Make Believe as Metaphor

This post was originally published on June 1, 2011. It’s being re-shared as part of LPR’s 10th Anniversary.

Vonnie Winslow Crist

Vonnie Winslow Crist

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention caught flak–and a great deal of attention–for running a disaster-preparedness campaign for the Zombie Apocalypse. If you are ready for Zombies, the CDC suggests, you are ready for anything. Tips for an ordinary disaster-preparedness kit follow. The CDC understands that zombies aren’t a real threat. What appears to be make believe is really metaphor. In this equation Zombies = life-altering disaster.

Writer, illustrator and storyteller Vonnie Winslow Crist understands the relationship between make believe and metaphor. Crist, who recently published a book of fairy tales, poems and sketches, The Greener Forest, has a featured essay, “Fairies, Magic and Monsters,” in LPR’s Make Believe issue, scheduled to launch June 18. The essay looks at current and classic fantasy books and movies such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Crist traces their popularity back to somber messages safely sent through stories shared by the cooking fire.

Many have complained that the Harry Potter series grew progressively dark with each book. Considering that Rowling explored a subculture living in a state of dictator-enforced paranoia, the darkness makes sense. Lord Voldemort’s tactics are as familiar as the front page, which daily tells us about the cruelties of depots clinging to power. In her essay, Crist points out, “This is fantastical literature’s greatest gift. Through make believe places, races, characters, and creatures, the authors of these tales use metaphor to help us examine the controversial issues of our world.”

Crist is a master of metaphor. In The Greener Forest, her modern fairy tales stand out. These stories use traditional fairy tale tropes, artfully layered with modern concerns. In “Shoreside,” a vacation at the beach forces a wife and mother to reconsider the family life she has chosen. Hiromi watches her husband and children swim in the ocean but avoids the water herself. She is a ningyo (a mermaid of Japanese folklore) and fears that the pull of the water and the adventurous life it represents will break her family ties. When a child nearly drowns in the ocean, Hiromi must test those ties.

“Tootsie’s Swamp Tours & Amusement Park” is set, with an oddball sense of just-the-right detail, at a rundown Southern destination beset by Spriggans. As Jess walks through the park with her uncle and husband, she realizes only she can see the ugly fairy creatures threatening her. Jess, who has recently lost a pregnancy, comes to believe the Spriggans caused her miscarriage. Her depression lifts as she takes control of her situation.

A handful of original fairy tales set in “once upon a time” showcase Crist’s love of the genre. “Blood of the Swan” is a particularly beautiful quest story about a young man who must slay the swan maiden he loves in order to save his village.

The stories in The Greener Forest can be dark. Even tales with a love theme at their center, such as “The Return of Gunnar Kettilson,” would never be optioned by Disney for a feature film. Gunnar Kettilson is, after all, a zombie. Unlike modern zombies, though, Gunnar has a thirst for revenge, not brains, and he still has enough heart left to protect the woman he loves. As Crist says in her LPR essay, “Fairies, magic, and even monsters will continue to be threads running through the human tapestry because they offer us hope and bring order to chaos.”

Vonnie Winslow Crist writes Harford’s Heart magazine’s “Writer’s Block” column, does illustrations for the Vegetarian Journal, co-edits The Gunpowder Review, contributes to Faerie Magazine and publishes the blog Whimsical Words. She has taught creative writing at Harford Community College and for the Maryland State Arts Council Arts in Education Program and regularly leads a writing workshop at Baltimore Science Fiction Society’s Balticon

Her fiction has appeared in publications such as Tales of the Talisman, Macabre Magazine (England), First Word Bulletin (Spain) and Great Writers Great Stories: Writers from Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Her poetry has appeared in publications such as Loch Raven Review, Champagne Shivers and EMG-Zine. She is author-illustrator of Leprechaun Cake & Other Tales (children’s book), Essential Fables (poetry) and River of Stars (poetry) and co-editor of Lower Than the Angels: Science Fact, Science Fiction & Fantasy and Through a Glass Darkly: An Anthology of Mystery, Gothic Horror & Dark Fantasy.

She has received a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award and placed first in the 2007 Maryland National League of American Pen Women poetry contest.

NOTE: If you enjoyed this publication, please check out LPR’s Issue 10: Make Believe https://littlepatuxentreview.org/sales/individual-issues-2/

A Cool, Dark Make Believe World Under Our Grandmothers’ Tables

This post was originally published on June 11, 2013.

