Interview with Eddie Conway by Ann Bracken

Continuing our discussion from our recent prison-themed issue, LPR Deputy Editor Ann Bracken recently interviewed Eddie Conway, executive producer of Real News Network. Having served 44 years in prison before his sentence was overturned in a retrial, Conway became an advocate for prison reform. Read the full interview below.

Some people might say that Eddie Conway is finally home. Others will tell you he never really left Baltimore behind.  And he has always been deeply committed to working for justice in his community.  At a very early age, he became aware of the disconnect between the American Dream that lies within reach for a majority of white Americans, but remains a caustic lie for many Black Americans.  Conway likens his feelings of betrayal to the time when he was about five years old and could barely reach the glass of water sitting on the kitchen counter. Proud that he finally grasped the glass, looking forward to the cold water, Conway choked and sputtered as he swallowed a glass of bleach.  In his memoir, Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther, Conway has this to say of that memory which “returns to my mind time and again, for it seems to me an analogy for the quintessential experience of oppressed people in this country. White supremacy permeates every aspect of our lives here in the United States and the forced acceptance of it tastes much like that glass of bleach.”

Conway grew up in the 40s and 50s in East Baltimore and then joined the United States Army in 1964 where he rose to the rank of Sergeant.  While serving as a medic in Germany in 1967, Conway saw newspaper reports about the use of force by police and the National Guard related to civil rights protests in the States and was shocked to see American soldiers pointing rifles at unarmed civilians in the streets of Newark, New Jersey.  Disillusioned and distraught over that incident, Conway questioned his role in the military and decided that he would take his energy and skills to fight for justice back in his Baltimore community. On his return home, he worked briefly as an orderly and operating room technician and then as one of the first Black firefighters at the Sparrows Point Bethlehem Steel plant.  In 1968 Conway joined a local chapter of the Black Panther Party which was just forming in Baltimore. He worked on educating other party members, providing free breakfast to the children in his neighborhood, and encouraging community members to take action to address the high levels of inequality that permeated every area of Black life.  In 1970, while still a member of the Panthers, Conway was accused of killing a police officer, denied adequate legal representation during his trial, and convicted based on the testimony of a jailhouse snitch. He spent 44 years in Maryland’s prisons, always maintaining his innocence.  He was released in 2014 for time served because the judge in his original trial had neglected to inform the jury that they could only convict someone if they were convinced of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Conway and I sat down to talk in his second-floor office at the Real News Network where he currently works as an executive producer.  The walls were hung with pictures of famous Black activists like Kathleen Cleaver as well as coloring book pages taped near his desk.   Conway told me that parents sometimes bring their kids to the network offices and he’s only too happy to display their artwork.

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Eddie Conway

Ann Bracken (AB):  Thanks for meeting with me today, Eddie.  It’s an honor to talk with you and to bring your story to the Little Patuxent Review’s readers.  I first heard you on “Democracy Now” when Amy Goodman interviewed you in March of 2014, the day after you had been freed from prison after 44 years. What was the greatest challenge you faced as a returning citizen?

Eddie Conway (EC): Nothing really challenged me at first because I had spent my time in prison working with people and trying to stay up on all of the events happening in the society at large. But what soon became a challenge for me was seeing the conditions in the city of Baltimore. I was prepared to see better conditions for everyone.  After all of my years of organizing—both inside of the prison and outside—I thought I was done with organizing at 67 years of age. But when I saw the conditions of the neighborhoods, the people, the schools, and the community at large, I had to pick up the mantle and try to change that.

AB: What kinds of projects are you involved in now as a community organizer?

EC: Right now I am working at Tubman House in the Gilmore Homes neighborhood—the same neighborhood where Freddy Gray was killed. We work with the children and adults to grow food, learn cooking, and offer support to the young people in the neighborhood. We do lots of community outreach, like giving out Thanksgiving turkeys, Christmas gifts, school supplies, and teaching dance to the youth.

AB: What led you to become a producer at the Real News Network?

EC: When I was in prison, I noticed that none of the United States networks covered the news about what was really helping to the people in America.  I couldn’t find stories about the environmental movement, the gay movement, or Black Lives Matter, just to name a few.  I had to look at networks like Al Jazeera, BBC, Russia Today or the Chinese News stations.  I finally found the Real News Network and I wanted to be a part of their work, so I began as a volunteer about two-and-a-half years ago and then I was hired as a producer. (Conway often reports on mass incarceration issues in a series called Rattling the Bars.)

AB: It sounds like you had a pretty smooth reentry after your many years of incarceration, but many others struggle to be successful after their time in prison. Are there programs that help returning citizens with re-entry?

