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.

 

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Multigenerational Music: Jesse Paris Smith and Patti Smith

Jesse Paris Smith and Patti Smith

Jesse Paris Smith and Patti Smith at The Noguchi Museum (Photo: Patrick McMullan Company, 2012)The subject of intergenerational performers has been dear to my heart since I learned that my maternal grandmother’s family had broadcast a live AM radio show on Saturday nights from New York City in the Thirties and Forties. I was inspired to explore the topic further while attending Patti Smith concerts in NYC and Baltimore, where her son Jackson and her daughter Jesse joined her onstage. Since I am a musician and the theme of the upcoming LPR issue is music, I wanted to share what I learned. To get it right, I enlisted the help of Jesse Paris Smith, Patti Smith’s daughter.

Jesse describes her mother as “a true Renaissance woman,” which is evident from any bio. Known as “the Godmother of Punk,” Patti is a singer-songwriter, a poet and a visual artist. In 2005, she was named a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In 2007, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2010, she received the National Book Award for her memoir Just Kids and an ASCAP Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2011, she won a Polar Music Prize. And it won’t end there.

Jesse, whose guitarist father is the late Fred “Sonic” Smith, notes reverberations of Patti’s polymath persona in herself. Growing up in Michigan, Jesse recalls picking out melodies on the family piano. She never took it seriously until she heard her music teacher play Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.” Soon she was taking lessons, and music was becoming increasingly important. But she never intended to become a musician, considering environmental science as a career. In a college essay, she acknowledged the difficulty of deciding. Then she received an acceptance letter that asked, “Why choose between music and science? Maybe you can find a way to combine them and do both?”

Jesse says that her mother never planned a music career, either. “I think she believed that as she was following a path to be an artist, poet and writer, it happened that way by chance and fate. Music became the common voice that allowed her to carry her thoughts in a broader way and to reach people in a more accessible manner.” Jesse acknowledges envying those who have one dominant capability that they master but concludes,

There are all different kinds of people, and finding your clear path and purpose sometimes includes following a lot of different paths, a lifelong pursuit of learning and ever expanding and growing. My mom has never stopped learning, expanding her mind and knowledge and following through with her creative endeavors and projects. She loves to be busy and loves to work and create. And that is very admirable.

When she was 16, Jesse collaborated with her mother on the album Trampin’:

…she wanted to do a version of the old gospel song where the title comes from. She had a vinyl of Marian Anderson singing it, accompanied by piano, but we didn’t have any sheet music. My piano teacher worked with me, transposing the vinyl to sheet music, working out a lovely arrangement for me to play. So our piano lessons for a while were focused on learning “Trampin'” in time to record it for my mom’s album. When I was ready to play it, we went to Looking Glass, Philip Glass’s recording studio in NYC, and played it for the first time together, and that first take is what is on the Trampin’ album. I’m not sure it was a take that my teacher would have been very proud of and maybe if we would have tried it a few more times it would have sounded better, but there is something very human and humble about going with that first take, especially since I was so young and it was a mother-daughter recording, our first meeting at the song after having our own journey with it.

Listen here and judge for yourself:

 

Jesse subsequently collaborated with other musicians in the Detroit and NYC areas and has been involved in many multimedia events, especially those in art galleries and museums. In particular, she has been working with Eric Hoegemeyer, a multifaceted musician, composer and engineer whom she met in Detroit and who eventually relocated to NYC, where Jesse now lives. She and Eric share Tree Laboratory, a studio in Brooklyn.

She considers the Patti Smith Band to be family, since she’s known the members all her life and feels she that she has learned so much about musicianship through watching and working with them. During her summers as a teenager, she was involved in behind-the-scenes aspects, learning about production, staging and touring. One summer, there was a change in the lineup. A keyboard player was needed, and she was asked to fill in. She still remembers the first song that she played with the group: “Pissing in a River.”

She describes working with her mother by saying, “She is a true performer, and it’s amazing to watch. The stage presence, confidence and energy she has is remarkable.” She credits her mother with helping her dive into new worlds.

She will do something like bring some poems, part of a book or stories or a letter to me, and we will talk about what is happening in it, what it sounds like, the mood of the different lines and parts of the text. And through looking at that and talking about it, write a piece of music that corresponds to it. Another way we will work is that I will write a piece of music and bring it to her and she will think of a piece of writing or look for something that she thinks fits with the music, and we will try it out. If it doesn’t quite fit, we will find another text that suits it better.

An annual event where Jesse and Patti present is a performance at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. They select an exhibit and create a musical program in response to the subject matter. Jesse also composes pieces, and her mother reads a variety of texts appropriate to the subject matter. In 2012, her tenth performance there, Patti paid tribute to Andy Warhol, her fellow traveler in the Seventies.

Jesse, Jackson and Patti Smith at Detroit Institute of Arts with Diego Rivera's fresco as a backdrop.

Jesse, Jackson and Patti Smith playing at the Detroit Institute of Arts with a Diego Rivera fresco as the backdrop. (Photo: Michelle Pesta Culkowski)

Jesse also performs with her brother Jackson, a Detroit-based guitarist. “When I play music with my brother and my mom, it feels even more like family. My brother is such a technically advanced and gifted musician, and when we all play together we just laugh and have fun.” She says the same about performing with Eric, who will join her and Patti in an upcoming Met performance this fall.

Making multigenerational music has worked well for Jesse:

My family and I, as well as Eric, have developed a rapport working and playing together, developing our language and collaboration skills. This has helped teach me to relax, breathe properly and find the right notes. It’s so wonderful to work with people who believe in you. Music helps you to develop in so many areas of your life. It helps you with your brain functions, with developing your creative mind and exploring different facets of the world, which leads you in all directions. Just like how on an instrument there are so many songs and pieces just waiting to be written and found. It’s the common language of the world. It is a pretty remarkable thing.

And what does Patti Smith herself feel about the future of her musical family? She says,

I feel very optimistic about our future, collectively and individually. We are all healthy, positive and diligent workers and have a loving and communicative relationship. Professionally, I believe we will continue to evolve. I look forward to recording and performing with both of them. The three of us together really magnify the memory of their father. Jesse and I are planning our own album. So, as Elvis Presley sang, “The future looks bright ahead.”

Note: For information about upcoming releases and events, check Patti Smith’s website. And keep an eye out for Jesse’s new site (jesseparissmith.com), which will go live soon.

 

5 Questions for Jen Michalski, Author of The Tide King

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Baltimore-based author and editor, Jen Michalski.

When author Jen Michalski was featured in the Baltimore Sun this summer, the headline called 2013 “a prolific year” for her. That phrase is appropriate. Michalski, a mainstay of the tight-knit Baltimore literary scene, will have three books published between January 2013 and April 2014.

But for a writer as hard-working as Michalski, “prolific year” is also misleading. In addition to working on her own writing, Michalski edits the Baltimore-based journal jmww and frequents local literary readings.

Michalski and I spoke about her not-so-sudden success last weekend, and we followed with an email exchange. I had recently read The Tide King, her stand-alone novel (Black Lawrence Press).

thetideking_cover_lorestrials_4Laura Shovan (LS): With three books published within an eighteen-month period and a feature in the Baltimore Sun, one might be tempted to say, “Jen Michalski is an overnight success.” Those of us involved in the local scene know that you are a longtime literary community activist. Over the years, how have you balanced supporting other writers—through projects like jmww, the 510 Reading Series, and the City Sages anthology—with staying committed to your own writing?

Jen Michalski (JM): I don’t know, really! It all works out, somehow. A caveat—I like to keep busy. I have this manic mental itch, and there are so many other things I would attempt to scratch it with if I weren’t so involved in the writing community: I want to learn to play the bass and trumpet, attend the symphonies and opera, surf, and knit. I often wish the days were twice as long, or that there were two of me!

