Saturday, December 29, 2007

From The Heart of Union Square, Somerville to the Heart of Israel

Up until this December (2007) I had never been overseas. I’m not a kid. At 52, I have arrived at the second half of the roller coaster ride, or as Camus put it by now I am “responsible for my own face.” I have never been the adventurous type. I have been content to travel back and forth to my ancestral grounds of New York City, or to my favorite isle in Maine, or perhaps the rare trip to the heat and swamps of Florida to visit an old friend. I was well traveled in Somerville of course: from the tony environs of Davis Square to the hinterlands of Sullivan Square. But when I had the offer to judge the “International Reuben Rose Poetry Award” sponsored by the “Voices Israel” literary organization, and to travel to Israel to run workshops and read from my own work, I was like a dog on a meat truck. I knew my time for travel had finally arrived. Mind you, for my maiden voyage, I was not traveling to a relatively benign England or France; I was heading to a part of the world that has seen its share of strife. But I never really had any doubts that I would undertake the trip, and I am glad that I did.

Say what you will about Israel’s foreign policy, it is none-the-less surrounded by countries hostile to its existence. Traveling the country from the mountains in the north, to the south and the Mediterranean Sea, there is a strong sense of a country under a siege. Soldiers, young women and men, with M-16s slung over their shoulders are a ubiquitous sight. Conducting workshops in Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem, it seemed that everybody had been intimately and recently affected by violence. I often stayed in homes or apartments complexes that were hit by SCUD missiles in the last Lebanese incursion. Security checks are common in restaurants and shops. But in spite of this the people I met were vibrant and alive.

The city of Jerusalem where I spent a little time in is a mosaic of ethnicity, architecture and intrigue. While in the “Holy City,” I was guided by “Voices” member Adrian Boas, a senior lecturer at Haifa University in Archeology. He was an expert guide who gave me some of the history of the city, took me to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Wailing Wall among other places. I placed a book of my poems “ Poems from Boston and Just Beyond: From The Back Bay to the Back Ward” in one of the many cracks and crevices in the wall. It kept company with the many folded notes people slip in. It was my own message in a bottle drifting out to sea.

Mike Scheidemann, the president of Voices, and one of the co-founders of the “World Congress of Poets,” sponsored by UNESCO, ferried me to many of my destinations, and I stayed on the kibbutz he resides in called "Yizre'el." "Yizre'el" is located about 60 miles outside of Tel Aviv. A kibbutz is an Israeli collective community. It combines socialism and Zionism in the form of practical Labor Zionism. The original kibbutzim developed as a pure communal mode of living.

"Yizre'el" is one of the last purely socialist kibbutzim. I ate some of my meals in the communal dining hall. The food was nothing fancy, but they had excellent produce, sardines, eggs, etc… A lot of their food is grown on their own farm. I was also told the kibbutz has its own fish farms, and produces internationally acclaimed pool filtration equipment in their factory. Schiedman told me that everyone on the kibbutz has their own house, everyone from plant manager to dishwasher gets the same pay, and they all share a small fleet of communal cars. Each resident is required to have some type of job in this community.

Later in the trip I stayed in Metula, the most northern city in Israel. Metula is right next to the Lebanon border, and the neighboring town was hit over 100 times by Katyushas rockets during the Lebanese conflict. I stayed in the home of Helen Bar-Lev and Johnmichael Simon. Bar Lev is a well-respected landscape painter in Israel and abroad. She used to own a successful art gallery in Jerusalem. She is the current editor- in -chief of the “Voices Israel” anthology. Her partner, John Michael Simon is a published poet, and a collaborator with her in many projects. Recently Bar Lev and Simon published a poetry collection “Cyclamens and Swords” with the Ibbetson Street Press.

There was an informal poetry workshop at their home. It included a female Rabbi, an art therapist, and an English teacher—in short an interesting mix. Like all the workshops I ran I found the participants as passionate about their poetry as they were about their politics.

Being the urban and hopefully urbane man that I am, I was anxious for more of a taste of the cities. One night I stayed at the home of Voices members Susan and Richard Rosenberg who have an apartment in Haifa. Susan is the secretary of the Voices organization. It is situated high up on a hill above the city, with a striking view of the Mediterranean. Wendy Blumfield, a journalist with the Jerusalem Post, and her husband David, were my guides around the city the next day. They showed me the old Arab Quarter, and the Jewish section that was peopled with many Hasidic Jews in full traditional garb.

