Friday, August 12, 2022

Interview with Patricia Harris: New England's Notable Women: The Stories and Sites of Trailblazers and Achievers


Patricia Harris met me at my usual spot at the Bloc11 Cafe in Union Square, Somerville to talk about her latest book "New England's Notable Women: The Stories and Sites of Trailblazers and Achievers." Harris is a travel-writer (who often shares her byline with her husband the writer-- David Lyons)  and is a seasoned food and arts reporter. Her articles have often appeared in The Boston Globe and elsewhere.

Harris told me as a child, " I was always interested in Louisa May Alcott's  novel " Little Women" and particularly the character of Jo March. March was always curious and spunky and did not fit into the restrictive conventions of her time for girls. So it was very interesting to write about these women  of the same cloth from all walks of life, and connect a vivid place or home , etc.... that resonates with their lives."

Harris visited sites of  45 notable women.  She narrowed down her list to places where her readers could visit. Sometimes she wanted to include a woman, but there was just no relevant site that people could focus on.  She said, " I want people to view this as an armchair book, but also as an active one--that people can refer to when they go to the sites such as The Mount or the Alcott Estate, for instance."

I asked Harris about some of the notable women she covered. We started very locally in Cambridge, with Julia Child. Just over the Somerville line - is the Cambridge-based meat and gourmet market Savenor's .  Since Harris couldn't visit the house Child lived in, (it is not open to the public) she brings the reader to Savenor's -- where the iconic " 'French Chef" Julia Child-- was a loyal patron--getting the clarified butter, the rarefied cuts of meats and ingredients, for culinary fodder for her creations that wowed TV goers and readers alike. Child was also a denizen of the  "Harvest"  a restaurant in Harvard Square-- that is still very much in operation today. According to Harris, Child was a very approachable woman, and would often engage in long conversations with pedestrians, as she walked the winding streets of Cambridge.


We also touched on Alice Longfellow, of the "Longfellow House-Washington's Headquarters-National Historic Site on Brattle Street in Cambridge. Alice Longfellow of course was the daughter of Henry Wordsworth Longfellow, who once referred her to as her "Grave Alice," in his poem the "Children's Hour."


According to Harris, Alice was instrumental in the renovation, and expansion of the house. She also  was a George Washington aficionado and spread the legacy of the man, whose Revolutionary War Headquarters was at the Longfellow House. She is also played a major role in the founding of Radcliffe College.


We also discussed Maria Mitchell, the first recognized female astronomer in the United States, who discovered the comet  known as "Miss Mitchell's" comet in1847.  She discovered the comet on the top of her house in Nantucket with her little telescope. She later became the first professor at Vassar College and the director of the Vassar College Observatory.


Another of Harris' favorite women was the enslaved poet Phillis Wheatley. Born in West Africa, she was sold into slavery to Bostonian John Wheatley and his family. This wealthy family educated her and she became a self-taught poet. She later became a household name in the world of poetry.  Later on-she left the family's church and went on be a member of the congregation of the Old South Meeting House in Boston. Wheatley was an extremely pious woman and was strongly connected to her religion. Some contingents believed that the reserved Wheatley should have spoken up more about white oppression. But Harris feels that as time went on and her faith changed, the poet did speak more strongly about the injustice in society. In the 1770s Wheatley had a collection of 28 poems compiled. However, there was no support to publish it in America, so in 1773 her first collection, " Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral" was published in London.


Harris also told told me about Kathleen Moore, who was the keeper of the Black Rock Fayerweather Island Lighthouse off the coast of Bridgeport, Connecticut,  She held this position for over a half a century-- ( she took over duties at age 12) and was responsible for saving many lives. She reportedly said that at times there were 3 or 4 shipwrecks a night. She was responsible not only to maintain the lighthouse, but to nurse shipwrecked sailors back to life. Unfortunately she died in obscurity in an unmarked grave


I asked Harris if she considered herself a feminist and she replied with a wry smile, " I am all about women's empowerment." And indeed-- these stories and places, with a generous amount of illustrations and photography are a testament to empowered women.


Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Mercy, Bill Littlefield

 

Mercy, Bill Littlefield, Black Rose Writing, Texas, 242 pages, $20.95.


Review by Ed Meek



John Gardner (The Art of Fiction) would call Mercy an architectonic novel. It is written using a number of different points of view. For it to be successful, the author has to be able to create convincing characters and, when he changes point of view, we have to be invested enough in the characters to go along for the ride. And somehow, the author must manage to tie or bring these characters together. Littlefield delivers in his compelling new novel Mercy. And these days, with the stress of a pandemic and a Russian invasion of Ukraine, the notion that we could both show and use a little mercy really strikes a chord.


You may know Bill Littlefield from his work as host of It’s Only a Game, the popular NPR show that he created. As someone who spent years telling and listening to stories, Littlefield is adept at storytelling. He has also worked with the incarcerated for a number of years through Emerson College’s prison program. In Mercy, Littlefield is able to bring some of the many tales he must have heard to life. His wide range of experiences lends his voice authority, particularly when he writes from the point of view of characters in the novel on the wrong side of the law.


Mercy is set in a suburban neighborhood inhabited by a cross-section of characters. An older couple with a young son, a woman whose husband loses all their money by day-trading, and a famous gangster who has been returned home from jail to die in the house lived in by his wife. Two guys who worked for the gangster are also integral to the plot. In this type of novel, you’ll find yourself, depending on your background, identifying with some characters more than others or maybe not identifying but appreciating… My favorites were the small-time bad guys, Francis and Gibby, who did odd jobs for the gangster, Arthur Baladino. Their dialogue crackles like the exchanges in a Dennis Lehane novel. Francis tells Gibby about a guy he met in jail for murder who said to him: “I don’t consider myself a murderer.”

“Nobody guilty in here,” Gibby said.

“No, no, that’s not it,” Francis said. “He’s defending himself, the way he sees it…”

“Okay,” Gibby said.

“But the main thing, his point, this guy, he’s just doing what it is he does. He’s out there with his guys, that’s all. He’s got a gun… ‘Murderer?’ he tells me, Murderer’s a guy does it for money.’”


As you read Mercy, you’ll find yourself nodding along with the stories the characters tell. Like Jack you may remember “the cruelty of children.” Jack tells us of a kid coming up behind him as he was walking along with a friend; the kid banged their heads together. “Every kid has something like that to get through. Or bullying. Teasing. Having to go the bathroom and the teacher won’t let you.”


We didn’t have a murderer like Arthur Baladino in our neighborhood in Milton, but we did have a counterfeiter next door, and around the corner was a child molester who seduced (if that’s the word) the paper-boy.


The theme of Mercy comes into play in the ways the characters help and support each other. The couple that sticks together despite having to deal with the unimaginable. The gangster’s wife who takes him in when he’s released from jail. Two women who find love with each other late in life. No matter who we are, we’ve all had difficult situations to deal with. Even Arthur Baladino and his wife have terrible things happen to them that makes them sympathetic characters.


Echoing John Edgar Wideman who writes about the younger brother who has spent his life in jail for his involvement in a murder, Littlefield doesn’t let his wise guys off the hook, but he would like us to see them as human beings.


“What it is, I guess is, people are people, inside or out. Some of ‘em do stuff, you know when they’re young guys, whatever.” Says Francis referring to the way, men he knew in prison grow and change. Most of the violent crime, as we know, is committed by young men. And we’ve learned that young men are not very good at considering the consequences of their actions.


The plot of the novel revolves around the many secrets simmering beneath the surface of the lives of the characters and Littlefield slowly teases them out to connect the disparate voices in Mercy. You’ll find yourself having a hard time putting Mercy down as you turn the pages to find out what happens next.

Friday, August 05, 2022

New England Poetry Club: Prize Winners and Honorable Mentions


 

Red Letter Poem #122

 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 #122

 

 

 

If perhaps poets have ‘origin stories’ (like those heroes and heroines in adventure movies), they too will often revolve around an old magical-looking text the young protagonist stumbles upon on some dusty shelf.  But often, in these cases, the magical designation embossed on the cover will read: Webster’s (that was true in my case) – or, for poet Alice Kociemba, the even-more-formidable Oxford English.  Most likely we nascent poets already have a propensity for language, but these early deep-dives into the dictionary tend to yield much more than curious words.  They offer a sense of enormity – that every thing we might ever glimpse, every thought we might entertain, has attached to it a word (or a trove of verbiage) to signify its presence.  Within a dictionary (and within our lives, though we often forget), words carry history, genealogy, and the resonance of familial ties.  They remind us that billions of mouths, that existed long before ours, spoke these very words, trying to grasp the meaning of their days – as we are doing now.  And that idea affirms – in a manner that is both comforting and humbling – others have gone through and felt what we do at this moment (though we upstart poets surely believe that no one has ever made words feel what we are about to make them feel, as we reach for our pen.)

 

Alice, I am happy to say, is still reaching – and her efforts have resulted in the poetry collection Bourne Bridge (Turning Point Press), and the chapbook Death of Teaticket Hardware.  She’s also published widely in literary journals and anthologies.  As the founding director of Calliope, Alice has hosted readings, writing workshops, and a poetry appreciation group at the Falmouth Public Library, supporting other dictionary-navigators and poetry-explorers.  Calliope’s latest project – in partnership with Bass River Press (an imprint of the Cultural Center of Cape Cod) – is the recently-published anthology, From the Farther Shore: Discovering Cape Cod and the Islands Through Poetry; and what better guide than poems to explore both this outer and inner geography.  Calliope’s mission is listed as three words: Appreciate. Create. Celebrate.  But, more than simply words, these are lodestars (beacons, balefires, trail markers – sorry, I couldn’t help myself) Alice has employed to guide her own life’s progress; or, as in the case of this poem, to backtrack into memory in order to rescue what, if not for the uncanny power of words, would forever remain beyond her reach.

 

 

 

 

Words Have Their Own Stories

 

 

After school, she takes the Oxford English Dictionary

off its stand, settles into the library’s  window seat.

Takes her glasses off, puts her chin close to the page.

 

She’ll be quizzed tomorrow. Today’s word is passage.

 

But her finger stops at Pass. From the Old French, passer,

to the Vulgar Latin, passare, to the Latin, passus.

To step, to set a pace, to go away, to depart.

 

To die. As in “pass on.”

 

Use it in a sentence.

 

Your father passed last night, unexpected. 

 

In fading light, she senses him

hovering outside the window like a butterfly

 

that floats

                        then stills

     before it disappears.

 

 

       ––Alice Kociemba

 

 

 

 

The 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:

steven.arlingtonlaureate@gmail.com

 

 

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

https://www.arrowsmithpress.com/community-of-voices

 

Two of our partner sites will continue re-posting each Red Letter weekly: the YourArlington news blog

https://www.yourarlington.com/easyblog/entry/28-poetry/3168-redletter-071522

 

 

and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene

http://dougholder.blogspot.com

 

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

@StevenRatiner

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Somerville artist Iku Oseki: A painter who likes her work to talk

 

If you view the paintings of Somerville artist Iku Oseki you may find them talking to you. And indeed, you are not losing it; but her work has a strong sense of narrative-- a storyline, one might say. I caught up with the artist before she was off to south of the border---Mexico to be exact.



How has Somerville been for you as a working artist?

I have been here since the year the Red Line opened up farther from Harvard Sq. My husband and I moved to Porter Sq. right at the time of the station opening, and I was thrilled!! The whole place changed dramatically after that. The convenience, the youthful energy with lots of college students, and the artists community here all contribute to my creativity.


You were born in Japan. But you have a great interest in Mexico and its culture. What whet your appetite for this country and its people?

