Thursday, February 4, 2010

Friday Discovery: dirtcakes

Today we have Catherine Keefe, founding editor of a brand new journal called dirtcakes. (You may recognize the name: she reviewed Christopher Buckley's poetry on the blog Monday.) Do you know what dirtcakes are? I didn't until I read this piece.

Once when I was an intern at a small poetry press, I attended a Grantmakers Forum in Port Hadlock, Washington. Nonprofit group representatives who had appealed to the Jefferson County Community Foundation could observe the debate which would ultimately result in a $1,000 grant.

At the first coffee break, a man smiled as we both reached for green grapes, accidentally bumping knuckles. He read my name tag. The poetry press was printed in bolder type than my name.

“How can you even think about being here when all you do is print poetry? There are people going hungry every day. Why should you get any money until everyone is fed?”

I withdrew my smile, dropped the grapes and turned away from the stranger, mumbling something profound like, “I don’t know.”

Truth be told, that question persistently simmers with answers splattering out in odd and ungraceful ways.

“If this magazine gig doesn’t work, I’ll go spend my spare time at the soup kitchen!”

I hurled this line, as if a threat, at a colleague after a particularly contentious English department meeting at the small university in California where I teach part-time. I had once again been denied the possibility of housing my nascent little journal under its institutional shingle. The irony, lost on all who don’t know me, is the fact that I do spend countless hours working with the disenfranchised homeless within my community.

“So why bother starting this journal which will only cost, never make, money plus suck dry your time?”

This question followed me out of the meeting, into my car, and back down the freeway. This question moved into my office and remains obstinately hunched behind my writing desk.


I wonder what kind of arrogant thing it is to spend any moments with words and art when someone somewhere dies of starvation every day, every hour, every minute.

The top volume on my bed stand stack is the Fall, 1978 TriQuarterly 43 titled “The Little Magazine in America: A Modern Documentary History.” Within its pages of essays, letters, and photo-documents is an attempt - according to then-editors Elliott Anderson and Mary Kinzie - to explore the “phenomenon of little magazines.” What is plain in its 750 pages of essays, memoirs and photo-documents from editors of small literary endeavors is one recurring theme expressed eloquently by Salmagundi editor, Robert Boyers:

“The function of the little magazine is, must be, to serve to erect and stand by principles of intelligent and imaginative discourse.”

I am not a politician, not a business entrepreneur, not a monk, not a soldier, not asleep. I am a human being writer and words are the tools I best wield to ignite “intelligent and imaginative discourse.”

I learned about dirtcakes, the thing, long before the giant earthquake tumbled Port-au-Prince. Dirtcakes are a staple in Haiti, a handmade stomach filler concocted from soil, water, and a little vegetable oil. Sometimes they are produced in single family batches. Sometimes they are made to sell.

“How much you don’t know about the world,” I thought of myself when my friend returned from Haiti years ago with the story about this fare. I wrote the thing - dirt cakes - as two words on a yellow sticky note where it clings still to the globe on my desk.

That such a thing as dirtcakes exists speaks volumes about unimaginable poverty, but also about resilience. It represents the irrepressible human force to do something with whatever meagerness is at hand to fill a gap, even if that stuffing is more about quieting the gnaw than nourishing the bones.

Within the act lies a stubborn fist rising and held up against despair, against all odds.

Within that fist lies sustenance for tomorrow.

Like any kitchen alchemy, there is something miraculous about the way dirt is just dirt and water is just water until correctly proportioned with a smidge of fat, patted, and formed by an attentive hand.

I am attempting the same type of transmutation, to create dirtcakes as a place where soul victuals are offered and made palatable by elegantly abutting words and images, hoping for a synergistic awakening of thought. It is this stirring which I believe precedes the movement of hands toward any acts of compassion.

dirtcakes, with its focus on themes suggested by the UN Millennium Development Goals to end extreme poverty by 2015, is a place to simultaneously remember the disaffected and a place to discover we are all, in some way, others.

Years before Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar’s film, The Others, decades before The Others of Lost, there existed a little literary magazine called Others: A Magazine of the New Verse. Published between 1915 and 1919 under the editorial direction of Alfred Kreymborg, it became something of a hearth for the modernist poetry movement.

The book right under TriQuarterly 43 on my bed stand is The Little Magazine Others and the Renovation of Modern American Poetry. Here is the folded-over page where author Suzanne Churchill writes, “The little magazine was not just a stage for artistic innovation; it was also a locus of social change.” On Churchill’s book cover is reprinted the front cover of Others' January 1919 issue. “THE OLD EXPRESSIONS ARE WITH US ALWAYS AND THERE ARE ALWAYS OTHERS.”

Something in the wording of this reminds me of the lines from Matthew’s gospel. “The poor will always be with us.”

If the poor will always be with us, then one person’s hunger will always be with us. Yes, and in (re)spite of that, beauty must always be with us too. For it is from the couch of beauty that we can more easily recognize dreadfulness, and where we must be allowed to retreat.

With wisdom gleaned from the little magazines which came before, and in the spirit of Others, I birth my response to the man at the Grantmaker’s Forum and the colleague who questioned spending precious resources publishing art and literature.

dirtcakes is currently accepting submissions for The Hunger Issue.

Deadline is February 20.


Catherine Keefe is the founding editor of dirtcakes. She teaches meditation classes at a shelter for battered mothers and chops onions and potatoes for soup to feed the homeless. Her essays, columns, and interviews have appeared in Los Angeles Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Orange County Register, and national special interest publications. She teaches writing at Chapman University in Orange, CA, and is at work on flight, a book of poems.

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