Meet the Neighbors: Contributing Editor Ann Bracken Interviews Morna McDermott McNulty

Ann Bracken is a contributing editor for Little Patuxent Review. Her friend and Towson University education professor, Morna McDermott McNulty, has just published a speculative fiction novel called Blood’s Will that explores the ideas of love and choice in unique and challenging ways. Bracken sat down with McNulty to explore her ideas and find out a little more about the intersection of her work with teaching, writing, and vampires.

Ann Bracken (AB): I think many of LPR’s readers are familiar with science fiction and with vampire stories, but speculative fiction may be a new genre for them. How would you describe speculative fiction and what distinguishes it from mainstream fiction?

Morna McDermott McNulty (MMM): Speculative fiction (SF) is part dystopian novel, part science fiction, and part utopian narrative. It usually tackles socio-political issues of the human condition. SF is a site for possible reimagining of a world in which the identities of people of color have been written by centuries of colonization, imperialism, and white privilege. I think about Octavia Butler’s book Fledgling, or The Gilda Stories by Jewel Gomez, both feminist tales in the speculative fiction genre, about vampires and women of color.

The vampire is the figure of choice in decolonization politics in that it exists between worlds as a specter that threatens the solidity of borders and the reality of a dominant imaginary.  SF can write into existence possibilities for humanness and otherness that extend outside of traditional binary boundaries. As a white middle class female with all the privileges that come with that, I am deeply interested in how we can challenge systems of inequity and injustice, and I think speculative fiction becomes a powerful tool in that arsenal. I wanted to use my own fictional writing skills to explore those issues. And I like to bring that tool kit into my own creative and professional worlds. Writing Blood’s Will, for me, was a bit of both.

AB: What makes this novel a good fit for your work as a teacher and a writer? Why did you choose the vampire framework for the story?

MMM: I love vampires. It’s hard to pinpoint why really. But part of it is in their inherent qualities—different from aliens, ghosts, zombies, or other creatures. My first academic work published about vampires was in 1999, co-written with a former boyfriend and colleague. We explored the themes in the film The Addiction, about a woman in a doctoral program at NYU. It was all very personal to me. Some part of that time in my life also bleeds through in Blood’s Will. I love the “liminality” of vampires— how they move between worlds and identities. They are so multifaceted. Like fiction is to the limitations of what we can write about our world, vampires embody the fascination of humans with what lies beyond our own “limitations”—beyond death. As undeath extends our lived possibilities, fiction extends our conceptions of what is possible in a world that feels so boxed-in by the limitations imposed on us by societal expectations, by language, and, for so many, by oppressive conditions. As I mentioned earlier, speculative fiction is a site for possible reimagining of a world in which the identities (in particular, people of color) have been written by centuries of colonization, imperialism, and white privilege.

AB: How was the idea for Blood’s Will born?

MMM: The answer to this also goes to the next question you asked which was “what are the essential questions” that drive the story. The idea for the book was born in part by my desire to wrestle with those questions (See next response).

But the timing of the writing of the book is distinct. The Twilight series was exploding onto the book and move scenes. As a vampire fan, I was compelled to read the books and see the movies. But I was struck by something that annoyed me. All the characters in that story (and true of similar narratives like The Vampire Diaries, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and even Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire) are wealthy, young, and beautiful. As far as I’m concerned, such characters are already immortal. Or at least perceive themselves to be. The choice “Should I, or shouldn’t I become a vampire?” seems a no-brainer for such characters. What exactly are they giving up?

But what if you were me. A middle-aged, middle-class mother of two, imbued with all the privileges and trapping of that identity. Would you burn that life to the ground for immortal love? In my world, the answer isn’t nearly so neat and simple. And the sacrifices to attain immortality are far more significant. But ironically the choice of immortality also opens up so many more possibilities. And so, the idea that such a possibility could loom (the beauty of speculative fiction) compelled me, and hopefully my reader, to look in the mirror, pun intended, and ask themselves that same question: What would you choose? And what would you sacrifice? These, in my opinion, are fundamentally questions that women confront every day. So the story casts a feminist lens as well. Also, I thought, oh what the hell…if Stephanie Meyer who was a stay-at-home mom potty-training her kids while she wrote Twilight can do it, so can I.

AB: Outside of the academic world, many people may be unfamiliar with the curriculum area called currere. How would you explain the concept?

MMM: Currere is a Latin word meaning “the running of the race,” and it was coined in educational circles by two notable scholars, William Pinar and Madeleine Grumet, back in the mid-seventies. At the time, and since then really, schooling has been driven by very technical qualities-what we can measure, predict, and control. Pinar, Grumet, and since then a whole international movement of curriculum theorists called “re-conceptualists,” argue that the idea of curriculum, typically thought of as that “stuff” we teach in schools, needs to be expanded to examine the entire life of the person. Curriculum might better be considered everything that happens from the moment we wake up in the morning to the moment we go to sleep at night. And that who we are—our memories, our dreams, our fears, our psyche—are all also a part of what we bring to the learning experience called school.

Now extend this thinking into how we make meaning of and write about our learning experiences through inquiry. Drawing from the work of other curriculum scholars, such as Noel Gough, I wanted to play with the idea that fiction also has an important part of play in this inquiry process. In the words of Jamaican novelist and philosopher Sylvia Wynter, “The future will first have to be remembered, imagined” (2007, p. 3).

