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.”

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!

On Music and Writing

Lisa and Don Biggar

Writer Lisa Lynn Biggar and musician Don Biggar (Photo: Ronald Sturga)

Living with a writer, I witness first hand the crafting of stories. The process brings to mind how I craft a song and the similarities that can be found between the two arts. A tempo, or timing, starts in my head. Sometimes, it is upbeat or a unique expression on a break. Sometimes, just simple and melodic works best. I notice the presence of a tempo in my wife’s stories, and I ask myself, “How does the story move me? Is it leading me in an obvious direction? Is it toying with my curiosity? Am I on a freight train I cannot stop? Would I want to?”

I have played guitar since I was nine. After a few years of playing, I learned how to read and write music and started to write my own modest songs. I continued to read and write music for each new instrument that I learned. As I composed songs, I was able to hear the instruments, differentiate between them, and bring them into the composition as needed. However, I was not a lyricist.

My wife Lisa Lynn Biggar and I met through music. I had plenty of music written, and she had been writing poetry, stories, and lyrics. We saw the potential in a partnership of my music and her lyrics, and over the years we have written many songs together. She still pursued her writing career, and now her story writing has become more of a creative outlet for her. I still find enjoyment playing my various instruments, particularly guitar on our back porch, and we both enjoy playing songs together now and then.

If you think of any rock-and-roll song, you know when it starts, and you know what the basic structure will be. Now think of a piece of classical music that is slightly more complicated. You are not quite sure where it is going to take you, but there is a lot going on with all the instruments. And there is potential. I always enjoy songs that highlight the various instruments used. Think of the songs from the band Chicago from the Seventies. A lot of horns and guitars. They would craft their songs to showcase each instrument, to give it time up front on its own. This works with characters in a story, as well. Each character has his or her own unique voice but still plays a part in the whole melody. Each instrument is like a character. They all have their own voices to be heard.

Sometimes within the first paragraph of a story, everyone is in the mix. At other times, the characters are introduced to us gradually. In this same way, I keep listeners engaged in the interesting developments of a song. The introduction of a unique instrument for a brief arpeggio, a harmony with another instrument, or a change in timing to add a blues or folk element are just two examples of how I keep the attention. I regularly find this when reading a story. A plot twist brings new dimension. A brief and one-time appearance by a character has the power to alter the perception of the entire read.

Something else that I find in song and see often in print is the build-up. The build-up to the solo or pivotal moment is significant. In a story, this is usually when one or more characters attempt to gain control. The pivotal moment could be a revelation or when a certain motive is revealed to be the driving force behind the whole thing all along. It is the work of that freight train driving the tempo home. And I would not want to stop that.

Online Editor’s Note: Don’s wife Lisa’s short story “Mediation” appears in our Winter 2013 Doubt issue. You can view a video of her reading the story by clicking on this link.

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

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.

What it Means to be a Musician and a Poet: Truth Thomas

Truth Thomas

Truth Thomas on the red carpet at this year’s NAACP Image Awards event, where his book Speak Water won in the poetry category.

I liked Truth Thomas the moment that I met him and soon came to appreciate his poetry. But I never knew how much until I heard him read “What The Snake Whispered in Eve’s Ear,” which eventually made its way into his book Speak Water, which eventually won him the 2013 NAACP Image Award for poetry. When he told me that he was a musician as well as a poet, it suddenly all made sense. (Click here to see for yourself.)

I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say, as Ezra Pound once did, “Poets who will not study music are defective.” And, after posting musician-poet Dylan Bargteil’s comment regarding my piece “There’s Reading, Then There’s the Reading,” I can’t even say with certainty that being a musician gives anyone an advantage when it comes to compellingly conveying the written word to a roomful of people. But I do know that when it comes to Truth, in particular, being both a musician and a poet creates a special synergy.

So I asked Truth how just how that works for him. Here’s his reply:

It is an honor and a privilege to be counted as a musician and to be called a poet. I am the confluence of both arts and identities, which has proved to be a lifelong joy. Many thanks to my sister Ilse Munro for her kind invitation to share a few words on the subject of my life as a musician and a poet.

I think it is important that I point out from the start that I only speak for one musician-poet, namely me. My respect and love of music and musicians, poets and versifiers is wholehearted, so my reflection must be a humble one. I would never presume to paint one life experience over the complexities of all my creative kin. Every artist is singular, and every artist’s journey is unique.

However, I do think that most musicians, poets and musician-poets would agree that to be good in any expression of art represents the acquisition of calluses. Some of those calluses must be born in the physical realm of the practice room, but the most important calluses to develop as an artist must be suffered by the soul. Any serious musician who attempts to make a lasting mark on the score of the world will endure rejection. The same world of rejection is enduring fact of the writer’s life. You have to be strong to deal with all of that. I am strong. I’ve had to be.

I came to music as a singer-songwriter and pianist in the early Eighties, signed to Capitol Records by Don Cornelius and known as Glenn Edward Thomas. I came to poetry in the same period. Of course, I was so consumed by music that any technical awareness of the poetry in my music was incidental. While I recognized that music and poetry were related, that fresh narratives and lyrics without clichés were important to songwriting, the idea that words could exist and captivate without music did not move me at the time. That epiphany would come years later, once I returned from Europe to the States and began my formal study of poetry.

Being a professional musician was then, as it is now, about gigging and making as much money as you can in that endeavor. Mind you, the record industry in the Eighties still existed as an entity that could potentially make an artist a great deal of money. Consequently, in that period of my life my focus—Don Cornelius’ focus—was on making hit records, not on making hit poems.

It is interesting to see the evolution—or dissolution—of the record industry over the years. It used to be broken in favor of the record companies. Now, it’s broken for everybody. That notwithstanding, if you can play you can still make a living in the Twenty-first Century music industry. While you may have to be more creative to redefine the record business in a way that makes that possible, it is possible. Again, you have to be strong. Perhaps the best answer to the question of what it’s like to be any kind of working artist must be penciled in on a page of strength.

The worlds of music and poetry are two different planets. That has to be stated plainly. Musicians often rely on ensemble interactions to hone their skills and to perform. The group is the thing for musicians, although there are exceptions. Composers write for orchestras and are exhilarated when their works are brought to life by fine families of instrumentalists. While poets may spend time with master writers in workshop settings, poets lean inward. They engage in a great deal of reading and solitary composition. Certainly poets—even iconic writers—get feedback from their peers, but the poet’s creative process is often a passionate solo expression.

My artistic life is both an ensemble collaboration and a hermit’s walk. I thank God for that. It is refreshing to spend time practicing and expressing art through music with other musicians after I have spent a great deal of time alone with the pen in poetry. I need the release that comes with company.

The experiences that I have had as a professional musician also inform my approach to poetry and the business of books. I don’t regard any competition other than the competition that focuses inward; that competition is only with me being the best writer that I can be. Similarly, I don’t regard any one group, canon, literary tradition or literary business approach as god, as something immutable to be worshiped, as something that cannot be challenged and creatively transcended.

In fairness, while the territories of music and poetry are different, there is significant overlap. Most musicians want to be heard, as do most poets. Big egos, big hustles and big cliques abound in both artistic settings. There is no sugar-coating that. However, the creative weight of both genres is significant and of equal value, at least for me.

Without question, many poets write while immersed in music. Langston Hughes often wrote in blues clubs. He also traveled with a typewriter and a record player for his 78s. Conversely, many musicians are inspired to create compositions as a result of their encounters with poetry. The iconic song “Strange Fruit,” popularized by Billie Holiday, was inspired by a poem written by Abel Meeropol.

And serving on literary journal editorial boards such as those of Little Patuxent Review and Tidal Basin Review feels a lot like musical collaboration. No doubt, any thoughtfully published journal is something akin to a symphony of words. Still, a legitimate orchestra-like composition comprised entirely of poetry would be a wonderfully satisfying piece to witness. I’m still waiting to hear it.

There are times when I feel that I exist between two worlds, and balancing those two artistic residences is difficult. As previously mentioned, to be an artist of note in any genre requires hard work. Music is all-consuming. Poetry is equally so. There are only so many hours in a day. As both music and poetry are so much a part of me, the quest to master both art forms—and to succeed on a high level—never dissipates. For me, the challenge is finding the time to invest to be great in both genres. Yes, it’s a strength walk, a faith walk and a journey that requires a great deal of discipline.

Fortunately, God has blessed me with a supportive family. He has also guided me at every stage of my artistic journey. When the time was right, I was blessed to have a recording contract with a major record label. When the time was right, I was blessed to have publishing success and, most recently, to win the NAACP Image Award for poetry. Despite high artistic ambitions, I do not know what lies ahead. But I trust God. Perhaps the best insight that I can offer is that creativity cannot be controlled—or balanced evenly like scales—when it comes to growth and achievement. Being an artist is less a matter of managing talents and more a practice of yielding to them.

I am grateful for all the great musicians and musician-poets who continue to inspire me: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Roy Nathanson, Bob Marley, Curtis Mayfield, Gil Scott-Heron, Nina Simone and Patti Smith, to name a few. It is always good to know that you are not alone, even as a poet who writes alone. To be able to put a song on by a great artist is almost like an ensemble experience.

I suspect that when the Little Patuxent Review Music issue launches this summer, the act of reading will feel like a similar ensemble experience for all who have the good fortune to absorb it. My hope is that our audience will give themselves over completely to it, just as our editors and contributors have given themselves over to creation of a one-of-a-kind piece of musical literary art.

Now, I know that I shouldn’t spoil what Truth shared by being that annoying aunt who can’t resist pulling out those long-lost photographs you wished would stay that way and showing them to strangers. But here is how our award-winning poet looked and sounded back in the days when the creator of Soul Train signed him. I’d say it was pretty good.

Truth Thomas is a singer-songwriter and poet born in Knoxville, Tennessee and raised in Washington, DC. He studied creative writing at Howard University and earned his MFA in poetry at New England College. His collections include Party of Black, A Day of Presence, Bottle of Life and Speak Water, winner of the 2013 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Poetry. His poems have appeared in over 70 publications, including The 100 Best African American Poems, and been twice nominated for a Pushcart PrizeHe serves on the editorial boards of Tidal Basin Review and Little Patuxent Review, guest-editing the Social Justice issue for the latter, and is the founder of Cherry Castle Publishing. A former writer-in-residence for the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo), he currently serves on the HoCoPoLitSo board. 

Book Review: Kathleen Hellen’s Umberto’s Night

Umberto's Night

Kathleen Hellen’s award-winning poetry book

Kathleen Hellen’s Umberto’s Night won the 2012 Jean Feldman Poetry Prize. Its black cover, with an apocalyptic image of a city under an atomic fireball, hints at much of the content, made explicit by an epigraph from Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality: “as if along a river, you go by an invaded city…the city burns like a match…everything collapses in flames…”

The flames—sometimes literal, sometimes figurative—describe the pain carried by the speakers and characters observed in these finely crafted poems. There are drug addicts, ex-cons, murder victims, Vietnam veterans, blue-collar workers, slapped children, all vividly detailed in compact phrases. Their stories are stories of violence, whether on city streets, in battlegrounds or echoed ironically on a football field.

Hellen delivers her vivid and sometimes horrific images with exquisite beauty in poems that are meant to be read aloud. Listen to the half-rhyme and guttural consonants in these lines from “Reruns of Lassie”:

No chance of Timmy asking: “What is it, Lassie?
Who needs help?” No dog at all. Or gone.
Devoured by wolves. The dogs with bigger teeth.

The book is divided into five sections. The poems in Part 1 are told in a variety of voices—a teacher, a lover, a woman under arrest. They portray Baltimore as “a town too old for beginnings,” a city that swallows up A-students into unrelenting violence. In “Nine Circles,” a little boy experiences gunfire as a

ringing in his ears

that left a hole
in her thigh
the size
of a button.

In “Eight,” the speaker asks “who got shot in Druid Park? / whose throat was cut?”

Part 2 seems to follow the arc of a relationship that ends, as too many relationships do, in domestic violence. Here are scenes in a courtroom with a blasé judge who “has heard it all,” a victim who can feel her attacker “here in the bones of my throat” and poems filled with images of menacing hands, scars and cuts.

Yet the final poem in this section, “Palpable,” has two lovers in front of a late-night bakery, writing “love / backward on the glass” as they admire a display of glazed fruit tarts and watch the bakers with pans of freshly baked sweet rolls. Are these the same people who, earlier in this section, met on the Internet and then in person? If so, is this a flashback? Or simply a warning that any relationship might end badly, and that whether it will—or won’t—may be foreshadowed by “a drunkard’s quilt”?

Part 3 contrasts the foreignness of war with the domestic, day-to-day coping on the home front. Both soldiers and those left behind search, mostly unsuccessfully, for love. Nightmare images occur throughout this section: a football game morphs into a real battlefield, a year “shell shocked,” Vietnam slipping into innumerable conflicts in the Middle East. People and memories seem to become “[l]iving holographs”:

The night inside a night until
attention must be tipped
to darkness in its layers.

The final poem in this section leaves us in the “blackest Appalachians,” leading us right into Part 4’s mining and steel mill towns along the polluted Monongahela River. The night is lit by “a Frankenstein” of coke furnaces. The air smells sulfuric. Factories close, workers are laid off, their children go hungry. In the poem “A Pillar of Fire by Night,” Hellen gives us mattresses “in exodus,” offices “tight-lipped in their failures,” a way of life that was “there, then it wasn’t.”

Kathleen Hellen

Kathleen Hellen

Part 5 moves between disasters of varying scale, from those affecting millions, such as Hurricane Irene, to a car accident, from which the speaker escapes in the nick of time. Dandelions “implode” as they are mowed down; people, like comets, “burn out long before the accident of touch.” We lose those we love, see their ghosts in puddles or in dust. Through it all, these poems argue, hope persists, sometimes shaped like a daffodil, sometimes the human heart.

In addition to Umberto’s Night, Hellen has published The Girl Who Loved Mothra. Her poems have appeared in a range of journals and been featured on WYPR’s The Signal. In addition to the Feldman prize, she has received awards from H.O.W. JournalWashington Square Review, Thomas Merton Institute and  Appalachian Writers Association. Her work has been supported by grants from the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts and Maryland State Arts Council.

Note: Pat Valdata will appear this Saturday at our CityLit Festival reading.