Susan Thorrnton Hobby

Susan Thornton Hobby

Under my great-grandma Coley’s ornate dining room table, I made the first make believe world that I can remember.

The table’s four thick legs splayed out from a center pole and ended in wooden lions’ paws clutching wooden balls. Whenever it rained or it was too hot in the Shenandoah Mountains to play outside her tiny house, I would retreat from the murmur of adult conversation into the dim, dusty world under the lace tablecloth. The swirling Persian rug–cut into the thick, rosy quarters of a pie by the table legs–became a house, with one separate room for my Breyer horses, one for the wooden chess pieces she let me play with, one for the ragged Barbies my brother tortured and another for the Kens. The dolls never cohabitated in my chaste make believe world.

I was practicing, I suppose, play acting out a life that I might make come true one day, with rooms and animals and children and gardens. Make believe allows the players to try things out, to escape from the mundane or the horrible, to build a vision. And not just children engage in make believe. Adults indulge. And writers do it every day.

The new issue of the Little Patuxent Review carries through it the theme of make believe in ways both strange and wonderful. The Wright Brothers drink Manhattans in a bar and marvel at modern life (that’s Bruce Sager’s poem, also his tongue-in-cheek critic’s take on that poem). A man adopts a Houdini of an octopus when he’s not quite ready for human companionship (that’s Ann Philips’ microfiction). A dead mouse’s odor slips between a couple and elicits a tiny, poisonous deception (that’s Jenny Keith’s sly story). And a child, unsure of the meaning of “adultery,” decides it means playing an adult and confesses her many sins to a nonplussed priest (that’s Ann Bracken’s sweet, funny poem).

All those writers and more will read their work at the launch event for the Little Patuxent Review’s summer issue, our tenth issue, on Saturday, June 18, 2 to 4 PM, held in partnership with the Columbia Festival of the Arts.

Readers will also include Derrick Weston Brown, Erin Christian, Caryn Coyle, Barbara Westwood Diehl, David Evans, Susan Thornton Hobby (that’s me), Danuta Kosk-Kosicka, Laurie Kovens, Karen Sagstetter and Patricia Jakovich VanAmburg, plus Tara Hart, reading a poem about pretending, forgetting and remembering. Tara will also reprise her poem “Patronized,” which first appeared in last summer’s Spirituality issue and recently was recently awarded a Pushcart Prize.

It’s hot outside, but it’s cool and dark here under our great-grandmother’s tables, playing make believe. Come join us.

NOTE: If you like’d this republished work, check out LPR’s Issue 10: Make Believe https://littlepatuxentreview.org/sales/individual-issues-2/.

Interview with Ann Bracken

Recently, Little Patuxent Review interviewed our deputy editor, Ann Bracken, about her new book of poetry, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom. Ann has worked with LPR starting with our inception in 2006. For the past 20 years she has taught children and adults, and those experiences serve as the inspiration for this new book.

ann-bracken

Ann Bracken

Little Patuxent Review: How have your experiences as a teacher influenced your writing? What aspect of education inspired you to write No Barking in the Hallways?

Ann Bracken: I began writing my student poems when I taught high school in a psychiatric hospital. Many of the students were there because no other school had a place for them due to their emotional distress that resulted in a lot of difficult behaviors.  What I learned in that job is that there are no “bad kids,” but rather awful circumstances that cause pain and trauma. Writing poems about my students helped me to understand them better and to treat them with the compassion they deserved.

I wanted to write No Barking in the Hallways because I believe in the power of personal stories to help people understand complex issues, such as high-stakes testing. The emphasis on test scores negatively affects both teachers and students, especially those with special needs. For example, many of the young men I taught struggled with reading, but rather than accept help and move forward, they developed avoidance behaviors so they could look cool and tough as opposed to being labeled as dumb.  Many of those boys were mechanically or artistically gifted, yet they were stuck in classes that drilled them on multiple-choice items so they could pass the high-stakes graduation tests.  Because their grades were poor, they were not eligible for the technical classes where they could have blossomed.  So for them, school was a place of frustration rather than a gateway to hope.

As for my colleagues, many of them doubled-down on rigid, practice-driven activities just to cover material that would be on tests. I also had an administrator who bribed kids with prom tickets to take the test over again, even when they had passed, just so the school’s numbers would look better for the central office.

LPR: How did this project differ from others you have done in the past?