EC: There are so few available that it amounts to a drop in the bucket.  The programs that do exist only reach a small part of the population. In Maryland alone, the numbers of people cycling in and out of the community are staggering.  About 1000 people come back every month and 1000 go in (to prison). (1) There’s a flood of people all the time. They get arrested and charged with everything from resisting arrest, to talking back, to having a little pot on their person, to everything except maybe mass murder (defined as shooting  4 or more people in a single incident, not including the shooter). (2) The statistics show that about 80-85% of people will come out at some time—so we’ll always have folks reentering our communities that need some support.  In my work at the Real News Network, I try to spotlight things that work to help returning citizens, but there are so few programs and they reach a very small population.  That’s why I did the story on Living Classrooms in East Baltimore.

AB: Say more about what impressed you with Living Classrooms. What is it that they do that makes their program so effective?

EC: That program is a tiny drop in the hat, but one of the things that makes them so effective is that they hire ex-offenders to work with the new returning citizens, so they have a good grasp of all the things someone newly released from prison needs help with—the problems, the challenges, and the resources. The program runs with case managers—about five or six of them—who work with about 50 or 60 returning citizens.  They have about an 80-85% success rate and very low recidivism rate, as opposed to state-run programs with about a 60% success rate and recidivism of about 40%.

AB: Most people know very little about labor in prisons or any other conditions that incarcerated people are subjected to.

EC: Prisons do two things: they isolate the people on the inside and they isolate the people on the outside so that they don’t know what goes on.  When you are riding on 83 coming into Baltimore, there’s a billboard that talks about putting down the gun   and when people ride by that, they have no idea about how many people live in those brick buildings behind the billboard. I bet many of them don’t even realize a prison is there.  So not only are the buildings themselves invisible to most people, but there’s an invisibility to the prison structure itself. Oftentimes people will tell you that one day they talk to a friend and a few weeks later, they ask where the friend is and someone tells them, “Joe? Oh, he got 20 years.”  So many people from your community are there one day and gone the next.  They become the disappeared.

AB: When I discuss the topic of prison labor with friends or students, the most frequent response goes something like this: “Well, it’s better to have people in prison working than just sitting around doing nothing all day. Besides, they can learn a trade or some skills if they have a job.”  How would you respond to that?

EC: I’d say that you could make the same argument about slavery. Isn’t it better to have people picking cotton and rice than just sitting around all day? At least they had a place to live and a little food. It’s the same mentality with labor in prison. People in prison have to pay for their survival—paying such things as deodorant, soap, toothpaste, stamps, snack food, books, and phone calls. (3) If they do work in the prison, they may make about $50-$75 a month. Oftentimes, they also have to pay for child support or family support. Additionally, when they are sentenced, they may be sentenced to 30 years and have to pay a $30,000 fine.  How are you going to do all of that on $75 a month?

If you are out on work-release, you do get paid federal minimum wage, but then you have to pay for room and board, taxes, and maybe child support. There is a very small sub-set of folks that are actually paid minimum wage.

So I’d say yes, it’s better to have work and a decent wage, but the system that currently exists is abusive—it’s a form of neo-slavery. People are dehumanized. How do you self-actualize in conditions like that?

For example, I worked as a graphic art designer making signs—a highly technical skill. I made things like the highway signs for BWI, the Orioles signs, and the wraps on MTA buses. All of that work requires a very special skill set. I was at the top echelon of prison pay, making about $6.50 per day.  A graphic designer on the outside would make about $250 per day.  So because I wasn’t even making minimum wage, I was dehumanized.

On the other hand, if prisoners were actually paid the minimum wage, they would be able to take care of their basic needs and also do things to bond more with their families.  They could buy cards, send letters, or maybe even small gifts. People would have to treat the prisoners differently because incarcerated folks would  begin to see themselves differently.  Paying the prisoners a minimum wage will humanize them.

AB: What would you like to say to people who may be thinking about doing volunteer work in a prison?

EC: That it means a lot to the folks who are locked up to know that people on the outside are thinking of them and are willing to get involved with them in some kind of meaningful way.  After a while, you lose track of yourself and how you are related to the world. But if you see people come in to work with you on job skills, or writing, art, music, or alternatives to violence—anything—you begin to realize that you matter. You hold on to your personhood and begin to feel like maybe you can make it. If you encounter people who have no obligation to visit you—folks other then your parents, siblings, relatives, spouse or friends—it helps you to feel like a real person rather than a number.

AB: Finally, I’m very interested in your work with “Friend of a Friend,” a program developed with the help of the American Friends Service Committee to help incarcerated people learn new skills for dealing with anger management, conflict resolution, and other interpersonal coping skills.