Haifa is the third largest city in Israel. It is situated in the Carmel Mountains, and it has a terraced landscape with some breathtaking panoramas of the sea and the city. I had the chance to see the Bahai Shrine—a golden-domed spiritual center for the Bahai religion. The Bahai Garden around it is artfully manicured, making a striking picture for a legion of tourists’ cameras.

From Haifa the Rosenburgs escorted me by train to Tel Aviv. I had judged the “Voices” poetry competition so I was expected to help present awards, make a speech, and read from my own work at a venue in the city.

Tel Aviv is the second most populated city in Israel after Jerusalem. It is located on the Mediterranean coastline. As we took a cab and traversed the downtown I got the impression of a sleek, modern city with little of the traditional trappings of Haifa. The award ceremony was held at the ZOA House. ZOA House was founded in the 1950’s. by the Zionist Organization of America. It has established itself as a cultural center for the city that operates 24 hours a day. In this center there are three auditoriums for theatre performance, a movie theatre, workshop, course facilities, an art gallery, etc…The ceremony took place in of all places “Douglas Hall” and was well-attended. The award-winning poets Zvi Sesling and Celia Merlin were announced and Merlin read from her work. The honorable mentions also read from their selected poems.

The last part of my trip was in the seaside resort of Netanya, on the seashore between Tel Aviv and Hadera. There is a long stretch of beach along the seemingly placid blue/green waters of the Mediterranean that I had a chance to jog on. There are a bunch of cafes, with relatively cheap food on the beach. I love hummus so I savored this creamy delicacy while enjoying the balmy weather and the ocean view. In fact it was so warm in this southern city that a few folks were swimming. What a contrast to the chilly environs of Jerusalem! Many Russian immigrants hang out at the beach, playing chess, cards, and down more than a few shots. There was a huge influx of these immigrants in the 1990’s I have been told.

The Hotel I was staying at was named the “Residence Hotel” It overlooked the beach, and my room had a tremendous view of the ocean. I ran two workshops at the hotel during Friday and Saturday. In attendance were a number of fine poets from Voices, many of whom won awards and honorable mention in the contest, including Celia Merlin the author of the second prize-winning poem: “Paris Unsaid.” It turned out that Celia’s sister Peri works at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., the very place I have worked at for the past 25 years. I used to work with Celia’s sister in the early 80’s, on the inpatient ward of McLean; which is world-renowned psychiatric hospital outside of Boston. For you poetry aficionados out there Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton, were all hospitalized at the hospital at one point. Sexton was most noted for the poetry workshops she ran at the hospital. Other poets in attendance at the workshop were Donna Bechar (who grew up in a neighboring town on Long Island, NY around the same time I did), Rena Nevon, who won a record of four honorable mentions in this year’s contest, and noted literary critic, Saul Bellow scholar, and peace activist Ada Aharoni. Aharoni, 74, has taught Comparative Literature at Haifa University, and she founded the group: “ The International Forum For Literature and Peace” of which she still is president.

Also in the workshop was actor/poet Amiel Schotz, who wrote a groundbreaking book for theatre training: “Theatre Games and Beyond: A Creative Approach for Young Performers.” Dara Barnat, a poet and faculty member of the English and American Studies Department at Tel Aviv University where she teaches creative writing and poetry was also an active participant.

I had my fears traveling across the world to the Middle East, especially in these troubling times, but I faced them. I was challenged on many fronts: the jam-packed schedule, finding relevant and helpful things to say about scores of work-shopped poems, and dealing with an unfamiliar culture and environment. But I am glad to say I have arrived back at my usual seat at the Sherman Café (and occasionally Bloc 11) in Somerville in one piece, and I am a much better man for the experience.

A Review of Sonatina by John Michael Simon

By Johnmichael Simon
2007; 86pp;Ps; Ibbetson
Street Press, 25 School
Street, Somerville, MA

The first thing that strikes the reader of Johnmichael Simon’s exquisite collection of poetry, Sonatina (published this fall by Ibbetson Street Press), is the ubiquity of the musical metaphor—in the title, the cover design, the illustrations, the musical notations that mark off separate clusters of poems and run across the foot of every page, and, most tellingly, in the substance of almost every poem.

It’s there on page one in “To Hold the Notes,” which takes us through the technical revolution in musical reproduction from handwritten scores to MP3, only to land us at last beside a shack in the woods where “seated on simple wooden chairs four youngsters sat/ at cello, viola and two violins/…and as we smiled and listened on/ we knew the notes had found their home.” Eighty-five pages and sixty-eight poems later, it still haunts the poet’s consciousness. In “Unbearable Silence” he envisions first the subtraction of sound from street, mall, market—even Mecca during Ramadan—and then, perhaps a bit portentously, from the earth itself at the end of history:

“When the last page is closed
an empty world
longs for a sound,
an orange, or even
a chanting mob
to lighten the silence.”

The musician or composer, faced with a lifeless world, craves not so much human contact, as anything audible, even a few scraps of proto-music.

Elsewhere, Simon’s touch is sure and light—in “Toccata and Fugue,” where a bellringer wishes he could capture the “fluttering of pigeons” in the belfry “between the five lines of the stave,” or in “Oboe d’Amore,” where the instrument’s reedy, melancholy sound evokes memories as achingly untouchable as a “melody played on/ the wings of a blackbird/ pecking at a plum.”

There are, in fact, many of Simon’s poems that dwell on subjects only obliquely related to music—“Listening to the Voices Inside,” “To Aid the Words”—or ostensibly not at all, like “Age is Heavy on the Ground,” that celebrates a grandmother’s indefatigable beauty: “from flower to fruit / to candle glow on silverware and china/ Age is heavy on the ground/ weightless as a butterfly.”

Several of the best poems have a lovely, equivocal turn at the end, like “The Couple”: “It’s difficult/ to understand/ how these things/ work” and “Country Rose”: “lost in the crowd she’ll wrap herself in anonymity/ cross her legs, perhaps smile a little less,/ but that’s alright [sic] too” and “A Gift from China”: “Perhaps some Beijing worker/ dreaming of a rest-day in the park/ packed her in there by mistake/ an unintended New Year gift.”

In the end, however, one is reminded by almost every piece in this rewarding collection that the best poetry is musical thought, and that, in Walter Pater’s words, “all art aspires to the condition of music.”

--Abbott Ikeler/ Ibbetson Update

Abbott Ikeler

* B.A., Harvard University; M.A., University of Pittsburgh; Ph.D., University of London, Kings College

Abbott Ikeler taught literature and writing at Bowdoin College, the University of Muenster, and Rhode Island College before entering the corporate world. His academic achievements include a Senior Fulbright Fellowship, a book on nineteenth-century aesthetics, and numerous articles on Victorian fiction. From the mid-eighties to 2001, he held public relations and advertising positions with three multinationals and a full-service agency. Immediately before coming to Emerson, Dr. Ikeler was Director of Communications and Public affairs for the Internet and Networking Division of Motorola, a post he held for three years. The focus of his current research is global public relations, especially the impact of non-media influencers, such as industry and financial analysts.

Voices Israel Memebers Metula, Israel Dec. 2007

Far Right: Helen Bar Lev ( editor-in-chief Voices Israel anthology) Doug Holder ( Ibbetson St. Press)

Here I am in Metula in the home of Helen Bar Lev and John Michael Simon, with other workshop members. Helen Bar Lev is to the right of me. Best-Doug Holder/Ibbetson Street

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Blood Soaked Dresses by Gloria Mindock

Poet Gloria Mindock

Blood Soaked Dresses
By Gloria Mindock
Ibbetson St. Press
2007, p. 62
Reviewed by Lo Galluccio.

I was eager to read the entirety of “Blood Soaked Dresses” after hearing Gloria Mindock read several of its poems at the Somerville Writer’s Festival in November. Surprised to hear one friend, a yogi who I would have expected to have a stronger stomach and willing imagination, declared the poems “ too dark,” She left the hall, and upon hearing this, I had to strongly disagree.


“Swimming in a stream of nothingness,
There is no line
to grab me.
My speech comes out in a scream.

Must I wrestle with these borrowed dreams?
Convince myself of song?
Do I really have the gift of breath?
Tongue is cursing throat –
Fingers flicker out –
Eyes desire teeth---
Life of the petrified dead
remind me of my torment.


El Salvador is crazy.
It has abandoned me and blessed me
With nightfall.”