Currere is memory work. Blend fiction with currere and you have ficto-currere. Ficto-currere creates an intersection between memory and fiction—both of which are “unreal” and constructed. There are four different stage when engaged in the journey of currere: Recalling the past (regressive), being free of the present (analytical), being able to reenter the present (synthetical), and gesturing towards what is not yet present (progressive). It is important to note, however, that these stages are not considered linear or progressive. And if currere is a re-conceptualizing of our lives, just imagine what that could look like for a creature that never has to face death? For a creature whose intrinsic identity is unfixed? (See next Q and A for a continuation of this idea.)

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Meet the Board: Q&A with George Clack

George Clack joined the Little Patuxent Review’s board last summer and has taken on the role of social media coordinator. In recent years he’s been teaching literature and film in the continuing education programs at Howard Community College and Johns Hopkins University. Previously, he worked as a magazine editor with the National Endowment for the Arts, then the U.S. Information Agency, finally morphing into a digital editor, publisher, and content provider with the U.S. State Department. For three years he blogged on books and writing at 317am. In the Q&A that follows, he answers questions about LPR, why he loves the journal, and why he devotes so much time to it.

Q: What brought you to the Little Patuxent Review?

The magazine’s publisher emeritus and presiding spirit, Mike Clark, and the publisher, Desiree Magney, recruited me. It was a little like what I imagine being recruited by the CIA or MI6 might be. Through word of mouth, they’d apparently determined I was the right sort, and so then I had to decide whether I was willing to carve some time out of my busy life to do real work for the LPR. I thought hard about this: you could say I’m hooked on great writing or that I believe that literature is a force for good in the world. Either way, I know from my own experience that what writers want above all is to have readers. The mission of the LPR for me is to connect writers—particularly writers just starting out—with readers. So in a sense I joined the LPR this year for the same reason I joined IndivisibleHoCoMD, the local Trump resistance movement: to put my beliefs into action. Mike Clark likes to say working on the LPR is a labor of love for everybody involved. I’d agree.

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From Our Current Issue: Hannah Bonner

Little Patuxent Review just released its Winter Issue (available for purchase at this link). Each week we’ll highlight some of the content from this issue. For this week, we’re looking at Hannah Bonner’s essay, Fixed in a Moment of Fierce Attention: 13 Ways of Looking at Claire Underwood.”

Bonner is a Film Studies Ph.D. candidate at the University of Iowa. We’re very grateful that she came from Iowa City to Columbia, Maryland for our launch this past weekend. She’s one of so many readers who made this issue and launch such a success.

Bonner’s poetry has been published in So to Speak, The Freeman, Asheville Poetry Review, and North Carolina Literary Review, among others. In addition to LPR, her essays have been published in Bustle, VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, Misadventures magazine, and Weird Sister.

Q: At one point you cite Wallace Steven’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Your essay is very different in form from the poem, but did Stevens guide your writing in any way? What were your other influences/inspirations?

At the time I was writing “Fixed in a Moment of Fierce Attention: 13 Ways of Looking at Claire Underwood” I was reading a lot of non-fiction, so Wallace Steven’s poem was not in the fore front of my mind (though I did re-read it during the writing process). Instead, I was reading Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, Tan Lin’s 7 Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking, and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. Each of these texts are very esoteric, but also very sensual, lyrical, and deeply preoccupied with perspective, revision, and fragmentation.

I was at the Vermont Studio Center so I had all this uninterrupted time to soak in their episodic prose, but also in their obsessions, whether with a lover or a color. Claire Underwood had been an obsession of mine for years. I was trying to hone in on why I’m drawn to her and how ephemeral and ultimately unsatisfying it can be when we’re obsessed with someone or something that we can only access in a surface and finite way.

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Paul Rucker: Featured Artist for Winter 2018 Issue

One of the most distinctive features of LPR is that we feature an artist’s profile and work in each issue. Paul Rucker, who created the installation on racism called REWIND, is our featured artist for the upcoming Winter 2018 issue. Ann Bracken, LPR’s deputy editor, interviewed Rucker this fall. Enjoy!

An Interview with Featured Artist Paul Rucker

Paul Rucker explains his approach this way: “I want to deal with the truth. The ‘I know’ rather than the ‘I feel’ or ‘I think.’” History is what drives Rucker’s art, along with his passion for educating people on the relationship between slavery, structural racism, and mass incarceration.

Photo of Paul Rucker

Paul Rucker

He’s a visual artist, musician, and collector who likes to tell stories. He uses the objects in his collection to create art exhibits that are designed to present facts and promote discussion about history and societal issues.

Because Rucker’s work deals with the relationship between slavery and the prison-industrial complex, you might expect his collection to relate to these topics. “I have a little museum,” he told me, “and many of the pieces I’ve collected become part of my exhibitions.” One of the objects in his collection is a 50-pound ball and chain that was used to keep the convicts from escaping. After slavery ended, many states leased convicts to do the work that slaves were no longer required to do for free. In a Baltimore Sun article about Rucker’s REWIND exhibit, there’s a striking photo of him holding the iron ball. “I dropped that ball on my foot and broke my big toe,” he told me when we spoke.

