Book Review: Meg Eden’s A Week With Beijing

10703867_366566943505699_4637561000111228413_oI’ve never been to Beijing, so Meg Eden’s invitation to take a trip there via poetry was exciting. My exposure to Eden’s poetry, particularly her collection The Girl Who Came Back (which draws heavily on the Enchanted Forest, a dilapidated abandoned amusement park in Ellicott City) made me feel confident that even in a foreign land she would guide me with an expert eye to the private, hidden, and silent features that define the places I’ve known.

Eden’s Beijing is a woman expending outrageous effort and demanding complete control for the sake of her appearance, heightening the stakes of Eden’s attempt to take a candid look at her. But Eden does not shy away, leading the collection with “A List Of Banned Chinese Social Media Search Terms,” which additionally serves a short list of themes that seem constantly just behind the lips of Eden’s Beijing as she says, “there are some things that shouldn’t be talked about.” She proceeds to lead us on a tour of Beijing’s bedroom where bras and other sundries litter the floor.

megeden_headshot

Meg Eden

However, the strongest moments of the collection aren’t Beijing’s moments of vulnerability, but the speaker’s own. Through the collection, Eden’s speaker moves from a position of enthusiasm and excitement to disappointment to distance and detachment. The language that accompanies these transformations is insightful and inventive:

If we are name-stealers,
then call me Wendy Zhang.
Let me be twenty poets.
Let me run whole-heartedly
through pavement-seas
with this dangerous freedom.

From the picture Eden paints, I would be disappointed too. Beijing, both personified and as a setting is dirty, mean, judgmental, and inconsiderate. Inhabitants of the city are hustling bootlegged CDs, bootlegged restaurants, and bootlegged theme parks (the phrase “copyright infringement” appears twice in three pages). But these are many of the same pictures painted by American media, which reminds me that in reading this collection I haven’t really left the US at all. At times Eden constructs scenes that feel uncomfortably close to stereotype. I have no point of comparison to know whether Eden’s representation is accurate, and if it is then more power to her for having courage to broach the uncomfortable (which is explicitly mentioned in the dedication), but I felt like some poems weren’t giving me the whole story, that there was a side I wasn’t seeing. For example, despite the mentions of “infringement” there was no discussion of shanzhai.

Florentijn Hofman's contemporary pop-art icon Rubber Duck was copied several times over by shanzhai artists (Photo: http://hyperallergic.com/75107/how-pop-art-got-ripped-off/).

Florentijn Hofman’s contemporary pop-art icon Rubber Duck was copied several times over by shanzhai artists (Photo: http://hyperallergic.com/75107/how-pop-art-got-ripped-off/).

One pair of poems particularly felt like a missed opportunity in this respect: “A List Beijing Composed Of Her Phobias” and “A List Of Beijing’s Discovered Phobias”. The former is totally blank. The latter includes “the young and their lack of fear,” “foreigners and their voices,” “the uncovering of infringed dolls,” and “the compounding of questions.” Both poems are exciting conceptually in allowing space for Beijing to speak both on and off the record, and while they are sharply executed in their current form, both poems seem dominated by the common American conception of China. The first poem a Chinese wall, the second implicating the communist goverment’s efforts to expunge the relative social and economic freedom of the West. But China is more than its government, even if Beijing is the seat of power, and I’m left wondering what the “the young…the derelict…the disabled” of Beijing are afraid of. We never hear from them except as objects and images.

In spite of this limitation, Eden’s eyes would give the government good reason to be afraid. Another pair of powerful poems will likely double as beautifully worded journalism for many readers, myself included. Eden works imagined quotes and quotes reimagined into twin reports on the harrowing details and broader socioeconomic context of a factory fire. And in these twin poems, Eden’s careful wording deftly lays out the facts of the tragedy, in this case creating space for the reader to navigate the confused and complicated structure of Chinese society.

Meg Eden’s work has been published in various magazines, including Rattle, Drunken Boat, Eleven Eleven, and Rock & Sling. Her work received second place in the 2014 Ian MacMillan Fiction contest. Her collections include  “Your Son” (The Florence Kahn Memorial Award), “Rotary Phones and Facebook” (Dancing Girl Press) and “The Girl Who Came Back” (Red Bird Chapbooks). She teaches at the University of Maryland. 

