Thursday, February 15, 2024

Red Letter Poem #195

 The Red Letters



In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.

To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.


––Steven Ratiner








Red Letter Poem #195






Shop Talk



The door-shop man talked…doors. He talked about

centimeters, frames of width and height,

his raised voice drowning as his sander droned

and dust flew from the jam he had in mind,


his goggles in the streamed flurry it snowed.

He rattled his thick fingers through a box

of hinges, saying hang so that the load

of the door weighed in its intransitive syntax.


That summer we shouldered slabs with holes for knobs

from delivery trucks, leaning them into

just tilted stacks against the cinder wall.


I’d mention poetry. His eyes would cross

in concentration almost. Then he’d smile

and skip getting fancy with Violets are blue.



     ––Michael T. Steffen




Shop talk: “a discussion about one's trade, business, or employment that only others in the same field can understand.”  Yet there’s an unmistakable allure in jargon, don’t you think, the way that such specialized language evolves inside every trade or profession?  It has the power to quickly confirm a sense of inclusion, or implicitly exclude the uninitiated.  Back in college, I worked one summer in the warehouse of a local department store, helping to deliver furniture all across New York’s Southern Tier.  Let me tell you, woe to the newbie who drives onto the loading dock with a settee on his forklift when the order was for a sectional!  Yet I couldn’t help admiring how the men who schooled me in their occupation could balance-load a 24-foot box truck as artfully as I arranged iambs in a sonnet.  I had a professor back then, Milton Kessler (a fine poet in his own right), who relished jargon in poems, praising the sense of “actuality” and “lived experience” they brought to a piece.  And so, in Michael T. Steffen’s “Shop Talk”, it only takes a few lines to convince us that, sometime in his life, he’s put in his hours at the door shop, learning the trade.  For me, the delight of the poem is watching the double-mind he’s conjured; the young apprentice who’s taby the earnest shop talk, while the agile mind of the poet can’t help but record the experience, leading us to speculate about what’s crucial within all of our working lives.


It's no accident that the poem begins with six monosyllables: “The door-shop man talked…doors”––  a hammering drumbeat, unadorned, workaday.  But then the more complicated music and double entendres come rushing into play: “his raised voice drowning as his sander droned/ and dust flew from the jam he had in mind”.  His boss’s voice is indeed buffeted by drown and drone––and we’re not surprised to see him, first awash in noise, then snowed in by blown sawdust (and oh, that troublesome mind-jam!)  Poetry seems to be insinuating itself into the very texture of the labor.  But when the actual mention of verse enters the conversation (has the speaker, perhaps, confessed what he really wants to do with his life?), the older man dismisses the enterprise with the most artless of rhymes (skipping the roses are red, as perhaps being too highbrow, but settling on those blue-collar violets––whether or not he’s aware that they signify modesty and humility.)


Michael’s poetry has the ear of a classicist and the calloused hands of the salt-of-the-earth citizenry.  Recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship and an Ibbetson Street Press Poetry Award, his work has appeared in such diverse places as The Boston Globe, E-Verse Radio, The Lyric, and The Concord Saunterer.  His second strong collection, On Earth As It Is, was recently published by Cervena Barva Press.  He’s also begun staging choral readings of important long-poems from the modern canon, including Seamus Heaney’s “Station Island” and Donald Hall’s “The One Day.”  Today’s piece brought to mind the characters of Robert Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Man.”  If you’ll remember: there’s Silas, the itinerant farm hand, nearing the end of his life; and Harold Wilson, a college boy doing summer labor.  Silas can’t comprehend the boy’s fixation on things like Latin and the violin––useless skills to this hardworking man.  Still, he’d like to teach Harold “how to build a load of hay”––a task Silas has elevated into almost an artform.  We’ve long had something of an uneasy relationship with poetry––in America more so than in many European countries.  And so apprentice poets usually have had to find separate employment in order to survive.  Are we incapable of valuing what the well-made poem provides for all of us?  Must beauty be marketable before we’ll give it its due?  Perhaps Michael learned (through his work in the shop as well as the notebook) how gratifying it is when either a poem or that well-crafted door swings open on its hinges, allowing others to enter.  Both offer a welcome, and the invitation to make yourself at home.




Red Letters 3.0


* If you would like to receive these poems every Friday in your own in-box – or would like to write in with comments or submissions – send correspondence to:



To learn more about the origins of the Red Letter Project, check out an essay I wrote for Arrowsmith Magazine:


and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene


For updates and announcements about Red Letter projects and poetry readings, please follow me on Twitter          


Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Somerville Printmaker Liv Cappello: Leaving an imprint on her audience

I recently caught up with printmaker Liv Cappello, who recently took up a space at the Vernon Street Studios.  She went to college in the hinterlands of Vermont, and is now in the Paris of New England--Somerville, MA--perfecting her craft.

How has it been for you as an artist working in Somerville, and being a resident of the Vernon St. Studios?

I’m relatively new to Vernon Street (moved in late 2023) but I’ve already met a few of the wonderful artists in both buildings and have learned a lot from their experience at Vernon street and through their art practices. My past studios have been in garages, basements, and my bedroom, so I’m excited to not only have my own studio space but to be a part of a community of artists. I also love how arts-focused Somerville is - it feels like a key part of the community here and we need to keep it that way by protecting Somerville’s fabrication districts!

You named your studio after your favorite wilderness trail in Vermont, the LONG TRAIL. Tell us about the trail, and what experience you had there that influenced your work.

I went to college in Vermont and lived there for a bit after graduating. Part of my college’s campus intersects with the Long Trail, and while I’ve camped off the trail many times, I’ve yet to actually hike the whole thing. I planned to in 2020 but that fell through - it’s still a goal of mine! I love everything about the state — the small, tight-knit communities, the enthusiasm for the outdoors, the appreciation for small artists and small businesses. I came up with the name Long Trail Studio as a nod to the place that shaped a lot of my young adult life.

You are a printmaker, among other things. Can you give us a snapshot of the process that goes into the making of your prints?

I’m trying to be a little more planful with my art - I usually just grab a piece of linoleum or wood and start carving and hope for the best. I’ve gotten into screen printing in the past few years, which is a medium that, unfortunately for me, requires a lot more planning than I’m used to. I started teaching screen printing classes at Artisan’s Asylum in Allston a while back - learning to teach and articulate each step to other people has been really helpful in slowing me down and making me appreciate the process. This is especially true with three or four color screen prints, which require a lot of measuring and registering paper, etc.

Most of my screen prints start with a sketch in my notebook that turns into a finalized design in Adobe Illustator or Procreate; then is burned into a mesh screen coated in emulsion; then is washed out and ready to print onto paper by pulling ink through the screen with a squeegee. Once you’ve got the process down it’s relatively easy - and addicting. I make each of my prints by hand, so every single copy of a print is a little different from the last - that’s one of my favorite things about this medium.

From viewing your gallery online, you have a variety of subjects for your prints—fish, an elongated, sinewy torso of a woman, a can of Somerville coffee, etc... How do you pick your subjects?

A lot of my earlier work was inspired by living in Vermont - I did a lot of topo maps, trees, trail maps of the Middlebury College Snowbowl and maps of the state itself. Since moving to Massachusetts, I’ve leaned more toward representing things in my daily life - though I still feel really connected to the outdoors and go back through old backpacking photos and memories of trips for inspiration in my art. Most of my work was black and white when I started out because I thought a big jar of black block ink on sale at Blick. I’ve finally gotten through that jar and my new years resolution for 2024 is to use a lot more color, so hopefully I’ll follow through with that in my work this year.

Why should we view your art?

I think there’s something cool about seeing art in the everyday object. A lot of my work is based on simple and playful things that you’d see from day to day and I think if you can see the beauty in that, you might like my work!

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Review of Stand Up If You’re Here Tonight, a play by John Kolvenbach

 Stand Up If You’re Here Tonight

Review of Stand Up If You’re Here Tonight, a play by John Kolvenbach

Huntington Theatre, at the Maso Stage at the Huntington through March 23, 2024

By Andy Hoffman

Stand Up If You’re Here Tonight put the play back in the theater experience. Though it has no plot to speak of, Stand Up runs for a very engaging hour of meta-theater. Directed and written by John Kolvenbach, the script operates like a cooperative game where the audience’s reaction become part of the entertainment. Composed specifically for Jim Ortlieb, who plays The Man in the one-man (almost) show, Stand Up asks questions about the theater-going experience, most sharply: “What is the purpose of theater? Why go at all?” Given that the play was written during the pandemic, the question has teeth. If we don’t experience the transcendence of live theater, that moment when the play and performance disappear into the emotional and intellectual understanding great theater provides, then it will have lost its purpose. Stand Up If You’re Here Tonight reinvigorates that transcendent joy and provides an hour of laughter at the same time.

The Maso Stage looks like a rehearsal space, filled with mix-and-match chairs at floor level and several rows of risers behind. The upstage wall has a mishmash of old sets, lights, and furniture from earlier shows. When Ortlieb and Kolvenbach first staged the show in Los Angeles, as the pandemic began to wane, they took hold or a performance space that had not received a human presence for a couple of years, and the set for Stand Up If You’re Here Tonight evokes that same gestalt, the purgatory of a theater waiting for a play and an audience to see it. The Man builds up interactions with the audience which pile up until prepared to feel. It’s sort of a positive response to the nihilistic view of theater without an audience expressed by The Player in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: “It was not until the murderer’s long soliloquy that we were able to look around. . . . Our eyes searched you out (until) every exposed corner in every direction proved uninhabited. . . .The silence was unbreakable.” The magic in this performance comes through theater’s ability to conjure up a connection with an audience – in fact, conjure an audience itself – from one nameless character operating with a series of comic bits, sympathetic tugs, and a few scripted interactions.

Jim Ortlieb pulls of a high-wire act for his hour onstage. The audience has little reason to engage with him as he rambles around the pile of junk that comprises the set. From the moment he enters the stage carrying a board and a sawhorse, we wonder who he is. The Man puts off the start of the play several times, or he seems too. He also breaks the continuity of illusion with several periods of silence. He tempts the audience to leave, to look away, to simply disengage, but the 200 spectators I sat with kept their focus on the stage and on the man even through the surprise ending. Ortlieb deserved the standing ovation he received.

The performance maintains its questioning interaction with the audience even after the play has ended, inviting people up to the stage for drinks and conversation. Stand Up If You’re Here Tonight leaves the audience feeling as though it has helped answer the question about how theater can survive the pandemic and even return stronger. That’s a massive achievement

Friday, February 09, 2024

Red Letter Poem #194


The Red Letters



In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.

To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.









Red Letter Poem #194






At Mt. Auburn Cemetery



Walking among the graves for exercise

Where do you get your ideas how do I stop them

Looking for Mike Mazur’s marker I looked

Down at the grass and saw Stanislaw Baranczak

Our Solidarity poetry reading in Poznan

Years later in Newton Now he said I’m a U.S.

Liberal with a car like everybody else

When I held Bobo dying in my arms

His green eyes told me I am not done yet

Then he was gone when he was young he enjoyed

Leaping up onto the copy machine to press

A button and hear it hum to life and rustle

A blank page then another out onto its tray

Sometimes he batted the pages down to the floor

I used to call it his hobby here’s a marble

Wicker bassinet marking a baby’s grave

To sever the good fellowship of dust the vet’s

Needle first a sedative then death now Willie

Paces the house mowling his elegy for Bobo

They never meow to one another just to people

Or to their nursing mother when they’re small I

Marvel at this massive labeled American elm

Spreading above a cluster of newer names

Chang, Ohanessian, Kondakis joining Howells,

Emerson, Shaw and here’s a six-foot sphere

Of polished granite perfect and inscribed WALKER

Should I have let him die his own cat way

The cemetery official confided Bruce Lee

Spends less on a stone than Schwarzenegger what

Will mark the markers when like mourners they bow

And kneel and fall down flat to kiss the heaps

They have in trust under the splendid elm

Also marked with its tag a noble survivor

Civilization lifted my cat from the street

Gave him a name his shots and managed his death

Now Willie howls the loss from room to room

When people say I’m ashamed of being German

Said Arendt I want to say I’m ashamed of being

Human sometimes when Bobo made his copies

Of nothing I’d crumple one for him to chase

And combat in the game of being himself.



