Saturday, January 13, 2007

Interview with Poet and Writer Nate Graziano: A Staple of Somerville’s “sunnyoutside” independent press.

Doug Holder

I first became acquainted with Nate Graziano through the now defunct literary magazine “Lucid Moon,” founded by the late Ralph Haselmann Jr., and the magazine Graziano put out the “Brown Bottle.” Over the years I have reviewed a few of his poetry books including “Honey, I’m Home,” from Somerville’s independent press

Nate’s name is very familiar to anyone who has been involved in the small press the last decade. His work has been published in a number of magazines including the “Chiron Review,” ‘Poesy,” “Heeltap,” “Ibbetson Street,’, “Nerve Cowboy,” and others. He also has a number of fiction titles out.

Graziano resides in the hinterlands of New Hampshire, and teaches at the Pembroke Academy, in Pembroke, New Hampshire. He is also a part time graduate student in fiction writing at the University of New Hampshire. I talked with him on my Somerville Community Access TV Show: “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”
Doug Holder: You are best known as a poet… at least by me. You are studying fiction writing—why not poetry? Which genre do you feel more comfortable with?

Nate Graziano: I think I always had a problem putting my writing in a specific genre. I like to think I just write. I consider myself primarily a fiction writer. Most of my poetry is very narrative. Poetry is more accessible in regards to publishing, as opposed to the short story market. Finding places to publish my short fiction has been very difficult. I have ideas and I fit them in whatever form that’s best in that space. Poetry tends to occupy smaller spaces, while short stories and novels larger.

DH: Some of your poems are scatological and make generous use of humor. Do you think humor cheapens a poem?

NG: I’ve been moving away from the scatological with my recent work. I think a lot of that had to do with my fascination with Charles Bukowski. You start to see how repetitive his work is, and the craft wasn’t always there. Bukowski was more iconic than anything else. As I get older I try to avoid the scatological but not the humor. The scatological is used for shock value. I think that wears thin after awhile. I think it does cheapen your work to some extent; not that it doesn’t have its place.

DH: Can you talk about the lit mag you started “Brown Bottle” some years ago?

NG: ‘Brown Bottle” was basically a solo act. I started it with a friend of mine Brad Edam. When I moved back to New Hampshire from Las Vegas I took it over. I ran it for 2 or 3 years then I burned out.

DH: Is editing a small press ‘zine a good way to cut your teeth as a writer?

NG: One of the good things about it is that you get to see how truly subjective the editorial process is. For young writers one of the most disheartening things can be the rejection letter. When you are sending out that letter you see how subjective that process is. For me it was realizing that editors are not gods.
DH: What do you think editors really want?

NG: They want a writer who really knows his market. Blindly submitting to a magazine because you want to see your name in print is not going to help your pursuit on any level. You need to know what that magazine is publishing; you need to know whether the work you are writing is going to fit in.

DH: Some writers go to New York, Paris, San Francisco, etc… You went to Las Vegas. Why?

NG: A job. I went there to teach high school. I was right out of college. My next poetry collection is about my experiences teaching high school. There was a romanticized idea of what I was going to do out there. I would experience vice first hand and tackle the tough life issues head on. But that’s like the cabin-in-the-woods myth.

Everything you do, if you are a keen observer, whether you are in Las Vegas or Union Square, Somerville is valuable material. There is a universal quality to the human experience.
DH: How does teaching fit with your writing?

NG: John Gardner pointed out in “Becoming a Novelist,” that the worst job you could choose if you want to be a novelist is high school teaching. This is because of the hours it demands and the emotional impact of working with adolescents. I always believed in the old Hemingway adage that “writer’s write.” If writing is something you are truly driven to do and your motives are pure—you are going to make time for it.

As of now I have to do the majority of my writing at night. I may forgo two or three hours of sleep, and I may be a bit lethargic in the morning. Anyone who is going to write is going to find the time. For me there is a guilt factor. It may be the fact of having eighteen years of Catholicism shoved down my throat. If I don’t write for a long time I start to feel guilty.

DH: In your poem” Reading Whitman to My daughter” your gay uncle asks (I hope tongue in cheek), if you are worried that your daughter will become gay if you read Walt Whitman’s work to her. But a serious query—do you believe in literature’s power of transformation?

NG: It has to be a symbiotic process. If you open yourself and allow yourself to be transformed by literature, than you can be transformed. Anyone who is a reader has had a writer who has a profound affect on him or her.
Depending where you are in your life literature has the ability to transform. When I was younger Jack Kerouac had that effect on me. But now going back and rereading him I’m not as mesmerized. There has to be a give and take process where the reader is opened to be transformed.

DH: You are an accessible poet I think. Do ‘difficult” poets like Wallace Stevens interest you?

NG: It’s funny because I do have a poem in my new collection “Wrestling With Wallace Stevens” There was a point where I read his “Emperor of Ice Cream’ for days on end. I tired to unravel that poem. There is a sense of satisfaction doing this, like trying to solve a riddle. Stevens would not be the first poet I would go to for recreation. I like poets a little more accessible than that. I try to make my work accessible. I think poetry has to find a way to reach wider audiences and wake them up.

DH: You have been published by “suunyoutide” of Somerville, Mass. How did you meet Dave McNamara the founder?

NG: David and I go back to “Brown Bottle” days. He sent me some poems and we struck up a correspondence. Dave and I have been in contact ever since.

DH: You are working on an MFA degree. What do you plan to do with it?

DM: Maybe manage a McDonald’s (laughs.) I am not sure. College teaching jobs are hard to get. The reason why I entered the program was to learn more about the novel. And I have.

Doug Holder

Friday, January 12, 2007

----------------------She’s my Best Friend by Jim Behrle, Pressed Water, 9 Columbus Square, Boston, MA 02116, 70 pp., $12.00.-----------------------------------------------------Hugh Fox-----------------------------------------------------

Review by Hugh Fox

For me reading Behrle is like reading the me I always wanted to escape from. I don’t know how many people can figure out poems like “Self-Convex Oath on a Tennis Court”: “vote for a black pope...kiss the barcode free Judas Iscariot/by Grand Central Station I shot a hooker.../alchemy alchemy alchemy teeth/5th Avenue is all rosaries & crucifixes/the images keep coming.” (PP. 42-3). Black popes, Judas, hookers, rosaries, crucifixes, Behrle, originally from Beverly Farms, an altar boy at St. Margaret’s church when he was young, the guy is soaked-soaked-soaked in Things Catholic, all the rituals, rules, obsessions, the anti-sex talk.
The whole Catholic thing as if it were in the Albigensian middle ages. And that’s the main thing that obsesses Behrle...along with his sexual frustrations, his immersion in city streets, city life. It’s a war between anti-flesh, ritualistic religion and the hopped-up profanities of modern street streets. Aided by the fact that Behrle fell strongly under the influence of Robert Lowell and was especially interested in Lowell’s writing about his own mental illness, a practice that to Behrle said: “Say it all, the way it comes to you.”
At the same time, though, Behrle is the soul of sophistication and plays poetry games like taking a line from every poet The New American Poetry (edited by Donald Allen) and turning the lines to his own uses in a kind of ridicule of and at the same time homage to the poetry world around him. You could write an essay on every poem Behrle has ever written, that’s how complicated a word-juggler/world-witness he is: “I want what everyone wants./The prongs of the vise,/a climbing italics of ardor. Newsprint black beneath the eyes...I want to know what the dream knows: what I love and why.” (“To My Valentine, for SM,” p. 59).

Hugh Fox/Ibbetson Update/ Jan 2007

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

San Miguel De Allende by Andrew H. Oerke, 2005 Swan Books Main Street, Pine Plains New York 12567 Editor: Stefan Janitschek 89 pages African Stilt Dancer by Andrew H. Oerke, 2006 Swan Books Main Street, Pine Plains New York 12567 Editorial Advisor: Stefan Janitschek 91 pages

Andrew H. Oerke, international aid worker, world-wide resident and traveler, company president, Golden Gloves champ, football player, professor, dean, poet-in-residence, Korean War vet, Fulbright scholar, etc., etc., recently added two book of poetry to his collection of published works. His writing is as crowded, varied, deeply eclectic as his curriculum vitae. In San Miguel de Allende (2005), roughly a quarter of the poems explore the geography and culture of this municipality on the Mexican altiplano. The poem "Christmas, San Miguel de Allende" displays both his signature strengths-rich language like "Lintels of Stonehenge hacked from shadows,"as well as the occasional tendency to overwrite. "The church is buttressed by a burro/slumped against it" is a simple and lovely line, but is immediately followed (and subsequently swallowed) by the mystifying "and children spill wax/hunting for a pad for a riding shotgun bride." Suddenly there's too much, I want to say Stop. Let me enjoy what is sublime here. For much of his writing is indeed sublime. From the poem "Wings on Good Friday": "How did the butterfly slip its halter/fly with weightless Michael to harrow hell/And abolish purgatory forever." There is much fine, transcendentwork in this volume. "Hawk on the Roadside," originally published in the New Yorker, is truly a diamond-it is glittery, hard, and clean-cutting.

African Stilt Dancer (2006), also beautifully presented with striking cover art, takes us through all of Africa, to the north, into Egypt, along the Nile,on Safari with the Masai, into the grasslands, beside the nomads in thedesert,along side oases, through the Serengeti, past the Nile Crocodile, up to the Elephants of Murchison Park. One doesn't read but rather travels Oerke's writing. The sights are invariably believable and true, even the train in "Night Train to Kisumu" tells us "Might as well accept it;\there are boats, there are cars\but they're merely the means to an end,\an excursionwithout a style." So then, ride on Oerke's train-"Stretch it out as long as you can."

Mary Buchinger Bodwell, Ph.D. Assistant Professor of English Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences Boston, MA Reviewer for Ibbetson Street Press

Monday, January 08, 2007

Interview with Poet Bert Stern : From the Banks of the Wabash to Somerville. Massachusetts.

By Doug Holder

Bert Stern is another Somerville, Mass. poet who lives right near my home on School Street in Union Square. In fact, his house is right behind the one I live in. So it was natural that I would want to interview him not only because of his location, but because of his long and varied career in the literary world.

Bert Stern was born in 1930 in Buffalo, N.Y. His first poems were made into a pamphlet by Gene Magner, the former curator at the University of Buffalo’s Poetry and Rare Books Collection. Stern wrote me that: “I received responses from Cid Corman and Robert Creeley and then felt confirmed.”

After graduate school Stern taught at Wabash College; retiring in 1997. Stern has also taught abroad at the University of Thessalonski in Greece from 1965 to 1967, and his second teaching experience was at Peking University (1984 to 1985).

After retiring from Wabash College Stern became an editor at Hilton Publishing, a company dedicated to bringing health information to the underserved, and especially to African-American and Latino readers.

More recently his wife the poet Tam Lin Neville, along with Stern and a few other friends have started a cooperative press “Off the Grid.” Stern wrote that: “We publish books of poems for accomplished poets over 60.”

Stern has also been teaching in the Dorchester, Mass. based program “Changing Lives Through Literature,” a program for people on probation.

Stern’s published writings include a book on the poet Wallace Stevens, a poetry chapbook, and poetry published in such magazines as: The American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, The New Republic, Sewanee Review, The China Daily, and Ibbetson Street.

Doug Holder: You have been described as a “progressive” How was it teaching at a conservative, Corn Belt type of school, in the hinterlands of the Midwest?

Bert Stern: I played a role. And to some extent I was stereotyped as well. It’s not that I was alone. But I felt I had certain points of view to maintain and it felt valuable for that reason. My eyes were cocked at a slightly different angle than other people.

DH: How does Somerville differ from Indiana where you taught for many years?

BS: I was living in this inland land-locked place for a long-time. This certainly had repercussions with how I lived and related to people. The academic world became rather tiresome to me…I don’t mean the teaching…more the format. The school had certain formats of its own as a conservative college.

We chose to move to Somerville at this time in our lives, rather than slowly waste away in Indiana.

DH: You have been a teacher for a long time. Has teaching been a deterrent to writing poetry?

BS: I don’t think teaching has to be a detriment but it was. I let it be an excuse. I put very intense energy into my teaching. I think I taught creatively. So all the time I taught, poetry was on the back burner. I published some, but not much. In that sense it was detrimental.

DH: You wrote a critical book on Wallace Stevens. He is known as a “difficult” poet. From what I read of your work; you seem to have a different style and are accessible. What attracted you to him?

BS: What really attracted me…well, I consider myself a “reductionist” poet. Many of my poems, regardless of their surface patterns, really have to with diminishing movement. Stevens was as well. His poems, most notably “The Snowman” moves in that direction. I love the richness of his language, the same way I loved Keats. But I suppose I like the difficulty too. He made me feel like I wanted to right.

DH: You ever meet Stevens?

BS: Stevens isn’t the kind of man you would want to call up on the phone. I never met him. I met his daughter. I once even drank from his beer mug. When I was a kid I saw him at the New York Y. It was quite a spectacle. He came in his business suit, planted his book down, put his watch down on the lectern, and read with out even looking at the audience. And when his watch told him that his time was over, he just picked up and walked off.

DH: In your poem: “A Little Poem.” You have a humble man requesting a humble little poem.

“Did I ask to hear the earth thumping in it, like on a third day?/ Did I ask for peace, happiness, justice,/ the wicked withering away?/ No a little poem only, to watch water flowing through rocks/ fishes still in the current/ geese flying over/ noisy, like children.”

What are you asking for here?

BS: I am asking for the power of embodiment, which all poets ask for. To make words, and bring out the sound we want. That’s a big request.

DH: You told me to a certain degree you have come back to examine your Jewish roots. Why did you stray?

BD: It never took. Paradoxically even as a kid I was spiritually hungry. I think at that time Judaism meant ritual. There was a lot of complicated reasons. By the time I had my Bar-Mitzvah I lost interest.

I guess I came back to it for the sense of ancestry and family. I could track back. I am the product of a lot of people’s feelings and sufferings through the immigration process. The older I get the more I look like an old rabbi.

DH: Any Jewish writers you particularly like?

BS: I do like Saul Bellow, not necessarily the man but the writer.

DH: Did you like Henry Roth’s “Call it Sleep?”

BS: I think it was too lacerating for me.

DH: You founded the “Off the Grid” press with your wife and a couple of friends. It is a press for poets 60 and over. Why did you choose 60 as the demarcation point, and why is a press like this needed?

BS: The particular age was arbitrary. There comes a time when you reach an age that you don’t want to do the contests anymore. You maybe feel you are in a world where young people call all the shots. You might feel out of place with the taste of the time. I retired from my other publishing job so this filled in nicely. We have rejected seven manuscripts and published one. The one we published was by Henry Braun. We put that out as our calling card. Tam (my wife) and I really want to put out not just a good book, but a really good book.

DH: You are quite well traveled. Can you be just as good a provincial poet?

BS: Stevens never went away much. It is a temperamental thing with me. I have the sense if you only know one world you don’t know anything. This is true for me. Frost’s poetic scene was provincial, and Williams by definition is provincial.

DH: You are involved in a program “Changing Lives Through Literature.”

BS: In a way it is a religion for Tam and me. Our classes are for people on probation in Dorchester. It is the most exciting teaching I have done. So much is at stake. To break through the suspicion the street requires, to earn trust, to open hearts and minds, is a big thing.

Doug Holder