Meet the Neighbors: Columbia Festival of the Arts

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.

I met the people who put on the Columbia Festival of the Arts over champagne, a good way to start any relationship. We were at the launch of the LPR Audacity issue, the first time that the summer iteration of our biannual event was formally part of the Festival.

MOMIX's Botanica

MOMIX’s Botanica, performed at the 2012 Columbia Festival of the Arts. (Photo: Max Pucciariello)

I then attended an intimate reading by award-winning writer Edith Pearlman, hosted by HoCoPoLitSo and part of the Festival. I was there not only because I admired Pearlman’s short fiction but also because she was featured in our Audacity issue. My final Festival events were to be more pleasure than [literary] business: the performance of Botanica by MOMIX, a company of dancer-illusionists, and a reception celebrating the Festival’s 25th anniversary, where I assumed that more champagne would be consumed.

But the derecho intervened. I was trapped in my historic house, built into the side of a hill on a steep bank overlooking the Patapsco River. No power, no phone or computer connectivity and trees down everywhere. So I sipped bottled water instead of champagne. But a mere seven miles away, Botanica went off without a hitch, as did the reception.

Recalling that, I was determined to give the Festival its due by placing it first in the series of articles that will appear here in preparation for the June 22 launch of the LPR Music issue. And I asked Nichole Hickey, Executive Director and CEO, for the inside scoop.

Here’s how she responded:

When asked to give a first-hand perspective of the Festival, I wasn’t sure where to begin or how to summarize both the Festival and my experience with it. Especially not at this time of the year, just weeks away from the 2013 season and days away from our annual gala, which this year featured Paula Poundstone. But I couldn’t let this article pass. After all, it is a perfect fit for LPR readers: you are our audience.

There are so many people who contribute to the production of Howard County’s premiere arts festival each year. We are fortunate to have a talented, capable, hard-working staff, people who year in and year out help make the season the unofficial start to summer in our area. I am also lucky to work with a supportive Board of Trustees as well as the 200 volunteers who offer their time and support annually. And then there are the sponsors and donors who step up each year, providing financial and in-kind resources. There could not be a Festival without all of them.

I am in my 11th year working with the Festival. What began in 2002 as a part-time role as deputy director has turned into a full-time, year-round, 24/7 job. I start with a blank slate each year, conferring with my team on what to present over 16 days in June. Our goal is to offer a varied, well-balanced lineup of non-stop events from the international, national, regional and local scenes that serves to celebrate our own community. Budget, performer availability and a host of other factors help to define each season. It’s a great deal of work, but we have a lot of fun along the way, as well.

The desire to produce an arts event of this magnitude isn’t what brought me to the Festival. My husband, Michael Hickey, was a founder of the Festival in 1987, and we have remained supporters ever since. When the Festival needed someone to help re-staff the organization in 2002, they tapped into my human resources background. Before I knew it, I had stepped into the role of deputy director. Late 2004, the Board convinced me to take on the role of executive director when it again became vacant.

I was tenuous during my initial year, being a visual artist who was suddenly running an organization focused on performance arts. Certainly, one of my first priorities was to identify ways to enhance visual arts programming. I succeeded in doing this, but there is plenty of room for improvement. During my tenure, film was also added as a regular feature and more emphasis was placed on literary offerings. This year, attendees will be able to enjoy the unique pairing of poet Patricia Smith and the Sage String Quartet playing a Wynton Marsalis composition. Programming that melds artistic disciplines is something that I try to bring to the Festival each year.

My job is not without challenges. Budgets are tighter, fundraising is more difficult and staff reductions have occurred. These are universal issues, particularly in the arts and for nonprofit organizations. Also universal is question of audience development: how to best secure the next generation of devotees. Faced with the challenges of the past decade, economic and otherwise, we need to work harder than ever to arrive at the correct formula for making our Festival a regularly recurring success.

Each year, we seek a mix of recognizable names and eclectic acts that we hope will appeal to the widest possible audience. This season’s weekend headliners—Rhythmic Circus, Reduced Shakespeare Company, Pilobolus and Preservation Hall Jazz Band—offer a balanced array of high-energy performances. Additions such as award-winning Sundance movie shorts, the return of Baltimore’s Stoop Storytelling, the zany family-friendly AudioBody, a theatrical hair and makeup competition and the Patricia Smith event add the sort of flavor to the Festival that attendees have come to expect.

When asked about my favorite acts over the years, it’s tough to respond. Blood, Sweat & Tears, America and The Neville Brothers were personal indulgences and, fortunately, the performances were well-attended. Household names such as Wynton Marsalis, Judy Collins, Ed Asner and Smothers Brothers also come to mind.