In the early 90’s, we discovered a small ( now big!! ) town in the central highland called San Miguel de Allende which was known for Institute de Allende, an art school with tremendous offerings of art classes. There is another art institution called Bellas Artes with art, music, and dance galore. Both of us being artists, immediately we fell in love with this place and kept coming back almost every summer with our daughter, who could participate in children’s art and crafts camps. As the town grew, and now has been known as one of the best retiring communities for foreigners, we’ve made many friends, expats and Mexicans, and have continued to visit and enjoy the culture, arts ( now they host a international chamber music festival and independent film festival during each summer ), food, and the relaxed lifestyle.


You describe your paintings as abstracts with narratives. Is it hard to combine the two?

Not at all! We artists know that simple ( not mixed media ) paintings consist of brush marks ( or applied paint with some kind of tools). Period! I create my brush marks in pretty free-forming, unconscious-driven manners, letting accidental happenings thrive all the time. Yet, I always have a goal of telling some story, and my paintings to be “talkative.”


Vivid color plays a big role in your work. Explain.

I am very particular about color. One of the main lessons I got in the art school days was about color, and I learned to use mainly two opposite colors in the color wheel. My favorite combo is yellow ochre and purple. I do paint a lot in Mexico, and its color has affected me very much. But, I also consciously think of the color theme when I paint about different countries, for example. I was in Croatia in 2018, and that country has its own color. We were mainly in the coastal area, and the color of the Adriatic sea was dominant. But, I also picked navy blue for Croatia because its lean toward conservatism and slight “heaviness” from the effect of the war still felt there.


In your Covid 19 series of paintings--you have some work that portrays city scenes. It seems that you are viewing them from a distorted lens--something is askew. I assume that this is a metaphor for a world out of whack.

Of course! Also, as you’ve noticed, I like painting people. But, Covid forced me not to paint people, but empty landscapes ( I usually paint landscapes with people in the normal time ) and nature.


Reading about your process, I found many parallels between yours and my process as a poet. Have you ever thought about the intersection of poetry and art?

Definitely! As I said before, I’d like my paintings to be “talkative,” and it means that I want them to speak to you, the viewer, to have a chat, or a serious conversation. Going back to the previous question, a poem is just an arrangement of words in the same manner a painting is a bunch of brush marks, both in a sense “abstract.” Yet, when it is done consciously with specific themes or goals, with careful emphasis here and there, it becomes descriptive of something.


Did you formally study art?

Yes, I went to Mass Art. I loved that school!! I was there for four years in the 80’s, not really aiming for a degree since I already had a BA. I focused on painting and printmaking. But, I also studied graphic design. In Mexico, I learned to do ceramics.


Why should we view and purchase your work?

Phew!! Nobody ever has asked me that question so bluntly!

You buy art because you like it so much that you feel you cannot part from it. You have to feel that you have to live with it. I hope that is how people would purchase my work.

In terms of viewing, we artists see how people come to our shows and just zip through quickly when the work doesn’t get you involved right away. There is nothing you can do about that. We hope that once in a while someone notices the “chatter,” the “Hey! Come talk to me!” and stops and listens. Also, we are lucky to be surrounded by original paintings in our house, and it is absolutely different to have an original painting from having a print or a copy. It is expensive to own an original. But, it is well worth it, and my paintings would keep you company like old friends.

For more information go to:   https://www.ikuoseki.com/home

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Red Letter Poem #120

 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 #120

 

 

 

This virus – I’m happy to report – is stunningly potent and highly transmissible: the creative spark.  And it’s capable of infecting you – not only from close contact with your contemporaries (sometimes, these days, I have a hard time reading more than three or four poems in a journal before I’m seized by that quiet voice prompting the opening line of a new poem), but also from long-dormant strains still circulating in the cultural landscape.  Whitman, Li Bai, Sappho, Mayakovsky, Mirabai all remain highly contagious, even after centuries, producing fever, tremors, and bouts of euphoria.

