The Integration of Art, Music and More: Robin Rose

“Arts integration” is one of those trendy education buzz-phrases. But this buzz isn’t all noise, and it’s hardly new. Using the arts as primary pathways to learning dates back to John Dewey and the Progressive Education Movement, which flourished between the late 19th and the early 20th Centuries. The difference today is that there are facts to support arts integration theories. A 2007 Boston Globe article, for example, reports data showing that including the arts in a child’s day raises standardized test scores.

I’m heartened by organizations such as Young Audiences, which helps bring artists to areas schools, particularly those designated Title I. As LPR staffers learned on a recent tour, participating schools saw a rise in attendance and a decline in discipline referrals when an artist was working with students. And I’m pleased that LPR is able to present Robin Rose, whose art will appear on the cover and inside our Summer 2013 Music issue, to show how society can be explored through the lens of one person’s creative efforts.

I know no one better than LPR art consultant Michael Salcman, whose essay “I Look for Mysteries: The Art of Robin Rose” will appear in the Music issue, to illustrate how deeply a visual artist can be integrated into and affected by the historical events, scientific discoveries and artistic innovations of his era. So I asked Michael to preview the piece.

Robin Rose

Robin Rose with Echo Mandala, one of the works in our Music issue and part of his Crescendo installation.

Here’s what he had to say:

Robin Rose is a singularly apt selection as the featured artist for the Music issue. His practice of painting and object-making shares many similarities with the artistic practice of a musician such as Miles Davis. As you will learn from the essay, this Washington-based artist not only lays down his paint strokes to the rhythm and mood of music but is also himself an experienced musician who played synthesizer for Urban Verbs, a well-regarded and often-recorded rock band.

A practitioner of meditation, Rose not only looks to music for its empathetic relation to painting but also creates sculptural objects and installations that use actual instruments such as guitars and accessories such as reverb foot pedals. Similar strategies have informed the work of other contemporary artists such as Bruce Nauman and Christian Marclay, a video artist and object maker admired by Rose.

Kind of Blue, the beautiful Rose painting gracing the Music issue cover is emblematic of his polymorphous artistic career. It takes its name from the famous Miles Davis album and its coloration from the intersection of jazz and blues. Its subtle circular elements resemble those in Disks of Newton, the 1911-12 series by František Kupka, one of the true pioneers of abstract painting who similarly recognized the mystical relationship between sound and shape. Indeed, the use of planetary shapes is representative of a universal connection between art, music and physics, scientists having discovered that the fundamental note of interstellar space is B-flat!

As I point out in the essay, “mystical experiences, scientific theories of time and philosophic positions were critical to the development of a truly abstract art movement” only years after the publication of Einstein’s theories. I think you will enjoy meeting Rose, a poetic humanist whose life and art contain multitudes, both on the pages of the Music issue and as a presenter at the launch reading.

The LPR Music issue is available for online pre-order. In addition to Rose’s art and Michael’s essay, it contains an interview with Young Audiences Teaching Arts’ Chris August. Issues will also be sold for $10 from our table at LakeFest 2013, held June 14-16 in Columbia, MD, and at our launch reading, held on June 22 at Oliver’s Carriage House in Columbia. Both events are part of the annual Columbia Festival of the Arts.

Online Editor’s Note:

For an insider’s view, see “Meet the Neighbors: Columbia Festival of the Arts.” And for an example of how far-reaching acknowledgement of the connection between music and astronomy can be, see “Black Holes Emit B Flats as Emmylou Stirs the Universe.”  But be forewarned: NASA wants us to note that humans have no chance of hearing a true cosmic performance since the B-flat of black holes is 57 octaves lower than middle-C.

Meet the Neighbors: Free State Review

A journal such as ours requires a vibrant literary and artistic environment to thrive—and even survive. In appreciation of the various cultural entities around us, we present “Meet the Neighbors,” a series where we provide you with personal introductions to a diverse assortment.

Barrett Warner with bean truck

Barrett Warner with bean truck (Photo: Bruce Leopold)

The Free State Review website caught my eye with an elegant layout and excellent photography. And kept my interest with statements that revealed a strong sense of identity. There was a focus on “place and experience.” On “authors who live the poem—story—essay before they write it” and provide “some glimpse of a genuine moment in this high concept world, reflected pieces of the real.” And exhibit “engagement and grace.”

That was what I’d tried to achieve in my own work. I would’ve been happy to submit a story had the 3000 word limit not stopped me short. Undaunted, I decided to do the next best thing. I contacted the editors—there seemed to be four—to ask, “So, what is your story?” One of them, writer and reviewer Barrett Warner, was pleased to oblige. Here’s how he responded:

We never had a sign that said, Right now, start a new literary review. There weren’t any voices in the winds. No beautiful angels flying into our minds, nesting on our sternums, singing in our ears. We just found each other.

Editor Hal Burdett found himself when he retired. It took him 81 years, 60 of those spent writing columns in The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Times and other Metro newspapers. Raphaela Cassandra found Hal. The May-December pair next found poet J. Wesley Clark. It wasn’t hard to spot Jim. His familiar beard has grown through ten US presidents. He has published 11 poems a year for over 50 years in well over 300 literary magazines. His books include Daughter of the South County, Asleep With Whippoorwills: New & Selected Poems 1970-1995 and I Am Paraguay.

Jim found me. I’d been dodging success as a poet for 30 years and begun focusing on book reviews and essays. I’d written 35 in the previous year, enough to see a lot of new writers and styles and exciting presses. I was thrilled and jealous, especially when writing reflected experience that was “street” but had a polished sense of craft.

All of us had a feeling that writers in the region shared a dream about life. We also knew that elastic forms existed all over the planet. Creating Free State Review was a way to combine them—writers who smelled of seawater, writers who had metal parts and others scented by chlorine or mud. The language seduces us. When words are set beside vigorously lived moments, the experiences dazzle and the art moves us deeply.

We knew that we needed a website, whatever that was, but we had no idea how to advertise that we were accepting submissions except by word of mouth. We wagged our chin-choppers for three months before anything appeared in our box. The first parcel we considered included poems by Chris Toll, Edgar Gabriel Silex, Barbara DeCesare and Jessica Lynn Dotson. The first three were veterans, having eight books between them, but Jessica was a new arrival. She wrote about auto mechanics and had only had one poem posted—and that on a site since abandoned.

Others slowly handed over some poems or an essay or a short. Some such as Rachel Adams and Scott King were strangers who came to us the way that editors sometimes have of sensing other editors. Some such as Beth Spires and James Robison were friends who wanted to go on the journey. There was only one rejection for that first issue. Our raft was a big one, and the Argo could make a sailor out of any cowboy.

The first issue

The first issue, Winter 2013

The press given about our first issue, its growing distribution (Hal, like all good newspaper reporters, is a fanatic about distribution), our crazy launch at Ram’s Head in Annapolis and the rising murmurs about our next issue were impossible to predict, especially given the small number of submissions.

I’d been courting Bethany Shultz Hurst for almost a year, following her work in literary journals across the country, anticipating a book that I wanted to review. After we accepted her poems, she became a finalist in the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition, as did the local author Katherine Cottle, who had some great titles with Apprentice House. Similarly, our new poet Jessica subsequently had poems accepted by five other journals and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

We’ve since come to pride ourselves on seeking and finding authors on the rise, at times weeks, at times months shy of a break-out year. In the next issue, there are two authors, Kevin Lavey and Dan Ferrara, who would make me shake.

I found Kevin’s story in a pile of rejections for a fiction contest run by the Maryland Writers’ Association. It was the only one that I liked. Kevin and I met for coffee at Artifact and talked it through three or four revisions before we accepted it. A month later, he received a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award for Fiction. Dan Ferrara—who knows where this cat’s going to prowl in six months? Mostly the demons chase us, but every so often a certain writer turns and chases those demons right back. Ferrara’s got a purr that would scare any hungry coyote.

A reporter asked last month if there was a particular writer that I hoped to get into our journal. Yes, I answered, but the perfect writer has no name, no zip code. We’re searching, turning over stones, hoping that he or she will find us. Perfection isn’t a state, it’s just a single moment in a changing, stirred-up world. Here’s the dope: we’re trying to meet those moments and connect and put them into print.

It’s partly beginner’s luck that we found so many talented authors, but the fact is that we’re not beginners. Hal had came up at The Sun under HL Mencken, and that wizard’s two literary journals had sparked an early interest for the enlightened conversation that the arts bring to our day-to-day. Jim was a foreign correspondent in Mexico and Cuba. We’re an older Sunshine Club of hard-knocking dreamers.

So we’re different from other new magazines started by much younger types with lots of energy and visions of changing the world or maybe doing something with their MFAs. We’ve seen so many movements and presses and writers come and go, even actual revolution. You develop an instinct for sensing when you’re glimpsing a real modern-day Icarus and when it’s only a wad of feathers passing overhead. Jim says, “The first step in writing from the gut is to have plenty of guts.”

Ours isn’t the coolest, hippest journal out there. We’re no Fence, Coconut, Dzanc or Mud Luscious. We’re no Adam Robinson. And we don’t know all those stars making life-changing one-shot films or posting about zeroism or “the new severity.” We’re too old school for that. We still enjoy reading without having to plug in something, all the more so if we’re snuggled under a quilt. And we believe in public readings, in the live poetry scene, in bringing words to people’s ears and not just their eyes.

