Thursday, January 19, 2012
Linda Larson: A Poet Who Writes What She Loves and Loves What She Writes.
Interview with Doug Holder
Linda Larson has been a journalist, poet, writing teacher, and a writing student in the course of her career. One thing she likes about the role of a poet is that she gets to write about what she loves. And it is evident in her body of work that she has a deep love for her subjects and the craft of writing.
Linda Larson was born and educated in the Midwest, and spent many a childhood summer in Mississippi. She graduated with an M.A. from the Writing Seminars at John Hopkins University in 1970. While in Mississippi she worked as a feature writer for the Capitol Reporterr and The Jackson Advocate. She relocated to the Boston area and for five years she served as an editor and contributor to Spare Change News-- a homeless paper based in Cambridge. In 2007, she published her first book of poetry Washing the Stones ( Ibbetson Street Press).
I talked with Larson on my Somerville Community Access TV Show: Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.
Doug Holder: So you were a reporter for a couple of newspapers down South. Did your experience as a journalist prepare you for poetry?
Linda Larson: Like with poetry, when you are a journalist you try to find something to write about that is of interest to you--what matters to you. When you write a story--like a poem--you want to start with a gripping image. Basically my poems are stories. I learned how to tell a good story as a reporter.
One thing about poetry is that you get to write about what you love, not about what you are assigned--and that is how it all begins...
DH: The noted critic Irene Koronas quoted Picasso in a recent review of your book: " All art is a lie." Is your work a lie?
LL: This means to me don't be afraid to tell the truth even if you have to lie. 9 out of 10 people who have read Mississippi Poems believe they are autobiographical to the letter! That all these things happened. These are my stories but stories are one thing and a life is something else. I am baffled that people think you are a homeless woman, a grandmother of a soldier, etc... Sometimes you need to embellish--you need powerful imagery--to make the point in your poem.
DH: You make no bones about it--you have suffered from mental illness. Plath and Sexton did as well--and they sort of brought a romance to it. Do you find anything romantic about it?
LL: Do I find anything romantic about mental illness? Well, sure. When you are psychotic it is really good practice for constructing your own reality. In the midst of psychosis you really can't write coherently--but you can mine your experience after the fact. I don't write as well on medication. I can write better off it. But I can't function without medication.
But overall I don't think there is much romance attached to mental illness. And there is nothing romantic about killing yourself--like Plath and Sexton did.
DH: Can you talk a bit about your editorship of Spare Change News--the Boston area homeless newspaper?
LL: When I started with Spare Change I was writing pieces about homelessness, cocaine, etc... One day I went to the offices in Harvard Square to get some papers to sell when someone in the office said: "You are the new editor." I guess they liked my writing! I cracked up with laughter then, but they were serious. That was in 1997 and I worked there to 2002. I was glad to dedicate myself to something more than myself.
DH: In your collection Mississippi Poems you have an appreciation of the beauty of the state. Most of us think of its ugliness: its poverty, its civil rights history, etc... How do you explain your different take on this?
I was very fortunate that my aunts, uncles and cousins thought children were great creations. They thought they should be loved, cherished, and indeed I was loved there. When I was back North with my family I didn't feel as loved. So this is how I came to love Mississippi. When I was older I found out what was going on there--incredible injustice, violence-I didn't understand this when I was younger. Later I taught school there and wrote for two newspapers down South. I was in the middle of all this when I was a feature writer for the Jackson Reporter- an all black newspaper. I was the only white writer. My once loving family down there hated me for this.
**Linda Larson is currently working on a third collection and resides in Cambridge, Mass with her husband.
She moved into the other half of the duplex
I owned on the colored side as it was called then
Of Fortification Street-
Where Grant had broken through the Confederate lines
And turned Jackson, Mississippi,
With her she brought
All of two trash bags.
Her hair looked like the
Nest of a magpie
Done up in platinum blonde.
