Saturday, September 12, 2009

Spirit Bridges: Coming of Age in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei, Madrid, and New York City in the 60’s.: A Memoir by Li Mo.

(Li Mo)

Spirit Bridges: Coming of Age in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei, Madrid, and New York City in the 60’s.: A Memoir by Li Mo. $15

This book has an exceedingly long title, and perhaps it befits this memoir by Cambridge, Mass writer and member of Somerville’s Bagel Bards Li Mo. Mo has lived, loved and lost in more places than most of us ever dreamed of, and she tells her (At times harrowing) tale of becoming an artist with the skills of a consummate storyteller. And Mo tells it like it is as she writes: “The opening of one’s self is the hardest work an artist undertakes.” Indeed Mo has opened herself, at times like a gaping wound, to give us a didactic on what it is to survive and thrive on one’s own terms.

Mo, who is also member of the Streetfleet women, a writers’ group that has an active Somerville-based branch, was born in China, lived in Shanghi (Where her father was imprisoned as a political prisoner and later executed), fled with her mother to Hong- Kong, Taipei, Madrid, and later to the lower east side of New York City. Eventually she wound up in Cambridge, Mass. She always had an affinity for the arts. Her mother a writer, and a steady and central presence in her life, instilled in her a love and appreciation of Chinese culture, art, and literature. This proved to be an anchor to a profoundly alienated Chinese girl who was at times lost to depression, poverty, and even Narcolepsy.

In this book there are rich, evocative descriptions of ethnic cuisine, poems that capture the sights, sounds and intense feeling experienced by Mo, a girl/woman in a perpetual state of Diaspora. In “To Fei Yen/Flying Swallow” Mo writes about an ancient man she befriended. He owned a Chinese laundry on Mott St. in Chinatown in NYC:

“ I eat tangerines sip Dragon Well
stare into the lone eye of a goldfish
think of you in a dark room on Mott Street
moon face, starry eyes, cherry mouth,
light peal of laughter
your hand delicately fingering
a blue-flowered porcelain cup
emptying Dragon Well
weaving another hand in the air
singsong talking about
the joy of three goldfish

on a full moon’s night
an invisible red thread of love
tied together our wrists
our souls-our next life…”

If you were a kid like me, the only Chinese culture you were exposed to was column 1, 2 or 3 inside the menu at the local Chow Mein Inn. In this book you will get authentic servings of the people and culture’s depth, stoicism, forget the hackneyed egg roll. This book works as a memoir, a story of inspiration, and a work of literature. It is a must for anyone who must survive, and hopefully thrive.

Doug Holder/ Ibbetson Update

The Us, by Joan Houlihan

The Us, by Joan Houlihan
Tupelo Press. $16.95

Review by Kirk Etherton

Writing in the September, 2006 issue of “Poetry,” John Barr declared that “...American poetry is ready for something new because our poets have been writing in the same way for a long time now...the art form is no longer equal to the reality surrounding it.” He goes on to point out the lack of modern poetry in any number of important areas, from high school classrooms to the mainstream media. Barr points to careerism—poets writing primarily in order to impress other poets, and not necessarily anyone else—as one of the main problems.

Joan Houlihan’s new book The Us is truly Something New, in all the best ways: it is completely original, thought-provoking, timeless, and written in a way such that any intelligent reader—from the pre-undergraduate to the most jaded professional poet—will quickly be captivated and intrigued.

The Us is a novel-like sequence of poems spoken in a collective voice. “Us” is identified at the outset as a “group of primitive people who speak as one.” Us is comprised of six individuals, including “father” (leader of the us), “ay” (oldest son of father), “brae” (the second son) and “g’wen” (the wife and mother). What follows is a description of everyday life, travels, pivotal events, successes and setbacks faced by this tribe of hunter-gatherers as they make their way in the world—a world which includes a stronger, more advanced group (“Thems”), with whom they can exist only as slaves.

Houlihan has achieved something remarkable in the way the Us speak to us: you may feel as though you’ve stumbled across something written thousands of years ago in an unknown language—something almost pre-literate you can, for some reason, understand without difficulty. The writing manages to be simultaneously primitive and poetic. (The last place I encountered language this unexpected was in the beginning of The Sound and the Fury. )

In a time when many poets choose to write in a manner that is either gratuitously self-involved or densely overwrought to the point of near opacity, Houlihan comes as a hurricane of fresh air, followed by the calm after the storm. By stripping away all that is pretentious, predictable or simply unnecessary, this poet has opened the way for all sorts of essential human predicaments to be spoken of in a radically simple and memorable way. Here, the poem “Had labor and more,” describes the experience of ay (the oldest son) as a slave of thems:

Had labor and more: gnarl and beard, close to the sun and shiver.
Had dirt and hole, hand-hurt and plow, cut, bend and dig.
Had days and no end.
Had kneel. Had burn. Had sore and stings and many.
Had keep of the tongue, no kin.
Had stone-mouth, suffer and weather.
Had ay, and ay alone.

