Friday, September 28, 2012

Review of EARTH LISTENING, Poems by Becky D. Sakellariou


Review of  EARTH LISTENING, Poems by Becky D. Sakellariou, with a CD of the author reading selected poems, Hobblebush Books, 17-A Old Milford Road, Brookline,
New Hampshire 03033, 2010, The Hobblebush Granite State Poetry Series, Volume II,, $15.

Review by Barbara Bialick, author TIME LEAVES

From Euboia, Greece to the state of New Hampshire, Becky Sakellariou meditates on life
“with its depth, its explorations of love and loss (to what) seems to be like one long prayer…” according to reader Patricia Fargnoli. Indeed, as the author says in her own words, “These poems explore what I call the beginning of dying, the way our pores open to the world even more intensely as we age…”

The poem “The Inside of a Prayer” begins with the epigraph:  “We are all descendants of travelers”—William Least Heat Moon. The poem reads:  “Hold still/the translucent moon…Hang it above the blood/scarlet sumac and let it tell us/of the women and men/who boarded wooden ships/who traveled through eons/of other moons/to become you.”

She continues this line of thought in “God Doesn’t Need a Boat”:  Come, ferryman of our fears,/carry our boat across the gap/the one between fire and daylight/…Bear us back into the light.”

To the author, what is most “unexpected is death”.  In the poem “Unexpected”, she concludes “A quick, violent wind/…roars across the fields/…into the tomorrow of worry, fear/another harvest gone,/another year lost.”

Becky D. Sakellariou was born and raised in New England but has lived most of her adult life in Greece. Since 2007, she has been going back and forth to New Hampshire for part of every year.  She has a B.A. in Literature from Antioch College and a M.Ed. in Cross-Cultural Education from Lesley College.  She has published in a variety of journals. In 2005, she won first prize in the Blue Light Press Chapbook contest for THE IMPORTANCE OF BONE. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Interview with Poet Steve Cramer Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University

 With Doug Holder

****I thought I had lost the following interview--but I just recently found it. It was conducted on my Somerville Community Access TV Show  Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer in 2004.  The audio tape is archived at the Poetry Room at the Lamont Library/Harvard University.

Steve Cramer is the author of four poetry collections, the latest being “Goodbye To The Orchard”  (Sarabande 2004). His poems and criticism have been in the “Partisan Review,” “The New Republic,” “The Paris Review,” among others. He was the recipient of fellowships from the “Mass. Artists Foundation“, and the “National Endowment for the Arts.” He has taught literature and writing at B.U., MIT and Tufts. He currently directs the low-residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass.. I talked with him on my Somerville Community Access TV Show “Poet to Poet/Writer To Writer.”

Doug Holder: Steve, the MFA program at Lesley University is barely a year old. Can you talk about it, and what makes the program unique?

Steve Cramer: It’s a low-residency MFA in Creative Writing. We have four genres: Poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and writing for young people. We will have our first graduating class in the Summer of 2005.

Doug Holder: Can you define “low-residency?”

Steve Cramer: The first low-residency program that I know of was at Goddard College in Vermont. The low-residency programs were conceived as programs for older people who had been through college. It was for folks who had perhaps given up on writing, and then had gone back to it later. In our program writing students and experienced writers can work together in the old way, through the mail, in a one to one relationship. In order to fuel-inject this experience this program holds residencies of about ten days twice-a-year; where everyone in the program, students and faculty get together. We hold workshops, there are seminars, readings, so people leave energized both to rework their writing and to experiment as well. It is a collective experience, followed by an intimate experience between a mentor and someone looking for a mentor. The result is a MFA.

Doug Holder: Can you talk about the faculty you hired?

Steve Cramer: In terms of faculty who live in the area we have Michael Lowenthal (fiction), and Rachel Kadish (fiction). We also have Janet Sylvester who teaches poetry at Harvard. A number of our writers are not American writers, but they do write in English. We have a Jamaican writer Wayne Brown, and Rachel Manley, the daughter of the former prime minister of Jamaica. So we have a diverse faculty.

Doug Holder: A former student of yours, who has just joined us, David Sirios, told me your collection “Goodbye to the Orchard” might refer to the orchard at Bennington College where you taught for awhile. Is that true?