                         ––Robert Pinsky



The power of naming, and the necessity of remembrance: these ideas help form the spine of Proverbs of Limbo, Robert Pinsky’s eleventh volume of poetry, set to be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux this June.  Here, Robert is focusing on the responsibility central to all poets––one whose roots extend to the Garden of Eden, where God commanded Adam to create names for all that surrounded him.  (This is a God who, not incidentally, is called by seventy different appellations in Jewish spiritual literature, because His one ‘unknowable name’ contains such overwhelming power.)  Poetry involves the sort of mnemonic potency where names and lived experiences can become indelibly enshrined––think: Homer’s bardic recitations; or the 305 Confucian Odes which every Chinese scholar was traditionally required to memorize.  Astonishing, though, that such a creative act might bestow upon our loved ones the sort of enduring ‘fame’ usually reserved for a more rarefied pantheon of heroes.  Many believe that speaking the names of the lost, remembering their ordinary exploits, ensures their enduring presence.  And as was said by that 18th century Jewish mystic, the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name): “In memory lies the secret of redemption.”


Proverbs of Limbo (a name intended to bring to mind William Blake’s long poem “The Proverbs of Hell”) begins with “Poem of Names”; it introduces us to the theme of unearthing characters and events from the poet’s memory––the familial and historical; the famous, infamous, and ordinary.  I first encountered today’s poem, “At Mt. Auburn Cemetery”, when it appeared in the New Yorker in 2021, and I remember that feeling of blissful disorientation it provoked.  The situation of the piece was not unfamiliar––Mt. Auburn is, after all, America’s first rural or garden cemetery, a lovely 170-acre site where many people stroll among the handsome groves on a spring day––but the speaker’s state of mind might be less so.  Doing without most of the expected punctuation, the poem seems, at first, as amorphous as the drifting clouds.  The protagonist is hunting for the grave marker of a dear friend, Mike Mazur––the vibrant painter and printmaker with whom Robert collaborated on a handsome new version of Dante’s Inferno.  (Dante is, of course, another acclaimed recorder of names; and Mike Mazur, I should add, was the husband of Gail, last week’s Red Letter poet.  You see how infectious this can be, detailing names and connections!)  But as the poet’s mind wanders, invoking both artist-friends and random strangers––enter Bobo, the dying cat of the Pinsky household.  And suddenly we find ourselves wondering: just what drives any life to endure the slings and arrows we face each day?  “When I held Bobo dying in my arms/ His green eyes told me I am not done yet”––even as life was slipping through those soft paws.  And then he recalls Bobo’s old pastime, churning out blank copies from the poet’s printer, so he might chase and pounce on this (what else should I call it but) emptiness.  This cannot help but seem a rueful commentary on all we living creatures pursue within our meager allotment of days.


During a poetry residency with fourth graders in Concord, MA, one student asked me if I was a famous poet.  I replied that I could claim, in all modesty, to be the most famous poet currently residing on Bellington Street.  (I said currently – no need to be cocky.)  It’s an exceedingly rare condition for a contemporary in this profession, but Robert Pinsky is undoubtedly famous, throughout America and far beyond.  I’m heartened that his renown is not only due to that trove of fine poetry collections (and of course his anthologies, literary criticism, and memoirs––such as the recent Jersey Breaks), but to a lifetime as a public poet, affirming the place the artform maintains in the civic life of a nation.  He did this through three terms as the U.S. Poet Laureate, during which he created his immensely popular Favorite Poem Project.  But this extends into his advocacy for verse as a whole––epitomized, perhaps, by his excellent Dante translation, but manifested as well in his continued collaborations with jazz and folk musicians, inviting the sisterhood of muses to join forces in performance.   He has spent a lifetime being a diligent steward of our literary estate, bolstering its place in the temples of academia but also in the kitchens of quiet apartments; in barrooms and gymnasiums; on shop floors and hospital wards; and in the mouths of the so-called ordinary people making their way through this life.  Let me invoke the name of another literary giant, Seamus Heaney, who wrote: “Poetry is what we do to break bread with the dead.”  And this process is not about plunging ourselves to the depths of Hades, but reclaiming the lost through our faith in language and the power of remembrance.  Such poetry ushers the departed back into daylight, at least for the moment.  So I’ll gladly sing this joyful litany of names––Mazur and Baranczak; Confucius and Blake; Pinsky and, yes, sweet Bobo––to help intensify that light.





Red Letters 3.0


* If you would like to receive these poems every Friday in your own in-box – or would like to write in with comments or submissions – send correspondence to:



To learn more about the origins of the Red Letter Project, check out an essay I wrote for Arrowsmith Magazine:


and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene


For updates and announcements about Red Letter projects and poetry readings, please follow me on Twitter