Tuesday, February 12, 2019

"The Patient" by Lawrence Kessenich Presented by Playwright's Platform (Newton, MA)

Playwright Lawrence Kessenich

"The Patient" by Lawrence Kessenich
  Presented by Playwright's Platform (Newton, MA)
  Adapted from a short story by Doug Holder
  Feb. 10, 2019

Congratulations to Lawrence Kessenich (playwright) and Doug Holder (memoir author) for the 26 minute actors’ reading of THE PATIENT: a wonderful story brought powerfully to the stage. I loved the contrasts between monologue, where the young writer character, appeals to audience sympathy for his lonely and hardscrabble life; and dialogue, as he is upstaged by a restrained and sedated mental patient, whom he’s supposed to watch all night—his miserable job. Where the writer has been appealing to “us” to listen and commiserate with his situation, the patient reads his character, even in silence, all too well, and berates him for self-pity: no girl, shacked up in some “suicide suite.” Get a life! Finally a nurse sedates the patient, leaving him silent, while the writer’s eyes fill with tears. I was reminded of that scene in Richard Yates’s REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, where the self-doubting Frank Wheeler is critiqued and exposed by a mental patient on family furlough--arguably the best scene in Sam Mendes’s film version, with Givings, the patient, played by Michael Shannon.---DeWitt Henry

*** DeWitt Henry is the founding editor of Ploughshares Magazine. His latest book is a collection of essays  titled,  SWEET MARJORAM.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

A Conversation with Lloyd Schwartz: Somerville's New Poet Laureate.

By Doug Holder

I have seen Lloyd Schwartz in various venues over the years. I read with him once, and had the occasion to talk to him a few times. Of course, I knew of his many accomplishments, his poetry, his body of work, his Pulitzer-Prize winning music criticism, his Elizabeth Bishop scholarship, etc... Over the years I had lobbied for the creation of the Somerville Poet Laureate position, and finally Greg Jenkins, the director of The Somerville Arts Council, Harris Gardner and myself created the position--got the mayor's blessings- and formed a committee. As it so happened I wound up on the committee that voted for Lloyd Schwartz for our third poet laureate. On a balmy day in February--the very day the Patriots marched through Boston with another Superbowl win, I met with Schwartz at my backroom table at the Bloc 11 Cafe in Union Square, Somerville.

Schwartz is easily recognizable with his shock of white hair, a slight scholarly stoop, and a flowing white, biblical beard. But if you look behind your initial take you will notice a man with child-like eyes, seemingly receptive, amused, and full of curiosity.  They are not glazed over from that "been there, done that"  of someone with a long and distinguished career.

Doug Holder:  First off you had a poetry column in the Boston Phoenix for a number of years. This inspired me to have my own in The Somerville Times.

Lloyd Schwartz:  Yes. I had that in the book supplement, the Phoenix Literary Section, for four or five years. I thought that this was the best book section in Boston. I was the poetry editor and I picked the poems. Years after the supplement closed people were still submitting poems.

DH: You have had a long and illustrious career--why now did you decide to apply to be the Somerville Poet Laureatre?

LS: That's a good question. It is nice that I have the title. I think I have lived in Somerville now for over thirty years, and it feels like home. It is such an interesting community--such a changing community. Somerville is probably the most densely populated city in the USA--it has been voted an All-American city three times. A lot of poets live here. Somerville has had two previous poet laureates, like Gloria Mindock, Nicole Perez Dutton--each of them very different from the other. It means something to me to represent the city. I thought why not give it a shot? I told the committee that I have devoted my life to poetry, and teaching poetry. I have tried to convey my own passion to students. I thought, " Why not do that with my neighbors?" It is a new adventure--maybe I can make a difference.

DH:  Part of your vision for the poet laureate is to have elements of former U.S. Poet Laureate  Robert Pinsky's "Favorite Poem Project," in which the regular, non-poet kind of men or women can talk about and read their favorite poem.

LS: Yes. I have been advised to get a space first and establish dates, and then bring it to the mayor's attention. I really want to have the mayor part of this. I bet anything that the mayor has some poem or poetry that has been important to him. I don't want poets to be a part of this, at least not initially. I want people who are not necessarily part of the poetry community. I want regular folks to read a poem that was important to them, and explain why the poem is important to them. We need something like this.

DH: Your are known as an accomplished music critic and poet. What did you start out wanting to be?

LS: I wanted to be an actor when I was a kid. I was acting in children's theater from the very start. One of the things I liked about theater was how much team effort was involved. Everyone connected for a show, working together for a successful event. Later I went to Queens College in New York City. One of the first things I did was go to a meeting of the drama club. I was really shocked that everyone there seemed incredibly self-important. This was not the kind of theater that I wanted to be part of. The following week I went to a meeting of the literary magazine. The magazine was titled  "Spectrum." There were some remarkable writers there-- some of whom went on to be fairly well-known. I felt a sense of community there that I didn't feel with the drama club. Later I became editor of the school magazine. I was also part of the more radical school magazine, "New Poems." Actually, I wasn't interested in poetry until my senior year in high school. I had a great English teacher--who loved poetry--and did everything he could to get us interested. I remember he used to leap on his desk and recite Shakespeare.

DH:  You grew up in a working class family in Brooklyn. You said it was fortunate you had the option of a city college.

LS: Oh yeah. My father worked in a sweatshop in the garment industry. He was from Romania. He never learned to read or write in English. He was an extremely bitter man. My mother stopped working in the 1940s.  Queens College, a city college, was essentially free. I couldn't have gone to college otherwise,  because we didn't have the money. I got a Woodrow Wilson scholarship to go to graduate school at Harvard.

DH: Was Harvard a culture shock for you?

LS:  Yes and no. But it was a great adventure for me. You know I always loved music. I used to go to shows with my mom--I took it all in. I remember I moved into my first floor room on Oxford St. near Harvard's Natural History Museum. It was a hot day in August--my window was opened, and I heard a passerby whistle a theme from  Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. I thought this was fantastic. The best thing that came out of graduate school was the friends I made, especially other poets, like Frank Bidart, and later the poet Elizabeth Bishop.

DH: Did you take a workshop with Lowell at Harvard?

LS:  I never took his official workshop. I was a regular member of what was called his "office hours." This was opened to anyone--whether you were from Harvard or not. People came off the street to share their poems. It was an amazing group of people. I went every week for years.

DH: How did you meet Elizabeth Bishop?

LS: I met her through my friend Frank Bidart. I loved her poems. In 1970 she replaced Lowell and gave a reading at Emerson Hall in Harvard Yard. Frank asked her if he could introduce his friend Lloyd Schwartz. I said to her,  "I really love your poetry." She replied, " Oh, thank-you," and walked away.  She was very shy, also self-conscious. She also had a drinking problem.She was an odd alcoholic. She would go on binges. If she had one drink--she was over-the-top.  When she wasn't drinking she was fine--very caring.  At the time I had been struggling with my PhD thesis. So I decided to change my topic. So I thought, "What about Elizabeth Bishop?"  I think we became friends around 1974 or 1975. I called her up and asked, " How would you feel if I write about you?" She said, "There isn't much to write about." I said, " Let me worry about that." I had to promise that I would finish my thesis."

One thing Bishop couldn't stand was talking about herself. But she agreed to meet with me as long as I finished the thing. When I met with her she would talk about the circumstances around the poems but she would not talk about interpretation. She never got over the feeling of not being an academic. She questioned the worth of poetry itself.

DH: Did you ever meet Denise Levertov when she lived in Somerville, Ma.?

LS: I never met her. She did teach at U/Mass. One of my first professional reviews was in the Boston Herald. It was a review of a new book of hers. I thought it was awful. I hated to do it but I panned it.  But this is the critic I think I am--I have to say what I think.  Her poetry in this case was very political and I thought it didn't succeed as good poetry. I went out of my way to avoid meeting her because of that review. It is hard to write good political poetry.

DH: What do you find unique about Somerville?

LS: Somerville has changed a lot. I bought my house here in 1984, in East Somerville. I used to live in Cambridge, and I loved Cambridge. Eventually I lost my apartment. Then I came into some unexpected money. I found a house I could afford. The whole neighborhood was Italian and Irish. A resident told me that you could tell the difference between an Irish and Italian household by looking at their front yard. An Italian family would have tomato plants next to their  Madonna statues; the Irish family would not. Way back then Vinny's Restaurant opened on Broadway. Great Sicilian food--I still eat there today. But the community has changed. Now I live next door Haitian minister and his family. It is a much more inclusive area---just look at all the varied new restaurants that line Broadway. Somerville has changed radically. We now have the Assembly Row Mall. If you had told me in the past I would someday be able to walk to a Brooks Bros. store from my  house--well, I wouldn't have believed you. I just find the city so much more interesting--with all the young folks coming in--all the ethnic groups in the mix.  I am lucky to be here. I would never sell my house--unless they had to cart me away to some nursing home.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

All Prose Selected Essays and Reviews by William Corbett

All Prose Selected Essays and Reviews
© 2001 by William Corbett
ISBN 978-1-40396-43-9
First Pressed Wafer Edition 2018
Pressed Wafer, Brooklyn, NY 11226


This delightful collection of essay, criticism and memoir arrived with a grim announcement by Michael Russem who is Pressed Wafer’s design and production department, “I'm not sure I know the Pressed Wafer origin story. Unfortunately, I do know how it will end: with lawyers and accountants and courts and the IRS – and without Bill Corbett showing us how to plow ahead by force of will, ignoring the lawyers and accountants now, but trusting them to take care of the courts and IRS later.”

All Prose was a perfect choice for the concluding volume of Bill Corbett’s eclectic, idiosyncratic, unique and chocolate ice cream with Tabasco sauce list of publications that he selected for Pressed Wafer over its18 years of life. Annual subscribers to the press would receive a variety of postcards, novels, nonfiction and poetry, which often would make you go, “Oh! Yes!” but sometimes go, “!!?” The list was sprinkled with book length monographs on artists (illustrated as if they were miniature catalogs for a shows at the MFA) and best selling, by Pressed Wafer standards, compendia of the lucid political essays of George Scialabba (they ought to have also been best selling by the standards of the NYT.)

The 99 essays of All Prose, arranged in three sections (Arts & Artists; Books & Writers; and Memoir, Movies, Music) make a perfect memorial volume for Pressed Wafer and William Corbett. All Prose displays an expanse of curiosity, imagination, and subject that makes it a doppelgänger to the spirit of Bill’s press.

He writes with an ambling conversational prose as in these lines on Fanny Howe's Selected Poems:

The geography of her poems is Boston and, over the long selection from O'clock that closes this book, Ireland, her mother's homeland. But Howe’s poems are no more about these places than Dickinson’s are about Amherst. The place from which they emanate is the spirit. (p. 233)

or in this paragraph on a photography exhibit at the DeCordova Museum:

And from here on because of the show’s size – 231 photographs by sixty photographers – I offer my own guided tour. A step back first. Marie Cosindas’ color portrait Bruce Pecheur (1965) demonstrates an Old Master command of exquisite, masculine browns. She has contrived such a volume in the photographs (5 by 7 inches) that the image is more powerful in the mind's eye than its actual size suggests. Now on to the Edgerton room. (p. 146) 

Many of the essays display a dry wit that fairly drips with pleasure. I know; I know; “drips dry” makes sense but “dry drips?” Here is the first paragraph of his movie review “Pablo Picasso Asshole,” which provoked that mixture of metaphors:

If, as the song says, “no one ever called Pablo Picasso an asshole,” that is no longer the case. Not that the vulgar Surviving Picasso does the deed. It doesn't have the nerve. Instead Merchant Ivory and their screenwriter Ruth Prawer J. Jhabvala create situations to which the viewer can respond only with, “Who does that asshole Picasso think he is?” or, “How can those women put up with that asshole Picasso?” Neither of which gets answered, and that is only part of the problem. (p.380)

I found Corbett’s integrity, which gives all of his prose its substance, most simply revealed in “Senator Eugene McCarthy,” a succinct essay of 30 lines. He begins this memoir about his three meetings with the senator, “He rounded the corner of a friend's house in Vermont. It was 1974. I was 31 and as eager to impress as I was to be impressed.” (p.361) And it ends as Corbett describes their third meeting with an honesty of self-examination that brings Montaigne to mind:

“He remained charming and polished as only politicians (I have now met two or three) can be, but he was making hollow noises. As I judged him harshly I began to see how hollow I had been, how quick to put on airs, most readily the air of attention, from the moment we met. Now, 10 years after our last dinner, it seems like a three act play in which I played a role I am somewhat ashamed to know I had in me.” (p. 362)

