Meet the Neighbors: Free State Review

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.

Barrett Warner with bean truck

Barrett Warner with bean truck (Photo: Bruce Leopold)

The Free State Review website caught my eye with an elegant layout and excellent photography. And kept my interest with statements that revealed a strong sense of identity. There was a focus on “place and experience.” On “authors who live the poem—story—essay before they write it” and provide “some glimpse of a genuine moment in this high concept world, reflected pieces of the real.” And exhibit “engagement and grace.”

That was what I’d tried to achieve in my own work. I would’ve been happy to submit a story had the 3000 word limit not stopped me short. Undaunted, I decided to do the next best thing. I contacted the editors—there seemed to be four—to ask, “So, what is your story?” One of them, writer and reviewer Barrett Warner, was pleased to oblige. Here’s how he responded:

We never had a sign that said, Right now, start a new literary review. There weren’t any voices in the winds. No beautiful angels flying into our minds, nesting on our sternums, singing in our ears. We just found each other.

Editor Hal Burdett found himself when he retired. It took him 81 years, 60 of those spent writing columns in The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Times and other Metro newspapers. Raphaela Cassandra found Hal. The May-December pair next found poet J. Wesley Clark. It wasn’t hard to spot Jim. His familiar beard has grown through ten US presidents. He has published 11 poems a year for over 50 years in well over 300 literary magazines. His books include Daughter of the South County, Asleep With Whippoorwills: New & Selected Poems 1970-1995 and I Am Paraguay.

Jim found me. I’d been dodging success as a poet for 30 years and begun focusing on book reviews and essays. I’d written 35 in the previous year, enough to see a lot of new writers and styles and exciting presses. I was thrilled and jealous, especially when writing reflected experience that was “street” but had a polished sense of craft.

All of us had a feeling that writers in the region shared a dream about life. We also knew that elastic forms existed all over the planet. Creating Free State Review was a way to combine them—writers who smelled of seawater, writers who had metal parts and others scented by chlorine or mud. The language seduces us. When words are set beside vigorously lived moments, the experiences dazzle and the art moves us deeply.

We knew that we needed a website, whatever that was, but we had no idea how to advertise that we were accepting submissions except by word of mouth. We wagged our chin-choppers for three months before anything appeared in our box. The first parcel we considered included poems by Chris Toll, Edgar Gabriel Silex, Barbara DeCesare and Jessica Lynn Dotson. The first three were veterans, having eight books between them, but Jessica was a new arrival. She wrote about auto mechanics and had only had one poem posted—and that on a site since abandoned.

Others slowly handed over some poems or an essay or a short. Some such as Rachel Adams and Scott King were strangers who came to us the way that editors sometimes have of sensing other editors. Some such as Beth Spires and James Robison were friends who wanted to go on the journey. There was only one rejection for that first issue. Our raft was a big one, and the Argo could make a sailor out of any cowboy.

The first issue

The first issue, Winter 2013

The press given about our first issue, its growing distribution (Hal, like all good newspaper reporters, is a fanatic about distribution), our crazy launch at Ram’s Head in Annapolis and the rising murmurs about our next issue were impossible to predict, especially given the small number of submissions.

I’d been courting Bethany Shultz Hurst for almost a year, following her work in literary journals across the country, anticipating a book that I wanted to review. After we accepted her poems, she became a finalist in the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition, as did the local author Katherine Cottle, who had some great titles with Apprentice House. Similarly, our new poet Jessica subsequently had poems accepted by five other journals and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

We’ve since come to pride ourselves on seeking and finding authors on the rise, at times weeks, at times months shy of a break-out year. In the next issue, there are two authors, Kevin Lavey and Dan Ferrara, who would make me shake.

I found Kevin’s story in a pile of rejections for a fiction contest run by the Maryland Writers’ Association. It was the only one that I liked. Kevin and I met for coffee at Artifact and talked it through three or four revisions before we accepted it. A month later, he received a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award for Fiction. Dan Ferrara—who knows where this cat’s going to prowl in six months? Mostly the demons chase us, but every so often a certain writer turns and chases those demons right back. Ferrara’s got a purr that would scare any hungry coyote.

A reporter asked last month if there was a particular writer that I hoped to get into our journal. Yes, I answered, but the perfect writer has no name, no zip code. We’re searching, turning over stones, hoping that he or she will find us. Perfection isn’t a state, it’s just a single moment in a changing, stirred-up world. Here’s the dope: we’re trying to meet those moments and connect and put them into print.

It’s partly beginner’s luck that we found so many talented authors, but the fact is that we’re not beginners. Hal had came up at The Sun under HL Mencken, and that wizard’s two literary journals had sparked an early interest for the enlightened conversation that the arts bring to our day-to-day. Jim was a foreign correspondent in Mexico and Cuba. We’re an older Sunshine Club of hard-knocking dreamers.