EC: Yes, Friend of a Friend is a peer-mentoring program that is run inside the prisons and helps prisoners develop a lot of the skills they need to be successful in their lives. Most of the men who participate in the program go on to work with the youth back in their communities.   The program runs in both state and federal prisons all over the United States.

AB: Thank you for your time and your work, Eddie. I’d like to close with your hopeful and inspiring words from the brochure about Friend of a Friend: “Our goal has been to equip these young men to leave prison in a better position emotionally and intellectually than when they came in. Our great hope is that they will contribute to the uplift of the communities that they come from.”

 

Notes from the Interviewer:

  1. Bureau of Justice Statistics: 95% of all state prisoners are released at some point and nearly 80% are released to parole supervision.
  2. Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Fiscal 2015 Budget Overview: 10, 946 entered prison and 11, 394 were released in 2013.
  3. For further resources, please visit Maryland Department of Corrections at Maryland Correctional Industries website.

 

 

 

Interview with Ann Bracken

Recently, Little Patuxent Review interviewed our deputy editor, Ann Bracken, about her new book of poetry, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom. Ann has worked with LPR starting with our inception in 2006. For the past 20 years she has taught children and adults, and those experiences serve as the inspiration for this new book.

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Ann Bracken

Little Patuxent Review: How have your experiences as a teacher influenced your writing? What aspect of education inspired you to write No Barking in the Hallways?

Ann Bracken: I began writing my student poems when I taught high school in a psychiatric hospital. Many of the students were there because no other school had a place for them due to their emotional distress that resulted in a lot of difficult behaviors.  What I learned in that job is that there are no “bad kids,” but rather awful circumstances that cause pain and trauma. Writing poems about my students helped me to understand them better and to treat them with the compassion they deserved.

I wanted to write No Barking in the Hallways because I believe in the power of personal stories to help people understand complex issues, such as high-stakes testing. The emphasis on test scores negatively affects both teachers and students, especially those with special needs. For example, many of the young men I taught struggled with reading, but rather than accept help and move forward, they developed avoidance behaviors so they could look cool and tough as opposed to being labeled as dumb.  Many of those boys were mechanically or artistically gifted, yet they were stuck in classes that drilled them on multiple-choice items so they could pass the high-stakes graduation tests.  Because their grades were poor, they were not eligible for the technical classes where they could have blossomed.  So for them, school was a place of frustration rather than a gateway to hope.

As for my colleagues, many of them doubled-down on rigid, practice-driven activities just to cover material that would be on tests. I also had an administrator who bribed kids with prom tickets to take the test over again, even when they had passed, just so the school’s numbers would look better for the central office.

LPR: How did this project differ from others you have done in the past?

AB: My previous book, The Altar of Innocence, is a memoir in verse that deals with addiction, depression, and the struggle to claim one’s voice.  That book has a chronological framework and each poem is based on a scene from my past.  My new book features the stories of students and teachers I have known since I first began teaching. The poems are in a looser framework so that the reader experiences stories of individual children and teachers who struggle to find relevance in today’s increasingly standardized, rigid world of public education.

LPR: Your poems feature the voices and stories of real teachers and students. Could you provide an example of a story that inspired one your poems?

AB: “The Voices in My Ear” is based on an article I read by Amy Berand, a young teacher in a charter school who was being trained in a very robotic, harsh method of discipline called No Nonsense Nurturing.  Amy worked in a middle school, and while she was being trained, she had to wear an earpiece so that she could hear the prompting from three coaches who stood in the back of her classroom and told her how to respond to students.  I was struck by Berand’s description of the method, especially because she was equipped with an earpiece to hear the coaches but had no mouthpiece to answer them. The trio of coaches gave her short phrases to say and told her to stop expressing her emotions, to stop praising the students. I found the article very disturbing on a number of levels, chiefly because most teachers know the best way to help students learn self-management is to treat them kindly and to get to know them and their interests. A teacher should form a real relationship and show respect for the students as people. No Nonsense Nurturing trains teachers to act like robots who speak with pre-programmed responses rather than to engage with students as individuals.

LPR: What changes do you feel need to be made in education to better reflect the experiences of students?

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No Barking in the Hallways

AB: First, I’d eliminate most uses of the computer for students in the classroom—see this article on the push for competency-based education for my reasoning.  Teachers would guide student learning using hands-on experiences to explore a curriculum based on research and age-appropriate objectives. The curriculum would be decided on a state level, with each school system free to adapt parts of it according to local needs.  Art, music, and physical education would be as important to the school experience as reading, writing, math, social studies, and science skills. The Common Core curriculum, PARCC, SBAC, and all standardized testing would be eliminated. No more Teach for America. No more charter schools and vouchers. Higher pay for teachers. Local control in the hands of elected school boards would be the norm. Most of all, we would be guiding our students to become thoughtful, kind, informed citizens and treat them with dignity and respect.