Rucker also has a collection of books espousing white supremacy and justifying slavery. Two notable and disturbing titles are The Negro: A Menace to American Civilization by R. W. Schufeldt, M.D., and White Supremacy and Negro Subordination by John H. VanEvry, also a physician. Both of these books are part of the REWIND exhibit, as are branding irons used on slaves. Rucker lets the objects speak the truth of history.

Paul Rucker has a distinguished list of grants, awards, and residencies for visual art and music. In 2012, Rucker became a creative capital grantee in visual art as well as a 2014 MAP (Multi-Arts Production) fund grantee for performance. In 2015, Rucker received two awards—the Mary Sawyer Baker Award along with the distinguished Joan Mitchell Painters & Sculptors Grant. Rucker received the Rauschenberg Artist as Activist fellowship in 2016 and the Smithsonian Artist Research fellowship, which bestows on him the privilege of being the first artist in residence at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Among his many residencies are the MacDowell Colony, Ucross Foundation, Art OMI, Banff Centre, Rauschenberg Residency, Joan Mitchell Residency, Hemera Artist Retreat, Air Serembe, Creative Alliance, and the Rockefeller Foundation Study Center in Bellagio, Italy. Closer to home, from 2013 to 2015 the Maryland Institute College of Art hosted Rucker as the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation artist in residence and research fellow.

Now Rucker can add Richmond, Virginia, to his other two cities of residence—Baltimore and Seattle. Virginia Commonwealth University named him an iCubed (Inclusion, Inquiry, and Innovation) visiting arts fellow embedded at the Institute for Contemporary Art, where he’ll teach a music course in the spring of 2018. Most recently, he was awarded a 2017 John Simon Guggenheim fellowship, and he’s currently spearheading a Kickstarter campaign to fund more exhibitions of REWIND across the country.

Little Patuxent Review: How does the REWIND exhibit speak to what’s going on in the United States right now? In particular, how does the exhibit speak to the societal tensions in Baltimore?

Paul Rucker: The exhibit speaks to more than societal tensions in Baltimore; the same things are happening all across the United States. I live in both Seattle and Baltimore, and both cities have similar problems. The redlining that began in Baltimore moved across the country to Seattle.

Some places are amplifications of the issues; others are subtler. REWIND is about history from a place of “I know.” I created a 30-page newspaper full of historical information and photographs as part of the exhibition. People need to know what came before in this country to understand where we are now. For example, in the 1920s, there were four to five million members of the Ku Klux Klan, all organized to protect white culture. Now we have a variety of groups, widely dispersed and less organized—the Neo-Nazis, Pro-Confederates, White Nationalists. Richard Spencer can barely get 100 people to come out when he speaks. If we look at this a different way, if ten people on a college campus came to hear Spencer’s speech, seven would just be curious, two might be followers, and one person would be there due to taking a wrong turn in the hall.

The people we really need to be concerned about are all of the white suburbanites and even white progressives who benefit from the structural racism in this country.

LPR: How do you see us—as a country—turning that around?

PR: First people have to know that the situation [structural racism] exists and that it affects some people more than others. I was reading the other day that if we allow society to keep going the way that it is now, in 2053 Black Americans will have a net worth of $0. Why is the average white family worth so much more than the average Black family? Is it because they work so much harder? Where are the nice Black neighborhoods? They don’t exist in any city.

Things have not improved in Baltimore despite having a Black mayor or a Black police commissioner, even with the country having a Black president for eight years. Mayor Pugh can give great speeches and she gets a lot of credit for taking down Confederate monuments, but she vetoed a $15/hour minimum wage. Taking down a few monuments does not address poverty, inadequate schools, or systemic racism. We had eight years of Obama, and even he couldn’t talk about race or white privilege. Why can white people’s kids feel free to walk to the store safely without fear of being shot, and buy Skittles and some juice, but Black kids can’t? That’s white privilege.

LPR: I read in one of your interviews that you wanted to do a piece on Freddie Gray. Have you?

PR: I’m still thinking about it. You know, that situation isn’t over yet; things are still going on. The police officers are on trial again, and three of them are Black. Right around the time of the uprising, I did an exhibit with flag-covered coffins at Baltimore City Hall. But when I do an exhibit or a new art piece, it’s all connected. It’s meant for everyone that’s been a victim of terrorism.

LPR: As part of the inaugural Light City Baltimore Festival, you shone a spotlight on places around the city where African men, women, and children were sold, and then you composed a cello solo for each site. Which site was most evocative or disturbing for your audience? How did people respond?

PR: I actually performed my cello compositions at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, so that was a separate event. But the exhibit, which I named “In Light of History,” had eight separate installations along Pratt Street at the Inner Harbor. Each exhibit had an old street light and a sign detailing why the spot was significant. Many of the installations dealt with the buying and selling of slaves, with the text coming directly from old ads in the Baltimore Sun. One document that I purchased is a bill of sale for a three-year-old slave. As soon as you could walk, you were a slave. At the harbor in Baltimore, the point of entry into the United States, you entered as a slave. Location number eight was at

O’Donnell’s Wharf, which was a location for “incoming and outgoing brigs and barques where dockside sales of enslaved people took place.”

LPR: How did the audience respond?