So we’re different from other new magazines started by much younger types with lots of energy and visions of changing the world or maybe doing something with their MFAs. We’ve seen so many movements and presses and writers come and go, even actual revolution. You develop an instinct for sensing when you’re glimpsing a real modern-day Icarus and when it’s only a wad of feathers passing overhead. Jim says, “The first step in writing from the gut is to have plenty of guts.”

Ours isn’t the coolest, hippest journal out there. We’re no Fence, Coconut, Dzanc or Mud Luscious. We’re no Adam Robinson. And we don’t know all those stars making life-changing one-shot films or posting about zeroism or “the new severity.” We’re too old school for that. We still enjoy reading without having to plug in something, all the more so if we’re snuggled under a quilt. And we believe in public readings, in the live poetry scene, in bringing words to people’s ears and not just their eyes.

Raphaela is helping us with this, setting up readings at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, East End Book Exchange in Pittsburgh, Minás Gallery in Baltimore and Mystery Loves Company in Easton. Her take is that life is too messy without literature. Raphaela designs robots at the Naval Academy and helped attract St. John’s College astrophysicist and poet Jim Beall to the Review. His “Odysseus” includes images such as “axe murderer” and a boat run aground in the mountains “wrestling with legacies” as he speculates about the poet and dreamer in each of us.

Hal could talk the leg off a dead mule, but it’s not all a sales pitch and I believe him when he talks about empathy. He says,

In the modernist world, the heroes are all lonely creatures. They deal with their mortality all alone. There’s not much tension in that, but these Free State Review authors focus on moments of separation and slipping away, the husband taking a job somewhere else, the father endlessly repairing his car in a late night garage but driving nowhere or a brother’s suicide. Empathy is the perfect countermeasure for 21st Century isolation.

This is why Free State Review is not just a journal. It’s a love affair. Maybe we saw something for a moment and suddenly knew that our lives would be different. Knew this in spite of our eyes being bloody from staring at nothing so long. We saw it and knew that we wanted this love, this flash of hope, this electric profile that was there for an instant, then was gone. So, this time we decided to follow it, to see where it led and—chanting some and jigging some—disappear into its miracle of words.

As someone who is new to the world of literary publishing but not the world at large, I wish Barrett and his band of seasoned beginners all the best. And remind them that small literary journals like ours have a cultural influence that is disproportionate to their size.

Note: See the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses piece “Independent Presses and ‘Little’ Magazines in American Culture: A Forty-Year Retrospective.”

Concerning Craft: Chris Bullard

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 Chris Bullard. Chris lives in Collingswood, New Jersey and works for the federal government as an administrative law judge. His first chapbook You Must Not Know Too Much came out in 2009, followed by O Brilliant Kids in 2011. His poetry book Back is scheduled for a November 2013 release.

We published his poem “O’Connor’s Misfit Addresses Schrödinger’s Cat” in our Winter 2013 Doubt issue. Here he is reading that poem and other pieces at our launch event:

And here he is discussing how he came to write the poem:

“O’Connor’s Misfit Addresses Schrödinger’s Cat” is a free verse sonnet. I’ve written many sonnets, some in meter and rhyme and others in free verse. I enjoy the form because it provides a two-part division with a turn in thought, a volta, usually between the octave and the sestet. The volta allows the poem to look at itself by commenting on or changing the meaning of the first section of the poem. This permits irony but also allows for a juncture of two disparate subjects.

I also like using pre-existing characters in my poems. Perhaps this is the consequence of my love for the pop art of the Sixties and Seventies. For me, it is a way to collage backstories and references without taking up extra space for explanation. This use of popular icons results in the combination of low culture and high culture references. Some think that I take this too far. After all, I have written a poem in which Sigmund Freud analyzes one of the characters from the movie The Astounding She-Monster.

I brought together Flannery O’Connor’s character The Misfit and the Schrödinger’s cat though experiment because both concern the resolution of doubt. The Misfit lacks faith; the cat is in an indeterminate state. The Misfit has no practical way of resolving his doubt; observation will establish whether the cat is alive or not, but only by killing him or allowing him to live. These parallel lives made an interesting pair for a poem, and I thought the sonnet was the appropriate place for them to meet.

For The Misfit, morality is an either/or matter determined by whether or not Christ was resurrected. If he was, we should lead moral lives. If not, we’re free to murder and rob. The Misfit needs the act of observation. He wants to have seen whether Christ came down from the cross.

We cannot know whether we should sin
like pagans or pray like abbots
unless the rock is moved aside
and Christ found breathing (or not).
The possibilities are superposed.