Raphaela is helping us with this, setting up readings at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, East End Book Exchange in Pittsburgh, Minás Gallery in Baltimore and Mystery Loves Company in Easton. Her take is that life is too messy without literature. Raphaela designs robots at the Naval Academy and helped attract St. John’s College astrophysicist and poet Jim Beall to the Review. His “Odysseus” includes images such as “axe murderer” and a boat run aground in the mountains “wrestling with legacies” as he speculates about the poet and dreamer in each of us.

Hal could talk the leg off a dead mule, but it’s not all a sales pitch and I believe him when he talks about empathy. He says,

In the modernist world, the heroes are all lonely creatures. They deal with their mortality all alone. There’s not much tension in that, but these Free State Review authors focus on moments of separation and slipping away, the husband taking a job somewhere else, the father endlessly repairing his car in a late night garage but driving nowhere or a brother’s suicide. Empathy is the perfect countermeasure for 21st Century isolation.

This is why Free State Review is not just a journal. It’s a love affair. Maybe we saw something for a moment and suddenly knew that our lives would be different. Knew this in spite of our eyes being bloody from staring at nothing so long. We saw it and knew that we wanted this love, this flash of hope, this electric profile that was there for an instant, then was gone. So, this time we decided to follow it, to see where it led and—chanting some and jigging some—disappear into its miracle of words.

As someone who is new to the world of literary publishing but not the world at large, I wish Barrett and his band of seasoned beginners all the best. And remind them that small literary journals like ours have a cultural influence that is disproportionate to their size.

Note: See the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses piece “Independent Presses and ‘Little’ Magazines in American Culture: A Forty-Year Retrospective.”

First and Foremost: Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson

At LPR online, emerging and lesser-known writers and artists have always received precedence. But—first and foremost—we love showcasing those whose debut literary and artistic works have appeared on our pages. Which is why we started work on such a list, posted on this site, and the “First and Foremost” series, where our “firsts” can speak for themselves.

To get things going, here’s Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson, whose first published short fiction piece appeared in our Winter 2013 Doubt issue.

Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson

Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson

One day, I started hearing voices. I had been warned that this might happen, but it still came as a shock when they arrived.

The first to speak was Isabelle. I was driving home late one evening from a friend’s house when I passed a furniture store that I had passed many times before. The business is in a renovated warehouse fronted by a plate glass window that offers a full view of the interior. It’s the kind of design-not-within-reach store that sells contemporary wares displayed in perfectly conceived groupings as though the sophisticated homeowners are about to walk in, sit at that Le Corbusier dining table and enjoy a good Bordeaux.

It was late. The store was closed, but the security lights warmed the window display and the glow hit my peripheral vision. I turned to look for that split second that it took to drive by, and that’s when Isabelle appeared. I can’t remember exactly what she told me that night, but I do remember this: she was on the outside of that store looking in and was desperate to climb inside and pretend that the clean, orderly space belonged to her. She also wanted to take a nap.

Then came this sentence: “Isabelle wondered how long it would take for the police to arrive.” That became the first sentence of my short story “Danish Modern,” which appears in the Winter 2013 Doubt issue of Little Patuxent Review. “Danish Modern”  is the first piece of fiction that I have completed and the first that has been published.

So how, at age 39, did I start hearing voices and writing fiction? Annie Dillard stated in The Writing Life, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” I walked out of a good museum job at the age of 25 because I realized that I wanted to be a writer. Specifically, a nonfiction writer. I wanted to tell true stories.

Writing has always been the lens through which I have seen the world. It is how I have harnessed my curiosity and made sense of things. Journalism became the conduit that allowed me to invite myself to places that I knew nothing about and learn. I liked talking to people, understanding different points of view and distilling complex ideas to their essence so that readers could enjoy the result.

I was happy in that work for many years. Telling true stories was enough. And then one day it wasn’t. There were many reasons for this shift—rounding 40, my father’s untimely death, the birth of my daughter—but the gist is that I no longer felt content with the limits of nonfiction and journalism. I wanted to explore questions without easy answers and work those questions out on the page.

At first, timid to stray too far from nonfiction, I delved into the personal essay form. I re-read Didion, Dillard and White. I remembered the power of personal essays such as White’s “Once More to the Lake,” with its chilling ending and insights on aging, to transform everyday experience. But it was re-reading White’s short fiction work “The Second Tree From the Corner” that stirred something in me. There was his lean and powerful prose, of course, but also the recognition that he had allowed himself to venture where his mind took him—essay, personal essay, poetry, fiction, children’s literature.

I still have the desire to unpack the human experience, examine it and report back. I simply want more outlets for that process. The power of fiction is its ability to synthesize and convey the inner terrain of the human experience. Fiction offers its own truth.

