Patti Ross: St Paul Street Provocations

Pattie Ross is a force to be reckoned with in the poetry world. She speaks her mind with a gentle humor and then serves up her message with gut punch of humor mixed with outrage. Patti hosts Author Talks at the Baltimore County Arts Guild in Catonsville and serves as an ambassador for poetry everywhere she goes. Here’s an interview about her first poetry chapbook, St. Paul Street Provocations. I hope you’ll enjoy meeting Patti and buy a copy of her lovely book.

Patti Ross

Ann Bracken (AB): Congratulations on your new book St. Paul Street Provocations. Such an intriguing title. Tell me the story behind the collection.

Patti Ross (PR): The backstory is that I was living at the intersection of St. Paul Street and Lafayette Streets in Baltimore from 2010 to about 2012. I then moved to Park Avenue, an area in the Bolton Hill district.  These two areas are very distinct. Most of the poems began on St. Paul Street with my observations from living on the corner slightly above the sidewalk. The cover has a mural of muralist Jessie and Katey (http://www.jessieandkatey.com/) that they painted on the ground of the little dilapidated park across the street from my building. I watched them work from my main room window. The mural is titled “Walk the Line” and that is what was necessary in the neighborhood if you were going to remain there in peace.

AB: In the poem “Home/Less” you describe your encounter with a homeless man you call “D”. Give me a bit of his story and describe what it was about him that made you decide to stop and talk with him.

PR: On my morning commute down MLK Blvd, I would run in to “D” asking for money/help during the stop light transitions. At times I might have to wait through two lights, and so we began a friendship. I sometimes offered up a dollar or two, sometimes just a hello, and sometimes a brief conversation. At some point “D” disappeared for several weeks. When he returned, I could see that he had been physically assaulted, and he no longer had his backpack of belongs. He was worse than before. I stopped this time, and we talked for a bit. He told me he had been beaten up one night over the rights to the corner and his belongings taken. He said to me “Patti, I gotta deal with the demons in my head, and the demon’s at night.” When he said that it stuck with me. No one chooses to be homeless – there is so much more to their plight.

AB: Letters are so powerful, even when they’re imaginary. Tell me about your decision to write an imaginary letter to “George Perry Floyd in Heaven.” 

PR: The murder of George Floyd was incredible. He lost his life over the suspicion of something, not the proof of something. I want people to see him as more than the poster child for a “modern day lynching.” I want people to remember that he was a good son and a good high school athlete. I want people to remember that “but for the grace of God – there goes I.” Often times it is letters that set the record straight years after something happens.  We find a letter that tells the true story.

AB: You describe yourself as a spoken word poet and use the name “little pi” when you preform. What were some of the challenges in moving between spoken word and written poetry in your book?

PR: Great question. There is a challenge to take what is performed (staged) to what is written (page). I often remind my audience that what they hear me say may not be what they read fully. I tend to read my poems in a narrative way or as if in conversation, such as in the poem “Indemnity”. I don’t change all the words but for emphasis in performance, I may change a word or omit one or add an expletive because I originally wrote the poem in response to something that “pissed me off” as they say. ‘little pi’ is the voice that allows me to perform the words without apology. It is the voice of my great-great-grandmother, who from what I am told, was an independent woman who said what she felt, lived on an island away from town, and fished standing on river rocks amid rapids and men.

Cover art for St Paul Street Provocation

AB: You’re very active in the Maryland writing community with running Maryland Writer’s Association First Friday Reading Series and now starting an open mic night and an author talk-back series at the Baltimore County Arts Guild in Catonsville. Describe those programs and your hopes for the literary scene in Baltimore.

PR: The First Fridays program came out of my desire to continue the EC Poetry & Prose Sunday Salon Series once the Pandemic took over. It was also a way to highlight the poets who were members of MWA but perhaps also wrote other genres. The series was a way to keep the writing and more specifically the poetry community engaged during a time that sucked up so much of our emotion. As writers, we spend much time alone and the First Fridays series allowed us to reunite and share our works-in-progress in a safe, non-judgmental environment. This month culminated my time as host of First Fridays. I am happy that the program I created will continue with the organization. It’s a nice legacy. 

The literary scene in the city of Baltimore is good. I am not sure there is much I can do there. However, I did see a void in the spoken word community in the suburbs of the city and I wanted to bring what I was enjoying within the city of Baltimore to the counties. Poetry has been with me from a very early age. I attended The Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts, so taking my words from the page to the stage seemed natural to me. The history of spoken poetry comes from the Chinese well before 500BC and was picked up in subsequent Dynasties as both a historical and social accounting of the times and recited for various social occasions. This practice has continued and we can look at some of our modernist like T.S. Elliott and see the tradition or recitation being cultivated among the new generation of poets to give deeper meaning to the text. The visual combined with the audible is wonderous in the brain.

