10th Anniversary: Multigenerational Music: Jesse Paris Smith and Patti Smith

This essay was originally published on May 13, 2014. It is being re-shared in support of LPR’s 10th Anniversary celebration.

Jesse Paris Smith and Patti Smith

Jesse Paris Smith and Patti Smith at The Noguchi Museum (Photo: Patrick McMullan Company, 2012)The subject of intergenerational performers has been dear to my heart since I learned that my maternal grandmother’s family had broadcast a live AM radio show on Saturday nights from New York City in the Thirties and Forties. I was inspired to explore the topic further while attending Patti Smith concerts in NYC and Baltimore, where her son Jackson and her daughter Jesse joined her onstage. Since I am a musician and the theme of the upcoming LPR issue is music, I wanted to share what I learned. To get it right, I enlisted the help of Jesse Paris Smith, Patti Smith’s daughter.

Jesse describes her mother as “a true Renaissance woman,” which is evident from any bio. Known as “the Godmother of Punk,” Patti is a singer-songwriter, a poet and a visual artist. In 2005, she was named a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In 2007, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2010, she received the National Book Award for her memoir Just Kids and an ASCAP Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2011, she won a Polar Music Prize. And it won’t end there.

Jesse, whose guitarist father is the late Fred “Sonic” Smith, notes reverberations of Patti’s polymath persona in herself. 

 

NOTE: If you enjoyed this essay, please check out LPR’s Issue 14: Music.  https://littlepatuxentreview.org/issues/14-summer-2013/

Make Believe as Metaphor

This post was originally published on June 1, 2011. It’s being re-shared as part of LPR’s 10th Anniversary.

Vonnie Winslow Crist

Vonnie Winslow Crist

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention caught flak–and a great deal of attention–for running a disaster-preparedness campaign for the Zombie Apocalypse. If you are ready for Zombies, the CDC suggests, you are ready for anything. Tips for an ordinary disaster-preparedness kit follow. The CDC understands that zombies aren’t a real threat. What appears to be make believe is really metaphor. In this equation Zombies = life-altering disaster.

Writer, illustrator and storyteller Vonnie Winslow Crist understands the relationship between make believe and metaphor. Crist, who recently published a book of fairy tales, poems and sketches, The Greener Forest, has a featured essay, “Fairies, Magic and Monsters,” in LPR’s Make Believe issue, scheduled to launch June 18. The essay looks at current and classic fantasy books and movies such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Crist traces their popularity back to somber messages safely sent through stories shared by the cooking fire.

Many have complained that the Harry Potter series grew progressively dark with each book. Considering that Rowling explored a subculture living in a state of dictator-enforced paranoia, the darkness makes sense. Lord Voldemort’s tactics are as familiar as the front page, which daily tells us about the cruelties of depots clinging to power. In her essay, Crist points out, “This is fantastical literature’s greatest gift. Through make believe places, races, characters, and creatures, the authors of these tales use metaphor to help us examine the controversial issues of our world.”

Crist is a master of metaphor. In The Greener Forest, her modern fairy tales stand out. These stories use traditional fairy tale tropes, artfully layered with modern concerns. In “Shoreside,” a vacation at the beach forces a wife and mother to reconsider the family life she has chosen. Hiromi watches her husband and children swim in the ocean but avoids the water herself. She is a ningyo (a mermaid of Japanese folklore) and fears that the pull of the water and the adventurous life it represents will break her family ties. When a child nearly drowns in the ocean, Hiromi must test those ties.

“Tootsie’s Swamp Tours & Amusement Park” is set, with an oddball sense of just-the-right detail, at a rundown Southern destination beset by Spriggans. As Jess walks through the park with her uncle and husband, she realizes only she can see the ugly fairy creatures threatening her. Jess, who has recently lost a pregnancy, comes to believe the Spriggans caused her miscarriage. Her depression lifts as she takes control of her situation.

A handful of original fairy tales set in “once upon a time” showcase Crist’s love of the genre. “Blood of the Swan” is a particularly beautiful quest story about a young man who must slay the swan maiden he loves in order to save his village.