I’ve since turned my journalism training inward to make my thinking the subject. The result is an epistemological tool that chips away at everything. I am more curious, more alert than ever. I no longer edit questions beyond the pale because they deviate from fact or the interests of a magazine editor. I allow my mind to wander and to see the stories that exist within the connective tissue of my thinking. I allow myself to hear the voices.

I’m still figuring out my creative metabolism for fiction. I know journalism well. I’ve written hundreds of articles, and the process is ingrained. Fiction is awkward, mysterious and clumsy. But it’s also reinvigorating. In making this leap, I had to get over the anxiety of being a beginner and ask for help. Here are a few things that I learned along the way:

  • Participate in the community that you hope to join. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in “On the American Scholar,” “First we eat, then we beget. First we read, then we write.” You must be an active reader to be a writer. In his column “Ask The Paris Review,” Editor Lorin Stein tells new writers, “Here’s the thing: no matter how many classes you take, no matter how much time you spend at the keyboard, you cannot write seriously unless you read.”
  • Don’t be afraid to be an outsider. So many of us pretend that we know more than we do for fear of looking naive. Journalism has taught me the value of being the outsider who gets to ask the questions. I am still learning the ins and outs of pitching literary magazines, applying for grants and writing retreats and reading in front of audiences (as I did for the first time at the launch of the Doubt issue). In each of these situations, I sought out someone who knew the ropes and could offer guidance.
  • Seek people who are smarter than you. The adage about picking a tennis partner who is better than you because it improves your game also applies to writing.
  • Workshop in a healthy, productive environment. Danish Modern” benefited from the thoughtful feedback of two writing workshop partners. Both offered different insights, but, most importantly, both treated the work with respect. They had to suffer through some terrible writing, but because of their considerate and fruitful comments, I learned, I improved and I moved on.
  • Get into the habit of writing things down. I thought that “Danish Modern” came out of nowhere. In rereading my journal, I realized that the idea had been percolating for some time. You never know what might be grist for the creative mill. (And once you start working those ideas out on the page, you can edit out overused expressions such as “grist for the mill.”)

And never forget that everyone was once a beginner. “Meek young men grow up in libraries believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given,” Emerson wrote in “On the American Scholar,” “forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote those books.”

Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson is a journalist, author and editor whose pieces have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Slate, The Baltimore Sun, Urbanite and Little Patuxent Review. She is a contributing editor at Architect and Architectural Lighting and the home and design editor for Style Magazine in Baltimore.

Recently, we were delighted to learn that Elizabeth had received a 2013 Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award for Fiction. Then doubly delighted when we realized that another contributor, Susan Muaddi Darraj, received one as well. Given Elizabeth’s advice, you might want to read “Concerning Craft: Susan Muaddi Darraj.”

Concerning Craft: Emily Rich

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.

Please meet Emily Rich of Arlington, Virginia. Emily is a former federal employee and community college instructor who is taking time off to write. She has previously been published in River Poets Journal, Modern Love Rejects and Circa: A Literary Review.

We published Emily’s creative nonfiction piece “On the Road to Human Rights Day” in our Winter 2013 Doubt issue. Here she is reading that work at our launch event:

And here she is discussing how she came to write the piece:

Sitting with my friends in the Chekhov Room at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, I recount a tale of a much younger me getting trapped overnight in a brothel in rural Thailand. I tell the story, sort of a funny anecdote, in an offhand manner as we discuss the adventures that we’ve had with Third World travel.

“That’s a great story,” one woman says. “You should write about it.” The others agree. They are my muses and supporters, these women in my writers’ group, and “On the Road to Human Rights Day” would never have been written without them.

I came to creative writing relatively late in life. As a former history major, Department of Defense employee and community college instructor, I had always considered myself an analytical writer: someone who could get the facts down, get to the point, condense. I was blithely living my life in the same fashion, following the proscribed path of college, graduate school, marriage, kids.

After I turned 40, a series of setbacks occurred that caused me to shake off my complacency. I was diagnosed with two chronic diseases, autoimmune arthritis and then cancer. Two months after finishing chemotherapy, my mother died.

I suddenly had all sorts of existential questions to work through, so I took a leave of absence from teaching and enrolled in a writing course at The Writer’s Center. One day into my Stories from the Attic class, and I was hooked. I found that writing out memories, both recent and long-buried, was a more effective form of healing than I could imagine receiving from traditional therapy. But beyond that, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed reading and workshopping the stories of my classmates.

I was filled with creative energy. The instructor’s prompts, the assigned readings, my classmates’ contributions spurred me on. My confidence and ambition grew. I had a whole memoir inside of me. The class ended, but I was not ready to quit. Rather than return to teaching, I decided to devote the time that the kids were in school to writing.

