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Ink Stains

A New Literary Journal Spills Baltimore's True Colors

Michael Northrup
A HARD TOWN BY THE SEA: Jen Michalski tries to capture Baltimore's literary essence in the new journal JMWW.

By Brooke Hall | Posted 10/25/2006

JMWW launch party with readings from Rafael Alvarez, Nathan Leslie, and more Oct. 28 at Bluehouse from 6-8:30 p.m. JMWW / CityLit Project Happy Hour--all like-minded scribes welcome--starts Nov. 10, 5-7 p.m. at Max's Taphouse.

For more information visit

The writing hooks you from the first paragraph: "The doctors said, when she was born, that the gills would eventually fade away on their own. Nothing to fear, they said; no more unusual than the rare child born with a tail, or a dense pelt of fur, or a single sharp tooth jutting from its new pink gums. We carry, after all, the genetic memory of our furred and finned and feathered ancestors in our twisted strands of DNA; dreams of ancient seas are bound to surface now and then."

Michael Hartford's "Ichthyology" is brutal and eloquently told, a brilliant carnage of a story about a half-girl, half-reptilian fish whose provocative imagery swells up from the page. And the new anthology from which it comes feels equally crinkled no matter how straight its pages. It feels covered with a thin film of the bay's blue-green algae and sticky with the dried drippings of a marshmallow sno-ball gone awry. It's unmistakably local.

Baltimore is infamous for its dichotomy of pretension and unalloyed grit. It's a culture of people with meat on their bones, crusty, hard shells, and scads of layers. And in a city where more ink is driven and soaked into flesh than used for writing, someone has spilled some ink for the sake of what some people fear is a dying art form. Jen Michalski, nine editors, and loads of writers have selflessly rendered the first print publication of JMWW, a new local literary journal.

If you have an extra five bones lying around--and truth be told, $5 does not a swollen pocket make--you can support this project and spend a few pensive moments alone with local ink slingers. And anyone interested in the underground camp of writers that follow in the deep, muddy footprints of Edgar Allan Poe or H.L. Mencken should perk up right about now. These writers don't walk around with lofty attitudes or best-of-the-best nose thumbing. Instead, there's a seductive, bare-bones, sincere quality to this collection of fiction and poetry.

What began as an innocent online e-zine in 2004 has morphed not only into a tangible, full-on print edition, but also a circle of writers who write because they love it. Not to get too romantic, because in this city everything has an edge--and you should be suspicious of things that don't.

That downright twisted and unpredictable disposition makes JMWW so attractive. But why does a seasoned writer--and someone with a bachelor's degree in English and a master's in writing--decide to spend all her time and energy on a project that, in the end, will lose money? "Because I was bored of promoting myself," Michalski says. Sitting outside in Mount Vernon on a Thursday afternoon, Michalski's wild, curly hair grazes her face and her eyes dance with curiosity as the conversation darts through discussions of religion, aliens, conspiracy theories, and institutions. JMWW doesn't, as of yet, bring home the bread, so Michalski works as a freelance copywriter.

"Many of my writer friends don't feel there's much of a writing community in Baltimore outside of the graduate programs," she says. "And we're hoping to change that--but in our informal, no-frills Baltimore way.

"Many people think that writing is this one-take, purging kind of exercise," she continues. "And it's not. The idea may be spontaneous, but making sure that the idea is understood and is effective takes many levels of crafting, many revisions."

Michalski's community ambition is refreshingly bewildering at a time when the virtual addictions of MySpace revelry and self-masturbatory fondling is applauded. With six fiction stories, eight poems, and one essay, the anthology finally took shape--all from online submissions. In all fairness, not all of the writers in JMWW live in Baltimore. Some hail from New York, another lives in Vermont, one is in San Diego, and yet another is from Minneapolis. What Michalski and JMWW are trying to help foster is a sense of place where writers--and their writings--can thrive.

"I remember going to Paris when I was in college," writes Nathan Leslie, professor at Northern Virginia Community College and contributor to JMWW, via e-mail. "I was struck by the fact that all throughout the city are statues of their famous writers. Americans unfortunately don't often value intellectuals and writers. Ideas change the world, yet many Americans are anti-intellectual anyway. It's shameful.

"The experience of literature is usually one-on-one: between reader and writer," he continues. "As a result, literature is sometimes a tougher sell to a public yearning for direct entertainment. Appreciating good fiction or poetry often takes a bit more patience, little moments of quiet. It's difficult to `sell' that kind of intimate experience, even in a reading."

In these precious moments of quiet, the anthology explores the typical themes of love, death, desire, the end-times, but it has a not so typical method of tapping into and wielding the imagination. A hybrid of poetry and prose, of cold-blooded talent pigtailed with aspiring word artists, JMWW has a cough-syrup twang that keeps you reading. Something addictive about it provokes the dormant writer within.

And if such a desire does wash over you, by all means, submit your work--such is why this publication exists. Play your melody, see if it sticks. The editors will even give submission feedback, not just an icy rejection letter. "It's difficult, if not impossible, to make a living as a writer in Baltimore--or anywhere," Michalski says. "But that's not why you get into it."

And the fact is, JMWW is reaching outlets otherwise untouched. Until now, most of the contributing writers have stumbled upon the journal while surfing the web. The point of the publication is to "showcase creativity and good writing that might otherwise not have voice," Michalski says.

And those voices are responding. "Thank God each generation produces at least one Baltimorean willing to do the thankless work of putting out a literary journal on their own dime," writes Rafael Alvarez via e-mail from Los Angeles. The Baltimore native and former City Paper contributor, Sun staffer, and writer for television's Homicide and The Wire shows up between JMWW's covers with his eccentric and macabre "Prophetic and Provoked," a schizophrenic story that reads like a dream abounding with scandalous confessions, tugboat and sour-rabbit soup imagery, and the offbeat inner thoughts of a writer who is forever branded by a place. Alvarez goes on to write, "The kind of journals without which the world would not know the likes of Bukowski, the father and son Fantes [John and Dan], and John Mason Rudolph."

This anthology is a testament to Baltimore life--the nuances, the violence, the old Baltimore that we can barely see through gentrification's fog. In a city where history undergoes a seemingly dismal self-mutilation in the name of urban renewal, JMWW's writers refuse to sugarcoat their caustic reality.

It's not always pretty, but it's there and people are sick with it. Perhaps that's why these writers stain each page of JMWW with their brassy ink, why Baltimore's writers have imaginations that cannot be borne inside the cozy womb of gated communities and country clubs. It leaves stellar scars on the imagination--the stories that keep this city unparalleled are impossible to forget. With this anthology, the writers of this small, hardened city give something back. You get to judge how well they succeed.

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