The stories in The Greener Forest can be dark. Even tales with a love theme at their center, such as “The Return of Gunnar Kettilson,” would never be optioned by Disney for a feature film. Gunnar Kettilson is, after all, a zombie. Unlike modern zombies, though, Gunnar has a thirst for revenge, not brains, and he still has enough heart left to protect the woman he loves. As Crist says in her LPR essay, “Fairies, magic, and even monsters will continue to be threads running through the human tapestry because they offer us hope and bring order to chaos.”

Vonnie Winslow Crist writes Harford’s Heart magazine’s “Writer’s Block” column, does illustrations for the Vegetarian Journal, co-edits The Gunpowder Review, contributes to Faerie Magazine and publishes the blog Whimsical Words. She has taught creative writing at Harford Community College and for the Maryland State Arts Council Arts in Education Program and regularly leads a writing workshop at Baltimore Science Fiction Society’s Balticon

Her fiction has appeared in publications such as Tales of the Talisman, Macabre Magazine (England), First Word Bulletin (Spain) and Great Writers Great Stories: Writers from Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Her poetry has appeared in publications such as Loch Raven Review, Champagne Shivers and EMG-Zine. She is author-illustrator of Leprechaun Cake & Other Tales (children’s book), Essential Fables (poetry) and River of Stars (poetry) and co-editor of Lower Than the Angels: Science Fact, Science Fiction & Fantasy and Through a Glass Darkly: An Anthology of Mystery, Gothic Horror & Dark Fantasy.

She has received a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award and placed first in the 2007 Maryland National League of American Pen Women poetry contest.

NOTE: If you enjoyed this publication, please check out LPR’s Issue 10: Make Believe https://littlepatuxentreview.org/sales/individual-issues-2/

Concerning Craft: Mary Jo LoBello Jerome

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Mary Jo LoBello Jerome

Mary Jo LoBello Jerome

Please meet Mary LoBello Jerome. Mary Jo’s fiction has appeared in Short Story and Center magazines. She currently teaches college writing in New Jersey and is working on new poetry and short fiction. She lives in New Hope, Pennsylvania.

We published her short story “Dermis” in our Winter 2014 Science issue. She read her story at our launch event, so be on the lookout for a video when they become available. (The video is now available. Please find it below.)

Mary Jo shared these insights about her approach to the work with the title “Thinking On Skin”:

I’d been working on the story “Dermis” for a while because I was intrigued with the idea of skin as a metaphor. I knew a chemist who worked in a lab on skin samples, and she was frustrated with her job for reasons related to her career such as salary and advancement, not the emotional or harassment issues, real or imagined, that disturbed my character Mary Ann. And once I had that weirdly pleasing image – of a young troubled woman in a lab coat looking at skin – well, that’s a fertile Petri dish of narrative possibilities.

Skin. We mostly don’t think of it until it gets irritated, the same way we don’t think of our hearts pumping or the neurons firing in our brains when we taste a piece of cake. But once we slow down enough to observe anything closely, so many beautiful and frightening and perplexing questions arise. Scientists know this. So do poets and writers. For a while, I was obsessively thinking about and looking at skin. Two early discoveries: One of the fastest ways to isolate yourself at a cocktail party is to move in close during conversations to study pores or beauty marks. And, if you’re squeamish, don’t ever Google images of skin diseases.

But the role of skin as a permeable shield was the most powerful aspect of questions that kept popping up for me. I allowed the character Mary Ann to voice those thoughts from a scientist’s perspective full of awe about the miraculous biological organ we’ve evolved. Skin breathes and absorbs nutrients while protecting us from the most dastardly, pervasive and invasive little microbes on the planet. But a shield that is so permeable or easily damaged? There’s an oxymoron for you.

Further questions fell in line pretty readily as I was discovering the story while writing. What are the other shields we put up to protect us emotionally? What if one of those emotional shields isn’t as strong as we would like it to be? How does someone protect herself or create barriers between her inner world and the “real” world? In the story, I purposely left ambiguous the motives of the secondary character, Dev, the supervisor who is infatuated with Mary Ann. The serious problem of sexual harassment in the workplace is a question most women must grabble with. As a writer and a feminist, I challenged myself to set the story as fully as possible in the workplace, where our private selves – for both men and women – are necessarily concealed and protected while we get on with the practical duties we are assigned. Later, the story moves to a short scene in a mundane, public mall — another edifice that seems a natural spot these modern days to protect or lose our selves among the crowds. Sadly, we know how easily assailed these places really are. (Tragically, there was a mall shooting just one mile away from the LPR reading on the day of the issue’s launch.)

