Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Who Do You Think You Are? Reflections of a Writer’s Life by Joe Torra


Who Do You Think You Are? Reflections of a Writer’s Life

Article by Doug Holder

As I sat on my porch with my cat Ketz, and a strong cup of coffee—I thought about Somerville writer Joseph Torra’s new memoir, “Who Do You Think You Are? Reflections of a Writer’s Life…”

One of the many things that struck me about this evocative memoir is the writer’s relationship with his wife Molly. I know it is a cliché about the love of a good woman, but often clichés are based somewhat on truth. As I struggle with my own wife’s battle with cancer, I can certainly relate to what Torra brings out here. Without Molly, Torra might not have had the strength to carry on; he would not would be exposed to the breadth of the arts; he might have remained stuck in the provincial milieu of Italian working-class Medford. He may never of realized his dream of being a poet, writer, educator, publisher and editor.

Yet Torra is all these things and more. He is the author of such novels as “Call Me Waiter,” “Gas Station,” to name just a couple. He founded the well-regarded literary journal Lift Magazine, and he teaches Creative Writing at U/Mass Boston.

Torra, although he is an adjunct professor of creative writing (where he got his advanced degree from) is not enamored with the academy. He realizes its worth, but on the other hand sees its major flaws. Torra, read the literary cannon –but realized that the universities are not as open to the non-mainstream voices that he was so influenced by. He has dealt with the tenure-track professorial pomposity, and the narrow strictures of a curriculum that stifled him as a youth. William Carlos Williams, a poet who had a great deal of influence on him, searched for the “American Voice,” not the ‘English” one. And Torra’s voice is truly authentic-- an amalgam of the poets, artists, writers, Medford characters, old Italian men gesturing at each other in a corner coffee-shop, not to mention all the stumble-bums, we all encounter in this life. He sees life straight, with no chaser.

Influenced by Kerouac and Beat generation writers, Torra has always experimented with form. His sentences can be like a short jazz riff, or long and breathless without punctuation. His fiction writing can be likened to an abstract painting—breaking out of the confines of traditional representational imagery. There is an immediacy to his prose and poetry.

Torra is unafraid to bleed in this memoir—he tells us of his struggle with his manic depression, the vagaries of addiction, and the nagging haunt of self doubt. But Torra is a survivor and he got by with the help of his community and the centering of his family. If did not have domesticity in his life, and was the stereotypical footloose artist —well... he might not be here to have written this book.

Like any writer worth his salt, he has read voraciously and gained solace and insight from Taoist philosophers and poets, Mark Twain, Gary Snyder and a host of others. He counts as his longtime mentors like Gloucester poets Gerrit Lansing, Vincent Ferrini, as well as Boston literary maestro Bill Corbett. He took what he could from these men, and recognized that some of them were deeply flawed, but brilliant in their own ways. He could separate the artist from the man or woman.

Torra is not one dimensional. He is primarily a writer, but he has engaged in cross-fertilization in the arts from painting, being part of Boston’s vibrant punk rock scene, to the art of mushroom hunting.. All of these things inform his body of work.

At 65, the writer looks back, meditating on his porch, at the struggle, joys, and the beauty of his life. He tells friends that “he is ready to die.” Which I can only interpret as man who is finally comfortable in his own skin, and can truly say, “it is, what it is.”

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Poem: From the Hospital Window by Doug Holder

 ****Beth Israel Hospital,  Boston, MA.

My wife
rests in
her cancer
as some
chaotic weed
blooms and feeds
in her body.

I look out the window
to the towers
of Boston University
they pierce
the gray day
and I can not
forget them.

I see
West Campus
the high-rise dorms
where I lived
from bad weed
I picked up
from a joker 
on the Common,
throwing bags of urine
out the window
afraid to be
exposed in the
men's room.

Downed by a Green Line trolley
on Commonwealth Ave
woke up faceup...
on the track.

A man in the Rat
in Kenmore Square
guarding his beer
saw me in
my army jacket
and long hair
(if that was possible)
I was
a rebel from the
broad lawns and
narrow minds
of the Long Island suburbs,
He cocked his
hat and head,
" Hey, asshole
I want to suck
your ass bone dry."

I felt all this
and Watergate,
nude streakers
on Nickerson Fields
rush the goals
breasts and penises
flap in the wind
in protest.

A remnant of the SDS rises
in my philosophy class
with no due respect
and challenges
the tenured pomposity
of the professor.

Frisbees fly 
through the air
in disparate directions
like the mayhem
in my head.

I greedily
munch cashews
in the 
TV room
(like they were
some elixir)
in the Sherman Union
wondering why the White Album
only speaks to me
and are 'they'
outside the door?

Friday, June 11, 2021

The Red Letters 3.0: A New Beginning (Perhaps)


The Red Letter Poem Project


The Red Letters 3.0: A New Beginning (Perhaps)   

At the outset of the Covid pandemic, when fear was at its highest, the Red Letter Project was intended to remind us of community: that, even isolated in our separate homes, we could still face this challenge together.  As Arlington’s Poet Laureate, I began sending out a poem of comfort each Friday, featuring the fine talents from our town and its neighbors.  Because I enlisted the partnership of seven local arts and community organizations, distribution of the poems spread quickly – and, with subscribers sharing and re-posting the installments, soon we had readers, not only throughout the Commonwealth, but across the country.  And I delighted in the weekly e-mails I’d receive with praise for the poets; as one reader recently commented: “You give me the gift of a quiet, contemplative break—with something to take away and reflect on.” 


Then our circumstance changed dramatically again: following the murder of George Floyd, the massive social and political unrest, and the national economic catastrophe, the distress of the pandemic was magnified.  Red Letter 2.0 announced that I would seek out as diverse a set of voices as I could find – from Massachusetts and beyond – so that their poems might inspire, challenge, deepen the conversation we were, by necessity, engaged in.

Now, with widespread vaccination, an economic rebound, and a shift in the political landscape, I intend to help this forum continue to evolve – Red Letter 3.0.  For the last 15 months, I’ve heard one question again and again: when will we get back our old lives?  It may pain us to admit it, but that is little more than a fantasy.  Our lives have been altered irrevocably – not only our understanding of how thoroughly interdependent we are, both locally and globally, but how fragile and utterly precious is all that we love.  Weren’t you bowled over recently by how good it felt just to hug a friend or family member?  Or to walk unmasked through a grocery, noticing all the faces?  So I think the question we must wrestle with is this: knowing what we know, how will we begin shaping our new life?  Will we quickly forget how grateful we felt that strangers put themselves at risk, every day, so that we might purchase milk and bread, ride the bus to work, or be cared for by a doctor or nurse?  Will we slip back into our old drowse and look away from the pain so many are forced to endure – in this, the wealthiest nation on the planet?  Will we stop noticing those simple beauties all around us?  The poet Mary Oliver said it plainly: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  I will continue to offer RLP readers the work of poets who are engaged in these questions, hoping their voices will fortify all of ours.


Two of our partner sites will continue re-posting each Red Letter weekly: the YourArlington News Blog (, and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene (  If you would like to receive these poems every Friday in your own in-box – or would like to write in with comments or submissions – send correspondence to:


In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters. To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.


                                                                                                    – Steven Ratiner



Red Letter Poem #63




To walk the talk.  In the world of business, this phrase of admiration refers to an individual who not only expresses some essential philosophical stance, but turns those concepts into concrete action.  In the world of poetry, I know of few who walk the talk more determinedly, with more grace and sheer delight, than Jane Hirshfield.  Her literary accomplishments include: nine volumes of poetry; three books of literary essays; a foundational anthology presenting four millennia of global women’s poetry; a much-prized co-translation from the Japanese; and frequent engagements as speaker and educator that carry her around the world.  Over her four-decade-long career, Jane has proven to be a trustworthy reporter on the human condition, reflecting both the beauty and pain inherent in that experience.  I’m delighted to see that her path in Alaya, published in 1982, is recognizably the same one traveled today in Ledger, her latest collection. 


Of course, there’s been evolution over time: the lush music of her early lyrics has grown more crystalline, restrained.  Her uncanny ability – capturing images that reveal the way the societal, material and spiritual experience of being human is, at every moment, interconnected – has become more subtle and refined.  In her recent work, we still find the wise regard and depth of feeling we’ve come to expect from Hirshfield poems, but it’s joined with a new fierceness, even anger, at the continuing brutality we inflict on each other and on the planet itself.  Her poem "Let Them Not Say", for example, has become something of an anthem in the movement combating climate change.  Many poets write today as if the self was the only object worthy of inquiry.  But art, music, science and history are braided into Jane’s curiosity and thought.  Her exploration encompasses human nature, the natural world, and their interwoven fates.  She’s developed a large and devoted readership, among whom I happily count myself.


The footer of Jane’s e-mails holds a quotation from another well-loved poet, Gwendolyn Brooks: “We are each other’s/ business;/ we are each other’s/ harvest;/ we are each other’s/ magnitude and bond.”  The business Jane is engaged in is the very one we each should attend to if we are to live without shackling ourselves to blindness and regret: how to love the days we are given, even as they escape us; how to embrace the simple beauties we encounter, though they are fragile and fleeting; and how to honor those same desires in every living being.  If we, at times, decline to pursue this enterprise – and in our busy lives, that’s easy to do – rest assured, some 48-point headline will soon come along to trumpet the latest calamity and wake us from our drowse. 


Coming upon the shell of a dead cicada, the great Japanese poet Basho wrote: “he sung himself utterly away.”  If Jane Hirshfield had to write a job description for the project of her poetry, I think that might come close: to continue singing until there is no more left of the instrument she was given – both voice and heart.  Those who love her poetry are grateful she’s employed her talents in that pursuit.







I touch my toes.


When I was a child,

this was difficult.

Now I touch my toes daily.


In 2012, in Sanford, Florida,

someone nearby was touching her toes before bed.


Three weeks ago,

in the Philippines or Myanmar, someone was stretching.


Tomorrow, someone elsewhere will bend

first to one side, then the other.


I also do ten push-ups, morning and evening.


Women's push-ups,

from the knees.

They resemble certain forms of religious bowing.


In place of one, two, four, seven,

I count the names of incomprehension: SanfordFerguson,


Aleppo, Sarajevo, Nagasaki.


I never reach: Troy, Ur.


I have done this for years now.

Bystander, listener. One of the lucky.

I do not seem to grow stronger.



                                           –– Jane Hirshfield


                                                (from: Ledger; Alfred A. Knopf)