LPR: How can we better meld the arts with education?

AB: If we value creativity, and our business folks are always searching for that quality, then we need to improve the opportunities for children to be creative. You can’t foster creativity with standardization, rigid curriculums, and corporate-designed lessons.  We need to keep the arts—music, poetry, dance, visual art, and theater—in the forefront of our children’s education. Not only do the arts offer a variety of ways to express oneself personally, they also offer a chance to speak to issues in new and challenging ways.  Most important, the arts offer all of us a way to imagine the future, to move beyond what constrains us and to create a new vision for society. Instead of cutting the arts, we should be expanding them.

If you’d like to know more about Ann and her work, please visit her website at www.annbrackenauthor.com.  Ann’s launch reading for No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom is on February 24th at Zu Coffee in Annapolis, MD, from 6:30-8:30 pm. Diane Wilbon Parks will also be featured at the event, part of the reading series The Poet Experience.

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 https://littlepatuxentreview.org/sales/individual-issues-2/.

 

The Meaning Behind Our Words: Joseph Ross’s Thoughts on Poetry

Joseph Ross is the author of three books of poetry, Meeting the Bone Man (2012), Gospel of Dust (203), and Ache (2017). His poem “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God” won the 2012 Pratt Library/Little Patuxent Review poetry prize and his work has appeared in Poet Lore, The Los Angeles Times, and Beltway Poetry, among others. He and other will be reading at The Writer’s Center on Sunday, August 21st to celebrate LPR’s 10th anniversary.

Joseph was willing to give some insight into his work and his thoughts on poetry.

With three books of poetry under your belt, one of which releases in early 2017, what do you believe are the signature traits of your poetry?

When readers explore my work, I hope they discover three main traits; I hope they find poems that say something, use surprising language, and are moving. To me, these are the marks of a strong poem. I teach these three traits to my students and they  seem to help them make meaningful poems.

The poems I love most are poems that keep opening up to me—and with whom I keep opening up—sometimes over many years. I can love a poem for its language, but if it really doesn’t say anything—or if I can’t understand it—then it’s not going to matter as much to me as a reader. After taking time with a good poem, a reader has at least some sense of the poem’s meaning. That meaning, if the poem is really good, can deepen and even shift in time.

The language of a poem cannot be common or ordinary and it certainly cannot be predictable. Surprising language can evoke strong emotions and helps the reader see things. It can take the reader deeper than literality and into meanings richer and more complicated than fact. A good poem only achieves this after a lot of work on the part of the poet.

Finally, I believe a good poem moves the reader. I think of Ross Gay’s amazing poem “A Small Needful Fact” about the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the New York Police Department. His poem describes the fact that Garner worked “for some time for the Parks and Rec” and he goes on to say in that work Garner probably planted flowers. He closes the poem with a reference to what the consequence of that kind of work might be, also referring indirectly to the words Garner spoke as he was dying in police hands. Eric Garner is remembered for saying, “I can’t breathe.” Gay ends the poem by telling us that Garner’s work might have made it “easier / for us to breathe.” This poem moves me profoundly. It evokes a sorrow in me, but it also makes me angry. It makes me want to change things in my country. Ross Gay’s poem achieves this in the quietest and gentle way. It’s hard to imagine anyone coming away from this poem unmoved. A good poem does this. It moves us.

How do you approach your work from a craft standpoint? Does the form or the subject inspire you first?

As you might predict from the last response, a poem’s subject gets me started. I see something, I read something, I feel something, and then I want to write about. To me, that’s the poem’s core. From there, the poem’s form supports what the poem tries to do. I sometimes see young poets using a dozen poetic devices in one poem. It’s like they’re trying to show me they can rhyme, use alliteration, assonance, and metaphors all in one poem. To me, that’s getting it backwards. If a poem needs to say something, then the form and devices it uses are merely tools to help it say what it needs to say. In my view, form and craft support the poem. Not the other way around.

Here’s an example that might help. In Ache, a book of poems coming out in March 2017, I have a series of poems about John Coltrane songs. One poem is about Coltrane’s epic composition “A Love Supreme.” This amazing song contains four sections and the whole song is built around a four-note sequence. In writing a poem that responds to Coltrane’s song, I thought it might help the poem give the reader an experience of “A Love Supreme” if the poem itself mirrors Coltrane’s container, his four sections, using his section titles as well. To me, that small echo, helps the poem do what it needs to do.