This is not to suggest that these narrative steps occurred with purpose at first. Writing is a messy process. I wrote scenes, which I revised out, that followed Mary Ann to her apartment and explored her love and family life. To paraphrase Gardner, I cut those scenes that distracted from the dream world I was conjuring. It didn’t matter in the end what her relationship was with her mother or that she did or did not have a serious love relationship in her past. The reader didn’t need to get that far under the character’s skin to believe and feel the conflict. Focusing on setting gave the story structure, and when I revised, I tried to develop the details of place to support the emotional pull without, I hope, overdoing the metaphor.

When LPR announced its science issue, this story seemed a good fit. I’m a little disappointed, however, that I didn’t have access to the recently publicized research about skin microbes. A recent story in the NY Times detailed the micro-biome of helpful ammonia-eating bacteria that live on our skin and feast on some of the odor-causing bugs that populate our extraordinary – and in my case increasingly wrinkled – natural wrapping. What interesting narrative turns could have evolved if either of the main characters in my story were just a little bit smelly? Would there have been face licking? These new scientific findings may yet cause a narrative itch that needs scratching.

Note: If you enjoyed Mary Jo’s story and want to read more poetry and prose from our Science issue, you can purchase copies of that issue and others online.

Multigenerational Music: Jesse Paris Smith and Patti Smith

Jesse Paris Smith and Patti Smith

Jesse Paris Smith and Patti Smith at The Noguchi Museum (Photo: Patrick McMullan Company, 2012)The subject of intergenerational performers has been dear to my heart since I learned that my maternal grandmother’s family had broadcast a live AM radio show on Saturday nights from New York City in the Thirties and Forties. I was inspired to explore the topic further while attending Patti Smith concerts in NYC and Baltimore, where her son Jackson and her daughter Jesse joined her onstage. Since I am a musician and the theme of the upcoming LPR issue is music, I wanted to share what I learned. To get it right, I enlisted the help of Jesse Paris Smith, Patti Smith’s daughter.

Jesse describes her mother as “a true Renaissance woman,” which is evident from any bio. Known as “the Godmother of Punk,” Patti is a singer-songwriter, a poet and a visual artist. In 2005, she was named a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In 2007, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2010, she received the National Book Award for her memoir Just Kids and an ASCAP Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2011, she won a Polar Music Prize. And it won’t end there.

Jesse, whose guitarist father is the late Fred “Sonic” Smith, notes reverberations of Patti’s polymath persona in herself. Growing up in Michigan, Jesse recalls picking out melodies on the family piano. She never took it seriously until she heard her music teacher play Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.” Soon she was taking lessons, and music was becoming increasingly important. But she never intended to become a musician, considering environmental science as a career. In a college essay, she acknowledged the difficulty of deciding. Then she received an acceptance letter that asked, “Why choose between music and science? Maybe you can find a way to combine them and do both?”

Jesse says that her mother never planned a music career, either. “I think she believed that as she was following a path to be an artist, poet and writer, it happened that way by chance and fate. Music became the common voice that allowed her to carry her thoughts in a broader way and to reach people in a more accessible manner.” Jesse acknowledges envying those who have one dominant capability that they master but concludes,

There are all different kinds of people, and finding your clear path and purpose sometimes includes following a lot of different paths, a lifelong pursuit of learning and ever expanding and growing. My mom has never stopped learning, expanding her mind and knowledge and following through with her creative endeavors and projects. She loves to be busy and loves to work and create. And that is very admirable.

When she was 16, Jesse collaborated with her mother on the album Trampin’:

…she wanted to do a version of the old gospel song where the title comes from. She had a vinyl of Marian Anderson singing it, accompanied by piano, but we didn’t have any sheet music. My piano teacher worked with me, transposing the vinyl to sheet music, working out a lovely arrangement for me to play. So our piano lessons for a while were focused on learning “Trampin'” in time to record it for my mom’s album. When I was ready to play it, we went to Looking Glass, Philip Glass’s recording studio in NYC, and played it for the first time together, and that first take is what is on the Trampin’ album. I’m not sure it was a take that my teacher would have been very proud of and maybe if we would have tried it a few more times it would have sounded better, but there is something very human and humble about going with that first take, especially since I was so young and it was a mother-daughter recording, our first meeting at the song after having our own journey with it.

