Saturday, April 22, 2017

Somerville's John Thompson: A Chronicler of Union Square

John Thompson

I usually use my backroom perch at the Bloc 11 Cafe to interview the many poets, writers, artists, and interesting   folks who live in the city of Somerville. On this April morning  my position on the backroom table was to be reversed. I was to be interviewed by Somerville writer John Thompson. Thompson, who early in our conversation spilled a cup of freshly brewed coffee all over my schoolboy notebook--regained his composure quickly--as any pro would would do. Thompson, back in the 90s, was one of the founders of the Washington Street Art Center --just outside Union Square. He was actively involved in the arts scene, and was on the Somerville Arts Council board, working with the former director of the Council-- Cecily Miller-- who he greatly enjoyed collaborating with. As it turns out Thompson is involved in a project that struck my fancy. It consists of interviews with some stalwarts of Union Square--immigrants, barkeeps, artists, poets, hairdressers, and assorted characters who make this piece of real estate unique and diverse. So-- of course-- I had to turn the table on him and first conduct an interview with Thompson himself.

Thompson is somewhere in middle age, of average height, sports an easy smile, and a nonthreatening and attentive presence. He does not have the standard background. His father's work (he set up law schools in Africa and elsewhere)  sent him to far flung places around the globe. As a result the younger Thompson wound up being born in Ethiopia, lived in Zambia, and along the long and winding path he hit the environs of Somerville. Thompson told me he earned a Master of Divinity  degree from Harvard University. For a number of years he worked as a travel writer, and in other forms of non-fiction.

Thompson was inspired by TV personality Jon Stewart, who once asked his audience, "What makes America great?" So Thompson has interviewed people with that overall question in mind. In my case (and I assume others), Thompson asked me about my earliest memory, weaved through my elementary school years and my adult life--and asked some unexpected existential questions that I haven't thought about deeply in a long time. And I realized that even though I love my country it was hard to articulate exactly why.

Thompson told me that so far he has interviewed Tony and Jerry, the father and son team at the PA Lounge-- the thoughtful and articulate owner of the Back Bar--Sam Treadway,  the owner of Groove Records, the poet/artist Julie Anne Otis and others.

Thompson told me wanted to reconnect with the vibrant art scene in the square--and this seemed to be a ticket in. Thompson worries (like a lot of us) that the jaws of gentrification may displace the very kind of people that are his subjects. But like many of us, he seems to be hopeful. So if you are walking in Union Square, and you see an amiable and inquisitive man stop and ask you questions...feel free to add to this ongoing narrative--it is well worth your while.

-A series of Thompson's interviews will appear in The Somerville Times.


Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Sunday Poet: Lillian Freedman

Poet Lillian Freedman

Lillian Freedman is a nonagenarian who has been interested in poetry all her life. Her favorite poem is 'The Chambered Nautilus' by Oliver Wendell Holmes. It was in 1978 that she wrote her first poem, while on flight to a wedding ceremony and now she is still still at it. She resides in Newton, Ma.

The Enabler

He knows there is always
Another arrow in the quiver
And another deer in the forest
He knows you are the deer
And the arrow will go
Straight to your heart
Do you want to be
The deer in his forest
Or is it your time to graze

He's luring his victim
With his engaging way
Feeding the deer with nibbles
And despite his previous betrayals
His lure is his charm
Setting up the inviting deer
For the coup d'etat
All the while indulging
His every whim
Knowing his enabler
Will be there for him.

-Lillian Freedman

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Doug Holder interviews poet Fred Marchant

Holder interviewed Marchant about his new poetry collection, "Said Not Said," ( Gray Wolf Press)--his founding of the poetry center at Suffolk University, his work for the Poets Theatre in Cambridge, and other topics. Marchant taught at Suffolk University in Boston for many years, and is an iconic presence on the Boston poetry scene. Holder interviewed him on his Somerville Community Access TV show "Poet to Poet Writer to Writer." 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Somerville Poet Sharon Amuguni chats about the Massachusetts Poetry Festival/ May 5 to May 7, 2017.

  Somerville Poet Sharon Amuguni

Somerville Poet Sharon Amuguni chats about the Massachusetts Poetry Festival/ May 5 to May 7, 2017.

By SharonAmuguni

With increments of spring beginning to appear residents of Massachusetts are looking forward to the potential for activity that good weather brings. As a poet residing in Somerville, a creative, and member of Mass Poetry staff, I am especially looking forward to the start of spring because it signals the oncoming of the Massachusetts Poetry festival.

In its 9th year the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, a three-day festival in Salem dedicated to poetry, is doing a remarkable job of highlighting the complex diversity of the state. The workshops mirror the wide range of lives and how poetry and the arts intertwine with unexpected facets. This year we’re excited to host a variety of panels and workshops with themes ranging from character development for maternal poetry, post rock poetry, building bridges between physics and poetry, to seeds for multilingual multicultural narrative poems. We’ve got a panel for every type of writer. The multitude of events is something we’re proud of and is an indicator of how multifaceted our state is. Along with that we’re pleased to be able to bring in renowned poets into the local sphere. 

Of course, the headliners are always a big hit, drawing a wide crowd of devoted poetry cohorts from all over the state. This year I look forward to hearing from Kazim Ali, Louise Gluck and Ross Gay, as well as local poet Emily Pettit, who I heard speak at my first Student Day of Poetry workshop. Each writer brings a narrative distinctive to their experience.

But, truly my favorite aspect of the Massachusetts Poetry festival is what goes on amidst the headliners. Sitting in on the smaller workshops, I am always impressed by the wide reach that poetry has. Throughout the weekend, I witness poets who usually moonlight as teachers, dog walkers, and mathematicians get the opportunity to unfold in their natural environment. For many, these workshops are a chance to shed the weight of their daily responsibilities and bask in their identity as writers and creatives. The audience is a mix of all ages, students, families, poetry lovers and strangers who happen to wander into downtown Salem. For both workshop leaders and participants, the three-day festival is a moment of shared joy, catharsis, and expression.

At the end of the weekend what I hope festival goers take away is that there isn’t one monolithic approach to poetry. You don’t have to be a best-selling author, or headliner to write or be interested in poetry. Within our sixty plus workshops there are everyday people sharing how poetry moves them in their daily lives. That’s the real essence of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, making poetry more accessible to the greater public. I believe it’s vital that we work towards removing the idea that poetry is a cumbersome solely academic subject critiqued in university classrooms and far away fellowships by older men with degrees and publications. Poetry has many faces each stemming from individuals with varied experiences.

Poetry is not this unfathomable thing separate from you. It is what your dentist devotes their free time to, how your mother finds peace when you leave for school, how children learn about their own emotions. It’s a tool for healing, a medium for community activism and a mouthpiece social justice.
I see this urge to synthesize art and community activism present throughout Somerville. From finding remnants of Mary Oliver’s poems meticulously placed in hidden corridors (which happened to a friend of mine earlier this week) to seeing organizations like Somerville Media Center, there is a focus on utilizing the power of the arts to revitalize communities. 
This want to bring poetry and the arts to the forefront of the public experience is shared at Mass Poetry. Through our Poetry on the T and raining Poetry projects we aim to bring poetry to the people and push forward this notion of poetry being a present and uniting element in everyone’s life. We hope to act as a resource to make it accessible to all community members.

In these next weeks prior to the festival, I implore all community members in Somerville and beyond to set aside some time. Explore how poetry may have played a role in your life and those around you. How access to resources or lack thereof affects individuals and communities’ ability to grow creatively. Then stop by the festival for a day. Bring a friend that loves poetry, two friends who may not be as well versed and a host of strangers with no idea of what to expect. Expose them to the power and freedom in poetry. Most importantly, after the weekend ends, act. Continue to use creative production in your daily lives. Use it to inspire others and explore your own understanding of the issues around you. Use it to showcase diversity and as a platform for activism, knowing that there is a place for everyone in the world of poetry.

Sunday, April 16, 2017


****  "Aspect magazine (1969-1980) was the creation of Edward J. Hogan, of Somerville, Massachusetts. Hogan was a history major at Northeastern University in March of 1969 when he launched a magazine featuring social and political commentary by a small group of university students. Hogan subsequently expanded that magazine to include poetry, fiction, graphic design, and literary news and reviews. Aspect published many writers, poets, and artists that represented the “Boston Scene” of the late 1960s and 1970s." ( Keene State College Archive)



Somerville is a city of many dimensions. It is an eclectic urban soup of professionals, newly arrived immigrants, artists, students, dreamers, drifters, all living in close and hopefully comfortable proximity. What may not be immediate apparent is that it is and has been a city of small presses and little magazines. Offhand I could think of the Boston Literary Review, Dark Horse, Small Moon, Yellow Moon Press, Davis 2 Porter, Ibbetson Street, Abyss and a host of others. Of all these presses, some would argue that ASPECT MAGAZINE and ZEPHYR PRESS founded by Somerville's late Ed Hogan are the most notable.

June Gross, who was Hogan's wife and former editor of Somerville's Dark Horse Magazine told me over tea in her home outside of Union Square, Somerville that there was not much of a literary "scene" in Boston in the 70's, when Aspect was around. There was some activity in Harvard Square, and a fair number of transient small magazines that appeared and vanished into the ether. Reflecting on the Cambridge and Somerville literary milieu, Gross recalled:" People from Cambridge always said, ' Oh, I always get lost in Somerville.' People from Cambridge never came to Somerville. It was a blank space. Somerville was a blank space."

If what Gross said was true then Hogan certainly filled the void with his prolific output of magazines and books over the years. Hogan, who died at the age of 47 in 1997 in a canoe accident, ran Aspect from 1969 to 1980, and in this time published many writers who are well- known today. Looking at a back issue from 1977 the roster of poets was quite impressive. Respected bards such as: Robin Becker, Bill Costley, Anna Warrock, Joyce Peseroff, Fred Marchant, all graced the pages of this single issue.

Ed Hogan grew up in Ball Square Somerville. He wrote in the ASPECT ANTHOLOGY ISSUE that he saw his first "little magazine" at age 12. Hogan was from a working class background and had an average public school education. Later he entered the History program at Northeastern University.While there he was inspired by a Bible scholar to pursue writing. Soon after ASPECT was founded in March of 1969. The early issues were simply typed and mimeographed sheets with articles on everything from Edmund Burke to Rock-n-Roll. Aspect was creature of its time , and the writers often dealt with issue like Vietnam, Watergate and the Cold War.

In 1971 Aspect took a turn to the literary. Aspect's first directory listing for writers was in Trace magazine. Later they were listed in Len Fulton's Int. Directory of Small Presses. As a result Hogan was flooded with poetry submissions. And true to Somerville's scrappy outsider image, Aspect did not pander to the mandarins and the academics. Hogan wrote: "We went about editing without undue notice to academic standards or established reputations . Our contributor's notes showed fewer writer's involved in writing programs or English Department Careers. I like to think we were more open than most to varied sensibilities. As we gained confidence and sophistication we maintained a central concern for accessibility, directness, lack of pretension, and a belief that these values are not antipathetic to literary excellence."

Over the years Aspect produced a Double Fiction Issue that was supplemented by extensive reviews, and a bibliography of small press published fiction. The Third Boston Poets issue included an interview with Phil Zuckerman of Apple-Wood Books, one of Boston's most successful literary small presses.

As any small press publisher knows, it is necessary to have a cadre of loyal, often volunteer staffers to put out a magazine. Aspect had it. Whether on Robinson St., School St., or Ibbetson St, in Somerville, a collective of artists, and writers put out this innovative magazine. One of the staffers Susan Lloyd McGarry wrote: " .editing a magazine collectively, as we do at Aspect, can be wearisome and trying to the temper. But the magazine gains immeasurably from the strength and energy of individuals who have an investment in all (of its) facets.without the others, that pleasure would not exist."

Around 1980 due to the amount of work that it required to run a small magazine and other personal problems, Hogan ended the enterprise. In its place Hogan, along with Miriam Sagan, Ronna Johnson and Leora Zeitlin, established a small press imprint ZEPHYR PRESS. Zephyr published primarily poetry chaps, literary fiction, and some non-fiction titles. Some of the releases were: AN EXPLORER'S GUIDE TO RUSSIA, and FROM THREE WORLDS: NEW UKRAINIAN WRITING. Hogan's crowning achievement was the COMPLETE POEMS OF ANNA AKHMTAOVA, (a famous Russian poetess of the 20th century), as translated by Judith Hemschmeyer. This collection was critically acclaimed by the New York Times Book Review, as one of the best books of 1990.

Len Fulton, publisher of the International Dict. of Small Presses wrote: " It is the Ed Hogans of the world that make it a better place, and it's the Ed Hogans of the small presses who have kept the movement honest and pointed in the right direction." And indeed Hogan was a dedicated man. Hogan embodied the feisty spirit of Somerville. He was an independent publisher from the wrong side of the tracks, who weathered many a storm and made his press work. His stepdaughter Viesia, recalled him hunched over a desk with an exacto knife for days on end, making sure things were just perfect. I think that's the way Hogan might have wanted to be remembered.