Meet the Neighbors: Litmore

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.

The Maryland-D.C. area is rich with writing resources. Though I’ve grown up in this area, I didn’t discover 99% of them until recently. Some of this is due to my own short-sight, but the other reason is because many of them are just rising up. One of the most exciting resources to pop up in recent years is Litmore, a Baltimore-based writing center run by Barbara Morisson and Julie Fisher.

?????????????????????I first heard about Litmore through Barbara, as we were both attending the Maryland Writers Association conference. I didn’t know her very well at the time, but asked her if Litmore was looking for instructors and she encouraged me to apply. This was right when Litmore was starting out, and I felt honored  to be part of this venture. Having taught at the University of Maryland, I was excited to diversify my teaching experience and get to lead workshops that focused on the content I was most excited about.

Since then, Litmore has diversified its workshop list, taken on open mike series, and has moved into the heart of Baltimore, sharing space with a beautiful art studio. And let me clarify that this hasn’t been over a span of five, ten years. It’s been not even a year! Barbara does a wonderful job with Litmore—she has a heart for the written word and the writing community. Beyond Litmore, she’s an active member of the Maryland Writer’s Association, and has several successful books of her own.

Many things make Litmore stick out from the other writing centers in the area. First off is its atmosphere. The first Litmore location was a house just north of Baltimore, and I loved the idea of that: inhabiting a house with writing. It was quiet and peaceful, and it’s no wonder Litmore hosted weekly write-ins there. If I lived closer to Baltimore, I would’ve come to those write-ins, hands down! Even the new location in the middle of the city maintains this welcome spirit. This isn’t just because of the coffee and tea set out for guests, the flyers for local literary magazines and events, or even the new poetry library. It’s the events Barbara and Julie host.

Besides workshops, Litmore hosts writing retreats, “writing hours” (which are an opportunity to write as well as network with fellow Baltimore writers), open mikes and reading series, book clubs, book releases, and more. These events revolve not just around the craft but also in developing a community of writers. While I’ve been to other writer’s centers where I’m not sure where I should be or who to talk to, Litmore makes me feel at home. Click here to see the upcoming events at Litmore.

Litmore2

Photo by: John Kevin III

Litmore’s welcoming community is reinforced through their workshops. These workshops are intimate, practical, unpretentious, and reasonably priced. Workshops cover topics including: marketing, publishing, memoirs, workshops for children, and even workshops where editors give feedback on novel excerpts. While many writing centers focus almost exclusively on craft, Litmore hosts a successful balance of focus on both craft and professional development. Their prices are quite low, making them accessible to everyone. They also give discounts for Litmore members.

We need more places like Litmore: safe houses for writing and writers alike. If you haven’t been, take a look at their site and see if any upcoming workshops strike your fancy. You won’t be disappointed.

Online Editor’s Note: Litmore plays host this coming Sat., Feb. 21, to “Get Started on Your Marketing Plan” from 1-4 pm (tickets required) and “Writers’ Alchemy Release” at 6 pm (Cost: $15, which includes a free book). Sun., Feb. 22 you can see LPR Contributor Fred Foote’s multi-media performance based upon his award-winning book, “Medic Against Bomb: A Doctor’s Poetry Against War.”

What You Eat: My Mint Chip Cake

In preparation of our Food issue (submissions open until November 1, after which they’ll simmer ’til winter), I’ve asked members of the LPR community to share stories of what they eat. Food occupies such a central place in our lives, that we can’t help but grow with it. Whether we were unpacking our first heavy box of pots and pans or, as in the case of this entry from Meg Eden, stepping simultaneously forward into adulthood and back into childhood, we can call on the sounds, smells, and tastes of our most formative and transformative foods to walk back into our own narrative histories. And on Laura’s suggestion, each piece in this series will feature a recipe, so you can cook yourself through an experience yourself. If you have a transformative experience with food, leave a comment and I’ll be in touch.

