Saturday, June 15, 2024

Red Letter Poem #211

 The Red Letters



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

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









Red Letter Poem #211






I Get to Witness My Father Perform Surgery




Frayed artery,

And my father’s fingertips

Squirm like larvae in the blood,

Go under, and hatch into a pulse.

The heart monitor sutures

A future across the screen.


In an hour, then daily,

The man will be allowed to awaken.

How often is blood

Soothed like a child?
How often are we saved

By what we can’t remember?




                                  ––Jack Stewart




They’re not actual people, our parents––or so we might find ourselves believing as young children, desperately trying to comprehend the world into which we’ve been born.  They’re more like cosmology, the overarching design of the universe; they’re our geography, daily weather, bulwark against all threats, not to mention source of endless fascination and entertainment.  In addition to providing the obvious necessities of survival, parents (if we’re fortunate) establish that invisible bubble of love that engenders in us a sense that our presence, too, might have an actual purpose in this existence.  But as we grow, our relationship to these household demigods can’t help but evolve.  For most of us there is something of a cyclical nature to our assessments: how repressive, abrasive, arbitrary, tragically uncool Dad and Mom seem; and, a few years later (or months, or even hours), they are suddenly the epitome of wisdom, an oracular presence we approach with something like awe.  “When I was a boy of fourteen,” according to the famous comment attributed to Mark Twain, “my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around.  But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”


Jack Stewart’s father served as the Chief of Surgery at the Cleveland Clinic until his untimely death at age 53.  He was one of the pioneers of kidney transplantation, and the Cleveland team was featured in Life Magazine for their accomplishments.  As a 16-year-old, the poet was able to experience first-hand the effect his father’s work had on the world around him.  This, to me, is one of the most profound moments in our psychic development: when we are finally able to perceive our parents as individual human specimens: flawed, but marvelously complex and still-evolving, with––and this part is most crucial––projects and passions at the core of their own lives that predate our arrival.  Reading Jack’s new poem, I was impressed by the extraordinary power of implication at work in these two intense six-line stanzas.  Witnessing his father’s surgery seemed to alter his understanding of the man, of the father-son bond, and perhaps the human condition as well.  The poem begins with mortal jeopardy, yet marvels at the uncanny skills we’ve developed to safeguard our precious lives.  How unexpected is the poet’s description of his father’s efforts––“fingertips/ Squirm like larvae in the blood,/ Go under, and hatch into a pulse.”  Instead of immanent death, it suddenly feels as if new life is burgeoning, a second chance.  Did you feel the jolt of those two rhyming trochees–– sutures and future––their rhythm imitating the suddenly-renewed heartbeat that we see depicted on the monitor?  And toward the poem’s culmination, Jack leaves us with a rather startling question: “How often are we saved/ By what we can’t remember?”  Is he thinking of the anesthetized patient?  Or all the instances in our unconscious lives, from infancy to old age, when we’re rescued by unseen hands?  Most of our days, we’re only barely aware of who and what are responsible for our survival.  Perhaps we receive some illumination when we, in turn, become parents, charged with keeping some other fragile little being alive. 


Jack was educated at the University of Alabama and Emory University, and became a Brittain Fellow at The Georgia Institute of Technology.  His first collection, No Reason, appeared in the Poeima Poetry Series in 2020.  He’s been widely published in literary journals like Poetry, the New York Quarterly, and the Iowa Review, the work garnering nine nominations for the Pushcart Prize.  He now teaches in Fort Lauderdale at the Pine Crest School where he directs the Talented Writers Program.  When he first sent me “I Get to Witness…”, I told Jack I’d save it for when Father’s Day came rolling around.  Perhaps the piece will prompt a visit with your own dad––if that’s still a possibility––a chance to appreciate once again what of his life is now enmeshed in yours.  And if that is no longer an option, maybe the poem can be the occasion for a few minutes’ imagining about the numerous broken places inside us, many of which were healed by a father’s deep attention.





Red Letters 3.0


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



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


and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene


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

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

A chat with poet Gail Mazur- winner of the Golden Rose Award


Interview by Doug Holder

Recently, the New England Poetry Club awarded poet Gail Mazur its Golden Rose Award. The Golden Rose, one of America's oldest literary prizes, is awarded annually to a poet who has done the most for poetry during a lifetime. Gail Mazur, besides being a celebrated poet, and teacher, is the founder of the famed Blacksmith House Poetry Series.  Founded in 1973, the award-winning Blacksmith House Poetry Series brings established and emerging writers of poetry and fiction to Harvard Square. I got a chance to chat with Mazur, shortly after she received the award.

Doug Holder: Gail, when you started the Blacksmith House Series in 1973, were you connected with the poetry scene or was this an entry point for you? 

Gail Mazur:   I had moved to Cambridge with my husband, Michael, and our two children, Dan and Kathe, a few years before. The first place my oldest friend, Elsa Dorfman, introduced me to was the Grolier Bookshop. A whole (little) book store devoted only to poetry. I spent many hours there talking with Gordon Cairnie (the already elderly owner—he’d begun it in the late ‘20s) By then it had become an institution. I loved being there, being able to browse and chat with Gordon—When Gordon died in 1972, I thought the “poetry world” of Cambridge was over, so I got the idea to run some readings… (And of course, the poetry world wouldn't have ended, but that bookstore's hominess was gone .Now fortunately it’ s been rescued and that little poetry haven should be there a long time.

DH: You have stated in an interview that Robert Lowell was one of your earliest influences. Lowell was part of the "Confessional" school of poets. Do you feel your work is confessional? Isn't all poetry confessional in some sense?  

