Steven Leyva: The Editor’s Reflections

Three years ago, Laura Shovan called me to offer the position of Editor of the Little Patuxent Review. I was, of course, both flabbergasted and flattered, having only recently been published in LPR through the Enoch Pratt Free Poetry Contest (1st runner up). Laura and I didn’t know each other well, but I knew her reputation as an insightful, kind, and attentive editor of a regional literary journal that always managed to land some pretty big name interviews. That phone call is one of three literary moments that profoundly affected me as a writer. The other two are being selected as a Cave Canem Fellow and finishing my MFA at the University of Baltimore.

Steven Leyva, Editor

From the moment I said yes to the offer, I knew that I was both entering an organization with a good foundation and one that I could help move forward in various ways. I saw my role as twofold – act as a good steward of LPR’s egalitarian ethos and seek out excellent writing from diverse voices. I thought of the literary journal as serving the same purpose as the old town halls. LPR would be a meeting place for the community, by providing an ether of ideas and the physical space for literary events and readings. Get sharp people in the same (metaphorical) room and good things will happen was my unspoken motto.

Looking back on three years of editing with its ebbs and flows, I am most proud of how often LPR had the privilege to publish women of color. One particular issue, Summer 2015, is one where I think LPR grew close to having its pages look like the demographic landscape of central Maryland, and the Mid-Atlantic region as a whole. That issue featured the poets, t’ai freedom ford, Rachel Nelson, Breauna L. Roach, and Mary More Easter, alongside fiction by Nandini Dhar and others. The audience of the launch reading for that issue looked like the 95 corridor from DC to New York. Black, brown, and white faces beamed as authors read their work aloud. People talked, mingled, and shared stories during the reception afterwards. It wasn’t a perfect representation of diversity, but there was growth from where LPR had been. And that growth felt sustainable, without gimmick, and without any whispers of tokenism. And I think beyond any individual examples, honest and equitable growth towards building diverse literary spaces is a goal we reach towards in every issue.

As LPR continues to grow I don’t want to lose sight of the rhizomes that connect the journal to its local communities, but I also want that network of roots to expand. We can to do more to be a welcoming space for LGBTQ artists and writers. We can do more to bring the journal to different economic communities around the region. Not everyone can make it to Columbia, MD, twice a year for a launch event, particularly if you don’t own a car. We can do more to highlight emerging visual artists and put them in conversation with diverse communities. There is always more to be done, but I have come to realize that the literary journal isn’t the finish line. It’s the baton. The goal isn’t to run as hard as you can, passing all others, but rather to hand the baton off well. And anyone who’s ever run a relay can tell you that it requires trust, patience, and practice. I look forward to continuing to cultivate all three in the issues ahead.

Robin Talbert’s Essay: “Please,North Carolina,Be the State of Love”

Robin Talbert serves as one of LPR’s nonfiction reviewers and graciously granted us permission to reprint her essay.  Talbert offers us a lot to consider about making our society more just, welcoming, and inclusive.

Byline: By Robin Talbert, Reprinted from The Charlotte Observer

When I was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains, I was quietly aware of disparities that seemed both commonplace and unfair. We sang a song in Sunday school that instilled in us the belief that Jesus loved everyone, regardless of color. We took it to heart as we innocently sang the well-intentioned, if insensitive, words, “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

In those days, North Carolina was a segregated society. The rural Appalachian county where we lived was home to neither the KKK nor to civil rights activists, but Jim Crow was the cultural norm. In our small cotton mill town, blacks lived on a dirt road, referred to as the white line. Black men worked as janitors and black women in white people’s homes cooking, cleaning, and caring for children. African-American children were bused miles away to attend the county’s “colored” schools.

Robin Talbert

Gradually, things began to change. Church seemed to be one place where soul-searching about racism and segregation could happen. I’ve never forgotten the night our youth group leader made a confession. He was a young, “cool” high school teacher, and the older teens looked up to him.
Pacing and sweating, he told us about attending a meeting in a town nearby. Both white and black leaders were there. That would have been unusual, perhaps a first for him, as it would have been for most of us. He said that after the event ended, he went directly to the restroom and washed his hands. After some self-reflection, he realized he was washing because he had shaken hands with a black man.

Like a good educator and preacher, he taught us with a parable so vivid, so personal, so disturbing, that none of us could help but wonder if we would have done the same thing. Racism, we learned from him that evening, was a sin we might not even be aware we were committing.