But she showed up alone,
And she was
I couldn’t bring myself
To turn her away.
She kept to herself.
Got up in the morning,
Dressed neatly under that banshee hair-don’t.
Never brought groceries home.
Parked in the side lot
Was littered with soda cans and
Fast food wrappers.
She carried brown paper bags into the house
Clinking like liquor bottles.
Never brought any out.
One day she came over,
Knocked at my door,
Classifieds in hand.
A German shepherd?
A female spayed?
Would it be okay?
The poor pitiful thing.
What would a good shampooing and brushing do?
A trip to the beauty shop was what she needed,
A spot of lipstick,
Not a dog.
All alone she was,
Not even a pretend ring.
Her legs and arms stick thin,
I said yes…
She would have to keep it outside.
She brought the dog home
In early June
The sorriest looking dog I had ever seen.
She’s been on a chain her whole life
She apologized for the dog, now
Skulking low to the ground,
Head turned sideways,
Anticipating a blow…
She dragged it up the steps
She’ll be all right
I am going to call her Tess.
What was her name before?
She didn’t have one.
She was just chained up outside in their back yard.
They just wanted her gone.
I’ll tie her up in the yard.
She said obligingly.
It appears to me she’s done enough
Time at the end of a chain.
My tenant gave me a grateful smile before
Hauling the dog into her half of the duplex.
Moments later they reappeared,
Tess bravely adorned in red leash and collar,
Her mistress in a white sunhat pulled over
That hair’s nest, a great improvement.
But Tess didn’t know how to walk on a leash.
To walk her was hard, sweaty work for the girl.
On one of those walks, up towards
The white side of busy Fortification,
Stopping to buy a soda,
Or sitting on someone’s steps to cool off,
He must have spotted her
Taking a breather along West Fortification Street.
It was hot as Hades,
Almost the fourth of July,
Close enough so fireworks could be heard
Off and on in the neighborhood.
My main concern was keeping cool.
I turned the AC on in the bedroom
And put on my housecoat.
It was time for The Price Is Right.
And then I heard shots fired
Not cherry bombs,
The shots were
Coming from my front door,
Then into the living room.
I am no fool.
I keep a loaded handgun in my nightstand,
My brother’s doing.
So I snatched up my gun and started shooting back.
The shooter hadn’t figured that the person,
The woman, who lived there would have a gun and
Be able to shoot back,
Like the coward he was
I got a good look at him.
He was white and wore a Bull Durham cap.
I knew right away he had miscalculated
Which side of the duplex she lived in.
Tess was moaning a low feral moan
Through the screen door.
Whatever her name was,
Stood silent and completely still.
She knew she had to go.
Like a marionette
She headed to her car empty-handed,
Not even a toothbrush.
I went to my Bible and gave her
Four one hundred dollar bills and four twenties.
“Don’t worry about the damn dog;
I will take care of Tess.”
I cannot tell when white folks are pale or just white.
She looked gray.
Grabbed my hand and kissed it,
Held it to her cheek,
Started her car and took off.
When the rent was due
And she hadn’t contacted me,
I went inside for the first time.
It was neat and clean and empty.
She had been sleeping
On a pile of neatly folded blankets and clothes.
What I had heard clinking were pieces of pottery,
Not like any pottery I’d ever seen.
Glistening and strange,
More varieties than a body could dream up
Or want or wish for,
Some I could figure out a use for,
Some I couldn’t.
I started out with good intentions.
I would pick up some corn-husk tamales
On Farish Street and walk the dog at the same time.
There I was dragging Tess by her leash and of a sudden
I jerked her up to where I was standing.
I took the leash off.
Go on now, Tess.
Time to find another friend.
Tess wouldn’t budge,
Wouldn’t even look at me.
So I gave her a shove.
She still cowered beside me.
I kicked in her direction,
Raised my voice.
Still wouldn’t move.
I hollered at her and
Tried to hit her with my open hand.