For Schrödinger’s cat, observation determines whether he lives or dies. Opening the lid of his box determines whether cyanide gas is released.

Just as observation will determine,
friend cat, whether you emerge from the box
a feline corpus, or live to slaughter more rats . . .

My craft problem was limiting exposition. There is a difference between how a poem and, say, a novel function. Too much exposition and you get a novel instead of a poem. I wanted to move the poem forward with parallel images: the cat in his box, Christ in the tomb, the prisoner behind bars, the cyanide gas that the box releases, the cyanide gas that the executioner releases. I tried to restrict my lines to the length of traditional pentameter and use pairs or triplets of similar end sounds for cohesiveness (abbots/aside/lips, sin/determine, not/box/not, measured/served).

The Misfit has taken his name because he claims that his punishment never fit his crimes. The turn in the poem comes when The Misfit demands or accepts a judgment that may be based on either morality or chance because he prefers to risk death and damnation rather than exist in a quantum state of not knowing.

so punishment cannot be measured
as fit (or not) until the time is served,
the seal is broken and the prisoner
strolls out the gate into heaven (or not).
Pop the lid, brother, I prefer knowing
if chance has blessed me, or left me blue at the lips.

O’Connor included Gothic elements in her fiction that seem simultaneously appalling and funny. I wanted to keep those elements in my poem, so I was relieved when people laughed when I read it. This meant that they not only caught the cultural references but also found the humor in the poem. There are some similarities between reading a poem aloud and doing stand-up comedy.

I get nervous before I read my poetry in public, but I always accept any invitation to read. I assure myself that I do so for reasons other than mere egotism. I need to hear whether an audience responds or fails to respond because then I’ll see whether the poem works and at what level it works. Like The Misfit, I need to know.

The Misfit appears in one of the most famous of O’Connor’s stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Since many of you, like Chris, encounter literature in both written and spoken forms (see “There’s Reading, Then There’s the Reading”) and some serve as both author and audience, you might enjoy comparing the text of O’Connor’s story, a transcript of O’Connor’s own remarks on the story and a rare recording of her reading the story.

Poetry and Music: Songs of Salcman

Music starts with sound and silence. As such, music and literature likely arose as a single entity. Even as the two drew apart, they maintained a continuum, causing Alphonse de Lamartine to state, “Music is the literature of the heart; it commences where speech ends.” And continued to influence one another in both form and content, causing Ezra Pound to pronounce, “Poets who will not study music are defective.” Be that as it may, literary figures as disparate as William ShakespeareTS Eliot and Ralph Ellison have made music an essential part of their works.

Join us in exploring this ageless theme and its contemporary variations through poetry, prose and the visual arts in preparation for our Summer 2013 Music issue.

Lorraine Whittlesey

Lorraine Whittlesey at the piano (Photo: John Dean)

A few words to set the stage, so to speak. Music has always been an integral part of my life. Family legend has it that I sang my first sentences to the popular tunes of the day. The combination of words and melodic line continues to be a powerful force in my life.

Poets and other writers engage audiences in ways that are personal to the individual listener. When Michael Salcman’s poetry came to my attention, thanks to our mutual friend Clarinda Harriss, I recognized that he was someone whose poems appealed to me for a variety of reasons. I noted his careful and obvious affection, passion and respect for his subject matter. His words, the cadence of his delivery and the images that they evoked engaged my entire person.

After a reading at Minás Gallery in Baltimore, I approached Michael and asked if he would consider allowing me to set some of his poems to music. He graciously agreed. Since I already had one of his collections of poetry, The Clock Made of Confetti, I re-read the poems, which always seemed to come alive and remind me, in a visual sense, of structured notation on a musical staff.

The poem that I selected from the book was “Einstein Sailing; A Photograph.” All things Einstein have always held special appeal for me. Einstein was an accomplished violinist and declared repeatedly that had he not been a physicist he would have been a musician. His statements about the power of music are legendary. Several years before this, I had written a musical adaptation of Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, and the prospect of using him as subject matter again was irresistible.

Not long after we had decided to move forward with our collaboration with the intent of a future performance, I received a wonderful surprise. Michael sent me a poem, “Song,” that he had written following that decision. That poem was the first of Michael’s that I set to music. When the composition was completed, I invited him and his wife Ilene to my house and performed it for them. His generous response and feedback convinced me that I was on the correct path and gave me the confidence to move forward.

Michael then sent me a copy of his new poetry collection, The Enemy of Good is Better. I devoted my time to reading each poem aloud as well as in silence. The poems for the performance were selected, and I knew that I had arrived at a crossroad. At that point, I felt that Michael’s input would be critical. I asked him to read the six poems aloud to me. I wanted to be as faithful as possible to his nuances and rhythms when composing the music. We sat in his kitchen. He read, I notated. The experience was invaluable.