--Doug Holder  *** This article was used in a course on the small press at Keene State College New Hampshire.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Sunday Poet: Judy Katz-Levine

Judy Katz-Levine

Judy Katz-Levine is an internationally published poet who has authored two full-length collections - Ocarina (SARU) and When The Arms Of Our Dreams Embrace (SARU). Her most recent chapbook is When Performers Swim, The Dice Are Cast (Ahadada). Her poems have appeared recently in Blue Unicorn, Ibbetson St., and Salamander.

 Mississippi John Hurt

I would desire the hands of Mississippi John Hurt, the fingers
just slightly bent and with a touch of arthritis, though he
has spent a life-time caressing that gentle guitar, calling
to his folks you got to travel that lonesome road all by yourself
and the humbleness of his voice, just a touch of a rasp, eyes
that know far more than the eyes of a scholar, glancing up at the
now and then only now and then, it isn't really trains one hears
in the blues guitar, it may be a walk with a grandchild down
by the river, or the grace bestowed after singing “Amazing Grace”
in the church near the homes of cousins getting ready to go out
and toss a baseball to the sky. I would desire, as I age, the fingers
of Mississippi John Hurt, which symbolize a life lived without
greed, without any malice whatsoever, any grab to power, and the
unearthly gentleness in his voice, yes, I would desire that.

- Judy Katz-Levine,

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Thin Wall. Martha Rhodes.

Martha Rhodes

The Thin Wall Martha Rhodes. University of Pittsburg Press 53 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-8229-6453-7.


Nicholas Kristof, the liberal columnist for the New York Times, ran a poetry contest recently asking for poems about President Trump. He then printed the winners.
Here is one he chose: “If God has made men in his image/Please explain our new President’s visage.” The poem continues with the rest of the limerick. Apparently clever, rhymed limericks is what Mr. Kristof thinks of as good poetry and Mr. Kristof is a well-educated person.

In a recent article in The Atlantic, a well-meaning English teacher laments the fact that he doesn’t teach poetry in his classes; he would like to if only he had time. I taught high school for a number of years and I was surprised to learn that few of my colleagues taught poetry in their classes. They confessed they didn’t understand the poetry in The New Yorker and didn’t know what made poetry good anymore. Instead they read novels and memoirs and drama in their classes and on their own.

I bring this up to point out that poetry today is kind of a mess. There isn’t much agreement on what poetry is. Instead there are many different types of poetry or schools of poetry, created by universities and academics and beyond those schools, there is poetry outside the academy and beyond that, there is poetry that is popular with readers and fans. There is also rap, and spoken word. There are sites like “Hello Poetry” where people post poetry that is shared. “I love poetry/ an easy way to express/ my innermost thoughts.” Then there are rhymed religious poems read by funeral directors and poems written by best men at weddings. That is, there is an immense range, and quite a divide between what the public thinks of as good poetry and what the academy considers good poetry. The latest trend of blackout or erasure poetry is, on the one hand kind of interesting, on the other, a sign of creative bankruptcy.

In the last twenty years MFA Programs have surged and multiplied (hundreds of programs and thousands of yearly grads) and have become more academic. In fact, many writers who get MFAs now go on to get PhDs. In any case, academics, when they can, aim to control and define the arts. This happened with fiction back in the 1970s and 80s, but by the 90s, the public got fed up with all those post-modern pseudo-intellectual novels full of narrators talking about the novel and novels with multiple endings or with no endings at all and fiction returned to what it does best: telling stories that are well-written because those are the stories that sell and get made into movies.

Unfortunately, poetry doesn’t sell and doesn’t get made into movies. Poetry is more like painting and sculpture except it doesn’t look so good on your wall or in le jardin. But since there are so many MFA Programs, publishers figured out that they could sell books of poems to all those MFA grads. At the same time publishing and printing have evolved so that publishers can print on demand and no longer have to invest in a few thousand copies of a book before putting it on sale so that it is much easier now to get a book published by a small, independent press or even to publish it yourself. The result is that we have thousands of books flooding the market. Yet there are few critics of poetry who have been able to define the poetry of our age. In fact, for the most part, no one even criticizes poetry. Instead, people just write positive reviews of poetry that they like. This creates an odd situation where there are a number of poets who write prose that is merely broken into lines. And there are poets whose poetry really is aimed at an academic audience. The T.S. Eliot’s of our day.