AB: What’s next on your agenda?  Are you working on a new collection?

PR: Thank you for asking. Yes. I am currently working on a collection of poems about women. I am so doing other things. I have a couple of collaborations going on. Someone suggested I do a podcast. I have a friend, and we have literary debates from time to time about issues that writers often face when putting their thoughts on paper. There is a quote from Oscar Wilde that I keep on my desktop that reads: “Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known.” I believe that, and I am thankful that others do also. It makes for great community when we share openly and honestly with each other. My thoughts are always around the EC Poetry & Prose credo “Peace Poetry Truth”. (EC Poetry & Prose is the online presence that I created a while back when I started hosting the open mics at Syriana’s. ECP&P continues today under the direction of myself and Terri Simon. We are working hard to continue to bring poetry to those that embrace it and live it aloud.)

Bio:

Patti Ross graduated from Washington, DC’s Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts and The American University. After graduation several of her journalistic pieces were published in the Washington Times and the Rural America newspapers. Retiring from a career in technology, Patti has rediscovered her love of writing and shares her voice as the spoken word artist “little pi.” Her poems are published in the Pen In Hand Journal, PoetryXHunger website and Oyster River Pages: Composite Dreams Issue. Her debut chapbook, St. Paul Street Provocations, was released in July 2021 by Yellow Arrow Publishing.

Follow her blog at: https://littlepisuniverse.com

Interview with Kristin Kowalski Ferragut

I met Kristin several years ago at a Miller Cabin reading when she was just getting her feet wet with poetry. In this interview, Kristin gives us the lowdown on her work as a poet. Enjoy!

Kristin Kowalski Ferragut (KKF): Thanks, Ann! I’m grateful to Loving Healing Press and Kelsay for publishing the books and am glad they’re out. I guess I expected to be more ecstatic but it’s a quiet brand of satisfaction I feel. And while it makes perfect sense that publicizing poetry is a very different skill than writing, I’m surprised by how big that job is or would be if I did it better. Although, look at me now! I appreciate your help in letting people know of my work.

Ann Bracken (AB): Congratulations on your two new books that came out this year—Escape Velocity and Becoming the Enchantress. It’s very exciting to premiere one book, so two must be amazing.  What’s been the most surprising about putting out new books?

AB: Becoming the Enchantress is a beautifully illustrated and gentle introduction to the idea of a transgender person transitioning. What have you heard from your readers?  OR Who are your primary readers and what’s been their response?

KKF: Thank you, Ann. I love the illustrations too. I think most readers are in agreement that it’s a necessary and thus important book. It was written in that spirit, a needed tool to explain a transgender parent to a child. I’m trying to publicize it but that doesn’t come so naturally to me and I think at this point most readers have been friends who have reviewed it well. Although with that said, when I was seeking blurbs for the cover, I had a couple of friends that did not want to comment on it, so it doesn’t seem a story embraced across the board. Sweet and worthwhile though it may be, it was crafted to be a vehicle to provide context and understanding on a theme, less than emerging from artistic inspiration. That may be reflected in the writing. Also transgender is obviously still a controversial issue. The discrimination against transgender individuals in this country is shocking and heart breaking! I anticipate if The Enchantress does come to enjoy some wider appeal, it’ll be subject to some hate and I rather dread that. I’ve only felt a little of that so far.

My “getting it out there” felt more like a public service announcement than an artistic labor of love. Of course that changed when my daughter, Coley, added the illustrations. I absolutely love her drawings and believe they add significant artistic value to the story.

AB: Do you have a follow-up book in mind, or perhaps a series about the Enchantress to explore other issues related to transgender parents? 

KKF: I suspect when it comes to children’s stories, I may be a one-hit wonder. Who knows? As long as I can continue to carve out time, I plan to keep writing and remembering what it’s like to be a child is one of my wowpows. So maybe one day I’ll take on more tales exploring children’s perspectives. I don’t imagine I’ll write more children’s stories on the transgender theme though. I’m happy that the book served its purpose and I have a natural bent to uplift especially those struggling in what I often consider an oppressive society, the “tyranny of the majority” and all that. But it’s more peripheral to themes I want to devote study to than central at this point. 

