Unveiling summer: LPR’s 20th edition

Summer 2016 cover

Summer 2016 cover. Photography by Lynn Silverman.

Raise the banners, strike up the up the band, call down the (purple) rain, rejoice and be glad, because in this issue Little Patuxent Review celebrates ten years of publishing literature and art. What a milestone for a labor of love, born from the attentive care of Mike Clark and Tim Singleton along with a host of others committed to supporting literary and visual arts in Maryland. While many journals have chosen to move to a solely online presence, LPR’s perseverance in publishing a high-quality, knock-your-socks-off, run-and-tell-your-mama print journal speaks to the ethos that runs deep in the consciousness of the editors, staff, board, and volunteers. It’s a part of our “Inscape,” to borrow a phrase from Gerard Manley Hopkins and something I recognized years ago when I was grad student looking for literary journals that might publish my poems. LPR had a good reputation, albeit a quiet one, and no one could deny that the physical, printed journal lived as an art object in the world. Little may be a part of the name, but there is nothing small about what this journal accomplishes twice a year.

I am humbled to be the editor during this tenth anniversary, and I am equally humbled by the stories, essays, and poems that have found a home in the following pages. Perhaps with a bit of unintended irony, since LPR is named after a river, readers will find that many of the pieces circle around the presence of water, not unlike the way Maryland envelopes its portion of the Chesapeake Bay. Origins have a way of insisting, it seems. Many of the pieces here call back to various themed issues LPR has published in the past. There are stories of doubt and audacity, poems that evoke social justice and childhood. Nature has its way even on the tongues of a “Roustabout.” And above all there is fine, fine music in the language and lines. Lynn Silverman’s art work is such a fine capstone to that fine music, with its hints at transcendence.

I want to personally thank Laura Shovan, Jen Grow, Michael Salcman, Deb Dulin, Lynn Weber, Debby Kevin, Evan Lesavoy, and Emily Rich who have all been a part of the editorial staff. If I were Lorca, I’d say they have so much duende. If I was Stevie Wonder, I’d say they create in the Key of Life. They make LPR shine. I would also like to thank the board members, new and old, who have never let go of that initial vision of lifting up the arts. They have been a lighthouse on the edge of troubled sea. I am beyond grateful. Lastly all thanks to the contributors, readers, and community who have trusted me with their work, time, and attention. Let’s celebrate turning what Billy Collins calls the first big number. Here’s to ten glorious years and a hundred more if the fates be kind.

~Steven Leyva, Editor

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The Scalpel and the Pen

Michael Salcman

Michael Salcman

I met poet, neurosurgeon, and art critic Michael Salcman five years ago. As a CityLit board member, Michael initiated the Harriss Poetry Prize and was its first judge. When I won the inaugural contest, publisher Gregg Wilhelm asked me whether I’d like feedback from the judge. I received more than feedback. Michael became a mentor, friend, and colleague. Little Patuxent Review has benefited immensely from his work as our art consultant.

Poetry in Medicine: An Anthology of Poems About Doctors, Patients, Illness, and Healing, represents the integration of Michael’s three major areas of expertise: medicine, poetry, and fine art. But the book also reflects his generosity. Its pages include luminaries of Western literature: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickinson; and modern poets who place their unflinching gaze on the body: Linda Pastan, Lucille Clifton, Stanley Plumly; side by side with poets from our local community: Shirley Brewer, Clarinda Harriss, Jennifer Wallace.

The book represents six years of compiling, curating, and organizing, but it also speaks to Michael’s lifelong love of poetry. He is, after all, part of an honored tradition of physician-poets who engage in two healing arts: medicine and poetry.

Shovan: This anthology represents several years of work. Would you describe its genesis?

Salcman: For years and years when I would see a poem by Emily Dickinson or by Anne Sexton that was about illness or about doctors, I would put it in the drawer because I was fascinated by their opinions about illness and doctors. Gradually these favorite poems piled up.

Shovan: You were encouraged by the poet Thomas Lux, whom you worked with at Sarah Lawrence’s summer writing program.

Salcman: I started going every year for ten years [beginning in 1998]. Tom would kid me that I was the only published poet who happened to be a brain surgeon… I told him I wrote poetry in order to get away from medicine but Tom would always greet me and ask, “So, have you written any medical poems this year?” Finally he started telling me, “You know, you’d be the perfect person to do an anthology about doctors and diseases.” It felt like a challenge.

Shovan: The anthology isn’t limited to modern medicine or modern poetry. How did you go about selecting poems for a book that covers hundreds of years of Western literature?

