Friday, October 16, 2009

Barbara Trachtenburg: A Polymath, A Prison Poet.

Barbara Trachtenburg: A Polymath, A Prison Poet.

Barbara Trachtenburg is one of those people you can comfortably call a force of nature. She is a poet, educator, and currently involved in PEN’s Prison Writing Program. She is also a visual artist, and plays with chamber music, and other forms of creative expression in her spare time. She is a member of the Writer’s Room in Boston, and she is working on a memoir of her mother. Her writing has appeared in such journals as Arts/Editor, Latin American Anthropology Review, and others. She was also a resident at the prestigious artist/writers retreat the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. I talked with her on my show “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer” airing on Somerville Community Access TV”

Doug Holder: You have worked as a school psychiatrist and teacher for over 30 years. Was this a rich lode for material?

Barbara Trachtenburg: It really has feed my short stories. Not so much my poetry. I have eight connected short stories with an ongoing character. They come from my first years working at a rehab center in Vermont. It was a residential center for multi-handicapped kids. I knew nothing. I was not a teacher. I was not trained. I was just thrown into this fascinating place. I learned a lot.

DH: As a psychologist you must have gained a lot of insight into the human condition. Did this help your work?

BT: I was a school psychologist. I worked with kids. Unfortunately those were my later years of working in the public schools. The unfortunate part was that working as a school psychologist meant at that time testing kids for their so called intelligence. The Wexler Intelligence Scale for children was a real drag. I couldn't develop relationships with kids because my role was detached in order to evaluate the tests. But of course I studied psychology and my favorite topic was family psychology. I used that to look at myself in the context of my family.

DH: You were a resident of the famous MacDowell Colony. Tell us about your experience. Who was there when you were there?

BT: Leonard Bernstein had just left. Jean Valentine was there. I lived in the area: Peterborough, New Hampshire. My kids were born there. I have to answer your question in the context of me living in the area. I was exposed to visual artists, painters, sculptors, also contemporary composers of music. I am a musician myself so I loved the newness of what was produced around there. I loved being exposed to it. The residency was great. I started to write the biography of a man I had worked with at the residential treatment center for handicapped people.

It was wonderful getting that knock on my cottage door at lunch time. Knowing the basket of food was waiting for me was pleasing.

DH: You are a member of the PEN NEW ENGLAND PRISION WRITING PROGRAM. Can you talk about your involvement in the program and the program itself?

BT: The genesis of my involvement with PEN was when I was riding my bike behind Framingham Women's Prison. I thought it would be great to get out of my world, my limitations and enter this place.

DH: Did other people ever tell you, you were slumming?

BT: No. This project makes you deal with the other side of yourself. I have been trying to get to the other side of myself and I don't think that is unusual. Most of us are faced with having to do that.

So what happened was that I went home, called the education director at Framingham. She told me to call Boston University; there was someone running the program there. I left a few messages but no one got back to me. Ultimately I went to a book celebration and I ran into the poet Fred Marchant. I told him I was looking to do a prison writing workshop. He recommended Springfield, Mass. The problem was that it was a two hour drive to North Hampton County Jail, and driving was very bad in the winter. Still it was a good experience and eventually we started a workshop at the Bay State Penitentiary, which was closer. That was about 4 years ago. This year I helped the Director of Treatment at Framingham State Prison. It is a pre-release. A number of volunteers work with me.

DH: What are the backgrounds of the volunteers?

BT: Everybody is writing. Most of the writers do teach or have taught. The volunteers we are looking for don't have to be published, writing or teaching.

DH: What do you get out of it?

BT: You get a look at yourself. Through the words and the struggles of other people. The women write memoirs and autobiographical pieces, and we don't try to change that. There are so many aspects of their own memoir writing-- food, growing up, that reach is part of the human condition.

DH: What are the women serving time for?

BT: This information is not shared with us. We can only guess. The suspicion is drugs and alcohol.

DH: What was it like for you-- a white-upper middleclass woman to walk in a prison for the first time?

BT: First off, I am not an upper middle class woman. I really don't fear for my safety. The women are all eager to learn.

DH: Is it therapeutic for them?

BT: One or two have told me that. We don't intend the workshops to be therapeutic. But if they are, they are.

Ibbetson Poetry Prize Winners 2009// Kirk Etherton // Marc Goldfinger// Frank Bidart to get Ibbetson Lifetime Achievement Award

Both poets will read their award-winning poems at the Somerville News Writers Festival: Nov 14, 2009 7PM

The Ibbetson Poetry contest was judged by poet Richard Wilhelm.

