Summer 2009

Table of Contents - Vol. V, No. 2


Poetry    Essays    Translations    Fiction   

Dan Cuddy


Clarinda Harriss: A Baltimore Treasure

Just a day before meeting with Clarinda Harriss to discuss her literary career as one of Maryland’s most eminent poets, the CityLit Project of Baltimore announced the First Annual Clarinda Harriss Poetry Prize and Chapbook Competition. I asked Ms. Harriss how this came about. Though she is 70 years old, she is one of the youngest 70 yr olds in history and she is not retiring from teaching or writing. She said that the contest was the idea of Gregg Wilhelm, the executive director of CityLit, and Dr. Michael Salcman, poet and board member. She felt honored to have the contest named for her. As she and her publishing company have done over the years, the contest is to give poets, of whatever age, to have a book of poetry published. The times are hard. Economics discourage literary publication of any type but certainly by unknown and aspiring poets. The contest hopes to rectify that, to give at least one worthy poet a moment in the sun. Clarinda’s name gives the winner instant visibility and legitimacy.
Very active in both the "literary scene" and in academics, Clarinda is the author of 5 poetry collections and co-author of two academic books. She is also a member of the "Diva Squad," with her work forming a third of the second book of poems in the Diva Squad series conceived and edited by Dr. Chezia Thompson-Cager. Her teaching career spans 1960 to the present, and in 2009, she was one of two winners of the University System of Maryland's Regents' Award for Teaching. At Towson University she continues to mentor student poets and editors in the production of Grub Street , which is a consistent national award winning college literary magazine. In addition, she still volunteers, as she has for over 30 years, to assist prisoners in the Maryland penal system in writing and publishing their poetry and stories. She said that she “ is now embarking on a project involving the women writers of the Maryland House of Correction for Women, having seen and been blown away by a play they recently wrote and starred in.” She said also that she has “never been paid for any of my prison work, but it has been very extensive and very rewarding.”
I asked Clarinda about her father, a noted Baltimore journalist who started his newspaper career as an assistant to H.L.Mencken. R.P.Harriss was the editor of the Duke University's literary magazine. This activity somehow attracted Mencken’s attention and, like a baseball team signs a top pitching prospect, Mencken hired Clarinda’s father straight from college. During the Depression her father was the editor of the Paris Herald, where he met Richard “Moko’ Yardley, the legendary Baltimore newspaper cartoonist. Both of them came back to Baltimore and were fixtures at the Baltimore Sun. Mencken who resided in Baltimore introduced R.P. Harriss to Clarinda’s mother, Margery, well-known as a Baltimore educator.
With all of this literary and newspaper talent in Clarinda’s background it isn’t difficult to see how writing became an integral part of her life. Clarinda said that at age 8 she was inspired to write a great verse epic in blank verse. Her mother told her it was free verse. Her grandmother said she should scale her ambitions back and write about kittens.
Initially her efforts were on a smaller scale. She went to Friends School on North Charles Street. Often the girls and boys of Friends school were bused to school sporting events and to the larger community’s political events as Friends School took its religious and philosophic principles seriously. The students often endured a somewhat long bus ride. To relieve the tedium, though there was never a question of whether the tedium would be relieved---these were high-spirited kids now---, Clarinda wrote dirty lyrics that her friends would sing to familiar tunes.
Clarinda did her undergraduate studies at Goucher College. She received an M.A. at Johns Hopkins University in 1961. She started her career in teaching at Forest Park High School while attending Johns Hopkins. After graduation she continued at Forest Park. She loved teaching at that school. However, she had a transportation problem. She lived in northeast Baltimore; Forest Park is in extreme West Baltimore. Clarinda had a Morris Minor, A British made motor car that was designed for family use. Clarinda’s car had seen many miles in its time and when she drove it, it was held together by rubber bands, bobby pins, and staples. Prayers were only partially successful in getting the car to its destination. As a consequence, Clarinda became acquainted with the Baltimore Transit Company. This didn’t bode well for a long term career on the other side of town. She had small children and got a job more conveniently located at Towson High School. Then she taught at Goucher from 1967 to 70 as well as being what is termed even today a “Beltway Adjunct”, a course here, a course there, tenure no where. That is how it is, starting out in an academic career.
Clarinda’s father was a noted journalist and a writer of fiction. Her first publications were short stories. She still publishes 2 or 3 short stories a year, but she admits that she never felt comfortable with fiction. Her love of poetry was highly enhanced by Goucher English professor Sara DeFord, who was a medievalist and poet. In fact, Clarinda was one of the translator’s of the Crofts’ Classics’ edition of “The Pearl”. Poetry had advantages over fiction. Clarinda then, as now, had a busy life teaching, raising children. A young mother’s life is not easy, though rewarding it may be. Poetry is, compared to fiction, short. In a small space of time she could write in the white heat of inspiration or coolly revise a poem. She says it is a “shorter take.”
