the read, that there is indeed a story to tell that matters, that will enlighten us in some way. In short, it must make us believe.

Lisa Biggar

Second, the story must come off as seamless—as one breath. This does not mean that a story must be written all at once. When you write you are tapping into the imagination, the subconscious, the muse, and this can be exhausting; so shorter writing periods, I believe, are more effective than extended sessions. But it is important to stay in the dream, to return to that story each day, even if it is just to review what you have already written. Too often stories seem to lose steam or an ending is tacked on for the sake of ending the piece. In my own writing, I find endings to be the trickiest thing, as they need to come organically from the piece, and this often takes time. Writers are so eager to get that story out there, to hit that Submit button, that they do not give that ending time to manifest. I can’t stress how important it is to give your story time. Worlds are not made in a day.

Lastly, good stories are complex. Complex characters. Complex, often layered plots. We are not looking for rewrites of the Hallmark Channel movies. Love stories are fine, but the characters must be ones we haven’t seen before, and their trials must be unique to them. The same holds true for stories that deal with sickness and death; write us a story we don’t know, that we have never heard before. There are only so many themes in the world, but the takes on these themes are boundless. Consider the four stories published in the Summer 2017 issue of LPR; all of these stories deal with loss in very unique ways.

Finally, a good story stays with us. It embeds itself in our hearts. It touches that something we call soul and becomes an everlasting part of us. That may sound like a daunting task, but if you continue to hone your craft and give the creation time, you may surprise yourself again and again.

Bio: Lisa Lynn Biggar is the fiction editor for LPR.  She received her MFA in Fiction from Vermont College and is currently working on a short story cycle set on the eastern shore of Maryland. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals including Main Street Rag, Bluestem Magazine, The Minnesota Review, Kentucky Review, Newfound, The Other Stories Podcast, and is forthcoming in the winter issue of The Delmarva Review. She teaches English at Chesapeake College and co-owns and operates a cut flower farm on the eastern shore of Maryland with her husband and four cats.

Desiree Magney–Writing from the Heart, Shaping it into Art: How Memoir Evolves into Prose

 

LPR’s publisher, Desiree Magney, offers some insight on writing narrative and memoir.

Little Patuxent Review is always searching for captivating true stories. But having a great story to tell is just the first step to writing a compelling memoir or personal narrative. What makes a memoir stand out? What gives it appeal? What makes it relatable to a larger audience? How does a good story become a work of art?

Elements such as a narrative arc, character development, dialogue, incorporating sensory detail, scene writing, and musing all contribute to making a good story a work of art, just like in fiction. But in memoir writing, the narrator is you, and the story to tell, uniquely your own. And in telling the story, a good narrator shows the reader how events created a conflict, a change, a transformative moment. We see the narrator grapple and muse and come away with some kind of reckoning of the situation. And even though the reader may never have experienced circumstances like the writer has gone through, the reader can relate to it at some level. The reader is on a journey with the narrator and sees the bigger picture.

The relevance to the reader may occur in myriad ways. For example, there may be a commonality in circumstance. In, “White Shoulders,” a story I published about my mother’s lifelong favorite scent and her decline and passing, readers may be able to relate to the link between scent and memory, to the illness or death of a dear one, or to a daughter’s guilt as she sees her mother slip away. In circumstances where a reader may not be able to relate to the specific story, there may be a larger relevance or lesson to learn. For example, perhaps not many readers of “Taking Flight,” a story I wrote and published about my daughter’s decision to study Arabic in Amman, Jordan, soon after the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, could relate to those precise circumstances. But anyone with a child can relate to the struggle of parents to let go of their young adult children, especially when fear for the child’s safety feels overwhelming.

Desiree Magney, LPR Publisher

Vivian Gornick in The Situation and the Story says, “Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events…What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required.”

In a class I teach at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, I delve into more of the elements that make a story engaging to a reader. My other favorite books on craft are: The Story Within: New Insights and Inspiration for Writers by Laura Oliver; Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction by Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz; Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg; and The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

Our editors are looking for stories that are true, well written with all the elements mentioned above, and that connect, as memoirist Cheryl Strayed says, “to the greater, grander truth.” Send us your story.

Desirée Magney is a former practicing attorney who writes narrative nonfiction and poetry. Her nonfiction has been published in bioStories, Bethesda Magazine, The Delmarva Review, The Washington Post Magazine, Washingtonian Magazine (Washington Voices column), and The Writer’s Center – Art Begins with a Story. Her poetry has been published in Jellyfish Whispers and was included in the Best of Anthology, Storm Cycle, published by Kind of a Hurricane Press. She is the publisher of Little Patuxent Review and teaches at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland.