Meet Our Contributors: Q&A with Rachel E. Hicks

Rachel E. Hicks’s poetry has appeared in the St. Katherine Review, Welter, Off the Coast, Gulf Stream magazine, and other journals. She also writes essays and fiction and works as a freelance copyeditor. After living in eight countries—most recently China—she now resides in Baltimore. Her career has included teaching (high school English and homeschool) and volunteering with an international relief  and development agency. Find her online at rachelehicks.com.

Hicks’s poem, “The Exile Speaks of Mountains,” appeared in LPR’s Summer Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link). She read an excerpt at our issue launch in June (video below).

Q: What’s the form for this poem? And how did you end up with this form?

This poem went through many variations in form before I decided upon unrhymed tercets. One form I played around with, before I cut a good many lines and stanzas, was stanzas as “chapters” or scenes of my life. The sensory details and images felt lost in the clutter, though, and I felt it needed to be cleaned up and made a bit sparser, allowing each stanza room to breathe. The order and visual symmetry of tercets express my developing understanding that there is order to the “chaos” of my life, my many moves, my identity as a cultural chameleon. It feels less haphazard than it used to, a bit more coherent.

Q: I feel like this stanza perfectly captures the idea of the universal experience conveyed through a particular detail:

Only if I embrace this life as a perpetual pilgrim
do I find solace in remembering
the terraced cemetery in the Himalayan pines

What’s one way you’ve learned that poets can try to hone this sensibility in their own work?

Just one? Teaching writing sharpens my work. When I’m workshopping with students, coaching them in how to “cut to the bone” or to say “no ideas but in things” (Williams), I’m always inspired by the symbols and images they come up with. One of my students went from generic “desert animals” to “the chuckwalla lizard sneezing salt”. Another chose a beetle brooch as a symbol for a relationship with a special adult in her life. When I’m teaching, I’m also reading a lot of poetry to and with my students—reading, noticing, marveling. (I have to make a plug here for Nancie Atwell’s writing workshop and poetry curricula for middle school students, Lessons That Change Writers and Naming the World [Heinemann].) And speaking of workshopping, my writing has benefited tremendously from working with my poetry critique group here in Baltimore. I suppose I gave three answers—teaching, reading, and working with a critique group—rather than one. Forgive me.

Q: Now just to understand a little bit more about your life—why were you in the Himalayas and how did you come to be in Baltimore?

My parents were both missionary kids—my father was born and grew up in India, and my mother was born in Indonesia and grew up in Southeast Asia. After marrying, they worked at the boarding school my dad attended in the foothills of the Himalayas. They have worked in international schools around the world for their entire careers, hence my many moves. My husband and I lived in southwestern China for seven years, working with an international Christian relief and development organization. After returning to the U.S., we moved to Baltimore for my husband’s job.

My sense of what “home” means has morphed over time. More often for me, it’s about people rather than place. But place still matters—the soil of each place in which I’ve lived still clings. I try to make a home for myself and my family wherever we go, to create some sense of rootedness in who we are, even when the scenery around us changes. I’ve written in prose about this tension, but this poem was my first poetical attempt at describing it that satisfied me. I’ve been more at peace with my nomadic life since coming to identify it in terms of pilgrimage and sojourning—there is purpose to that kind of life: it can be understood in a positive sense, rather than in the negative sense of something being missing, or of roots dangling.

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Staff Pick: Jennifer Clark’s “Not a fast runner…”

Desirée Magney is the publisher of the Little Patuxent Review. In this post, she shares one of her “Staff Picks” from the Summer Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link).

It seems an oxymoron to say that poet Jennifer Clark beautifully describes the conflict faced by the victim of domestic abuse in, “Not a fast runner, I consider other ways to escape this relationship.” But her scene setting, visual and auditory references, as well as metaphors, are so strong, the reader is drawn into the narrator’s dilemma.

I chose this piece from our June 2018 issue as my “Staff Pick” not only because it is so artfully written but because it also illustrates the difficulty of leaving an abusive or toxic relationship. I saw this dilemma firsthand during a college internship at the U.S. Attorney’s office in D.C. doing intake interviews for victims of domestic violence. I saw it again, many years later working as a Child Advocacy Lawyer for the D.C. Volunteer Lawyers Project.

