Wednesday, July 07, 2010

I’d Rather be a Mexican by Charles P. Ries

I’d Rather be a Mexican

Charles P. Ries

Cervena Barva Press

$7.00 (Poet's site) (Order the chapbook)

Review by Samantha Milowsky

I'd Rather be a Mexican is a delightful chapbook of poems that romanticizes Mexico and its people as objects to dream and ponder about life other than the one the speaker lives as a white English speaking man. The poetry exudes painterly and vivid beauty in deceptively simple lines. Readers are transported into scenes of Mexican architecture amid everyday life of sultry peasants. The poems are pleasantly varied between earthy surreal tropes, loving and heartbreaking portraits of family, sensual objects of desire, and dark humor regarding customs such as bull fighting and praying. I’d Rather be a Mexican is a highly enjoyable and accessible book of poetry.

The first poem Just Stories sets the stage for a romantic view of Mexico and its people as objects to express longings. The women are "all beautiful" with "dresses so colorful they look like tropical birds" and the men are strapping in "tight black pants with silver adornments running down the sides of their legs..." This imagery of men and women occurs throughout the poems which create poetic repetition and reinforces a sense of place and idealized Mexican culture. The speaker asks: "How could all the happiness of the world reside in one people?" This rhetorical question hints at the speaker's dissatisfaction with his own life and romanticism of theirs. Readers will enjoy the humor and imagery that engages the senses. While on a flight, the speaker muses:

"Land has fallen away again, but I still remember the fragrance of fresh cut grass or an orange just sliced open and dripping in anticipation of my bite, but now I simply float."

""Put a pepper on his wings. Make him sneeze and watch him soar. Don't let him hide, he's a crazy boy," my new friends shout."

Just Stories prepares us for what is ahead in the chapbook: "All these words -- just piled high to heaven's ceiling -- they free us when we let them go."

The poems Los Huesos (the bones) and Birch Street delve into the speaker's psyche of family. In Los Huesos, the speaker sits at his father's and grandfather's tombstones. To honor them he brings his "father's tobacco" and his "grandfather's beer." The speaker also brings tequila and offers it to the dead. The poem is an enjoyable mix of family love and dark humor in celebrating the vices that probably did them in; after all, what is life without enjoyment?

In Birch Street the speaker's surrealist and romantic flights give way to direct and honest language about a relationship: "Her depression and my beer free our tears from the jail we carry in our hearts." The speaker implies dysfunction surrounds them in the neighborhood too: "Skinny, greased up gang bangers with pants so big they sweep the streets and girl friends in dresses so tight they burn my eyes." The poem Reading Octavio Paz is a beautiful ode to how Mexican poets have inspired the speaker. There is a sense of how deeply the speaker was impacted: "I close my eyes and see within myself a naked boy sitting beneath a vast pecan tree. From its branches hang stars. This canopy of shade becomes my universe." Perhaps the entire chapbook is a heartfelt ode to Mexico and Mexican poets.

Highly Recommended .

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Interview with Len Solo: Making An Extraordinary School : The Work of Ordinary People.

Interview with Len Solo: Making An Extraordinary School : The Work of Ordinary People.

With Doug Holder

Len Solo was the principal of the Graham & Parks School in Cambridge, Mass. from 1974 to 2001. He is a firm believer in alternative schools and innovative teaching to educate today's student. His book about his experience at the Graham & Park School is titled "Making An Extraordinary School: The Work of Ordinary People." Solo is also an accomplished poet and is currently working on a short story collection. I talked with him on my Somerville Community Access TV show " Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer."

Doug Holder: Len-- you have seen a lot of trends in education during your time as an educator. What's your opinion of the mass firing of teachers and strict accountability that is in vogue?

Len Solo: The firings are under the " No Child Left Behind Act". Schools are ranked and rated, and if in a series of years the kids don't pass, the school and the teachers can be in serious trouble. The whole staff , including the principal can be fired.

As you know from reading my book I have issues with " No Child...' I think it is the worst turn that American education has taken. If what I describe in the book is true about this special school in Cambridge than " No Child..." is not true. We empowered teachers to be the source of curriculum--the very opposite of " No Child..." The standards with the MCAT for instance are set at the state level rather than with local people.

The reason the Graham & Parks School was successful was because it gave power to the teachers. Because the teacher knows the kids--then the teacher should know the curriculum. And they have to make the curriculum accessible to the kids. That means they have got to find all kinds of ways to do this so it is interesting. Now you have standards that have been promulgated by absent people--bureaucrats--people far way.

Again--one of the reasons the school became an extraordinary school was because of empowerment. When you empower people they take it on the teaching of the kids as their own. Empowerment is the basis of Democracy. This is the opposite of what is happening with "No Child..." With "No Child..."