Nichole Hickey

Nichole Hickey (Photo: Nicholas Griner)

I love the fact that we can bring these iconic artists and others to perform in the accessible settings of our local theaters, the Smith and the Rouse. They provide a personal experience that doesn’t exist in the larger venues of the Baltimore-Washington corridor. That’s what we strive to offer at the Festival: a personal, interactive experience between artist and audience. What’s the best part of the job for me? When I stand in the lobby after an amazing performance and feel the energy of audience members as they exit the theatre. That makes all the hard work worthwhile.

I can’t say where I will be ten years from now, but I do hope the Columbia Festival of the Arts is still going strong and has engaged a new generation of arts lovers.

I completely concur with Nichole, having experienced what she describes for myself last year. The Edith Pearlman reading, for example, was held at a lovely Columbia venue, the Historic Oakland manor house. Sitting in the last row, I was still close enough to engage her without a microphone. But others had good questions and comments, so I remained silent. One person observed that what Pearlman had read was not quite what appeared on the printed page. Pearlman smiled, saying that she never stopped revising. We smiled in assent, and the whatever distance remained between audience and author disappeared.

That reading also illustrates the kinds of synergies that can occur among neighboring cultural entities. Three organizations came together around Edith Pearlman: Columbia Festival of the Arts, Howard County Poetry & Literature Society (aka HoCoPoLitSo) and Little Patuxent Review. The first two brought Pearlman here, and the latter, through a print-issue interview conducted by Susan Thornton Hobby (who not incidentally sits on both HoCoPoLitSo and LPR boards), to an audience extending beyond county borders.

I now offer “An Interview with Edith Pearlman” online, giving it international reach since approximately 10 percent of our blog readers reside outside the States. Click and enjoy!

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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.

There’s Reading, Then There’s the Reading

Paul Durcan

Poet Paul Durcan (Photo: Susanne Schleyer)

I’m told that I overthink things. But once you start thinking, simple things can become complicated. So you have to think some more. Take the literary reading. Of course, you have to have one. Even if there are perfectly good print copies available. Or the more convenient electronic ones. Even though a blizzard’s been forecast for that day (or it’s meant to be hellishly hot). Both poetry and prose started with the spoken word, so that must be the more natural, accessible form. Or did the oral and the written diverge somewhere along the way for some really good reasons?

Let’s start with poetry, where how things sound may matter more than with other types of writing. And one of my favorite poems, TS Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” which– à propos this piece–was once called “He do the Police in Different Voices.” The poem is so complex, so full of obscure literary allusions that countless annotated versions exist. There’s even an iPad app for that. (Really.) But look–or rather, listen–to what happens when it’s recited. How easily it goes down, as the commentator observes. First by Eliot himself, which offers insight into how he intended it to be taken. Then by two other readers, who make it their own, much the way that you and I would. Only a bit better.

So anything complex is helped by being heard? Maybe not. Let’s take one of my favorite fiction writers, George Saunders, and one of his recent short stories, “Victory Lap,” which I’ve downloaded from The New Yorker. It opens with a look inside soon-to-be-15-year-old Alison’s head, then shifts to that of a dorky neighbor boy. Listen to Saunders read his own story. If you make it through to the end without your mind wandering to, say, the deer in the woods that I can see from my study window, good for you. But if you’re one of those who can’t quite, see if you don’t breathe a sign of relief when you can click on the link I’ve provided and read this captivating story in words provided on a printed page.

So complex poetry is best heard, and complex prose is best read? Would that it were that simple. Poet Paul Durcan, whose image I’ve inserted above for reasons other than that it’s a formidable head shot–but isn’t it, though?–writes narrative poetry and has been described by Fran Breaton in The Guardian as “… a charismatic performer whose voice, once heard, haunts the printed pages of his books. If there were a prize for the best reader of one’s own poems, he would probably win it hands down.” The only problem is, Durcan says that he doesn’t write to be heard. And we should take him at his word.

Speaking with Colm Tóibín in The Writing Life, a cable TV series produced by our local Howard County Poetry & Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo), he insists that he writes not for his public voice but rather for “the silent reader.” That–unlike Yeats, who read his work aloud as he wrote–he never listens to how his poems sound until an entire book is published. And that, as Tóibín helps him formulate, he gives readings only to build an audience specifically for that silence. So, it’s complicated. And requires more thought.