Listen here and judge for yourself:

 

Jesse subsequently collaborated with other musicians in the Detroit and NYC areas and has been involved in many multimedia events, especially those in art galleries and museums. In particular, she has been working with Eric Hoegemeyer, a multifaceted musician, composer and engineer whom she met in Detroit and who eventually relocated to NYC, where Jesse now lives. She and Eric share Tree Laboratory, a studio in Brooklyn.

She considers the Patti Smith Band to be family, since she’s known the members all her life and feels she that she has learned so much about musicianship through watching and working with them. During her summers as a teenager, she was involved in behind-the-scenes aspects, learning about production, staging and touring. One summer, there was a change in the lineup. A keyboard player was needed, and she was asked to fill in. She still remembers the first song that she played with the group: “Pissing in a River.”

She describes working with her mother by saying, “She is a true performer, and it’s amazing to watch. The stage presence, confidence and energy she has is remarkable.” She credits her mother with helping her dive into new worlds.

She will do something like bring some poems, part of a book or stories or a letter to me, and we will talk about what is happening in it, what it sounds like, the mood of the different lines and parts of the text. And through looking at that and talking about it, write a piece of music that corresponds to it. Another way we will work is that I will write a piece of music and bring it to her and she will think of a piece of writing or look for something that she thinks fits with the music, and we will try it out. If it doesn’t quite fit, we will find another text that suits it better.

An annual event where Jesse and Patti present is a performance at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. They select an exhibit and create a musical program in response to the subject matter. Jesse also composes pieces, and her mother reads a variety of texts appropriate to the subject matter. In 2012, her tenth performance there, Patti paid tribute to Andy Warhol, her fellow traveler in the Seventies.

Jesse, Jackson and Patti Smith at Detroit Institute of Arts with Diego Rivera's fresco as a backdrop.

Jesse, Jackson and Patti Smith playing at the Detroit Institute of Arts with a Diego Rivera fresco as the backdrop. (Photo: Michelle Pesta Culkowski)

Jesse also performs with her brother Jackson, a Detroit-based guitarist. “When I play music with my brother and my mom, it feels even more like family. My brother is such a technically advanced and gifted musician, and when we all play together we just laugh and have fun.” She says the same about performing with Eric, who will join her and Patti in an upcoming Met performance this fall.

Making multigenerational music has worked well for Jesse:

My family and I, as well as Eric, have developed a rapport working and playing together, developing our language and collaboration skills. This has helped teach me to relax, breathe properly and find the right notes. It’s so wonderful to work with people who believe in you. Music helps you to develop in so many areas of your life. It helps you with your brain functions, with developing your creative mind and exploring different facets of the world, which leads you in all directions. Just like how on an instrument there are so many songs and pieces just waiting to be written and found. It’s the common language of the world. It is a pretty remarkable thing.

And what does Patti Smith herself feel about the future of her musical family? She says,

I feel very optimistic about our future, collectively and individually. We are all healthy, positive and diligent workers and have a loving and communicative relationship. Professionally, I believe we will continue to evolve. I look forward to recording and performing with both of them. The three of us together really magnify the memory of their father. Jesse and I are planning our own album. So, as Elvis Presley sang, “The future looks bright ahead.”

Note: For information about upcoming releases and events, check Patti Smith’s website. And keep an eye out for Jesse’s new site (jesseparissmith.com), which will go live soon.

 

Concerning Craft: Daniel Hudon

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

daniel_(1_of_2)

Daniel Hudon (Photo: Miranda Loud)

Please meet Daniel Hudon. Daniel has published a broad body of work including poetry inspired by Magritte, humor and fiction inspired by science, and essays about his travels in Asia and Central America (one of which won him the 2011 Tiferet Nonfiction prize). His teaching also spans fields, covering astronomy, physics, math, and writing at various colleges in Boston.

We published his short story “Possibly Playing Tonight at the Quantum Theater” in our Winter 2014 Science issue. He read his story at our launch event, so be on the lookout for a video when they become available. (Note: The video is now available. Please find below.)

Here are the insights he had to share about the writing and refinement of the piece:

Ultimately, “Possibly Playing Tonight at the Quantum Theater,” was inspired by an undergraduate science course that I was a co-instructor for. Our goal was to give the students – non-science freshmen – our best stuff, and that was our pet name for the course, “The Story of Stuff.” So after introducing the Newtonian worldview, we’d spend two weeks effectively blowing students’ minds with the highlights of quantum mechanics. Beyond being a highly successful theory to describe the structure of the atom and atomic interactions, it’s great material for a fiction writer both for the strange world we’re forced to consider, and for the challenges we’ve had in interpreting its results. I wanted to convey some of this strangeness in a story.

According to Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman, the conceptual crux of understanding quantum mechanics is the double-slit experiment. If you fire an electron through a pair of narrow and narrowly separated slits, it turns out that you cannot predict where the electron will land on an observing screen. At best, you can quote a probability. This is a bizarre idea coming after the determinism of Newtonian mechanics – given the properties of a baseball, of course we can predict where it will land! Even better, until the electron hits the screen, it exists in a superposition of possible states, and its final end state on the screen is determined from the probabilities that can be calculated. I love that idea of the electron’s final position having all these possibilities and then being reduced to the one that is observed. In quantum-speak, that’s the collapse of the electron’s wavefunction, part of the mysterious particle-wave duality, and I took that and ran with it.

In fact, I’ve made a few attempts to write a story about quantum mechanics and this one came together best. Most of these attempts circled around a pun on mechanics – what would a quantum mechanic do differently from an auto mechanic? – but I couldn’t really get beyond the pun. When I hit upon the idea of the theater, I knew I could get a story out of it.

I wanted a character that goes on a good date and has a good time. One of the things that makes dating fun are the possibilities of what might happen. You don’t know what the other person is going to say or do as you interact with them and try to get to know them. If there’s chemistry, then the conversation can be heady and tantalizing. That’s what I wanted my main character to enjoy. But as the evening carries on, one is always checking in and wondering if it’s going as well as it could – is the other person into you? Many possible threads of conversation are explored, from the mundane to the feisty, and this was what made writing the story fun.

One of the hardest things was choosing how much possible dialogue the characters should have and an early draft has our main character going a little overboard there. I also spent some time revising the scene where the couple enters the theater because, in the quantum world, consecutive electrons fired through the apparatus will not wind up side by side on the screen, so it took me a few tries to convey some of that confusion as they go through the doors. Some readers may recognize the more recent quantum experiments in that scene where scientists fire electrons through both slits and then close one slit or the other, or put a detector behind one of the slits, all to test the whole notion of particle-wave duality and when the wave function actually collapses. The first draft also had the story ending badly for the narrator – she didn’t get him at all, though she had invited him over. I realized it would be much more satisfying for all involved if she did get him, as that’s one of the things we hope for when we’re on a date.

The drafts had the same boring title, either Quantum Dating or Quantum Dramatics or Quantum Dramatics, and my final edit was to change the title to the present one, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the right title for the story. Possibly.

Note: If you enjoyed Daniel’s story and want to read more poetry and prose from our Science issue, you can purchase copies of that issue and others online. More of Daniel’s work can be found at his webpage.

5 Questions for Jen Michalski, Author of The Tide King

Michalskiblue

Baltimore-based author and editor, Jen Michalski.

When author Jen Michalski was featured in the Baltimore Sun this summer, the headline called 2013 “a prolific year” for her. That phrase is appropriate. Michalski, a mainstay of the tight-knit Baltimore literary scene, will have three books published between January 2013 and April 2014.

But for a writer as hard-working as Michalski, “prolific year” is also misleading. In addition to working on her own writing, Michalski edits the Baltimore-based journal jmww and frequents local literary readings.

