Since then, I’ve gone on to edit and co-edit two more books of poetry for adults, write a verse novel for kids, and a middle grade novel. This May, my sixth book will be published — A Place at the Table, co-authored with my friend Saadia Faruqi.
For the next few weeks, I’m looking back at each book. From each one, I’ll pull a poem to highlight. Thanks for coming on this journey into the past with me!
CityLit was starting up a chapbook competition named for poet and Baltimore icon Clarinda Harriss. When Gregg said my book had won, I think I asked him to repeat himself several times. I couldn’t believe it. (Interested in learning more about the Harriss Poetry Prize? Here you go!)
The judge was a wonderful poet named Michael Salcman. He invited me to his house, gave me some tips for revision before the book was typeset, and ended up becoming my mentor and friend.
It was the beginning of an amazing time in my life. Winning the Harriss Poetry Prize opened so many doors for me. It led the Maryland Writers Association to trust me with a big editing project — an anthology of poems written by Maryland authors.
But that was still down the road. In spring of 2010, my family and friends came out to hear me read with Maryland Poet Laureate Stanley Plumly at CityLit Festival. What a thrill! Sadly, Stanley passed away last year. It was an honor to read with him.
I will always be grateful to CityLit Project, Gregg, Michael, and Clarinda for choosing my book for publication. And I’m looking forward to returning to CityLit Festival next month as part of a kidlit panel.
Here is the title poem from Mountain, Log, Salt, Stone.
Mountain, Log, Salt and Stone
The mountain is taller than I,
halfway to the ceiling of our new living room.
This is how carpets are delivered,
piled in long, round rolls.
Put a penny in your mouth and you’ll smell them:
acrid and heavy and new,
sour and exciting.
With my brother, I skate over the wood floor in socks,
try to crash the mountain of carpets.
Climb it and we are king and queen of a log pile.
We cannot fell or budge them.
These logs have no rot,
no rings to mark the fire or flood.
The disasters are all ahead of us.
When Dad is away we eat fast food,
French fries at the new stone hearth.
In two years our brother –
the child my mother is carrying –
will bang his chin on this stone
and nearly sever his tongue with his teeth.
There will be blood on the rug,
the salty taste of it in the air.
But tonight the scent of salt and oil
is good. Furniture is scant.
We gather on the floor around the fire.
The young painter stands by the window.
He has stopped rolling the walls
and joined us for dinner.
My mother is somewhere in the room.
The painter watches her.
He has dark hair and the youthful,
slender form my father has outgrown.
I watch the way his mouth moves
when he looks away from my mother.
The muscles of his back are taut with longing.
Less than ten years in this country,
her accent still fits like an egg in her mouth.
The painter is not the first to mistake
her round, elegant vowels for virtue.
I want her to take offense, to fire him.
But she is as kind and inattentive to him
as she is to anyone. Angry for her sake,
I begin to love my mother
with a viciousness the painter can’t know.
I pull her to sit with us by the fire,
meals spread on our knees,
and let the warm salt dissolve on her tongue,
until it burns there like a pungent kiss.
Next up, we’ll take a look at the anthology Life in Me Like Grass on Fire: Love Poems, and the wonderful sense of community it created for contributors.
In the “Celebrating 10 Years of Books” series: