We’re the lucky ones

Gandhi once said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” We’re fortunate at Little Patuxent Review to have a team of dedicated volunteers, who work tirelessly behind the scenes to read your submission, edit the journal and create the final printed product. With our submission period opening on Saturday, I thought it might be a great opportunity for you to meet them. Over the next several months, look for fun and interesting posts about our stalwart volunteers.

Lynn Weber Rehoboth

Lynn Weber at Rehoboth. Photo credit: Jay Kissel.

First up is Lynn Weber, who not only reads poetry submissions, but performs double duty as the line editor for our print journal.

How long have you been a volunteer for LPR? About three years.

When you edit a submission, what reference materials do you use? Webster’s and the Chicago Manual of Style. And the Internet, of course, as specific questions come up.

What’s your process for going through submissions? I tend to read submissions in large batches to keep the competition fresh in mind. It’s easier to see trends—and deviations from the norm—that way. I don’t have a very sophisticated method of reading, however. I just plunge in and see if that spark lights up. I avoid comments or ratings by other reviewers until I’ve cast my vote—and also avoid the names of submitters, to avoid any unconscious biases.

When you’re reading a submission, what draws you most about a pieceMy byword is “different.” I want to experience a fresh use of language. There are tons of beautifully crafted poems with a modest, slightly mournful tone about mortality, dying parents, the evanescence or fragile beauty of the natural world. Lyrics describing the earthiness of gardening or cooking. Poems about the sensuality of vegetables! At this point—and I may be in the minority here—I’d rather read even a poorly crafted poem that is fresh and vital than a well-wrought poem that is safely within our current traditions.

What turns you off immediately when you read a submission? The word “I.” Semi-colons. Lyrical description. Melancholy.

Who has informed your reading tastes most? WhyIn terms of poetry, the textbook anthology Western Wind by John Frederick Nims. In college at Towson University in the 1980s, I took a poetry course with the luminous Clarinda Harriss, the great Baltimore poet and long-time friend of LPR, and Western Wind was our primary text. For ten or fifteen years afterward, I read from that anthology every single night before bed. Anthologies show you how wide language can be stretched, from the beautiful formality of “Dover Beach” to the insanity that is Christopher Smart’s “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffrey.”

What’s on your nightstand right now to be readMostly novels that I review for the magazine Booklist. My favorite book of the last year was Delicious Foods by James Hannaham, a tour de force that exemplifies that byword “different.” I’m also making extremely slow progress on my made-up curriculum of the great works of Western civilization. I started, literally decades ago, with the ancient Greeks and got stuck at the Middle Ages, when everything goes haywire. So many little kingdoms and shifting borders. I’m reading some medieval history now to try to wrap my head around it. I just finished The Plantagenets by Dan Jones and will pick up some Peter Ackroyd next. I also need to read the new one by Ta-Nehisi Coates, our homegrown Baltimore genius.

Are you also a writer/poet? If so, tell us more. I’m an occasional dabbler in poetry writing, a more dedicated writer about culture. I have a blog, www.theredmargins.com, and am working on a book about the feminine aesthetic in popular culture.

What’s your Six Word Memoir? Lucky lucky lucky lucky. So far.

Do you have any superpowers? If not, what do you wish you had? The only superpower worth having is a big heart.

Online Editor’s Note: Submissions for Myth open on Aug. 1 and remain open until Oct. 24.

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What You Eat: Fearless Quiche

In preparation of our Food issue (submissions open until November 1, after which they’ll simmer ’til winter), I’ve asked members of the LPR community to share stories of what they eat. Food occupies such a central place in our lives, that we can’t help but grow with it. Whether we were setting off smoke alarms in a zealous attempt to impress or, as in the case of this entry from Clarinda Harriss, learning life lessons from Julia Child, we can call on the sounds, smells, and tastes of our most formative and transformative foods to walk back into our own narrative histories. And on Laura’s suggestion, each piece in this series will feature a recipe, so you can cook yourself through an experience yourself. If you have a transformative experience with food, leave a comment and I’ll be in touch.

And now that I’ve laid the table, Clarinda Harriss:

Clarinda Harriss

Clarinda Harriss

For an early-1960s Christmas, my then-husband’s sister, a fabulous cook, gave me a copy of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Betty had a satirical bent, and I thought the present might have been offered in that spirit. The kitchen in our 2-room Charles Village grad student apartment clwas a 6 x 6 space that housed, in addition to the entire upper floors’ huge hot water heater, a dorm-size refrigerator whose tiny top was also the only “counter space,” a miniature sink, and a toy-size stove.

One day I returned home from a late-afternoon class needing to put together some dinner for my husband to gulp down before heading out to night law-school and found that the larder was completely bare except for a pitcher of half-and-a half, a stick of butter, a couple of eggs, a slim wedge of cheese, and two strips of bacon. A desperate search revealed nothing in the pantry (read “linen closet”) but half a small bag of flour, shoved into a mason jar to discourage the roaches.

I can’t imagine what impulse, what good genie, what goddess, what on earth made me turn to Julia. But there, near the front of her tome, it was revealed unto me that I had all I needed to make a quiche. Bear in mind that this occurred long before Real Men and their position vis a vis quiches became a popular issue. So I did what Julia said to do on pages 140 and 147: I made a quiche. And lo, it was good.

The following Thanksgiving I heeded the indomitable spirit of that great cook: think of Meryl Streep as Julia Child warbling “I was FEARLESS.” We hosted sister-in-law Betty, her husband, and her many children at the tiny apartment for a full-scale traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Yes, Virginia – and Betty, and everybody – you can cook a 25-lb turkey in an oven that looks smaller than the turkey itself.

And yes, Betty, I suddenly understood your gift. It was the gift of a food-loving, cookery-loving, risk-taking cry: “Have No Fear.”

And I’m not just talking about food.

Fearless Quiche

What I do now, quick-quiche-wise:  Line a pie pan with a Pillsbury (NOT store brand) pre-made pie crust and prick it lightly all over; bake at 350 for about 7 minutes.  Beat together 2 or 3 eggs, a cup of heavy cream, a big handful of shredded cheddar or whatever cheese you fancy, and a dash of salt. Scatter a few strips of cooked bacon, crumbled, over the baked crust.  Pour in the egg-cream mixture.  Dab bits of butter (about a tbsp total) over the top. Bake for about 40 minutes.  Serve with a green salad to ease your guilt.

Clarinda Harriss is a professor emerita of English from Towson University and 40-year director of BrickHouse Books, Inc., Maryland’s oldest literary press. Her most recently published poetry collections are Air Travel, Dirty Blue Voice, and Mortmain. Several years ago, CityLit initiated the annual Harriss Award for Poetry in her honor. With poet Moira Egan, she edited Hot Sonnets: An Anthology. A collection of Harriss’ award-winning short stories, The White Rail, was released this year. One of her main interests continues to be prison writers and restorative justice projects.

Book Review: Moira Egan’s Hot Flash Sonnets

Hot-FLash-Final-CoverMoira Egan writes the conversational, wry poems in Hot Flash Sonnets from an age where “this turning fifty thing is looming large,” where menopause is the treacherous bridge between the prime of life and old age. “I’ve yet to find the cream that tackles wrinkles / and at the same time vanquishes my pimples,” she writes. Yet underneath this tongue-in-cheek humor runs the current of real loss.

From the outset, Egan’s speaker negotiates a line between “insider” and “outsider,” oscillating between in-the-know sass and bewilderment. The collection opens with the lines, “Our mothers never told us there’d be days / (and weeks and months and years) like this; you think / they took a vow of silence?” Between jokes about mood swings and descriptions of hot flashes, she muses on the humiliating need for personal lubricant and the small daily failures of her body, each an unexpected and unpleasant surprise. Not only is her body failing her, but society—including mothers, friends, and doctors—has failed her by inadequately preparing her for this stage of life. “[W]hy don’t they tell us it gets worse?” she asks plaintively.