Salcman: First, I went through every volume in my poetry library page by page. Of course, I wanted the widest range. I wanted things by non-physician poets, people writing about their own illnesses, people who were parents of patients…poets like Blake and Poe who used the metaphor of medicine and illness to write social commentary.

Then I went through the major online sites: the Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Society of America, Poetry magazine, all of them. People are surprised when I tell them that if you go on any of these sites, medicine, sickness, and health are major themes, major topics.

Shovan: Past anthologies of medical writing have had a more contemporary focus, or have been limited to doctor-poets. How does Poetry in Medicine differ from those books?

Salcman: I thought that it was time for a book that put together the very best poems on the subject no matter who wrote them, from the beginning of the Western tradition to contemporary times. My major criteria were literary excellence and the topic covered by the poem.

Shovan: I know you worked with your editor at Persea on refining the hundreds of poems you collected. Together, you came up with the wonderful thematic groupings for each chapter. The process took six years overall. What were some highlights of working on Poetry in Medicine?

Salcman: To begin with, Michael Collier’s Foreword is the most beautiful and elegant essay. His sensitivity as a poet is just amazing… And it came to him to start the foreword with a discussion of a great Eakins painting [“The Gross Clinic”] and carry the discussion from art to medicine and on to my life as a poet.

Once we had the physical book, I’ve been just really pleased with it. As an art writer and art collector I’m so proud and happy to have the other great medical painting by Eakins [“The Agnew Clinic”] on the cover, I can’t tell you how much that means to me. The book ended up as a dream project.

Shovan: There’s a push in current poetry to use fresh, specific language. I’ve read poems that seem to draw from medical textbooks in their vocabulary. What do you think of this type of realism?

Salcman: The language of science—of which medicine is a part —it’s both a science and an art— creates a fresh vocabulary for both poets and writers, but one has to be careful if one is interested in the music of the poem… Medicine is filled with nouns and not with verbs, whereas a poem seeks a good balance of both and needs to avoid polysyllabic Latinate words.

There’s nothing more real than the body and its complaints and the fate we all share. You can use medical terms or anatomical terms in a way that’s very mysterious.

When Dickinson writes, “The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs,” it’s a terrific example of using simple medical terms to enrich a poem. When she describes the stages of hypothermia she leaves out the word “coma” in favor of “chill” and “stupor,” which are more everyday terms.

Shovan: The poet and the physician both have to be excellent observers. Talk about the up swell of humanities courses for medical students. How do they benefit the doctor? The patient?

Salcman: These courses are also called Narrative Medicine. At Columbia, for example, they take medical students to the great museums of New York and work on their powers of observation by looking at paintings… There are many courses that use short stories and poems. I think these courses are valuable in improving the empathy and sensitivity of the young physician as well as observational acuity.

Shovan: You are part of a great, but small circle of poets who are also physicians. If we look at stereotypes, the doctor is viewed as the scientist, driven by logic, but absent of the empathy we were just discussing. The artist, on the other hand, is viewed as a romantic figure, driven—and sometimes driven insane—by emotion.

Salcman: These stereotypes are based on the traditional battle of the two cultures. I responded very negatively to C.P. Snow’s famous book The Two Cultures. It argued that the West was all about the humanities, warm and fuzzy; the East was all about engineering and physics, which would take over the world. And that these two cultures spoke in mutually incomprehensible languages.

I have never believed that the arts and sciences were opposed to one another. Artists and scientists seek different types of truths, but their working methods are often similar and the objects they produce, certainly in the visual arts and in science, are gradually starting to resemble one another. Through great artists we first suspected that there were multiple visual systems in the brain, separately devoted to color, movement, and form. Calder explored movement, Matisse color, and Mondrian form to maximally stimulate the brain.

This back and forth between how and why we respond to artworks and how we create artworks I consider just one more piece of evidence that art and science spring from the same creative urge and use a similar logic.

Shovan: So, how does poetry inform medicine?

Salcman: Who else sees us in our most painful and intimate moments but doctors and poets? Because of breast cancer, women and women poets became very concerned with body image and the whole issue of whether they remained women after mastectomy. The number of great poems about breast cancer, such as those by Alicia Ostriker and Lucille Clifton’s “Lumpectomy Eve,” is truly amazing. Women patients and the poet friends of patients have really added something to our sensitivity in regard to the body: that we are not just pieces of meat, that we’re not just animals. As a result students of medicine should think of it as something of a holy occupation.

Shovan: In “Poetry in Medicine” we can see how the doctor-patient relationship has developed over time.