Michael Egan was a major mentor and influence. He ignited an already simmering passion for poetry. Egan founded the New Poets Series and was the first editor. Its purpose was to publish local Baltimore and Maryland poets. Before NPS there was little opportunity for a poet to bloom. Baltimore was for local writers a land of scant opportunity. Even Josephine Jacobsen, Baltimore's own and the first female poet laureate of the US, had to look to Louisiana State's university press to get her books published. Egan decided to change that. Clarinda said she started out doing much of the grunt work and fundraising for the Series; early financial backing which she secured included U.S. Laureate Josephine Jacobsen and famous humorist Ogden Nash. The first book was Michael Egan’s “The Oldest Gesture”. The proceeds from that book went to publish Clarinda’s first solo effort “The Bone Tree”. (That a press which she herself later headed published her first poetry collection remains a source of embarrassment, Clarinda says.) Clarinda took over as editor/director of NPS (now BrickHouse Books, Inc.) after Egan, for a variety of reasons, didn’t have time for it. It was she who incorporated the press and secured its not-for-profit status, which made it eligible for NEA and local grants. Early in its corporate existence, such grants helped fund some of its publications and also its several series of readings and workshops, notably "Poetry at the Angel." We talked about the old Angel Bar itself. Henninger’s Tavern now occupies the building. Clarinda mentioned how the two couples that owned the bar swapped spouses eventually. That wasn’t a cause of its demise but it probably didn’t make business run as smooth as it could have.
Clarinda and I talked about the Poetry at the Angel years, the mid-to-late 1970’s. We reminisced about a number of the poets who participated in this three-year-long, every-Sunday series of readings at a bar in Fells Point. I asked if she was in contact with some of them. She gave updates on some. Dyane Fancey and she were the co-founders of the reading series. Josephine Jacobsen, Julia Randall, Devy Bendit, Andrei Codrescu, and Lucille Clifton, as well as performance poets including David Franks, were among the featured readers. Jan-Mitchell Sherrill , who is an associate dean at Point Park University in Pittsburgh now, had his first book of poems Blind Leading The Blind published by the New Poets Series in 1978. Since then he has had three other books brought out by Stonewall, Friend of the Groom, Gunfire in Oz and The Kit Poems. Stonewall is a subsidiary of Brickhouse Books, as are the New Poets Series and Chestnut Hills Press. Brickhouse Books is the umbrella corporation. Stonewall Books is dedicated to publishing poetry from a lesbian, gay or bisexual perspective. New Poets Series still has the mission of publishing a first book, but it is no longer restricted geographically to the Maryland area. The Chestnut Hills Press is an author-financed branch of BrickHouse but it isn’t a vanity press; books it publishes are runners-up for a spot in the New Poets Series. Lynn Dowell was another poet from the Angel days. She is currently the Director of the Academic Advising Center at Towson University. She periodically teaches a Towson U. course on writing poetry. Clarinda lamented the death of Devy Bendit almost 25 years ago now. She said she had enormous talent and she seemed to be a very self-confident person, but she wasn’t. She didn’t survive one of her bouts of depression.
In the late 1980’s Salmon, a press in Ireland, published Clarinda’s Night Parrot. Michael Egan, whose own book We Came Out Again To See The Stars was published by Salmon, was instrumental in helping her getting her work published there. She said that she traveled to Ireland a couple of times with Egan and gave readings throughout the Republic. She said one of the most memorable was at the Clifden Poetry Festival where she shared billing on the multi-day program with Seamus Heaney, though she laughed and said his name was writ large, hers was writ small, but it was exciting. Clarinda then mentioned that last year Salmon published an anthology (Salmon: A Journey In Poetry 1981-2007) edited by Jessie Lendennie which included some of her poems and part of the unpublished book-length poem which Michael Egan was working on before he died, Leviathan.
We then talked about a new project with another Egan, Moira, Michael’s daughter. Clarinda said that she and Moira are compiling and editing an anthology of erotic sonnets. They plan to include a couple of their own poems too. They will include historical examples from past centuries but they have also solicited and received numerous sonnets from contemporaries. Moira has a good network of contacts among Neo-Formalists. They are including such prominent writers as Marilyn Hacker and Kim Addonizio. They hope the prospective publisher will go along with their tentative title “Hot Sonnets.”
Clarinda said she has fallen in love with the sonnet form. She calls her own sonnet series “69” because everything is based on a 6 or 9 syllable line. The sonnets are 15 line poems rather than the traditional 14. The volta, which is a turn or change of subject matter in an Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, occurs after line 6 or line 9. Her sonnets tend to be about interpersonal and family relationships; some are akin to flash fiction.
I asked her about her writing routine. Did she write every day? Same time every day? She said that there is no such regulated approach as her time hardly seems to be her own. She has teaching obligations and then a thousand and one other things. When she is in the white heat of writing she becomes as if possessed. She forgets to answer the phone or even think about anything else but the writing. Often though, during the school year, she does the same assignments that she prescribes to her classes. These include experiments in traditional or invented forms. One of the best places for doing a preliminary draft she has found is in an airplane. “Airplanes give a weird sense of privacy and perspective.” One of Clarinda's children is a son who is an equine veterinarian. He and his wife lived in Argentina for awhile; now they live in New Zealand. Both destinations require a long flight. She has used and will use the long period of time in the air to write poems or fiction. Though the first draft is important, she loves revising. She is meticulous in assessing and altering the draft of a work.
Below are a few of her poems:

Talking Dirty

I wanted to write a talking-dirty sonnet,
most probably Petrarchan---dirty words
rhyme well, though dentally (a bit absurd---
they should be labial.) I’d get right on it
except that limericks have been there, done it,
and those hard sounds might cramp the sweet first third
of sex’s poem, the slow swell, the blurred
divide between perhaps and have-to-have it.

And yet—what romance lacks a volta, vital
or fatal? Love’s halves, asymmetrical
always, maintain a shaky poise; in time,
may teeter toward a murderous punch-line.
The poem writes itself. We lie in trance,
but love, fuck, trouble hum their assonance.


Reader Writer Traveler Thief

Puberty gave a boost to her kleptomania. No more
messing with glass gems & candy cigarettes: the real
things, plus dirty paperbacks from the drugstore.
Just for the fun of it. Always gave the swag away.

Fast forward thirty years. Discretion, caution, even
perhaps a mite of conscience—she really meant
to return the tattered classic she borrowed from
a tiny library in New Zealand, where she stole
summer from January. What to bring her lover
as a souvenir? Careful, no mementos for his wife!
In the duty-free at the last stop before home
she jettisoned Middlemarch, along with notes for
some fatuous ekphrastics on Maori art, and sleight-
handed a box of chocolates into her overnight.


2600 Block, October 6, 2008

In the block where I’d lived, a baby’s born
and killed. He’s found in a garbage can behind
St. John’s, whose brick and iron cloister winds
to the alley. Its privacy was utter, and well known.
My parents and I, beyond the table where we dined,
could see Old (Homeless) George, who drank and mourned
for F. D. R. When beaten, robbed, he warned
us Place ain’t safe. And this was forty-nine.
I grew to be a smart-ass kid who used
to hide and seek and smoke in St. John’s dark,
the one girl in a pack of boys. For a lark
they tore off my shirt to check (they said) “the view.”
Soon we moved away. My P’s complained of noise.
And I re-learned to like the salty smell of boys.


Darryl? Darryl?

Sixteen, you were a black flamingo kid
in puffy Elizabethan shorts you’d Scarlet O-
Hara’d out of your mother’s drapes. Wow---
the audience of tenth graders was awed:
Hushed, till at the end, they stood and roared.
So gaudy, so improbable, you vowed
to knock us all dead with Shakespeare. Now,
the first and only Lear I recognize (yes! felled
by stroke!; then, all of Shakespeare’s Henrys.
Such lush soliloquies! such gorgeous rages!
That black velvet voice!
Your phonecall’s
whispered message---Write me a poem--- frenzied
me. An exit line? There is no answer when I call
you back. What a killer way to leave the stage.


69: Night Blindness

I’ve turned old enough to share the dusk
with my father and his cataracts.
Our hazel eyes squint, turn milky green.
Night driving in the rain is terror,
two dimensions of lethal shimmer.
Indoors, doors silhouette looming shapes.

Woods are full of wolves where
once lightning bugs were all
that was needed to read
the lips of a lover.
My father told about
raccoon hunting at ten:
old Chet’s aim was perfect,
so the boy thought all black
men could see in the dark.


69: Feet

There’s something about the way your feet
hug my ears that makes me feel oddly
safe. They stop out all bad things.
I’m a sort of child, staring up
under the canopy, which
might cover a wagon
or a queen who
never said
them eat cake.”
No one could drop
dead in such a position,
there’s a limit to how silly
the dead are allowed to be, & yet
the yellow smell of each other’s soles
reminds us of the thirteen steps to where
we will be crowned by willow wands and slain.



© Dan Cuddy



Poetry    Essays    Translations    Fiction   

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