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.

Some Consequences of Submitting

Just so you know. This is what can happen when you submit your work to LPR:

Dylan Bargteil

Dylan Bargteil (Photo: Colleen Napolitano)

Your poem gets published, say in the Winter 2012 Social Justice issue. You get invited to present your poem at the launch reading. The online editor, seated in the audience, is intrigued. She likes your mastery of metaphor. And that you use it to say something. She asks you to write about how you came up with the poem for the blog. And to include an image of yourself, if you don’t mind, that isn’t boring. You comply on both counts, and she posts something that looks like “Concerning Craft: Dylan Bargteil.”

Time passes. The online editor is deep into doubt—the upcoming Winter 2013 Doubt issue, that is. She cites Voltaire, references epistemology. Then she remembers how much damn fun doubt can be, especially when one is young. So she writes about that and adds images. And, recalling that you actually are young, asks you to prepare a post, too. And to include an image of yourself, if you don’t mind, that isn’t boring. You do all that, and she posts something similar to “Delving into Doubt: Worship No Idols.” There, you reveal that you are a musician as well as a poet. But the pertinent fact that you are now pursuing a doctorate in physics—the uncertainty principle and all that—seems to slip your mind.

Time passes, and the sausage-making mechanism that serves as the guts of many a lit mag grinds on at LPR. And exacts the occasional ounce of flesh. Reminding you that the upcoming Summer 2013 Music issue is in the works, the online editor requests tracks of your tunes. You send some. (See “Scene II [Rough Mix]” in the sidebar.) Then vault into the vat on your own, providing lines from physicist Richard Feynman to tout the Winter 2014 Science issue. And start to develop a sense of what we’re about while you’re there. Responding to our editor’s recent post on what sets us apart, you state something like:

At the readings and online, it’s clear that LPR has fostered a literary community that is genuinely interested in developing the role of the arts in society and our own lives. More impressively, the conversations among members of this community truly do span not only geography but also fields of study, socioeconomic background, gender, age and other borderlines along which too many communities become insular.

Now, all that’s required is a twist in the plot. The online editor, a fiction writer in her free time, rises splendidly to the occasion. Being sufficiently experienced to skip the tedious expository stuff that no one reads anyway, she types the simple declarative sentence “I resign.” And omits more–though elements of her thought process can be inferred—to ask you, the poet-musician-physicist submitter-contributor who also happens to have been the editor-in-chief of the University of Maryland literary and arts journal Stylus and has since started a delectable beer-brewing and pizza-making blog, to serve as her successor.

Now, all she needs is an answer. Instead, you elect to quiz her. She replies, Jeopardy! style, with a question as well, albeit a rhetorical one. “So what?” she asks and asserts that unfamiliarity with the LPR community might matter less than you imagine. That when she started this site, many in that community looked a lot like her. That she wanted to make it look more like America and, in some respects, succeeded. That you, as a young man, can address an untapped audience. And, moreover, do the same as a musician, a physicist, a beer-brewer, a pizza-maker (and more). That there are untold opportunities to explore what “LPR community” can eventually come to mean. You respond by stating:

I’ve decided to accept the position. It sounds like an exciting experiment! I share your concerns and aspirations and look forward to being in a position to tackle them.

LPR applauds your decision. And the online editor is delighted to pass the baton to you right after the launch. Now, let’s get back to that other “you,” the one left wondering in the wings. Both present and future online editors suggest that YOU buy (and read) our Music issue, study the guidelines in preparation for the August 1 opening of our Science issue submission period, do the work required to dazzle LPR with your style and savvy and stick around to see what happens. Here’s some music to get you in the mood:

Dylan Bargteil is a PhD student in the NYU Physics Department. He studied poetry with the Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House at the University of Maryland, where he also served as the editor-in-chief of the literary journal Stylus. His poetry has been published in Little Patuxent Review and Poetry Quarterly and has received the Jiménez-Porter Literary Prize. He is also a recording musician, is currently working on multi-media and anonymous public art projects and will soon start serving as the LPR online editor.

An Annotated Tour of the Music Issue

Show LPR Some Love, Ellicott City, MD, February 2013 (Photo: Laura Shovan)

Show LPR Some Love, Ellicott City, MD, February 2013 (Photo: Laura Shovan)

At the Show LPR Some Love event this February, we held our first community discussion. Submissions to our music-themed issue were accumulating, so we gathered together local readers for an hour-long talk about music on a snowy day. The conversation was wide-ranging: spirituals, song sparrows, memory, the aging brain and other aspects that our readers hoped to see in this edition.

The first item on the list that we compiled was the relationship of music to sacred and cultural beliefs. In our featured interview, poet Marie Howe explains how the church hymns and Bible stories that she heard as a child influenced the core of her work. Other pieces bear her out: music is a means of communicating culture, whether in Martinique [i] or Baltimore [ii].

The second item was the relationship of music to language. How do musicians use silence to contribute to a song? Are we singing when we talk [iii]? And what about music that is not constructed by human beings: a bird’s song [iv], a wolf’s call?

The item that resulted from the liveliest part of our conversation concerned the relationship of music to memory. Our associations with music, especially songs from childhood and young adulthood, run deep. Work with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients has shown that even when patients no longer talk, they can still sing old standards.

Several pieces address the connection between music and memory [v]. Knowing a favorite tune word-for-word or note-by-note, listeners feel an intimacy with the performer. When we are lonely, music can provide solace [vi] or feed our sense of isolation [vii]. Famous musicians—rockers Debbie Harry [viii] and Neil Young, blues legend Billie Holliday and jazz great Thelonius Monk [ix]—make cameo appearances in our Music issue. Their songs serve as the backdrop for stories of love, heartbreak and transformation [x].

The last item concerned the way in which music creates community. An audience shares a live performance [xi]. Even one listener, such as cover artist Robin Rose [xii] painting alone in his studio to favorite jazz pieces, completes the performance. As with our journal, there is no performance without an audience to respond to our compositions.

[i] Martinican poet Suzanne Dracius’s piece “Pointe-des-Nègres” appears as an English translation by Nancy Naomi Carlson and in the original French. It is accompanied by Ann Bracken’s “An Interview with Nancy Naomi Carlson,” where maintaining musicality in poetry translations is addressed.

[ii] In her poem “Locust Sounds,” Clarinda Harriss points out that the sounds of nature can be heard even in a city such as Baltimore. For a different sort of Baltimorean sound, see 2013 Pratt Poetry Contest finalist Steve Leyva’s poem “Highlandtown after the Zappa Statue.”

[iii] Hope Johnson’s musical poem “Sangin’” addresses this issue.

[iv] Lori Powell’s “To the Bird that Wakes Me” won the 2013 Pratt contest.

[v] See Debra Kaufman’s poem “Strays” and David Vardeman’s short story “Known to God.”

[vi] Gregory Luce finds solace in the classic Coltrane album A Love Supreme in his poem “Aspirins and Coffee.”

[vii] In “Close to You,” Missy Roback’s protagonist uses her obsession with music to avoid building relationships with other people.

[viii] Gerry LaFemina’s prose poem “Sunday Girl” imagines a chance encounter with Blondie.

[ix] Tim Hunt’s poem “Thelonius Monk” recreates a performance at the end of Monk’s career.

[x] Essayist Cliffton Price describes pop music’s powerful association with time in “An Otherwise Empty Room.”

[xi] Anne Harding Woodworth’s poem “On Seeing Psycho in a Concert Hall” looks at the community that a performance creates.

[xii] LPR Art Consultant Michael Salcman’s profile of Rose includes a full-color portfolio of the abstract artist’s work.

To read the full text of a poem and a short story appearing in the Music issue, click here. For more on the art, see “The Integration of Art, Music and More: Robin Rose.”

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: Columbia Festival of the Arts

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.

