Saturday, January 14, 2012
Lawrence Kessenich is one of the managing editors of the literary magazine Ibbetson Street. He is also a former editor at Houghton Mifflin and worked with Diana Hume George and Diane Wood Middlebrook on the Selected Poems of Anne Sexton as well as a subsequent biography. He was generous enough to send this essay about his experiences to the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene.
The Awful Rowing Toward Anne Sexton
by Lawrence Kessenich
From the first time I read one of her poems, I was in love with Anne Sexton. She was the poet I wanted to be. Her work was original, profound, self-deprecating, spiritual—and had a sense of humor to boot:
God loafs around heaven
without a shape
but He would like to smoke his cigar
or bite his fingernails…
He does not envy the soul much.
He is all soul
but he would like to house it in a body
and come down
and give it a bath
now and then.
. She played with words:
even its murders lined up like broken chairs
the skull with its brain like eels
they suck the childhood out of the berries
I was entranced by Sexton’s skill, her brutal honesty, her humor. And when it came time to consider graduate schools in creative writing, I dreamed of forsaking Milwaukee for cosmopolitan Boston, of sitting at her feet in a Boston University lounge to learn how she worked her magic.
I was on the verge of applying to graduate schools—including BU—one fall day when I went shopping at the local market. There I ran into a fellow student from one of my poetry classes, a few semesters before. She asked how I was going about choosing the creative writing programs I would apply to. I told her that I’d been advised to seek out programs where poets I respected were teaching. She asked who those poets were, and I told her. When I mentioned Anne Sexton, she interrupted, saying, “Oh, it’s too bad about her…”
At that point in my life, I wasn’t paying much attention to the news, so I had no idea what she was talking about. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Didn’t you hear?” she said. “Sexton committed suicide a couple weeks ago.”
I was stunned. The thought of that vital life having snuffed itself out was profoundly disturbing. Yes, there was darkness in her poetry, but the humor that often accompanied it had led me to believe that she had a firm grip on life, despite its contradictions. I was deeply saddened by the fact that not only would I never study with her, but I would never even see her read her poetry in person. The kicker was that I later learned Sexton had committed suicide on my birthday, October 4th.
Flash forward almost two decades. I am an editor at Houghton Mifflin—Anne Sexton’s publisher, as I am always proud to tell people. For years, I’ve read for Houghton Mifflin’s annual New Poetry Series—including Carolyn Forche’s first book—and my interest in poetry is known around the office. The editor-in-chief, Austin Olney, approaches me and asks if I’d like to work with two scholars, Diana Hume George and Diane Wood Middlebrook, who are putting together Selected Poems of Anne Sexton. Austin is a pretty reserved old Yankee, but I’m tempted to throw my arms around him and give him a hug.
I did not get to help select the Sexton poems that would go into the book—and, of course, having my own strong feelings about her poetry, I thought there were poems that should have been included and poems that could have been left out. But it was one of the great honors of my life to be the editor who guided the book through the publishing process at Houghton Mifflin—a book that is still in print, 24 years later.
Houghton Mifflin had also contracted with Middlebrook to write a biography of Sexton, and when the editor originally assigned to that book left, I was asked to take it over. For several years, I was Middlebrook’s sounding board at Houghton Mifflin, and I will never forget one call from her. After we exchanged pleasantries, she got to the reason for her call. “You’ll never guess what I have in a box under my desk,” she said. I told her I couldn’t imagine. “Tapes of Anne Sexton’s sessions with her therapist.” My reply was, “Well, you just guaranteed that the book will be controversial!” And indeed it was, though by the time it was published, I was no longer in the business.
I also met Sexton’s daughter Linda during my involvement with these two books, and got comfortable enough with her to tell her the story of my wanting to study with her mother—and of the coincidence of Sexton’s suicide occurring on my birthday. “Well, I’ve got an even more dramatic coincidence,” she replied. “My son was born on the anniversary of the day she died.”
So, despite my sadness over never getting to meet or study with Anne Sexton, I feel privileged to have played a small part in keeping her legacy alive. I believe she is one of our finest poets. Her work speaks to me as powerfully and eloquently today as it did more than three decades ago.