Poems titled “Insomnia” and “Mood Swing” are interspersed as a running thread throughout the collection, mirroring the intrusion/recurrence of these two menopausal symptoms in the speaker’s new reality, her changed daily life. Each take on these themes builds a different metaphor, without becoming heavy-handed. Egan compares her menopausal self to a storm; to the sweat that breaks over you as you step out of a cool marble palazzo into the sun or eat spicy vindaloo; to an angry cat awakened from a nap, ordinarily sweet but made “monstrous.”

Despite poem titles like “I Can’t Do That Anymore,” “Things That Disappear,” or “And Into Ashes All My Lust?”, this collection is not devoid of hope. Egan deftly avoids the contrary traps of slick cuteness and self-pitying despair. Instead, the poems are light and smart; cynical at times, but in an honest, rather than overbearing, manner. Her speaker is self-aware in a way that comes off as snarky, rather than navel-gazing—“I’m trying (pass the wine) not to be cynical. / Tomorrow (promise) I’ll hit the elliptical.” The speaker combats despondency with wry humor: “I focus on my third-eye chakra, deep- / ly indigo, shaped almost like a tear, / in fact, shaped very like the ones I’ll shed / if I don’t get some rest soon.”

Comparisons may be odious, but it’s hard not to compare this collection to Marilyn Hacker’s conversational-yet-virtuosic sonnets, which manage to combine the profound and profane, the exalted and the everyday, in a single breath. Deeply grounded in the body, these poems mourn the body’s failings, attempt to cope with its changes, and confront the loss of youth, while also celebrating that youth: “these desert days leave me wildly nostalgic / for blissful nights when we were twenty-one / and whipped the K-Y Jelly out for fun.”

And speaking of lubricant (there’s a sentence you don’t often get to write in a review!), Egan’s frank discussion of the body extends to its failings, as in the poem “Femystique®,” which discusses a product that’s the female equivalent of Viagra. Female desire, a topic largely drowned out by its male counterpart in our culture, is too often branded as mysterious (as in the name of this titular feminine product)—incomprehensible, complex, mystical, perhaps even mythical. But Egan writes subtly yet frankly about the “promise to swap (noun) want for (verb) want,” interweaving her admission of aging with an admonition not to let branding (“the sleek pink tube and Sixties font”) define herself, at any stage of life.

Egan tosses in a fair share of Italian, French, and German words, but never as ornaments. Each instance is used in a manner appropriate to each poem: for example, the exclamation “E poi, all’imporivviso, / la tempesta!” right before a bolt of lightning—the Italian words fit perfectly in this moment of operatic drama. I do wonder whether including Greek words—not phonetic, but written in the Greek alphabet—is really necessary. Egan only does this once, but the inclusion of foreign characters was off-putting to me. With Romance languages or transliterations, I can at least sound out the words and/or “gist” the meaning, whether or not I speak the language; the Greek was all Greek, to me.

The most impressively acrobatic poem in the collection, “Forgetfulness,” is a jaw-dropping feat of formal verse-writing. Each line of this sonnet defines a term listed in a column to the right side of the poem, and those terms follow their own ABAB-CDCD-EFEF-GG rhyme scheme, as well. Nor are these easy rhymes like “love” and “above”; no, Egan rhymed words like “Mnemosyne” (“Goddess of Memory”) with “ontology” (“how it’s supposed to be”), or “Radziwill” (“pretty actress sister of Jackie O”) with “xanthophyll” (“leaves’ autumnal colors, brown & yellow”). The inventiveness of poems like this one show us (rather than, as the aphorism goes, telling us) that, despite it all, the speaker is a quick-witted, lively, and creative powerhouse. And perhaps this is what Egan is showing not only the reader—not even primarily the reader—but herself. Throughout this collection, the speaker relies on her ability to create art as a means of affirming her essential identity in the midst of crisis.

Online Editor’s note: Moira’s “Dryness Sonnet” appeared in our Summer 2012 Audacity issue. Moira also worked with Clarinda Harriss to compile Hot Sonnets, an anthology of modern sonnetry.