Monthly Archives: August 2013

“Wearing Three Hats” by Clarinda Harriss

Wearing three hats is uncomfortable.  Wearing more than three is unwieldy to the point of picture of Clarinda Harriss and two friendsimmobilizing you, which is probably just as well because you look ridiculous.  The hats I totter under are beret, mortarboard, schoolmarmish cloche, black prison uniform cap, fedora with press pass stuck in the brim, and flapper’s feathered whimsy.

There’s a chronology to this list—the hats represent poet and fiction writer since age 19 (when my first story was published in a magazine); college grad/grad school survivor (1956-62); newspaper columnist (80s through 90s); volunteer with The Writers’ Club at the Maryland House of Correction for Men (80s and 90s again); schoolteacher/professor (1961-2011); and publisher (1974 to present). I claim the flapper feather because the nonprofit literary press I have directed for more than 40 years, BrickHouse Books, Inc., was just named Baltimore’s 2013 Best by Baltimore Magazine, occasioning my feathered attendance at the magazine’s speakeasy-themed celebratory bash.  Over the 50+ years I’ve been piling those hats on, I rapidly doff and don them in varying orders (cf. the great hat-passing scene in Waiting For Godot).

Clarinda HarrissAsked about “transitioning” from, say, teaching and/or writing to publishing, I have to reply that there have been no such seques. Starting almost from the moment I announced to my astonished (and probably rather disheartened) writer/editor/teacher/administrator parents that the things I would never grow up to do were writing, publishing,teaching and administering (oh, by the way, I chaired Towson University’s English Department for a decade), I began doing all those things.

The one activity conducted by both my parents which I did not rule out was parenting, and in retrospect I am convinced that the refuge of ordinariness, even (dare I say) emotional health which I gained by having my two lively, interesting, curious, smart, busy children around most of the time from my late twenties through my fifties is why wearing all those hats worked out pretty well. It made my schedule almost make sense: they were my constant while I was doing some writing either before everybody got up or after everybody went to bed; teaching at “Beltway University” (the Clarinda and Tom at the 2012 Bookfair adjunct thing, driving from, say, UMBC [University of Maryland, Baltimore Campus] to Goucher to Towson University) to teach a couple of courses at each place; driving a carpool; cooking dinner (what sensual pleasure we writers find in cooking!), and so on. I’m sure you all know the drill. My point is that virtually all my poems, stories, and articles came out of those activities more or less directly. It wasn’t exactly that I wrote about those activities. It was that they set off a noise in my brain, a hunger in my gut, providing words and images which hooked together in ways that surprised me.

I think being in a state of constant surprise is one of a writer’s most essential work-tools—that and, of course, obsession. A few years ago there was a PR campaign for some worthy literary enterprise which featured the question, “If you couldn’t write, would you die?”  A writer is supposed to answer yes, of course. For me the question got it backwards: in order to make me not write–not think in words and images, whether or not they ever got down on paper, you would have to kill me.  Knock on wood—Irish style, fist to skull: I’m still alive–and sporting hats.

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BrickHouse Books



An Interview with Doritt Carroll

book cover for GLTTL STP

If you ask her, Doritt Carroll will tell you that she is (unfortunately) a lawyer and (fortunately) the mother of two daughters.  She received her undergraduate and law degrees from Georgetown University. Her collection In Caves was published in 2010 by Brickhouse Books.  Her poems have also appeared in a long list of publications, including Coal City Review, Poet Lore, Nimrod, Slipstream, Rattle, The Baltimore Review, and the Journal of Formal Poetry. Her poem “motherlove” appeared in the Fuck Poems anthology by Lavender Ink.  Her book Glttl Stp will be published in September 2013. Ilse Munro write of this latest volume that “Carroll’s control and precision reveal aspects of the human condition that would leave a lesser poet running from the room, screaming.” Lorraine Whittlesey describes Carroll’s voice as “uniquely honest,” a voice that employs “Picasso’s and Miles Davis’s understanding of the importance of the space between objects.”

HUERGO: What moves you to write? picture of Doritt Carroll

CARROLL: I don’t know if I’m exactly answering your question, but when I write, I’m having a conversation.  I want someone to see something I’ve seen, in the way that I’ve seen it.  Often, I’m writing to someone who wouldn’t actually listen if I called them up to describe it.  And, to be fully frank, I’m often imagining that if I write something good enough, people will be proud of me, people who could never be proud of me in real life.

HUERGO: How would you describe your drafting and revision process?

CARROLL: I think i’m different from other poets.  I’m not a good reviser.  If I get myself in a position in which extensive revisions are necessary, I may never finish the poem.  It’s almost as if, by writing it down, I’ve painted myself into a corner.  So when I get an idea, I try NOT to write it down or even say it out loud.  Instead, I arrange it and change it completely in my mind.  I only start writing when I’m pretty sure it’s in the right form, and only minor alterations, such as line breaks or avoiding the repetition of a word, will be needed.

HUERGO: What is the most important theme in your work?  Why?

book cover for In Caves CARROLL: I think I have trouble writing a poem that isn’t about isolation.  It’s the theme of my existence.  I was a late in life child of troubled parents.  If I think about myself as a child, I’m always alone with a book or a doll.  Even in the middle of a crowd, I will often stop to notice how the essential parts of ourselves never meet, never interact.  I think true human contact and understanding between two people is almost a myth.

HUERGO: Was there a teacher or mentor who influenced your writing?