AB: My previous book, The Altar of Innocence, is a memoir in verse that deals with addiction, depression, and the struggle to claim one’s voice.  That book has a chronological framework and each poem is based on a scene from my past.  My new book features the stories of students and teachers I have known since I first began teaching. The poems are in a looser framework so that the reader experiences stories of individual children and teachers who struggle to find relevance in today’s increasingly standardized, rigid world of public education.

LPR: Your poems feature the voices and stories of real teachers and students. Could you provide an example of a story that inspired one your poems?

AB: “The Voices in My Ear” is based on an article I read by Amy Berand, a young teacher in a charter school who was being trained in a very robotic, harsh method of discipline called No Nonsense Nurturing.  Amy worked in a middle school, and while she was being trained, she had to wear an earpiece so that she could hear the prompting from three coaches who stood in the back of her classroom and told her how to respond to students.  I was struck by Berand’s description of the method, especially because she was equipped with an earpiece to hear the coaches but had no mouthpiece to answer them. The trio of coaches gave her short phrases to say and told her to stop expressing her emotions, to stop praising the students. I found the article very disturbing on a number of levels, chiefly because most teachers know the best way to help students learn self-management is to treat them kindly and to get to know them and their interests. A teacher should form a real relationship and show respect for the students as people. No Nonsense Nurturing trains teachers to act like robots who speak with pre-programmed responses rather than to engage with students as individuals.

LPR: What changes do you feel need to be made in education to better reflect the experiences of students?

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No Barking in the Hallways

AB: First, I’d eliminate most uses of the computer for students in the classroom—see this article on the push for competency-based education for my reasoning.  Teachers would guide student learning using hands-on experiences to explore a curriculum based on research and age-appropriate objectives. The curriculum would be decided on a state level, with each school system free to adapt parts of it according to local needs.  Art, music, and physical education would be as important to the school experience as reading, writing, math, social studies, and science skills. The Common Core curriculum, PARCC, SBAC, and all standardized testing would be eliminated. No more Teach for America. No more charter schools and vouchers. Higher pay for teachers. Local control in the hands of elected school boards would be the norm. Most of all, we would be guiding our students to become thoughtful, kind, informed citizens and treat them with dignity and respect.

LPR: How can we better meld the arts with education?

AB: If we value creativity, and our business folks are always searching for that quality, then we need to improve the opportunities for children to be creative. You can’t foster creativity with standardization, rigid curriculums, and corporate-designed lessons.  We need to keep the arts—music, poetry, dance, visual art, and theater—in the forefront of our children’s education. Not only do the arts offer a variety of ways to express oneself personally, they also offer a chance to speak to issues in new and challenging ways.  Most important, the arts offer all of us a way to imagine the future, to move beyond what constrains us and to create a new vision for society. Instead of cutting the arts, we should be expanding them.

If you’d like to know more about Ann and her work, please visit her website at www.annbrackenauthor.com.  Ann’s launch reading for No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom is on February 24th at Zu Coffee in Annapolis, MD, from 6:30-8:30 pm. Diane Wilbon Parks will also be featured at the event, part of the reading series The Poet Experience.

The Meaning Behind Our Words: Joseph Ross’s Thoughts on Poetry

Joseph Ross is the author of three books of poetry, Meeting the Bone Man (2012), Gospel of Dust (203), and Ache (2017). His poem “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God” won the 2012 Pratt Library/Little Patuxent Review poetry prize and his work has appeared in Poet Lore, The Los Angeles Times, and Beltway Poetry, among others. He and other will be reading at The Writer’s Center on Sunday, August 21st to celebrate LPR’s 10th anniversary.

Joseph was willing to give some insight into his work and his thoughts on poetry.

With three books of poetry under your belt, one of which releases in early 2017, what do you believe are the signature traits of your poetry?

When readers explore my work, I hope they discover three main traits; I hope they find poems that say something, use surprising language, and are moving. To me, these are the marks of a strong poem. I teach these three traits to my students and they  seem to help them make meaningful poems.

The poems I love most are poems that keep opening up to me—and with whom I keep opening up—sometimes over many years. I can love a poem for its language, but if it really doesn’t say anything—or if I can’t understand it—then it’s not going to matter as much to me as a reader. After taking time with a good poem, a reader has at least some sense of the poem’s meaning. That meaning, if the poem is really good, can deepen and even shift in time.

The language of a poem cannot be common or ordinary and it certainly cannot be predictable. Surprising language can evoke strong emotions and helps the reader see things. It can take the reader deeper than literality and into meanings richer and more complicated than fact. A good poem only achieves this after a lot of work on the part of the poet.