This work is a complex requiem to war and the death that war bequeathes. One could read the poems, each like a short musical movement or song, and know there is morbidity there, but somehow Gloria also evokes beautiful melodies, laments, echoing patterns of loss. The elegance and metaphysical depth of these poems, often inhabiting a negative space between sky and grave, more than redeems this morbid look at the brutality of war’s butchery-- its bones, blood, its pain and its terrible attempt to render human life, “nothingness.”

This book is not a journalistic or factual account of the El Salvadoran Civil War which lasted from approximately 1980-1992.
Once the Christian Democratic Party lost control, under Jose Napoleon Duarte, there were repeated coups and protests in the early ‘70’s. And beginning in 1979 --- after Duarte was exiled -- a cycle of violence and guerrilla warfare broke out in the cities and countryside, initiating what became a 12 year civil war. A key signpost for those in the United States, was the murder of Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero after he publicly urged the US government not to provide military support to the El Salvadoran government.

In such a Catholic country, it is only natural that God is invoked as being absent and yet also, in his many forms, a longed for salvation. But there is also an almost dream-like thirst for retribution. In “Archbishop Romero” she writes:

“Sin has formed on their mouths, and they
assault us.
We are silenced into a void.
Souls singled out for torture.”

“Oscar Romero created a heaven,
carried us in his arms of prayer.
In church, we drink Christ to free ourselves.
Decapitation was not a devotion to believe in.
The soldiers will burn in a red sky….”

The contours of the book follow Gloria’s journey into the massacres and eclipsed lives of the country’s citizens through imagined portraits of its people and by capturing the way death can permeate a landscape, while angels and memory and rosaries and love haunt it as well. Her insight and identification with the people of El Salvador, the reveries she channels about the sheer madness of the War, are nothing short of astounding. We walk with her in a shroud of language that gives dignity and concreteness to the way these people both surrendered and remained hopeful about their fate at the hands of the death-bearers – soliders, campesinos, assassins. Yet we still know almost nothing about the logistics and politics of their deaths. In fact one of the key and tragic notes is the mystery which envelopes the war -- not unlike many wars fought in small, “developing” or “third world” countries where the United States does not intervene to end violence, or in fact, as in Iraq, has a strong hand in engendering it.

Gloria does not choose to point fingers. She writes to mourn and to give voice and magical imagery to the victims. I think it would be correct to say she goes one step farther; she actually becomes the El Salvadoran people caught in a looming death-trap.

The book is dedicated to the memory of Rufina Amaya, “the only survivor of the massacre of El Mozote.” Gloria writes, “She lived her life speaking about the atrocities committed so no one would forget.” The epigraph reads: “But she had so rubbed her eyes from grief that all she had seen could be seen in them

The book is divided into five sections: THE ATROCITIES, COUNTRYSIDE THOUGHTS, HEARTS, EXILE, and LOOKING BACK.

In “Waiting for Execution” (from ATROCITIES) she writes:

“My spirit accelerated into the sky,
The mountains were happy by the sea.
The enemy was not around.

At church, communion was red wine. A sip – I wanted
it all. To drink would make my life last, make me immune,
God of God, this air is hot.
I’m heaving from the stench. These are the bodies
in your hands. How many can you hold?
Will you hold me?”


This pain waits for an entrance.
If they shoot me, I conquer, and you God,
Unseen in your cage, cry escaping from my rusted dreams.”

This book is not about religion, not about God. It is more about angels and their various manifestations, as people, as hearts, as memory. In “Befallen” (COUNTRYSIDE THOUGHTS) she writes:

“The one last heart to remain in
this world circles around me.

Angel, I have a good perspective about this.
A heart is on my doorstep, and it is haunting,
Figuring out who it will go to.
I have courage. The dead love me.”


Angel, I am devoted.
Bury me in your wings.
Enfold me for safe-keeping.
I need to be warm.”

There are many many poems one could quote. Gloria has inscribed many deaths into this book with her soul’s quill and that does make it challenging to read. Yet, like a gorgeous elegy, she also renders these deaths and the unspeakable brutality of their killers, into a kind of otherworldly music we can all find cadence with, and drink in. One other point to be made, “Blood Soaked Dresses” is dedicated to a woman and the dresses could just as well be pants, given the boys who were also murdered, but significant to note that this is a woman’s quilting a shroud of beauty against violence. In an North American world where we are growing more and more habituated to its glamour – in TV and movies – I am thankful for her devotion to life.