Friday, January 13, 2012
Publisher/Editor: Brian Morrisey
Boston Editor: Doug Holder
Contributing Editor: Joe Pachinko
Review by Dennis Daly
Some covers tease. Some lure. Some enhance. The cover of Poesy XXXIX tests. A photograph of a grime-encrusted broken foam- cushioned chair with rolling arms, going to seed, the type often found in the darkened corners of factories, or homeless camps, offers the reader a choice. Either rest here, exchange funky molecules with the garish fabric, and be conveyed to places avant-garde, or pass it by to seek more sanitized, de-odorized, and perhaps academic, comfort.
If you decide to sit, you’ve passed the test and will match up fine with the artistic innards of this periodical. Now go to the back cover. Here you will find an extraordinary eulogy by A.D. Winans, entitled For Scott Wannberg. This jazzy piece offers a central metaphor with an attached simile like no other. Winans speaks of the dead poet as a butterfly in the way in which he lifted the spirits of those around him. So far, not that unusual.
Winans next explains that the way the butterfly lifts one’s spirits is “like a forklift.” That stopped me: a butterfly and a forklift? But, you know, it does work. I have not a little familiarity with forklifts and know the feel of the steady power lifting enormous weights skyward. That, together with the winged flitter of inspiration and delicateness suggested by a butterfly—well, damn if it doesn’t work. This same poem ends with a beautiful touch of wisdom,
Judge not a person by their supposed achievements
Judge that person like you would judge a song
Not by its words and melody
But by the way it lifts the spirit and the soul.
Inside the issue, the poem, Beyond the Bend by G. A. Scheinoha, takes your breath away. A poem’s creation is conjured up,
first by the languid
stream of syllables,
broken only by
rock hard consonants
jutting up from
the white water churn
The language is precise and wondrous
Another poem, One Thousand Abbie Hoffmans, recalls an earlier time of innocent hilarity and freedom. Whatever became of my copies of Revolution for the Hell of It and Steal This Book anyway? John Dorsey, the author, gets it right in his last four lines,
You knew mambo when you saw it
Knew dreams by the way
they kissed your skin
for a taste of freedom.
Tiny Photographs, a poem by Bruce McRae, oozes resistance and contrariness with these imagistic lines,
A monk burning
on a busy motorway
A stop sign
with a bullethole in it
A woman’s mouth
colored with smudged
A Conversation with Sam Cornish by Doug Holder is not so much a conversation as a reflection on a meeting and conversation with Boston Poet Laureate Cornish. Holder, besides being an accomplished poet himself, is a terrific interviewer. He virtually erases himself from the piece, putting Cornish front and center. Holder uses a gritty Cornish poem, Dog Town Slim, dually for atmospherics and to prove a point—that Cornish is one tough street poet.
Two words not usually associated (at least in my mind) with a poet laureate are community and outreach. Holder tacks these words onto Cornish reinforcing his argument that Cornish, despite his formal title, is not one of the mandarins, the careerists of the poetic world. In fact Cornish marshals the advantages of his title in support of those “holy fools,” who write for the love of it. Holder’s admiration of Cornish couldn’t be more palpable.
Solid artwork in the form of photographs add to and punctuate this issue. My favorites are two window scenes by T. Kilgore Splake. One juxtaposes Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa’s subtle smile with a broad sculptured laughing face sitting on a window sill. The other portrays an older man, in silhouette, catching his breath, perhaps, in front of a lighted, seasonally decorated window.
I also liked very much the reprint of Scott Wannberg’s, The Rain Came Down Collect. Wannberg, before his death, was apparently a beloved supporter and friend of Poesy. A number of this issue’s poets dedicated their pieces to him.
In the poem itself Wannberg expresses his compassion for the hurt and broken people, who seek healing,
The doctor sits high up on a tree limb,
Searching through binoculars,
The healing will arrive soon, I hear
Don’t quite know which train will bring it.
What is also apparent is Wannberg’s belief in the curative powers of legitimate art,
Bring your wounded luggage,
Bring your passion and your hope.
Some things still mean,
Despite rhetoric, lies, and misdealt cards.
Of the many other interesting poems in this issue, one prose poem really struck me—Edgar Allen Poe by Ralph Malachowski. The interplay between Poe’s spun black magic and the reader/admirer is stunning. These two lines describe one heart’s connection with Poe’s vision,
Edgar Allen became a bas relief of grief appearing briefly before our besotted eyes.