Michael knew Henry Wong, the owner of An die Musik in Baltimore, and arranged to have our performance presented at that site. I was delighted as I had performed there a number of times and always appreciated the house piano, a marvelous instrument that was kept in good repair. The space itself was very intimate with comfortable seating, fine acoustics and sight lines.

We presented Songs of Salcman on April 28, 2012 to a full house. There were many poets in attendance as was befitting since April was National Poetry Month.

Publicity poster

Songs of Salcman publicity poster

Michael gave a gracious and generous introduction that addressed the history of the art song. He first read the poems, after which I performed them. The poet was relaxed, confident and poised. The musician was nervous and nursing a sore throat. The audience was appreciative and attentive. The pieces that we presented were as follows (click on the first item for the full text):

  • Einstein Sailing; A Photograph
  • A Song of Spirals
  • Baltimore Was Always Blue
  • Poem on a Single Word from Richard Serra’s Verb List
  • Everything But The Ashes
  • Song

In every collaboration there’s the possibility of ruffled feathers, miscommunication and myriad missteps that leave one or both parties wondering whether it was as good an idea as it seemed at the outset. My collaboration on Songs of Salcman left me exhilarated and appreciative of the freedom and trust that Michael provided throughout the process.

The first words of Michael’s opening remarks at the performance were, “The omens are good.” Indeed they are, and we are both looking forward to upcoming performances that will include new works for the Songs of Salcman art song cycle.

Online Editor’s Note: If the stars align, a selection of poems set to music, both old and new,  from Songs of Salcman will be presented this summer and autumn as part of an LPR program celebrating music and literature. (More on that later.) And if that’s too long to wait, stop by An die Musik at 8:00 pm this Friday, February 15  for Love: Error & Eros, a contemporary cabaret event with Dyana Neal and Lorraine.

Print Issue Preview: 30 Authors and Artists Address Doubt

LPR Doubt Cover

Introducing our Winter 2013 Doubt issue. Cover art: The Ideal City, Fra Carnevale (?), at the Walters Art Museum. Cover design: Deb Dulin.

For our first 12 print issues, you’ve had to wait for the launch party to sneak a peek at what’s inside. But seeing that 13 is a lucky number and our Issue 13 comes out at the start of 2013, a most auspicious year, it’s time that you caught a lucky break. Therefore, we’ve set it up so that you can preview the text of two pieces in advance. And, unwilling to leave things entirely to chance, we’ve armed you with cheat sheets, as well.

All you need to do is turn to our Winter 2013 Doubt issue page, where we present the complete table of contents, and click on two highlighted items. Those are Laura Shovan’s “Editor’s Notes” and the Clarinda Harriss poem. Then see what these two literary ladies have to say about that in the sections below.

Of course, if you’re one of those rare individuals who’s completely comfortable with uncertainty and doesn’t doubt his or her ability to make it to the launch, we wouldn’t want to spoil any surprises. Simply skip what’s written here and head straight for Oliver’s Carriage House this Saturday, where we’ll be sure to save you a good seat.

Your Cheat Sheet for “Editor’s Note”

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but doubt is the agent of change.

In our 13th issue, 30 writers and artists examine the role that doubt plays in marriage, religion, art and identity. Doubt can be triggered by small moments such as watching a handyman at work fifteen feet in the air [i] as often as it comes from the force of a failing marriage [ii] or a tsunami’s destructive power [iii].

There are those who live in a perpetually agnostic state, calling into question everything from religion and community to the self and one’s perception of reality [iv]. For these doubters, something as simple as a taste of honey harvested from a backyard hive can be enough to restore faith in society [v].

Human culture would not evolve without such proof-seeking minds. If nobody questioned status quo thinking about how the autistic mind works [vi], what it means to be a painter in 2013 [vii] or who created a Renaissance masterpiece [viii], human history could not move forward. Whether the results are “correct” or not, the process of change begins when one doubter pulls apart what is accepted and puzzles together facts and observations to create a new theory.

The product of doubt, whether one has scrutinized a childhood memory [ix] or re-envisioned a character from the Bible [x], must be a new way of looking at the world. Our hope is that you, the reader, will engage in the inter play between doubt and change as you read this issue of Little Patuxent Review [xi].