I hit a roadblock almost immediately. Without the structure of a class and assignments, I was adrift in my empty house with too many free hours to fill. I was nagged by domestic distractions. Instead of writing, I vacuumed. I planned and shopped for elaborate dinners. I did loads of laundry that produced so many clean towels that I had to smash down dryer-fresh piles to fit them into the cabinet. My home was neat and orderly, but my computer screen was distressingly blank.

This surprised and worried me. How could I be so lacking in discipline? How would I ever get the creative engine running again to complete my memoir?

I signed up for another class. Again, I was swept up in the thrill of being surrounded by people driven to tell their stories. This time when the class ended, I kept in touch with some of my classmates by forming a writing group. Becoming a part of this group has done more to strengthen my craft than anything I else that I have done.

Aside from great company and friendship, I get three invaluable things from my group: deadlines, feedback and inspiration. We meet twice a month to read each other’s work and to share whatever information is relevant to our pursuit.

At one meeting, a friend read her account of being an aid worker in Zambia. In her piece, she described trying to get to an important meeting in Lusaka through streets clogged with a funeral procession. Just the image of her with her Western mindset–must make it to the meeting on time!–reminded me of all the Third World traffic that I’d had to contend with in my younger days working for a refugee agency.

A memory of being the impatient Western traveler, of traffic-clogged Bangkok streets, of sweltering buses began to leak through to the front of my mind. Then, oh, man, remember that time I got on the wrong bus and ended up spending the night at a brothel in the middle of nowhere? How could I have forgotten that incident until now? I told the story and received immediate encouragement to write it down.

At that point, all I had was the scaffolding of a story. Then, I remembered that it was the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and that I was going to meet a young United Nations border security guard who had invited me to see the event celebrated in a Cambodian refugee camp. That I had been reading Somerset Maugham and that the short story “The Colonel’s Lady” had gotten under my skin and made me feel sorry for myself. And that the prostitutes at the brothel were young and shy and made to wear large numbered badges on their dresses so that they could be ordered up like menu items by the men in the room.

Each memory was like some new seasoning that I added as the story of my misadventure marinated in my mind.

I tracked down the volume containing “The Colonel’s Lady” and re-read it to try to place myself back in the emotional state that I was in when I boarded the bus. I consulted a 1988 edition of the Lonely Planet’s guide to Thailand, which helped fill in time-specific details of the journey from Bangkok to the Cambodian border. But then I had to ask myself, “What does it all mean?”

Maugham had put me back in the mindset of the day, worried about going to meet a man I wasn’t so crazy about, upset about being overlooked for a position at work. In light of what I was to witness at the brothel, my personal concerns were what my daughters would call “First World problems.”  I tried to convey that in my piece.

When I had everything on paper, I took it to my writer’s group for critique. They helped me to pare it down and focus it. Finally, I felt that it was ready for submission. It seemed to be a perfect candidate for publication in LPR’s Doubt issue. It showed how self-doubt can get you into trouble. But also how it can lead to enlightening moments such as the one that I experienced when I recognized “the great unfairness of life” at the end of the piece.

If you enjoyed learning how Emily came write her prose piece, you might want to read “Concerning Craft: Chris Bullard” on how he composed poetry based on the same theme.

Concerning Craft: Chris Bullard

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.

Please meet Chris Bullard. Chris lives in Collingswood, New Jersey and works for the federal government as an administrative law judge. His first chapbook You Must Not Know Too Much came out in 2009, followed by O Brilliant Kids in 2011. His poetry book Back is scheduled for a November 2013 release.

We published his poem “O’Connor’s Misfit Addresses Schrödinger’s Cat” in our Winter 2013 Doubt issue. Here he is reading that poem and other pieces at our launch event:

And here he is discussing how he came to write the poem:

“O’Connor’s Misfit Addresses Schrödinger’s Cat” is a free verse sonnet. I’ve written many sonnets, some in meter and rhyme and others in free verse. I enjoy the form because it provides a two-part division with a turn in thought, a volta, usually between the octave and the sestet. The volta allows the poem to look at itself by commenting on or changing the meaning of the first section of the poem. This permits irony but also allows for a juncture of two disparate subjects.

I also like using pre-existing characters in my poems. Perhaps this is the consequence of my love for the pop art of the Sixties and Seventies. For me, it is a way to collage backstories and references without taking up extra space for explanation. This use of popular icons results in the combination of low culture and high culture references. Some think that I take this too far. After all, I have written a poem in which Sigmund Freud analyzes one of the characters from the movie The Astounding She-Monster.

I brought together Flannery O’Connor’s character The Misfit and the Schrödinger’s cat though experiment because both concern the resolution of doubt. The Misfit lacks faith; the cat is in an indeterminate state. The Misfit has no practical way of resolving his doubt; observation will establish whether the cat is alive or not, but only by killing him or allowing him to live. These parallel lives made an interesting pair for a poem, and I thought the sonnet was the appropriate place for them to meet.