Lo Galluccio
Ibbetson St. Press Update

Robert K. Johnson: Writes “From Mist to Shadow.”

Robert K. Johnson: Writes “From Mist to Shadow.”

Robert K. Johnson is a retired English professor from Suffolk University in Boston. Johnson has been widely published in the small press. He is the author of nine collections of poetry, his latest being: “From Mist to Shadow” ( Ibbetson 2007). Johnson has also written two critical studies, one of Francis Ford Coppola, and the other of Neil Simon. He is a winner of the Ibbetson Street Press Lifetime Achievement Award along with other notables such as: Robert Pinsky, David R. Godine, Louisa Solano, and Jack Powers. He is currently the submission editor for the literary magazine: “Ibbetson Street.”

Doug Holder: Bob, I read somewhere that you do anywhere from 10 to 30 drafts of your poems. The late poet Robert Creeley told me he did very little revision. If a poem didn’t work he simply trashed it. Your view on that?

Robert K. Johnson: That kind of response to work habits run the gamut. Thomas Hardy would refuse to go over a certain low limit of revisions. He felt if he didn’t hit it right after a certain amount, well that was it. E. E. Cummings I read revised almost endlessly.

DH: I hear constantly from writers of all stripes, “Revise, revise, revise.”

RKJ: Yeah and that’s what I do. It gets up to a lot of drafts. I make just a few small corrections and type it up again. That’s in order to keep the whole poem fresh in my mind. If you bog down in just one section, and then suddenly reintegrate, you can have all sorts of problems. Dylan Thomas is the one who tipped me off to this particular work habit. He revised all the time. So I can have up to 20 or 30 revisions before it’s done, sometimes even more.

DH: The title of your new collection “From Mist to Shadow” sounds rather ominous. How did you come up with it?

RKJ: Well its not meant to be ominous. It’s meant to dig deeper from say “Morning to Night” or from “Sunrise to Sunset.” There are just more connotations with shadows and mist. The phrase or title comes from the poet Dorian Brooks. Dorian is an editor for the Ibbetson Street Press and an accomplished poet.

DH: How would you describe your style of writing?

RKJ: My style is: you read it through and you think you have the whole poem. On the first level it’s totally comprehensible. If you reread it you find that it is more than some kind of narrative. There is usually something else I am going after. Sometimes the narratives are parables, such as my "Prodigal Son" poem which centers on the deepest kind of love.

DH: You have been the submission editor at the literary journal “Ibbetson Street” for years. What do you look for in a poem? You are known as one tough bird.

RKJ: We get mostly free verse, or accentual verse. We get very little traditional verse. I don’t get a lot of poems that are blank verse; we get very little traditional verse. So I look for something that lifts the material above chopped up prose. When I get stuff that doesn’t lift above chopped-up prose, it doesn’t make the cut. A lot of poets feel that if he or she uses irregular right hand margins that they are writing a poem. You have to have some kind of cadence and rhythm. I look for some kind of sound lift. I sometimes look for alliteration. Poet Ellaraine Lockie is wonderful with this. I like loose rhymes and internal rhymes. I also look for fresh phrasing and fresh language.

DH: You have written books of criticism of Francis Ford Coppola, as well as playwright Neil Simon. As a poet do you have any favorite playwrights who are similar to poets?

RKJ: Tennessee Williams certainly. Wonderful lyrical stuff. Eugene O’Neill had to strain to get his lyrical stuff. Williams did it with great ease. And of course Shakespeare.

DH: You have the handicap of hearing loss. How has this hindered your work?

RKJ: It probably has an adverse effect in only one way. I use less descriptions of sound than other poets might. I use visuals all over the place. And of course I use some sound because of a hearing aid. It has its advantages—I listen more attentively. I have to.

by Robert K. Johnson
Day after late-spring day,
from my maples’ lowest limbs
to the tips of their top branches,
swarms of caterpillars

eat the leaves’ green spans
with so much passion that I,
almost asleep, can hear them
in the darkness. And my greed

matches their hungry mouths.
I want to taste every food
and wine, book and film,
mountain, city, ocean—

devour everything displayed
on the long buffet of riches
the dawn light offers me
day after day all year.