In the meantime, you’d do best to cover all the bases. Attend our upcoming Doubt issue launch reading event to hear 11 authors present pieces we’ve published. Then, talk to the presenters while you munch a cookie and purchase a print copy before you leave. (Hey, the event is free, and a single copy will only put you back 10 bucks.) At your leisure, check out this site’s Winter 2013 Doubt page, where we’ll later link to reading videos, the Sales pages, where we’ll soon offer individual Doubt issues as well as annual subscriptions, and our “Concerning Craft” series, where we’ll introduce you to select Doubt contributors–not just those giving readings–and let them discuss what went into producing what we printed. This time around, I think I’ll ask them to address that sound vs. silence thing.

And since you can’t do any of that until Saturday, January 26, take a little time now to listen to Durcan read his poem “Paul.” And pick up one of his books to read in silence.

Notes:

Book Review: Truth Thomas’s Speak Water

speak water

Truth’s new poetry book

I live in an 1830s mill worker’s house on the Patapsco River in the picture-postcard part of Ellicott City, MD. A year ago, Truth Thomas, guest editor for our Winter 2012 Social Justice issue, sat at my dining room table. Before we got down to business with Linda Joy Burke, an LPR contributing editor, two things occurred.

First, Truth heard a train rumbling along the tracks on the high bank forming the other side of the river and ran out to the front porch. He watched it go by with all the delight of a small child. Then, after he came inside and Linda Joy joined us, he told us about the time he was looking in the window of an antiques shop down the hill from my house and two white men driving by in a blue pickup truck hurled racial slurs at him. The juxtaposition of those two things tore my heart.

The latter occurrence served as an impetus for Truth to learn to “speak water,” a term offered with a smile but no precise definition. And made me want to make absolutely sure that I got the right person to review speak water when it came out. That was Joseph Ross, who not only knew about prejudice from being a gay white male but could also turn that into poetry about the African-American experience, as amply demonstrated by “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God,” published in our Summer 2012 Audacity issue.

When I asked Joseph if he might be willing to write a review, he said he would be happy to do this. No need to send a review copy. He already had speak water sitting on his bed stand, waiting to be read. Once he finished reading it, this was what he wrote:

If  the word “scripture” means “sacred writing,” then speak water is, in a sense, scripture. Biblical images weave all through this powerful collection. The poems dare to both lament and celebrate, they have both memory and vision.

As in the Bible, speak water divides into two sections. The first, “The Dry Land Earth,” uses images from the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. The second, “Hand Dances at the Well,” draws largely from New Testament images. But these poems are not religious in the traditional sense. These poems use biblical images, looking back, in order to focus the reader on the present world. This is the collection’s strength: these poems witness and call. They describe our human condition in sometimes searing, sometimes playful language.

The book begins, as you would guess, with a poem called “Genesis.” The poem opens with the biblical creation mantra “In the beginning…” and then hurls us into the present, or near-present.

In the beginning, God made heaven, earth
and Shalanda “Sha Sha” Haywood, born in
Brooklyn, August, 1972—died in Maryland,
July, 2010. None of this you will remember

“Genesis” continues as a kind of creation story, or a genealogy. We learn of a family’s losses and its humanity.

“What The Snake Whispered in Eve’s Ear” continues the Genesis imagery in a humorous way. Taking the tempting voice of Eden’s snake, we hear a new version of seduction. This snake flirts with Eve, calling her hips “wide as sky,” naming her a “goddess.” Sadly, we never hear Eve’s response. But the snake urges relentlessly. You can almost see him winking as he says, “Just let me introduce you / to a little nibble. I’m sure God will understand.”

Among the most moving poems in this section is “Auntie.” This poem celebrates a woman’s strength and love. We learn that she “parted coupon seas / at the Kroger.” The speaker and the woman “rode all over segregation’s / feathered carcass.” Finally, in a tender closing, the speaker “snuggled in her side like a rib / returning home.”

I couldn’t help laughing out loud while reading “On Flat Langston’s Escape from Busboys and Poets Plantation.” Here, Thomas writes of an event in the Washington, DC poetry scene where a cardboard cutout of Langston Hughes was stolen from a restaurant. This poem is hymn-like in its four-line stanzas and echoes Hughes with its careful rhymes. Thomas stays true to his justice themes as well. The cutout is, after all, liberated from a “plantation.” One almost wants to shout “Hallelujah!”

In the second section, “Hand Dances at the Well,” Thomas continues with poems that move because of their carefully crafted quality. Echoing the first section’s “Genesis,” this section begins with “Sunday Kind of Love,” which fuses the first miracle in John’s Gospel, the wedding feast at Cana, with a modern woman’s challenging life.