I met the people who put on the Columbia Festival of the Arts over champagne, a good way to start any relationship. We were at the launch of the LPR Audacity issue, the first time that the summer iteration of our biannual event was formally part of the Festival.

MOMIX's Botanica

MOMIX’s Botanica, performed at the 2012 Columbia Festival of the Arts. (Photo: Max Pucciariello)

I then attended an intimate reading by award-winning writer Edith Pearlman, hosted by HoCoPoLitSo and part of the Festival. I was there not only because I admired Pearlman’s short fiction but also because she was featured in our Audacity issue. My final Festival events were to be more pleasure than [literary] business: the performance of Botanica by MOMIX, a company of dancer-illusionists, and a reception celebrating the Festival’s 25th anniversary, where I assumed that more champagne would be consumed.

But the derecho intervened. I was trapped in my historic house, built into the side of a hill on a steep bank overlooking the Patapsco River. No power, no phone or computer connectivity and trees down everywhere. So I sipped bottled water instead of champagne. But a mere seven miles away, Botanica went off without a hitch, as did the reception.

Recalling that, I was determined to give the Festival its due by placing it first in the series of articles that will appear here in preparation for the June 22 launch of the LPR Music issue. And I asked Nichole Hickey, Executive Director and CEO, for the inside scoop.

Here’s how she responded:

When asked to give a first-hand perspective of the Festival, I wasn’t sure where to begin or how to summarize both the Festival and my experience with it. Especially not at this time of the year, just weeks away from the 2013 season and days away from our annual gala, which this year featured Paula Poundstone. But I couldn’t let this article pass. After all, it is a perfect fit for LPR readers: you are our audience.

There are so many people who contribute to the production of Howard County’s premiere arts festival each year. We are fortunate to have a talented, capable, hard-working staff, people who year in and year out help make the season the unofficial start to summer in our area. I am also lucky to work with a supportive Board of Trustees as well as the 200 volunteers who offer their time and support annually. And then there are the sponsors and donors who step up each year, providing financial and in-kind resources. There could not be a Festival without all of them.

I am in my 11th year working with the Festival. What began in 2002 as a part-time role as deputy director has turned into a full-time, year-round, 24/7 job. I start with a blank slate each year, conferring with my team on what to present over 16 days in June. Our goal is to offer a varied, well-balanced lineup of non-stop events from the international, national, regional and local scenes that serves to celebrate our own community. Budget, performer availability and a host of other factors help to define each season. It’s a great deal of work, but we have a lot of fun along the way, as well.

The desire to produce an arts event of this magnitude isn’t what brought me to the Festival. My husband, Michael Hickey, was a founder of the Festival in 1987, and we have remained supporters ever since. When the Festival needed someone to help re-staff the organization in 2002, they tapped into my human resources background. Before I knew it, I had stepped into the role of deputy director. Late 2004, the Board convinced me to take on the role of executive director when it again became vacant.

I was tenuous during my initial year, being a visual artist who was suddenly running an organization focused on performance arts. Certainly, one of my first priorities was to identify ways to enhance visual arts programming. I succeeded in doing this, but there is plenty of room for improvement. During my tenure, film was also added as a regular feature and more emphasis was placed on literary offerings. This year, attendees will be able to enjoy the unique pairing of poet Patricia Smith and the Sage String Quartet playing a Wynton Marsalis composition. Programming that melds artistic disciplines is something that I try to bring to the Festival each year.

My job is not without challenges. Budgets are tighter, fundraising is more difficult and staff reductions have occurred. These are universal issues, particularly in the arts and for nonprofit organizations. Also universal is question of audience development: how to best secure the next generation of devotees. Faced with the challenges of the past decade, economic and otherwise, we need to work harder than ever to arrive at the correct formula for making our Festival a regularly recurring success.