AB: Your poetry book, Escape Velocity, also addresses the issue of a transgender parent/spouse and what’s it’s like for the spouse who remains. Tell me about “Transgender Ex at Son’s Birthday Party.”

KKF: It’s all fiction, right? But that was one of my more autobiographical pieces, I mean, with things moved around. It was at a different party that my Ex lifted her foot to a chair to rest a guitar on her knee, in a short dress and electric blue underwear. That left an impression, incited many thoughts and conflicting feelings that I felt compelled to explore it in poetry. 

Girls learn so many subtle lessons in behavior to become socially acceptable women, lessons an adult new to womanhood may have missed. That’s all sorts of interesting, sad, and endearing.  And having two Gen Z kids in a pretty liberal area, gender fluidity is a common topic around our dinner table. It’s a steep learning curve for me. I see most things in shades of grey and find comfort in the few things I think I can take for granted. For years one of those things was a man being a man and a woman being a woman. I mean, I’m kind of old and was raised with all sorts of wrong notions. It’s taking me time to adjust my view but I admire this generation for getting it more right.

You know how sometimes you start a poem not knowing where it’s going to lead? Well, that was the case with this one and I was grateful that that poem turned into a love poem, a song of a parent’s love for a child but more, of a parent loving anyone who shows love to her child. Because, well, that’s something I still take for granted, that in all of this, Love.

AB: Your poems contain so many wonderful images and phrases. I was particularly struck by the line “There ought to be a word for psychosomatic hope…” Can you talk about what that concept might look like?

KKF: Oh, that’s a great question, Ann! A good line to pick out. The idea of psychosomatic ailments is deep in my understanding of how people often perceive and treat themselves, having witnessed family members suffer them from a young age. And I have a complicated relationship with the concept of hope. On one level, there’s always hope, so always possibility and potential. That’s all good. On another level, I think dashed hope has broken my heart more than any other single element. So in my life I think hope can be very dangerous, as much as it can spur one to better things. Given that awareness, I think I mute my hopes — hope with an eye roll, somewhat guarded, which is barely hope at all. But perhaps it’s psychosomatic hope. I believe but also believe it’s probably not real. That line tries to capture that sentiment, although having laid it down, it could mean something entirely different, indeed many other things, to a reader.

AB: Loss seems to be a recurring theme in your poetry, and I love the idea of “favorite lost things.” Say more about that poem. 

KKF: Oh, that is a wistful one! It’s funny and often unpredictable who and what we fall in love with, at least for me. I’ve found that I often find one’s faults as endearing as one’s strengths. And sometimes it’s hard to take stock of all the things I love about someone until at some late hour, weeks later, I become aware of missing something like how one exhales a certain way, or uses a particular phrase, stammers, scratches his chin, or turns to leave a room. So many little details to love in a person! 

-a name of staccato syllables rich in consonants that blend 

sexy in print, all the lines and curves dancing side-by-side

-a wink from across a room -landscapes of profiles

-a rich voice that sounds of music, whether in speech or song.

I don’t know if a handful of those little traits is enough to build a relationship on but when I wrote that I was thinking, Why not?

AB: People are always interested in a writer’s process. How do you come to poetry and where do you think your poems come from? 

KKF: I think I have a lot of areas to grow as a poet. Recently I wrote a poem about the news story of the baby handed over the barbed wire to the Marines in Afghanistan. It seemed to work and I’d like to do that more — reflect global circumstance in my poetry. I’d also like to write more short stories. I’ve written several, but haven’t yet edited one to my satisfaction. I’m also writing songs these days. For the last one I composed both the music and the lyrics, which was incredibly challenging, since I’m a barely capable guitarist yet, but rewarding. 

Usually my poems come from something I want to explore, to work out, maybe a form of therapy or meditation, often starting with an image. I love to write first thing in the morning when barely awake, still close to my subconscious where less expected connections seem easier to draw. I also love to write in nature. That works anytime — everything’s so magical and dreamlike in the woods. 

I go back and forth on whether devoting time to my art is selfish or generous. I mean, time in my Nook or Writing Fort is time I’m not caring for my children, the house, doing work… It requires a peculiar brand of faith to be a writer. I just need to trust that what I’m compelled to say is worth saying. Sometimes it comes so easy, as though through divine intervention, and sometimes it’s painstaking and laborious. I’m getting better at knowing when to give up the ghost when it’s the latter or keep struggling through. I still have much to learn!

Kristin Kowalski Ferragut

AB: If you could go back and talk to your younger self, what would you like her to know?