Our occult groom will bloom in our heart’s greenhouse, watered by blasphemy, fed by doom.
Thursday, January 12, 2012
Somerville Poet Amanda Torres: A Chicago Native Struts Her Stuff In Somerville
By Doug Holder
Amanda Torres who is well-established as a writer, teacher, youth leader and poet in Chicago decided to leave the safe environs of her hometown to test the waters and her talents in Somerville, Mass. Torres, who is Mexican-American, came from the the wrong side of the tracks in Chicago, but thanks to writer Anna West and her Young Chicago Authors Program, she was able to pull herself up and out with the help of writing.
Torres said after her father's premature death she got involved with the wrong crowd, illicit activities, etc.. But one day during her shift as a server at the Chopin Theatre in Chicago, writer Anna West saw her writing in her journal, sat down with her, and asked her to join her program for young authors.
Since that significant moment Torres was intimately involved in the poetry scene in Chicago and beyond. Her travels brought her to London where she was part of a slam championship team--to statewide and national slam championships.
Torres first moved to Somerville a few years ago when her mentor Anna West came to these parts to study at Harvard. After West graduated Torres stayed behind. " I wanted to see if I could make it some other place rather than Chicago where everyone knows me. It is part of the growing process," she said.
And indeed Torres has succeeded. She lives in a historic home in East Somerville--the very last house on our famed Illumination Tour. She has worked as a teacher at Somerville's Books of Hope project, and now is a principal player in MASS L.E.A.P-- a program founded by Somerville resident and poet Jade Sylvan, as well as a program director for the Mass. Poetry Festival. This program is sort of a literary outreach for statewide youth.
Torres continues to teach poetry. She uses model poems from her favorite poets to get the creative juices flowing in her young charges. She believes being a teacher involves being honest and authentic. This builds lasting relationships with her students.
Torres reads her own work at the Lizard Lounge and the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge, and seems to be perfectly comfortable in our burg. She smiled and said: " I feel at home here."
My name does not fit me.
It is summer dresses and blue eyes.
I have always been,
will always be, cigarette burns
and back alley beer contests with my boys.
My eyes as brown and calloused as
my fathers hands.
My name means to be loved.
There are cracked bricks in my spine
where I was
with a metal rod
my father flattened and dulled.
when I cry,
drywall dust comes out
and I have to dry my eyes to keep from sneezing.
I have been loved
in the briefest of ways
by so many
I am more accustomed to loss
than to love.
My brown star boy
just found my dimples
with his fingertips.
He took a picture and that's how I knew my face
could be sweet.
I am learning softness
but I was not born into it.
because I know
I could kill
Wednesday, January 11, 2012
Review of IMAGES OF BEING, poetry by Diane Sahms-Guarnieri, Stonegarden.net Publishing, www.stonegarden.net, California, 85 pages, 2011, $7.95
Review by Barbara Bialick, author of TIME LEAVES
To Diane Sahms-Guarnieri, images are an all-important way she remembers people from her childhood and on into motherhood. Sometimes the images are unremarkable and common in their humanity; at other times they grab the reader with the immediacy of her dream about her child drowning… The book is also populated with her father and other relatives who made their living in the Philadelphia textile mill era and ended up victims of such poisons as asbestos—from unprotected work sites.
The poem “Machines, Machines, Monstrous Machines” shows the “ticking hours…spent walking aisles of machines …spitting fiber into textile air, damaging lungs/already filled from a daily pack of Pall Mall/…It was audible, not thunderous:/an oxygen machine breathed with him/…a talking body on a long permanent leash/machines, machines, monstrous machines/from living room bed to front door…”
Her father was insulted during her youth by her mother for his alcoholism. He took the author as a child to a bar in the poem, “Another Shirley Temple”. “I watch him empty/glass after glass of beer/talking about work, work/in the mill all night, night/while I sleep weaving dreams”.
Her mother has her revenge in “Snowman” where “mom hoses your art away/melting the snowman liquid as milk/into the petrified garden.”
In the preface to the book, the author states that she is an “urban poet” who lives in
Philadelphia. “Each life is made up of images: images that are uniquely our own and images that merge into the lives of others. We are all an image of our own being in the collective human experience defined as life…” she explains.