Each year, we seek a mix of recognizable names and eclectic acts that we hope will appeal to the widest possible audience. This season’s weekend headliners—Rhythmic Circus, Reduced Shakespeare Company, Pilobolus and Preservation Hall Jazz Band—offer a balanced array of high-energy performances. Additions such as award-winning Sundance movie shorts, the return of Baltimore’s Stoop Storytelling, the zany family-friendly AudioBody, a theatrical hair and makeup competition and the Patricia Smith event add the sort of flavor to the Festival that attendees have come to expect.

When asked about my favorite acts over the years, it’s tough to respond. Blood, Sweat & Tears, America and The Neville Brothers were personal indulgences and, fortunately, the performances were well-attended. Household names such as Wynton Marsalis, Judy Collins, Ed Asner and Smothers Brothers also come to mind.

Nichole Hickey

Nichole Hickey (Photo: Nicholas Griner)

I love the fact that we can bring these iconic artists and others to perform in the accessible settings of our local theaters, the Smith and the Rouse. They provide a personal experience that doesn’t exist in the larger venues of the Baltimore-Washington corridor. That’s what we strive to offer at the Festival: a personal, interactive experience between artist and audience. What’s the best part of the job for me? When I stand in the lobby after an amazing performance and feel the energy of audience members as they exit the theatre. That makes all the hard work worthwhile.

I can’t say where I will be ten years from now, but I do hope the Columbia Festival of the Arts is still going strong and has engaged a new generation of arts lovers.

I completely concur with Nichole, having experienced what she describes for myself last year. The Edith Pearlman reading, for example, was held at a lovely Columbia venue, the Historic Oakland manor house. Sitting in the last row, I was still close enough to engage her without a microphone. But others had good questions and comments, so I remained silent. One person observed that what Pearlman had read was not quite what appeared on the printed page. Pearlman smiled, saying that she never stopped revising. We smiled in assent, and the whatever distance remained between audience and author disappeared.

That reading also illustrates the kinds of synergies that can occur among neighboring cultural entities. Three organizations came together around Edith Pearlman: Columbia Festival of the Arts, Howard County Poetry & Literature Society (aka HoCoPoLitSo) and Little Patuxent Review. The first two brought Pearlman here, and the latter, through a print-issue interview conducted by Susan Thornton Hobby (who not incidentally sits on both HoCoPoLitSo and LPR boards), to an audience extending beyond county borders.

I now offer “An Interview with Edith Pearlman” online, giving it international reach since approximately 10 percent of our blog readers reside outside the States. Click and enjoy!

Reader Response: Written in Silence, Inspired by Sound

We love getting your reactions to the material that we post. If your message contains new information or images, we may even publish it as a separate piece. Here’s how I came upon–and combined–what two of our readers, one a member of the LPR staff, the other a contributor working on a post for our blog, sent me in response to my LPR Loves…Acoustic Art.”

Jen Grow

Jen Grow (Photo: Bill Hughes)

I started my short piece on acoustic art by saying that when I sit down to write, I first turn on my computer, then turn on my music. I assumed that most creative types were similar in that respect to me and artist Jennie C. Jones, the subject of the piece. Turns out that I was wrong.

In the comments section of the posted piece, LPR Fiction Editor Jen Grow, a pleasant person who frequently has the good sense to agree with me, wrote the following paragraph (italics mine):

I never listen to music while I’m writing. However, I tend to obsess about music in a way that makes me listen to the same song or cd a million times successively. Something about the mood of the music allows me to access certain memories or emotions. That’s how I came to write a story in response to on a Patti Smith song…

That someone good writes in silence was interesting enough. But I had scheduled a piece by Lorraine Whittlesey about Smith for the middle of May, so I needed to know more.

First, I listened to Smith’s song “Don’t Say Nothing,” which Jen subsequently said had served as the inspiration for her story. It’s pretty good, so you might want to do so, too.

Then I read the story, “Fixed.” It is unpublished as yet but will be part of a collection that Jen hopes to put out next year. You can read it here right now by clicking on the link.

I might have been foolish enough to attempt to explain how the song relates to the story had Karen Garthe not saved me. Karen, you see, was slated to prepare a piece for the blog on how music drives the type of poetry that she pens. Instead, she sent me a work in progress that “demonstrates rather than analyzes” the role of music of her poetry.

Karen Garthe

Karen Garthe (Photo: Lisa Khan-Kapadia)

“I LOVE being surprised,” I replied. Then, to buy time while I figured out how on Earth to reproduce the poem’s complex formatting with the meager tools that this blog afforded, I sought her response to that acoustic art piece, expecting that she would describe the playlist that she used while working. Instead, she offered the following (italics mine):

…Curiously, I cannot imagine trying to write to any music but silence. The search for silence, peace and quiet…why I am practically a pilgrim of. If there is music on I will listen to it, it will take the foreground even if it is intended as background. It’s impossible for me to do anything but completely listen to music if it’s on, which is how come I’ll turn off the radio in a car if a conversation is being had, and why I become wildly distressed, even unhinged sometimes, by unwanted music/sounds, which includes (especially on the subway) other people whose earbuds are shrieking whatever awfulness. Never anything good, usually.

That said, nothing is more important to me than music and I couldn’t live without it. Music and Silence are my ideals…I’m a terrible autocrat here. It’s one or the other.

So I had another Jen on my hands. “Fine,” I said to myself. “I’ll present Smith’s song and Jen’s story while silencing my own analytic mind. And, as a matter of respect, I’ll do the same for Karen’s set. With no further comment from me.” Or some words to that effect.

So, listen to Karen’s inspiration, a section of pianist Glenn Gould’s radio documentary The Idea of North, part of his Solitude Trilogy. There’s a voice pileup at the beginning, a method that he has called “contrapuntal radio,” then Jean Sibelius’s Symphony No. 5.

And here’s “Hey Now,” Karen’s contrapuntal poem. But you’ll have to click on the link to read it as she sent it. I never managed to come up with a way to transfer the formatting.

I should end without another word. But I must add that more than poetry connects Karen to music. In the Sixties, she moved from Baltimore to New York City to attend the American Ballet Theater school and later studied with Merce Cunningham. And in the Seventies, she worked for The Wartoke Concern, managing Patti Smith, among others.

An Interview with Rebekah Remington

Rebekah Remington

Rebekah Remington (Photo: Stephen Jonke)

I find it hard to believe Rebekah Remington when she tells me that she’s dealt with failure. Rebekah is the winner of the 2013 Clarinda Harriss Poetry Prize for her chapbook Asphalt. It is a solid collection, marked by eloquence and vision. I believe it to be a success but am sympathetic to her remarks.

Of course she has dealt with failure. We all have. Just the process of writing this blog post, my first for Little Patuxent Review, has me pulling out my hair over possible failure. And when I read through “Little Invocation” and “I Call Her Inez,” the chapbook’s first and sixth poems, I think of the first rejection letter that I received. Like the speaker, I, too, “feel enough failure as it is.” I remember thinking, what do I do now?

When I ask Rebekah about the character Inez and the idea behind the piece, she replies that she once watched a video of the Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame speaking about artistic inspiration. What did Remington take away from the video?

I think Gilbert’s main point was to put in your writing time. Don’t get too stuck on the idea of success or the idea of failure. When things don’t work out, blame it on the muse. I had experienced a lot of failure, so I decided to write about my love-hate relationship with my muse.

But who does she see in a positive light? To whom does she turn for inspiration?

“Mainly other poets,” Rebekah says. Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Glück and CD Wright are named. In particular, she mentions the recent collection Space, In Chains by Laura Kasischke, which earned the 2011 National Book Critics Circle poetry award. I have to look up Kasischke but immediately understand why Rebekah is drawn to her work. Kasischke has been hailed by critics for her honest but respectful portrayals of domestic life and the different stages of adolescence and adulthood.