Salcman: There was almost a 200 year period in which people like Moliere and Dryden were incredibly sarcastic about doctors and about medicine. Samuel Johnson, who wrote a lovely poem about his deceased doctor friend was an exception—this poem is mentioned in my Introduction. Today doctors and patients enter into a range of person to person contacts beyond their traditional roles. Most poems have been kinder to the doctor in the modern era than they have been to the hospital. The hospital is often unfairly portrayed as the place one goes to die, as in poems by Cavafy and Baudelaire. I think a lot of the poems in the Anthology are complimentary in the way that a sophisticated thinker might look at a physician… in a nuanced, careful way. After all, the doctor isn’t perfect, but he’s what we’ve got and we’re all in this thing together, trying to deal with our ultimate mortality.

Online Editor’s Note: You can hear Dr. Salcman read from his Anthology on June 26 at Zü Coffee in Annapolis from 6 to 8:30 pm. He’ll also participate in a Little Patuxent Review reading at the Miller Branch of the Howard County Public Library on October 20.

Food for the Soul

Photography: Connie Imboden. Design: Deb Dulin

Photography: Connie Imboden. Design: Deb Dulin

Editor Steven Leyva writes in his Editor’s Note for this winter’s Little Patuxent Review Food Issue, “Before working on this issue I never realized how much enjoying food requires crossing different kinds of boundaries. The onion must give up its layers, the water’s surface must bend for the ladle, and even the worm must break the apple’s skin. Each has its tiny Rubicon.”

By examining up close that which sustains us, you are invited to experience food — with all its tastes, smells, and memories — differently. American activist Dorothy Day said, “Food for the body is not enough. There must be food for the soul.” Food nourishes you, but what else feeds us? Offers succor?

As you sink your teeth into this winter’s issue, take time to savor each morsel. Tuck in your napkin. Shift in your seat. Lean forward. Turn the page to taste with deliberation the next offering. Contemplate the texture of food anew.

Your first course is Rose Fitzgerald’s sensual remembrance of consuming cherries for the first time. Don’t be surprised to find yourself wiping phantom juice from your chin. Then heap upon your plate a helping of shimmering anchovies served with grappa as you joyously revel in Pat Valdata’s “Prognosis.” Contemplate choice.

Cancer reminds you of the doobie in your pocket, so you excuse yourself for a smoke.  Suck in the sweet tang of illicit weed, hold your breath, and then exhale. Ever so slowly. Famished, you return to the table to devour each pale pasta strand in Barrett Warner’s “Pasta in the Nude.” In languid motion you reach for your wine, but Kelli Stevens Kane’s “runneth” sends you in search of another, less crowded glass.

The kitchen invites you in with “Emily and the Cookstove” by Stephanie Dickinson. There sits an old man with vacant eyes nipping into a smorgasbord of beets, marzipan, and sauerkraut, lovingly assembled by his daughter. You steep in your own memories before quietly slipping away.

Dip into Michael Salcman’s essay “From Darkness into Light” as he explores photographer Connie Imboden’s intense relationships with light, water, and subject reminiscent of the Old Masters.

For dessert you’ll enjoy Ann Bracken’s interview with poet and playwright Grace Cavalieri, who has not only lived a great love story, but has written and produced twenty-six short-form and full-length plays in addition to eighteen books. Cavalieri is the host for the renowned Library of Congress radio show The Poet and the Poem. She’s the perfect end to our meal.

Leyva writes, “Both metaphorically and literally I’ve gained weight while editing this issue. It was worth every pound.”

We’ve saved you a seat at the table. Won’t you join us?

Please come hungry to the launch of the issue at Oliver’s Carriage House, 5410 Leaf Treader Way, Columbia, MD 21044, on Saturday, January 24 at 2 pm. Some of our contributors will read their works.  Afterwards, attendees will have an opportunity to mingle with contributors and staff to discuss readings while enjoying light refreshments. The Winter issue will be on sale for $10, along with past publications.

Science and Revelation: The DC Science Café

Ivan Amato

“The scientific story, to me, is the greatest story ever told,” Ivan Amato says to me. “It’s a revelatory thing, scientific discovery.” Ivan isn’t just talking about a scientist’s “eureka” moment, but rather the equally important discoveries of participants at the DC Science Café. To date, Ivan has organized 17 evenings of discussion led by neuroscientists, geneticists, ecologists, and physicists as well as historians, artists, and even a poet familiar to LPR, Michael Salcman. And people are showing up in droves at the Busboys and Poets at 5th & K to receive that revelation.

The first science cafés started in the 1990s in England and France where scientists and the public started to share concerns about social issues arising out of modern technology such as genetically modified foods and mad cow disease. Neither party felt that the government or media could be trusted to give an accurate picture of controversial developments of the day. The DC Science Café is driven by a similar desire for direct access to scientific experts for an open, less mediated discourse.