Finally, I believe a good poem moves the reader. I think of Ross Gay’s amazing poem “A Small Needful Fact” about the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the New York Police Department. His poem describes the fact that Garner worked “for some time for the Parks and Rec” and he goes on to say in that work Garner probably planted flowers. He closes the poem with a reference to what the consequence of that kind of work might be, also referring indirectly to the words Garner spoke as he was dying in police hands. Eric Garner is remembered for saying, “I can’t breathe.” Gay ends the poem by telling us that Garner’s work might have made it “easier / for us to breathe.” This poem moves me profoundly. It evokes a sorrow in me, but it also makes me angry. It makes me want to change things in my country. Ross Gay’s poem achieves this in the quietest and gentle way. It’s hard to imagine anyone coming away from this poem unmoved. A good poem does this. It moves us.

How do you approach your work from a craft standpoint? Does the form or the subject inspire you first?

As you might predict from the last response, a poem’s subject gets me started. I see something, I read something, I feel something, and then I want to write about. To me, that’s the poem’s core. From there, the poem’s form supports what the poem tries to do. I sometimes see young poets using a dozen poetic devices in one poem. It’s like they’re trying to show me they can rhyme, use alliteration, assonance, and metaphors all in one poem. To me, that’s getting it backwards. If a poem needs to say something, then the form and devices it uses are merely tools to help it say what it needs to say. In my view, form and craft support the poem. Not the other way around.

Here’s an example that might help. In Ache, a book of poems coming out in March 2017, I have a series of poems about John Coltrane songs. One poem is about Coltrane’s epic composition “A Love Supreme.” This amazing song contains four sections and the whole song is built around a four-note sequence. In writing a poem that responds to Coltrane’s song, I thought it might help the poem give the reader an experience of “A Love Supreme” if the poem itself mirrors Coltrane’s container, his four sections, using his section titles as well. To me, that small echo, helps the poem do what it needs to do.

A final word about craft. I discovered a few years ago that when I drafted poems using two-line stanzas I could see the possibilities for interesting line breaks and surprising language more easily. I’m not sure why this works for me but it seems to. These days, I almost always draft in two-line stanzas and while the poems don’t always stay that way, they often do. There’s no right or wrong way to write a poem, this just seems to work for me.

Many of your poems touch on social issues from race to LGBTQ rights, with poems like “If Mamie Till was the Mother of God” and “For David Kato: A Love Poem.” What role do you think poetry plays when engaging with social justice issues? What unique entry point do you think poetry has?

Poetry plays many roles in our world today. So, within various struggles for justice, poetry plays crucial roles. Sometimes writing a poem simply helps the poet sort through thoughts and feelings, towards clarity. Sometimes a poem moves readers in such a way that it fires them up to get more deeply involved in a particular struggle. Sometimes hearing a poem read beautifully moves you to tears. This might deepen one’s experience of the poem’s topic and might further move that listener to make a deeper commitment to that specific struggle.

Consider the simple and clear questions in Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem.” When I first read that poem back in high school, many years ago, it gave me my first opportunity to see the damage and destruction of “a dream deferred.” I don’t think I understood the deadening and explosive results of holding Black people down until I studied that poem carefully. That poem enlightened me and moved me. I am diligently mindful of poetry’s power as I teach my American Literature students these days. When students or readers are ready, a poem can transform the ways we think and feel about the world.

I should say too that I don’t think we need to make poetry responsible for healing the world. It probably can’t. But I know we should never underestimate the power of a strong poem to move its readers into action and sacrifice.

What do you hope is conveyed through your work?

I hope readers might feel this idea pulsing through my work: that although our human capacity to hurt each other is obviously great, our human capacity to love is greater still. I hope both of these realities are conveyed in my work. But we must not flinch when exploring our ability and willingness to make others suffer. I believe a deep understanding of the depths of our cruelty can lead us into lives that build a more just and peaceful world.

In my first book, Meeting Bone Man, I hoped that trajectory came through. I opened the book with a quote from Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, “Kindness.” She speaks of the need to “lose things” before one can know kindness. The book closes with a quote from Chris Abani’s poem, “Sanctificum.” He writes “This is not a lamentation, damn it. / This is a love song.”

Your work has been featured in many journals anthologies from Poet Lore, Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion & Spirituality, and Beltway Poetry Quarterly. What future projects do you have in mind?

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Joseph Ross on the steps of Langston Hughes’s former home

Many years ago, I immersed myself in the work and life of Martin Luther King, Jr. At Notre Dame, I taught a Freshman Seminar course and later at American University, here in Washington, D.C. about his life and work. I built a composition course around three of his books. I am convinced of the truth and rightness of his ideas. I am also convinced that if more people knew his view of the world, his commitment to nonviolence, his diagnosis of our condition—we could begin the work of healing the world, our communities, and ourselves.

 

So, I’m writing a book of poems drawn from three of his books which scholars call his political autobiographies: Stride Toward Freedom, Why We Can’t Wait, and Where Do We Go from Here? This project differs from anything I’ve done before so I have no idea where it will go, but I love the process of writing it so we shall see. The fiftieth anniversary of his assassination will come in 2018 and I would love for this book to be in the world at that time. We will see.

 

Concerning Craft: Playing with Form

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.

Pat Valdata. Photo by Linda Joy Burke.

Pat Valdata. Photo by Linda Joy Burke.

Several years ago, I was sitting in the audience during a less-than-riveting session at a writing conference, and did the literary equivalent of doodling: I wrote an Italian sonnet. Well, a sonnet-to-be. It had the required number of lines, most of the lines rhymed, and there was a rudimentary shift in direction in line eight (technical term: volta, which is a great word, isn’t it? Such fun to say out loud. More fun than the English translation: turn). After the conference I revised and got a couple of opinions about it from poets much more skilled in form than I am, and then revised some more. Eventually, the sonnet was published in a chapbook called Rhymes for Adults, edited by Mary Alexandra Agner (Virginia Reals Press, 2006).

The subject of the sonnet is Bessie Coleman, one of my heroes. It tells about her dreams in what I imagine might have been her words:

Plans

Bessie Coleman (1892-1926), first African-American woman pilot

White men in Waxahachie plain won’t
Teach me, nor any men North or South.
Being female, and black, they say, I can’t
Learn such things. But my full-lipped mouth
Loves aileron, chandelle, empennage.
So while I file the flapper’s smoke-stained nails,
I practice aerodrome and fuselage
And save my tips. One day, I’ll do a tail-
Slide overseas, and split-S slow roll where
La vie est belle; instructors, color-blind.
Then, when I’ve joined those masters of the air,
I’ll glide beneath the cloud base unconfined,
Make my way back home, barnstorm the sky,
And watch the white folk pay to see me fly.

I had so much fun writing that one poem that I decided to do a whole series of poems about women aviation pioneers, and, in what poet and writing teacher Peter Murphy likes to call a “challenge for the delusional,” I decided to do most of them in form.

I love free verse; almost every first draft of mine starts out that way, but I don’t like writing the same thing over and over. So I started reading contemporary poets to see how they handled form, and saw that poets nowadays don’t use the poetic contractions and inverted word order that make many formal poems sound so old-fashioned. Here, for example, is a villanelle by Julie Kane:

Kissing the Bartender

The summer we kissed across the bar
I felt sixteen at thirty-six:
as if you were a movie star

I had a crush on from afar.
My chest was flat, my legs were sticks
the summer we kissed across the bar.

Balancing on the rail was hard.
Spilled beer made my elbows stick.
You could have been a movie star,

backlit, golden, lofting a jar
of juice or Bloody Mary mix
the summer we kissed across the bar.

Over the sink, the limes, as far
as you could lean, you leaned. I kissed
the movie screen, a movie star.

Drinks stayed empty. Ashtrays tarred.
The customers got mighty pissed
the summer we kissed across the bar.
Summer went by like a shooting star.

Isn’t that fun? I took a few workshops and enjoyed introducing more formal elements into my poems. When decided to give received forms a serious try, I bought a copy of Lewis Turco’s The Book of Forms. As I researched the accomplishments of each pilot, I found a form in that book to suit her story. The pantoum, for example, is a repeating form in which lines 2 and 4 of each stanza become lines 1 and 3 in the next. That interlocking repetition was perfect for poems about flying consecutive loops or coping with the monotony of an endurance flight. I chose French forms for French pilots, a Spanish form for a flight around South America, a Sapphic, a blues form, a Fibonacci, acrostics, a tritina, and others. Some forms I followed quite strictly; others I stretched a little. A few of the poems are blank verse dramatic monologues; some aren’t in a set form at all, but I played with the rhythm anyway. One poem does its best to avoid iambic lines. Another riffs on the number 13, because that pilot thought it was her lucky number.

Photo by Pat Valdata.

Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Photo by Pat Valdata.