For ease in writing and reading my comments, I will refer to the narrator or protagonist in the poem as “she” and the antagonist as “he,” fully recognizing that there is no gender distinction between abusers and victims.

In the first line of the poem, the reader learns the narrator has built something of a life with the antagonist when she says she plays “dead, like a ‘possum [i]n the den, we have built…” We see her on the “mossy” couch, playing possum but tense with fear as the antagonist throws a lamp and “darkness crashes.” The den is a metaphor for their relationship—the thing they’ve built that now confines her.

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Meet Our Contributors: Q&A with Wallace Lane

Wallace Lane is a poet, writer, and author from Baltimore, Maryland. He received his MFA in creative writing and publishing arts from the University of Baltimore in May 2017. His poetry has appeared in Little Patuxent Review, The Avenue, Welter and is forthcoming in several literary journals. Jordan Year, his debut collection of poetry, was released in May 2017. Wallace also works as a teacher with Baltimore City Public Schools.

Wallace’s poem, “Groceries,” appeared in LPR’s Summer Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link). He read “Groceries” and two other poems at our issue launch in June (video below).

Q: You majored in criminal justice, then went for an MFA and now work as a teacher. Just from reading your bio, there seems to be a consistent social justice theme, but one that’s taken you in a few different directions. Could you share a little about your path?

Honestly about three years ago I would have cringed at that question, just based off the distance between a criminal justice degree and an MFA. But now it’s now one of the questions I’m most anxious to answer. As a first generation college student, I had no clue of what to major in at college. I knew it had to be something where I would profit financial gain but also something I would enjoy during the pursuit. And quite honestly, nothing at all stood out to me, not even criminal justice (I knew I would never proudly wear a law enforcement uniform, no offense to anyone). But the aspect of mentoring youth and juveniles stood out to me and that’s mainly why I chose to major in criminal justice my junior year of undergrad. From there I went to work in several juvenile center detention centers and schools. And I must say it’s the hardest work I ever done. I witnessed first-hand how kids were profited off of in a corrupt criminal justice system and how it was, in many ways, preparing them for a life designed for them to depend on some corrupt system of some sort. I was 23 years old at that time. I saw enough death and pain growing up. I knew I could do more to help the youth somehow so I started to create an exit plan. I STARTED TO WRITE POETRY. I always loved poetry. I start writing poems in middle school and I had a dozen composition notebooks of poems in high school. I even took creative writing classes while pursuing a criminal justice degree. Somehow my falling in love with poetry all over again led me to pursuing my MFA degree. The rest is history. It’s a lot of twist and turns in my journey but I love it. It inspires a lot of people and encourages the youth and even adults to pursue their passion and never be afraid to try new things. I’m grateful for that.

Q: When on your website you describe Jordan Year as about “what it means to live and survive in Baltimore City,” I remembered Ta-Nehisi Coates, who writes about his own childhood in Baltimore in Between the World and Me. I don’t think Coates does any poetry, but has he influenced your writing in any way?

I’m rooting for black excellence. I’m rooting for anyone from Baltimore. Anyone who is attempting to bring light and hope to a city like ours. Especially artist and writers who love this city. We are the pillars of culture here. But as far as Between the World and Me, it was definitely a narrative I drew inspiration from when I began drafting my manuscript. I enjoyed how Coates presented a harsh reality to his son while intimately taking him and us (readers) on a journey through his life. That was my goal when writing Jordan Year–to tell two stories in one, my journey of growing up in Baltimore City but also the reality of people in my community who often get overlooked. I didn’t want to sugarcoat anything or leave anything out, you know? And that’s why I can appreciate books like Between the World and Me and so many others because of the transparency in the narrative.

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Meet Our Contributors: Q&A with Natalie Illum

Natalie Illum is a poet, disability activist, and singer living in Washington, DC. She is a 2017 Jenna McKean Moore Poetry Fellow, recipient of a 2017 Artists Grant from the DC Arts Commission, and nonfiction editor for The Deaf Poets Society literary journal. She was a founding board member of mothertongue, a women’s open mic that lasted fifteen years. She used to compete on the National Poetry Slam circuit and was the 2013 Beltway Grand Slam Champion. Her work has appeared in various publications and on NPR’s Snap Judgment. Natalie has an MFA in creative writing from American University and teaches workshops across the country. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter as @poetryrox, on her website natalieillum.net, and as one half of All Her Muses, her music project. Natalie also enjoys Joni Mitchell, whisky, and giraffes.