I was curious to learn what that discourse would look like. Ivan walks me through the evening, which begins at 6:30 p.m. on a Tuesday or Wednesday night. A slideshow of science imagery pulled from the night’s topic as well as Ivan’s book, Super Vision, serves as a backdrop while the audience socializes with a themed drink. After a half hour, Ivan opens the mic up to the audience, inviting participants to take a minute to share a creative project of their own. That night’s discussion leader then takes the mic and gives a twenty to thirty minute presentation. The entirety of the remaining time (roughly an hour) is dedicated to active discussion. After the event concludes, no one seems to want to leave, with large crowds forming around the discussion leader and elsewhere, continuing to question, connect, and talk.

A Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic by Zach Weiner.

But this is only the structural element of what the discourse looks like. What language would be used? How would the metaphors common in scientific lexicon play between experts and audience?

Writers and scientists face similar problems in this regard. Figurative language is symbolic and abstract, and oftentimes the communicating parties don’t share the common background upon which such language relies. Depending on the science (or the writing), these abstractions may be symbolic of phenomena that are already themselves abstract and inaccessible, such as chemical bonding or black holes.

The key, Ivan says, is in becoming “comfortable with the compromise in rigor and specificity” and “valuing the feel it gives to the layperson.” This sounds familiar to me as a writer; at some point I had to make my peace with post-modernism.

As a scientist who, like Ivan, ultimately desires the audience coming to value the “scientific way of knowing,” I’ve stayed restless. My allegiance still lies with the devil in the details, and it’s hard for me to trust that I’ve communicated that scientific way of knowing unless the metaphors are somehow made transparent.

It is difficult for me to reconcile my two different reactions to what is essentially the same problem: trusting your audience to find meaning and value in your expression, even if it is not precisely the meaning and value you intended. Is it possible that some of the hostile contemporary public perceptions of science and literature are shaped by a lack of this trust? Are scientists and writers perceived as refusing to set aside the inscrutable particulars of their business and commit to engaging with audiences in whatever form the conversation must take?

Ivan’s efforts have proven quite successful. He noted he sometimes must intervene during discussion to define jargon used by discussion leaders or to recast questions asked by audience members, but discussion leaders like Steve Rolston noted, “A number of people stopped by to thank me and comment about how interesting the topic [quantum mechanics] was.” Evidently participants have been undeterred by technical difficulty; some audience members have only missed one or two events out of the entire series. Discussion leaders also feel like the Café is filling a unique niche. Poet and biologist, Myra Sklarew (who will be interviewed in our upcoming Science issue), said, “It was a great pleasure to finally address an aspect of poetry that had always been part of the way I saw the world and to do so with an audience informed and curious about science.”

It seems that if my questions are on the mark, then Ivan, Myra, and all the audience members and discussion leaders at the DC Science Café are finding great success in building a more complete and open discussion of science and our society.

If you’re interested in the DC Science Café, visit their website or view this video  from the Joint Quantum Institute at University of Maryland, who filmed physicist Steve Rolston’s night at the Café (the discussion portion is in a separate video). The next Café will be held Monday, September 30th (more details here).

Perform All Poems: Reflections on a LPR Poetry Reading

Poets are invariably all too familiar with the declaration, “Poetry is dead.” The Washington Post eagerly informed us that as we inaugurated our president, poetry was ceding its position of power*. Many readers were just as eager to address the Post’s error. One of the main point/counter-point arguments between yea- and nay-sayers was the state of the poetry reading. This week Steven Leyva, an LPR contributor and featured reader at the recent Town Square reading and open mic at Minas Gallery, brings us the good news of what thrilled and excited him about this modern poetry reading. As a co-creator a poetry reading series dubbed Kick Assonance, he’s been paying attention where The Washington Post was not:

-“All poems perform.”  Thomas Sayers Ellis

Steven Leyva

Steven Leyva at the Town Square open mic and reading at Minas Gallery. (Photo Credit: Laura Shovan)

The thing about poetry readings is they are really bits of theater in small. Both audience and authors are staged, the verbal costumes (forms!) are shown off, and with a bit of luck everyone suspends their disbelief about the power of poetry in order to be moved.  It doesn’t always work, but when it does, the effect can be spellbinding. An excellent poetry reading can leave you lying awake in bed, attempting to recall certain lines or titles, as you would the name of some handsome stranger who just bought you a drink. And the whole business is great for the authors as well, who in fits of method acting get to act like poets. Though it may seem, with my tongue firmly embedded in my cheek, like I am speaking about a kind artifice, I really mean embodied imagination. The poem made visual art via the poet’s body and voice.  In that mode it seems fitting that Little Patuxent Review partnering with The Town Square Reading Series chose to celebrate its Music themed summer issue last Sunday, August 18th, at Baltimore’s Minas Gallery. And as luck would have it, I was asked to be one of the featured actors/readers.