It was a lot of work to research each pilot, find the right form, and craft the poem. I am not ashamed to admit that a rhyming dictionary came in useful at times. I drafted most of the poems during two writing residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and revised them when I got back home.

But it wasn’t all work—I had an absolute blast writing these poems. Paying so much attention to sound and rhythm reminded me of why I love reading and writing poetry in the first place: word play. What fun it is to make the sound an echo to the sense!

Pat Valdata’s book of poems about women aviation pioneers won the 2015 Donald Justice Poetry Prize and is forthcoming from West Chester University in June.

Poetry Panic

nationalpoetrymonth-2358It’s April. National Poetry Month. First a confession: until recently, my limited exposure to poetry dated back to high school, where we focused on the classics —Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Shakespeare. Back then I even tried my own hand at writing poetry. What came forth was the typical angst-ridden teenage rants and love schemes with forced rhyming patterns. They’ll be perfect someday for inclusion in a Drivel-like expose.  My acknowledged later love for Robert Burns (Ode to a Haggis) evolved from a developed interest in genealogy and Scottish heritage. A month ago, I didn’t know a pantoum from a poetaster (though I admitted relief at not seeing my photo next to the latter for the aforementioned crimes against humanity).

Since assuming the role of online editor of Little Patuxent Review, I’ve come to realize just how lush the Mid-Atlantic region is with poetry readings and literary talent. If one wanted, one might attend every week, in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, a poetry reading, hosted at places like LitMore, Spiral Staircase, Busboys and Poets, to name only a few.

About a month ago, I attended a Spiral Staircase event in Annapolis where LPR contributing editor Ann Bracken read from her book The Altar of Innocence. She was one of two featured readers that evening. Leading up to the headliners were dozens of local poets, each of whom stepped up to the open microphone and read or recited his work before the audience, which threatened to overflow into the parking lot. Poets ranged from high schoolers to pensioners, and hit every demographic. Some wore pocket protectors, while others oozed beatnik cool. Topics made listeners swoon, gasp, cringe, and laugh. I sat in awe of the collective courage to openly share intimate words combined with the community’s warmth as each piece was embraced.

Seated just behind me were two rock stars in the poetry world: Grace Cavalieri and Le Hinton. Seated just next to me, the reason I’m writing this post: Laura Shovan (she recommended me for the online position). Submerging myself into their world felt like sinking into a lavender scented bubble bath after a long day. Never before have I felt so welcomed into a community.

I lamented to Laura later that evening on the ride home, “I’m surrounded by poets, and yet feel I utterly lacking in my knowledge of the subject. How did this happen?” She assured me I wasn’t alone and my ignorance curable.

Not one to shy away from learning, I threw myself into the task of filling in my educational gaps. I subscribed to Poetry, the oldest literary journal dedicated to verse, begun in 1912 by Harriet Monroe (might she be a distant relative of my Munro clan? I wonder in brief). I began to read poetry blogs, like AuthorAmok and Anthony Wilson, and paid attention to Aaron Henkin on WYPR’s “The Signal” as he interviews LPR contributor Michael Salcman. Naturally, I had to listen to Grace Cavalieri on her Library of Congress radio show, The Poet and The Poem. I studied Howard County’s own lost treasure Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me.”

I noticed that poets hid in plain sight. By day, they were geographers, neurosurgeons, army captains, teachers, professors, journalists, pilots. Yet they had in common a deep need to share their experiences with language so haunting, so beautiful that it stops us in our tracks. If we stop for just a moment and listen, what we hear might will forever change us.

When did poetry become so cool? Because that’s what it is. One of the poets who read at the Spiral Staircase event said —  and I’m paraphrasing here — poetry carries with it peace and love. As I reflect on that evening, here’s what the room was filled with: a community who came together from all walks of life to share words, thoughts and ideas over a common platform. The collective embrace felt palatable, uplifting, especially to this observer, a writer of prose. That’s just about as cool as it gets, pocket protectors not-withstanding.

Words — carefully selected, linked together, rhyming or not, with emphasis placed on syllables, drawn out for effect — matter.  You, too, can delve into Little Patuxent Review’s rich archives to listen to Clarinda Harris read, “Locust Songs” at a LPR launch and Little Patuxent Review panelists reading their poetry at the 2011 Baltimore Book Festival. Comb through the pages of the journal and find Anne Harding Woodworth and Kelli Stevens Kane poems. You’ll be glad you did.

Who knows, someday, somewhere you might even read a poem written by me.

 

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.