Gary Stein: How A Trial Lawyer and Poet Speaks His Truth

Contributed by Mike Clark, Publisher Emeritus

Poetry with a spirit of its own tends to find varying human forms of expression.

Emily Dickinson, a recluse, wrote her metaphorical, magical poems in an upstairs Amherst bedroom. Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive who had “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”. Walt Whitman, a news reporter, nursed the Civil War wounded and proclaimed a “barbaric yawp” that gave a new vision to American poetry. And William Carlos Williams, a pediatrician, let his poetry speak in everyday language.

So it is not too farfetched for Gary Stein, a 68-year-old plaintiffs’ civil trial attorney, to speak his own poetic truths as well as advocating for his personal injury and divorce clients.

Gary Stein

The Rockville, MD-based lawyer says he finds “poetry to be a process of looking for connections just like the law. Neither law nor poetry exist without language—one analytic and the other intuitive.”

Gary Stein came out of the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop with a master’s degree and an unpublished novel, a penchant for short stories, and a yearning to write poetry. He later got his legal training from Georgetown Law School and is a member of both the Washington D. C. and Maryland bar.

Besides the practice of law and his preoccupation with writing poetry, Gary Stein says his spiritual life also defines him.

Raised as a Catholic, Gary Stein has spent the last 30 years of his life as a Quaker. “I tried Unitarianism. I studied Judaism and Buddhism. But I have come to like the Quakers with their emphasis on a personal relationship with the divine or the Spirit without an intermediary. It encourages questioning and seeking truth and does not discourage it. It is not dogmatic, but inclusive because if you accept that of God in each person, you are likely to respect diversity.”

His first published poem, “Dark Room,” turned up In Prairie Schooner in 1975. Since then his poems have been published in Poetry, Folio, Wordwrights! and

The Sow’s Ear with more than a dozen of his poems finding their way in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s(JAMA) Poetry and Medicine section.

“I represent injured people as an attorney, so I learn about medical things,” he observed. “JAMA has the widest circulation of any magazine in which I’ve been published, and I have received a lot of fan letters from doctors over the years.”

A compilation of his poetry appeared in a chapbook entitled Between Worlds published by The Finishing Line Press, when he was a finalist in the small press’s national poetry contest. He currently is seeking publication of a 70-page manuscript called Touring the Shadow Factory.

“Many of my poems start with a factual event, and a lot of my poems become a compressed narrative,“ Gary Stein noted. He has written about the loss of his father, who before dying in his old age had been his sailing and fishing companion, and even poetry that touched on the strange, unanticipated death of his mother-in law by a bee sting.

Other poems are less personal, and some take a satirical bent, he added.

“I get a reward when I say something that is fresh and that has not been read before,” he said. “A friend of mine had a wonderful quote: ‘I write to find out what I have to say.’ When I write a poem, I never know where it is going. Like a reader, I want to be moved, jolted or amused. If the poem does not teach me something, why did I bother?”

He has a penchant for reading his poetry to groups. The mild mannered attorney said he actually accepts all requests to read his poetry, which allows his poetic side the platform of “a performer.” He has read at a Library of Congress poetry event, at book stores, retirement communities, book groups, churches, colleges, and even in natural settings.

Gary Stein says: “A poem should sound right so people hear its rhythm and rhyme. It cannot only be effective on the page, but poems also must be heard.”

Here are two of Gary Stein’s poems. Enjoy!


You float up beneath my fingers.
I rub old sun into your hair,
hear bees bother our meal beyond the lens.
In the dust free air it is grass again;
it is years ago not this small night.
Your image whispers itself in silver,
the echo so perfect I leave the room.

Prairie Schooner, 1975


The Vietnamese woman
who snips my hair
in Andre’s Salon
was just a child when
our planes flamed
her village.

Now she calls herself
“Ann,” the ghost
of a name. Eight
thousand miles from
home her busy blades
whirl over
my small head.
For twenty bucks
she tries to tame
the thin forest
of time’s gentle

Poet Lore, 2015


10th Anniversary: Set alight by the short story

This essay was originally published on May 14, 2012. It is being re-shared in support of LPR’s 10th Anniversary celebration.

This is what I wanted to do with my own stories: line up the right words, the precise images, as well as the exact and correct punctuation so that the reader got pulled in and involved in the story and wouldn’t be able to turn away his eyes from the text unless the house caught fire.

Raymond Carver, author’s 1991 forward to Where I’m Calling From

Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver in 1984 (Photo: Bob Adelman)

I’m not always comfortable writing about writing. For me, it’s sort of like talking about what I want to write instead of actually doing it. However, since May is National Short Story Month, I decided (at the urging of a friend) to jot down a few words about fiction in general and the short story in particular.

There’s talk about short stories being out of favor, short story collections being hard to sell and so on. I’m not too worried about that. The market is both fickle and cyclical. I believe that short fiction will make a comeback any day now. Even if it doesn’t capture the public’s attention the way it once did, the form is significant and merits reading and writing and perpetuating through literary journals.