Steve Cramer: It’s true and not true. I taught at Bennington for five years. For most of that time my family lived in this seedy apple orchard. There are a number of poems where the orchard figures in. The title poem: "Before the Orchard,”was actually started when we were leaving the orchard. It was a poem I could not finish at the time because I moved out. It was only after a year or two, that I finished the poem “Goodbye To The Orchard.”
Basically the “orchard’ is an emblem for me of a natural state that at first is cultivated, but left alone will revert back to a wild state.

Doug Holder: Can you tell us something about “Sarabande” the house that published your book?

Steve Cramer: It was founded by two poets. I don’t know what drove them to start an independent literary press. They market books well, and they have a great board of directors. They have a chapbook series. They have published chaps by: Frank Bidart, James Tate and others. It is a very canny way to attract people to their press.

Doug Holder: You start and end your book with a “loose” translation of a poem. Can you talk about the structure of this collection?

Steve Cramer: The book begins with a poem that is a loose translation of  " Throw Yourself Like Seed" by Miguel de Unamuno.   My recently deceased mentor, the poet Donald Justice, did this all the time. Whenever there was a period in which he wasn’t writing his own poems, he either worked on a translation of a poem, and tried to improve it, if he felt it was lacking. I knew both translations would form the foundation of the book. The first one sets the terms of the book, and the last one by the same poet “It is Night In My Study" “ was about writing a poem and imagining your own death as the conclusion of writing this poem.
In “Throw Yourself Like Seed” ( the lead translation) I don’t agree with the premise that your work, your art, is the single lasting thing. I was very conscious of starting with a poem I don’t agree with. In terms of what door I would like the reader to enter, I believe it.

Doug Holder: In the poem “Body on the Brain”, you really have another take on the body beautiful. I quote:"When we add our stink to a stranger’s stink from the next stall, two stinks/stink less than one-and isn’t this/ how mind and body mate when we’re in love.” Are you talking about true love as a sort of mating of warts and all?

Steve Cramer: This is a poem that has offended more people than any other that I have written. It was posted on an online magazine called: “Slate.” And it was available for immediate comment after it was posted. A cyber population got involved right away, and had some responses like:’ You ruined my day!’ “Thanks for sharing.” I took it as a badge of honor. Yeats wrote : “ ... and love is pitched in a tent, near the place of excrement.” We are essentially body in almost all of our life experience. We are bodies with sophisticated software, with a little free will mixed in.

Doug Holder: A prominent poet told me if a young student asked him if it was a good idea to attend a MFA program, he would say: “What ... Are you crazy? Go to law school, there are jobs there. Join the Merchant Marines, at least it’s more interesting.” How would you respond to this?

Steve Cramer: MFA programs have been fodder for comments like that since there have been MFA programs. If someone came up to me and said: “Should I go to a MFA program?,” I would not answer it with an answer but with a series of questions. An MFA program is the institutionalization between the master artist and the apprentice. I would tell them if they think they are going to get a teaching job somewhere other than Murray, Kentucky, they are fostering an illusion. To work with people on an art, who are masters of the art, is not a new idea. I don’t think it is a culturally ruinous thing to have a lot of people interested in writing. Very often if they don’t become writers, they become passionate readers.

Doug Holder: David can you tell us about Steven Cramer, the teacher?

David Sirios: I was an older student. I was very serious about poetry. I found Steven to be illuminated and illuminating on the subject of poetry. The way he taught Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Gluck, John Ashbury, was really great. You taught me things I would never of learned on my own.

Doug Holder: Thank you gentleman, for joining me on Poet To Poet/ Writer To Writer.

Doug Holder is the host of Poet to Poet/ Writer To Writer -- airs at 5PM on Tuesdays on SCAT Channel 3 on an irregular basis. http://www.poettopoetwritertowriterblogspotcom

Monday, September 24, 2012

Oppressive Light Selected poems by Robert Walser

Oppressive Light
Selected poems by Robert Walser
Translated & Edited by Daniele Pantano
Black Lawrence Press
ISBN: 978-1-936873-17-3
180 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

“I’m not here to write, I’m here to be mad,” Robert Walser (1878-1956) explained to a friend and admirer who had come to see him at the Herisau asylum in Switzerland. Walser meant it. For the next twenty plus years until his death this famous novelist, short story writer, and self-described poet refrained from writing anything at all. Most who knew Walser best before he entered the asylum thought him mad. Those who visited him after he was committed believed him quite sane. It seems to me that there is a lesson here—somewhere.