CARROLL: Gerry Connolly was my first real teacher. She taught me that, when I’ve painted myself into a corner, it’s often helpful to read others who have written on the same topic, or in the same way, to see how they solved the problem. In more recent years, I can’t say enough about Clarinda Harriss.  She has been editor, mentor, publisher, and indefatigable reader of emailed drafts.

HUERGO: What advice do you have for writers?                                                      “everything good  is in the things / that we don’t say”

CARROLL: “Throw grenades at your clichés! Your goal in writing should be to make us see an ordinary subject in a completely new way. Make your reader say, “Well, I’m never going to look at that in the same way again.” 

HUERGO: What are you working on next?

CARROLL: Unlike others, who write a book and then find a title, I find a title, and it tells me what book to write.  The book I just finished is called GLTTL STP (glottal stop), a term that refers to choking off sound briefly when singing.  The minute I thought of that title, I knew I would write a book about things withheld, things not said.  The next title, and I have just started working on this, is Sorry You Are Not an Instant Winner.  We’ll see where that title takes me.

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“Be an Autodidact” by Fatima Brown

I just finished a course in Latino/a Feminisms that included the topics of history, identity, and feminism. The class was writing intensive, allowing students the possibility to explore their personal views on particular matters. Something we all found curious was our unfamiliarity with Latin America Fatima Brownand its history. I believe most of us were unprepared to tackle the subject because we were either not taught that history during previous years of schooling, or we were not taught sufficiently, even correctly. Unfortunately, this was not the first time I have faced the challenge of being unschooled in something that is vital to know and understand. Shortly after the class ended, Professor Elizabeth Huergo invited me to compose a reflection on my experiences with college writing. I decided to reflect on how formal education does not equip students with the necessary tools and knowledge.

When I started at Mason, my first class was not with Professor Huergo. I took a basic, required English course. A few weeks into it, I noticed how many red marks continued to appear on the work that was returned to me. I was a junior in college, yet I did not know where to place a comma properly. But I was not the only one whose work was being torn into. The professor of that required course made a comment to the class about how grammar is not taught correctly from elementary through high school. My first instinct was to drop out of college and repeat school from the first grade. I wondered if any primary school would legitimately consider my request. I honestly felt like I needed to re-learn everything. I was embarrassed at my misunderstanding of language.

Then I thought more deeply about my professor’s comment and asked myself, how did I get away with making the same errors for so long? I was extremely concerned and realized that formal schooling teaches the same things, but not necessarily accurately or analytically. For example, the subject of history is diluted with dates and names of wars and their heroes. The reason why most students end up dragging their feet to history class is because it is not often enough a subject that encourages questioning and thinking about why history repeats itself. History is presented as inactive and passive. We learn to memorize events, the people involved, and the period. We take a test that measures our ability to remember those facts and then forget them as soon as we fill in the last multiple-choice question.

Fatima BrownUntil college, most of us do not get to sit down and break history apart. When we finally decide to question its assumptions and causes critically. Those are the discussions that ignite a network of light bulbs, making it easier for eyes and fingers to trace the lines between then “now” and “then.” That sort of critical thinking helps us develop a better understanding and respect for all people as we study different and various histories. This understanding and respect allows us to sharpen political and social consciousness, strengthening our grasp on the complexities of human nature. Most important, history becomes a channel of identity and compels an individual to discover his or her own. The greatest assets of education are its gifts of practicality and usefulness outside of the classroom. We can apply those critical and investigative skills to question and form ourselves.

After completing that required English course, I decided to accept criticism and force myself to try to do better. Instead of feeling discouraged, I started to teach myself the fundamentals because I believed sloppy grammar and punctuation should be forgiven but fixed. I was determined to learn where those darned comma belonged and why. So my English re-education began with the basic parts and structures of a sentence. Besides its relevance to clauses and conjunctions, a comma came to symbolize for me the importance of spending time learning about seemingly little things that have such an extraordinary power to change meaning.

Education should present information the way a skeleton watch displays tiny pins and wheels. Subjects need to be exposed from the inside-out. Pupils must see the bones and internal mechanisms of systems because those mechanisms affect our lives. Personally, I take responsibility for not doing certain things that could have benefited me. But generally speaking, education needs to be reformed in its entirety, beginning with what we learn about and how. Integrating lessons on real life issues and how to handle them in a healthy, productive way should also be a priority. And last but not least, educators need to be on every “Top Paid Jobs” list. Without them, I would not have been able to confront my own setbacks and create a new plas of action. Most of us have at least one influential teacher to thank.

I only want to address the value of self-teaching, not blame a system or person. Investing our minds solely in formal schooling is not enough. It must be supplemented with what is found after venturing out and taking advantage of resources beyond the borders of established institutions. Some examples would include reading a local newspaper, a random book from a “free books” cart at a library or book store; listening to an opposing argument; viewing a controversial work; rethinking previously learned material. All of these can offer new or unheard-of terms, opinions, and ideas. They deepen a learning experience by helping one accept individuality and difference. Providing ourselves with options is necessary in figuring out likes and dislikes, possibilities and impossibilities.

I used to be apathetic to the idea of being both an instructor and a student, but now encourage everyone to be an autodidact, to practice self-enlightenment. The decision I made to be my own teacher has given my career plans a jump-start. I am revving the engine. I have antsy feet. I’ve been taking risks by writing and sending articles to website, interning at a media placement business, and editing works for aspiring authors. The past few months alone have been a wild ride, but I’m far from reaching a final destination. The journey is what I anticipate.

Fatima Brown is an English major who is currently finishing her Bachelor of Arts degree at George Mason University. She aspires to be a published writer and an editor in the very near future.

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