One of the great things about The Us is how it opens the way for reflection and discussion on any number of topics—from language and ritual to violence, empathy, grief, human rights and cultural differences. This collection of poems belongs in high school and college classrooms, book groups, and on the shelf alongside the works of Noam Chomsky, Seamus Heaney, Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux and Margaret Mead (among others).

--Kirk Etherton

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The Madras Press- A Non-Profit Press that will be profitable for charities

From Publisher: Sumanth Prabhaker

This winter will see the launch of Madras Press, a non-profit publisher of individually bound short stories and novellas. The format of the books will provide readers with the opportunity to experience a story on its own, with no advertisements or unrelated articles surrounding it; this will also provide a home for stories that are often arbitrarily ignored by commercial publishing outfits, whether because they’re too long for magazines but not trade-book length, or because they don’t resemble certain other stories. These are clumsy, ill-fitting stories made perfect when read in the simplest possible way.

Published in regular series of four, the books will serve as fundraising efforts for a growing list of charitable organizations. Each author has selected a beneficiary to which all net proceeds generated from the sales of his or her book will be donated; they include organizations dedicated to environmental protection, community development, human services, and much more.

Starting October 1, the first series of books can be pre-ordered on the press’s website, These titles will include stories by Aimee Bender, Trinie Dalton, Rebecca Lee, and Sumanth Prabhaker. The books will ship in early December, and the next series¬—including stories by Joy Williams and Yoko Ogawa—will soon follow. At the online store you can also subscribe, two series at a time, to receive new releases at a discounted rate. Additionally, you can find Madras Press titles at independent bookstores around the US.

About Madras Press authors:

Aimee Bender is the author of the story collections The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and Willful Creatures and the novel An Invisible Sign of My Own.

Trinie Dalton is the author of the story collection Wide-Eyed and the editor of Dear New Girl or Whatever Your Name Is, an art book composed of notes confiscated from students, and of MYTHTYM, an anthology of essays on unicorns, werewolves, and the horror genre.

Rebecca Lee is the author of the novel The City Is a Rising Tide. She teaches at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Yoko Ogawa has published numerous books in Japan. Recently, Picador released two of them in the US: The Diving Pool, a collection of three novellas, and The Housekeeper and the Professor, a novel. Ogawa has won every major Japanese literary award.

Sumanth Prabhaker is the founding editor of Madras Press.

Joy Williams is the author of many books, including The Quick and the Dead, Ill Nature, and Honored Guest. Among the awards her work has garnered are the Harold and Mildred Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Rea Award for the Short Story.

For further information, contact Sumanth Prabhaker:
You can find Madras Press on Facebook at, on Twitter at, and, starting October 1, online at

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Poet Tino Villanueva to read at The Somerville News Writers Festival Nov. 14, 2009

Poet Tino Villanueva to read at The Somerville News Writers Festival November 14, 2009 7pm at the Armory Arts Center

By Doug Holder

The Somerville News Writers Festival is hitting its seventh year thanks to the folks at The Somerville News, Tim Gager, and the spanking new Armory Arts Center in Somerville. This year Tim has secured the services of such writers as Rick Moody, John Buffalo Mailer (that’s right Norman’s son), Steve Almond, Margo Livesey, and Kim Chuinquee. I had the pleasure of booking poets Sam Cornish, Richard Hoffman, Tam Lin Neville, Frank Bidart, and Tino Villanueva. Villanueva is a Senior Lecturer of Romance Languages at Boston University, and recognized as one of the most important Chicano voices today, according to the The Texas Observer. The noted poet Martín Espada opined that Villanueva was “…central to the vibrant Hispanic literary scene that began flourishing in Boston during the 8o’s.” Indeed Villanueva has no doubt influenced a whole generation of Latino writers.

Villanueva, who had youthful aspirations to be a baseball player, published in Boston in the 1980s an influential internationally focused literary magazine Imagine, and has published a number of critically acclaimed poetry collections, as well as works of criticism on Spanish poetry. His collection Scene from the Movie GIANT won a 1994 American Book Award. His other books include: Primera causa/First Cause (translated by Lisa Horowitz) Shaking off the Dark, Chronicle of My Worst Years, and others. I had the opportunity to catch up with Villanueva before he started his busy teaching schedule at Boston University.