That said, ironically, my projects don’t leave a lot of time for writing. Fortunately, I do a lot of my work internally, in dreams and also subconsciously; and by the time I write it out, I’ve worked it over and over in my head and it’s pretty much the way it will be on the page. Writing also just comes when it’s ready, not when I try to force it, so I don’t feel pressured to set aside an hour a day and wait for something to happen. Finally, it helps that I’m a self-employed medical editor, which means my schedule is pretty flexible for when the writing does erupt.

Ultimately, though, being involved in the community is inspiring to me as a writer. All writing is a dialogue between writer and reader, and when I’ve attended a great reading or accepted a great piece for jmww or just talked with another writer about his or her inspiration or process or even kids, I am compelled to respond in my own way somehow, whether right away or subconsciously, a few months later. I feel like these outside projects fertilize the garden, in a way.

Salon Series, New York

Jen Michalski

LS: We talked about the way different threads of research came together as you were constructing The Tide King: the last “witch” burned in Poland, your family’s immigration story, a National Geographic article about the sinking of the Bismarck, both your grandfathers’ WWII experiences. All of these, except for the Bismarck, are key themes or events in The Tide King. Would you describe your research process? How do you know when something you uncover is going to work for the book?

JM: Research excites me because I never know what I’m going to turn up. In fact, I no longer lock myself in a plotline early on when I’m writing or researching the novel. When I’m researching I’m like a boat in the ocean; I can glide along in lot of different directions and trajectories before seeing land again. And then I might wind up landing in Cape Town when I thought I was going to Madrid!

Even though my research is driven by things about which I’m passionate, I just try to remain open to what I find. If I really wanted to set the novel in Alaska but when I’m Googling I read about a fishing village in Nova Scotia that really excites me, I go with it. In that sense, I know something is going to work when I become excited about it, when the story suddenly opens up and expands. Sometimes, though, the research just gets cut, and I’m okay with that. I wrote about 600 pages of The Tide King and only wound up using 300. I don’t feel they were wasted pages—they were just sort of the outtakes you wind up seeing on movie DVDs. (In fact, a lot of the deleted scenes did wind up being stand-alone stories that were published.)

I also try to stay loose through the various revisions of the novel. The first draft is so different from the second, the second from the third, and so on. Although the characters and the basic plot may stay the same, all the scenes, the setups, can have changed from the first to third draft. It used to be something that frustrated me, because you want to keep the energy of the first draft or idea without watering it down through the revisions. But often the revisions take it to a better place. Now, I try and concentrate on just digging through the research, the draft writing, knowing that I’m going to hit pay-dirt down the road—I trust my intuition will guide me to where I need to be. I am a writer entirely in the moment of writing. I never think about when I should be finished with a particular novel, whether I’ve spent too much time on it, and I also never wish for a novel to end. I try to have so much fun writing it that I’m disappointed when I’ve done all I can and it’s finally finished, that I have to find something else to do.

LS: Early in the novel, Barbara, an herbalist living in rural Poland in the 1800s, discovers a patch of burnette saxifrage that’s been struck by lightning. The herb, she realizes, has extraordinary healing powers. You said that this story, while not scientific, is drawn from both history and folklore. How did this element of magical realism become the novel’s inciting incident, the thing that draws these characters—who span over 100 years—together?

