Monday, May 30, 2016

Review of Works on Paper by Jennifer Barber


review of Works on Paper
by Jennifer Barber
published by Word Works
Winner of the 2015 Tenth Gate Prize

Review by Alice Weiss

Spare and lovely, the poems in Jennifer Barber’s Works on Paper resonate with answerings. Not just call and response, mind you, although that is there too, her poems seek out the moment when there are mysterious answerings even though the call is inaudible. In “Source” the opening poem, the leaves, hearing the rain before it sounds, lean “toward the place where the rain is about to begin. . .widening the surface of their urgency, their need/to register each shifting of air.” In “Almanac,” a graceful and gracious compression of one of Virgil’s Georgics, where beehives are ruled by a king, she wonders “Who first discovered/ it was a queen.” Always she is in conversation.
In “Assembling a Psalm,” phrases propose a psalm, without being one, and at the same time, being one: the sun, the cedars, grass like flesh, and where is she? She doesn’t know and not knowing still, and we find an answering:
there is always a turn
a way to open the lips
At one point in the collection she asks, “Is bereft some kind of command,” making the language have a conversation with itself. And indeed, the conversation she would most like to have, that with a father who has died of cancer, she cannot. So she preserves what must be the utterly inadequate question of dying, in On Morphine, his last words
Are these my eyes
under my hand.
And in the poem “After a year,”
What if he had dreamed
death as light on a windowsill,
shorebirds running at a wave?
She does not so much struggle with her grief as let it make images of itself. It doesn’t feel effortless so much as full of grace.
he was growing wings,
and would leave us when the wings grew in.
The valet that holds his clothes, “with its limited/knowledge of the body of a man.”
In “Benign” after the death begins to recede, conversation begins again with the world and other voices. She reads The Death of Ivan Ilych, and of his last three days, but putting the book aside, hears that
The wind
roughs up the highest branches of the oak.
The ear opens like an eye

—Unable to fit in the sack
or work free of it, he howls and howls.

There are conversations, as here, with Tolstoy, Goya (a delicious poem about an etching of four bulls where I suspect her father peers out at us), Chekov, the Bible and Near Eastern Creation myths. This last contains my favorite of all the lines in the collection,

After the great battle
when the leader of the gods
split with his arrow
the Mother of All.
he stretched half of her out as heaven,
he fattened the rest of her as land.

The other singular quality of an underlying call and response pulse is music. Barber’s lines are like measures, often couplets, always short, but her language is flowing so the tension between the stops and the flows is like, well, I flounder for a metaphor of my own, but it’s simple. It’s like song. These are the notes that struck my ear reading this time through.

The moon
naked as a slate
impossible to write on or ignore.

A gazelle is wearing
antelope pants.

By pear I mean pear,
not a riddled heart.
At least I think I do.
The flesh of it laid bare

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Sunday Poet: Heather Nelson

Heather Nelson

  Heather Nelson is a poet, teacher, mother, and recovering attorney based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She studied writing under the poet C.D. Wright as an undergraduate at Brown University. Most recently she has studied poetry with Tom Daley and Barbara Helfgott Hyett. Heather’s work has appeared in ConstellationsThe Somerville Times , Ekphrastic Review and will appear in the Compassion Anthology in August of 2016.

Two Sisters Heather Nelson

Kate and Eliza were two sisters well-met, arch and iconic, late 80’s vintage-a typical Richard acquisition.
Richard kept shop when the Square was still real, al fresco at Au Bon Pain. Shoulder-to-shoulder with the Chess Master, he sat mixing colors- a splash of kelly green on a wide swath of ball-park mustard.
Kate’s tresses are luxuriant, her expression skeptical- one plump purple brow permanently raised. Eliza smirks at my feminine conceits, thrusts forward in the frame –you want some of this?
Two sisters stepped down from their pedestal, bid farewell to the Silent Bride. Her gig was stationary, theirs dynamic, choosing to watch over us.
These Iron Maidens are our minders, unavoidable but solicitous. We are remarkably successful squatters, they our unswerving guardians, the lady golems of our block.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Poems {New And Selected} by Ron Rash

Poet Ron Rash

Poems {New And Selected}
by Ron Rash
An Imprint of Harper Collins
New York, NY
Copyright © 2016 by Ron Rash
171 pages, hardcover, $24.99

Review by Zvi A. Sesling

An argument often persists as to where the best poets live: East Coast, West Coast, or Midwest. Forget the rest of the world. Ah, but we forgot the south. Fortunately Ecco, a Harper Collins imprint did not, and so we have a fine collection from Ron Rash.

It is down south that one finds in Deep Water “The night smooths out its black tarp,/tacks it to the sky with stars.” Or reading the poem In Dismal Gorge we learn
The lost can stay lost down here,/in laurel slicks, false-pathed caves. Too much too soon disappears.” While in Black-Eyed Susans “The hay was belt-buckle high/when rain lets up, three days’ sun/baked stalks dry, and by midday/all but the far pasture mowed…”

Reading Rash we come to learn many things about his environment and Southern myths. In Whippoorwill when a man dies, “neighbors at his bedside heard/a dirge rising from high limbs/in the nearby woods, and thought/come dawn the whippoorwill’s song would end…”

In Shelton Laurel is it a Hatfield-McCoy feud, the Civil War or just a battle among the folks in a town? Rash tells a tale that has no answers except mystery of the course of life.

Reading Rash can be frightening – death, sometimes violence – visits often. He also hop scotches time; one poem takes place in the 1967, while another takes place in 1974, another in 1959 and a couple in the 1990s. In many others the time period is not identified and the timelessness of these poems give them a sense of mystery. The reader wants to know where and when. These questions remain unanswered.

The Vanquished is a spot-on memorial to who came before the white man:

Even two centuries gone
their absence lingered—black hair
dazzling down a woman’s back
like rain, man’s high cheekbones,
a few last names, no field plowed
without bringing to surface
pottery and arrowheads,
bone-shards that spilled across rows
like kindling, a once-presence
keep as the light of dead stars.

In The Day the Gates Closed Rash writes a nostalgic paean to simple life lost:

We lose so much in this life.
Shouldn’t some things stay, she said,
but it was already gone,
no human sound, the poplars
and oaks cut down so even
the wind had nothing to rub
a whisper from, just silence
rising over a valley
deep and wide as a glacier.

Whether describing his view of history, his personal experience, a true tale or a Southern myth, Rash’s poems are accessible, enjoyable and worthy of being recognized and appreciated beyond his regional fame.

Zvi A. Sesling
Reviewer for Boston Small Press and Poetry Scene
Author, Fire Tongue (Cervena Barva Press, 2016)
Author, Across Stones of Bad Dreams (Cervena Barva Press, 2011)
Author, King of the Jungle (Ibbetson Press, 2010)
Publisher, Muddy River Books
Editor, Muddy River Poetry Review

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Sunday Poet: Eileen R. Tabios

Eileen R. Tabios loves books and has released about 40 collections of poetry, fiction, essays, and experimental biographies from publishers in nine countries and cyberspace. Her most recent is THE CONNOISSEUR OF ALLEYS (Marsh Hawk Press, 2016).

From “The Gilded Age of Kickstarters”
There Were Peace-Loving Zombies

42 backers


pledged of $6,000 goal

20 days to go

haven't been undead for long

still getting used to it

so please forgive my clumsy typing

let me introduce myself:

an "office zombie" rather than

the marauding variety

member of the Zombie-Living Alliance (ZLA)

the  peaceful arm of the undead rights movement

which compiled this book of the best

stories on attitudes towards zombies—

a means for the world, living and undead,

covering all gender identities, racial and class backgrounds

to discuss relations and hopefully bring

a peaceful end to the present conflict

together we can produce a better world

than the living alone are able to muster

each of the 13 short pieces illuminates

a different aspect of The Situation

the Undead Liberation Front is growing stronger

as more and more are bitten

while the living become increasingly militant

please support this project to raise funds

and goodwill for continuing efforts towards

restorative justice and peace in our time

Friday, May 20, 2016

Alex Ivy: A Poet Who Is Looking for Trouble.

Alexis Ivy is an educator of high-risk populations in her hometown, Boston.  Her most recent poems have appeared in Main Street Rag, Off The Coast, Spare Change News, Tar River Poetry, The Santa Fe Literary Review, Eclipse, Yellow Medicine Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, J Journal and upcoming in The Worcester Review.  Her first poetry collection, Romance with Small-Time Crooks was published in 2013 by BlazeVOX [books].  She is  finding a home for her next collection, Taking the Homeless Census which has been a runner-up for University of Wisconsin's Brittingham & Felix Pollack Prize. I had the privilege to interview her on my Somerville Community Access TV show, " Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer."

Doug Holder: From the poems you sent me I get the idea you lived rather a hardscrabble existence when you were younger.

Alexis Ivy: Yeah. I have given myself a hard time. I feel that poetry is truth and beauty together. My work is not strictly autobiographical; but there is a definite truth to it.

Doug Holder: So what was your life like?

AI: Well, today I am living a much better life. I had a drug problem at one point, and I am in recovery right now. I was on the road awhile—just looking for trouble. I got it. That was my interest—getting into trouble.

Doug Holder: What was the philosophy behind that?

Alexis Ivy: I thought it would be an interesting life. I was attracted to it.

Doug Holder: You worked as a copywriter. Like a poet, when you write ad copy every word counts, and you try to get to the essence of things. In-fact, my late father who was in advertising in the 1950s, and beyond, told me it was not unusual for Madison Ave. to have poets as copywriters. After all Ginsberg worked in advertising.

Alexis Ivy: I wrote descriptions of wallpaper for Lowe's and Home Depot. My descriptions of wall paper were very flowery. In my regular poetry work I never used adjectives much. It was interesting. Actually...I really did get a real good poem from working in the field. The work helped me with developing my language to a certain degree. But I wasn't interested in an office I moved on...I am not afraid of change.

Doug Holder: You study with the renowned poetry workshop leader Barbara Helfgott-Hyett. What has that experience been like?

Alexis Ivy: By attending her workshops I have learned to write. I think the first time I went there was during my senior year of high school. I had written much before. I wasn't a poet. I read the Beat Generation poets and that type of thing. I was familiar with Ginsberg and Snyder—but not much else. I learned how to write—a sestina –among other things. I learned how to give criticism. I met some great folks there. I have been going there for over a decade. Barbara is a great teacher.

Doug Holder: I read in an interview that you gave where you said,  “Poetry saved my life.” Explain.

Alexis Ivy: I feel like poetry and writing in general—when everything is just inside of you and you need to get it out—the page is where you can release it. Writing has always been therapeutic for me. It lets me let go of things. It makes an ugly experience...perhaps—beautiful. Without this outlet who knows where I would be now. With my collection “ Romance with Small Time Crooks,” I had to get over everything that happened in order to write the poems. I needed not to have it in me anymore. Once I published the book I was able to get over it—I had freedom once again.

Doug Holder: Are you over the bad times? Do you see open pastures?

Alexis Ivy: I am getting there. What I am writing about and how I am living is way better. My goal is happiness.

Doug Holder: When you were on the road did you have the idea that you would write about it?

Alexis Ivy: In the back of mind I thought I would write about it. I wasn't writing when I was on the road. Now when I go on a trip I write all the time.

Doug Holder: How long where you on the road?

Alexis Ivy: Two years. I was all around the country. I got stuck in a number of places. Once I worked for a gem and mineral show, and lived in the desert with other folks. I traveled with musicians . I made money from our gigs. I was 18 when I went on the road and 20 when I was finished with it. It was really intense not knowing what was going to happen next.

Doug Holder: I have always liked writing on trains and buses. How about you?

Alexis Ivy: I took an Amtrak to Chicago. It was a great experience. I too love traveling by train or bus. It is about the experience of getting there. There is a lot to see out the window of a Greyhound.

I light one of my own.
I like my own.
Since I’ve read Bukowski,
nothing’s beautiful anymore,
it’s always somebody
to save, and somebody
save me: a sure-sign,
ever-refined, adamant.
If only I could hurt
his feelings instead
of mine. If only
I could quit things cold.
Flushed my stash down
the toilet. Eighty-three
capsules. And maybe
the green was good-night’s-
sleep. The blue, revelation.
Pink made me popular
in the parks downtown.
And every white I kept
a fist on, that was the best one,
it prescribed me.
I had no friends to send
greeting cards, no happy
this, happy that.
How far I’d go
in my self-defense—
I’m not that bad, not bad
like them, never sold,
robbed, been in debt.
No arrests. Never used
a needle, just slid
into the direction of sliding.
I never died. Thank God
for that. If I believed in God.
Thank God.
--Alexis Ivy

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Noted critic pans James Franco's latest poetry collection Straight James/Gay James

Poet James Franco

Many people agree that James Franco is a fine actor... but poet? Critic Dennis has strong reservations...

Straight James/ Gay James
Poems by James Franco
Hansen Publishing Group, LLC
East Brunswick, NJ
ISBN: 978-1-60182-262-8
58 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Some purist reviewers of poetry posit the importance of their responsibility as gatekeepers. I don’t see it that way. My critiques tend toward books that I like either in whole or in part. But … but there are limits. My button gets pushed by elitist practitioners of award winning drivel or wannabe celebrities showcasing their narcissism by caricaturing the artistic tradition they pretend to comprehend. The subject of this review is an example of the latter.

Two for two. James Franco’s new collection of poetry, Straight James/ Gay James, follows on the heels of his debut disaster in the same genre entitled Directing Herbert White. Both books exercise a self-indulgent and presumptuous posture unrivaled by anything this writer has perused since the fourth grade assignments of Sister Therese Immaculata were corrected and passed back for peer review. Petulant children of whatever age crave attention.

However, Straight James / Gay James goes one step further than its predecessor book in promoting the apotheosis of the sputtering, unapologetic cliché. From the opening poem, Dumbo, Franco rehashes long-suffering dead metaphors, blathering on into moments of unintended irony. Franco’s Dumbo drips down the page in numbingly expected ways. The poet’s young persona suffers shyness and alienation (How devastating and singular that must have been!) and then proceeds to associate with metaphoric circus clowns. Did you know that clowns were malevolent persons under their painted merriment? Of course not. Consider these lines in the heart of the piece,

Isolation followed me
And the only recourse
Was to drink hard with the clowns

Pink elephants
Paraded and sloshed
Through my youth
Until I became a sinister clown,

With a smile painted

Walt Disney must be cringing in his grave. I’ll spare you the poet’s last few lines which are gag-inducing.

Franco gushes out a description of his sinister, but well-meaning, self in his poem Custom Hotel. He apparently stays at this hotel, conveniently located near the LAX airport, once a week as he travels to parts unknown in order to quench the demands of inquiring cameras. Accommodating the egotism of this actor/ writer cannot be easy. The hotel provides Franco the same room, numbered 1212 for each stay. Get the binary significance in sync with the collection’s title? I thought so. The piece goes on to chronicle Franco’s penchant for deflowering sweet little things, all the while instilling in them his own vast acting knowledge and sinister (yet oh so sensitive) overall wisdom. Here the poet cites his beneficence embedded in wickedness,

And then I step out of the screen
And take them in their petrified awe.
I take the wise ones too,
But they are of my coven.

I know my own Satanic strength,
And I check it with good will,
Giving back the charity of my experience,
Growing little actor gardens …

In the piece Twenty-Year Chip Franco details the drunken driving accident that caused his turn to temperance. Nothing much here. No drama. No lyrics. No images. No twists. No turns. The poet explains,

On Middlefield Road, and a car
Slammed into our front,

Spinning the Accord
I chose to drive away,

First a side street
letting Beau out—
And then a roundabout way
Back home, where

The cops were waiting.

Okay, so what? Franco presses forward educating his readers on his bright future, that is, in comparison with his teenage drinking buddies—one of whom killed himself by jumping off a parking garage roof. The poet’s use of the phrase, “I chose” in the above selection seems odd. Franco’s acceptance of responsibility may ring true at a twelve step program but does nothing to portray the rebellious nature of his persona that he obviously seeks to establish. Quite the contrary. The writer comes across as compliant and smug.

Epic and uninteresting self-absorption poses and preens itself throughout Straight James/ Gay James, Franco’s title piece. This tedious production, pretending to be an insightful investigation into Franco’s selfhood and gender identification, goes on for nine pages. It’s structured as an interview with Franco’s straight alter-ego interviewing his gay alter-ego and vice versa. It also includes two embedded, very forgettable stanza-poems. Aside from a few sexually-worded quips (even these seem non-subversive and ho-hum), apparently interjected for their shock value, there seems to be no real focus to these dangling passages. One section did momentarily grab my attention because of its group-think generalizations and naiveté. Straight James puts it this way,

Sure. I teach to stop thinking about myself for a bit. But also
because I find the classroom to be a very pure place, largely un-
affected by the business world. I like people who still dream big,
who are consumed by their work. And that’s how most students
in MFA programs are.

I guess Franco would know. He has five MFAs.

The great critic Yvor Winters argued the importance of the complementary relationship between concept and feeling in poems. Franco borrows his own concepts by utilizing meaningless clichés. Additionally, his stock, off-the-shelf feelings summon only uncharged limp responses from befuddled readers. The sad truth is that Franco’s words do not rise to the level of poetry, nor even publishable prose.

Monday, May 16, 2016

CD Collins: Portrait of an Artist as a Provocateur

CD Collins

CD Collins: Portrait of an Artist as a Provocateur

With Doug Holder

Kentucky native CD Collins follows the storytelling traditions of the South, both as a solo artist and when accompanied by musicians.  Her short fiction collection Blue Land was published by Polyho Press, her poetry collection by Ibbetson Street Press. As one of the originators of the resurgence of spoken word with live music, her work has been archived in four compact discs: Kentucky Stories (winner Best Spoken-Word album Boston Poetry Awards) Subtracting Down, and Carousel Lounge. Her most recent disc, Clean Coal/Big Lie, is currently being released in a series of one-woman shows.  Afterheat is her first novel.
Collins has performed in a variety of venues including Berklee College of Music Performance Hall, Boston Public Library, Club Passim, Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art and the New York Public Library.   Collins’ fiction has appeared in numerous literary magazines including StoryQuarterly, Phoebe, Salamander and The Pennsylvania Review.
Collins has received grants and awards from Massachusetts College of Art, Somerville Arts Council, the St. Botolph Club, The Kentucky Foundation for Women, the Cambridge Arts Council, and Women Waging Peace.
Collins holds a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Kentucky where she studied with author and activist Wendell Berry.
 She was recently a guest at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for a pilot conference to advance the development of innovative technologies that support the inclusion of people with disabilities.  I had the privilege to have Collins as a guest on my Somerville Community Access TV show  " Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer'

Doug Holder: We published a poetry collection penned by you “Self Portrait with a Severed Head.”

A provocative title—are you a provocative writer?