DOUG HOLDER: You have completed a set of thirty-two poems titled: So Spoke Penelope (poems based on Homer's Odyssey) that is written from the point of view of Queen Penelope, Odysseus's wife. Penelope waited 20 years for Odysseus' return from the Trojan War. Do you think there are contemporary applications for the modern woman today considering we are in a constant of war in Iraq and Afghanistan?

TINO VILLANUEVA: In a couple of places Penelope does comment on the war--you bet there's a connection with our current involvement in two wars. In the final analysis, she holds an anti-war attitude which is also part of her agony and lament, asking at one point: “Cannot the gods bring on all-out peace? / Enough with this madness." And a bit later: "people have not always relished war, / and the rage of armies clashing gives me pain."

Beyond that, the book is about absence, and having to wait twenty years makes her--for all intents and purposes--a war widow, and Odysseus an M. I. A. These are, certainly, two consequences of war, and it's my belief American readers will identify with Penelope's predicament, especially those whose memory runs from the Korean War onward to this moment of Iraq and Afghanistan. In Penelope's case, she's quite fortunate her husband returns.

DH: You really dig deep into the mind of Penelope--her dream state, mind vs. body, what she prays for, etc. You wrote that Homer only gives us glimpses into her mind set. Was this because during this era in history a woman's mind was not deemed worthy of a lengthy exegesis?

TV: This may be true, but not so fast--give Homer some credit. In The Odyssey, Penelope is regarded as "wise Penelope." She is shrewd, smart, and wily, I would say, enough to match wits with Odysseus when he finally shows up (disguised as an old man) at the palace in Ithaca.

Now then, I was being very specific: what I said is that Homer does not reveal much about Penelope's ideas on weaving. It would've been quite extraordinary if the poet had given us a glimpse into her views on the craft on working with wool--Penelope as weaver, Penelope as artist, as it were. In more than a couple of my poems she launches into this facet of herself, especially in these two: "In Color and in Cloth" and "A Width of Cloth."

DH: You said in The Texas Observer that you didn't want to live in a literary ghetto. At any time in your career were you being forced into that direction?

TV: The quote actually says, "literary barrio." And it's true that, in the past several magazines / journals have asked me to contribute to their "Chicano Issue," let's say, or their "Latino Issue," when, really--if my work is of any merit--they should simply invite me to the mainstream pages they publish the rest of the time. I appreciate that a journal would want to showcase my poems, but I bristle a bit when editors try to pigeon-hole me. I don't always write about the Chicano reality, you know. As a poet, I write on many subjects; I'm not a one-trick pony. Not unlike Denise Levertov's strong conviction of wanting to be invited to read her work for being a poet, not for being a woman.

DH: You are an accomplished artist. I have seen your prints in a number of lit mags. How did this art develop? Is it in confluence with your poetry? Whom are you influenced by?

TV: I don't know if I deserve the "accomplished artist" label, but for me it started summer of 1973 when I went to see an exhibit of William Blake's watercolors at the Museum of Fine Arts here in Boston. I had seen several ads around town for the exhibit, and was curious as to this Blake fellow who had the same name as the poet I'd read as an undergraduate at Southwest Texas State University. Could it be the same person, I wondered. That drew me to the MFA one day in August, and what a surprise--a poet whose poems I admired turned out to be a painter as well. That opened my mind to the idea one could possess two creative outlets, could be a writer "and" a painter at the same time. Quite a revelation that was, believe me--it changed the direction of my creative life, to be sure.

So I went out and purchased a watercolor set, some brushes and the appropriate paper, but soon thereafter, to my dismay, I discovered that watercolors are not that easy to master. All the more respect I poured on Mr. Blake. But what a let down for me. I have to say I squarely faced what could've been a ego-busting setback by promptly promoting myself to acrylics, and then to oils, the results of my efforts with these media being more satisfactory. Then I moved on to pastels, and wound up working with collage, and my own mixed-media of sorts: a combination of watercolors, crayon, and pencil and pen. Journals such as Green Mountains Review, and TriQuarterly have displayed my art work on their covers. And in 2003 Parnassus published one of my drawings in its inside pages. TriQuarterly, I remember, wanted to buy Dreamscape (1989), the painting they'd published, but I declined. It hangs proudly in my livingroom. As to the painters I mostly gravitate towards, and whose work holds my undivided attention: Kandinsky, Klee, Miró, any of the Futurists, plus Picasso and Braque for their Cubist view of life.


It’s done…finished.
Three days ago, as an impatient sun was dropping fast
behind the sea,
and a starlit sky appeared, I finished it—
a piece of cloth in wool that took too long to weave.
Half a year dragged on, but at last I have it:
the likeness of Odysseus,
splendid husband and gentle father to his infant son.
One day I managed from early dawn to dusk,
then until the brightness of the morning shone again
to keep on weaving, to get it right. And there it is
folded up across the bed in color and in cloth.

Now, when the sting of absence is too much,
when the weariness of why-keep-waiting wears me out,
I reach for it to satisfy my love-struck eyes.
The background: I’ve simply made it dark,
against which stands Odysseus looking rapt into my eyes.
Beside us—our longest table in the palace hall, and
because he’s speaking to me,
I gave him speaking lips. He’s telling me he doesn’t
care for war, that he loves me “to the Pleiades and back.”
In turn, I’m offering wine to him from my wooden bowl.
A long pose from each of us,
standing there,
is what I remember most: he and I glowing
from two bowls of sweet and mellow wine.

Need I say I pleasure in bringing out this piece of cloth—
such felicity unfolding it,
running my hands over it, and embracing
both ourselves each time.

—Tino Villanueva

Appleseeds--- Poetry anthology from Sacred Fools Press

Sacred Fools Press
Johnston, RI

Review by Renee Schwiesow

Anchored by poems honoring Johnny Appleseed, the anthology “Appleseeds,” a Sacred Fools Press book edited by Melissa Guillet, germinates scattered seeds page by page which offer us blossoms of poetry that produce the fruit of Americana.

The compilation weaves its way across our nation with highways of words that speak to the many, varied and honored traditions and cultures that have become part of our nation’s quilt. Our American family is represented in a patchwork of color, much as Michele Sackman posits in “The Quilting Bee.”

These small pieces of cloth pieced and sown onto a white
cotton top

creating memories. . .

Guillet has artfully chosen the pieces needed to fashion this quilt on paper. And a beautiful quilt of talented poets “Appleseeds” is. What remains with me are the people showcased in the lines and stanzas of the work, the people who are at the heart of every American hour. John Flynn takes us back to the North End of Boston in the early 60’s with his “In Praise of Boston Aunts.”

In The European restaurant
Perry Como and Vaughn Monroe
croon out of the jukebox.
Aunts Louise, Etta, and Anna play hopscotch.
I trace them back to Holy Days,
Monsignors and hopeful pews,
Masses in Latin when weddings were easier
to trust.

Lewis Gardner relates another Boston aunt story in the humorous “A Gift from Great-Aunt Prudence.” In the mid-60’s, during a period of “liberated consciousness,” Great-Aunt Prudence innocently makes a purchase of hand-carved hands with their middle-finger upraised:

One night a little old lady –
since this was Boston, a very Bostonian
old lady – brought six of them
to my counter. “Such lovely ring holders,”
she said to me, “just the thing
for my grandnephews this Christmas.”

While aunts and mothers, grandmothers and sisters-in-law star the pages of the book, it is not only the members of biological family that swell our emotions: Sheila Mullen Twyman breaks our heart only as Sheila Mullen Twyman can with her soulful, “On the Fourth Day,” a southern Spiritual sang to the tune of the New Orleans Flood in 2005.

He was always amazed his lips could blow his horn
as sweet and easy as spitting out cherry pits.
He marveled at the way his long fingers
could flutter endlessly, effortlessly
up and down on the valves
redirecting his breath from the lead pipe
through the brass innards and out the flared bell.

But now his lips are cracked, his hands shaky
from too long sitting in putrid waters,
in the heavy, humid air that takes his breath away.
Not like those nights he used to sit for hours
playing through clouds of weed
smelling smoldering tobacco and
spilled bourbon drying on tabletops.
Lord, I been sitting in this tree
like a parrot on a perch for days now. . .
ain’t nobody coming for me?

And through Sheila’s empathic understanding, we take him; we take his plight to the bosom of “family” too.

I cannot end without giving Laura Lee Washburn’s ode, entitled “S & H Green Stamps,” a mention. A must read for those of us whose tongues have not forgotten the bitter taste of the glue that was tolerated happily as the book pages swelled with the stamps and the promise of iron stone dishes or Teflon pans came closer to reality. Yes, those S & H stamps are, too, an oft-remembered part of what makes this land, the land that was made for you and me, America.