As a young man Walser got himself a job as a bank clerk, a job he was very good at and clearly identified with. He later failed at an acting audition, worked at multiple clerical jobs, and trained as a butler, at which he worked and seemed suited to. His little view of the good life, where details are ordered, and emotions are calm, probably stems from these experiences.

For a time Walser even supported himself with his writings. Franz Kafka, for one, delighted in his prose and echoed Walser in his own writings. Hermann Hesse also admired Walser’s art.  But after the First World War Walser’s writings became less popular and he turned into a vagabond of sorts, moving from place to place. He had a position in the National Archives in Bern for a while, but then was fired. He drank too often and too much and finally tried suicide, an attempt which he also numbered among his perceived failures.

During these years Walser wrote some excellent expressionistic poems. Many of these unique, well-crafted miniature pieces were published in prestigious literary magazines. Walser’s madness, if madness it was, did not originate in artistic anonymity or lack of acknowledgement. It came from some place deeper.

Danielo Pantano, himself a Swiss poet, does admirable work in conveying the intensity and starkness of Walser’s darkly euphoric vision. The original German is printed on the opposite pages for those interested in Walser’s rhyme schemes and other mechanics translated into this nicely toned English version.

The first poem in the book, entitled In The Office, entrances with the portrayal of everyman- the- clerk. It’s not a caricature; it’s something else. Reading it is like observing the pinning of a butterfly: intimate and troubling. Here is the better part of the poem,

The moon peers in on us.
He sees me as a miserable clerk
languishing under the strict gaze
of my boss.
Embarrassed, I scratch my neck.
I’ve never known
life’s lasting sunshine.
My flaw is my skill…

Notice also that it’s the moon that observes the clerk in the above poem. We get to watch many of Walser’s poetic creations from above, from outer space. In the poem Rushing we look down on the dynamic of Walser’s world. The poet says,

In the world there’s still this rush,
the rush that never ceases;
I love—and it will never stop,
a love that rushes through the world.

Sometimes the poet zooms in for a closer look. In the truly miniature piece, As Always, a simple lamp and table seem to have the same weight as the poet’s longings and fears. These juxtapositions all take place in a single room, yet strangely there doesn’t seem to be a whit of claustrophobia. Walser describes the scene and ponders,

The lamp is still here,
the table is also still her,
and I’m still in the room,
and my longings, ah,
still sighs, as always.

Cowardice, are you still here?
and Lie, you, too?
I hear a dim, Yes:
Misfortune is still here,
and I’m still in the room,
as always.

Walser often uses the idea of outside meadow and or inside room as geographical points, places of safety where he can demand a kind of sanctuary from nature. One of his most existential poems and one that uses both these geographical havens the poet calls Tryst.  Here are two sections,

…the meadows are fresh and pure,
and a spot in shade and sunshine
like well-behaved children.
Here the strong desire
that is my life dissolves,


… there’s complaining in the room
of such a soft kind, so white, so dreamy,
and again I’m left knowing nothing.
I only know that it’s quiet here,
stripped of all needs and doings,
here it feels good, here I can rest,
for no time measures my time.

The macrocosmic world seems to be hiding something from human kind. In Evening Song the poet hints at it this way,

Something like the weariness of nature
wants to lie down on the houses and fields.

Its subtle smile moves from tree to tree
but you can barely recognize it.

How miserable is the small breeze
that still travels the evening world.

Certain poets by their withdrawal from social and emotional life negate themselves and almost disappear. As they vanish their vision becomes their existence and its intensity becomes overwhelming and even oppressive. It empties them. They become cold, husks of themselves, the remnants left after poetic possession has finished with them. The young Walser somehow knew this. One of his early poems describes the scene,

You do not see me crossing the meadow
stiff and dead from the mist?
I long for that home,
that home that I never had,
and without any hope
that I’ll ever be able to reach it.
For such a home, never touched,
I carry that longing that will
never die, like that meadow dies
stiff and dead from the mist.
You do see me crossing it, full of dread?

On Christmas Day in 1956 a group of children found Walser’s body, frozen stiff, lying dead in the snow. He had walked away from the asylum, across a large meadow, leaving footprints. Those footprints are here in this book.