First prize:
"Georgia, 1963" by Kirk Etherton

Second runner-up
"Flower Days" by Marc Goldfinger

**** Frank Bidart is the winner of the Ibbetson Poetry Award. This will be presented at the Somerville News Writers Festival as well. Previous winners have been Robert K. Johnson, Louisa Solano, Robert Pinsky, Afaa Michael Weaver, Jack Powers, and David Godine, Jr.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

New Mexico Poetry Review

New Mexico Poetry Review

Review By Shannon O’Connor

The cover of New Mexico Poetry Review is graced by a painting by the great-grandmother of the editor, Blanche Bell Lefler Evans, a pioneer who moved from Kansas to New Mexico in 1909. One hundred years later, New Mexico Poetry Review has been brought to life, publishing mostly poets from the beginning and the end of the Santa Fe Trail, Kansas and New Mexico.

The journal blossoms with poems of nature. In Ron Houchin’s “Encounters with the Explained,” “life isn’t what it seems, “How do they know it works?/ Soon spring peepers will be keening/ in the cattail ditch beside Taco Bell/ The river will smell clean for a week.” The injection of Taco Bell brings the poem down to earth and makes it grittier and more honest. Not everything in the wide open spaces is the sky and mountains. Sometimes there’s a fast food chain in the foreground. In the poem “Early Spring,” by Linda Monicelli-Johnson, two hawks sweep up the narrator, “We’re buoyant as seed/ in the wind’s power/ My notebook pages/ flap, laughing flags.” This is a different take on the usual nature poem: it is a fantasy that hawks scoop her up and take her for a ride in the sky, with her notebook flapping. The hawks probably don’t like to be the subject of a poem. They want to scare her.

There are poems of change. In Santiago Lopez’s, “Mr. Kubrick or: How I Learned to Stop Acting and Love the Movies,” the narrator’s uncle stopped acting and became an usher at a “third-rate movie house in a fourth rate Texas town.” He was an extra in movies until Stanley Kubrick told him to get out of the shot and that improved the scene. According to the grandmother, she “wanted her first-born remembered/ for more than being the only child/ out of sixteen to never have left home.” In “The Approach,” Miriam Sagan writes of the decline of a western town, “tequila bottles/ shining like planets/ at the edge of the road.” The train in the poem comes through at different intervals: seven minutes, seven years, seven seconds.

The decline in small towns due to centralization and the Walmart factor is discussed in one of the two interviews in the journal with Donald Levering, a Kansas poet. The New Mexico Poetry Review brings light to the Santa Fe Trail as it is now, as it

Shannon O'Connor is working on her MFA at Bennington College in Vermont.

Ibbetson Street Press Puschcart Nominees 2009

Ibbetson Street Press Pushcart Nominees 2009

1) Fall/Winter issue (#26): Gayle Roby: Strawberry Moon" by Gayle Roby

2) Spring/Summer issue (#25): Tony Artuso: "Norm Visits His Autistic Daughter."

3) Spring/Summer issue (#25): Lyn Lifshin: "Orals."

4) Spring/Summer issue (#25) Tunny Lee "At the Sackler Musuem the Day Before Thanksgiving"

5) Spring/Summer issue (#25) Philip Corwin "The American Cemetery at Nettuno."

6) Fall/Winter issue (#26) Dorian Brooks "Eclipse"

Under the El by David Stone

Under the El
by David Stone
Propaganda Press

Review by Miriam Levine

In the Depths

It’s a fine thing to have these little chapbooks from Propaganda Press. The not-for-profit press is part of Alternating Current Arts Co-op based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and dedicated to “inexpensive publishing and distributing.” So far their list includes: A.D. Winans, Ed Galing, and B.Z. Niditch, among others. The slim publications printed on recycled paper measure four-and-a-quarter inches by five-and-a-half inches and will easily fit in your pocket or snug into your hand.

Sounds cute, doesn’t it? However, David Stone’s “Under the El” is not cute. Stone is a prophetic poet in the tradition of Ginsberg and Blake. Ginsberg of the Moloch section of “Howl.” Moloch, the cruel hungry god demanding blood sacrifice, burnt offerings. Ginsberg makes Moloch the god of the fallen city:

Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in parks!