 

Of all the wildly-creative strains with whom I’ve personally come into contact, the one named William Stafford was likely the most endemic and enduring.  I am never surprised when other writers mention this acclaimed poet’s work as a source of inspiration; or his essays on the art of writing, and how his daily practice influenced their own; or (for those fortunate enough to have studied with him) the effect his very presence had on their creative approach and on their long-term emotional lives.  I was delighted to have interviewed him in 1991, not long before his death,  for my collection Giving Their Word – and I can’t tell you how many ways his influence continues with me today.  Here’s just one example that I think anyone engaged in a creative endeavor will appreciate.  Early on, he wrote a poem entitled “Traveling through the Dark” about coming across a deer on a country road who had been hit by a car.  Touching the belly of the doe, the speaker feels the still-warm fawn inside the dead mother.  When Stafford first shared the piece with poet-friends, he described how they reacted to the unexpected (and rather jarring) closing lines.  “‘No, no, Bill, you can't end it like this!  You can't end it pushing the deer over the edge into the river.’  And right away, I thought, ‘Oh, I can't, eh?’”  Stafford’s was a notoriously independent mind and he was neither swayed by social expectations nor literary fashion.  The poem, he explained to me, garnered dozens of rejections before one magazine’s acceptance letter arrived in his mailbox.  It would eventually become the title poem in his National Book Award-winning second collection and one of his most anthologized pieces in a long and storied career.  That persistence, that trust of the self’s inner compass, might serve us all well.  Here’s one of the exchanges with Bill that comes to mind almost on a weekly basis: “The editor says in his [rejection] note, 'Sorry, this is not for us. . .'.  Should I assume it is indeed 'not for us?'  I don't recognize it.  I think: I've got to find a better editor.”

 

Bruce Bond – a gifted poet and educator whose prolific tendencies rival those of Stafford’s – is the author of over thirty poetry collections, the most recent being Liberation of Dissonance (Nicholas Schaffner Award for Literature in Music), and the forthcoming Choreomania (from MadHat) which should be out any day now.  His work has been selected for seven editions of the annual Best American Poetry.  He’s Regents Emeritus Professor of English at the University of North Texas.  The spirit of this new poem debuting here, is inextricably linked to “Traveling through the Dark.”  Stafford’s piece – near its conclusion, and as he wrestles with the right course of action – says: “I could hear the wilderness listen.”  It is listening still in the vicinity of Bruce’s opened notebook – though I wonder whether the speaker in “Wilderness” is indeed the natural world, or the long-dead poet, or the inky phantom of the fateful deer.  But the “no one” being given voice here addresses the trembling we all feel within our mortal journey which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is traveled mostly through an unfathomable darkness.  For brief but exhilarating moments, we sometimes find we are able to truly see where we are – by the beam of Stafford’s headlights, perhaps; or Bruce Bond’s “good star”; or by the candlewick of a poem. Sometimes it’s one you’ve chanced upon in a journal or book, inflaming the imagination; other times, it’s one as-of-yet unwritten, making the head throb and the heart race; and the only cure is fresh ink on an unmarked page.

 

 

 

Wilderness

 

 

 

To you, if you are listening,

 

                    I am no one

and so hear things that no one hears.

 

If a deer leaps from nowhere

            to the road, what it leaves

 

of the many bleeds into one.

            And for a moment I hear less,

 

as no one hears.  Minus one.

            But know the river is a road

 

we walk together.  We must.

            It crackles with a good star

 

that burns the name we give it.

            If I come upon your body

 

in my path, know I will not, cannot,

            leave.  Although I travel on.

 

 

                         –– Bruce Bond

 

 

 

 

The 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:

steven.arlingtonlaureate@gmail.com

 

 

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

https://www.arrowsmithpress.com/community-of-voices

 

Two of our partner sites will continue re-posting each Red Letter weekly: the YourArlington news blog

https://www.yourarlington.com/easyblog/entry/28-poetry/3149-redletter-052722

 

 

and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene

http://dougholder.blogspot.com

 

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

@StevenRatiner