For The Misfit, morality is an either/or matter determined by whether or not Christ was resurrected. If he was, we should lead moral lives. If not, we’re free to murder and rob. The Misfit needs the act of observation. He wants to have seen whether Christ came down from the cross.

We cannot know whether we should sin
like pagans or pray like abbots
unless the rock is moved aside
and Christ found breathing (or not).
The possibilities are superposed.

For Schrödinger’s cat, observation determines whether he lives or dies. Opening the lid of his box determines whether cyanide gas is released.

Just as observation will determine,
friend cat, whether you emerge from the box
a feline corpus, or live to slaughter more rats . . .

My craft problem was limiting exposition. There is a difference between how a poem and, say, a novel function. Too much exposition and you get a novel instead of a poem. I wanted to move the poem forward with parallel images: the cat in his box, Christ in the tomb, the prisoner behind bars, the cyanide gas that the box releases, the cyanide gas that the executioner releases. I tried to restrict my lines to the length of traditional pentameter and use pairs or triplets of similar end sounds for cohesiveness (abbots/aside/lips, sin/determine, not/box/not, measured/served).

The Misfit has taken his name because he claims that his punishment never fit his crimes. The turn in the poem comes when The Misfit demands or accepts a judgment that may be based on either morality or chance because he prefers to risk death and damnation rather than exist in a quantum state of not knowing.

so punishment cannot be measured
as fit (or not) until the time is served,
the seal is broken and the prisoner
strolls out the gate into heaven (or not).
Pop the lid, brother, I prefer knowing
if chance has blessed me, or left me blue at the lips.

O’Connor included Gothic elements in her fiction that seem simultaneously appalling and funny. I wanted to keep those elements in my poem, so I was relieved when people laughed when I read it. This meant that they not only caught the cultural references but also found the humor in the poem. There are some similarities between reading a poem aloud and doing stand-up comedy.

I get nervous before I read my poetry in public, but I always accept any invitation to read. I assure myself that I do so for reasons other than mere egotism. I need to hear whether an audience responds or fails to respond because then I’ll see whether the poem works and at what level it works. Like The Misfit, I need to know.

The Misfit appears in one of the most famous of O’Connor’s stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Since many of you, like Chris, encounter literature in both written and spoken forms (see “There’s Reading, Then There’s the Reading”) and some serve as both author and audience, you might enjoy comparing the text of O’Connor’s story, a transcript of O’Connor’s own remarks on the story and a rare recording of her reading the story.

Poetry and Music: Songs of Salcman

Music starts with sound and silence. As such, music and literature likely arose as a single entity. Even as the two drew apart, they maintained a continuum, causing Alphonse de Lamartine to state, “Music is the literature of the heart; it commences where speech ends.” And continued to influence one another in both form and content, causing Ezra Pound to pronounce, “Poets who will not study music are defective.” Be that as it may, literary figures as disparate as William ShakespeareTS Eliot and Ralph Ellison have made music an essential part of their works.

Join us in exploring this ageless theme and its contemporary variations through poetry, prose and the visual arts in preparation for our Summer 2013 Music issue.

Lorraine Whittlesey

Lorraine Whittlesey at the piano (Photo: John Dean)

A few words to set the stage, so to speak. Music has always been an integral part of my life. Family legend has it that I sang my first sentences to the popular tunes of the day. The combination of words and melodic line continues to be a powerful force in my life.

Poets and other writers engage audiences in ways that are personal to the individual listener. When Michael Salcman’s poetry came to my attention, thanks to our mutual friend Clarinda Harriss, I recognized that he was someone whose poems appealed to me for a variety of reasons. I noted his careful and obvious affection, passion and respect for his subject matter. His words, the cadence of his delivery and the images that they evoked engaged my entire person.

After a reading at Minás Gallery in Baltimore, I approached Michael and asked if he would consider allowing me to set some of his poems to music. He graciously agreed. Since I already had one of his collections of poetry, The Clock Made of Confetti, I re-read the poems, which always seemed to come alive and remind me, in a visual sense, of structured notation on a musical staff.

The poem that I selected from the book was “Einstein Sailing; A Photograph.” All things Einstein have always held special appeal for me. Einstein was an accomplished violinist and declared repeatedly that had he not been a physicist he would have been a musician. His statements about the power of music are legendary. Several years before this, I had written a musical adaptation of Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, and the prospect of using him as subject matter again was irresistible.

Not long after we had decided to move forward with our collaboration with the intent of a future performance, I received a wonderful surprise. Michael sent me a poem, “Song,” that he had written following that decision. That poem was the first of Michael’s that I set to music. When the composition was completed, I invited him and his wife Ilene to my house and performed it for them. His generous response and feedback convinced me that I was on the correct path and gave me the confidence to move forward.