What’s fun about Minas Gallery as a literary venue is being surrounded by beautiful art in an intimate yet public space.  The vintage clothing store on the first floor works like a quirky foyer for the art gallery on the second floor, where the readings are held. For this reading, instead of paintings, photographs lined the walls. Portraits to be precise. Strange portraits. Plenty of blue-hairs, and I don’t mean older women, and one man with stag antlers. The pieces were lovely, really, and made for an interesting backdrop for the poems, as well as the imagined sense of a larger audience. In terms of actual people, the place was packed, every seat filled, with a few folks standing in the back. Why is it that the “Poetry is dead,” statistics-mad, naysayers can never seem to “quantify” the actual bodies that continue to go to poetry readings?

Minas Gallery packed for poetry.

Minas Gallery packed for poetry.

As a biracial, African American poet I am used to living as a critique and tend take note of audience diversity, inevitably wondering, “Am I the darkest person in the room? The youngest? The only one in a interracial relationship?” What can I say? I like a little meter, a little iamb in my audience. I was not disappointed, and I think that speaks to the strength of LPR as well as The Town Square Reading Series, and The Free State Review whose editors and contributors were in attendance, participating in the open mic. All and all the reading was well set. The poets just had to fill the space with music.

Clarinda Harriss at the Town Hall open mic and reading at Minas Gallery. (Photo Credit: Laura Shovan)

Clarinda Harriss at the Town Square open mic and reading at Minas Gallery. (Photo Credit: Laura Shovan)

I was fortunate to read with such Maryland mainstays as Michael Salcman and Clarinda Harris. One lovely aspect of being a part of a group of featured readers is entering in to that reciprocal space where poems from separate poets seem to act like point and counterpoint, melody and countermelody. Correspondence in air as the poet Ilya Kaminsky calls it. Each of the readers acts as both reader and audience, both costumed monarch and Greek chorus, which is humbling, healthy, and awe inspiring. I believe all of the featured authors would argue for the importance of listening to a poem for what it wants, listening to others by reading, and listening to the imagination, therefore how much more important is it for the same authors to model listening and demonstrate how poets are able to riff off each other in the moment. It reminds me of that old adage, “Acting is reacting.” Poets can and do make use of the sensibility as well. So the Zydeco of my poems talking back to the twelve bar blues in Clarinda Harris’ work, while Michael Salcman’s poem about Bach as fat man sustained like a bass note, created an atmosphere for living verse. But that dialogue wasn’t insular; it didn’t exclude the audience. A joke I made about wanting to be an actor when I was young and realizing that my son (2 years old) is handsome enough to be one, sparked a conversation post reading with audience member about ancestry and striking features. One of the open mic readers mentioned that he was a geologist and said he really enjoyed my poems about place. Can a geologist give a higher compliment to a poet? Other people were enthusiastically chatting about setting poems to music, former poet-teachers, and a whole host of other topics.  In Skin, Inc. Thomas Sayers Ellis suggests that a line breaks multiple times before the final break on the page when written and then voiced by what he calls perform-a-formers. In other words, excellent poets. What I find interesting is seeing the embodiment of those multiple breaks in the proliferation of active, creative conversations after a reading. Conversations about everything that is alive, even grief. Lines were certainly multi-broken at this reading.

(Photo Credit: Laura Shovan)

(Photo Credit: Laura Shovan)

With a bit of “theater” in verse on a Sunday evening in Baltimore, above a vintage clothing store, framed by quirky portraits, with a metrical audience and a few perform-a-formers, collectively another reason was fashioned to transcend our disbelief in the power of poetry. Hopefully in the aftermath author and audience alike encountered in their sleep the name of a handsome stranger buying drinks folded with half remembered lines of poems.

(*See Betteridge’s law of headlines. )

Steven noted the distinct possibility for poets riffing (to borrow a musical term) at readings, finding inspiration from each other in the moment. An interesting contrast is found in Social Justice issue guest editor, Truth Thomas’, account of the differences between the solitary and collaborative nature of music and poetry.

Steven Leyva teaches writing at University of Baltimore and is the recipient of Cobalt Review Poetry Prize. His poems have additionally appeared in Welter and The Light Ekphrastic, and he has published a collection entitled Low Parish. He is the co-creator of the poetry reading series, Kick Assonance.