Saturday, November 08, 2008

Dan Tobin Delves into his Poetry

Dan Tobin Delves into his Poetry

By Cathleen Twardzik

Dan Tobin sits at his desk, amid his books, which are piled high upon it --- with some space for writing. Behind him, Starry Night watches over the Emerson professor’s two bookshelves, sporting volumes, bound of every color of the rainbow.

When it comes to what makes writing work for Tobin, who has brown hair and glasses, and wears a black vest with medium-wash jeans, drawing the reader in is paramount.

According to Tobin, Chair of Writing Literature and Publishing at Emerson College, and author of four poetry books, “John Gardner said that a good piece of fiction draws the reader into a continuous fictional dream, a completely believable alternate reality. A poem that “works” accomplishes the same, though perhaps in a somewhat more multivalent way, since poems by the simple fact of being written in lines establish a vertical dimension to the writing. That means a poem needs to satisfy musically and formally, in a way that is not as urgently required of prose.”

On November 22 at 7 p.m., Tobin will give a poetry reading at The Somerville News Writers’ Festival VI at 371 Summer Street in Davis Square.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Tobin’s mother worked as a bank clerk, and his father on the docks in New York.

Never having been encouraged to write by his parents, the teenager started writing poetry in a notebook, with topics, about which Tobin currently writes, ranging from History to Mythology to love poems --- “like every adolescent,” says Tobin. “I liked playing with the sounds of language.”

“They [Tobin’s parents] were not particularly inclined to poetry. So, there wasn’t a particularly educational foothold in the house,” says Tobin, with a laugh. “They didn’t have any background, in the area that I grew inclined to pursue, myself.”

However, “[My parents] didn’t discourage me either. They pretty much went with what I wanted to do,” Tobin continues.

The poet earned his higher education at the following institutions: “B.A., Iona College; M.T.S., Harvard University; M.F.A., Warren Wilson College; Ph.D., University of Virginia.”

Where did Tobin snatch his first job? He was a Term Faculty Member at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

For Tobin, the writing process fluctuates. “I try to draft a poem as quickly as possible, with as great intensity as I can. Then, I just keep going back and going back,” says Tobin. “Others, go through many drafts to get where they’re going.”

The length of time Tobin requires for the composition of each poem varies considerably. “I will come back to a poem after years and revise it again. I’ve had poems that went through a minimal number of drafts and I was satisfied with them,” says Tobin. “Usually, things have to go through quite a number of drafts, and who knows how many hours of me mulling.”

In case Tobin feels stuck at any given time, he simply directs his attention to another poem-in-progress --- for he has a list of topics --- with any of which he could begin to tinker.

However, “I try to work on things as well as I can, even when I don’t feel inclined to make a poem,” says Tobin.

According to Tobin, it is always difficult for him to simply begin scribbling away, with his pen, on a new masterpiece. Of course, the poet wishes beginning the writing process came more effortlessly to him.

Tobin prefers to write in a standard-size, bound notebook in his study at home or his office at Emerson. When the opportunity arises, he enjoys writing in mid-morning, and continuing for a large chunk of the day.

“I’ve written just about anywhere. I have also jotted ideas or lines down, on the “T”, coming into work and going back from work,” says Tobin. “If I have to write on a napkin, or a piece of tissue, I’ll do that, too,” he says, with a hearty laugh.

Obviously, finding a poem’s tone and voice is not an instant wave of a wand. Instead, “A poem really doesn’t find its proper voice until it finds the proper cadence of its lines. And that’s a matter of discovery and revision and reworking,” says Tobin.

A poem must grab a reader from the first line. Conversely, “An ending, in a way, has to choose you,” Tobin says, with a laugh. “It needs to evolve from the experience of writing the poem. Good endings don’t close the poem down.”

Tobin has composed countless Free Verse poems. “I don’t see myself in any particular camp, or any particular school,” he says.

“I did write one short story in my life, which I have thrown away,” says Tobin. However, he enjoys writing critical and personal essays.

Surprisingly, “at one point, I did feel like I had to make a choice between poetry and visual art. I wanted to draw and paint, for a long time, but I didn’t think I could do both,” says Tobin. Currently, Tobin is still interested in both poetry and painting.

After Tobin believes that enough poems have been compiled, he “just spread[s] them all out on the floor. Gradually, I try to find the shape of the thing.”