Michael then sent me a copy of his new poetry collection, The Enemy of Good is Better. I devoted my time to reading each poem aloud as well as in silence. The poems for the performance were selected, and I knew that I had arrived at a crossroad. At that point, I felt that Michael’s input would be critical. I asked him to read the six poems aloud to me. I wanted to be as faithful as possible to his nuances and rhythms when composing the music. We sat in his kitchen. He read, I notated. The experience was invaluable.

Michael knew Henry Wong, the owner of An die Musik in Baltimore, and arranged to have our performance presented at that site. I was delighted as I had performed there a number of times and always appreciated the house piano, a marvelous instrument that was kept in good repair. The space itself was very intimate with comfortable seating, fine acoustics and sight lines.

We presented Songs of Salcman on April 28, 2012 to a full house. There were many poets in attendance as was befitting since April was National Poetry Month.

Publicity poster

Songs of Salcman publicity poster

Michael gave a gracious and generous introduction that addressed the history of the art song. He first read the poems, after which I performed them. The poet was relaxed, confident and poised. The musician was nervous and nursing a sore throat. The audience was appreciative and attentive. The pieces that we presented were as follows (click on the first item for the full text):

  • Einstein Sailing; A Photograph
  • A Song of Spirals
  • Baltimore Was Always Blue
  • Poem on a Single Word from Richard Serra’s Verb List
  • Everything But The Ashes
  • Song

In every collaboration there’s the possibility of ruffled feathers, miscommunication and myriad missteps that leave one or both parties wondering whether it was as good an idea as it seemed at the outset. My collaboration on Songs of Salcman left me exhilarated and appreciative of the freedom and trust that Michael provided throughout the process.

The first words of Michael’s opening remarks at the performance were, “The omens are good.” Indeed they are, and we are both looking forward to upcoming performances that will include new works for the Songs of Salcman art song cycle.

Online Editor’s Note: If the stars align, a selection of poems set to music, both old and new,  from Songs of Salcman will be presented this summer and autumn as part of an LPR program celebrating music and literature. (More on that later.) And if that’s too long to wait, stop by An die Musik at 8:00 pm this Friday, February 15  for Love: Error & Eros, a contemporary cabaret event with Dyana Neal and Lorraine.

Dear Elvira: Bad Writing and Every Beholder’s Eye

Elvira Rivers

Elvira Rivers

Before we bade adieu to audacity (the theme of our Summer 2012 issue) and began to entertain doubt (the theme of our Winter 2013 issue), I slipped in something that any literary review of repute requires: an advice column, complete with a fictional columnist. If you haven’t yet met, allow me to introduce Elvira Rivers, whose brief bio appears below, and promptly present the current query.

Dear Elvira,

At a recent book bash, I became increasingly incensed by a bunch of editors carrying on about bad writing. Who do these elitists think they are, making pronouncements about what constitutes a crappy manuscript? I’m becoming convinced that all they want is to prevent people like me, who won’t waste time obtaining an MFA, from joining their exclusive club. You seem like a sensible sort. Wouldn’t you agree that bad writing lies entirely in the eye of the beholder?

Fondly,

Fred

Dear Fred,

I am sensible, so I do agree. Bad writing lies in the eye of the beholder. Every beholder. Smack-dab in the eye, making it as easy for even an editor to spot as, say, bad paving.

You see, while I reside in a picturesque place, the road that takes me to and fro is far from pleasing. And the imperfections there are painfully apparent to me even though I never wasted time obtaining a civil engineering degree or even accruing the minimum qualifications required to apply for a flagger position on a respectable road crew. And they are obvious to everyone else in the environs except, apparently, the poor paver.

What often jumps out first in both bad writing and paving is a lack of proper preparation. If a surface is cracked or offers inadequate structural support and our writer refuses to lift a finger (or move a mouse) to correct this, defects will inevitably emerge through the best-constructed overlay and consequent deformations can cause catastrophic failure.

If said writer isn’t ready in terms of craft, obtaining an MFA couldn’t hurt; however, if the shortfall concerns subject matter, graduate school rarely helps. An MFA hailing from, say, Chappaqua who decides to write stories about, say, meth labs in rural Michigan is at a distinct disadvantage to, say, Bonnie Jo Campbell, the author of the award-winning American Salvagewho’s lived in the Kalamazoo area all her life. (And, incidentally, has an MFA in creative writing, as well as a BA in philosophy and an MA in mathematics.)