CD Collins: I am not allowed to cuss on this program right? No cussing. ( Laugh). Yes I am willing to be provocative.

DH: What does art require of you?

CD: Art requires me to try to create life by putting these squiggly lines on paper. That is provocative in itself.

DH: What do you think a writer should do to perfect his or her craft?

CD: We need to go out more and experience life. For instance—I hate poems that are about writing poems.
DH: Your recently released novel “ Afterburn” that deals with a little girl and her family who were burnt in a gas explosion in rural Kentucky. Part of this novel is based on a true life experience you had as a child. In the book you link the burns to the ones that people suffered in Hiroshima.

CD: The book is a novel. And the young girl Ruby Chambers has some similarities with me. The trajectory of her life has not been my trajectory. I write fiction because I want to write whatever I want to write, and search for the truth.

DH:You were burnt, right?

CD There is a chapter in the book titled “Heat” that is completely autobiographical. It is the chronicle of the explosion I was involved in when I was ten. This explosion touches on a lot of different aspects of culture. The character identifies with the bombing of Hiroshima; as they suffered similar injuries. Ruby suffers burns over 70% of her body and these were like the burns suffered by victims in Japan. Her father is a U.S. soldier . She has an ambiguous relationship to that war. By-the-way this year is the 70th anniversary of the bombings. We commemorated the event in Lexington, Kentucky in Jefferson Park. We floated lanterns in the water; which is the very way Japanese commemorated the tragic event. I read from my novel—and the Japanese people who were there were very moved.

Getting back to the explosion that I was involved in, it was an underground pipe explosion that burned me and my family. Over 50 years later the same pipeline, in the same county exploded again. The pipeline consisted of re-purposed pipes.. A group of diverse people got together: lefties, righties, nuns, rednecks, etc... and closed that pipeline down. There was a documentary film made—and I appeared in it testifying talking on a panel.

DH: You are not only a poet, but a documentary filmmaker. You produced a documentary about the coal industry. Do you take Michael Moore as an inspiration? Did you get a lot of flak during your investigation into “ Big Coal?”

CD: Yeah. I get a lot of flak in general. I adore Michael Moore and I can't believe he is still alive. I have an album that deals with Big Coal titled “ Clean Coal, Big Lie.”. A lot of folks in the industry did not want to speak to me when I was working on my documentary. The title of my album“Clean Coal, Big Lie” is used in various initiatives around the country. It is a big lie. There is no clean coal. What people are not aware of is mountaintop- removal. Entire mountaintops are removed and dropped into valleys in the quest for coal. Where I grew up this process destroyed 17,000 miles of streams, and destroyed the lives of people. This process cracks foundations, destroys roads and water supplies. My culture is being destroyed. And all this doesn't provide many jobs...the dynamite does most of the work.

DH: You have discussed a writer's retreat you have established back in Kentucky.

CD: I have a farm in Eastern Kentucky. I put a down payment on it when I was 16. Even on a poet's salary I was able to hold on to that property. It has a beautiful Victorian home on the land. The house has a number of bedrooms. It is a beautiful home. Anyway I am renting out rooms—and I have called it the Savannah Retreat. I am also going to create a nature sanctuary on the land in honor of my late mother. I think what many writers are missing is quiet, and I am going to provide that. I have had a playwright reside there, someone is working on their dissertation, etc... Every dime goes back into the farm.

DH: You have been described as a key figure in the resurgence of the “Spoken Word” in these parts.

CD: It was accidental. We did not think we were creating something new. Jeff Robinson and others were also key players in this. Robinson keeps the tradition alive at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge where his band accompanies poets—very inspiring.

DH; The novelist Stephen McCauley said of you that you are a natural born storyteller. Do you come from an oral tradition?

CD: There is a big oral tradition in Kentucky. We have a style of storytelling that is unique. The whole point in our stories is the journey—not the end. It is a whole way of living. We create the time to talk.

Find out more about CD on