Besides writing, Tobin reveals his other interests. “I’m interested, recently, in Physics. I continue to be interested in history, and music…and baseball,” says Tobin, with enthusiasm.

Poetry brings Tobin much joy. “The most rewarding part is probably eventually producing a piece that you believe in and are satisfied with,” says Tobin.

To date, Tobin has four published books of poems, which are entitled, Where the World is Made (1999), Double Life (2004), The Narrows (2005) and Second Things (Four Way Books, 2008). His fifth book of poetry, Belated Heavens, will hit the shelves in 2010.

Tobin advises writers who are just starting out to, “Read, read, read. Read everything and read deeply. The most important thing is to find those poets to whom you have a seemingly innate connection.”

Tobin looks to the future with the intent to continue writing poetry. “I would like to be like Yeats, in the sense that Yates kept writing, pretty much until the day he died.”

* Catherine Twardzik is a student at Emerson College in Boston and a reporter for The Somerville News.

Friday, November 07, 2008


( a very young Gary Metras)



Gary Metras is the editor, publisher, and printer of the Adastra Press which specializes in handcrafted chapbooks of poetry. The American Book Review said of Adastra: “As long as fine literary presses continue to handcraft handsome books like these from Adastra, serious readers can rest assured that the book is alive and well.” Metras has worked with such renowned poets as: Thomas Lux and Ed Ochester, but has published many debut collections as well.

Metras is a well-regarded poet in his own right. Recently the Pudding House Press released his collection “Greatest Hits: 1980-2006.” He has been widely published in the small press, and is a featured poet in current issue of the literary magazine: “Ibbetson Street.” Metras has read at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and he teaches writing at Springfield College in Springfield, Mass. I talked with him on my Somerville Community Access TV show: “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer”

Doug Holder: You specialize in chapbooks. Why chaps as opposed to perfect bound books?

Gary Metras: I guess because my first two books were chapbooks done by small presses during the Mimeograph Revolution. One of the books was published by the Samizdat Press and the other was self published. The production quality was so shoddy; I thought there had to be a better way to do it. I thought poetry deserves to look better on the page. But still, I was very happy to have them out there in print. When the opportunity came about I took a night course at a local vocational school in printing and graphic arts. I wanted to learn letterpress printing.

DH: Define letterpress printing.

GM: It is relief type. The actual type is pressed against the paper to be printed—it leaves the image, as opposed to offset—the printing plate never touches the paper. The printed plate transfers the image to a rubber roller and the roller touches the paper. Letterpress goes back to Gutenberg.

DH: And what is a chapbook? Where does the name derive from?

GM: The chapbook comes from the pushcart salesman in old London. That is where the name of the small press literary award the Pushcart Prize comes from. So the pushcart street vendors used to carry these little tracts. They were cheaply done on paper with a soft cover. They were all paperback formats. They were all sewn back then because stapling wasn’t around and neither was glue binding. They were cheap books, or chapbooks—they mean the same thing.

The length of a chapbook can vary according to the publisher. The standard length is 24 pages. Most chapbooks don’t have a spine, they are stapled or sewn. I do mine with a spine, it looks more elegant. And it is a better marketing tool in bookstores. The spine makes a huge difference. My chapbooks look like real books, just slimmer. I know the American Poetry Society is publishing four poetry chapbooks a year now.

DH: Did you apprentice with any printers?

GM: No. I am self-taught. But I use a couple of other publishers as my models. I have taken books apart to see how they are put together. I read the old texts like Blumenthal’s “The Art of Printing.”

DH: You have a number of poetry collections to your credit. Do you hold your poetry to the same standards as your publishing?

GM: This is something that I began to realize. I was subconsciously writing my own poems, based on the poems I accepted to publish. I found similar techniques: line breaks, use of metaphor, etc… And I was finding, and I don’t mean to be immodest, that I was better than most of the poets I was publishing, at least during the early years. I have been well published, so I use my own poetry as the standard.

DH: You said in an interview that a manuscript has to present a “graphic challenge”

GM: As a book publisher, as a person who uses metal type, when I am reading a manuscript of poems, I have to find something that challenges me to extend my own skills. This is in terms of designing and laying out the pages in a book.
For instance: I want to know if the title interacts with the body of the poem, or the stanza formats. It took me years to realize that to be challenged graphically was part of my selection process. Two years ago I did a book from the poet Leonard Cirino from Oregon. He had submitted to me for 10 years in a row. He came close and finally I picked a long poem of his. The reason I chose it was that individual lines of his poem presented visual images of what they looked like on the page. Since I can only publish one or two titles a year, I want the books to make a graphic statement as well.