A final word about craft. I discovered a few years ago that when I drafted poems using two-line stanzas I could see the possibilities for interesting line breaks and surprising language more easily. I’m not sure why this works for me but it seems to. These days, I almost always draft in two-line stanzas and while the poems don’t always stay that way, they often do. There’s no right or wrong way to write a poem, this just seems to work for me.

Many of your poems touch on social issues from race to LGBTQ rights, with poems like “If Mamie Till was the Mother of God” and “For David Kato: A Love Poem.” What role do you think poetry plays when engaging with social justice issues? What unique entry point do you think poetry has?

Poetry plays many roles in our world today. So, within various struggles for justice, poetry plays crucial roles. Sometimes writing a poem simply helps the poet sort through thoughts and feelings, towards clarity. Sometimes a poem moves readers in such a way that it fires them up to get more deeply involved in a particular struggle. Sometimes hearing a poem read beautifully moves you to tears. This might deepen one’s experience of the poem’s topic and might further move that listener to make a deeper commitment to that specific struggle.

Consider the simple and clear questions in Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem.” When I first read that poem back in high school, many years ago, it gave me my first opportunity to see the damage and destruction of “a dream deferred.” I don’t think I understood the deadening and explosive results of holding Black people down until I studied that poem carefully. That poem enlightened me and moved me. I am diligently mindful of poetry’s power as I teach my American Literature students these days. When students or readers are ready, a poem can transform the ways we think and feel about the world.

I should say too that I don’t think we need to make poetry responsible for healing the world. It probably can’t. But I know we should never underestimate the power of a strong poem to move its readers into action and sacrifice.

What do you hope is conveyed through your work?

I hope readers might feel this idea pulsing through my work: that although our human capacity to hurt each other is obviously great, our human capacity to love is greater still. I hope both of these realities are conveyed in my work. But we must not flinch when exploring our ability and willingness to make others suffer. I believe a deep understanding of the depths of our cruelty can lead us into lives that build a more just and peaceful world.

In my first book, Meeting Bone Man, I hoped that trajectory came through. I opened the book with a quote from Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, “Kindness.” She speaks of the need to “lose things” before one can know kindness. The book closes with a quote from Chris Abani’s poem, “Sanctificum.” He writes “This is not a lamentation, damn it. / This is a love song.”

Your work has been featured in many journals anthologies from Poet Lore, Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion & Spirituality, and Beltway Poetry Quarterly. What future projects do you have in mind?

JRLHH copy (1)

Joseph Ross on the steps of Langston Hughes’s former home

Many years ago, I immersed myself in the work and life of Martin Luther King, Jr. At Notre Dame, I taught a Freshman Seminar course and later at American University, here in Washington, D.C. about his life and work. I built a composition course around three of his books. I am convinced of the truth and rightness of his ideas. I am also convinced that if more people knew his view of the world, his commitment to nonviolence, his diagnosis of our condition—we could begin the work of healing the world, our communities, and ourselves.

 

So, I’m writing a book of poems drawn from three of his books which scholars call his political autobiographies: Stride Toward Freedom, Why We Can’t Wait, and Where Do We Go from Here? This project differs from anything I’ve done before so I have no idea where it will go, but I love the process of writing it so we shall see. The fiftieth anniversary of his assassination will come in 2018 and I would love for this book to be in the world at that time. We will see.

 

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.

 

 

What’s next for audacious editor?

Photo credit: Karen Leigh Studios.

Laura Shovan. Photo credit: Karen Leigh Studios.

When Laura Shovan wrote her editor’s note for the Little Patuxent Review issue on audacity, she ended it with the lines: “This is the real draw of audacity — a fascination with what happens next.”

And we’re all waiting to see what’s next for our audacious editor. Shovan spent years — from 2011 to 2015 — as the editor of the review, years that were crucial to LPR’s development. Shovan helped boost its reputation, its submissions, and its quality into the national sphere. We are slavishly grateful, and excited about her new projects, including promoting her first novel, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, which was published April 12, 2016, and writing a second novel.

Shovan, who moved to Maryland in the mid-2000s, published a few poems in LPR but was surprised when publisher Mike Clark called her in 2011 to ask if she’d like to edit the journal, she says. She accepted, then jumped in with both feet.

She pulled in guest editors, new staff, and contributors, a new approach to the website. She brainstormed interesting themes, expanded the readings, pioneered a middle school writing camp and answered probably a million emails. And finally, she recruited Steven Leyva to act as editor after she became poetry editor in 2014. Laura Shovan, who spent her last days as an ink-stained wretch with us on the issue published in January 2015.

