Fiction, Poetry, and Documerica

This year, City Paper decided to do something different with its Fiction and Poetry issue. Instead of soliciting reader submissions, we invited local fiction writer Susan Muaddi Darraj to guest edit our feature well of stories and poems.

Darraj, fiction editor of Barrelhouse Magazine and former editor of The Baltimore Review, is the author of several books including, most recently her 2015 collection of short stories, “A Curious Land: Stories from Home,” which won the American Association of Writers and Writing Programs Grace Paley Award for short fiction. She is also the recipient of two Maryland State Arts Council individual artist awards and this summer won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation and was short-listed for the Palestine Book Awards. As one of the organizers of an occasional reading series, Raising Our Voices: Womyn Out Loud, she has deep connections in the arts community in Baltimore and reached out to a range of local authors to curate this collection of diverse voices, styles, perspectives, and topics.

To accompany the short stories and poems, City Paper art director Athena Towery looked for inspiration to a series of photographs housed in the U.S. National Archives called “Documerica.” In the 70s, the fledgling Environmental Protection Agency took a page from the Farm Security Administration’s book—during the depression, the FSA famously hired artists and writers to document ordinary American life and readers likely recall photographers like Dorthea Lange who chronicled the Dust Bowl, Gordon Parks who recorded the Jim Crow South, and Walker Evans who looked at rural poverty in America. The EPA, a brand new agency in the seventies, similarly hired professional photographers to document the impact of environmental devastation but gave them a broad mandate to also capture the essence American daily life in the cities, suburbs, and farmlands.

From 1971 to 1977, more than 70 freelance photographers fanned out across every state in the U.S. ultimately producing 22,000 photographs now preserved in the National Archives. Assigned approximately 115 different geographical locations, paid $150 a day plus film, the photographers worked under the direction of Gifford Hampshire.

In 2013, as the National Archives prepared an exhibition of the photographs, senior curator Bruce Bustard described the impetus behind the project in an email to Slate: “Giff Hampshire, who directed DOCUMERICA, was interested in what he called ‘the human connection’ to the environment,” Bustard wrote. “He realized that limiting his photographers to a narrow definition of ‘environment’ would result in lots of photographs of smog, waste treatment plants and dead fish, and he wanted to encourage them to have a wider vision … He took Barry Commoner’s law of ecology as the project’s motto: ‘Everything is connected to everything else.’ That made for lots of photo possibilities.”

In the following collection of poems and stories, City Paper similarly saw writers focused on connection—connections between family members, communities, and nations. Indeed, one could argue that all writers are obsessed with this subject, whether it is reporters chronicling a city’s community connections or lack thereof—and the attendant problems that ensue—or poets exploring their deep connections to distant homelands. The theme, connection, rises to the surface and spills out into guilt, blame, recriminations, and sometimes forgiveness, curiosity, and joy. (Karen Houppert)

  • 'The Tour Guide' and 'The Scientist'

    'The Tour Guide' and 'The Scientist'

    The Tour Guide Help, I said help I said. Help, retreating. To the historical replica mercantile vessel. My body does things that I hate, like, accept. Other. Objects. The sails of which are unexposed, masts axed, plugged into the dock with a long, dirty, yellow cord. What else is you listen to...

  • 'Arab Men I Have Loved in Passing' and 'City Animals'

    'Arab Men I Have Loved in Passing' and 'City Animals'

    Arab Men I Have Loved in Passing Ayman at the Dallas Fort Worth Froyo lets his fingers linger in my palms smiles a secret when he hands back my change the Yemeni cashier at my gas station notices when I have been gone too long urges me to enjoy my cigarettes the on-call doctor at urgent care treats...

  • 'Forty Years Later: What I Know' and 'From Bombay to Baltimore'

    'Forty Years Later: What I Know' and 'From Bombay to Baltimore'

    Forty Years Later: What I Know Let me say this about immigrants who burrow through the earth to swim in rivers whose names they lisp, Mississippi, Missouri—so many esses, hisses, misses, the Grand Canyon they fly over with paper wings. I love the way they step off a plane or boat into a silky twilight...

  • Milestone


    It was early October and I still had no friends to present to my father, who was coming up for my eighteenth birthday and a National Dairy Board Conference in Syracuse. "Biff, Scooter, Tripp and I got plowed at the big game last weekend" was the kind of shit my brother used to sling over the wires...

  • Napoleonic Poem

    Napoleonic Poem

    It can happen that one nightyou find yourself skiing through a pedestrian mallin the middle of Parisas snow falls on the glass roof—a luminous parasolabove the Champs-Élysées. And it can happenthat you wake up and find yourselfin Baltimore and you'll rememberthe five kids cut down this weekall...

  • Possessions


    I will take the way you folded the towels and looped the toilet paper under and the way you made eggs, not because I believe in the rightness or wrongness of your technique but because of the muscle memory of these acts seems silly to change now. I will take the good sex to remember I was once...

  • Childhood in the South

    Childhood in the South

    An excerpt from the forthcoming novel, "Where the Spirit Meets the Bone"

  • Ghost Hunters

    Ghost Hunters

    My mother liked to tell us ghost stories at supper. A long time ago, she said, in that yellow house up the block, a man stumbled down the stairs and broke his neck. She stopped and cut her asparagus into pieces and paused for a long, painful moment to chew, to wait until my brother and I were squirming,...

  • Mother's Dresser

    Mother's Dresser

    In the evening, after dinner, the grownups drink espresso laced with Sambuca or anisette, the aromas of licorice, of anise, of coffee rising up like extended fingers and mingling with whiffs of garlic, tomato, and basil, remnants of the now finished dinner. The guest declines the espresso and instead...

  • Like Bees Wanting Out the Terrible Hive

    Like Bees Wanting Out the Terrible Hive

    It was Thursday already, and anyway you knew he was itching by the way he tapped his feet double time. He said, "Don't nobody wanna take a ride? Don't nobody wanna taste that sweet air with they tongue? Hunh? Stuffy in here, ain't it Lin? Pam, you not hot? Roy Jr.? Marian? Sugar, what about you?"...