When I started elementary school, my naïve belief that North Carolina was part of the north during the Civil War was shattered. No matter how eager I was to be a Carolinian on the good side, our state had a long way to go. But that young white teacher at my church, and many others, wanted to change. They inspired us. They eventually led us in peaceful integration of our schools. We wanted to do the right thing. We wanted to live up the teachings of Jesus.

“Political correctness” was neither a phrase nor a value in those days. Coming to terms with our history, culture, and personal beliefs and actions on race was a moral imperative.

Over the past several decades, North Carolina has made much progress towards racial equality. Yet there is still much to be done. Minority voting rights are threatened, and now there are new targets for bigotry – including immigrants and gay and transgender people.

It appears to me North Carolina is, once again, at a crossroads. Communities face a choice between values that are forged in fear and disdain, or those that spring from love and acceptance for all – regardless of race, religion, country of origin, gender preference or identity. We all must look in the mirror sometimes to examine the roots of our discomfort, to challenge our assumptions and stereotypes, and to question our actions and reactions.

When our older son was about 10, he figured out that some of his relatives in North Carolina were in a different political party than his parents. “But they go to church,” he said, struggling to reconcile what to him was inconsistent. I explained that good people could have different political beliefs. I want to believe that, and I hope and pray that our nation is able to overcome disharmony by focusing on what we have in common, while also embracing our diversity.

I’m proud of my home state for many reasons – mountains and beaches, music and culture, barbecue and basketball. I hope the good and gentle people who live there don’t give in to the haters. Please, North Carolina, be the state of acceptance. Be the state of love.

End Note: This article was first published by The Charlotte Observer on May 6, 2017.

Bio: Robin Talbert’s work has appeared in The Healing Muse, Chest, Anthology of Appalachian Writers, Better After 50, Global Impact, and Stoneboat, and was included in Ekphrasis,an exhibit presented by the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland.  She is a book reviewer for the Washington Independent Review of Books and a nonfiction reviewer for The Little Patuxent Review.   A nonprofit management consultant, she was formerly a legal aid lawyer and was President of the AARP Foundation.

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.

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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.

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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

10th Anniversary: Once You’re Inside

This interview was originally published on September 11, 2015. It is being re-shared in support of LPR’s 10th Anniversary celebration.

prison wallsNote: All the men’s names have been changed to preserve their anonymity.

I didn’t know what to expect when Linda Moghadam and I visited the men’s writing group at the Patuxent Institute. I had a clue as to the motivation and tenor of the men from reading a brochure Linda had given me about the creative group. Working together, the members had this to say about the purpose of forming a group and the power of the arts:

“The group wants to have a positive impact on people involved with the street culture, prisons, and policy makers who can re-introduce educational programs into the prison systems.…


NOTE: If you enjoyed this essay, please check out LPR’s Issue 13: Doubt. https://littlepatuxentreview.org/issues/13-winter-2013/

10th Anniversary: An Interview with Grace Cavalieri

This interview was originally published on October 30, 2015. It is being re-shared in support of LPR’s 10th Anniversary celebration.

A Memoir from Grace Cavalieri

A Memoir from Grace Cavalieri

Grace Cavalieri is just as comfortable in the kitchen making gnocchi with spinach and mushrooms as she is in the radio studio interviewing, Juan Felipe Herrera, the new Poet Laureate of the United States. When I talked with Grace about the role of myth in her life and work, she moved easily between making me tea with honey and sharing her latest poetry reviews for the Washington Independent Review of Books—a labor she performs faithfully every month.

During the interview, we talked about her home life, her life as a Navy wife, and her early years as a writer when she was raising her four children. Here’s a brief teaser from a section in Grace’s memoir, Life Upon the Wicked Stage, where she explores the function of work in our lives:

“The workplace is a laboratory for the human spirit that allows us to overcome the obstacles we need to overcome to find what we want. The ‘wall’ people put up for us is a perfect way to find what we want on the other side. It focuses. Desire is made better by the wall. I never said it was easy.”

NOTE: If you enjoyed this essay, please check out LPR’s Issue 8: Spirituality. https://littlepatuxentreview.org/issues/current/

10th Anniversary: An interview with Naomi Thiers

This essay was originally published on May 14, 2016. It is being re-shared in support of LPR’s 10th Anniversary celebration.

Naomi Theirs

Naomi Theirs

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.

 

 

NOTE: If you enjoyed this essay, please check out LPR’s Issue 11: Social Justice https://littlepatuxentreview.org/sales/individual-issues-2/

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.