Category Archives: Martin Lammon

The Café du Monde

When I was 18 years-old, I began to lose my way, as many young men and women do, no matter what generation we belong to. What follows is a passage from an older draft of my Costa Rica essays, recalling who I was, and 15 years later, who I wanted to be. This short essay ends with a question, one that all of us ask when we’re in love: “How did you ever choose me?” The answer refers to Costa Rica, but really, it’s another question: “Tell me again… I love the way you tell that story.”

Readers, let me know if you’d like to hear that story, too.


When I turned eighteen, I left home for college, claimed my independence, and fell in love for the first time. I’d never even kissed a girl before, but I was a fast learner. Soon we were making wedding plans and dreaming up names for our children. That Christmas, I bought what the jeweler called a pre-engagement ring. My fiancée-in-waiting always closed her love letters with the infinity symbol—a horizontal figure eight—shorthand for her secret sign off: “Forever and always, for time and all eternity.”

Then, a year later, I started noticing a pretty blond girl in my history class.


In college, romance turned reckless for me. I was hardly alone. In the late seventies, the age of AIDS was years away, and back then I’d convinced myself that monogamy was a creation of the church, institutionalized in loveless marriages. Who could ever love just one person forever until death do you part?

Back then, I couldn’t.

In the years that followed, I started graduate school, got married, but I also continued to see other women. My wife knew about my infidelities. Our arrangement seemed perfectly logical. I loved writing poetry, dancing, drinking beers with friends and listening to blues in college town night clubs, pleasures my wife didn’t share. So some nights, I was on my own, and not often—but often enough—such solo evenings led to other pleasures.

And why not? All my life, I’d had Mick telling me to get what I need, Janis screaming don’t you turn your back on love and get it while you can. And if I couldn’t be with the one I loved, hell yes, I should love the one I was with. I’d sing that song all night long.

I remember talking with a friend, who knew about my open marriage. He and his wife had been married for ten years, and after much soul-searching, they’d finally agreed to have a child. Suspended between panic and desire, my friend was both terrified and fascinated.

“Marty,” he said, “you have what every married man in the world dreams about.”

“Is that what you want?” I looked my friend in the eye, waited to hear what he’d say.

“Well, no, but it’s every man’s fantasy, don’t you think?”

By then I was thirty-two years old, childless, and I’d be lying if I didn’t confess that I remember feeling flattered by my friend’s opinion of my lucky life. But another part of me couldn’t dodge the question that had only recently begun to nag at me: If I’m living every man’s fantasy, why in the hell am I so unhappy?


Back in those days, I wrote long love letters to the women who touched my life, sent flowers to their offices or apartments, dedicated poems to them. What I wanted was passion, a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” how the 19th-century Romance poet William Wordsworth had famously described poetry. Of course, I’d ignored the rest of the poet’s advice, how poetry “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” Who had time for tranquility? I was on the move, and falling in love half a dozen times in twelve years.

Those days, I really thought I was in love. I meant every word in those letters I wrote. And those flowers I sent? I cherished each rose. I wanted those women to love me, to tell me that I was the man they’d waited for all their lives. Sometimes we’d talk about poetry, music, or nothing at all. We’d talk about the world in all its tragic glory.

I always told the truth about being married. I don’t know, maybe some women liked an honest man, even if he was married, while others liked a passionate man who came with no strings attached. Eventually, some were relieved that I drifted away, while others simply, and understandably, discarded me. As much as I’d professed passion, I wasn’t making any promises. Those days, I was living perpetually uncommitted, free to do as I pleased, and as I was learning, the price of that freedom was serial solitude.

When I reached my mid-thirties, got divorced—I know, you’re shocked—I realized that, despite all the logic, the love-the-one-you’re-with songs, what I wanted was damn close to what I’d believed in when I was eighteen years old. I wanted to love one woman, forever, and share the world with her. And I wanted her to love me as if I was the man she’d waited for all her life. For 15 years, I’d wasted my life.

And that’s when I met a woman named Libby.

Before we ever met, Libby had lived in Japan for two years, teaching English to school boys, bored housewives, and ambitious salarymen. When we met, she confided to me how she’d felt so at home in that faraway country. “I think I’m part Japanese,” she used to say.

Years later, in an old letter Libby had written when we first started dating, I found a forgotten gift of spring she’d sent:

…in the library today, I came across a book of Japanese Haiku written in the springtime—I flipped through and was immediately brought back to images of Japan—especially the cherry blossoms—so cherished and beautiful but very short-lived… Anyway, just wanted to share with you some gifts of spring.

Beside the English translations, Libby inscribed the Japanese kanji characters. Now, when I gaze again at her letter, I’m struck by her calligraphy, the bashful curves, the bold strokes. Libby once told me that, in Japan, humility and duality were essential virtues. How long had she labored to create those beautiful kanji characters for me?

Around that same time, I wrote a poem that I dedicated to her. But unlike poems I’d written to others, I surprised myself when I wrote lines that asked this simple question:

How did this happen,

that I am in love for the first time

with a woman, and not

the idea of a woman?

How did this happen? Surely part of me knew, even back then, but I’d only begun to tap the answer to a secret that had eluded me for 15 years.


On a hot summer day in 1995, Libby and I were sharing café au lait and beignets at the Café du Monde. I remember we’d left our hotel early, walking in the French Quarter before most tourists were awake, before the heat of the day turned the air to steam, enjoying a quieter and breezier New Orleans. In six weeks, we’d be on a plane headed for Costa Rica.

I’ve looked through all my old notebooks, and I can’t find any entry about our New Orleans weekend. I do remember sipping mimosas at the Court of Two Sisters and sharing Bananas Foster for dessert at Brennan’s Restaurant. I remember holding hands and strolling along the Mississippi Riverwalk. I found nothing I’d written about our weekend in New Orleans, but I did find tucked away a note. I don’t remember now what “things” Libby refers to. All I have is what she wrote, and what I remember later about living in Costa Rica:

…these are just a few things to prepare for our journey ahead. In order to prepare, of course, you not only need to pack a suitcase or read a travel guide, but need to prepare your soul… I hope you can use these gifts to do just that and to feel with all your five senses the spirit of another land, another people, another way of living. Looking forward to opening my heart with yours to befriend the wonder awaiting us in the world of possibilities…

Now, if I could turn back time, perhaps I’d go back to that little table at the Café du Monde and ask Libby the simplest of questions: Why me? Hell, for all I know, maybe that’s just what I asked her that New Orleans weekend.

“What do you mean?” she might have said.

“How in the world did you ever fall in love with me?”

Near our table, a lonely blues man blows into his old saxophone. As always, Libby tries to turn the question around. Sometimes she used to say—and how sweet she was to say so— that I could have chosen any woman in the world, why her? I always played along, yet my answer was also serious, and always the same: Sure, I’d say, and I chose you.

But this time, I’d pose the question all of us eventually must ask our lovers and ourselves.

“How in the world,” I’d say, “did you ever choose me?”

I’m sure Libby would pause, think about what she might say next.

“Do you remember that night when you asked me to run away to Costa Rica?”

“Of course,” I’d say.

And perhaps that long ago night was when all our questions and answers really started. But sitting at our little table in the Café du Monde, Libby would have waited, reached out and held my hand. She would have encouraged me.

“Tell me again,” she’d say. “I love the way you tell that story.”

A Founding Editor’s Farewell

The following is a revised, abbreviated version of Martin Lammon’s original farewell essay “A Journal of Contemporary Culture,” published in Arts & Letters #29, the fall 2014 issue.

This year, I’m stepping down as editor of Arts & Letters, handing over the leadership of the journal to my colleague, Laura Newbern (who will be ably aided, of course, by other colleagues). After fifteen years since the journal first appeared, I’d like to offer readers a little history.

Spring 1997, I interviewed for a unique opportunity that I found advertised in Poets & Writers magazine. In my June interview for the Fuller E. Callaway Endowed Flannery O’Connor Chair in Creative Writing, I made three promises: To build an undergraduate minor in Creative Writing, while also offering a “Creative Thesis Option” for the department’s new M.A. in English degree; to establish a Visiting Writers Series featuring distinguished and new writers; and to develop a national literary journal publishing such writers. Otherwise, the job required that I teach and that I would continue to write, publish, and contribute significantly to the contemporary American literary landscape. At the time, Georgia College had just been given a new mission by the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents: To serve as the state’s public liberal arts university.

I got the job, and I hope that I’ve lived up to those original promises (and maybe a little more), but that assessment’s best left for others. What I can offer is the story of what happened back then, and since then, and perhaps a glance at what’s to come.