Michalski and I spoke about her not-so-sudden success last weekend, and we followed with an email exchange. I had recently read The Tide King, her stand-alone novel (Black Lawrence Press).

thetideking_cover_lorestrials_4Laura Shovan (LS): With three books published within an eighteen-month period and a feature in the Baltimore Sun, one might be tempted to say, “Jen Michalski is an overnight success.” Those of us involved in the local scene know that you are a longtime literary community activist. Over the years, how have you balanced supporting other writers—through projects like jmww, the 510 Reading Series, and the City Sages anthology—with staying committed to your own writing?

Jen Michalski (JM): I don’t know, really! It all works out, somehow. A caveat—I like to keep busy. I have this manic mental itch, and there are so many other things I would attempt to scratch it with if I weren’t so involved in the writing community: I want to learn to play the bass and trumpet, attend the symphonies and opera, surf, and knit. I often wish the days were twice as long, or that there were two of me!

That said, ironically, my projects don’t leave a lot of time for writing. Fortunately, I do a lot of my work internally, in dreams and also subconsciously; and by the time I write it out, I’ve worked it over and over in my head and it’s pretty much the way it will be on the page. Writing also just comes when it’s ready, not when I try to force it, so I don’t feel pressured to set aside an hour a day and wait for something to happen. Finally, it helps that I’m a self-employed medical editor, which means my schedule is pretty flexible for when the writing does erupt.

Ultimately, though, being involved in the community is inspiring to me as a writer. All writing is a dialogue between writer and reader, and when I’ve attended a great reading or accepted a great piece for jmww or just talked with another writer about his or her inspiration or process or even kids, I am compelled to respond in my own way somehow, whether right away or subconsciously, a few months later. I feel like these outside projects fertilize the garden, in a way.

Salon Series, New York

Jen Michalski

LS: We talked about the way different threads of research came together as you were constructing The Tide King: the last “witch” burned in Poland, your family’s immigration story, a National Geographic article about the sinking of the Bismarck, both your grandfathers’ WWII experiences. All of these, except for the Bismarck, are key themes or events in The Tide King. Would you describe your research process? How do you know when something you uncover is going to work for the book?

JM: Research excites me because I never know what I’m going to turn up. In fact, I no longer lock myself in a plotline early on when I’m writing or researching the novel. When I’m researching I’m like a boat in the ocean; I can glide along in lot of different directions and trajectories before seeing land again. And then I might wind up landing in Cape Town when I thought I was going to Madrid!

Even though my research is driven by things about which I’m passionate, I just try to remain open to what I find. If I really wanted to set the novel in Alaska but when I’m Googling I read about a fishing village in Nova Scotia that really excites me, I go with it. In that sense, I know something is going to work when I become excited about it, when the story suddenly opens up and expands. Sometimes, though, the research just gets cut, and I’m okay with that. I wrote about 600 pages of The Tide King and only wound up using 300. I don’t feel they were wasted pages—they were just sort of the outtakes you wind up seeing on movie DVDs. (In fact, a lot of the deleted scenes did wind up being stand-alone stories that were published.)

I also try to stay loose through the various revisions of the novel. The first draft is so different from the second, the second from the third, and so on. Although the characters and the basic plot may stay the same, all the scenes, the setups, can have changed from the first to third draft. It used to be something that frustrated me, because you want to keep the energy of the first draft or idea without watering it down through the revisions. But often the revisions take it to a better place. Now, I try and concentrate on just digging through the research, the draft writing, knowing that I’m going to hit pay-dirt down the road—I trust my intuition will guide me to where I need to be. I am a writer entirely in the moment of writing. I never think about when I should be finished with a particular novel, whether I’ve spent too much time on it, and I also never wish for a novel to end. I try to have so much fun writing it that I’m disappointed when I’ve done all I can and it’s finally finished, that I have to find something else to do.

LS: Early in the novel, Barbara, an herbalist living in rural Poland in the 1800s, discovers a patch of burnette saxifrage that’s been struck by lightning. The herb, she realizes, has extraordinary healing powers. You said that this story, while not scientific, is drawn from both history and folklore. How did this element of magical realism become the novel’s inciting incident, the thing that draws these characters—who span over 100 years—together?