I met her at Barnes & Noble’s coffee bar, where we had talked many times about books, projects, poetry and our lives.

Susan Thornton Hobby: What changes did you see in your tenure as editor?
Laura Shovan: One of the things was that the previous editor was publishing people from a limited number of states. I thought to grow nationally, we needed to open it up. It was a big step. We still take about 60 to 70% of submissions from the mid-Atlantic region. But we saw two things. First, we went to Submittable [LPR’s on-line submission processor], and we opened it up nationally. When you’re getting submissions nationally, you can be choosier, and the quality is better. The journal pretty quickly started to grow, we were contributing to national anthologies and Poetry Daily. We were just putting ourselves out there. We were, necessarily, before that, in an insular growth period. We just wanted to go from being introverted to being extroverted. The journal was ready for it at that point.

STH: Can you talk about some of your initiatives at the review, the middle school writing festival, the Concerning Craft posts?
LS: I loved the middle school writing festival. And we visited several high schools; Emily Rich did an annual reading at Prince Georges Community College. We really started to have additional readings besides the launch readings. One of the things that sets us apart is that once you’re a contributor, we’re going to support your work. We really liked inviting contributors to do small essays for the on-line site, I really supported the Concerning Craft series.

STH:What did serving as the editor do for you?
LS:It taught me how to put together a book — it’s not a straight narrative, but there still has to be a through-line. We’re not one of those reviews that publishes alphabetically. I love that idea that it should really be like a little book, it should read of a piece. And I really enjoyed the editorial [dimension]. We’re one of the few journals that works by making revisions. I had to learn to be a problem-solver. Because everyone is a volunteer, they’re protective of their time. And so it’s important in solving problems to be logical. I had to downplay any heated emotions. The editor is the one who has to be that way. You need to have the staff feel they are being recognized for their work, that somebody’s looking at the big picture. I sometimes felt like a Mama Bear.

STH:Your blog is full of poetic challenges, to kids and to teachers. Why?
LS: I started blogging in 2008, as part of the children’s lit project. I started with National Poetry Month. And then my birthday is 2/22, and on the year I was turning 44, it was my magic birthday, I wanted to do something. I had vintage postcards as prompts and wrote 44 poems, well more than 44 because I really liked it. Then I opened it up. It grew so big, I can’t have it on my blog anymore. I need a bigger platform. It’s all about having a daily writing practice. When you are sharing virtually as you’re writing, you can’t be connected to the idea of perfectionism. You have good days and bad days. It’s about creating a community around practice. One of my favorite things is that looking at a prompt for a day, some of the work is wildly different or there’s a thread running through people’s work. I feel like people enjoy it. I’m a community-minded person and I like doing things like that.

Book Cover 2[The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary] grows out of my interest in community. When I taught high school — I taught for five years at the beginning of my adult working life — one year I taught Literature of Society and used the Spoon River Anthology. When you’re a reader of that book, you’re putting things together. It’s not a mystery, but you’re connecting clues. It puts a lot of the work of the story on the reader. In my work for the state arts council, I worked in the lower grades. Spoon River is a snapshot of a community at the turn of the century. And in the schools, each classroom is its own little community. The first draft stuck close to the model book. I thought I would tell the story of a classroom, with 30 students each having their own poem. But in the children’s lit world, in critiques, nobody knew what it was. It didn’t work for the readership. I was interested in how children and a teacher in a class form their own community.

STH: What has reading so many other people’s work, as an editor, influenced in your own work?
LS: It made me think about the places people trip up. In beginnings, people write on-ramps — I do that. And with endings, you’re either wrapping it up with a bow, which I look for in my own work. Or there’s often a door in the poem. The author is showing the reader the door, but they’re not walking through it, they didn’t go far enough. They seem like opposite things, but a poem is about striking that balance.

And as editor, I had to be aware of my own preferences. I had to make choices against myself sometimes. When I came in, we added a staff of readers. If they were all liking a poem, it makes me go back and think, what kind of prejudices was I bringing to that work? So I looked at the Best American anthologies. I pushed myself to read more widely so I could be a better editor.

STH: Talk about the “open door” note you write on some poems.
LS: In your own work, you’re not recognizing it. sometimes I can put something away for a while — a few months. Like this children’s book, I’m asking readers to make some leaps. You have to strike a balance in the poem, between the urge to tell everything and the urge to hide everything. The poem is somewhere in the middle.

STH: What are you working on now?
LS: A middle-grade novel about middle-schoolers who are wrestlers, a boy and a girl. Wrestling is at such an interesting period right now. My editor is asking me to stretch and do prose. I’m always up for a stretch.