GM: I guess I think of it as autobiographical! But no, a lot of poetry couldn't possible be called confessional, unless you mean that we’re revealed somehow in every poems we write! Lowell experienced many episodes of illness and he wrote about the world of it, inner and outer, with brilliant craft and humanity.

DH: You have had a long teaching career. When you teach novice poets-- what books do you suggest that they cut their teeth on? This could mean on craft or poetry books themselves.

GM: It varies. It’s such a pleasure to introduce students to poems and poets they don’t know. To discuss the craft of poems. If I look at my shelves, now hundreds of books of poems—well, some days, some students, some weather—different poets!

DH: At the Golden Rose Reading the audience often crackled with laughter. Do you have fun writing poetry—is there a sense of play? I often use humor in my own work, even with poems with the darkest themes.

GM: Sure, sometimes! When it comes through, fun.

DH: Finally-- you have had a very accomplished career—with many accolades, awards, books, etc... What does getting the Golden Rose mean to you​?

GM: This award surprises and delights me, our community of poets in this area is so varied, we all bring our own stuff to it. As my grandfather would say, also our own mishegas (you can look it up!) I work alone, like all of us, and being in the room with so many writers I admire to receive the Golden Rose just pleases me so much.

Friday, June 07, 2024

Red Letter Poem #210

 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 #210






The Gap  



"Then felt I like some watcher of the skies...
 Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
 He stared at the Pacific...
 Silent, upon a peak in Darien."


––John Keats

         “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”




She grabbed her six-year-old daughter and ran.

She’d heard the USA would let them in––

a new rule; some special dispensation––

safe harbor, for hapless Venezuelans.


Smugglers herded them across rough mountains;

thick, sucking jungle mud.  A hostile land,

impenetrable Gap of Darien,

which engineers had tried––but failed––to span.


Separated for days, in abject fear––

mother and child, reunited at last.

They stumbled, but made it to Honduras,

where other migrants gathered.  It was here

they learned the news that US heads of state

had made sanctuary evaporate.



                                  ––Denise Provost




The subject at hand is complex.  What I’m about to do is far less so: I am making simple declarative statements, enumerating facts, raising questions.  I do not pretend to possess certainty; in truth, even clarity eludes me.  Strange enough, something as ambiguous as a poem can often provide the impetus for carving a new path through the emotional thicket, confronting our own conflicted opinions.  I am talking about the calamity of migrants massing at our borders, especially the fate of refugees fleeing from wars and disasters.  Clearly, this is one of the most divisive hot-button issues roiling the upcoming Presidential contest.  At the same time, I am thinking about the moral character of a people, as embodied by their laws and the officers charged with enforcing them.


Denise Provost’s new poem, “The Gap”, is what’s compelled me into this troubling place of self-examination.  Though it is written in the form of a sonnet––with all the artistry and complex history that calls to mind––it is a fairly straightforward piece of verse.  It conjures the presence of an unnamed migrant mother fleeing the political and economic upheaval of her homeland.  The woman has a young daughter she wants desperately to protect.  If she is to find safe harbor in the North, she needs to traverse a nearly impassable 60-mile swath of mountainous jungle known as the Darien Gap––so treacherous a territory, it is the lone break in the 18,600-mile Pan-American Highway.  Her journey has been inspired by a burst of clarity in the often-tangled history of immigration law.  Word had spread of a new American policy aimed specifically at the situation in Venezuela.  Simply by adding a brief epigraph, the poet has allowed us to liken this woman’s imaginative urgency to that of Keats, expressed in his 1816 sonnet––where Chapman’s luminous translation grants the poet sudden passage into the ancient world of Homer.  There are odysseys implied in both sonnets––geographical, metaphorical, emotional.  All this is clear.  But then what?  Republicans will rail against ‘open borders’ saying the first duty of every nation is to safeguard its citizens––but too often come across as lacking in humanity.  The Democrats will speak of the legal and humanitarian responsibilities for responding to any refugee crisis––but then they will quake at the political and economic consequences.  Simple statements.  Here is another: the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that, in 2024, there are 130 million individuals forcibly displaced by wars, famine, political collapse, environmental disaster.  Statistics do not convey the precarious situation of the human body and mind; poems often do.  Again, I ask: now what?  International maritime law demands that, when a vessel is sinking, any nearby ship must do everything possible to rescue survivors.  What must we do––legally, ethically––when it is a ship of state foundering in the storm?


Denise is a poet, lawyer, and former Massachusetts State Representative.  Her chapbook Curious Peach was published by Ibbetson Street Press, followed by a full-length collection, City of Stories, from Cervena Barva.  She was awarded the Samuel Washington Allen Prize in 2021 from the New England Poetry Club––perhaps America’s oldest literary association––and was elected its co-president the following year.  Today’s Letter is from a manuscript-in-progress with the alluring working title, Box Marked 'Other'.  With it, Denise has attempted to lay claim, momentarily, to our hearts and imaginations.  She has affirmed the power of articulation as a primary human impulse, fortifying our need to understand.   She has made an appeal to the ear and its intuitive emotional resources––while the conscious intellect is still hurrying to catch up.  Indeed, the poet has ably demonstrated the comfort that we find in form, orderliness, and the lovely chiming of spoken syllables (though the situation being described offers anything but.)  As I claimed at the outset: what I am doing here is easy.  What Denise has done––artful, restrained, while still challenging the conscience––is more arduous.  What you will do now in response––harder still.





Red Letters 3.0


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



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


and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene


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