JM: The decision to use the herb, for me, was definitely, the “aha” moment. When I first started writing about Stanley and Calvin in the European theater of World War II (which was inspired indirectly by a story I’d read about the battleship Bismarck in National Geographic), I didn’t know what was going to happen with them. In the back of my mind I knew I didn’t want to write a war novel, even as I wanted to honor my grandfathers, who both served and never talked about it. But I kept writing, figuring that what to do next would occur to me by the time I got to that crossroads. And it did—one day, I was looking through some story files on my computer and found fifty pages of this other novel I had started many years before and forgotten. It featured the enchanted burnette saxifrage. I wondered, “What if one of the soldiers, Stanley or Calvin, gives it to the other?” Burnette saxifrage became the lynchpin—it could tie centuries of family and people together by the nature of its “curse.” It also provided a conceit, the curse of immortality and how humans deal with loneliness and time passing. But I was many months into research and writing before I realized the true story of The Tide King—and it turned out I’d been working on it for years without even realizing it.

LS: The friendship of WWII buddies Stanley and Calvin is central to The Tide King. However, the female characters shape the trajectory of Stanley’s and Calvin’s lives. How did you come up with Stanley’s love interest, little person and country music star Cindy? You said that Cindy’s daughter, Heidi, drives the second half of the novel. Can you explain what you meant?

JM: I don’t really know why I made Cindy a little person. I know I wanted to include country music because I was reading a lot about 1940s and 1950s country music, Patsy Cline and the Browns and Hank Williams Sr. So I knew Cindy would be a country music star. I always am drawn to the different, the “other.” I’ve written before about people with disabilities because I’m interested in their perspectives, so it wasn’t a stretch for me to include this twist in Cindy’s character.

Also, in a way,  although I didn’t realize it at the time, she becomes kind of a foil for Ela, who is also a little person in that she’s a two-hundred-year-old woman trapped in the body of a nine-year-old girl. Ela wants to die but she can’t, and Cindy wants to live on forever, immortalized as a country music star.

But Cindy and Kate (Calvin’s first love) drive the story. Calvin and Stanley never get over Kate and Cindy, and they are both driven through life by them in different ways. For one, it is a helpful, positive coping, and for the other, it’s not. I think it’s a very human condition, our “muses,” and the thin line between the destructive and redemptive nature of them.

Heidi’s story, even as it comprises the last third of the novel, is kind of a surprise to the reader, I think, and it was intentional on my part. For Ela and Calvin and Stanley and everyone else who comes in contact with the burnette saxifrage over the course of two hundred years, their information is very incomplete. They ingested the herb and did not know it, it wasn’t forced upon them, or they’re not aware of the breadth of its repercussions. Heidi is a character who is given full knowledge of the herb, knows what it can do, has seen how it affects those who take it. And, at the novel’s end, she must make a choice about the herb, and she is the only one, to that point, with the agency to decide whether or not she should take it, what should be done with it. I wanted to explore that freedom to decide one’s fate, through Heidi. To that point, the herb, or the search for the herb, for answers, had been the driving force.

LS: The one question you said most people ask about The Tide King is: Will there be a sequel? Explain why your answer is no.

JM: I think it’s good to leave the reader with questions. Life isn’t tied up in a bow, and I don’t think stories should be, either. There is no happy ever after—life just ends, and there’s nothing we really have to drive ourselves through it except our hopes—our hopes to be happy, to fall in love, to be successful. Which, on the face of it, are all human constructs, not real. And that’s what the characters in The Tide King have at the end—their hopes, however slim and unrealistic. There’s nothing that Calvin or Ela or Heidi could do in a sequel that would change the course of humanity, of the human condition. It’s sort of an old story, the follies and hopes of humankind, that doesn’t need a sequel. I thought that was the most fitting, realistic ending of all.

Jen Michalski lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She was voted one of the best authors in Maryland by CBS News, one of “50 Women to Watch” by the Baltimore Sun, and “Best Writer” by Baltimore Magazine (Best of Baltimore issue, 2013). Her novel THE TIDE KING (Black Lawrence Press) was voted “Best Fiction” by the Baltimore City Paper. She is the author of two collections of fiction, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS (So New, 2007) and FROM HERE (Aqueous Books, 2014) and a collection of novellas, COULD YOU BE WITH HER NOW (Dzanc Books, 2013). She also edited the anthology CITY SAGES: BALTIMORE, which Baltimore Magazine called “Best of Baltimore” in 2010. She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww and hosts the monthly reading series the 510 Readings in Baltimore.