JM: The decision to use the herb, for me, was definitely, the “aha” moment. When I first started writing about Stanley and Calvin in the European theater of World War II (which was inspired indirectly by a story I’d read about the battleship Bismarck in National Geographic), I didn’t know what was going to happen with them. In the back of my mind I knew I didn’t want to write a war novel, even as I wanted to honor my grandfathers, who both served and never talked about it. But I kept writing, figuring that what to do next would occur to me by the time I got to that crossroads. And it did—one day, I was looking through some story files on my computer and found fifty pages of this other novel I had started many years before and forgotten. It featured the enchanted burnette saxifrage. I wondered, “What if one of the soldiers, Stanley or Calvin, gives it to the other?” Burnette saxifrage became the lynchpin—it could tie centuries of family and people together by the nature of its “curse.” It also provided a conceit, the curse of immortality and how humans deal with loneliness and time passing. But I was many months into research and writing before I realized the true story of The Tide King—and it turned out I’d been working on it for years without even realizing it.

LS: The friendship of WWII buddies Stanley and Calvin is central to The Tide King. However, the female characters shape the trajectory of Stanley’s and Calvin’s lives. How did you come up with Stanley’s love interest, little person and country music star Cindy? You said that Cindy’s daughter, Heidi, drives the second half of the novel. Can you explain what you meant?

JM: I don’t really know why I made Cindy a little person. I know I wanted to include country music because I was reading a lot about 1940s and 1950s country music, Patsy Cline and the Browns and Hank Williams Sr. So I knew Cindy would be a country music star. I always am drawn to the different, the “other.” I’ve written before about people with disabilities because I’m interested in their perspectives, so it wasn’t a stretch for me to include this twist in Cindy’s character.

Also, in a way,  although I didn’t realize it at the time, she becomes kind of a foil for Ela, who is also a little person in that she’s a two-hundred-year-old woman trapped in the body of a nine-year-old girl. Ela wants to die but she can’t, and Cindy wants to live on forever, immortalized as a country music star.

But Cindy and Kate (Calvin’s first love) drive the story. Calvin and Stanley never get over Kate and Cindy, and they are both driven through life by them in different ways. For one, it is a helpful, positive coping, and for the other, it’s not. I think it’s a very human condition, our “muses,” and the thin line between the destructive and redemptive nature of them.

Heidi’s story, even as it comprises the last third of the novel, is kind of a surprise to the reader, I think, and it was intentional on my part. For Ela and Calvin and Stanley and everyone else who comes in contact with the burnette saxifrage over the course of two hundred years, their information is very incomplete. They ingested the herb and did not know it, it wasn’t forced upon them, or they’re not aware of the breadth of its repercussions. Heidi is a character who is given full knowledge of the herb, knows what it can do, has seen how it affects those who take it. And, at the novel’s end, she must make a choice about the herb, and she is the only one, to that point, with the agency to decide whether or not she should take it, what should be done with it. I wanted to explore that freedom to decide one’s fate, through Heidi. To that point, the herb, or the search for the herb, for answers, had been the driving force.

LS: The one question you said most people ask about The Tide King is: Will there be a sequel? Explain why your answer is no.

JM: I think it’s good to leave the reader with questions. Life isn’t tied up in a bow, and I don’t think stories should be, either. There is no happy ever after—life just ends, and there’s nothing we really have to drive ourselves through it except our hopes—our hopes to be happy, to fall in love, to be successful. Which, on the face of it, are all human constructs, not real. And that’s what the characters in The Tide King have at the end—their hopes, however slim and unrealistic. There’s nothing that Calvin or Ela or Heidi could do in a sequel that would change the course of humanity, of the human condition. It’s sort of an old story, the follies and hopes of humankind, that doesn’t need a sequel. I thought that was the most fitting, realistic ending of all.

Jen Michalski lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She was voted one of the best authors in Maryland by CBS News, one of “50 Women to Watch” by the Baltimore Sun, and “Best Writer” by Baltimore Magazine (Best of Baltimore issue, 2013). Her novel THE TIDE KING (Black Lawrence Press) was voted “Best Fiction” by the Baltimore City Paper. She is the author of two collections of fiction, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS (So New, 2007) and FROM HERE (Aqueous Books, 2014) and a collection of novellas, COULD YOU BE WITH HER NOW (Dzanc Books, 2013). She also edited the anthology CITY SAGES: BALTIMORE, which Baltimore Magazine called “Best of Baltimore” in 2010. She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww and hosts the monthly reading series the 510 Readings in Baltimore.