Online Editor’s Note: Join Laura Shovan on Saturday, April 23, 2016, at The Ivy Bookshop (6-7:30 pm) for a special launch reading of The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary. Stay abreast of other events or follow her award-winning poetry blog at www.laurashovan.com.

  • Kirkus Review says of Shovan’s first novel, “This novel in verse is a remarkable feat of mimicry. The poems sound exactly like they were written by real fifth-graders.”
  • Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “This entertaining debut novel in verse follows the fifth graders at Emerson Elementary as they attempt to save their “run-down” school, which is in danger of closing. In an ethnically diverse class… characters …will inspire readers.”

Ten Questions for Rafael Alvarez

Photo credit: Jennifer Bishop

Photo credit: Jennifer Bishop

When Little Patuxent co-publisher Mike Clark emailed and requested that I interview his former Baltimore Sun colleague Rafael Alvarez, I launched into research mode. I also downloaded to my Kindle a copy of his latest book, Crabtown USA: Essays & Observations and began to read. Alvarez has been a screenwriter for “Homicide: Life on the Streets” and “The Wire” as well as a ship deckhand and newspaperman. He’s best known for his short story collections, The Fountain of Highlandtown and Orlo and Leini.

Mark Kram, Jr., wrote in his introduction to Crabtown, USA, “Rafael not only winked [at the city], he laid his Orioles jacket over a puddle for her as they crossed Eastern Avenue and eloped with her to Dundalk. Baltimore is nothing less than a beauty queen to him.”

Being a Philadelphia native, I marveled at the Baltimore Alvarez describes — and so clearly loves — because it’s so different than the one I have lived in for the past 21 years. In fact, his love affair with his hometown will leave you feeling as though you must get out more often, wander the streets of Charm City, and pay closer attention.

To give our readers a taste of Alvarez’s ninth book, I excerpted ten particularly interesting segments and asked Rafael to elaborate. Here’s our conversation.

Little Patuxent Review: “[Anna Jones] had a way with the local patois that I inevitably conjure for characters in my fiction and screenplays, not cartoons like the beehive pretenders at that shit-hole restaurant in Hampden but real people who live with the water of Bodkin Creek in their veins.” Describe for us your version of a real Baltimorean.

Rafael Alvarez: It may be somewhat fossilized in the post-factory  Baltimore but to me a real  Baltimorean is someone who goes to work every day and if the work dries up or goes away they hustle to find the next thing, sometimes mainstream and sometimes under the table. I think of my good friend Petey who paints houses and is never too busy — no job too small — to help someone out with a quick paint job or caulking job for less than what the market would bear. And then Petey goes home and feeds stray cats behind the Royal Farm store because he hates to see them go hungry. That’s a real Baltimorean to me, male or female, child or adult. My Polish grandmother was as real a Baltimorean as I ever knew — she ventured across the city on transit buses, treated her grandkids to movies downtown at the Hippodrome and worked in sweat shops as a member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

LPR:  “My father’s mother, Frances Prato Alvarez, died when I was at sea in 1976, just a year or two before I realized that while good stories can be found all over the map, the best ones are stirring something on the stove with a wooden spoon.” Tell us about your grandmother and in influence on you.

RA: Perhaps no one has had a bigger emotional influence on me than my Italian grandmother, Francis Prato Alvarez, 1906 to 1976. She is at the heart of every story grounded in the Macon Street rowhouse where my father (born 1934) grew up. The early “Basilio” stories only hinted at her (read Fountain of Highlandtown) because Grandpop loomed large over those early stories. “Francesca” became real in my fiction when I discovered that she was Leini’s best friend and they had known each other as adolescents. It is Leini who teaches the legally blind Francesca, at age 15, to sign her name by showing her how to trace it over and over again.

LPR: While sick and feverish in the late 1990s, you saw the specter of Anne Frank hovering near your tin ceiling. You wrote that “but for the rest of that year, by diminishing degrees, it felt as though she and I were the same person, that somehow I became Anne Frank while remaining myself.” What was that experience like and how did it impact you?

RA: Although I hint at it in my writing from time to time, this is a very private experience and I don’t want to tarnish it by talking about it too much. Suffice to say that when I told one of the more learned Orthodox rabbis in the Northwest Baltimore shtetl about it, his response was, “You were Anne Frank for two weeks and you didn’t tell me?”

LPR: Your father was a tugboat man with Baker-Whitely Towing Co. He knew before you the late poet David Franks, about whom you wrote an essay in Crabtown USA. Share with our readers the story about the tugboat symphony, “Whistling in the Dark.”