It’s somebody far away from you making decisions about your life as a teacher, and your life as a student, and your life as a parent of that student. It’s not yours—it is somebody else making these decisions for you. Is “No Child Left Behind” effective? I say no. We hear all the time how kids score well on the MCAT exams in Massachusetts—so you have these tests based on these standards. You don’t need standardization to have very high standards. We did in our school. I say standard testing is a closed system. If you taught writing in college 15 years ago when there was no MCAT, and if you teach now, you would see no difference in writing skills. I know this because I have spoken to college teachers.

DH: You said the mission of the Graham & Parks School was to “educate the whole child.” Can you explain?

LS: Most schools deal with the head. We try to deal with the head, heart and the body.

We are concerned with the whole child. We had a particular kind of education. It was holistic—project-based learning.The classroom wasn’t set up with chairs in rows, with kids sitting in them hardly moving. We had learning areas. We had science, reading, writing and math areas. Our learning advocates start with materials and products. So children become actively involved with their hands. We try to engage them.

We are also concerned about the social lives of kids, and their emotions. Confidence in self is closely related to learning, and for making important choices affecting one’s life. We want our children to be capable and lovable. We want them to know math, reading, science and math and the like and to like themselves and like others.

If you establish strong bonds among people. If they live, learn and work together—that is the basis for academic performance. We created a very strong community within the school. That was the basis for academic learning. We were more concerned with more than the head. We had small classes, in a small school—involving parents in meaningful ways. We really go to know the child.

DH: You were all about students making meaningful connections with adults. How did you facilitate that?

LS: A number of different ways. First—we had a whole bunch of adults in the schools, not just teachers. In any given class you would find 2 to 5 adults. You would have a teacher, an instructional aid, one or two students from local colleges, and you would have one or two parents on a daily basis to work in the classrooms.

I have a chapter in the book about how I put the kids in the community. When kids come to middle school that are beginning to leave their parents and enter the wilder world. We try to facilitate this. We try to do it in a meaningful way. Our program put kids in work situations in the community. They were working in preschools, some worked at the Harvard Crimson newspaper, some worked with seniors. We believe the starting place for learning is experience. A job teaches the student to take what is abstracted and make it come to life.

DH: What is a bad teacher?

LS: A bad teacher is someone who doesn’t know curriculum well. He or she is not accessible to kids, and doesn’t spend a lot time watching kids and learning from them. I also look to see if there is order in the classroom. I’ve seen chaos in classrooms. You can’t tolerate that. To be a really good teacher you have to work ten hours a day practically every day of the year. At our school we were not afraid to tell teachers they were not working out.

DH : You lead poetry workshops in the schools. How was that?

LS: In the early years of school I taught 7th and 8th graders. I really like poetry and I really like short stories. I tried to present stories and poems that kids could relate to. I wanted them to dig it and relate it to their own lives.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Live Landscape by Andrey Gritsman

Live Landscape
by Andrey Gritsman
Cervena Barva Press
West Somerville MA
Copyright © 2010 by Andrey Gritsman
ISBN: 978-0-9844732-1-2
Softbound, 73 pages, $15

Review by Zvi A. Sesling

If there were an organization called Poets Without Borders Andrey Gritsman would probably be it president. Gritsman, born and raised in Russia, has been in the U.S. nearly thirty years and is a physician in New York City. He writes in at least three styles I can
discern, sometimes like the Russian he is, sometimes like surrealist Eastern European poets, and other times in the tradition of American poets, mixing in medical terms here and there. No matter the style, each poem is wholly believable.

The first part of the book draws on Gritsman’s Russian life – first love, school, his father,
Moscow and his return to his native land and ends with his first job in America with a poem entitled VA, which stands for the VA Medical Center. The two sections are eclectic
mixing subjects and picking on a number of American topics.

Gritsman also takes a simple subject like a Hot Dog Poem and turn it into a sexy, humorous poem, witness these lines:

A hot dog poem.
Directed and glistening
in its phallic infallibility
on the backdrop of common fallacy.
Not flaccid, but resilient
with mustard and relish over it,
ketchup on the side,
with the authority of a hot club
smacked between the labia of the bun
by the yellow claw fingers
of the hot-dog man.

Later in the poem he writes about a woman with two adorable little dogs
Rigor and Mortis.

Gritsman’s take on a funeral is one that makes you hope your own is not like his vision.
His New Jersey Gothic and New Jersey Grill, Smoking Area remind everyone who doesn’t live in that state why they make fun of it.

Although there are a few lines that might put off some people, overall this is a volume of poetry not only worth reading, but owning. Gritsman’s landscape is live and breathing, spitting out the raw (Holiday Inn) chomping on sex, infidelity and race (Story) while Bed,
Bath and Beyond is a bittersweet ending to a complex book.

A final note: I always favor poetry books which leave you thinking, which make you want to go back to them, which drill a hole in the stomach and make you wish you had written some of them. Andrey Gritsman has done that with Live Landscape.