For more about The Tide King, see the Baltimore Sun’s review. Also consider reading up on Jen’s previous book, COULD YOU BE WITH HER NOW, reviewed by LPR earlier this year. Jen’s book FROM HERE is due to be published by Aqueous Books in April 2014.

A Collaboration With The Audience: Gerry LaFemina on Music and Poetry

One of the intersections of music and literature that we have explored is the parallels and distinctions between songwriting and crafting both prose and poetry. While Don Biggar drew our attention to the parallels in structure between his songs and his wife Lisa’s stories, Truth Thomas brought our attention to the contrasts between a poet’s solitary efforts and the collaborative musical ensemble. This week Gerry LaFemina, poet and punk rocker whose “Sunday Girl” appeared in our Music issue and whose music can be found in the media player on the sidebar of this site, extends the ongoing discussion to the collaboration between performer and audience. Without further obstruction, Gerry LaFemina:

Gerry LaFemina. (Photo: gerrylafemina.net)

Gerry LaFemina. (Photo: gerrylafemina.net)

First and foremost, I’m a writer, primarily a poet. I spend many hours trying to decide which word is the best word, which order is the best order. And in that space it’s up to me to make those choices. I read the poems aloud, usually at home but sometimes when I’m out, too, which prompts looks from strangers at nearby tables. I tweak words all the time. In all the poems I read regularly at public events, there are changes penned into the books.

And even though there are people whose opinion I trust about what’s going on in my work, even writers I admire and like, people who have the best interest of my poems and fictions in their minds when they approach my work, even then, it’s still up to me to make the decisions. I can agree or disagree with any opinion.

That said, when I’m in the band basement, with the Fender Jaguar hanging from my shoulder and working on a new song with The Downstrokes it’s a completely different process. There, with my fellow song writer Mike Holland as well as our drummer William Poorbaugh and bassist Jamie Lockard, I’m not just writing something that represents me to the audience (as a poem does) but trying to come up with something that represents us–the vision we have for this band. Whether lyrically or musically, it’s a collaboration, and as such I’m focused on who we are: four guys in our forties playing (punk) rock & roll.

And then there are all the strictures of writing what is essentially pop music: a hook, a chorus, a melody, something that can be sung along to.

It’s not unusual for Mike and me to struggle for the right chord or for me to ask him to play a riff over and over until I have a melody, a set of words–invoked in part by the chords and notes and tempo he’s playing. Nor is it unusual for Bill to suggest a tempo change, Jamie to suggest a variation on the progression, or me to suggest we go high instead of low. I find it refreshing, this give and take.

Perhaps this has to do with the fact that, ultimately, the song writing process is not just collaborative with the other band members; it’s also a collaboration with the audience. When we’re on stage and I’m singing and playing, the audience is there–they’re real, they’re listening to us, and (I hope) they’re responding. Which is to say that, when people in the audience left our first gig singing the chorus of “Punk Rock Lolita,” I had the verification of success that I rarely have as a poet: someone remembered the combined efforts of the songwriters and it was lodged in their heads.

Rarely has this happened at a poetry reading, and when it does, when someone comes up to me and says “When you read those lines . . .” and they can quote a few lines of a poem, I feel a kind of success that far trumps most acceptance letters. I feel the same way when someone takes the time to write me an email about a poem of mine they read.

Poetry writing, fiction writing, they are different from song writing in ways both obvious and subtle. I like to think the relationship between the artists and their audiences in songwriting (at least when the song writer is also the performer) is the key difference. I know when a song is working almost immediately because the audience lets me know ASAP. As a literary writer, it may take years of rejection letters about a particular piece before I give it up. That’s the real challenge of the artist going it alone as a writer. You have to decide yourself when to give a piece up. The band, they’ll let me know something isn’t working almost right away.