There is a definite presence of the domestic life in Asphalt. And while Remington admits that she is unsure whether the book as a whole has a narrative arc, I can see recurring themes. Remington calls them “obsessions.” Those obsessions include motherhood, childhood, time and death. I thought that I saw some Asian references, particularly in “School Morning,” “Wanting” and the title poem. That is new to Remington.

It’s interesting that you noticed that. I really don’t know that much about Asian cultures. Before I had children, I saw a lot of foreign films. Probably some of the images stuck. I’m thinking of Raise the Red Lantern, Farewell My Concubine, To Live. I love the way film can transport.

More failure on my part? I would like to think of it more as subjective interpretation.

And, yes, a powerful film can transport the viewer. The same way a that powerful poem can transport the reader. For me, it was the beauty of the last two lines of the simple but earnest poem “Goat.” I mouthed the words over and over, loving how they came out.

The sky had taken on a shapeliness like
a flood plain
in an aftermath, an eerie pinkish
erasure.

Of course, I laugh when I learn that the ending of that poem did not come easily to Rebekah. She says that she rewrote it many times before coming to the above.

There is no mistaking the speaker’s role as a mother. Bits of train track and LEGO pieces, piano lessons and the pivotal moment of learning to ride a bike are strewn across the chapbook. And isn’t there an interesting relevance to those previous feelings of failure when it comes to motherhood?

One of the challenges of parenting is getting your children out in the world and exposing them to things. I’m not sure I’m good at that, but I’m trying.

When we place the mundane aspects of domestic life in the context of such serious contemplations, it is no wonder that poetic expressions about the domestic life can be so emotional and riveting.

The concept of time changes as well. Mothers such as the one in “In Praise of the Last Hour of the Afternoon” would “trade pearls for quiet” and cherish just a few more minutes in bed with the bedroom door locked in “January Morning.”

I find it understandable, if not comical, that in more than one poem we find Rebekah’s speaker thinking about how much she wants a drink.

Rebekah is far from being the only mother or writer who has doubts about herself. But, a perk to being creative types is that we have the benefit of blaming the self-doubts and feelings of failure on our muses. Blame it on Inez, Rebekah.

Rebekah Remington received her bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University, taking classes taught by David St. John and Peter Sacks. She received her MFA from the University of Michigan. She is currently an adjunct professor at Towson University, where she teaches Introduction to Poetry. (I am sorry that we never crossed paths.) Her work has been published in RattleNinth Letter and The Missouri Review. Once in 4th grade, she won a prize for a patriotic poem that she wrote in honor of the nation’s bicentennial celebration. She lives in Catonsville, MD with her husband and children.

The Clarinda Harriss Poetry Prize, sponsored by City Lit Project, was established in 2009 by poet and neurosurgeon Michael Salcman. He wanted to honor the poet, publisher and teacher Clarinda Harriss and her lifetime of service dedicated to the literary arts. Clarinda is the founder, director and editor BrickHouse Books, established in 1970 and, as such, Maryland’s oldest continuously operating literary press.

Michael is also the Little Patuxent Review Art Consultant and Clarinda a regular contributor to both LPR print issues and our blog, so there are connections. What’s more, the judge for the 2013 prize was poet Marie Howe, who happens to be featured in the upcoming LPR Summer 2013 Music issue. And previous prize winners include LPR print and blog contributor Bruce Sager (2011) and LPR Editor Laura Shovan (2010).

Blue Versus Blue

Carolyn Case’s 2012 Blue Versus Blue, oil on panel.

I know Clarinda as a poetry professor and BhB editor. After taking her poetry class at Towson, I interned for a year at BhB as an assistant editor. She has worked with Ogden Nash, partied with Michael Stipe and taught one of the best poetry classes that I have ever taken. My time spent with her is invaluable to me as a young writer, and I completely get why such a dynamic and delightful individual has a prize in her name.

Rebekah’s book will be published by CityLit Press. A painting by Carolyn Case, an artist teaching at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), will be used for the cover design.