                                                                                                — Laura Shovan

…And another for “Blasphemy is the Child of Faith and Doubt”

Because of or despite the fact that I come from agnosticQuaker/atheistEpiscopalian parents, I have always been obsessed with the what-ifs implicit in biblical lore. And I have always been fascinated by the much underrated or downright dissed female leads in that lore–Eve, Lilith and, of course, Mary Magdalene, who I have known since childhood was the wife of Jesus. (What is UP with a few current scholars acting as if they had just discovered that Jesus was married?) In addition, I love to re-tell old stories with some crucial part left out–like, suppose Cinderella got zapped to the ball WITHOUT THE DRESS? In a poem written years ago and published in Sybil-Child, I envisioned her standing ragged and astonished at the top of the stairs descending into the ballroom, then pulling off her filthy kitchen togs. Standing there gorgeously naked. No wonder the Prince fell for her.

  — Clarinda Harriss

Note: You can pre-order copies of the Doubt issue now from our Individual Issues sales page. And order some back issues, too. Check out what’s in those in our Issues section.

__________________

[i] Award-winning poet and children’s author Jacqueline Jules makes her first appearance in LPR with the poem “Standing in the Air.” It explores the way in which everyday moments, in this case observing someone repair a roof, can create self-doubt. Jules uses dialogue to establish the character of the workman, which contrasts with that of the speaker. (p. 50)

[ii] The short story “Mediation” by Lisa Lynn Biggar was submitted for our Summer 2012 Audacity issue, but Fiction Editor Jen Grow felt that the piece was a better fit for the current theme. Biggar uses dramatic irony to explore a modern love triangle. (p. 70)

[iii] “Japan 2011” is one of two poems in this issue by Elisabeth Dahl of Baltimore. Dahl’s use of form in the poem mirrors the poem’s theme, the devastating 2011 tsunami. (p. 30)

[iv] There are several pieces in this issue that examine the nature of reality and how it affects views of the self. I particularly like the use of pop culture detail in Kim Jensen’s poem “Perimeter.” (p. 45)

[v] Cynthia Grier Lotze’s timely poem “When You Began Keeping Bees” is filled with sensory images. Home beekeepers in our local community, Howard County, Maryland, recently won a battle against a zoning law that limited backyard beekeeping. (p. 80)

[vi] Lauren Camp’s poem “The Dam of Asperger’s” uses spacing and other form elements to mirror the difficulties a teacher or parent might face communicating with a child on the autism spectrum. (p. 46)

[vii] This fall, LPR art expert Michael Salcman and I visited the Baltimore studio of painter Leonard Kogan. See the LPR Facebook page for photographs from our conversation. (p. 16)

[viii] In the first LPR essay featuring a classical work of art, Michael Salcman posits an alternate “author” of The Walter’s Art Museum’s masterpiece, The Ideal City. (p. 35)

[ix] This  issue includes several pieces in which contributors view a childhood experience through the lens of adulthood. Check out P. Ivan Young’s “Nerf Football,” one of a series of poems about urban childhood friends, and Bruce Alford’s evocative prose poem “What to Leave Out.” (pp. 27 and 68)

[x] Frequent contributor Clarinda Harriss acts as a voicebox for the biblical characters Eve, Lilith and Mary Magdalene in her three-part poem “Blasphemy is the Child of Faith and Doubt.” (p. 66)

[xi] Among the powerful pieces not mentioned is Le Hinton’s poem “No Doubt About It (I Gotta Get Another Hat),” a tribute to the late Baltimore poet Chris Toll, who leaves behind a rich legacy of visual and linguistic experimentation. (p. 82)

Images of War and Immigration: Pantea Tofangchi

When we think of immigration we often do not consider that it is fundamentally a sensory experience and, to a great extent, a visual one. It is an experience of the urgent and compelling power of images, of still frames and snapshots always near at hand, ready to be sifted through and periodically unpacked.

Sure, immigration calls to mind the usual experiences and the associated malaise: the displacement, the deracination, the nostalgia for the homeland left behind as well as the mixture of excitement and sometimes numbing trauma of adapting to a new culture. But those feelings are often first experienced as vivid pictures and only later given language.

The pictures become the vessels that carry forth the emotions, capturing the fullness of memories. That has been my own experience. Emigrating from my grandparents’ home in Haiti with virtually no forewarning to begin a new life with my parents in the United States, images have given me a way into the maze of feelings.

Pantea Tofangchi

Pantea Tofangchi

The tableau of images that Pantea Tofangchi paints from her experiences as an immigrant in the United States and her childhood during the Iran-Iraq War serves a similar logic of return, each visit revealing new layers of insight.

What first struck me about Pantea’s poetry was how single images persist from the beginning of a poem to the end, images as trenchant and vivid as the fields of flowers in Majid Majidi’s film The Color of Paradise. And yet, like the film, her imagery betrays a softness, a gauziness around the edges that creates an opening through which the reader is invited to experience the disquietude, to wonder about what is not known, what isn’t understood, what isn’t said.