RA: The Franks’ tugboat symphony was well documented by Franks, whose archives have been preserved in the basement of a rowhouse deep in the bleeding heart of the Holy Land. My father told the story at the dinner table when I was maybe 12 years old and it was fascinating. I wanted to meet the kind of people with ideas wild enough to ‘conduct’ a fleet of tugboats and their shrill whistles. Here is the Baltimore Sun obit on Franks, written by a friend of mine — Arthur Hirsch — whom I introduced to Franks several years before the poet’s death.

LPR: Reading your book helped me to see my adopted city and understand its quirkiness and charm in a new way. You delve deep to highlight character and place, such as Kramer’s Golden Crisp Popcorn Shop and Miss Anna, Monkey Row, and A-Rabbers. When you think of B’more, what images pop immediately to mind that you’d want others to know?

RA: So much of what I want them to know is gone – Karcz’s Café on South Broadway, Corral’s Spanish restaurant, also on South Broadway (Vagabond Theater in that spot now); the Broadway Recreation Pier will be condos by the time this interview is published, when I was little (and my mother and her mother before then) it was an urban rooftop playground (visible in some scenes from the NBC show ‘Homicide, Life on the Street’); the marble steps are still here but no one scrubs them, Martick’s Restaurant Francais – gone. So I have used my work not only to tell stories and weave fact and fiction into ‘tales’ but I use the narrative to preserve places that are gone. The images I want people to see have to be read in my books and then ‘conjured.’ If they can truly “see” them, I’ve done my job.

LPR: In the early 2000s, you made a pilgrimage to Los Angeles about which you write in Crabtown USA. Along the way, you meet all kinds of characters and deposit 78 copies of LINK and Crabtown Stories with those deemed worthy. Each copy included ways to get in touch with you. Has anyone ever reached out?

RA: Nope. Not a single person. Though apparently I gave a copy of my book Storyteller to someone in a Starbucks south of Kalamazoo, Michigan back in 2014 who wrote and told a friend about it. I am often greeted on the road by fellow Baltimoreans because I am always wearing my orange, floppy Baltimore Orioles “cartoon bird” hat.

LPR: What did you learn about yourself on that trek?

RA: That as I grow older I love solitude. That on long trips across flat states where the road ribbons out for miles in front of you stories not only come to you that you could never have imagined sitting at the keyboard but often SOLUTIONS to literary puzzles set down in early drafts of existing stories sometimes make themselves clear. I learned how much I love the early morning, sipping coffee and saying the rosary with the sun coming up as I drive east toward home from Mississippi; how much I love the magic hour of late afternoon after a roadside nap, sipping coffee and listening to the blues in the orange/pink/gray sunset as I drive west toward Iowa and the cornfield where Buddy Holly crashed in February of 1959, the great Dion DiMucci miraculously spared death.

LPR: You wrote, “Now to be an artist or poet in Baltimore — a weirdo, a drifter, a dreamer — is common but good jobs are scarce.” You’ve had many interesting jobs. Share highlights with us. Looking back, would you do anything different?

RA: I would have partied less and read more. I would have taken advantage of the wide array of theology and religion courses offered at Loyola College while I was there (1976 to 1980) and spent less time wondering what Keith Richards and Robin Trower were up to. I would have taken more photos of things that are gone.

LPR: Your description of a real hon made me laugh out loud. “You know how to have a good time but you also “know your place.” You’re not cheap — either in your morals or “pocky book” — or else other Hons “will talk shit about you.” How do you like to have a good time? If a Hon were to “talk shit about you,” what would she say?

Illustration by Billy Ray Gombus

Illustration by Billy Ray Gombus

RA: She might say, “He’s a charmer, I wouldn’t trust him …”

LPR: Good to know! What are you working on these days?

RA: A book about World War II love letters (non-fiction) and a new short story (fiction) called “Spellbound in the Family Circle,” about following a woman through India as she buys a wedding dress during the week of Mother Teresa’s funeral.

Online Editor’s Note: Thank you, Rafael, for showing me the unexpected beauty of Baltimore and reminding me what I love about this city. Whether you’re a native Baltimorean looking to take a stroll down memory lane or a transplant like me, pick up your own copy of Crabtown, USA. If you’d like to meet Rafael in person, he’s hosting a reading of his new story, “A Banquet of Onions” at Ikaros Restaurant (4901 Eastern Avenue) in Greektown on Sunday, April 10 at 4 p.m. The event is a fundraiser for Mother Seton Academy.

Read Susan Thornton Hobby’s 2011 blog post on Alvarez.