Then with the leash.
Kicked at her again
And missed again.
Raised my hand to her
Off she ran.
Again it’s early summer time,
This time a scorcher.
I have plugged my fan in,
Set it outside to blow on me
As I sit on the porch.
Even so my scalp is wet with sweat.
I am still working nights,
Going to the same job.
Still not part of a couple,
Sitting and reading the Clarion Ledger,
Locally known as the Carrion Dredger.
On the front page,
A photo of a dog,
A shepherd with a plastic bucket over its head
Held by two
Police officers caught in the act
Of removing the bucket.
The cutline reads:
This dog nicknamed Bucket Head
By the children in this Jackson neighborhood
Has eluded capture for many months
Surviving only by the kindness of families
Who over the winter put out food for her.
Wednesday, January 18, 2012
By Thomas Fitzgerald
Finishing Line Press
Reviewed by Dennis Daly
I remember Sister Therese Immaculata, one of the more enlightened Sisters of Charity at my school, explaining the tortures awaiting many of us in Purgatory. She described this state of being to our fourth grade class as a downscaled version of hell without too much fire, but with a lot of heat, loneliness, and a dreadful emptiness. On the upside, it was only temporary.
Poet Thomas Fitzgerald in his chapbook, Morning, recounts much the same sufferings as those detailed by that almost mythical nun of my long ago childhood. In Please Do Not Seize, Fitzgerald’s persona, like a moth caught in prison of glass and screen, becomes desperate in his need to escape his inner torments. He must keep his head about him if he is to survive. Even as he confronts the ghosts of his past, he admonishes himself to “wait” and “give it time.” This first poem sets the tone for his subsequent pieces.
In Child Bug, old flaws and new ghosts populate the poem that predicates addiction,
I feel like getting drunk tonight.
Looking at the crack on the top step,
the one that speaks every time I press it,
at the hole in the ceiling
from the time I raised my hands too high,
Or that I saw an old friend perfectly dead
eyes moving across the world.
Waking, a poem, which follows the downward spiral of a lost human with what appears to be complete honesty, confronts abject despair,
that I would be drunk
again—but alive enough
to see a woman wipe tears
from her freckled chin. I should
have known she’d say, I think
its time that you be leaving…
At the heart of this chapbook is an impressive set of pieces entitled, The Institution Poems. Here pain is mulled, dignity put aside, and death considered. Still, in the end, there is a green ribbon of life affirmation threading through them all. In the first poem the institutionalized narrator avers,
I have the thought:
It is good
my heart is beating.
Life and reality is worth holding on to,
I grip the peach in my hand
feel the juices run over my fingers.
Getting through this ordeal is much like Odysseus, bound to the mast, struggling against the pull of the sirens. Only here the poet’s persona deals with the draw of death as a child would,
I remember autumn
on the school bus
with the other children.
I remember how we held
our breath while passing
by the graveyards so the dead
would not haunt us.
He withdraws from addiction and seeks the surface of a different experience, almost a new birth,
My own sweat sticks
To me, heart overthrown, deep breaths, recalibrate.
I attempt to rise
Fingers run through my wet hair.
The fields are wet
There is a pretty funny, yet telling, metaphor in That Alcohol Thing. The third paragraph of this prose poem relates,
My great-grandfather had a friend who said if he died first he
would come back and tickle my great- grandfather’s feet at
night. My grandmother said after his friend died he wore
boots to bed for the rest of his life.
The poem, The Dark Water, Empty Again, ends with a very stark and well crafted image which touches on loneliness, addiction, and hope,
He walks past me without
hello and now I am truly alone.
The wind over my empty beer bottle
makes the sound of a ship headed home.
The Waiting Room is existential and quite sad. In this room doctors are mechanistic strangers, bureaucrats really,
Hour pass. Does anyone remember I’m here? Patients peer
through the locked windows to gawk at the new lunatic.
Doctors open the steel doors and pretend I do not exist.