The experiences of which she writes—the alienating effect of a confrontational exchange with a stranger in a Barnes & Noble bookstore about her lack of a headscarf, the dread of nighttime in a Tehran preemptively plunged into total darkness during the war’s frequent air raids, the roving old man devastated and lost to Tehran’s streets after losing family in the bombing of Khorramshahr—are rife with uncertainty. The sense of disorientation, of the instability and fragility of those worlds, is deeply felt. The panoply of images seems to be a vehicle for exploring the complex and tentative emotions of both her immigrant experience and of growing up in war.

Such dexterity with imagery is not surprising since she is not just a writer. She is also a graphic designer for Passager Press and teaches typography and graphic design at the University of Baltimore Creative Writing & Publishing Arts program. She understands both the linguistic power of images and the sensory power of language.

Here is what she had to say about relocating to the United States and how war and immigration have shaped her writing:

My husband and I emigrated to the States in January 2000. My husband, who is a physician, wanted to get his specialty and subspecialty in the States, but I didn’t want to leave Iran. I never thought that I would be able to leave my homeland for good, so at first I thought of it as a long trip of discovery and adventure.

I think I physically relocated, but it took me some years to realize that I had to actually leave home, too. I think it is fair to say that in the beginning I simply followed my husband, which somehow made it a little easier for me as I didn’t need to make that decision.

Sometimes I ask myself if I would make the same decision if I could go back in time. I’d be curious to know what I would have become had I stayed. I used to be a journalist back in Iran: young, wild, fearless. But there is no future for journalists there. Sometimes there is no present, either. But even with all the obstacles, there are a lot of brave journalists working and trying to make their voices heard.

Right before we left, the government closed the newspaper where I worked, along with many others. I think that made it easier to leave, or maybe to let go. But do I still have doubts about having left? Yes, I do. And some have taken a new form.

Most of us—not just as immigrants but as human beings—live in uncertainty. As a writer, thinker and graphic designer and, perhaps, as an artist in general, uncertainty is my muse. I’ve learned that some things are meant to be left tangled. I carry my doubts everyday like a piece of clothing. Some days I wear it as a colorful scarf around my neck, just an accessory; on others, as a shirt that is too tight, almost uncomfortable; and still on others, as a comfortable pair of jeans.

I believe that the reason I became a poet has to do, in large part, with the experience of being bicultural, in between worlds. One of my biggest challenges as an immigrant was finding my writer’s voice in English. I was lost for years. I didn’t trust myself enough to write in English, and I didn’t want to write in Persian. I wrote a little and sent some articles back home. But I felt I was cheating, living in an English-speaking country, yet writing in another language.

After we moved to Baltimore, I enrolled at the University of Baltimore for my Master’s degree, where I found a home. I began to realize that it is an advantage to be different, to have two cultures. I found some of the best teachers in the world there. They helped me to find my voice in poetry. I had so much to say. Poetry was the answer: I could say so many things with so few words.

As a graphic designer and teacher of typography, everything is an image. I think about every letter that I put on a piece of paper, like a drop of paint on a white canvas. When I write, it is important for me to paint an image, to see it and smell it, too. Sometimes I even need to touch it.

To me, each letter is an image, especially Roman letters. I get to know them based on their shape first, because I look at them completely differently since my native language Persian is very different. Maybe that is how the letters became very tangible, like pictures, like colors, to me. I found Roman letters so generous and versatile. They enabled me to express my culture, which is so colorful: turquoise, pomegranate red, grass green, fire orange. The letters never doubted my identity. They didn’t care about my accent, so it was a perfect match.

After 12 years, I think I am settled down. But is this home? It is, and it is not at the same time. I miss a lot of things about my homeland that are hard to explain. Intangible things. The soil, the smell of the acacia tree near my parents’ apartment, the smell of the local bakery near our old apartment. I miss the Alborz mountain range that surrounds Tehran.

Yet, whenever I go back, I have this strange feeling in my stomach that I no longer belong there and miss my home back in the States. And when I come back, I always ask myself, do I belong here? Most of the time, my answer is no. I think a lot of first-generation immigrants feel the same way, tiny ants lost on a plastic globe. Living in uncertainty makes me creative, it makes me aware of the world around me.

The Iran-Iraq War was very hard on my soul. I couldn’t understand the concept as a child, and I still don’t understand it as an adult. I wrote a few short stories about it when I was a kid, but after the peace agreement between Iran and Iraq, I kind of put it aside, though it was always there inside me.

In the past few years, with the possibility of more wars likely, I started writing about my experience in war. I wrote every morning for two months. I read a William Stafford poem, then wrote a poem of my own. As I went through this ritual, I found memories that I didn’t know I had. I am very proud of the manuscript. I feel that I did something important, as if this was the reason that I became a poet. Now, I have to find a way for people to read it, especially those who think that war can bring peace.