And now that I’ve laid the table, Meg Eden:

Meg Eden

Meg Eden

I don’t remember the first time I had my aunt’s mint chip cake. I never thought about the fact it was green, or how it was something we only ate at Thanksgiving. I took eating it for granted—I took for granted that everyone in my family could cook, that we all lived within the same mile. I took lots of things for granted, the way kids do.

Every Thanksgiving – after my uncle read Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation, we would eat brunch and my aunt would bring out the cake. But my cousin and I couldn’t wait that long. Instead, we’d run upstairs and play N64 games until my parents said it was time to go.

During that time, my aunt and uncle’s house was like my house. They lived on the same street as us. My cousin was less than two days older than me. Every Saturday I’d come over and he and I would play video games, trade Pokémon cards, create a new civilization in the middle of the woods, or develop a new company idea and strategize what we’d do once we got millions of dollars. Other people made food for us and we ate it. Thinking too much about it would slow us down from taking over the world or becoming heroes.

Gradually and without explanation there were no Saturdays anymore. Once we were in high school and my cousin got his first car, he drove me around the cul de sac to show me its leather seats, smooth turns, and his stick-shift abilities. Sometimes he’d skateboard over and we’d complain about our teachers or talk about what we wanted to do with our lives. He’d tell me, “You have weird friends, Meg.” But my friends were just normal nerds who sat around and played the video games my cousin and I used to. It was his friends that I worried about. But when I began dating my first boyfriend, those visits ended.

I still came over to the house though. I came over like it was my own house. Now that I had no reason to be there, it became a sacred place. I would go to swim in the pool alone when no one was home. It was there that I recuperated from my weeks which were becoming more stressful, more adult-like.

And my aunt must have understood this change, because it was then that she began making mint chip cakes for me. She made them for my birthday, when I was sick, when I came over and vented frustrations. Every day became Thanksgiving, as Thanksgiving itself began to disappear.

When my aunt was too sick to host Thanksgiving, she prepared a mint chip cake for me and left it in my mailbox. I tried to make it last longer, cutting it into smaller and smaller pieces, but eventually it would all be gone. Was that what it meant, to get older? It was then that the mint chip cake became something large and extravagant to me—something that I was afraid of losing, despite how much I might grab for it. What was it that I was nostalgic for—my relationship with my cousin? My family? Being a girl?

My aunt became more and more sick, and eventually the Thanksgiving brunches disappeared. My mother told me I shouldn’t go over there and bother her, that she needed rest. But I would still go over without her knowing, swimming in the pool, hoping that someone might come outside.

It was when I was graduating college that I wanted to start making my own mint chip cakes. I asked my aunt for the recipe, and she said she’d send it to me, but for several months I didn’t get it. I waited, afraid that she had forgotten, but that Christmas, a large box arrived at my door. Inside there was a bunt cake mold, a cake display, several ingredients, and the recipe:

Mint Chip Cake

Prep Time: 10 | Cook Time: 50 | Makes: 14 | Difficulty: Easy

Ingredients:

  • 1 package yellow cake mix
  • 4oz package of pistachio pudding
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/3 cup oil
  • 8oz sour cream
  • 1/3 cup creme de menthe
  • 8oz chocolate chips
  • 8oz creme de menthe chips or crushed up Andes mints
  • Powdered sugar

Directions:

  1. Mix together cake mix, pistachio pudding mix, eggs, oil, sour cream, and creme de menthe. Stir for 2-3 minutes.
  1. Add chocolate chips and mint chips, mix together.
  1. Pour everything into a greased bundt pan. Bake at 350°F for 45-55 minutes.
  1. Optionally, sift powdered sugar on the top of the cake after removing from the oven.

My boyfriend came over, and we baked the cake. It was full, and briefly tasted like being a girl again.

Meg Eden’s work has been published in various magazines, including B O D Y, Drunken Boat, Mudfish, and Rock & Sling. Her work received second place in the 2014 Ian MacMillan Fiction contest. Her collections include  “Your Son” (The Florence Kahn Memorial Award), “Rotary Phones and Facebook” (Dancing Girl Press) and “The Girl Who Came Back” (Red Bird Chapbooks). She teaches at the University of Maryland. Check out her work at: https://www.facebook.com/megedenwritespoems