NOTE: If you enjoyed this essay, please check out LPR’s Issue 13: Doubt.

10th Anniversary: Full Circle

This essay was originally published on January 16, 2015. It is being re-shared in support of LPR’s 10th Anniversary celebration.

“I only know the joy of diving into the pure and essential world of the story.” ~ Kris Faatz

A few days ago, a writer friend and I traded sympathy about the process. She said, “Sometimes the only thing worse than writing is not writing.”

I often flip back and forth between two moods: pessimism when I’m working and meanness when I’m not. Every writer knows those feelings. And all of us know a nasty truth: the words we labor on so lovingly today may never reach anybody else tomorrow.

Kris'childhood aspirations are captured in this circa 1970s photo: music and books.

Kris’ childhood aspirations are captured in this circa 1980s photo: music and books.

When I was three, I made up my first stories, and when I was six wrote and illustrated a “book” called “The River.” In second grade I devoured and plagiarized from Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series. In fourth grade, I got into mythology; in fifth, I traded all earlier loyalties for elves and hobbits; and in sixth, I fell in love immediately and forever with Watership Down. From the beginning, I wanted to be a writer, but later tried math and science and finally (I thought) settled on music, which after books had been my first love. Approaching thirty, working as a musician, I drifted back to writing when I decided – no problem! – to start a novel about the colorful, crazy backstage world of the classical symphony.

NOTE: If you enjoyed this essay, please check out LPR’s Issue 14: Music.

When words save

This essay was originally published on October 2, 2015. It is being re-shared in support of LPR’s 10th Anniversary celebration.

As a literature person, I often feel like the church lady at the door: “Hello, I’m here to tell you about a book that can save your life.” Slam.

But sometimes, someone lets you in, and sometimes, you’re not alone. I was having tea with a fellow book evangelist and LPR’s on-line editor, Debby Kevin, when she mentioned Buck: A Memoir, and thought the author, M. K. Asante, would make a good interview for the Little Patuxent Review

People offer suggestions all the time (they’re church ladies too), and I dutifully do the research, read the books and make the call. This time, I was redeemed at the pulpit. Buck was not my typical reading fodder: It’s the salty story, studded with rap lyrics, of a 14-year-old gone wild who liberates himself at an alternative school in Philadelphia. He becomes a rap poet, a filmmaker, a writer, and the youngest tenured professor in Morgan State University’s history. M. K. Asante was an amazing interview. (The article appeared in the latest issue of LPR, summer 2015.)

So when I was sitting at a party for a friend, David Barrett, next to an acquaintance who worked with him at Howard County’s alternative school, I mentioned Buck.

Anne Reis is the media specialist at the school, Homewood Center; she’s obviously a book person. She read Buck, then started her network going. She wanted Asante to talk to the kids at Homewood School. First, she called on Barrett, who knew Asante’s father, a Temple University professor known as the father of Afrocentricity. No luck. Then she called the agent. Too expensive. Then she passed the book along to the staff, one of whom was Rayna DuBose, a long-term substitute teacher at Homewood. DuBose read the book and started Twitter messaging Asante. He began to answer and then agreed to the tiny sum that Reis had in her budget.

Barrett, who teaches math at Homewood, explained: “When word got out that author and professor M.K. Asante would be coming to Homewood Center to discuss his book and his life; buzz and excitement were considerable among the faculty and staff.  But there was also some skepticism among the students. They had been audience to speakers in the past with whom they did not necessarily connect.  Why would this one be any different?” Just before Asante was scheduled to begin speaking, Barrett was watching for the guest author on the day of his talk, and saw a young man coming up Homewood’s walk. At first, Barrett thought he was a student coming in late, “but there was something about his walk – head held high, a smooth confident stride – that told me I was wrong.”

And that’s what the youthful 33-year-old Asante wanted everyone to know: He was just like their students.

“When he was young, he was just like them,” Reis said he told the gathered students and staff. “But something clicked for him. He explained that he realized that education was going to free him. ‘It’s what they want you not to have — it’s your freedom,’ ” Reis said he told them.

Asante captured them from the moment he began his rap: “Young buck, buck wild, buck shots, buck town, black buck, make buck, slave buck, buck now …”

M.K. Assante captivates students at Homewood Center.

M.K. Assante captivates students at Homewood Center.

“After that, they were putty in his hands,” Barrett recalled. “The 33-year old Morgan State professor proceeded to tell them that he was born in Zimbabwe; had grown up in Philadelphia and gotten caught up in the street culture of that city. He did not see much of his father after his parents divorced and he was not happy about that. Ultimately he was sent to an alternative school (‘just like you’) where he began to turn around his life after an English teacher gave him a blank piece of paper and told him to write. ‘Write about anything you want. But write sincerely and truthfully.’ He had never before been asked or directed in that manner to write. And he felt challenged and responded accordingly.”