Natalie’s poem, “Reset,” appeared in LPR’s Summer Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link). She read this and two other pieces at our issue launch in June (video below).

Q: Thank you for coming to the launch earlier this month. Before we get into your work, can I ask if there was one reading that struck you in particular?

I really liked Tracy’s piece and the form of the work she was reading. Several of the readers had a theme of clothing that felt really vibrant and necessary to me. And in some way I think we all touched on family as a theme.

Q: You have a lot of experience reading in front of others. How do—if they do—audience and setting change the poems for you as you read them? Did anything like that happen in Columbia?

I definitely tailor my sets based on my audience, especially if I know it is a more family-friendly event. Because I knew the poem you were publishing, I tried to base my selection on that tone. I also really wanted to try out the shark series of poems that I’m currently working on. So when I have readings of late, I bring those to see how the audience receives them. I got a lot of positive feedback from the audience in Columbia, both on the poem in the journal and a particular poem called “Predatory Logic.” So I’m very happy about that—when poems stick with people, especially in a larger featured reading.

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Meet Our Contributors: Q&A with Faye McCray

Faye McCray is an author and essayist whose popular essays on love, life, and parenting have been featured in My Brown Baby, For Harriet, Madame Noire, Black and Married with Kids, and other popular publications. She is the editor-in-chief and cofounder of Weemagine, a website devoted to celebrating and inspiring all children and the people who love them. Faye is also the author of a collection of positive affirmations for children, I am loved! By day, she is an attorney and married mother of three boys. She is also a master’s in writing candidate at Johns Hopkins University. You can find Faye on the web at www.fayemccray.com.

Faye’s poem, “Virgin in Harlem,” appeared in LPR’s Summer Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link).

Q: I notice you’re a Hopkins writing student (which makes me happy because I’m a Hopkins grad). Did “Virgin in Harlem” originate as a class assignment? If so, how did it change through the publishing process?

That’s awesome! I just finished my first year and I’m taking one class at a time! I feel like I have a long way to go. I actually wrote “Virgin in Harlem” a few years ago before I started at Hopkins. Over the years, I have become a hoarder of writing prompts. I find them and stash them away for an uninspired day. The prompt that inspired the poem in LPR was to write about freedom. I immediately went back to a time when I didn’t feel so free. It sort of just collected dust on my computer until one day I was reading old files and I thought, “This isn’t that bad.” I revised it and submitted it.

Q: I’m seeing the child narrator in “Virgin in Harlem”—watching the dancers, holding her mother’s hand, embarrassed of herself, wanting to be free—and thinking there’s some connection inside of you to Weemagine and I am loved! Yes, no, I’m crazy?

Wow. That’s a really great observation. What inspired “Virgin in Harlem” and what motivates Weemagine and I am loved! are definitely connected. I am still very much in tune with that little girl in “Virgin in Harlem”—afraid of everything but wanting to experience so much! I think my passion for working with and inspiring kids really stems from my desire to encourage that enthusiasm. It’s hard to build up the courage to step into your identity as an artist. I enjoy helping kids see the possibilities.

Q: Your email signature (if I’m allowed to share this) includes this line of James Baldwin’s:

All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up.

Out of curiosity, do you remember when you first read that? And does it mean something different to you now than it did then?

Wow… it’s been there for a while! I probably added that to my email signature before I fully understood what it would mean to me, so what it has meant has absolutely evolved over time. Now, it is a reminder not to shy away from the tough stuff. I’ve learned that readers can pick up on dishonest work. They know when you aren’t telling the whole story… when you’re afraid to tell the whole story. Recently I wrote an open letter to my son that was published in the Huffington Post. Initially, I kind of danced around race because I was afraid to alienate the diverse HuffPo audience. The editor loved the letter but immediately picked up on it. She encouraged me to go there. To talk about the fears unique to me as a black mother of black sons. I did and the reception was amazing. My goal is to be brave in my writing. If it doesn’t make me a little uncomfortable or a little emotional or even a little scared, it probably isn’t worth revealing.

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Meet Our Contributors: Q&A with Tracy Dimond

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Tracy Dimond co-curates Ink Press Productions. A 2016 Baker Artist Award finalist, she is the author of four chapbooks, most recently To Tracy Like / To Like / Like (Akinoga Press, 2018). She holds her MFA in creative writing and publishing arts from the University of Baltimore. Find her online at tracydimond.tumblr.com and on Twitter @snarkysyntax.