PR: Mostly with disbelief. You never learned this in history class, did you? You know, the Inner Harbor is a place of beauty. People shop, go out to eat. These locations were never marked before, and they’re not marked now.

LPR: What are some other events related to slavery that people find unbelievable?

PR: The early slave trade began in Boston and Richmond, but Baltimore was included as well. People tend to think of slavery as happening only in the Deep South—places like South Carolina and Mississippi—but it happened all over the U.S. Just recently, people discovered a slave burial ground in Tribeca—that’s in New York City. They estimate that between 15,000 and 30,000 people are buried there. Some as young as five years old. The archeologists could see that many of them were worked to death because of their bone structure. White people aren’t buried in mass graves, at least in the U.S.

LPR: Tell me a little about your journey as a musician. What led you to choose the cello, and how would you describe your technique?

PR: Actually, I began as a double-bass player in elementary school, and then I played in college. At some point, I decided I wanted to learn the cello, so I bought one for $1000 and never took a lesson. I play differently from anyone else. I make up ways of approaching the instrument, and I improvise music on the spot. I’ve played with a number of orchestras, including the South Carolina Philharmonic, the Augusta Symphony, and the Ashville Symphony. Right now I have a performance piece called “Stories from the Trees” where I play music to animated postcards that depict lynchings.

My exhibit on the Klan features one actual Klan robe and several others made out of different fabrics. The exhibit was inspired by my time playing with the Augusta Opera in 1989, where I first saw Ku Klux Klan members.

LPR: You were awarded a 2017 Rauschenberg Fellowship for the Artist as Activist to dig deeper into the mass incarceration crisis. Say some more about that.

PR: Well, when people say that the system is broken, they’re actually repeating a false narrative. The system is actually working exactly the way that it was designed to work. People talk about the disproportionality in education from one community to another, but that’s because of the system that’s in place. We need to be asking why the education system disproportionally helps one community more than another. In the last election, the poor whites spoke out. And how do we justify the treatment of imprisoned people? What about when we say “He can do better than that. Pull himself up by his bootstraps.” First, a person needs to have some bootstraps.

In my exhibit “Proliferation,” where I show how many prisons have been built in the U.S. between 1778 and 2008, I use lights in different colors to show how many prisons were built in various time periods. By far the greatest boom in prison construction took place between 1981 and 2008. I get a variety of different responses from people. Some say they can’t believe we waste that kind of money. Other people cry.

LPR: In one of your recent interviews you said, Well, I did a TED Talk over a year ago in Berkeley talking about how they were using the word “thug” to describe Trayvon [Martin]. I said, “‘thug’ is the new ‘nigger.’” It’s a kind of coded language. And even the smartest people are not aware of how this language is being used. It gets into the news, even into the textbooks. How do we work to reclaim language and call out the code words for what they are?

PR: I am reclaiming symbols to tell the truth. I have a collection of branding irons, Klan robes, and books about White Supremacy as well as pro-slavery books that I bought from private collectors on eBay. I want to tell the true story of these items. Think about this language: How does it work when we have a team with owners? When the members of that team can be traded? Why are all of the owners white? Are they working in a field? Think about it.

We need to talk about how the narrative is framed when we discuss people. Who are our archetypes? What does a doctor look like? What does a genius look like? How do we frame history? My family’s been in this country a lot longer than many white people. Wealthy people want to control the narrative to justify the power they have.

LPR: Some public figures are using what could be called coded language to talk about the protests in the NFL regarding police brutality. For example, Owner Bob McNair said, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison.”

PR: I’m glad he said it. A lot of other people think it as well.

LPR: What do you see as an appropriate action for football players to take in response to his comments?

PR: Wouldn’t it be great if all of the Black players formed a superstar team? A Black-owned team? That would be a most amazing thing.

LPR: Your exhibit REWIND draws parallels between police violence and lynching and slavery and the prison systems. For those that haven’t seen the exhibit, can you describe “Excessive Use”?

PR: I wanted to explore what it was like to carry a weapon, so I got a permit for concealed carry and bought a Glock 22 40-caliber pistol. I wanted to know how it feels to pull the trigger, to shoot 50 or 137 bullets into someone. The exhibit features pieces of white paper with the names of people who’ve been murdered by police. Each piece of paper is named by the date and location of the tragedy and has the exact number of bullet holes that the bodies endured. I use my art as a way of showing what happens as opposed to simply talking about it.

LPR: Recently, both Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow and Ava DuVernay in her film 13th have discussed the movement from slavery to the current system of mass incarceration. Talk about how your work addresses the trajectory from slave labor to convict leasing to the current labor system that operates in prisons across the U.S.

PR: While I admire the work of Michelle Alexander and Eva DuVernay, I think we first need to give credit to Angela Davis for her 1997 speech “The Prison Industrial Complex.” You know, this prison system of labor is extremely profitable. Davis warned about that system and said that it would continue to grow. I had to fund my own projects because years ago, no one would fund me to talk about mass incarceration. Then several of my friends told me about the Rauschenberg call for projects. I applied, and I was awarded the funding.

LPR: Since the 1970s, the U.S. has seen an explosion in the building of prisons. Your performance piece, “Proliferation,” deals with this issue in an especially provocative manner. You cite the statistic that the U.S. has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prison population. Describe “Proliferation,” talk a bit about the genesis of the idea, and talk about what you hope audiences will take away from it.

PR: The map that I use in the exhibit came from the Prison Policy Initiative, and they were happy to have me animate what they had put together. I want to show, not tell. There are 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S. People don’t understand this is happening, and “Proliferation” is another way of telling the story. But all of us benefit from the system of prison labor in the U.S. Some of the biggest U.S. corporations use prison labor, including Bank of America, GEICO, Walmart, and ATT. According to the UNICOR website (formerly the Federal Prison Industries) prisoners earn between $0.23 and $1.15 per hour.

LPR: In other interviews that I’ve read, you’ve said that your work is not about race, it’s about power. Can you expand on that idea? How does that relate to the current situation in Baltimore with the trial boards and the officers involved in Freddie Gray’s murder?

PR: The system is about maintaining the power that people already have. Let’s think about the Baltimore Police. The Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, but slavery wasn’t officially ended in Maryland until November 1, 1864. In 1862, a uniformed version of the Baltimore Police Department was established. What were the police used for? To keep communities in place first of all. Then they served as the public face to enforce redlining to be sure that “those people” don’t move into white communities. It’s about power.

LPR: What most inspires you to keep creating visual art and music?

PR: I enjoy telling stories. The power of the artist is to make the unseen seen, and I enjoy doing that.

And we need to talk about privilege. Everyone needs to look at their privilege. Look around your neighborhood. If there are no Black folks living in your neighborhood, you need to ask why. Black neighbors matter. If there aren’t any Blacks in your workplace, you need to ask why. Black jobs matter.

LPR: What is the role of hope in your work?

PR: Hope comes through knowledge. You can’t have hope unless you have something to believe in. When you learn that a system is stacked against you, that you’re not here out of any fault of your own, then you can begin to address the system. REWIND gives me hope.

~Ann Bracken, Contributing/Deputy Editor

Videos featuring Paul Rucker and his work

Real New Network Interview: “The System is Based on Profit” 

Paul Rucker at TED-X: An Artist Copes with Reality

Paul Rucker is a visual artist, composer, and musician who often combines media, integrating live performance, sound, original compositions, and visual art. His work is the product of a rich interactive process, through which he investigates community impacts, human rights issues, historical research, and basic human emotions surrounding particular subject matters. Much of his current work focuses on the Prison Industrial Complex and the many issues accompanying incarceration in its relationship to slavery. He has presented performances and visual art exhibitions across the country and has collaborated with educational institutions to address the issue of mass incarceration. Presentations have taken place in schools, active prisons, and inactive prisons such as Alcatraz.

Rucker has received numerous grants, awards, and residencies for visual art and music. He is a 2012 Creative Capital grantee in visual art as well as a 2014 MAP (Multi-Arts Production) fund grantee for performance. In 2015 he received a prestigious Joan Mitchell Painters & Sculptors Grant as well as the Mary Sawyer Baker Award. In 2016 Paul received the Rauschenberg Artist as Activist fellowship and the Smithsonian Artist Research fellowship, for which he is the first artist in residence at the new National Museum of African American Culture.

Ann Bracken is the author of two collections of poetry, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom (2017) and The Altar of Innocence (2015), both published by New Academia Publishing’s Scarith imprint, and the deputy editor for Little Patuxent Review. Her poetry, essays, and interviews have appeared in anthologies and journals, including Bared: Contemporary Poetry and Art on Bras and Breasts, New Verse News, Reckless Writing Anthology: Emerging Poets of the 21st Century, and Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence. She co-hosts the popular reading series Wilde Readings and offers poetry and writing workshops in prisons, adult education centers and schools, and at creativity conferences.


Leigh Curran—A Look at How Writing for Oneself Translates into Mentorship

Leigh Curran is a playwright, actor, poet, and former director of the Virginia Avenue Project, a non-profit dedicated to teaching writing, improvisation, and theater to low-income children.  I can speak to Leigh’s improvisation and poetry classes, which inspired my personal, life-long passion for the arts and desire to bring that passion to others. Her work to provide safe spaces for self-expression offers a blueprint for anyone interested in community arts integration programs.  In this interview, Curran discusses her personal writing process and how that translates into her mentorship of young people between the ages of 6-18.

Leigh Curran



LPR: You write in many different formats from poetry to plays.  From where do you draw inspiration for each of your different formats?

Curran: I get my inspiration from a combination of my life and my imagination.  From there I decide on the format that will best serve the idea.  Poems are short and concentrated and appear quickly.  Novels allow for lots of description, dialogue, backstory, tangents, etc. and can take years to write.  Plays are my favorite format because I think in dialogue – have since I was a kid – and I love the challenge of telling a story through what people say and do … probably because I’m an actress and have always been fascinated by human behavior.

LPR: What would you say is the hardest thing about writing?

Curran: Self-promotion.  Once I decide to write something, I’m very good about sticking with it because, more than anything, I enjoy the creative process.  But when it comes to getting whatever I’ve written into the world, I come up against all my doubts – mainly about my worthiness.  But I’m working on it!

LPR: You worked on writing plays and poetry with children at the Virginia Avenue Project.  What inspired you to work with young people?

Curran: My life had become too much about my career, my fame, my fortune, and not enough about giving back.  I was living in New York City at the time and, through a friend, got involved with the 52nd Street Project – a non-profit pairing adult writers/performers with children to create and present original works.  When kids and adults write and/or perform together they immerse themselves in an exploration of characters, conflicts, needs, wants, story lines, etc. and, in the process, contribute to each other’s understanding of what it means to be human.   When Project kids wrote plays, they started with character profiles – How old is the character? What is his/her greatest wish – greatest fear? How does family history play a role in the character’s decisions?  What is the character’s best-kept secret and so on.  These questions engaged the adults and kids in a creative exploration that expanded their sense of themselves and the world around them.

LPR: In a lot of your work, you mentored children who came from low-income and/or broken families.  How did you encourage these young students to write honestly and to work hard on their writing in those difficult times?

Curran: I believed in all the kids I worked with and saw us as equals.  I supported their successes and pushed them gently and with enthusiasm (I hope) to go deeper into the areas where writing can get murky, scary and overwhelming.  No matter what age you are or how much experience you have or haven’t had, when you sit down to write you are searching for your story in the weeds.  Kids whose lives are full of struggle spend a lot of time trying to make sense out of the chaos.  Playwriting allowed them to develop compassion for characters they created but didn’t necessarily understand, to trust their ideas and express them clearly and, finally, to explore complex emotions through the safety of metaphor and storytelling.

For example, one of my teens wrote a play about a business woman and Nothingness – yes, the second character was named Nothingness, and it came to persuade the woman that the new man in her life was only going to leave her so why go out with him?  Because the writer had to write a character profile for Nothingness, she had to explore its longings and fears and, in the process, Nothingness was humanized. The writer took a deeper look at what the depression inside her looked like – how she was controlled by it, how she was afraid of it, how she gave into it, how it forced her to wrestle with meaning, how it slowed her down, and how it prevented her from making decisions she might later regret.  So, not only did this teen write a very original and compelling play, she and her artist/mentor (who happened to be me) shared in an exploration of what it means to have a shadow side and discovered shadow sides have their good sides too.

LPR: What would you like to see more of in writing today?  Or what themes or ideas do you think are lacking in contemporary writing?

Curran: I can’t say I’m that well-versed in contemporary writing, so I’ll answer your question as it relates to playwriting.  I’d like to see women writers taken seriously.  We are more apt to write emotional journeys than intellectual ones.  A while back, in an attempt to distinguish theater from TV and film, theater artists began focusing on language, and while plays are definitely about language, the plays that were being generated often made language more important than story.  I found myself leaving the theater feeling satisfied intellectually but unmoved spiritually and emotionally.  A stimulating theatrical experience is when I can have all three. Women playwrights can make that kind of magic – it’s in our DNA.

LPR: What advice would you give a person with writer’s block?

Curran: I don’t see writer’s block as a bad thing. I see it as a necessary part of the process.  I have a history of falling asleep when I write.  I used to think I was unprofessional, but now I understand it as part of the deep dive and wait with curiosity for new ideas to bubble up.  While I’m waiting, I might free-write about how blocked I am or about why I wish I wasn’t blocked. I just keep moving my pen across the page – without thinking.  Or I put what I’m working on aside and do something totally unrelated until I can’t stand being separated from my writing for another minute.  You can’t will the creative process into being, but you can behold its unfolding in its own way and time.  And therein lies the magic.

LPR: What projects do you have coming up and what should we keep an eye out for?

My new play is called Body Beautiful – it’s about love, aging, loyalty, sexual proclivities and gender dysphoria.  I’ve begun submitting it to local and regional theatres and it will be given a rehearsed reading in Los Angeles in early December under the direction of Elinor Renfield.  Ellie directed me in a play in New York in the late 80s and became a great friend.  She’s an actor’s director if there ever was one – combines her vision of a play with what she gets from her actors, so there’s lots of give and take which makes for a very creative rehearsal process.  This summer I worked with Ellie as a playwright and was just as excited by her dramaturgical skills.  Together we made the script shorter, tighter, clearer, deeper and better and now it’s ready to be rehearsed and read for a wider audience.  Can’t wait!

Bio:  Leigh Curran is a writer, performer, and for 22 years was the Founding Artistic Director of The Virginia Avenue Project, a non-profit using Theatre Arts and long-term mentoring to give struggling children life and communication skills.  As an actress, Leigh has appeared on, off, and way off-Broadway, as well as on TV and in films.  She’s also a produced and published playwright, novelist, poet, and a reader of personal essays.  Her solo show, Why Water Falls, received the Encore! Producers Award at the 2015 Hollywood Fringe Festival and was later produced Off-Off Broadway.  She is currently preparing her fifth full-length play, Body Beautiful, for a staged reading in New York City.





The Creation of a Poetry Anthology: An Interview with Michael Tager

Michael Tager, managing editor, and Ian Anderson, editor in chief, run the Baltimore small publishing house, Mason Jar Press.  The press is committed to displaying unique, diverse voices and publishing pieces that challenge contributors on both professional and personal levels. Their recent poetry anthology Not Without Our Laughter:Poems of Humor, Joy & Sexuality, edited by celeste doaks, is the focus of the following interview, giving us insight into what it takes to select poems and work through the process of publishing a chapbook. The Black Ladies Brunch Collective has an interview in LPR’s Winter 2018 issue and each member also contributed a poem.  Enjoy!unnamed-2.jpg


Little Patuxent Review: What inspired the idea to publish Not Without Our Laughter?