Asante Jaelyn

Homewood student Jailyn Davis was eager to talk with M.K. Asante after his presentation.

After his talk, one staff member asked him how teachers could reach a student, sitting slumped in a classroom chair, on his phone, ignoring everything going on in class.

“I was that kid,” Reis remembers Asante saying. “People were talking to me and I was hearing all of it. I just wasn’t ready yet.”

Asante used the analogy of a garden, Reis said. Gardeners can prepare the soil, pull the weeds and water, but then nothing happens. Suddenly the sun hits and it all blooms.

“That was a great thing for staff to hear,” Reis said.

The most amazing thing was the silence during his question and answer period, Reis said. After someone asked a question, Asante paused to think for a moment, and “you could have heard a pin drop — at our school there’s a lot of bad behavior — that doesn’t happen.”

Homewood Center student Dre Fleeks, who had a copy of Buck autographed for him, with the author, M.K. Asante.

Homewood Center student Dre Fleeks, who had a copy of Buck autographed for him, with the author, M.K. Asante.

Reis had introduced Asante and left her copy of his book on the stage. After Asante had finished answering questions, she said, “he was like a magnet.” Students gathered around him for selfies and autographs. Reis saw one boy with Asante’s book, and said, ‘Hey, I didn’t know you had the book.’ She looked closer and saw that it was her book. She pulled him aside and asked: “Do you want to have it signed?”

“He gave me a huge hug,” Reis said. “In a school where kids don’t read, I found a kid — essentially — stealing my book so he could get it signed. It was really touching.”

The ripple effect of literature can’t be measured quantitatively. But from Debby to me to Anne to David, to the staff and students of Homewood, the waves reached out exponentially, to touch lots of readers along the way. Doors were opened for these students, and the church ladies (and gentlemen) actually spread their message. Maybe, just maybe, a few souls were saved.

NOTE: If you enjoyed this essay, please check out LPR’s Issue 11: Social Justice.

Teachers Gillian Crevelle and Rayna Dubose, teachers at Homewood, are big Asante fans.

Teachers Gillian Crevelle and Rayna Dubose, teachers at Homewood, are big Asante fans.

A Cool, Dark Make Believe World Under Our Grandmothers’ Tables

This post was originally published on June 11, 2013.

Susan Thorrnton Hobby

Susan Thornton Hobby

Under my great-grandma Coley’s ornate dining room table, I made the first make believe world that I can remember.

The table’s four thick legs splayed out from a center pole and ended in wooden lions’ paws clutching wooden balls. Whenever it rained or it was too hot in the Shenandoah Mountains to play outside her tiny house, I would retreat from the murmur of adult conversation into the dim, dusty world under the lace tablecloth. The swirling Persian rug–cut into the thick, rosy quarters of a pie by the table legs–became a house, with one separate room for my Breyer horses, one for the wooden chess pieces she let me play with, one for the ragged Barbies my brother tortured and another for the Kens. The dolls never cohabitated in my chaste make believe world.

I was practicing, I suppose, play acting out a life that I might make come true one day, with rooms and animals and children and gardens. Make believe allows the players to try things out, to escape from the mundane or the horrible, to build a vision. And not just children engage in make believe. Adults indulge. And writers do it every day.

The new issue of the Little Patuxent Review carries through it the theme of make believe in ways both strange and wonderful. The Wright Brothers drink Manhattans in a bar and marvel at modern life (that’s Bruce Sager’s poem, also his tongue-in-cheek critic’s take on that poem). A man adopts a Houdini of an octopus when he’s not quite ready for human companionship (that’s Ann Philips’ microfiction). A dead mouse’s odor slips between a couple and elicits a tiny, poisonous deception (that’s Jenny Keith’s sly story). And a child, unsure of the meaning of “adultery,” decides it means playing an adult and confesses her many sins to a nonplussed priest (that’s Ann Bracken’s sweet, funny poem).

All those writers and more will read their work at the launch event for the Little Patuxent Review’s summer issue, our tenth issue, on Saturday, June 18, 2 to 4 PM, held in partnership with the Columbia Festival of the Arts.

Readers will also include Derrick Weston Brown, Erin Christian, Caryn Coyle, Barbara Westwood Diehl, David Evans, Susan Thornton Hobby (that’s me), Danuta Kosk-Kosicka, Laurie Kovens, Karen Sagstetter and Patricia Jakovich VanAmburg, plus Tara Hart, reading a poem about pretending, forgetting and remembering. Tara will also reprise her poem “Patronized,” which first appeared in last summer’s Spirituality issue and recently was recently awarded a Pushcart Prize.

It’s hot outside, but it’s cool and dark here under our great-grandmother’s tables, playing make believe. Come join us.

NOTE: If you like’d this republished work, check out LPR’s Issue 10: Make Believe