Saturday, November 01, 2008

From Mist to Shadow and Flowering Weeds by Robert K. Johnson

(Robert K. Johnson)

Unfathomable Life

Robert K. Johnson's From Mist to Shadow (Ibbetson Street Press, 2006) & Flowering Weeds (Cervena Barva Press, 2008).

Review by Fred Marchant

In West of Your City (1961), William Stafford's first book, there is a poem to keep in mind when reading Robert K. Johnson's two most recent books of poetry. The Stafford poem is “The Well Rising.” In three short-lined quatrains it offers the reader a mini-catalogue of quotidian miracles occurring all around us: a well rising without sound, a spring bubbling on a hillside, the swerving swallows, their decision-making as they bank. These are “thunderous examples,” writes Stafford, and he ends the poem by saying “I place my feet / with care in such a world.” Robert K. Johnson's new poems also step with care in his world, and by implication and experience they teach us the kind of attention such care requires.

Let us begin with Johnson's poetic line. It is invariably short, often enjambed, and always ceremonial. The line breaks never seem to hurry us along. Instead each line functions almost like an act of perception unto itself. Of course there are lines to follow, and as we move through them the poem grows by accretion and lamination. Here, as an example, is “Older,” from Flowering Weeds:

You listen to a concert's

swirl of melody

or to the silent hum

of sunlight on your face

and what rises deep inside you

like surge of June-warm surf

climbing a sand-dune's slope

is a new nameless feeling

that, somehow, includes

the press of love,

the dogged grip of regret,

catapulting joy

and even merciless pain

and leads you to accept,

as calmly as willow leaves

accept a stir of wind,

everything past and present

in your unfathomable life.

The deliberative pacing of this poem is one significant source of its beauty. The deliberation going on here, however, is filled with an almost subliminal tension. Something there is that moves this poem along, even as each line tries to slow it down, tries to isolate and name each stage of feeling, thought, or perception. It is that mini-drama at the end of each line that keeps us in the poem, wondering, and yet ready, open to the surprise of the places the poem takes us.

Johnson is also devoted to the sentence. In the curve and forward motion of his syntax is another significant source of beauty. A number of poems, for instance, consist of a single highly wrought sentence stretched out over the tenterhooks of lineation and stanza. “Four Hours After The Stroke,” for instance, startles us each step of the way:

For a moment it is as if

by standing on tiptoe

I'm able to gain a peek

above a windowsill

see someone who must be

a nurse her dress is so white

walking toward a bed

I'm lying propped up in

and she starts to speak to me

but my tired toes give way

my body sags below

the sill and I'm once again

staring at thick fog

grey as a prison cell.

This sentence verges on the edge of collapse, just as the speaker himself struggles not to fall. Almost falling into a run-on more than once, the sentence somehow holds itself together syntactically as we move along with it slowly, carefully, and at the end, sadly.

But if Johnson's verse is ceremonial, what ceremony is being enacted? If his poems consist of steady, step-by-careful steps, what is the nature of the journey? Sometimes it is a journey toward discovery, but his poems tend not to culminate or rest easy in sheer epiphany. From Mist to Shadow, the very title itself, hints that a life, like a day, is a journey from one darkness to the next, not an arriving at or dwelling long in a place where we see the light. His world and ours is utterly ephemeral. Our day can be studded with menace or near-madness, and there may be secret, eruptive threats moving underneath the surface. But in these poems there also is an overall affirmation. For all their stern realism, the central event in Johnson's poetry is his attention to tenderness, to our capacity to touch and be touched, to be moved by the marvelous, and to have our existence affirmed by what passes for ordinary life, which in these poems is never simply ordinary.

As Simone Weil said, prayer consists of attention. There is no theology hiding behind Johnson's poems, but his rhythms and images, and his careful attention to both, add up to prayer in a secular key. “Inside A Church in Rome,” from Flowering Weeds presents us, for example, with the poet watching an elderly woman at prayer. Ordinarily he says he accepts “the sky as empty,” but for that instant, as he watched, the poet is “wrapped inside the swirl // of a measureless longing / to share the faith that feeds / this woman's life.” It is longing of this almost vertiginous sort that Robert K. Johnson's work embodies, enacts, and records. Yes, by the end of the poem, the feeling has passed, and that ephemerality too is real and felt. But for that moment, the poet has been touched by what he has seen. We encounter such moments throughout Johnson's poetry: especially in the natural world, where ducks might paddle smoothly across a moonlit pond, and above all in the world of our close relations, when one might be touched by a beloved's lips. In childhood memory and adult perplexity, in beauty and loss, in pleasure and pain, in mist and shadow, these poems chart one person's way as he moves through, is touched and touches his “unfathomable life.”

*Fred Marchant is the author of Tipping Point, which won the Washington Prize in poetry. He is a professor of English and the director of creative writing at Suffolk University in Boston, and he is a teaching affiliate of the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Documentary based on "I Refused to Die" Ibbetson Street Press--2005 to premiere: Nov. 10

For immediate releaseOctober 26, 2008 "The Holocaust: Memory and Legacy" to premiere Nov. 10 with "The Morgenthau Story" (documentary films)

Contacts: Susie Davidson617-566-7557; Susie_d@yahoo.comApo Torosyan978-535-1206;


Monday, Nov. 10, 6:30 p.m. films with panel; 10:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m. second showing of the two films alone: Two documentary films on the subject of genocide and human rights, "The Holocaust: Memory and Legacy" narrated by WBZ's Jordan Rich and based on a book by Susie Davidson, and "The Morgenthau Story", directed by Apo Torosyan, on Henry Morgenthau, Sr., Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during the Armenian Genocide, will premiere at the Studio Cinema, 376 Trapelo Rd., Belmont. Mid-film panel discussion, moderated by Jordan Rich, with Andrew Tarsy, Chief Institutional Advancement Officer Facing History and Ourselves; Sharistan Melkonian, Chair, Armenian National Committee of Eastern Massachusetts; Dr. Aristotle Michopoulos, Professor and Director of Greek Studies at Hellenic College, Brookline; and Elyse Rast, Holocaust Programs Coordinator, Jewish Community Relations Council and the New England Holocaust Memorial, as well as World War II veterans and concentration camp liberators Cranston Rogers and Phil Minsky; Holocaust survivors, and the films' producers,directors and writers.

$7 admission includes refreshments; theatre concessions (including U Kosher popcorn) also available (free drink and popcorn refills). Three wi-fi computer stations for patrons. Information:,,, 617-566-7557;, 978-535-1206; or the Studio Cinema at 617-484-9751.

Bert Stern, co-founder of Off the Grid Press to read at the Somerville News Writers Festival Nov. 22, 2008

( Off the Grid author and co-founder Henry Braun)

( Off the Grid co-founders Tam Lin Neville/Bert Stern)

Off the Grid Press

By Bert Stern, PhD.

Our press had its origins in the wilds of Northern Maine. Henry Braun, our first author, cut some lumber to pay for the production costs of his new book, Loyalty. In the process of putting the book together, Henry’s wife, Joan, learned that she couldn’t buy just a single ISBN number; she had to buy ten. So, in 2005, the Brauns, along with Bert Stern and Tam Neville, current co-editors of the press, decided to found OTGP. What we most wanted was to encourage writing by elders like ourselves. So we began – a press for poets over 60.

Loyalties was widely praised, by poets like Betsy Sholl, Eleanor Wilner, Nathaniel Tarne, among others. It was also awarded The Maine Writer’s Prize for Poetry, 2008. The quality of our first book set the standards for the two that followed. We were not interested in publishing everything that came our way. In fact, out of 20 plus submissions, we have selected only two.

A Darker, Sweeter String, our second book, is by Lee Sharkey, co-editor of Beloit Poetry Journal. Francine Sterle said of the book: “These taut, truth-telling poems teach us how to ‘heft more weight than we can carry,’ how to speak the unspeakable.” The unspeakable here is the daily news of our anguished times.

Terry Adams, the author of our third book, Adam’s Ribs, became a conscientious objector while serving as Secret Control Officer at the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Air Command Headquarters during the Vietnam era. His book features poems about emotional and spiritual flashpoints, written with a lyric honesty and fierceness. They are risky poems, often moving to a kind of jazz beat. In the words of James Reiss, “Adams has paid close attention to red-hot emotional moments frozen in time.”

We at Off the Grid are proud of our writers and their books. We are also proud that, through the expertise of our designer, Michael Alpert (head of University of Maine Press), our books are beautiful objects in themselves, printed on acid-free paper and bound with Smythe-Sewn bindings.

All three of our books deal with issues of war, some more directly than others. Though the press is not looking for political poetry per se, during the selection process, an important criteria for the editors is that the poet look beyond his or her own personal world.

Off the Grid Press is a cooperative. While poets pay production costs, editorial services are both free and pro-active. Our two editors, widely published poets and writers, provide editorial assistance described by one of our authors as “loving and insistent.” Though the press does incur some expenses, it makes no profit, and all proceeds go to the author. Today, with new submissions on our desks, we at Off the Grid Press look forward to a long and distinguished list of our titles.