In 1997, thirty-nine years old, I felt as if I’d been thrown into the deep end of the pool. That first year at Georgia College, I knew there was no real budget for what I’d promised. The endowed chair included a $2,500 discretionary budget, but that was all. In addition to teaching classes, writing and publishing, I knew I’d have to become a fund-raiser. Given the generous endowment of the Fuller E. Callway Foundation, which I considered a gift, I determined to implement two principles I’d learned when I was a boy. First, I’d put my money where my mouth was (I pledged $10,000 a year of my salary to kick-start the journal, a pledge that would grow in years to come); and second, I’d tithe, but instead of 10 cents a week in the offering plate, it was $1,000 a month over ten paychecks to a university Foundation account.

In my previous teaching position at Fairmont State in West Virginia, I’d also learned how to apply for state arts funding, and right away, even when all we had was vision and a budget plan, I applied for funding from the Georgia State Arts Council. Over the years, that funding would grow from $1,800 in 1999 to $5,000 a year. I’m sorry to say, but more recently, after the so-called “great recession,” that funding dwindled, and now is gone.

By the time we published the first issue of Arts & Letters (spring 1999, the end of my second year), I’d set aside $20,000 to support the journal, and we’d secured other funding through grants. But most important, we established the annual Arts & Letters prizes competition. A writer’s $15 submission fee was exactly the cost of a two-issue subscription, and all our spring contestants received the fall 1999 and spring 2000 issues, featuring our first $1,000 prize winners in fiction, poetry, and drama. Those spring 1999 revenues were deferred to the next fiscal year, establishing an accrual accounting plan for the journal that would ensure another principle I’d learned when I was a boy: Don’t count your chickens until they’re hatched.

If numbers, budgets, and aphorisms seem boring, well, they are. So here’s the flip side of that coin: That first issue of Arts & Letters featured poetry by Michael Waters; fiction by Thomas E. Kennedy; essays by Dinty W. Moore and Ethelbert Miller; an interview with Ernest Gaines; and poetry translations by W.S. Merwin (Dante’s Purgatoria XIX), Carolyn Wright (Taslima Nasrin), Robert Bly and Sunil Dutta (Ghalib), and Virgil Suarez and Delia M. Poety (Juan Carlos Galeano). That first issue (and the first seven issues) also featured a distinguished artist on the cover and in an eight-page glossy insert (Maritza Dávila in issue #1).

To help establish the journal, I recruited an editorial advisory board of writers I trusted and respected, many of whom contributed work to the journal, visited the Georgia College campus, recommended the journal to other writers, served as final judges for the annual prizes competition, and in general, helped us get started. We no longer claim that editorial advisory board, but here I’d like to acknowledge and thank those writers, editors, and artists. I owe personal thanks to Maggie Anderson, Coleman Barks, Doris Betts, Robert Bly, Fred Chappell, Lee Gutkind, Maxine Kumin, Bret Lott, W.S. Merwin, E. Ethelbert Miller, Rudy Pozzatti, Shannon Ravenel, Virgil Suarez, Jack Troy, and later, Gail Galloway Adams and Dinty W. Moore.

dhallandstudentsBut most of all I owe personal thanks to Donald Hall, since 1980 a mentor and friend, who early on recommended poet Laurie Lamon to us, a frequent contributor and Pushcart Prize winner at Arts & Letters. Don’s visit to our campus in 2004 was memorable. Here’s a photo I’ll always cherish.

In those days, my editorial goals included space for the “World Poetry Translation Series,” book-review essays and featured artwork, and the “Mentors Interview Series” (after that first interview with Ernest Gaines, future issues featured Bobbie Ann Mason, Jean Valentine, Charles Simic, Maxine Kumin, Jane Hirshfield, Lee Smith, John Guare, Janisse Ray, David Ignatow, Tina Howe, Bob Hicok, Charles Baxter, and others). Each issue, I wrote an introductory essay, trying to put the work we published into a contemporary context that was relevant to our own community, but also to a national, even global community. However, after the fall 2004 issue (Arts & Letters #12), in which I eulogized a new colleague and her son, who’d died tragically in a car accident, my introductions became less visionary and more perfunctory. After Susan Atefat-Peckham and Cyrus were killed in that accident, it was hard for me, moving forward.

But the journal survived. Those were the years after our MFA program started (2001-2002, and onward). Financially, our resources were redirected to building that program’s foundation. The effects were small at first, but the journal I’d envisioned in 1999, and that had endured for the first dozen issues or so, had to be scaled back. Slowly, the interviews, translations, book review-essays, and artwork features were diminished, or cut.

However (and here’s where that “boring” financial planning paid off), Arts & Letters never scaled back on our commitment to writers, to publishing their outstanding fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and drama, and to paying those writers. We never cut back on honoraria to regular contributors ($50 minimum, usually to poets; otherwise, $10 per published page). And we never cut back on our annual $1,000 prizes in fiction, poetry, or drama; in fact (thanks to a generous gift from Bahram and Fari Atefat), we expanded them to include, in our spring 2008 issue, the first $1,000 Arts & Letters/Susan Atefat Prize in Creative Nonfiction.

In an essay I wrote for Poets & Writers (“One Editor’s Take on Clean Competition,” Sept/Oct 2005, available online at, I address two essential principles about literary contests: first, no contest fees should fund the promotion of the competition (the organization should already have a budget in place for such advertising and publicity); and second, contest prizes should be covered by funds not connected to contest submission fees. In the early years, my tithing set aside the funding to cover the $1,000 annual prizes; later, generous gifts large and small from others (but especially from MFA alumnus, Dr. Barry Darugar, and later, the Atefats) have helped to endow our prizes.

For fifteen years, our prizes ($56,000 as of 2014-2015) have been funded by such gifts and endowments. The university generously provides office space and infrastructure for the journal, but so far (with some exceptions), publicity, production, distribution, and contributors’ honoraria are funded primarily by journal revenues, thanks to our save-now-spend-later accounting plan.

I know, that’s not a very sexy vision for a literary journal. But I hope that I’m handing over the journal in good financial shape, and I hope that after 15 years, there’s a strong fiscal and literary foundation upon which others can build.

In 15 years, the writers we’ve featured include Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and National Book Critics Circle Award winners; new writers (like poet Beth Ann Fennelly in issue #2, and fiction writer Adam McOmber in issue #23), whose first books were yet to be published; and other distinguished writers, such as George Singleton, Brenda Miller, and Gary Fincke (in issue #27, spring 2013). Our most recent issue (spring 2014, issue #28) features Jennifer Bowen Hicks, winner of the Susan Atefat Prize in Creative Nonfiction for her compelling essay “Candling Delicious.”

Keep an eye on Hicks. I have a hunch she’s our next break-out, kick-starter contributor.

Finally, at the end of the Twentieth Century, when I imagined a journal of national prominence, I was thinking only of a semi-annual, glossy color cover, 8-page color insert, perfect-bound 192-page print journal. Translations would include original poems and facing-page, translated text. In 1997, I’d barely tapped into the new-fangled World Wide Web, and even E-mail was new to me when I moved into my office at Georgia College. By 1999, or maybe it was 2000, I realized we needed to have a website, and my amateur efforts just a decade or so ago were embarrassing. But at least we were plugged in, and ready for what was coming. You can see the impressive changes, and the new vision for Arts & Letters, at our revamped and amped-up web-site.

Whatever new vision for the journal awaits us (and I really don’t know what’s next; I’m excited just like you), I do hope one core value remains. The Fall 2010 issue (#22) was the last to include our subtitle on the cover: Arts & Letters Journal of Contemporary Culture. In 1999, when we published our first issue, I wanted to distinguish between popular culture that so dominated our media, and a contemporary culture that thrived not on television or the cinema (and that wasn’t measured by Nielsen ratings) but reached out, in print, and especially in a “living literature” to bring authors we’d published to our campus and community.

I hope that, as the journal moves forward, even if the subtitle has receded into the past, in the future that vision of a contemporary culture will prevail, because I do believe that our neighbors, our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, and even (maybe especially) folks sequestered in universities, do actually long for stories, poems, essays, and other contemporary literature that will offer substance, satisfaction, and not just a way to kill time, or deconstruct a text.

I do believe in you, one reader at a time. I’ve met you in classes I’ve taught for 35 years, in workshops, readings, and conferences where half a dozen or 10,000 were gathered. I’ve met you in New Orleans and Chicago, Phoenix and Boston; I’ve met you in Ohio, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Costa Rica, Spain, Italy, and Georgia, USA.

None of this matters without you. After all these years, it’s high time I said thank you.

Martin Lammon, Founding Editor, Arts & Letters