For more about The Tide King, see the Baltimore Sun’s review. Also consider reading up on Jen’s previous book, COULD YOU BE WITH HER NOW, reviewed by LPR earlier this year. Jen’s book FROM HERE is due to be published by Aqueous Books in April 2014.

A Collaboration With The Audience: Gerry LaFemina on Music and Poetry

One of the intersections of music and literature that we have explored is the parallels and distinctions between songwriting and crafting both prose and poetry. While Don Biggar drew our attention to the parallels in structure between his songs and his wife Lisa’s stories, Truth Thomas brought our attention to the contrasts between a poet’s solitary efforts and the collaborative musical ensemble. This week Gerry LaFemina, poet and punk rocker whose “Sunday Girl” appeared in our Music issue and whose music can be found in the media player on the sidebar of this site, extends the ongoing discussion to the collaboration between performer and audience. Without further obstruction, Gerry LaFemina:

Gerry LaFemina. (Photo: gerrylafemina.net)

Gerry LaFemina. (Photo: gerrylafemina.net)

First and foremost, I’m a writer, primarily a poet. I spend many hours trying to decide which word is the best word, which order is the best order. And in that space it’s up to me to make those choices. I read the poems aloud, usually at home but sometimes when I’m out, too, which prompts looks from strangers at nearby tables. I tweak words all the time. In all the poems I read regularly at public events, there are changes penned into the books.

And even though there are people whose opinion I trust about what’s going on in my work, even writers I admire and like, people who have the best interest of my poems and fictions in their minds when they approach my work, even then, it’s still up to me to make the decisions. I can agree or disagree with any opinion.

That said, when I’m in the band basement, with the Fender Jaguar hanging from my shoulder and working on a new song with The Downstrokes it’s a completely different process. There, with my fellow song writer Mike Holland as well as our drummer William Poorbaugh and bassist Jamie Lockard, I’m not just writing something that represents me to the audience (as a poem does) but trying to come up with something that represents us–the vision we have for this band. Whether lyrically or musically, it’s a collaboration, and as such I’m focused on who we are: four guys in our forties playing (punk) rock & roll.

And then there are all the strictures of writing what is essentially pop music: a hook, a chorus, a melody, something that can be sung along to.

It’s not unusual for Mike and me to struggle for the right chord or for me to ask him to play a riff over and over until I have a melody, a set of words–invoked in part by the chords and notes and tempo he’s playing. Nor is it unusual for Bill to suggest a tempo change, Jamie to suggest a variation on the progression, or me to suggest we go high instead of low. I find it refreshing, this give and take.

Perhaps this has to do with the fact that, ultimately, the song writing process is not just collaborative with the other band members; it’s also a collaboration with the audience. When we’re on stage and I’m singing and playing, the audience is there–they’re real, they’re listening to us, and (I hope) they’re responding. Which is to say that, when people in the audience left our first gig singing the chorus of “Punk Rock Lolita,” I had the verification of success that I rarely have as a poet: someone remembered the combined efforts of the songwriters and it was lodged in their heads.

Rarely has this happened at a poetry reading, and when it does, when someone comes up to me and says “When you read those lines . . .” and they can quote a few lines of a poem, I feel a kind of success that far trumps most acceptance letters. I feel the same way when someone takes the time to write me an email about a poem of mine they read.

Poetry writing, fiction writing, they are different from song writing in ways both obvious and subtle. I like to think the relationship between the artists and their audiences in songwriting (at least when the song writer is also the performer) is the key difference. I know when a song is working almost immediately because the audience lets me know ASAP. As a literary writer, it may take years of rejection letters about a particular piece before I give it up. That’s the real challenge of the artist going it alone as a writer. You have to decide yourself when to give a piece up. The band, they’ll let me know something isn’t working almost right away.

A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, LaFemina holds an MFA in poetry from Western Michigan University as well as an MA in literature with an emphasis on twentieth-century literature from WMU. He has taught at Nazareth College, Kirtland Community College, West Virginia University, Wheeling Jesuit University, and Sarah Lawrence College. He directs the Frostburg Center for Creative Writing at Frostburg State University, where he is an associate professor of English.