Martha Rhodes is a prominent figure in the landscape of contemporary poetry. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence and in the MFA Program at Warren Wilson College; she is the Director of Four Way Books in New York. Her new book, The Thin Wall, has been published by Pittsburg Press. It is a slim volume of 53 pages divided into three sections, each with a number of poems, usually one to a page, with no titles. The sections are: (Burden of Inheritance), (Yard Fire), and (Looking Down). Those section titles are in parentheses. Why are they in parentheses? It seems a bit self-conscious, doesn’t it? Here is the first poem:

There are apples,
buckets of
and heads wet from the dunking.
A witch ‘round every corner.
Jury and judge.
A pond of bodies bobbing, condemned.
And nineteen nooses wait.
That seven-gabled house.
Girls run the streets accusing
the accused. In Salem Village,
Goody Proctor bears her child in jail.
Our party pays to tour the next grey house.

This is the most successful poem in the first section. This is our inheritance here in New England: the witchcraft and the hangings. Throw them in the pond to see if they float and if they do, they must be witches! The narrator sees this in her mind as she is on a tour. There’s wit in the last line—that we should pay to see this past of ours. And the self-conscious use of language shows up again. Why “buckets of” as a separate line rather than: There are buckets of apples. The off-rhyme with judge is there either way. Why isn’t it titled “That seven-gabled house” rather than insinuating that line in the middle of the poem awkwardly just to set up the last line?

Other poems in the first section are not so resonant. One poem begins: “The air was heavy with blood. /The boys washed off in the Merrimack.” That’s a little too heavy handed. So too another poem that begins: “Both of us under one boy or another./That’s how we spent our senior year.” That sounds like the beginning of a Chelsea Manning confession in Vogue. I don’t actually believe that anyone spent her senior year under one boy or another. Here’s how another poem begins: “Boys, girls, some of them siblings,/spawning in bathtubs all over town./ Drown them?” It sounds like The Beans of Egypt Maine where kids crawled under the porches and no one knew to whom they belonged. There’s a kind of condescension at work here, assuming personas that do not ring true.

The second section is called (Yard Fire). It is about relationships. The first poem is about loss:

A crow at my mouth.
The bread from me

it stole. I felt
like a flour sack,

pecked, consumed,
scattered. Enough dust

to dust. You, just gone.

That certainly captures the feeling of devastation when someone dies—the hour of lead, Emily Dickenson called it. Of course Emily’s poems were written before God died. Now there is no recourse. Nice sequence at the end of the poem with all that assonance.

The last section is called (Looking Down). In a couple of poems the narrator is in fact looking down at another or another’s body. There’s humor in this section. One poem begins: “Your dog’s dinner. /What you feed the chickens. /The mud at the bottom of the Charles. /I’m what washes up on the Merrimack’s shore.” The poet is personifying all that’s rejected and cast off. “I’m everyone’s former friend. /I’m his former wife.”

In the final poem of the book, the title comes up: “Nothing is the thin wall of glass (as thin as skin)/ just over there…nothing grabs us all, good or bad, boy/girl popular, un-, you…” So, when you read that, you might agree, Yes! It really does. Or you might not. Apparently, the publishers at Pittsburg Press think, Yes! “Nothing” separates and gets to us all. But can the word “nothing” when used as the subject of a sentence have agency? “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…” Frost said and maybe Rhodes is playing off the Frost line.
There’s clearly an aesthetic and a worldview at work in these poems and if you identify with her sensibility, you will enjoy them. Martha Rhodes is widely published and, by just about any measure, quite successful as a poet. The fact that University of Pittsburg Press and a number of highly respected magazines publish her work is testimony to a particular type of poetry, “furious and viral,” Susan Wheeler calls it although I don’t know where these poems would ever go viral. There’s a psychic distance between the poet and her subjects that undermines her authenticity. Rick Barot says, “demanding as they are beautiful.” Beauty, and the appreciation of it, seems pretty rare in this collection.
In a recent interview in The Paris Review, Ben Lerner talks about a problem he sees as endemic to poetry.
The main demand associated with lyric poetry is that an individual poet can or must produce both a song that’s irreducibly individual—it’s the expression of their specific humanity, because it’s this intense, internal experience—and that is also shareable by everyone, because it can be intelligible to all social persons, so it can unite a community in its difference. And that demand… is impossible.

Of course it is not impossible. It is difficult, particularly today in our fragmented world. Whitman said, “to have great poets, there must be great audiences.”

We seem to be in a transition period for poetry. Here’s hoping that the recent popularity of writing, reading and performing poetry leads to a better sense of what good poetry is and what it is good for. Literary magazines call for poetry that pushes the boundaries; we would be better off with poetry that makes connections with tradition but reflects our age. Too much of what appears in our literary magazines today works too hard to break with traditional poetry and results in either not being poetry at all or in being self-conscious and awkward under the auspices of the experimental. Maybe a few great poets will create great audiences.