Our reading period is all year long and we invite submissions. Please see our website first, ( for guidelines and required application.


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Somerville News Writers Festival Nov. 22 2008

Click on Header for complete information. Call 617-666-4010 for tickets now!!! or pick them up at 21 A College Ave. Davis Square Somerville, Mass.



The prolific Hugh Fox has released a new collection of poems that he wrote in Portuguese and translated into English. It concerns a recent trip he took with his wife to Brazil. As in many of his recent books it deals with the richness of life and the close proximity of death. Hugh Fox, at 76, knows the fat lady is close to her closing number, and in spite of his gourmet, and gourmand taste for the world, and his still frenzied involvement, that Mermanesque belt of a song still haunts him. Kevin Gallagher, Boston-area poet and founder of COMPOST magazine, writes an email to Fox that Fox incorporates into the poem:

“Enough talking all the time about/death that comes when it comes.”

But the reason Fox riffs so much about death is that he loves life so much. The book is chock full of signature Fox flourishes: the overflow of food, art, sex, people, more food, and much more sex. Fox inhales deeply the beguiling perfume of the world and doesn’t want to exhale. Here he describes a rather pedestrian garden in Brazil:

“ Even the most common places
(Spring—a center for gardens)
always an aura of divinity, a bunch
of super-old women, from an asylum
of the super-old orchid type
of flowers possible, the street outside,
music, what I feel more than anything a
consciousness of the whole world
I have, as frantically as the Buddha
grabbing on to the totality of the present moment.”

As Kevin Gallagher advises Fox:

“Life, think about life,/everyone has to die, it doesn’t make/ any sense to preoccupy yourself with the inevitable”

But knowing Fox, his obsessions will continue, and they will continue to obsess us all.

Doug Holder/Ibbetson Update

CD Collins: A Somerville writer with Kentucky stories

CD Collins: A Somerville writer with Kentucky stories

C.D. Collins crosses many genres. She is an accomplished short story writer, vocalist, poet and consummate performance artist. She has performed at such venues as as the Charles Playhouse, Club Passim, as well as academic institutions across the country. This Somerville resident, originally from Kentucky, has had her work published in such journals as: “Story Quarterly,” “Salamander,” “Ibbetson Street,” and many others. She has received grants from the Somerville Arts Council for music and literature. She won a Cambridge Poetry Award, and her latest CD is “Subtracting Down”, a compilation of post-modern mountain storytelling. She is a member of the “Writer’s Room” in Boston, and has a new book of poetry coming out with the Ibbetson Street Press: “Self-Portrait With A Severed Head.” I talked with her on my Somerville Community Access TV Show: “Poet to Poet:Writer to Writer” on Somerville Community Access TV.

Doug Holder: You are from Kentucky, but you moved to Somerville in the mid 80’s. How would your life been different if you stayed in Kentucky?

CD Collins: I probably would be dead, or really depressed. I wanted to leave Kentucky to become a writer. I needed to be in the company of other writers. When I was teaching high school in Kentucky I had a cute little student who told me:” Go, be a writer.” So I left. I moved to the Fenway section of Boston with a friend and I was mugged the first week, and my car was stolen…welcome to Boston! I now divide my time between Kentucky and Somerville. Both places compliment each other.

DH: You straddle so many genres…what do you define yourself as?

CD: Let’s say writer. And the definition of a writer is that you write. You can’t be a writer if you are not writing. I have an M.A. in English Literature.

DH: Tell me about your involvement with poetry and music?

CD:I had these friends that I met who were in a band called “Miss Bliss” They eventually wanted me to head them up. They wanted a poet up there on stage. So I started doing poetry and music. I was one of the first to do it again during its resurgence—the Jeff Robinson Trio was also doing it. The new band that came out of this was “Pin Curl.” It was an all-female chamber rock band. And now my band is called: “Rock-a-Betty.” I like to work with musicians. It puts me in front of an audience. It gives this beautiful palette of music behind it and it gets me performing. So basically I say I am a writer and a spoken word artist.

DH: You describe your cd “Subtracting Down” as “post modern mountain” storytelling. Define that.

CD: I would say it is like this. I believe we all should read the literary canon. We should know what we are so we can understand “post modern” I am taking the styles, the tropes, the Southern Gothic style, Blue Grass and Gospel and using it in my work. I am a Buddhist Baptist, and a lesbian. I take my culture and I lovingly hang it inside out, and upside down. I can write a song about gay marriage, the Gay Pride parade to a simple country tune. I am merging my thoughts and ideas from the New South.

DH: You write that as a transplanted Southerner, and long-time Somerville resident you are aware of the “cultural intersection” and “divide” of the two. Well… what are they?

CD: Well, God love ya, as a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander. I spent the summer in Kentucky—and then came back to Somerville. And I always have what I call that “Yankee moment.” It’s usually in Pennsylvania or New York State. When I am driving back to Somerville, there are more people, more traffic, everything is faster. I’ll be cut off, people are rude, I’ll smile at someone, and they won’t smile back. It hurts. And if I take someone down South they may feel a little exposed. People down there look at each other. Southerners actually look in cars. But it is a community that takes care of you. So when I come back here it is a little painful for me. So I can be offended when someone is being their natural city self. But I have all the things here that I wouldn’t have in Kentucky. I came here to be a writer, and I have a group of writers, excellent people, who are helping me.

DH: Word has it you are starting an artist retreat in Kentucky?

CD: I’m lucky. I have a farm in Kentucky, and it has 56 acres. I have a little Victorian cottage on it, and it has 4 bedrooms. After I got the hell raisers out, I took it over. I worked with this guy Ray, and we restored it. I want writers, poets, and musicians to come.

DH: You have a new book of stories coming out “Blue Land.” It deals with a lot of sexual abuse, and drug abuse. Is this to some extent autobiographical?

CD: My writing is not strictly autobiographical. It can be taken from any source including myself.

-- Doug Holder

for more info go to http:/www./


O my New Englanders,
O You fib, you tell tall tales, you make myths.
O why do you lie about the weather?
In a way this habit is touching, like a belief in Easter Bunny or the tooth fairy, teaching grade-schoolers to depict the seasons with construction-paper cut-outs of April showers followed by May flowers as if one resided in Camelot.

Myth One:

Spring is just around the corner
As though a few green tongues slicing up through semi-frozen soil,
or iron-hard buds poking out like thumbs,
trying to hitchhike their way south,
were signs of spring.
They are not.
As though
Pasty-legged fraternity chums in Bermuda shorts
suffering from hangovers and chilblains
oohing and aahing around a single crocus
were spring itself.
It is not.

Myth Two:

(……the reason I prefer New England to Los Angeles, Reykjavik, Acapulco, etc. is that……)
We have four seasons.
This is not true.
We have two seasons.
Season One:

Winter ——
an 8 month period lasting from November through June
Followed by a raw stretch of
….morning showers tapering off to snow squalls in the afternoon,
…scattered thunderstorms moving through to make way for steady rain,
…and for the weekend a cold snap with brisk sleet showers.
this unpredictable medley is punctuated by
the blossoming of a lone weeping cherry tree,
it sweet pink confetti tumbling across the parking lot,
random 90 degree sunny days.
Call these blessings, my friends,
but do not call them spring.
Season two:
Construction ——
a concretized stretch of weeks characterized by
superheated atmospheric inversions
and jackhammer dust,
a time of desolation in the metropolis
when the students leave for Europe,
or go off sailing to the Cape & the Islands,
leaving only
those wearing hardhats and earplugs,
And scruffy, displaced artists
who have sublet apartments here
because they cannot afford summer rent in their own apartments
in Rockport and Provincetown
the Artist Colonies…
Which leads us to

Myth Three:

We have an Ocean.
Ok, technically this is true,
But it is not for sissies.
On Saturday morning you must rise at 5 a.m.
drive for two hours
for the opportunity of waiting in line
to pay $20 before the parking lot fills up,
splash on Skin So Soft
to repel vampirish green heads
And no-see-ums
which, like invisible air-borne barracudas,
gnaw chunks of exposed human flesh.
While lugging your beach chair and cooler along the sandy path,
You will read signs
admonishing you to
Stay Away
from the dunes, the grass, the trees or any living plants,
to wear long sleeved white clothing and long white pants
tucked into white socks inside white tennis shoes.
to continually scan
for moving freckles
And, obviously, to burn your clothing the moment you return home.
These signs have a scolding tone,
as do the Pollution Indexes warning us to stay inside.
Which seem to shift the blame onto us,
The breathers.