Demons and death spirits also haunt Stone’s fallen city of “burnt carcasses.” He mentions Pluto, Hecate, and Belphegor, a devil, who seduces people by suggesting ingenious devices to make them rich—certainly not a sin in our era of iPhone apps. He is also the demon of the deadly sin of sloth.

The atmosphere of Stone’s underworld is “toxic,” spirit-besmirching, giving off the “aroma of death” and “sulphur scent.” Stone repeatedly uses the word “hell.” His city is not the City of Light or glorious Athens or dynamic New York or enlightened Boston. It’s a “sad city/ where teachers/ are raped by students,” and where there are ‘more beatings on buses/ & on subways,” and “city/ vultures scan the debris.” The underworld is populated by disgusting creatures: wolves, rats, skunks, and “paleozoic carnivores.”

In this time of feel-good, I-love-this-I-love-that poems, it is shocking and clarifying to read Stone’s work and remember lines from Blake’s poem, “London”:

I wandered through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
A mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every man,
In every infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear.

Stone conjures up his hellish city, jabs at us with spare lines:

glass crashed
&split nuclei
in Chicago.

In the title poem, the speaker emerges from underground where “in the subway tunnel/ bats slide down stalactites.” He smells chocolate, passes a restaurant, “people eating,/ drinking port,/ lighting up stogies.” These pleasures, Stone would say, exist in a city of “six million rats.” Yet, he composes these playfully constructed lines:

in the realm of the Dead
where sooo
survive on benches
with teethmarks
waiting for a
note of jazz.

His playfulness occurs only in his line arrangements, not in his dark vision of hellish Chicago.

** Miriam Levinet recent book is The Dark Opens, winner of the 2007 Autumn House Poetry Prize. She is the author of In Paterson, a novel, Devotion: A Memoir, three poetry collections, and A Guide to Writers' Homes in New England. Her work has appeared in Harvard Review, The Kenyon Review, The Paris Review, and Ploughshares, among many other places.

A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts writing fellowship and grants from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, she was a fellow at Yaddo, Hawthornden Castle, Le Château de Lavigny, Villa Montalvo, Fundación Valparaíso, and the Millay Colony for the Arts.

She is Professor Emerita at Framingham State College, where she chaired the English Department and was Coordinator of the Arts and Humanities Program.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Review of BEFALLEN by K. Alma Peterson

Review of BEFALLEN by K. Alma Peterson, 2009, 21 pages, Propaganda Press ($7 plus $2 shipping) to Alternating Current, PO Box 398058, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA

By Barbara Bialick

BEFALLEN, by K. Alma Peterson, has some interesting lines—“little soldier of spring in tree bark fatigues” ; “I wasn’t meant to be in a family but there I was”; “Caught mid-swoon at dusk a code of fireflies a blink shy/a pulse fast etcetera too few breathe-holes in their/thought jars/signals the larger darkness…”

Ultimately I wasn’t drawn to one profound conclusion, but noted, rather, her interest in word play and streams of words disparately connected.

The title poem, “Befallen” concludes: “For the world so loved itself coming daily into light/the finish line of any sight beginning over there/where it isn’t such a stretch to think of truth and light.”

The gray book with a color cover is a trendy mini-sized format of 5 ½ x 4 inches with a red and blue print by the late Carolyn Ellingson.

The author, K. Alma Peterson, of Rosemount, Minnesota, is a graduate of the MFA Program at Warren Wilson College. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 1999.
A book you can to carry in a pocket or a pocketbook, if you want to give it a try.

John Buffalo Mailer: A Writer with an illustrious literary pedigree comes to Somerville.

John Buffalo Mailer (Right), Norris Mailer (Center), Norman Mailer ( Far Left)

Interview by Reza Tokaloo

As a new member of the “Bagel Bard” collective, I found myself in an interesting position. While at a recent meeting of the Bards at the Somerville Au Bon Pain, I was asked by the arts editor of The Somerville News Doug Holder and Timothy Gager (co-founder of The Somerville News Writers Festival) if I was interested in interviewing someone for the upcoming Somerville Writers Fest on November 14th. Many years ago I had taken journalism classes, and while in college I studied film production and have been a big fan of documentary films. In fact I made a few documentary films myself. In the case of this proposal, I looked at myself like the first Europeans who viewed the American interior: vast, green, and without a lot of exploration.

So the challenge was issued to me and the person of interest to be named is John “Buffalo” Mailer (yes the son of Norman Mailer). I welcomed the challenge to bring to light, with a few questions, the background and work of this American writer, actor, and producer. Luckily, Mr. Mailer took time out of his very busy schedule to respond to the questions I emailed to him (due to his current acting role for the sequel to “Wall Street”).