Her dreams are equally compelling as her memories. In “Child of Dreams” she recounts, “a child: streaming hair like anemones lifting/oyster-white face slow motion sinking/like one of Titanic’s forgotten children/…I grope for dangling limbs, seaweed hair/then I appear among green hills/without her as I hear children’s laughter/…A wiseman
tells me the child is safe…”
Sahms-Guarnieri does not provide a bio, but does acknowledge that these poems have been published by such journals as Many Mountains Moving, Southern Ocean Review,
Wilderness House Literary Review, Philadelphia Stories Magazine and Anthology, Mad Poets Review, Mid-West Cultural Council, Fox Chase Review, Autumn Sky Poetry,
Limited Editions and Folio, “among others.”
Monday, January 09, 2012
Marc Zegans: A Creative Person Who Helps Creative People.
By Doug Holder
Every now and then I find it necessary to leave my beloved Somerville and go into the hinterlands of the Republic of Cambridge. But let's face it both cities trade precious body fluids so this is inevitable. So I found myself talking to Marc Zegans at Harvard Square's bustling Au Bon Pain Cafe one cold winter's afternoon.
Zegans is a man of many hats-literally--he is often see wearing a rakish fedora. He is also the Poet Laureate of Narragansett Beer, an accomplished poet/performer, and the founder of Creative Development, a consulting service that helps artists implement strategies to realize their goals.
Zegans is a Cambridge resident but he also admires Somerville. I told him Somerville is like Cambridge but without the jerks. Zegans smiled but offered no retort. He did say he likes Somerville's honesty--it seems more real here, he opined. Zegans can often be found at places like my beloved Sherman Cafe in Union Square as well as Bloc 11, and the Diesel Cafe in Davis--to name a few joints.
When Zegan's was in his early 40's he suffered a bout with cancer. He survived but realized it was time to follow his true path in life. Up to this time he had been involved in places like the Harvard School of Government as Director of the Innovations Program. He advised government organizations of how to innovate in a hostile environment. But he always had one hand in the arts-- over the years working in a writing and recording studio in San Francisco, managing an art space in Brooklyn and other venues. So he decided to use the skills he learned at his tony position at Harvard and start advising artists and artistic organizations to realize what is blocking them; what behavior is preventing them from realizing their full artistic journey, whatever that may be. Zegans works with them to build skills and has enjoyed success with a roster of local artists--one being Somerville's Shakespeare Project. Zegans wants his clients to market themselves well, but unlike a business he does not have them alter or lower their standards.
But of course Zegans is not only a consultant. Zegans describes himself in his own words: " I am a Spoken Word Performance Artist, and one of my major influences has been Tom Waits." Like Waits he writes poems about folks who are challenged by life. But unlike Waits: "I bring more of myself to the stage. Waits has said more than once that he is the character on stage not himself." Zegans incorporates Jazz, and the Blues in many of his performances. He counts Leon Redbone, the noted Blues vocalist as an influence as well. One of his recent performances was with poet Charles Coe, where they engaged in stagecraft for a public spectacle that dealt with mortality. A popular subject, indeed!
I told Zegans that I read somewhere that he rails against the Hipster mentality. He laughed. " I had a night at the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge titled: No Hipster Rock and Roll Revue--it was sort of tongue and cheek. But I do think hipsters today are the product of the mass media. They are told to wear the skinny tie, skinny jeans--the pierced noses, etc... The hipsters of the 1940's and 1950's were genuinely involved in opposition to the culture. They lived the life. They did not have corporate jobs in the day. They were devoted to their art," he said.
Like yours truly Zegans is Jewish so I asked him if there is any ethnic material is in his work. Zegans said his background doesn't play a big role in his work. But he wrote a piece about a walk he took with his grandfather when he was a boy. It was from Greenwich Village in NYC (Where the elderly gent lived) through the Lower East Side; a place many a Jewish immigrant cut his or her teeth in the New World.
Zegans appears like a man who has found his true path in life, and is a good example for others to follow their bliss.
To find out more about Zehgans go to: www.mycreativedevelopment.com --
A Hipster Retires
Do you remember the days when it meant something
to be a hipster? When sunglasses
worn over benzedrine eyes in nightclubs
in the subterranean precincts
Of the West Village, where thirty dollars
paid your rent, was not an ironic
quasi-historical, counter cultural
reference to post-vernacular
style, but a way to keep your fucking bloodshot
eyes safe from the scintilla of light
reflecting off the bell of Cannonball's
horn, so you could follow his solos
deep into the heart of a place no one
had ever been, and never again would see.