A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, LaFemina holds an MFA in poetry from Western Michigan University as well as an MA in literature with an emphasis on twentieth-century literature from WMU. He has taught at Nazareth College, Kirtland Community College, West Virginia University, Wheeling Jesuit University, and Sarah Lawrence College. He directs the Frostburg Center for Creative Writing at Frostburg State University, where he is an associate professor of English.

Concerning Craft: Kathleen O’Toole

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 Kathleen O’Toole. Kathleen has taught writing at Johns Hopkins and the Maryland Institute College of Art, which is just a part of her thirty-year career in community organizing through writing and teaching. In 2005 she published a chapbook, Practice, followed by a full-length collection, Meanwhile, in 2011.

We published her poem “Mo-Bay, December Score” in our Summer 2013 Music issue. Here she is reading that poem and another piece at our launch event:

Here are the insights she had to share about the writing and refinement of the poem:

The wise poet and teacher Lucille Clifton often asked fellow poets in discussing a poem: “What does the poem want?” I thought of her counsel in reflecting on how my poem “Mo-Bay, December Score” found its form.  The poem emerged from a series of journal entries after a winter getaway over a decade ago. In its original draft, it rambled through the Jamaican landscape, weaving together nature and street scenes with impulsive digressions on culture and language. (I am after all a community organizer as well as a poet!)  The poem had not found its organizing principle, and it showed.  Images were strewn across several pages like a leggy bush in need of pruning.  Here and there an authoritative voice emerged to conduct the jumble of impressions.

An opportunity to submit to a Jazz-themed journal a few years later sent me looking for suitable poems, and I noted the embedded musicality in the Montego Bay material. My mother introduced me to poetry by reading to me from a very young age. My ear was tuned there, and my own early poems showed it.  I still enjoy playing with internal rhyme, and the rhythmic elements of poetry surface even when I’m not writing in metric form.

Once I read “December Montego Bay”, as it was then titled, aloud, I heard how much I’d been preoccupied with sound ─ the soundtrack of my trip ─ in the environment, in human interaction, the sound of Jamaican English, and the constant cacophony of actual music. It showed up in my language, whether mimicking reggae with short percussive syllables, or responding to the landscape with lush, melodic lines. So, subsequent revisions aimed at heightening those elements, including a new title (first “Mo-Bay December Blues” then its current, more inclusive “December Score”).

Further playing with the language of the piece, I looked for musical metaphors and allusions, consciously selecting verbs like “scaling” and “serenades”. Then as I edited and compressed, I observed that the poem contained several “movements” that set up the possibility of a jazz-like improvisation.  So some sections begin with an observation: “You can learn a lot about a country from its dogs,” or “Egrets keep the cows free from ticks,” then break into a musical riff from that starting chord. Others, like the final section, seem to be propelled by an inherent music ─ a rhythm or syncopation that I had simply heard and transcribed: fragments of local street patois, or the way images resonated in my ear.

Banana, pineapple and cane sugar for rum

coffee beans from the Blue Mountains.

A swarm ─ bees to honey.

A plague              ─             rats to garbage.

A storm─          and the plastic leftovers flood

from hillside culverts into the pristine bay.

The version of “Mo-Bay, December Score” that appears in the music issue has been revised and revisited over 7-8 years. Still I found myself tinkering with the stanzas and line breaks right up to print deadline. I fretted: it looks raggedy on the page. But when I read the poem, as I did at the June launch, I hear the “bristle and edge of the daily score” as clearly as I experienced it that December. And I find myself playing with the sound as I present the piece. As I commented at the launch:  ”This poem was fun to write!”  And just as much fun to interpret in my own voice.

Note: If you enjoyed Kathleen’s poem and want to read more poetry and prose from our Music issue, you can purchase copies of that issue and others online.