GM: Name some of your favorite small press poets?

DH: Alan Catlin, Michael Casey (from Lowell, Mass.), D.W. Earhart, and others. They all have a tremendous working class sensibility.

GM: You are a son of a bricklayer. What did your father think of your poetry publishing?

DH: He thought it was wonderful. I worked with him on weekends when I was growing up. He admired the sensibilities of working with your hands. We used to drive around Western, Mass. and he would point out buildings and projects he worked on. That impressed me as a young boy. Partly it was my desire to do it with books. The writer who wrote my profile in Poets and Writers magazine was amazed at my bookshelf—three feet of Adastra Press books, representing over 29 years.

DH: How big are your press runs?

GM: We average 250 books per press run.

DH: It is a badge of honor to be published by Adastra.

GM: A young woman, a graduate student at Emerson College in Boston, asked her professor Bill Knott, about having a book done by Adastra. Knott said: “If you want to publish a book do it with Adastra.” She did. It is very satisfying to help young poets. You know yourself, as writers, we work really hard in our loneliness to get our poems down.

DH: You were an English teacher for many years. Why the need for a press?

GM: Teaching is a mental job. I just felt a lack in my life because I wasn’t working with my hands. It was my heritage.

DH: You published Tom Sexton’s “Clock with No Hands,” It deals with the city of Lowell, Mass. Lowell has a rich literary heritage. It is the birthplace of Kerouac; Anne Sexton attended school there, etc… Why did this down-at-the heels- old mill city inspire the literary imagination?

GM: I think the idea of physical sweat when you work for someone else to make a product, accumulates, and steals from the soul. And because it can be so draining of the human spirit, those who have the sensibility to write about it—write about it.

--Doug Holder/Ibbetson Update/ Nov. 2008/Somerville, Mass.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Why The Long Face? Stories by Ron MacLean

Why The Long Face? Stories by Ron MacLean (Swank Books POBOX 30016 Jamaica Plain, Ma. 02130) $15.

Somerville writer Pagan Kennedy emailed me about a new book "Why The Long Face?" of short stories by local writer Ron MacLean, who used to direct Grub Street. (A writing school now located in Boston). MacLean reminds me of the well-regarded fiction writer Timothy Gager, whose work deals with the ying and yang of relationships, existential crises of men in their early middle age, with liberal use of the Boston-area environs for a backdrop for his fiction.

The lead story “Aerialist” deals with a man who recently lost his wife due to illness, and how he and his young daughter deal with this tragedy. The daughter takes to walking a tightrope, much to her dad’s bemusement. The father learns from the girl’s aerial alchemy to let go of the past and move on, and to let his daughter stand on her own two small feet:

“Kate, turned, her back to me. Took three steps away and hurled her herself backward, into air, into sky, legs gently propelling, upside down, floating, above the rope, my body resisting the urge to leap forward, to catch her, her feet spinning back to earth…Katie’s face a big, blurry grin. In her element. Where did this come from? Where will it lead? I can’t answer these questions. What I can do is wait for Katie land, and hold her while she’s here.”

There is a lot of local color in this book. Characters drink at Bukowski’s, a watering hole in Inman Square. They hang in my favorite barbecue joint Redbone’s, in Davis Square, etc… In this selection, we have a right on description of Bukowski’s, a bar whose patrons might have driven “the dirty old man” of letters to even more libations:

“The bar is called Bukowski’s, which is unfortunate, and it is populated by young men—late twenties—early thirties. You wouldn’t believe the goatees. Excuse me, Van Dykes. Most of these guys are in advertising and already lost.”

As in most collections, some stories are strong and others less so. MacLean can obviously spin a story. You may have the nagging feeling you have read stuff like this before—but, hey—a little more won’t hurt you.

Doug Holder/ Ibbetson Update

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Afaa Michael Weaver to be Awarded Ibbetson Street Lifetime Achievement Award Nov. 22

Afaa Michael Weaver, winner of this year's PUSHCART PRIZE for POETRY will be awarded the Ibbetson Street Press Lifetime Achievement Award Nov 22, 2008, at The Somerville News Writers Festival. Previous winners have been Robert Pinsky, Robert K. Johnson, Jack Powers, Louisa Solano, and David Godine, Jr. for more info go to:

For full Interview with Weaver go to: or click on title above....