Myth four:

We have foliage.
No, that one is true.
We do have foliage and it is spectacular, but you must be quick.
because the appearance of the first flaming maple leaf in Boston,
signals that branches are bare in Vermont, Maine, & New Hampshire,
It’s all cornflakes on the ground now, my sweets,
And covered in a foot of snow.
Spring is just around the corner.
When I first moved to Boston,
I waited along with you
But became enraged as each promised season failed to materialize,
I swore at leafless trees,
and heirloom furniture parked on the streets between colossal snow drifts
But now I am at peace.
Because O my New England
I have learned that the hand gestures and facial expressions
At rotaries and stop lights
the horns honking and taxi drivers jumping out of their cars.
Are native forms of celebrations,
The flipping over of out-of-state vehicles by sports’ fans
Is a type of communal theater,
Hello, I wave back, smiling.
Go Sox, Go Patriots, I yell, honking in unison.
We live in New England!
where wind fingers icily under our collars.
where the red line screeches from Central into Harvard Station.
I disembark into the acrid electric scent of subway’s back draft,
sprint up the metal stairs of the out-of-order escalator,
and stride onto the gray pavement
polka-dotted with historical chewing gum,
And I am glad.
When I hear your minor myths:
Boston wears an emerald necklace,
Boston is a very livable city,
We can just hop on 93 and be there in no time…
I smile
Hope is cruel
thus I have deserted it.
So now,
I love you New England,
I love your peoples and your libraries,
I love your cappuccinos and your concerts,
Your artists and your architecture,
Your tabernacles and your theaters,
Your rowdy fans and your rivers.
Oh my New England, my Boston, my Cambridge, my Somerville, my Medford, my Worcester
You awaken spring in my Southern heart.
© CD Collins

Monday, October 27, 2008

Call Me Waiter. Joseph Torra.

( Joe Torra--Right)

Call Me Waiter. Joseph Torra. (Pressed Wafer 9 Columbus Sq. Boston, MA $10)

Joe Torra, poet, writer, and publisher, has lived down the block from me in Somerville, Mass. for many years. For the longest time I have heard about his literary accomplishments, be it his critically-acclaimed novel “Gas Station,” his literary journal “lift,” his numerous poetry collections, etc… When I asked him what he was doing for a living he always told me that he was a waiter. Recently though Torra, a man in his 50’s, is now teaching at U/Mass Boston.

Now Torra and I have a few things in common. We are contemporaries, and like him I have always been involved in the writing life in one shape or form. Like Torra, I had many jobs that afforded me the time to write. I was never a waiter, but I worked as a dishwasher at the long-defunct Ken’s Deli in Copley Square, Boston in the 70’s, and I was a short order cook at the “Fatted Calf” in Boston, where I flipped burgers, and appointed little balls of cheese on the bloody pucks of meat. So I know what it is like to work in the food industry and it ain’t easy.

Torra, has written a memoir “Call Me Waiter,” that recalls his many years as a server and his struggle to establish himself as a writer. The waiter jobs he had were transient, grueling, often well-paid, and most importantly provided him with the flexibility to write. Torra writes of his slow ascent as a writer, and his vocation as a means to an end:

“My poetry was bringing a modicum of success and that is where I would put my energy. Poems were being accepted by various little magazines. After reading at the Word of Mouth, I also gave readings around the city. Friendships developed with writers I came in contact with. If it took working shifts in a restaurant at night to support this life, so be it.”

Torra goes into detail not only about his working life, but also about the subculture of restaurants: the gay waiters, the alcoholic managers, the sociopath cooks, the parade of grad students, artists, musicians, supporting their lifestyle, and pocketing tips. In this passage Torra describes the typical reaction when he tells people at work that he is a writer:

“I’m always bemused at the way they react when they find out I am a writer. It shouldn’t come as any surprise. There are probably more artists in the restaurant business, pound for pound, than any other industry, I’ve worked with jazz, rock, folk and classical musicians, sculptures, dancers, female impersonators, actor, singers, photographers, poets and novelists—I even worked with a guy who painted with spoons. Why else, they must wonder, would someone my age be doing this…?

I tell them . They look puzzled. If I publish novels what am I doing here? I attempt an abridged account of the publishing industry. They’re bewildered. Then a friendly grin, perhaps they figured it out—I can’t be much of a writer if I publish books and tend bar for a living.”

At the end of the memoir Torra realizes that he is at the end of the line with being a waiter, and cuts himself loose. Although frightened, he enjoyed a sense of freedom:

“I have no idea where I am headed, what the future holds. Images of working all night as a shelf stocker, a cab driver or variety store clerk cross my mind. I know I must remain out of the business no matter what it takes. Something is out there for me. Standing on bike pedals to stretch my legs, I feel like I am floating.”

“Call Me Waiter” is one of the better books I have read about the writing life. Torra has a workman-like style, that lays out the consuming need to write, and the need to support it anyway you can—no matter what, in a straight, no chaser fashion. Torra, born to a blue collar family in Medford, Mass brings a work ethic to his life and art that is a refreshing change from all the Left Bank, Iowa Writers Workshop stuff that lines the bookshelves.

Highly recommended.