Michael Tager: Ian and I had worked with celeste Doaks before, when we hosted her for Writers & Words, a reading series we used to run together. She read from her book Cornrows and Cornfields and we (Ian especially) were blown away. What I really liked about celeste was her attitude—friendly, engaging, professional and amusing.  In short, the kind of person I like working with. When Ian broached the idea of approaching celeste and seeing if she had a concept ready for publication, I was about it.

We assumed celeste would have a manuscript of some kind, but she pitched us a different idea: an anthology of black women poets inspired by Langston Hughes’ Not Without Laughter.  Ian and I definitely weren’t expecting it, but it was such a great idea that we couldn’t possibly say no. Anthologies are such different animals, mixing of forms and styles and imagery. We’d never done one before, but we welcomed the challenge, and the mission inspired us to greater efforts.

LPR: What was the most challenging part of publishing the anthology?

Tager: Between the six members of The Black Ladies Brunch Collective (BLBC), Ian, and myself, we were incorporating eight different artists’ ideas into one cohesive product, and I would say that was the most challenging part of publishing Not Without Our Laughter. Poets can seem to operate on a different wavelength than the rest of us, and sometimes even amongst themselves. It was no different here. The women of the BLBC are brilliant, talented, passionate women, and theyhave their own ideas about how their art will be created and showcased. Valid concerns, too, since the book would have their name on it. Making sure we honored everyone’s voice and vision was an issue which Ian and I kept in mind throughout the project.

Working with a group creates a difficulty that doesn’t appear when it’s one poet and a publisher because the authors have their own idea of what art needs to be, and Ian and I have our own spin. Not to say that the editing or creative process was particularly contentious, because it simply wasn’t. It took more coordination and communication to be sure. For example, there was a series of emails, and meetings, and phone calls about—wait for it—line breaks. Because line breaks in poetry matter.  The book was going to be a certain width, and some poems might need to be adjusted. Normally we can try to shape a book to a poet’s style, but that wasn’t going to be an option with six poets. Adjusting line breaks might not sound like a big deal, but it required thinking, adjusting, and compromise. Luckily, as grown folks who know how to communicate without hurting feelings, we were able to work through the necessary changes. That’s just one example, but you can imagine the complexity.   It was challenging ,but ultimately incredibly rewarding.

Michael Tager

LPR: What are the most prominent themes in Not Without Out Laughter?

Tager: The book is broken into sections because certain themes arose. There were initially 10 or so sections which were combined and reorganized into seven sections. The BLBC are very different poets, of different ages and places in their lives, so, of course, each poet’s voice is distinctive. But there are certain commonalities that you’ll find in any friend-group, or in any human-group. We all love Prince, for example, (and anyone who doesn’t is lying) so there’s a couple of poems about Prince (and Zeppelin) in “Our Divine Chords.”  There are also sections on mood and food, the body, sex, and lists and litanies. Really, I think the sub-title of the anthology is indicative of the themes: Poems of Humor, Joy & Sexuality.

LPR:  Why does Mason Jar Press publish chapbooks?

Tager: Well, first, I’m not sure that Not Without Our Laughter is technically a chapbook. It’s around 70 pages and 30+ poems, which is past the parameters to meet the definition of chapbooks, which are generally much shorter. Before NWOL, we published a book of nonfiction by Michelle Junot–Notes From My Phone–which was well over 200 pages, and we’re about to publish our first book of fiction which is 250 pages. But we have published chapbooks in the past and may continue to do so. Chapbooks function differently and live in the world differently. At Mason Jar Press, we’re interested in whatever is weird and out-of-place, but still accessible. If a writer comes across our way with an incredible chapbook, we’ll publish it. We aren’t held to strictly one venue or another.

LPR: How did you select the pieces?

celeste selected the pieces with minimal input from us, which is why she’s credited as the editor. The BLBC isn’t just a clever name; they’re a legit brunch group, as in they meet over brunch and talk about poems, books, and the people in their lives. The poems came out of that association, so we didn’t see all the poems that celeste did. We had our opinions on the pieces that came our way, though, and we asked for edits, for poems to be moved around and—perhaps our biggest ask—we requested that the ladies write response poems as a way to tie the collection more firmly together. Initially, it felt like the poems were dancing around a larger unity, but the response poems tied all the authors and voices together a little tighter.

When I say response poems, one example is Katy responding to one of Anya’s pieces and coming up with a different poem that speaks to it, as in the first two poems “Leaving the House” and “Depression Insists We Stay In” or celeste riffing off of Teri’s Prince poem. The response poems are lovely additions to the collection, but are rooted in the amazing work already present.

Ian Anderson

LPR: What can we expect next from Mason Jar Press?

Tager: Well, we’re in the final stages of Dave K’s wild novel, The Bong-Ripping Brides of Count Drogado. It’s the first novel we’ve done, and it’s been a good time. It’s a weird, weird book and really dark and cynical. We’re into that, just as we’re into poems about Prince and depression. So it’s not a total pivot from Not Without Our Laughter, because Dave has poetry in his soul, but it’s definitely different. We just sent that to print (yesterday!) and we’ll be releasing it in November. Our venue and date is 90% concrete, but we can’t quite announce it yet since everything is subject to change. But we’ll be putting it on our website as soon as we lock it in.