When I think of finding my identity in another land, the Chinese proverb “limitations make you creative” comes to mind. The forms of poetry, a sestina or a sonnet, for example, impose a structure, but the poet is free in terms of subject matter. With the immigrant experience, something similar yet a little different happens: I am free in terms of structure or form but somehow limited in the subject matter.

Do I do that intentionally? No. Even when I write about a completely different subject, a line finds its way into my poem that is recognizable as an immigrant’s voice: doubtful, fearful sometimes—especially of another war. Hesitant, unsure. I do not mind this, though. This is who I am. This is who I will be. An immigrant. Sometimes with no home, and sometimes with two.

Tapping into the sensory nature of war and immigration has helped Pantea embrace the fertility of doubt. Without trying to dispel these feelings, she has transformed them into doubt’s offspring: fascination and curiosity. Both are necessary ingredients for creativity and for making, as she says, “something good of whatever happens.”

Conference of the Birds

The cast of the 2012 Folger Theater production of Conference of the Birds. (Photo: Scott Suchman)

Online Editor’s Notes:

Delving into Doubt: Worship No Idols

Between belief and disbelief, certainty and uncertainty, trust and distrust lies doubt. Doubt can be deliberate questioning or a state of indecision, resulting in a reassessment of what reality means or a paralyzing suspension between contradictory propositions. An uncomfortable condition, as Voltaire observed, but preferable to certainty, which is inherently absurd. Or some surprising gap stretching intellect and emotion, resulting in delight. Join us in this intriguing gray area as we prepare our Winter 2013 Doubt issue.

Dylan Bargteil

Dylan Bargteil as tortured artist at age 16. Relegated to keyboard, he despairs that his songwriting and guitar playing will never be properly appreciated.

When I was a kid, my parents divorced. I would stay with my dad on the weekends, which quickly became filled with new traditions and routines that kept us close. Every Friday we would drive to Hollywood Video and walk the aisles to find a movie to watch together that night. As I approached my adolescent years, more often than not those movies came from the classics section of the store. Films such as To Kill a MockingbirdThe Great Escape and On the Waterfront were typical Friday night fare, and I became enamored with the ideals that many of the leading men in the films seemed to embody. The dogged determination and charm of Paul Newman, the immovable righteousness of Gregory Peck, the earnestness of Jimmy Stewart.

As I grew into adolescence, I styled myself as the cynic, the sarcastic wit, the emotional rock to which others could moor. Each couple of years brought a new attitude to chase and a new set of symbolic idols to worship. My idols were derived from real people but did not come close to accurately reflecting the complexities of the characters portrayed in their work let alone the frailties of the people behind those characters. I succumbed to this behavior in my creative pursuits as well. I was ensnared by the idea of the true artist as a suffering, isolated individual. I felt certain that art was a conduit for a pureness of expression not possible in the complicated reality of the world.

By the time I reached college, it was becoming clear that these attitudes were not serving me well. Driven by the singular nature of these idols, I was forming warped notions of myself and others. I started developing uncomfortable prejudices about the emotional and artistic capacities of others. Of course, I viewed myself as a unique case: I alone was a manifestation of my ideals, just as my idols were of theirs. I started to feel ugly and confused and then became depressed. I started to doubt my once vaunted idols and ideals.

As a result, I became more focused on the concrete stuff of reality, on the actions and utterances of myself and others. I admitted that I could not infer my own nature or the nature of others from such small chances for insight. We are much more complex machinery. I read Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen. You can be nothing but your nature, okay. I read William James’ Pragmatism. Truth is mutable, constructed and expedient, okay. I stopped having long arguments with myself about my suffering, my isolation and my judgments of the rest of the world. I got down to the business of simply doing and being.

My work improved dramatically. I stopped writing about paper-thin characters in nightmarish paintings or feelings in a void (not even attached to a character!). Instead, I wrote about making breakfast. It turns out that breakfast is a wonderful literary subject.

The growth that I experienced at college was the acceptance of doubt and uncertainty, which has proved critical not only in my personal but also my creative and academic life. As a poet and musician, doubt and self-doubt remain themes, couched in real narratives: being a drag on my friends at bars and parties, being incompetent at lighting a charcoal grill and the like. Whether factual or imagined, these are the elements that truly move me to check my expectations of myself and now form the crux of my creative experience.

Online Editor’s Note:

Dylan’s poem “A Brown Spot” was published in the our Winter 2012 Social Justice issue. You can read what went into its making in “Concerning Craft: Dylan Bargteil.”

The ideal and the doubt that it engenders also intrigued LPR Editor Laura Shovan. To learn more, read “In the Face of Doubt and Uncertainty: LPR Cover Art Selection.”

Reader Response: The REAL Lucille Clifton

We love getting your reactions to the material that we post. If your message contains new information or images relevant to one of our posts, we’ll even publish it as a separate piece. Here’s what one of our readers, also a contributor, emailed me regarding “A Tribute to Lucille Clifton.”

Dear Ilse,

Thanks so much–wonderful piece.

The Angel

A 1979 poetry reading at The Angel Tavern on Bank Street in Fells Point (Photo: The Baltimore Sun)

Lucille and I became friends years ago and she gave many gratis readings for Poetry at The Angel, a series of readings in a Fells Point bar that ran every single Sunday for 3 years; Dyane Fancey and I ran it. Readers ranged from poets laureate and folks like WD Snodgrass to bag ladies and drunks. Some of the latter weren’t bad either. Wot larks. Lucille, of course, was a star in The Angel’s crown.

I’ve attached “Bone to Bone,” a short story based on a Clifton anecdote. It won 2nd prize in the Raymond Carver Short Story Competition (with a nice check and plaque) and a place in The Best of Carve in whatever year it was. 2005, I think.

The anecdote, a story Lexie says she remembers well, was this: for some months, Lucille was getting miffed phone calls from people wondering why she had not responded to their invitations to read, to run for Poet Laureate, etc., etc.; seems much of her mail was going to another Lucille Clifton who lived in Baltimore. When Lucille contacted this woman about turning over the mis-sent mail, Clifton #2 insisted she was ‘The REAL” Lucille Clifton and that those invitations etc. were meant for her! Quite the hassle.

The story’s about someone’s attempt to steal the identify of a famous poet. Everything about it is fiction (the physical look of the poet is actually based on my experiences with Gwendolyn Brooks long ago), but the story stems directly from Lucille’s mail problem.

Identity as a topic came up again at LPR’s tribute to Lucille at the 2012 Baltimore Book Festival. Inspired by her line “one evening I return,” I embedded it in the title of an on-the-spot poem that I wrote and read to the the audience. This time, I absolutely told the verbatim truth, recounting an anecdote exactly as Lucille had told it to me on the phone:

One evening I return to a Baltimore bookstore and find it closed
Clarinda Harriss

1969: Lucille Clifton went to Gordon’s to buy a book.
“Do you have any form of photo identification?”
She had no form of photo identification.
Why carry a passport in your own country?
She was told her credit card was no good without photo identification.
She walked over to a table covered with books by Lucille Clifton.
She stood beside a life-size cardboard cut-out photo of Lucille Clifton.
“But you can’t be Lucille Clifton,” the salesman said.
“Lucille Clifton is famous.”

 Your fan,

cl

Note:

Clarinda Harriss

Clarinda Harris, BrickHouse Books founder and director, speaks at the imprint’s 40th birthday bash. (Photo: Eva Quintos Tennant)

“Lexie” is Alexia Clifton, Lucille Clifton’s youngest daughter.

“cl” stands for Clarinda HarrissClarinda is a Professor Emerita of English at Towson University and the former department chair, has served as the faculty advisor to Grub Street, the University’s award-winning literary magazine and is the founder and director of BrickHouse Books, Maryland’s oldest continuously operating small press. She has authored a number of poetry collections, most recently Mortmain and Dirty Blue Voice, and co-edited anthologies such as Hot Sonnets. A review of Hot Sonnets appears in this blog, as does “Concerning Craft: Clarinda Harriss” and “Self-Interview: Clarinda Harriss.” And remember that you can download and read her short story “Bone to Bone” here by clicking on the above link.

Clarinda’s mention of the readings at The Angel got me searching the Web. The only photo that I found was one offered on eBay, and Clarinda promptly bought it. According to her, the “100” is written in thick copy pencil, which she remembers from her dad’s newspaper days. She identifies the people as follows: “The three ‘front men’ are the late Jessica Locklear, poet, Lumbee Indian (black, white, Native American, like pretty much all Lumbees) and Frank Evans, still alive, well, witty, and wise, a never-closeted gay man. And Clarinda Harriss Lott, not yet divorced from the late Judge Hubert E. Lott.”

When I asked Clarinda for information on her father, she said he was, “RP Harriss, brought to Baltimore to be Mencken’s Special Assistant. Henry Mencken introduced my parents to each other. My dad went on to be an editor at The Evening Sun. His only novel, The Foxes, was a Book of the Month Club alternate, so it did pretty well. He was editor of The Paris Herald as well–hence received most of Ezra Pound’s crazy letters.”

I’d better stop here, though I’m sure there’s more intriguing material to uncover!