Shayna reads the Word and takes
the story of that first miracle as
serious as unpaid electric bills in
winter—

The poems in this section are replete with New Testament images and language. We get hints of the Sermon on the Mount, the Gospel of Mark, Judas’ thirty pieces of silver, the need to born again and more. Thomas uses these images with a light touch. If these poems preach–and they do–they are not preachy.

We are treated to both craft and insight. In “Sermon on the Block,” he tells us:

Blessed are the homeless who find ATM asylum for
their offering kingdom does not sleep nor slumber.

Blessed are those who do not mourn the death of paychecks:
for eviction shall overlook them like the Passover angel.

“The Third World” struck me as a powerfully written poem using the image of Mary standing at the foot of the cross as an entry point to consider the effect of lengthy incarceration on a prisoner’s mother.

Woman behold thy son–thy daughter, eighty-sixed in 8 by 6,
leg iron limp–wait, growling gut–wait, food arms wagging
steel door lips for bread of birdcage shit.

This compelling book closes with three poems that provoke the reader to consider the power of race, memory and art itself. In “Revelation,” we hear the African-American game of the Dozens in a reflection on race.

You so black,
eclipses wear you
for sunglasses.

This clever poem ends with a warning and celebration:

so black–so so so
eggplant, banana black, red-
boned, peanut butter, you can

never be
black
enough.

“We Too, The Foundation” takes us back to Hughes and celebrates other ancestors such as Aristotle, Malcolm X, Whitman and Martin Luther King.

This beautiful book closes with thoughts on the power of poetry and art. “Intersections” recalls a reading series of the same name in Washington, DC.

…on a snowplow rumbling
night, art wanders in off the street
to hold its own hand…

We see an art here that

will not “be good.” It will
interrupt you when you are speaking
and not say “excuse me.” It will duck
inside your door and eat up all your
cookies because it is hungry. It is
always hungry—especially here in
Anacostia’s abandoned mouth—

Thomas has created a strong and beautiful book of poems here. For those who don’t know biblical images, some of his descriptions might not land where he wants. For those who are turned off by biblical images, this might not be their book either. But if one gives these poems a chance, they can do what the best poems do: take us deeper into our own lives and deeper into the world.

In his review, Joseph captures the same contrasting aspects of Truth and his world that I witnessed that August afternoon at my home. But he cannot reproduce Truth’s speaking voice from a print book. Since Truth is a singer-songwriter as well as a poet, he deserves to be heard. Here he is reading his work at our Salon Series event. Listening to the speak water poem “What The Snake Whispered in Eve’s Ear” there was pure pleasure.

Note: You can get more background on speak water from a recent interview. And you can hear Truth read on August 9 at Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC.

Shapeshifting Through a Short Story Collection

Edith Pearlman

Edith Pearlman at the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Awards, March 2012 (Photo: David Shankbone)

Depending on the shine of light or the turn of a page, author Edith Pearlman shifts from the point of view of a lost six-year-old girl to an addict of a drug made from a Brazilian beetle. From a fed-up cancer patient to a pair of shop-lifting geezers to a Jewish student of Japanese. She’s a chameleon, but without the need to bask on rocks.

This author, who has been writing and publishing short stories in small literary magazines since college, found fame in her 70s when a new publisher, Lookout Books, was savvy enough to compile 21 of her older stories and 13 new pieces. The resulting book, Binocular Vision: New & Selected Storieshas gone on to win the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, the 2011 PEN/Malamud Award and a spot as a finalist for the National Book Award.

It didn’t hurt that Ann Patchett, bestselling author of the award-winning Bel Canto and last year’s ambitious State of Wonder, raved in the introduction:

Still, I think that Binocular Vision: New & Selected Stories should be the book with which Edith Pearlman casts off her secret-handshake status and takes up her rightful position as a national treasure. Put her stories beside those of John Updike and Alice Munro. That’s where they belong.

Here’s a section from the Pearlman short story “Self-Reliance” that will appear in the Audacity issue of Little Patuxent Review launching this Saturday. The main character Cornelia is contemplating ending her life after getting a second cancer diagnosis.

The tomatoes nestled in her striped bowl. For a moment she regretted leaving them, their rough scars, their bulges. Then, eyes wide open, the knowledgeable Cornelia endured a vision: emaciation, murky awakenings, children obediently keeping still. She squinted at a bedside visitor, she sat dejectedly on the commode, she pushed a walker to the corner mailbox and demanded a medal for the accomplishment, she looked at a book upside down. The mantle of responsible dependency…it would not fit. With one eye still open, she winked the other at the tomatoes.