KKF: Oh, little Kristin, life will be weirder and harder and more wonderful than you can imagine! I’d let my single-digit-aged self know that. I’d tell my 20’s self to stick with the process and edit. I wrote a lot but rarely finished anything in those days, partially because… Well, I’d also tell me to be careful who you let critique your work. I’m better at knowing who to listen to now and knowing when to care less about feedback. The artistic process can be fragile and can be stymied before a work is even permitted to fully form. I think there are probably millions of could-have-been-brilliant artists who were shut down early. Heck, that’s probably everything! So many individuals could be so much (scientists, musicians, historians…) if given the freedom and support to Be Them! Talk about the theme of loss. I think we lose so much to poverty and oppression every day. Anyway, I’m glad I have the circumstance, support of my children, and welcoming poetry community to enjoy space to create now. So I guess I wouldn’t suggest I change much.

Ann, thank you so much for your questions and space to think some of this through! Your reading at the Joaquin Miller series back in 2015 and your words of encouragement were significant catalysts for my re-commitment to poetry. I love your work. And your support. Thank you! 

Cover artist: Coley Dolmance Ferragut’s Link Tree to Social Media Art: https://linktr.ee/Dolmance.works

Kristin’s bio: Kristin Kowalski Ferragut teaches, plays guitar, hikes, supports her children in becoming who they are meant to be, and enjoys the vibrant writing community in the DMV. She is author of the full-length poetry collection Escape Velocity (Kelsay Books, 2021) and the children’s book Becoming the Enchantress: A Magical Transgender Tale (Loving Healing Press, 2021). Her poetry has appeared in Beltway Quarterly, Nightingale and Sparrow, Bourgeon, Mojave He[Art] Review, Anti-Heroin Chic, Fledgling Rag, and Little Patuxent Review among others. For more information see her website:  https://www.kristinskiferragut.com/

Searching for a Way Out of Pain

In 2018, I participated in a Baltimore storytelling event called Stoop Stories, hosted by Jessica Henkin and Laura Wexler. At that event, all of us told a story about drugs: addiction, accidents, recreation, and recovery. Here’s a link to my story (at 11:54) where I talk about how a car accident saved my life.

Stoop Story with Twigg Harper and Ann Bracken

Warrior Writer: An Interview with Drew Cameron for Memorial Day

Author’s Note: This interview was previously published in July, 2008, in  The Museletter, a publication of the National Association for Poetry Therapy.

Updated 2015 bio from drew Cameron’s website Warrior Writers: I am a second-generation hand papermaker, trained forester and former Army soldier. I co-founded the Combat Paper Project and have been facilitating workshops with veterans and the community in which they transform military uniforms into handmade paper, prints, books and art since 2007. The portable workshop has reached thousands of people throughout the country in 29 states and more than 125 workshops. My work is represented in 33 public collections and has been shown numerous times including at the Corcoran Gallery, Courtauld Institute, Library of Congress, Museum of Contemporary Craft and Craft and Folk Art Museum among others. Combat Paper is now operating in four locations: New York, New Jersey, Nevada and California, with open and ongoing programming. I am based in San Francisco at Shotwell Paper Mill and continue to practice papermaking, teach and encourage others to do the same.

Drew Cameron, 25, lives in Burlington, Vermont. He served in the United States Army beginning in August 2000 for four years on active duty and subsequently served two years in the Vermont National Guard, separating in August of 2006. As part of his healing work from the trauma of the Iraq War, Drew participated in a therapeutic writing program called Warrior Writers. Out of that came his idea to create Combat Paper, paper made from the uniforms of people who served in Iraq. Drew and his fellow vets have produced numerous journals and two books of poetry from the combined Warrior Writers and Combat Paper programs.

Ann Bracken: Tell me about Iraq.

Drew Cameron: The reality was a lot more chaotic, more callous [than what is portrayed in the media]. And when we weren’t fighting, we’d get in our trucks and tool around the country. We were young guys with lots of bravado; we got complacent. We got very comfortable and did whatever we wanted. We got a kick out of stupid things.

AB: What do you mean, stupid things?

DC: We acted in what they (the officers) called a “show of force.” Guys would get a real kick out of it. You know, we’d drive fast. We’d go out with a number of trucks, all loaded up. If a car was in our way, we’d just push it to the side of the road or run it off the road. We had our sunglasses on and usually had our rifles hanging out of the windows, at the ready. The idea was that if we were really tough and looked like we were ready for a fight, people would be deterred. Instead, people felt harassed, brutalized, hurt and hunted. Innocent people were hurt or driven over. It was a real provocation. But when I got home, I told myself I had nothing to feel bad about since I had never killed anyone.

