Ten.

10-Year-AnniversaryTen. Do you remember hitting that double-digit birthday? Or the first time you counted to ten? You felt like a big kid.

Then there were David Letterman’s famous “Top Ten Lists.”  (I’m still mourning their demise.) On the eve of the millennium, the hit film “10 Things I Hate About You” opened in theaters. Bo Derek loped across the screen, a perfect “10” in Dudley Moore’s — and every red-blooded male’s —fantasy.

Ten years ago, Crash won an Oscar for best picture, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a serious stroke and transferred power to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and Baltimore’s arch-rival’s, the Pittsburgh Steelers, won the Super Bowl (again).

Why am I fixated on the number ten? Because ten years ago, a group of literary-minded, forward-thinking folks gathered in Columbia, MD, and decided to resurrect a defunct journal called Little Patuxent Review.

Here’s an excerpt from our “About” page:

LPR was named for Little Patuxent River, one of the three major tributaries of the Patuxent River. Like LPR, the river flows over stones — the Algonquin word “Patuxent” means “water flowing over smooth stones” — through Howard County, Maryland, gathering strength as it carries content to the Chesapeake Bay and out toward the larger world.

LPR was founded in 2006 by a group of local writers — Mike Clark, Ann Bracken, Ann Barney, Brendan Donegan — to fill the void left when a periodical of the same title, founded by poets Ralph and Margot Treital, closed a quarter century ago.

They envisioned LPR as a forum for area writers and artists. In doing so, LPR not only provides readers with a diverse array of local offerings but also attracts contributors of national repute.

LPR has featured poetry from Donald Hall, Poet Laureate of the United States and Michael Glaser, Poet Laureate of Maryland. In addition, from Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award winner Stanley Plumly, the late Lucille Clifton, winner of the 2000 National Book Award for Poetry and recipient of the Robert Frost Medal for Lifetime Achievement from the Poetry Society of America and Joy Harjo, recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas.

There has been fiction from Edith Pearlman, whose collection Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories won the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award,  Michael Chabon, whose Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for FictionRafael Alvarez, whose screenwriting contributed to the critically acclaimed television series Homicide: Life in the Streets and The Wire, and Manil Suri, whose The Death of Vishnu became an international bestseller.

There have been myriad early efforts from writers and artists who will look back on Little Patuxent Review as the publication that gave them their start.

As we celebrate our ten-year anniversary, we’ll be showcasing previous issues, highlighting cover art, and inviting you to engage with us in new ways. Thanks for your support!

How To Listen So Writers Will Talk

Susan at the Music issue launch, for which she interview Marie Howe. (Photo: E. Q. Tennant)

Susan at the Music issue launch, for which she interview Marie Howe. (Photo: E. Q. Tennant)

As a child, I rode everywhere on trains – Chicago, New York, even San Francisco, and that’s a darn long time on a train. My father worked for Amtrak; we rode for free. Train tracks run through back yards full of creaky swing sets, shaggy dogs and flapping rainbows of laundry – the back doors of houses, which seem much more intimate than the face the houses prepare for the faces they meet through the front door.

Watching out those windows for hours on end, I noticed there were so many lives, just as full as mine, which seemed like a revelation to me as a child. I was so curious about all of them. I also read obsessively – my mother used to beg: “Please, at least take the book outside” – for trips through other people’s heads.

So it seemed inescapable that I would make my living asking questions and learning about people’s lives.

For fifteen years, I was a newspaper reporter for a chain of local papers, which meant I interviewed everyone from murderers to liquor board applicants, farm queens to real estate developers.

After newspapers began to go downhill, I got my master’s in English and turned to freelance writing and editing. I’ve written articles on and interviews with National Poet Laureate Donald Hall, novelist Alice McDermott, poet Martín Espada, National Book Award winner Lucille Clifton, among others.

They’re my idols – and every time, I’m nervous when I talk to a famous writer. I’ve developed a few things that have helped when I’m trying to ask the questions that all writers want to know.

Breaking the ice, and watching like a hawk

Interviews are conversations, not interrogations.

Sometimes, interviewers get caught up in their questions and showing how smart they are or how prepared they’ve become, and don’t really hear their subjects. From the first few words, an interviewee is telling the interviewer the kind of person they are, and what’s going on in their life. We need to listen.

Sometimes a throwaway line is something you need to seize on, and follow down a path you didn’t know was there. In a question about a completely different poem about cows, Donald Hall mentioned a dream he had about zoo animals, and that turned into a beautiful anecdote about his grandparents and their farm, and another poem, which he recited for me in his amazing, scratchy voice.

I spoke to Hall by phone. He doesn’t travel a whole lot now from the New Hampshire farm that he inherited from his grandparents, but I prefer to do interviews in person. Everything from what’s on their office walls to a gesture that clinches a sentence tells you more than a few more words. Sometimes it’s not possible to be with the person in the room, so having a few technological tools – Skype, a voice recording software and headphones – are essential. But always have pen and paper, to take notes, because technology fails. You can see the ink flowing from your pen, and count on it.

Doing things with your interview subject is a great way to break the ice. I have baled hay with farmers, patted oysters with church supper ladies, helped blow dry the hair of an Alzheimer’s patient. I biked to the site of a child’s grave with his father, on the year anniversary of his six-year-old son’s death from leukemia. The father’s feet looked so large on that tiny grave. That was the hardest interview I had, not because the subject was reluctant, but because of the emotion involved.