Some Consequences of Submitting

Just so you know. This is what can happen when you submit your work to LPR:

Dylan Bargteil

Dylan Bargteil (Photo: Colleen Napolitano)

Your poem gets published, say in the Winter 2012 Social Justice issue. You get invited to present your poem at the launch reading. The online editor, seated in the audience, is intrigued. She likes your mastery of metaphor. And that you use it to say something. She asks you to write about how you came up with the poem for the blog. And to include an image of yourself, if you don’t mind, that isn’t boring. You comply on both counts, and she posts something that looks like “Concerning Craft: Dylan Bargteil.”

Time passes. The online editor is deep into doubt—the upcoming Winter 2013 Doubt issue, that is. She cites Voltaire, references epistemology. Then she remembers how much damn fun doubt can be, especially when one is young. So she writes about that and adds images. And, recalling that you actually are young, asks you to prepare a post, too. And to include an image of yourself, if you don’t mind, that isn’t boring. You do all that, and she posts something similar to “Delving into Doubt: Worship No Idols.” There, you reveal that you are a musician as well as a poet. But the pertinent fact that you are now pursuing a doctorate in physics—the uncertainty principle and all that—seems to slip your mind.

Time passes, and the sausage-making mechanism that serves as the guts of many a lit mag grinds on at LPR. And exacts the occasional ounce of flesh. Reminding you that the upcoming Summer 2013 Music issue is in the works, the online editor requests tracks of your tunes. You send some. (See “Scene II [Rough Mix]” in the sidebar.) Then vault into the vat on your own, providing lines from physicist Richard Feynman to tout the Winter 2014 Science issue. And start to develop a sense of what we’re about while you’re there. Responding to our editor’s recent post on what sets us apart, you state something like:

At the readings and online, it’s clear that LPR has fostered a literary community that is genuinely interested in developing the role of the arts in society and our own lives. More impressively, the conversations among members of this community truly do span not only geography but also fields of study, socioeconomic background, gender, age and other borderlines along which too many communities become insular.

Now, all that’s required is a twist in the plot. The online editor, a fiction writer in her free time, rises splendidly to the occasion. Being sufficiently experienced to skip the tedious expository stuff that no one reads anyway, she types the simple declarative sentence “I resign.” And omits more–though elements of her thought process can be inferred—to ask you, the poet-musician-physicist submitter-contributor who also happens to have been the editor-in-chief of the University of Maryland literary and arts journal Stylus and has since started a delectable beer-brewing and pizza-making blog, to serve as her successor.

Now, all she needs is an answer. Instead, you elect to quiz her. She replies, Jeopardy! style, with a question as well, albeit a rhetorical one. “So what?” she asks and asserts that unfamiliarity with the LPR community might matter less than you imagine. That when she started this site, many in that community looked a lot like her. That she wanted to make it look more like America and, in some respects, succeeded. That you, as a young man, can address an untapped audience. And, moreover, do the same as a musician, a physicist, a beer-brewer, a pizza-maker (and more). That there are untold opportunities to explore what “LPR community” can eventually come to mean. You respond by stating:

I’ve decided to accept the position. It sounds like an exciting experiment! I share your concerns and aspirations and look forward to being in a position to tackle them.

LPR applauds your decision. And the online editor is delighted to pass the baton to you right after the launch. Now, let’s get back to that other “you,” the one left wondering in the wings. Both present and future online editors suggest that YOU buy (and read) our Music issue, study the guidelines in preparation for the August 1 opening of our Science issue submission period, do the work required to dazzle LPR with your style and savvy and stick around to see what happens. Here’s some music to get you in the mood:

Dylan Bargteil is a PhD student in the NYU Physics Department. He studied poetry with the Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House at the University of Maryland, where he also served as the editor-in-chief of the literary journal Stylus. His poetry has been published in Little Patuxent Review and Poetry Quarterly and has received the Jiménez-Porter Literary Prize. He is also a recording musician, is currently working on multi-media and anonymous public art projects and will soon start serving as the LPR online editor.