            The book left me regretting that I hadn't found out about this prose of his earlier; I could have (Zoland Books published a first edition in 2001.) This regret was evoked by his review of “We Are the Real Countries: The English Patient.” when he wrote, “The few poorly staged scenes – Hana’s friend’s jeep blowing sky high and the death of the sapper Kip’s sergeant hardly mattered.” (p. 385) As I read that, I wanted to set off and find Bill and tell him why the friend’s death is the scene from the movie that I have held most vividly in my memory. The exuberance of that spring day and of Hana’s friend as she jumps out and back into the Jeep with the money for the evening’s wine—all of that vivacity naïvely ignoring the line of infantry beside which the Jeep speeds to the explosion that kills her. Her death, in the words of a poet, Ramon Guthrie, who knew much about death in war, “like a puppy’s lunge parting a frayed leash.”[i] That conversation with Bill would have been fun to have. What he tells us about The English Patient, he learned because he acted on a felt need to see it a second time. It makes me think I need see it again myself, and ask as he does, “What did I miss the first time?”
That question “What did I miss the first time?” which Bill asks or implies in other essays, such as “Senator Eugene McCarthy,” and in the review “Das Boot,” which I recommend, is, I think, a key to the substance of this work. He renders to us opinion not theory nor artistic ideology but that one question, which implies another, “What do you think?” With that implicit question he includes us in a conversation with a spirit, the same he brought to our attention in his remarks on Fanny Howe’s poems.
            Although I won’t have Bill around reminding me to look and then to look again, I will have the 90 or so remaining essays (averaging 4.02040816 pages apiece) in length, which is, I think, a good one for a good read to wake up your mind and relax it at the same time. Perfect to put by your night table, or beside your desk for a quick pick me up when your mind has gone stale, so you can return to your task with a fresh perspective you will have osmoticly absorbed from Bill.

A final note on the book’s quality, All Prose is bound in signatures, the spine is not merely the edges of loose pages dipped in glue. So, because I suspect the paperback it comes in will get worn from much picking up and putting down, I may take it to the bindery for a sturdy hardcover or, who knows, give it the dignity of leather it deserves.

In closing I give you Michael Russem’s appeal that arrived with my copy of All Prose, as a reminder to not forget Pressed Wafer:

In an effort to appease the aforementioned lawyers and accountants, the courts and the IRS, the remaining stock of Pressed Wafer books must be sold off as soon as possible. To that end, all books published in 2017 or earlier are now available for 75 percent off the retail price. Visit pressedwafer.com to order more recent titles held in our warehouse. Or visit spdbooks.org and search Pressed Wafer to order new, old, and rare titles directly from the distributor. And then ask your
friends to do the same.

As we were posting this review we got this update from Michael Russem:  By the end of this week pressedwafer.com will go offline and all Wafers will be removed from the distributor’s site. How people will get these books short of visiting the basement at 375 Parkside in Brooklyn I do not know. The Harvard Bookstore picked up twenty copies of All Prose the other day, though—and they dropped off all the other old books (which were then put out on my stoop and picked up for free by pedestrians).

[i] “Dead, How to Become It,” Maximum Security Ward and other Poems, Persea Books, New York, New York, 1984, p. 7

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Feb 12 5PM Doug Holder Interviews Novelist Belle Brett about her new novel, " Gina in the Floating World"

Novelist Belle Brett 
see it live on 5PM on Somerville Media TV  channel 3 http://somervillemedia.org 

In Brett’s debut novel, an American student embarks on a journey of self-discovery while pursuing her future in Japan.
Dorothy Falwell, a 23-year-old woman from Illinois, arrives in Tokyo in 1981, eager to start the banking internship that she believes will ensure her admission into an international MBA program. When she arrives at the bank, however, she’s dismayed to discover the internship is unpaid. Desperate for paying work, she accepts a job as a hostess at a suburban club. The owner, Mr. Matsumoto, dislikes the name Dorothy and renames her “Gina,” after his favorite actress, Gina Lollobrigida. Intent on pursuing her banking career, Dorothy soon quits the club, but financial realities force her to return to hostessing at a place owned by Mr. Matsumoto’s wife. There, she befriends the other hostesses and attracts an admirer, Mr. Tambuki, a wealthy businessman. He’s also a former Buddhist monk, and he introduces Dorothy to the way of Zen and the beauty of Japanese art. When she isn’t entertaining clients at the club, she indulges in a passionate affair with him. As their relationship deepens, she enters an intoxicating world of art and sexual experimentation; however, her lover maintains an aura of mystery. Then an encounter with a client takes a dangerous turn, making her take stock of her life. Brett’s engaging and compulsively readable debut traces one woman’s erotic coming-of-age in a frank, intelligent manner. Dorothy is an appealing protagonist—a recent college graduate anxious to leave her hometown of Joliet and see the world. Her initial culture shock and disappointment regarding the internship are believable, as are her close friendships with lifelong residents and members of the expatriate community. The well-developed supporting characters include Hiro, a Japanese student and Dorothy’s erstwhile boyfriend; and Gabe, an American expatriate. Her scenes with Mr. Tambuki are intensely erotic without being gratuitous, and Brett effectively uses their shared love of art as a means of expression, seduction, and, in a particularly powerful scene, stretching personal boundaries.---Kirkus Review