We’re also cooking up some other ideas, some of which I can’t really get into, because, similarly to David’s upcoming event, who knows what iterations our projects will see. I can say that we’re looking to bring some new people on board to help since Ian and I are at capacity with projects and workload. We’re looking for a media person right now, for example. Some other positions (unpaid, sadly) will also be opening up in the near future.

In addition to Bong-Ripping Brides and general expansion, our first open submissions period ended in June and we’re sorting through 250 manuscripts that we’ve received from all over the country—and the world! There’s some dynamite stuff in there. This effort will be our first foray into working with a wholly new author (we’ve known all of our authors to one extent or another), and that’s going to be a lot of fun and a new kind of challenge. Now, what we’re going to pick I couldn’t tell you, but we have some ideas of how to expand the Mason Jar Press brand. We hope to announce the manuscript(s) by the end of August, but it might be a little later.

In other words, it’s an exciting time. We couldn’t be more stoked about it all. It’s a lot of hard work, but we enjoy it so much that it doesn’t always feel like it.

Bio: Michael B. Tager is the Managing Editor of Mason Jar Press, the Book Reviews Editor of Atticus Review and the writer of many stories, essays and poems.


Bio: Ian Anderson is a writer and designer living in Baltimore, MD.  He earned an MFA in Creative Writing Publishing arts from the University of Baltimore in 2014.

Introducing Julia Gerhardt: LPR’s New Online Editor

The LPR staff and board are happy to welcome Julia Gerhardt as our new online editor. Julia worked as an intern for us and volunteered as a poetry reader from August 2016 to May 2017.  Desiree Magney, our co-publisher,  and I met her when we all worked at the AWP conference in February of this year. We’re all looking forward to Julia’s contributions and the fresh energy she’ll bring to the LPR blog. Welcome, Julia.


Julia Gerhardt

Dear LPR Readers,

Hello there! My name is Julia Gerhardt, and it is with great pleasure that I write to you as LPR’s new online editor. I’ve noticed that whenever I want to speak honestly with a family member, friend, or beloved, I find myself bent over my desk writing a letter on my old Betty Boop-themed stationary. Now, while I cannot address a letter to every single one of you, the readers, consider this online blog post my personal, open letter to all of you.

Like all the LPR staff, I too, love reading and writing, although my relationship to literature had a fairly tumultuous start. When I was in first grade, I refused to read and write. I have a sister who is five-and-a-half years older than I and was getting straight A’s at the time, so the bar in my family was set pretty high. Instead of trying to reach for it, I gave up thinking that I would never be as smart as her (completely unaware that I would ever get any older and smarter). So, after refusing to read and write, it was either repeating another year or attending summer school. Summer school it was, and I abhorred it. My teacher was tough, the workload was heavy, (for a five-year-old that is) and the summer was hot. Yet, it was that tough-love attitude of my teacher that finally got me to start reading. Her stature may have been short, but her big, frizzy, gray curls, commanding voice, and piercing brown eyes always made her presence known in a room. The best way to avoid that eye contact was planting my face in a book, and so I did, again and again and again until I loved it.

My love for reading and writing continued into Goucher College where I received my bachelor’s degree in English with a concentration in creative writing. Prior to entering college, my only editors were my mother and my sister who were the equivalent of the good cop, bad cop dynamic of writing. My mom was in constant praise of my work (even when undeserving), and my sister would take a literary knife to my essays until they bled red ink, always holding me to a higher standard. In all honesty, while I’m grateful for both types of feedback, my sister prepared me for only half the critiques I would get in college.

I wrote my first short story for a beginning fiction class my freshman year of college. It was a stream-of-consciousness piece from the perspective of an eight-year-old British boy. Friendly reminder: I had never been to England at that time, and all the British vernacular that I used I found on the internet. Needless to say, it was not a success story, and my classmates’ responses were clear on that score. While devastating to my freshman ego, that failed attempt at a story was the best thing to happen to my writing process. I realized that the more people critiqued my writing, the more they cared. After four years of people caring, I’ve grown a tough hide to criticism, but an open heart to feedback. My efforts resulted in my first short story being published during my junior year in a magazine called Sun & Sandstone.


Since graduating college, I took the opportunity to travel and backpack through Europe alone. I should mention that I am so geographically inept, I once got lost in my own city for over an hour. However, this extended trip was an opportunity to prove to myself that I could trust my instincts and my intuition a little more. While abroad, I traveled throughout England, Scotland, and Italy. In the United Kingdom I visited various friends; however, while in Italy, I worked as a farmer for an organic vineyard through the World Wide Opportunities for Organic Farming (WWOOF) network. I earned a fellowship from Goucher College to write a short story based on my experiences working in a vineyard and learning more about Italian wine culture. Now that I am safely back in the United States, I’m happy to report that I have not gotten lost in the city.

So there you have it—my troubled writing past and my hopeful writing endeavors for the future. While navigating post-grad life as a young writer isn’t easy, I’m grateful to be writing and learning the way with you.

Yours truly,

Julia Gerhardt