An Annotated Tour of the Music Issue

Show LPR Some Love, Ellicott City, MD, February 2013 (Photo: Laura Shovan)

Show LPR Some Love, Ellicott City, MD, February 2013 (Photo: Laura Shovan)

At the Show LPR Some Love event this February, we held our first community discussion. Submissions to our music-themed issue were accumulating, so we gathered together local readers for an hour-long talk about music on a snowy day. The conversation was wide-ranging: spirituals, song sparrows, memory, the aging brain and other aspects that our readers hoped to see in this edition.

The first item on the list that we compiled was the relationship of music to sacred and cultural beliefs. In our featured interview, poet Marie Howe explains how the church hymns and Bible stories that she heard as a child influenced the core of her work. Other pieces bear her out: music is a means of communicating culture, whether in Martinique [i] or Baltimore [ii].

The second item was the relationship of music to language. How do musicians use silence to contribute to a song? Are we singing when we talk [iii]? And what about music that is not constructed by human beings: a bird’s song [iv], a wolf’s call?

The item that resulted from the liveliest part of our conversation concerned the relationship of music to memory. Our associations with music, especially songs from childhood and young adulthood, run deep. Work with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients has shown that even when patients no longer talk, they can still sing old standards.

Several pieces address the connection between music and memory [v]. Knowing a favorite tune word-for-word or note-by-note, listeners feel an intimacy with the performer. When we are lonely, music can provide solace [vi] or feed our sense of isolation [vii]. Famous musicians—rockers Debbie Harry [viii] and Neil Young, blues legend Billie Holliday and jazz great Thelonius Monk [ix]—make cameo appearances in our Music issue. Their songs serve as the backdrop for stories of love, heartbreak and transformation [x].

The last item concerned the way in which music creates community. An audience shares a live performance [xi]. Even one listener, such as cover artist Robin Rose [xii] painting alone in his studio to favorite jazz pieces, completes the performance. As with our journal, there is no performance without an audience to respond to our compositions.

[i] Martinican poet Suzanne Dracius’s piece “Pointe-des-Nègres” appears as an English translation by Nancy Naomi Carlson and in the original French. It is accompanied by Ann Bracken’s “An Interview with Nancy Naomi Carlson,” where maintaining musicality in poetry translations is addressed.

[ii] In her poem “Locust Sounds,” Clarinda Harriss points out that the sounds of nature can be heard even in a city such as Baltimore. For a different sort of Baltimorean sound, see 2013 Pratt Poetry Contest finalist Steve Leyva’s poem “Highlandtown after the Zappa Statue.”

[iii] Hope Johnson’s musical poem “Sangin’” addresses this issue.

[iv] Lori Powell’s “To the Bird that Wakes Me” won the 2013 Pratt contest.

[v] See Debra Kaufman’s poem “Strays” and David Vardeman’s short story “Known to God.”

[vi] Gregory Luce finds solace in the classic Coltrane album A Love Supreme in his poem “Aspirins and Coffee.”

[vii] In “Close to You,” Missy Roback’s protagonist uses her obsession with music to avoid building relationships with other people.

[viii] Gerry LaFemina’s prose poem “Sunday Girl” imagines a chance encounter with Blondie.

[ix] Tim Hunt’s poem “Thelonius Monk” recreates a performance at the end of Monk’s career.

[x] Essayist Cliffton Price describes pop music’s powerful association with time in “An Otherwise Empty Room.”

[xi] Anne Harding Woodworth’s poem “On Seeing Psycho in a Concert Hall” looks at the community that a performance creates.

[xii] LPR Art Consultant Michael Salcman’s profile of Rose includes a full-color portfolio of the abstract artist’s work.

To read the full text of a poem and a short story appearing in the Music issue, click here. For more on the art, see “The Integration of Art, Music and More: Robin Rose.”