Everyone wants to know about Harriet Tubman’s city. Whose is it, what happens here, and how we live it. How on the spectrum from “The Wire” to “Hairspray,” we birthed artists and thinkers as canonical as Edgar Allan Poe and Benjamin Banneker. But how does one capture Baltimore? A city as diverse and as tough as whatever the hell lives in the Inner Harbor.
Luckily, Rafael Alvarez and Gary Almeter, co-editors of the anthology “A Lovely Place, A Fighting Place, A Charmer: The Baltimore Anthology,” let the people of this city define their home through reflections in prose, poetry, recipes, and even a comic strip. “The Baltimore Anthology” speaks to the heart of the city through thirty-five literary voices and visual artists, including Dundalk-Lumbee native Ashley Minner, renowned poet Afaa Weaver, new writers like William Duppins, and many more. A complete contributors’ list is below.
Alvarez, a longtime reporter for The Baltimore Sun and a writer for “The Wire” — who also writes regularly for Baltimore Fishbowl — met Almeter a few years ago when the latter, an attorney with small children and a busy life, was sent to him for some writing help. Alvarez determined that Almeter was actually already a very talented writer and “he just needed to turn off his TV!” We discussed in the interview how that connection turned into this collaboration.
I spoke to the editors by Zoom and telephone; our conversations have been edited for length and clarity.
Baltimore Fishbowl: What was the impetus for this book?
Rafael Alvarez: The press does a series of books devoted to different cities. And they’re all old factory towns that are no longer factory towns. So Baltimore was an obvious choice. Gary pitched them and they responded and then he brought me on board and we did it together.
Gary Almeter: I had just published a book in 2019 and the euphoria of that made me want to keep going. I love anthologies because how the context of a story placed in an anthology changes based on theme and that is so fascinating to me. So here, the theme was geography and I wanted to see what would happen. And I had read the Buffalo, NY anthology in the Rust Belt series and it grabbed me so much so I knew Baltimore had to be a part.
BFB: I loved your introduction, Rafael. I thought it was really funny, endearing, and true. Very on the ground. So fitting for the whole anthology you covered so many of the tones here. What was the process of selecting the work and how your introduction came about?
RA: Well, I’ll give you a peek behind the curtain like the Wizard of Oz. You ever heard the phrase “you don’t wanna know how the sausage was made, you just want to enjoy it?” So there’s a lot of moving parts.
One of my dearest friends is M. Dion Thompson. And we were reporters together at the Sun for years. And then he goes on to become an Episcopal priest, like that doesn’t happen everyday– reporter to priest? Anyways, I chose him to do the introduction, but this is how the sausage gets made. The publisher said, I think Dion’s piece is the first chapter and you should write the introduction. Now, we’re a week out from going to press so this is last-minute making sure all the captions are correct and the photos are with the right story. And I’m sure you’ve written long enough to know that once it’s published, boy you can be really embarrassed. So my introduction came at the last minute after everything was in the can.
We selected people two ways. We sent out a call for entries – which is a nightmare. Because you want a certain level of professionalism. And there were some folks in the anthology whose stories we loved, but they needed a lot of work. So we were more willing to help a semi-professional writer who had a great story than a professional writer whose story didn’t move us at all.
BFB: So it was a combination of open call and solicited?
RA: Yes, that’s exactly right. And with the solicited work — you’re a Baltimorean so you know this — we help each other in Baltimore. We’re not worried about if you get ahead of me. That’s not what happens in L.A. or N.Y. – in those places they’ll walk over you to get the gig. So a lot of the people in the table of contents are folks I’ve worked with a lot over the years and we’ve helped each other with public readings and making sure we go to each other’s signings and dinners and we’ve taught workshops together so it was definitely a combination of open call and people Gary and I reached out to directly.
One story I would direct you to, a new writer, we loved this guy and his journey, is William Duppins’ essay. Now, William is a representative of several generations of one of Baltimore’s underserved communities. Somehow he found us and we really wanted him in here. And now, he and I are working together to get more of his stories written down.
BFB: What were some of the criteria you had as editors?
GA: We had a lot of fun. But we were cautious about certain things, like no more “Wire,” no more “hon,” etc., because there’s a lot more here, especially if you’re not from here. We wanted to approach what Baltimore feels like when you arrive.
BFB: I noticed that. There’s lots of names in here I do know – like Kondwani Fidel and D. Watkins, John Sarbanes – and a lot of folks who are new to me – like Duppins. I think it’s a fine array of known and unknown, West and East, essay and verse. Thanks for that insight. What were some of the most exciting pieces for you?
GA: There’s one and it’s so simple and poignant. It’s the opening paragraph of Ashley Minner’s piece where she describes her aunt coming here in the 1950s. And she talks about her aunt telling her sister that everyone here eats bugs. And it turns out the bugs were crabs! There’s so many great things about that piece, especially how it opens with “My aunt Jeanette, born a Locklear,” like we’re all just supposed to know the Locklears, which I think, conveys better than any analysis the sort of familiarity that you’re expected to have in Baltimore.
And I loved the piece by Reese Cassard, “What I Miss about Baltimore,” because it’s just so funny and very poignant and shows how it’s the little things about a city that really make it a city.
RA: Oh, I loved Rosalia’s Scalia’s story on David Franks. Because David, now deceased, is just one of these Baltimore characters that you couldn’t help but love. And David goes back to old Fells Point in the early 70s, when my father worked on the tugboats down there. My father actually knew him before I did because David, who I continue to write about now and then, conducted a tugboat symphony. You know how tugboats have whistles of different notes? So he bought each captain of these different tugboats a case of beer, stood on Thames street with a conductor’s baton, and pointed to different tugboats, getting them to toot in different sequences. He was totally brilliant.
In addition, there’s also some hard-hitting essays in the anthology like Jean Thompson’s, M. Dion Thompson’s wife, wrote about the early days of Black women fighting for the right vote within the context of women in general. And then, Ashley Minner, came from a working class background in Dundalk, memorializes the native American experience in Baltimore City through a diner. I’m really proud of this book. Because of the vast range of stories that diverse groups of people brought to it. The stories cover several centuries and every geographic area in town.
BFB: What feels defining when thinking about the book?
GA: It’s a part of the Rust Belt series with other cities like Detroit and Buffalo, so it shares certain things in common with those cities because we’re all on this cusp of asking “what’s next for us?” But we’re still just a fun city. Makes me think of the piece “The Best Bar in the World” by Seth Sawyers, about a bar in Remington. It just shows how we do this too, just like in Chicago or L.A. or New York. We go to bars and order drinks and we’re not just Rust Belt or “The Wire,” but a place like other places where hundreds of thousands of people are put into the same area and we’re actually just all the same.
BFB: Is there anything you want readers to know about the anthology?
GA: Everyone is going to read the book and come away with a different feeling, a different take on the city, so it’s just important that folks read it and experience it themselves.
RA: Buy the book, that’s the message. People never really leave Baltimore. This book is for those who are here now and who have been here before.
Join the editors for a book launch on Thursday, June 30 at 5:30 p.m. at Enoch Pratt Free Library’s Southeast Anchor Branch located at 3601 Eastern Ave.