Before redemption there must be penance and there is here,
… my mother crying. I remember that I
And also here in the poem, I Have To Sit On My Knees,
To no one, to everyone, to
the stranger on the street,
to the hawks, to the crows,
beer in hand I try
to say it out loud:
please forgive me.
Because There Is Light is the last poem in this collection and the most interesting. The images allude to religion and the saint who seems to be invoked is Saint Thomas—doubting Thomas. The poet desires to understand his vulnerability by reaching out to other good but flawed fellow travelers. He is wandering through the supermarket of life after the deli has closed. I’m thinking of Edward Hopper’s Nightlife perhaps, or even Van Gogh’s Night Café, for their after hour atmosphere. The poem ends this way,
And I wander still, aimless
from Frozen Dinners to First Aid,
desperate to reach out
to the next person who passes by.
To touch the wound of his life.
To stand quietly together
in the checkout line.
Tuesday, January 17, 2012
There’s Jews in Texas?
Poems by Debra L. Winegarten
Poetica Publishing Co.
Copyright © 2011 by Debra L. Winegarten
Softbound, 22 pages, $10
Review by Zvi A. Sesling
Debra Winegarten’s small, but packed book of poems was winner of the Poetica Magazine, Contemporary Jewish Writing 2011 Chapbook Contest, and with good reason. First, as the title would indicate, there is some humor in Ms. Winegarten’s poetry. And coming out of Texas one would expect to find some anti-Semitism as well and the author does not let the reader down, often combining humor and anti-Semitism appropriately in a manner that Jews and non-Jews can both appreciate.
For example, in “Second Grade, Part Two she tells it as it is – or was – or maybe still is:
A grown man stops me on the sidewalk
Eyeing my Star of David necklace and asking if I’m Jewish.
When I nod yes, (I’m not supposed to talk to strangers),
He tells me that’s really too bad for me,
Because didn’t I know that
Jews burn in Hell when they die?
Tears falling so hard I could barely see,
I dropped my weekly treasure and ran home
To Mom so fast I thought
I might keel over before I got to her
And be snatched right down to Hell.
When I told Mom what happened,
She put both hands on my shoulders,
Knelt to my height where she could look square in my eyes,
And in that Dallas drawl of hers, said,
“That’s okay, honey, don’t worry.
We don’t believe in hell.”
It is my personal belief that this has happened to too many Jewish children. It happened to me when I was six or eight years old, but even more recently, in the 1990s I had some
evangelical something or other sitting next to me on flight to Dallas and when he saw I was reading a translation of Chaim Nachman Bialick he asked if I was Jewish. I ignored
him, but when he started preaching to me, I gave him one of looks and told him what I really thought and flew in blessed silence the last two and one-half hours.
Many of Ms. Winegarten’s poems stir perhaps forgotten memories of anti-Semitism, but
others reflect the fine sense of humor she has as in “Passing:”
Like the time at Emma Long Park
When a teenager was dragging
his distressed puppy into the water.
I marched right over and said,
“I’m a vet. Stop that right now.
You are doing serious damage to your dog.”
Wearing a bathing suit,
I couldn’t be expected to have my license
With me, so I passed.
Near the end of this poem the author is with a friend and two teenage boys are tormenting a kitten and the girl friend orders the them put the cat down.
“Who are you?” one acne-faced boy sneered.
Pulling out her gun, she pointed and said,
“I’m the fucking Cat Police. Put the cat down.”
They dropped the kitten and ran.
This book, short as it might be, is filled with sad and funny vignettes. But it also gives
insight into her upbringing, her childhood and, of course, views of Texan anti-Semitism which is not unique to Texas but which one could (and can) find in here in Boston and other cities in the U.S.
One may smile at some of the poems but they cut deep into the psyche. Ms. Winegarten
is a third generation Texas Jew whose growing up Jewish in Texas has brought forth some poetry worth the reading.