AB: You said you thought you had nothing to feel bad about since you never killed anyone. Are these the kinds of thing that people would feel bad about when they came home?

DC: Yes, most definitely. I am very fortunate that I never killed anyone. But that kind of behavior is a provocation. And those are the kinds of memories that play in your mind over and over, the kinds of things that wake you up at night. Even worse that that, many people will have a single horrible ex-

Drew Cameron

perience that will play out over and over in their minds. They’ll replay it and replay it, trying to make some sense of it and there is no sense in it.

AB: Describe how writing about your experiences has helped you. How has it helped others?

DC: I went from being quiet and all alone to being involved in art and helping my fellow vets. I am trying to bring about some kind of change through my work, through the art. Cre- ating art comes from a good place inside. This work is also a political statement. My friends come here to the paper studio and hang out. This project of writing and then making paper out of our uniforms spurs a very positive, creative, releasing activity. It’s cathartic for those who get involved in both the writing and the act of making paper. And the healing that happens is not forced. The people are really doing it themselves.

They [vets] come in here and start talking, making pa- per, doing art and the ideas just start bouncing around. And I’m in my studio, which used to be a place for me to hole up in and spend a lot of time alone. Now it’s a place where I just love to bring people in. I can be generous with this and I

6 The Museletter

want to continue in that vein. I went from being quiet and unable to relate to anyone to someone who brings his friends in here and can offer this opportunity to someone just home from Iraq. This healing is important and no one should have to do it alone.

AB: It really is an amazing transformative act to cut up your old uniforms and then use them to make paper for your journals. How did this idea come about?

DC: The story of the soldier, the Marine, the man, the woman, and the journeys within the military service in a time a war is our basis for the project. Creating handmade paper editions of the book and facilitating papermaking with my fellow veterans eventually led to using our combat uniforms. The story of the fiber, the blood, sweat and tears, the months of hardship and brutal violence are held within those old uni- forms. The uniforms often become inhabitants of closets or boxes in the attic. Reclaiming that association of subordina- tion, of warfare and service into something collective and beautiful is our inspiration.

AB: What would you like to see come out of your experi- ence? What do you want people to know?

DC: I want people to know that when we come home, we vets don’t fit in. Everything has changed. We’ve changed. I’ve been slapped in the face with a set of circumstances and I have a lot of choices as to how I can deal with them. I was sent to fight in an illegal, unjust, immoral war. I can wither away. I can reenlist. I can resist. I can organize. I have choices. I chose to write about it, reflect on my experiences, and move forward trying to do something different with my life.

AB: Can you share a writing exercise that was especially helpful for you?

DC: Sure. Here is what I wrote in my first writing workshop with Warrior Writers.

Warrior Writers has been an impetus for me, recollecting old letters and my overseas journal to pick apart the memories that I would carry on paper. Going back to a place that I have left over four years ago. Trying to remember, regard- less there hasn’t been a day that has gone by in the time since when I haven’t though about it. 1,460 days of thinking about war. I feel as though we must go to the beginning to tear apart the shroud of numbness. We have to find the way back, understand it, dig in and continue; there are no short cuts with this.

When I first moved here I didn’t want to be known as a veteran, I would ask my partner not to tell people. I didn’t

think it necessary, nor did I want to be known as Drew the Army guy. Pushing away from the experience only manifested it in undesirable ways. My affliction isn’t flashbacks or in- trusive thoughts, drug use or violent behavior. My affliction is nothing. Absolutely nothing. I didn’t feel, hate, love, fear, or even care. My life was a monotone of going through the motions, I so very wanted to be emotional. I know in my train- ing I enabled myself to build various walls. Methodically constructing walls takes time and effort, it is an effective way to enable positioning one’s self against the brutality of com- bat. Unfortunately they do not teach a soldier how to deconstruct these walls. This is my charge, to find the foun- dations, to understand them and perhaps permit myself to move in—there will be no moving on.

AB: What is the message you’d like readers to take away?

DC: It’s so important that you’re here. We’re nothing with- out a broader push of people in society. There are many dif- ferent components to culture writing, art, the fine arts, com- bat paper. We can encourage others to do this, to participate in this shared experience. We can influence people by inspir- ing others. There are many small things we can do. For me, it’s a unique opportunity. Before, I never spoke about being a vet. Now, it’s a big part of who I am.