Pearlman’s stories are packed with exacting prose, sly humor and telling gestures.

She researches, revises and imagines from her home in Boston but has traveled the world. When I asked her if being many ages already has aided her fiction, she said:

Yes. It would have helped also to have been many genders, many nationalities; to have belonged to many social classes and even many biological orders. But it was interesting to imagine being impoverished, male, Hungarian; in one story, a butterfly; in another, a devotee of a Brazilian drug made from beetles. Imagination joins experience.

As far as I know, she has never written a story from the point of view of an actual chameleon. But there’s plenty of time left.

Note: Susan’s Edith Pearlman interview runs in the Summer 2012 Audacity issue of Little Patuxent Review. Pearlman will appear on June 27 (sorry, it’s sold out) as part of the Columbia Festival of the Arts, which also includes the June 23 LPR launch reading.

A Day with the Editors, A Night at a Reading

LPR Editors Laura Shovan and Jen Grow with Centennial High School students

LPR editors Laura Shovan and Jen Grow (second row, far right) with Centennial High School Advanced Composition students (Photo: Jon Kolp)

It takes audacity and faith in yourself to begin sending work out to publications. We received several submissions from local teens, all for our upcoming Audacity issue. I tracked down these young writers to Corey O’Brien’s Advanced Composition class at Centennial High School in Ellicott City, Maryland. A few weeks ago, LPR Fiction Editor Jen Grow and I visited the class.

Here’s what two of the students in the class, Jennifer Swiger and Lucy Font, had to say about that day:

Every other day at 10:15 am, we write. Members of our class settle into seats, open daybooks and write. The girl near the door could be inventing a fantasy world between the lines of her notebook, while the boy in the back of the room could be filling his pages with a mouth-watering description of what he ate for lunch yesterday. Whatever the case may be, we write.

On Friday, however, we listened. Privileged with the presence of two editors from the acclaimed publication Little Patuxent Review, we learned that writing is about more than pen and paper. Seated before us were Editor Laura Shovan and Fiction Editor Jen Grow. A few minutes into their presentation, we began to scribble furiously, jotting down words of inspiration. As any class would, we had questions. Giancarlo Albano paved the way by asking, “How important is the title of a piece?”

From there, Shovan and Grow elaborated on countless aspects of the writing process, from revision to formatting. Their shared experience as editors and their words of wisdom as well as the diverse publications that they brought, ranging from Shovan’s high school literary magazine to the latest issue of LPR, proved to be invaluable.

Shovan and Grow emphasized a key piece of advice: do not give up. They made it clear that rejection is inevitable and, more importantly, that each rejection should strengthen the desire to persevere. An anecdote that made an impact on us involved a class of art students that had been painting diligently only to be instructed by the teacher to flip their canvases and paint over their work. Why not think of writing as a blank canvas, a clean slate? As Jackie Minehart said, “[the story] touches on the point that we have to have confidence in our writing skills and continue to progress in order to get better. If we realize one idea isn’t working, we must move forward.”

The generosity with which Shovan and Grow offered us their time and expertise was appreciated beyond words. As writers, we gained insight into both the process of publishing and the art of writing. We were taught to be fearless, honest with ourselves and, most importantly, true to our craft. We must write and continue to do so. Thank you, LPR!

Corey O'Brien with students

Three Centennial High School poets with teacher Corey O'Brien at LPR's Wisdomwell reading. From left to right, Jen Swiger, Poulomi Banerjee, Corey and Jackie Minehart. (Photo: Eva Quintos Tennant)

We invited Corey and his students to the following Friday’s Wisdomwell reading and were delighted that they took us up on it. The subsequent Monday, the three students who had read their own poems there–Jen Swiger, Poulomi Banerjee and Jackie Minehart–shared their experiences with the rest of the class. From what Corey later told us, it was clear that the evening had made a lasting impression on the students who had accompanied him. Jen Swiger, he said, had summed it up by saying that the Friday night poetry reading was the first time that she felt like a writer. As a both writer and an educator, I have to love that.

Online Editor’s Note: If you’re a teacher, you might be interested in our LPR in the Classroom Program, which offers our print publication at a discounted price. You might also want to read two pieces on how LPR was used in creative writing classes at Howard Community College: “LPR in the Classroom” and “An ‘Excellent’ Experiment.” In addition, our “Concerning Craft” series, particularly the one with input from a young poet (“Concerning Craft: Dylan Bargteil”), could be useful for classroom discussions.