Do you remember when manifestos
written on Royals, white-out corrected
shared by hand, and read only by a few
could, by their dangerous sentiments
change in a moment the national discourse
rallying the voices of free love and free speech
and the possibility of moments
explored, consciousness expanded--the bomb
hanging above yellow and black fallout
markers--when to be hip meant to be brave
to be hip to the truth that power denies
to be knowing of the shadow pulsing
in the night of our American soul
to give birth to the cool and forget it
as soon as Miles turned his back on stage
because a change was gonna come
real soon, when to be hip was to be invested
with one's brothers in defiant meaning
knowing always, that our blood could be spilt
by nightsticks and fists and fruitless war
Do you remember those times as you wear
your too tight plaid shirts, drink your PBRs
sport your skinny jeans, ape trailer culture
in Disneyfied neo-bohemia
while you entwine yourself , unwitting
in neo-fascist social networks
a happy creative economy insider?
If you do, I applaud your ironic
self-awareness. As for me, I've no need
to be hip to the inside joke
my time is short, there's hearts to be won
the time has come for our hipster to retire.
Marc Zegans, October 20, 2011
Beyond the Great Abyss
Review by Renee Schwiesow
“Love and truth are the most powerful forces in the universe, and they reside in all of us as the embodiment of our eternal spirits, ready always to lead us to joy, true love and happiness.” In “Beyond the Great Abyss,” Becca Chambers takes us on a journey of her own personal transformation that includes three years of lessons in love and truth.
The cover to “Beyond the Great Abyss” may appear to be a woman shape shifting and, perhaps that is, after all, the correct way to look at the transformations. Half human and half owl, the woman on the front cover depicts the symbolism of the totem animal within. Owl medicine brings healing, clarity and wisdom. A feminine energy, the owl represents freedom, the moon and true seeking. Chambers recognizes that the journey she shares, condensed into a three year period of awakening, is a lifetime experience. In conjunction with an intuitive, an energy healer and other individuals placed in Chamber’s life for specific purpose, she was able to transform her physical dis-ease from the inside out. For many years, Chambers suffered from depression but through a commitment to her own psychospiritual health that led to her becoming a natural health healer, Chambers was able to alleviate her painful symptoms. Chambers holds a B.S. in Biology and a graduate degree in Naturopathy.
Through journal entries, Chambers shares her woes, her joys, her setbacks and her growth. Her ailing father is an ever-present intuitive support system for her while she struggles to understand the chaos of the other male relationships in her life and what they are mirroring back to her. There is no narrative in between journal entries. Therefore the book reads like a diary, allowing the reader to feel as if they have become a voyeur in Chambers life, but also with a feeling of wanting more cohesiveness at times, something to cushion the entries, like discs between the vertebrae that act as a shock absorber and help keep spinal movement supple.
What rings clear is Chamber’s love for her father despite her struggles with male figures in her life:
“Last Monday Dad hemorrhaged in his colon and nearly bled to death. Lots of transfusions and eventually he stopped bleeding. He had been on Coumadin, a blood thinner, because of a small stroke a year ago. Now the Coumadin nearly killed him – typical Western medicine. . .Now much of the time he doesn’t make sense. I’m the only one who understands him at all. I get right up close with my ear next to his mouth, and my mouth to his ear, and I can hear him and communicate. The others? They are so sure he isn’t there that they don’t try.”
Clearly Chambers is agitated throughout the book by her father’s downward spiraling, but also honored to be there for him and to listen to his intuitive guidance.
Chambers comments further on the owl from her cover toward the end of the book. After her long journey, she says that she recognized that the swiveling head of the owl is a metaphor for being able to see all sides of a person and also to view situations from all angles.
“The Great White Snowy Owl of the North has flown over my house and landed in the tall pine at the corner, where my yard meets the wood. . .I am the great White Snowy Owl now, with all the power and wisdom of its ancient and legendary symbolism. How I got there from the broken child I once was, and that grim and desolate place where I dwelled for so many years is the subject of this book.” Becca Chambers