If I’m writing a story, I’m structuring the story in my head while I’m interviewing. Sometimes a sentence will leap out, and I know I can use that as an ending, or a beginning, or to lead into another question, and tailor my questions around it. If I’m doing a Q&A that will run just as I’ve asked it, I try to have the questions laid out in a flow, with one topic leading to another. With some writers, I start at the beginning: “When did you begin writing?”

Lucille Clifton told me about her first poem – “it was terrible,” she said, laughing – she wrote to impress the boy that sat next to her in third grade. He was not, she said, impressed. But that question led to a whole conversation about her mother writing poems when Lucille was young, and how Lucille’s mother hid her work, and burned it in the coal stove when Lucille’s father found out her mother was writing.

Preparing for an interview with a writer you adore is difficult. When I was lucky enough to interview Alice McDermott, I was so nervous – she’s such an amazing observer of human nature, I felt like she would be dissecting both me and my questions. But the way I handle that is to over-prepare. I read as much as I can of an author’s work, often writing questions as I’m reading. I read past interviews with the authors, watch readings they’ve done, listen to radio interviews.

Some people who interview authors sound like scholars or critics giving a lecture and asking for feedback from the author. That’s not what I’m aiming for. I want to give readers a portrait of a person, a look into their back windows, not a critique of the author’s work – that’s what critics are for.

And my audience is writers; I always think writers want to know other writers’ magic bullets. How do you write how you write? How do you come up with your ideas? And I tailor the questions, obviously, to the writer’s work — about a particular character, about a story, about their methods of construction.

With writers, I usually ask what they’re reading now, and if there’s anything they wish I’d asked. And because I like to keep the conversations going, I usually end with, “Is there anyone you know that you think would be a good interview?”

That way, I can keep looking into those backyards and asking questions, even if I’m not resting my head on a rattling train window.

You can find Susan’s interview with Michael Chabon from our Doubt issue here, and read more of her interviews by ordering other issues.

Concerning Craft: Kathleen O’Toole

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 Kathleen O’Toole. Kathleen has taught writing at Johns Hopkins and the Maryland Institute College of Art, which is just a part of her thirty-year career in community organizing through writing and teaching. In 2005 she published a chapbook, Practice, followed by a full-length collection, Meanwhile, in 2011.

We published her poem “Mo-Bay, December Score” in our Summer 2013 Music issue. Here she is reading that poem and another piece at our launch event:

Here are the insights she had to share about the writing and refinement of the poem:

The wise poet and teacher Lucille Clifton often asked fellow poets in discussing a poem: “What does the poem want?” I thought of her counsel in reflecting on how my poem “Mo-Bay, December Score” found its form.  The poem emerged from a series of journal entries after a winter getaway over a decade ago. In its original draft, it rambled through the Jamaican landscape, weaving together nature and street scenes with impulsive digressions on culture and language. (I am after all a community organizer as well as a poet!)  The poem had not found its organizing principle, and it showed.  Images were strewn across several pages like a leggy bush in need of pruning.  Here and there an authoritative voice emerged to conduct the jumble of impressions.

An opportunity to submit to a Jazz-themed journal a few years later sent me looking for suitable poems, and I noted the embedded musicality in the Montego Bay material. My mother introduced me to poetry by reading to me from a very young age. My ear was tuned there, and my own early poems showed it.  I still enjoy playing with internal rhyme, and the rhythmic elements of poetry surface even when I’m not writing in metric form.

Once I read “December Montego Bay”, as it was then titled, aloud, I heard how much I’d been preoccupied with sound ─ the soundtrack of my trip ─ in the environment, in human interaction, the sound of Jamaican English, and the constant cacophony of actual music. It showed up in my language, whether mimicking reggae with short percussive syllables, or responding to the landscape with lush, melodic lines. So, subsequent revisions aimed at heightening those elements, including a new title (first “Mo-Bay December Blues” then its current, more inclusive “December Score”).

Further playing with the language of the piece, I looked for musical metaphors and allusions, consciously selecting verbs like “scaling” and “serenades”. Then as I edited and compressed, I observed that the poem contained several “movements” that set up the possibility of a jazz-like improvisation.  So some sections begin with an observation: “You can learn a lot about a country from its dogs,” or “Egrets keep the cows free from ticks,” then break into a musical riff from that starting chord. Others, like the final section, seem to be propelled by an inherent music ─ a rhythm or syncopation that I had simply heard and transcribed: fragments of local street patois, or the way images resonated in my ear.

Banana, pineapple and cane sugar for rum

coffee beans from the Blue Mountains.

A swarm ─ bees to honey.

A plague              ─             rats to garbage.

A storm─          and the plastic leftovers flood

from hillside culverts into the pristine bay.

The version of “Mo-Bay, December Score” that appears in the music issue has been revised and revisited over 7-8 years. Still I found myself tinkering with the stanzas and line breaks right up to print deadline. I fretted: it looks raggedy on the page. But when I read the poem, as I did at the June launch, I hear the “bristle and edge of the daily score” as clearly as I experienced it that December. And I find myself playing with the sound as I present the piece. As I commented at the launch:  ”This poem was fun to write!”  And just as much fun to interpret in my own voice.

Note: If you enjoyed Kathleen’s poem and want to read more poetry and prose from our Music issue, you can purchase copies of that issue and others online.