And, while some would say that writing only about what one knows would merely result in a surfeit of stories about English professors seducing MFA students, those someones rarely insist that writers of such limited experience are as assiduous in filling the cracks in their knowledge as, say, Ian McEwan, who–at the height of his career–spent two entire years–as a matter of course–diligently work-shadowing a neurosurgeon before starting his critically acclaimed novel Saturday. (And, yes, he also has the equivalent of an MFA.)

Bad paving, bad driving, Oella Ave

Bad writing is as easy to spot as bad paving and bad driving on Oella Avenue (Photo: Ilse Munro)

Now, put a bad driver on that precarious pavement and there’s sure to be some serious trouble. You see, my particular road is narrow, sometimes turning into a single lane, with steep climbs and descents and sudden sharp turns. Inexperienced or impaired drivers readily put everything in their path in peril, as do those overconfident ones who show no consideration for objects or persons.

I regularly see the former on my street, their shaky hands at the wheel, wandering across lanes, running out of road and rolling down embankments. The latter I remember from my Boston and Cambridge days, their tall trucks stuck under overpasses on Storrow and Memorial Drives along the Charles River, where large signs say, “CLEARANCE 11FT 0IN.” They’re the same ones that I now observe attempting impossible turns into access roads and ending up wedged between street signs and utility poles, their goods, alas, undelivered.

In bad writing, it’s equally easy to see when an author is out of control. Some use the excuse of automatic writing, citing Jack Kerouac’s notion of “first thought, best thought” and his refusal to revise. (And add that Kerouac was a college dropout.) But a closer look at good writers shows, more often than not, that’s a carefully crafted illusion. In her memoir, Joyce Johnson–who definitely did know Jack–revealed that he revised regularly and rigorously. Which is why his seminal novel On the Road didn’t end up in a ditch.

Similarly, it’s hard to miss the sort of bad writing that occurs when an over-confidant author under-delivers, almost by design. I’m not referring so much to brash early efforts such as A Clockwork Orange that acclaimed authors later repudiate as to works penned at any point in a career that show little regard for readers because, one can only assume, such authors feel that they are so patently brilliant that they deserve a pass. Consider McEwan, whom I normally admire. With Sweet Tooth, he correctly calculated that the clumsy contrivances used in lieu of more potent prose wouldn’t be called out by more than one or so critics the way that they would’ve been were he someone of lesser repute.

Bear in mind that at the beginning of each work–no matter how outré–the author enters into a contract with the reader to render certain goods, the literary equivalent of kitchen cabinets. When that author has the arrogance to violate that agreement through artifices such as dei ex machina, contrived epiphanies or trick endings, the reader has the right to feel cheated. Not that I don’t delight in surprises. But they only constitute good writing when, as occurs with minor masterpieces such as George Saunders’ “Puppy” and Joshua Ferris’s “The Dinner Party,” the reader is complicit every single step of the way.

Speaking of good writing, I maintain that the transportation analogy also works there. It’s as hard to miss as trains rumbling along the track across the river, parallel to my ruined road. In a Poets & Writers piece, a literary agent seconds what another has put in his Publishers Marketplace profile: that what he looks for is a book that makes him miss his train stop. (Actually, it’s “subway stop,” but that’s more or less along the same lines.)

Sincerely yours,

Elvira

PS I could’ve added bad weather, which typically comes from getting too much of an otherwise good thing, to the bad paving and driving but then it would’ve been necessary to address overwriting, which would’ve been a bit excessive here. Fortunately, that and other cases are covered by the likes of David Sedaris, George Saunders and Margaret Atwood in the video Bad Writing, which can be purchased for a pittance on Amazon.

About Elvira

Elvira Rivers, une femme d’un certain age, was born on a certain date in a certain place. Her father was the storied Tony Thames-Avon, a British actor and playwright, her mother the celebrated Latvian beauty Daiļa Daugava-Gauja. When Thames-Avon-Daugava-Gauja met Percy Pocomoke-Patuxent, she made surname consolidation a condition of marriage. The Rivers were inseparable until their divorce two years later.

Elvira went on to cure the common cold, design couturier gowns and write The Great Latvian Novel, while Percy vacillated between painting and poetry, then poetry and prose. He eventually acquired a Harvard MBA and left to run the London office of the venerable Boston investment bank Duck & Cover. Back in the USA, he was convicted on 14 counts of fraud and conspiracy and is currently serving an 11-year sentence.

To encourage her former husband to return to the literature and art he so loved once, Elvira sent him frequent letters. After finding herself uncharacteristically incapable of making ends meet–her nest egg had suffered substantial cracks during the 2008 crash–she approached Little Patuxent Review about writing a column helping creative types such as Percy better navigate life’s unruly waters. She has been with us ever since.

Note: Elvira is not related to the late mother of our online editor even thought her first name and the middle name of that witty woman are identical. She is also not connected to the winking woman shot by Ewing Galloway, though the resemblance is remarkable.