Friday, July 11, 2008

Passing the time with Boston Poet Laureate Sam Cornish.

Passing the time with Boston Poet Laureate Sam Cornish.

Doug Holder

Sam Cornish, the Boston Poet Laureate, invited me to his office to chat before participating in another meeting we were involved with later in the day with Boston-area poetry activists. On the subway, on the way to the meeting, I read through a collection of Cornish’s that I picked up at the Grolier Poetry Book Shop some time ago: “Cross A Parted Sea.” Cornish writes about everything from Pullman Porters, sharecroppers, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, his father, etc. He does it with just the right amount of raw energy and the Blues, and his choice of words packs a wallop, or at times a well-appointed sucker punch: Case in point:

Dog Town Slim

Our grandfathers
hard as nigger
that drank
the muddy
of Mississippi
and the Congo
the world
in books
And Hughes
no Uncle Toms
but men
on Grand Street
or Lenox Avenue
left bank
or after hours
the heads

of Gentiles
of Crackers
or to Spain
and the Krauts

their lives so crazy
that women
about them made
a music
called the blues.

Sam Cornish’s office is in the back of the audiovisual department in the basement of the Copley Square Branch of the Boston Public Library. Cornish is an affable, warm, and modest man, making him an easy person to talk to and open up to. Cornish, like the former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, is all about community and outreach. From talking with Cornish I got the impression he is not interested in getting more PR for the mandarins of the poetry world. He wants to reach what he calls the “Boston Underground,” which he defines as the community of poets and writers outside the academy. This is a population who publishes little magazines and books, writes for the love of it and are not careerists. He feels that these “holy fools” should get some recognition as well. Cornish wants to address the larger question “Why does poetry matter?” He wants show that poetry is an essential element of society. It is more than foundation grants, book contracts, and plum teaching positions.

Later Dale Patterson (Boston Library Foundation), Harris Gardner (Tapestry of Voices), Lo Galluccio (Poet Activist, Ibbetson Update Book Reviewer, and author),
Joe Bergin (Carpenter Poets), and Kate Finnegan (Kaji Aso Studios) came to discuss the process of getting grants for pet projects of Cornish’s, and other proposed projects by group members. Some interesting ideas were thrown out like: poetry performances at the old Strand Theatre in Dorchester, a small press book fair, readings in coffee shops across the city, thematic cross-cultural readings, paid visiting poets conducting workshops for neighborhood youth, you name it… Dale Patterson, a well-seasoned grant writer, plans to work up a draft proposal that hopefully will wind up in the willing hands of a number of foundations.

It was great to be with these enthusiastic folks who took time out of their very busy lives to volunteer their respective talents in promotion of the word. Sam Cornish is a great laureate, a man of the people, and his hands are on the pulse of the city. When I lived in Brighton years ago I used to see him walking the streets, his inquisitive, searching eyes scanning the city behind thick glasses. Cornish mentioned the book “Walker in the City,” by Alfred Kazin. Kazin was a keen observer, a lover of the ebb and flow of the eclectic, teeming city streets. This is exactly what Cornish is, and what I admire about the man. Cornish has walked the walk and he has earned the right to talk the talk.

I think Boston had the right idea supporting and funding this position. I can only hope that my hometown of Somerville will be infused with the same wisdom and fund a position such as this.

--Doug Holder

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Interview with Tom Daley: From machinist to master poet.

Interview with Tom Daley: From machinist to master poet.

Tom Daley was a machinist for many years, but now finds himself a well-regarded, well-published poet and workshop leader. Daley is the poet-in-residence at the Boston Center for Adult Education, and teaches poetry and memoir writing at Lexington (MA) Community education. Daley also teaches with poets Regie Gibson, Patricia Smith, and Quincy Troupe for the Online School of Poetry, and serves on the tutorial faculty of the Walnut Hill School for the Arts. He has lectured at Brown University, as well as Stonehill College, and SUNY Cobleskill. Daley has been widely published in such journals as the: Harvard Review, Salamander, Del Sol Review, and The Bagel Bards Anthology (Numbers 1 and 2). I spoke with Daley on my Somerville Community Access TV show: “ Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”

Doug Holder: You have a show about Emily Dickinson coming up in the spring that you are producing. Tell us about this.

Tom Daley: Yes. I am very excited. Next April I am going to produce a show titled: “The Many Voices of Emily Dickinson.” The plan is to have it at the Cambridge Family Y—at the theater there. The idea is to have several different interpretations of Emily Dickinson including people reading her poetry in different languages: Yiddish, Italian, Spanish, etc…. I have a commitment from the Cambridge Ringe & Latin High School dance program to choreograph some pieces for this show.

Emily Dickinson had an Irish housekeeper. Dickinson appointed him to be her chief undertaker. Obviously she was obsessed with death. I though it would be interesting to have a chorus of Emily Dickinsons and a chorus of Irish serving people.

DH: Tom I have worked for many years at McLean Hospital as a Mental Health Worker. I have tried to incorporate poetry into my job by running workshops on the wards, and later setting clients up with literary internships. Were you able to integrate your interest with writing with your work as a machinist?

TD: Absolutely. I am working on a manuscript that consists principally of poems that are related to working in the factory. I was on the shop floor with a lot of interesting people. People from all over the globe. I worked with one person from Ghana, another from Haiti…they were all wonderful. I really enjoyed that aspect of it. However the job itself was miserable.

I had been groomed to be an academic poet. But the very guy who groomed me told me what a horrible life it was. He said that poets did nothing but stab each other in the back and ask each other “ How much did you get for that poem?” (Yes, people actually got paid for poetry at one time. (laugh))

So I got more interested in political work. I was involved with union and anti-racism organizing for years.

The shop I worked at was not a union shop. My idea was to have a skill so I could go to an auto plant and organize. That didn’t work out. So I ended up being just a machinist. It’s hard to find a job with just an undergraduate English degree. I could of gone on to get my MFA…sometimes I regret that I didn’t. I wouldn’t have had the experiences I had if I did though. You don’t need an MFA to teach or be a poet.

DH: The poet Regie Gibson describes your work as being concerned with “life emerging from a decaying world” Do you agree?

TD: Along with my interest with Emily Dickinson, I have this interest with the whole process of life and death. In Western culture we see death as a very separate thing from life. But there is that famous quote: “ You’re dying the minute you are born.” Decay is such a vital part of renewal. Every day we are shedding millions cells, skin, blood, all these things! One of my favorite things to do is to build a compost heap. In this pile of dead matter is a huge florescence of life. I mean you through a banana peel in and there are thousands of microbes on it.

DH: Tom you are a very well regarded poetry workshop leader. Gives us three things a poet must do in order to write good verse?

TD: They have to read. Find good poetry and read it. A lot of people come to my workshops and say: “I don’t read poetry it might influence me.” Would you learn to play the guitar without listening to someone playing the guitar? I have everyone bring a poem they admire to every meeting of the workshop. That’s how it starts.

If you are not reading you are not going to improve as a writer. Without be “infused” you are not going to be “improved.”

As a poet you have to use interesting language. You must have an interesting story and idea as well. But if you don’t have language that is doing something interesting then you are simply transcribing.

DH: Your work is big on detail, observations. Do you find this lacking in the work people bring to your workshop?

TD: Sometimes people write about totally abstract concepts like: peace, love, justice, etc… They have no detail at all. They feel if they were more specific they would crowd the reader out.

My own poetry has been described by some as simply descriptive. But I try to create an imagistic impact. It has meaning on many different levels. There is an emotional content, a philosophical content, etc…

* For more info on Tom Daley go to:

Tom Daley

Tonight I walk by the mirror
in my father's green shirt
that I am wearing for the first time.
For a minute I think it is him in the mirror,
without the girth or the knob of the belly button
hanging strangely inside out,
but him all the same. In that moment
something has changed me
into a man content to sleep off weekends
under the rubber tree in the living room,
to watch football and play endless games of chess with myself.
I will live and die with a legacy of a handful of shirts
and a certain quantity of affection
given without condition or responsibility,
lavished equally on dog ears, nurses, neap tides,
bittersweet chocolate, paint flaking off bridges,
young women in laundromats folding their clothes.
Ambitious only for the small comfort
of late night long distance phone calls to an old lover,
I can stand up without my loose socks slipping to my ankles
and cross a cold creek barefoot without screaming.
All this is something to bless him for,
the man who once filled out
this old green shirt.
Doug Holder/Ibbetson Update/July 2008

The MFA, what does Jacob A. Bennett have to say?

The MFA, what does Jacob A. Bennett have to say?

I asked former Somerville News reporter Jacob Bennett about his MFA experience at Goddard College. Jacob has helped us over the years with The Somerville News Writers Festival, and has interviewed many literary figures in Somerville and beyond. He currently works at Berklee College in Boston, and is a p/t MFA student.

I'd love to speak to my experience as a low-residency MFA Writing student; read below:

No holds barred, I love the program. I may have found another group of people (students and/or faculty) or another institution less desirable or less to my academic expectations, but Goddard is a perfect fit for me. I struggled for a couple years after earning my BA, wondering what my next step would be and how I would be able to afford another degree without a full-time job, or if I were ready to pursue a PhD - then I "discovered" the low-residency model that has in the past few years become so popular for MFA programs. (Two intriguing points of fact: the first low-res MFA writing program originated at Goddard, then "moved" to Warren Wilson a couple years later [reasons for which I have yet to look into - but it was the same woman who started both programs]; and starting in the earlier years of this decade, Goddard ran into financial woes and nearly closed [cf. Antioch College], but has since rebounded, re-structuring ALL programs, graduate and under-graduate, to the low-res model.)

Aside from my love of the people and the gorgeous campus, what really endears the program to me is the actual structure of the thing. There are no physical classrooms or scheduled classes (outside the twice-yearly residencies, which occur on campus in lovely, remote Plainfield VT, and comprise about 8-9 days of intensely scheduled workshops, seminars, master classes, advising sessions and readings by faculty, students and visiting writers), the success of the program and of the individual students results directly from the effort of all involved. Each student's situation is different, but for me, working a 9-5 M-F job, it is incumbent upon me to wake up at 5:30am to read for a couple hours, go to work, get home and read/write a little more; the weekends are much less stressful, as I have the "leisure" of reading or writing at any time. Every three weeks during the fifteen week semesters I mail a packet of writing, both creative (poetry, in my case) and critical (annotations, short and long critical essays) to my faculty advisor, along with a process letter explaining points of excitement or contention, what I was thinking of while reading or writing and how readings inform my own approach to writing. In turn, my advisor mails back a response letter, as well as closely read and marked-up copies of my poetry. That's the main architecture of the program.

What sets Goddard above (in my opinion) other similar programs (e.g. Warren Wilson or Bennington), is the Teaching Practicum requirement. In the third semester, each student must create a class and teach it, from the ground up. This includes getting a third-party sponsor (YMCA, Grub Street, Boys and Girls Club, etc), finding space to teach, recruiting students, creating a syllabus and executing at least fifteen contact hours in that classroom. At the end, students evaluate the instructor, an outside observer writes a report, and the MFA-er completes a teaching essay and bibliography. This is an invaluable experience for those (me) with little independent teaching experience and who are pursuing the degree for the purpose of finding teaching jobs. In reviewing similar programs, I found that among those I liked, none compared to Goddard in the kind of depth this portion of the degree offers.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Alex by Hugh Fox

Alex by Hugh Fox (Rubicon Press Edmonton, Alberta ) $7.

At age 76 Hugh Fox tries to slow down time, savor the moment, and contend with ghosts. In the poem “Time ll” Fox captures the unrelenting rush of that prized commodity: time: “Thursday again, as if yesterday were/ last Thursday , too much
Passing over too/quickly, I keep telling myself Focus, Focus,/ in on the Now, concentrate on the lights… the river,/ night, winds…” Fox writes that he is: “Finally reaching the point of zero…forgetting where I am and why…” Fox is still strongly pulled by the material world, but he never lets us forget that we will all die.

--Doug Holder/ Ibbetson Update