Dimond’s poem, “Landscape / Landscape / Land Escape,” appeared in LPR’s Summer Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link).

Q: You have a chapbook titled To Tracy Like / To Like / Like and a poem titled “Landscape / Landscape / Land Escape.” Is there a word for this sort of wordplay?

Other than repetition, I haven’t encountered a word for it. Most of what I learn comes from reading and learning with the ear–I am influenced by the work of Claudia Rankine, Dorothea Lasky, Brenda Shaughnessy, and Gertrude Stein. Stein especially uses repetition and slight sound changes to create a newness of understanding in her work. I love listening to recordings and getting lost in the sound. Lasky will repeat or rephrase lines to create a feeling. There’s something about Rankine and Shaughnessy that circles back, and then moves forward. If there is a formal term for these techniques, someone should write it in the comments.

Q: In this artist statement you write that you “interrogate the role of the female body and what it means to have chronic pain in my poetry.” That struck me because I hadn’t noticed chronic pain when I first read your poem. I re-read some lines with a new sense of what might be behind them, like this one, “A billboard / screams Go outside and live! Thank you for the / feedback.”

I wonder if that could be part of the point – it can be so easy to miss the pain others suffer beneath the surface. But when we’re aware of that possibility, it creates a new empathy within us. Or I’m totally off, which would be quite normal?

Possibility in new understanding may be why I write poetry. I pull from things I read and overhear to create a feeling for the reader. Saying “this hurts” doesn’t connect in the same way a specific experience does–I’m trying to communicate the physical cost of having a body. Everyday things like advertisements on billboards, in a new context, can create new understanding. They set a tone for how we frame the world, whether it’s accepting or pushing against a role. I hope the unusual syntax that can be used in poetry illuminates how unnatural and imbalanced social constructs are–so we can talk about how to change them.

Q: How did pain become such a topic for you?

It’s always been a part of my life. That sounds so dramatic.

I started swimming seriously at a young age. The sport is built on repetition and refinement, like ballet. Zadie Smith wrote in Swing Time, “Elegance attracted me. I liked the way it hid pain.” Swimming for hours, staring at a black line in a chlorinated pool, is physically and mentally painful, but feels special when the strokes look effortless in competition. I’ve ingrained that sort of struggle–feeling pain, but hiding it–in my writing.

More literally, since my teens, I’ve had intense pain with my period. I’ll be pretty specific here because I’ve seen other women open up or go to the doctor after hearing someone else’s story. By my mid-twenties, I would spend a month (usually feeling some version of awful for at least 2 or 3 weeks a month–if you’re counting, that gives me about a week of feeling OK) with a low-grade fever and sweating from the pain of cramps, probably throwing up. Time is critical when you’re in cycles of pain–you know it’s coming, you have to prepare, you hope it’s different this time. My concerns had been dismissed so often by doctors that I had convinced myself I was being weak. It took until 29 to find a doctor that said, and then confirmed with surgery, that the amorphous pain is/was endometriosis. It’s a travesty that chronic illnesses, especially autoimmune illnesses characterized by pain and experienced by individuals with female reproductive organs, are dismissed. I’m still navigating how I write about my experience in the broader context of illness and disability in writing.

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What’s To Like? Derrick Weston Brown’s “Bruuuuuh…”

George Clack is a board member of the Little Patuxent Review. In this post, he shares one of his “Staff Picks” from the Summer Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link).

At the Little Patuxent Review’s Summer Issue launch reading on June 2nd, Derrick Weston Brown blew me away with his reading of his poem “Bruuuuuh or When Brothers Debate Black Panther in a Safeway Parking Lot: A Found (Overheard) Poem.” It’s a poem that feels as if it wants to be performed but a work that also offers the pleasures of a close reading on the printed page.

Virtue #1: authenticity, the ultimate literary value for me. It’s the writer’s ability to make me believe in his story, his setting, his tropes, his you-name-it. Call it the art of the real. To my ancient white guy’s ear, this poem pulses with authenticity. Brown creates this effect primarily through an old reliable technique, putting the vernacular—or, as some might say, the language of the street—to use for some serious fun.

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