You are often credited as “Buffalo” Mailer. Where did the “Buffalo” moniker come from?

“People often assume it is a nickname or stage name, but in fact it is my actual middle name. My parents decided to call me Buffalo before I was born. They contemplated just calling me Buffalo Mailer, but decided that it would create unnecessary difficulties for me in many administrative areas, and so they decided on John Buffalo. The other possibility was Beau Buffalo Mailer, but I think if they had gone that route, I would have had no choice but to become a professional boxer instead of a Writer/actor/producer. As to why they called me Buffalo, that remains a family secret known only to my mother, my father, and me. We agreed long ago to keep it that way.”

You use to be an active editor at “High Times” magazine, a then counter culture hemp powerhouse. Are you in contact with the current staff there and do you still contribute to the magazine from time to time?

“I hear from one or two of them from time to time, but I don’t keep in regular contact, and I don’t write for the magazine anymore. What they are doing with the name brand and what Richard Stratton, Annie Nocenti, and myself were trying to do in 2004 could not be more different. Our goal was to restore High Times to what it started as, a politically charged independent magazine about outlaw culture. These days it is happy to be a magazine about growing pot, which is fine, but not my expertise.”

What are your thoughts and views on the legalization of cannabis?

“I think cannabis is illegal because of hemp as much as it is pot. Hemp is a direct threat to the Oil, Cotton, and Paper industries, while pot provides an alternative to Alcohol and Tobacco. Growing industrial Hemp and regulating and taxing marijuana in this country would be an economic and environmental godsend. Unfortunately, with some of these threatened industries have immensely powerful lobbyists, so I think regardless of whether there is a Democrat or Republican in office, it will be a long time before Cannabis is completely legal in America. But I do believe we will see decriminalization in most of the country before too long, and should.”

You published your first novella before graduating from college. How did this experience of success affect you looking back at this?

“My Father published The Naked And The Dead at the age of twenty-five and became the largest literary figure in American letters overnight, so getting a novella published in an elegant but small literary magazine at the age of twenty-one did not give me a big head. With the advantages I was given in terms of the interest people would have in regards to whether or not the writing genes were passed on to me, it was expected that I would publish young. The real test was whether or not I would last. The downside to the attention I received for my early works was that the critics would tend to come after me with forks and knives as if it were their duty, a necessary act for the good of humanity to show Mailer’s kid ain’t getting a free ride. In many ways the start of my literary career was the polar opposite of my father’s. I must say that those first few hard knocks thickened my skin and enabled me to appreciate even more the positive reviews from the kind of reviewers that understand what I am going for in my work, and so give a fair assessment as to how successful I was in pulling it off.”

Along with writing, you seem to have found a home in live theater. You received a BA in theater and you co-founded Back House Productions with a few fellow grad students. How has theater changed in your eyes since you first began?

“I wouldn’t say theater has changed drastically in the twenty years I have been doing it professionally except in a few respects. Ticket prices have gone up quite a bit, Broadway has taken a habit to recycling movies instead of gambling on brand new shows, and you need a star from television or film to get a large Off-Broadway production financed. That did not used to be the case. In The Heights, the most successful show Back House developed was in many ways an anomaly, having very few recognizable names. It was a case of Lin Manuel Miranda being so talented and writing such powerful songs, that some smart Broadway producers took a gamble and ended up extremely happy men. As did we all.”

It was during your time at “High Times” that you took a hiatus from theater. Why the change?

“At the time Richard Stratton offered me the job as Executive Editor of High Times, I was twenty-five and living in LA auditioning for movies. I had had a piece come out in People Magazine and decided to head to LA to see what I could do with it. I actually got a manager quite quickly and was close on a number of parts, but my mother got sick with cancer again, and so I needed any way to get back to New York so I could be there to help take care of her and my father, who was getting old. Richard’s offer came as a godsend and quickly I found myself entrenched in an industry that I had only done some freelance journalism for. I had interned at a hipster magazine in the 90’s before this position. I took a quite a bit of guff for that, but ultimately learned the magazine world from top to bottom and am proud of the issues we put out in that volatile year of Bush’s reelection.”

What made you want to become involved in the protest movement at the Republican National Convention? Do you view yourself as being very political? If so, how would you describe your political views?

“I’ve always had the sense that the mission in life is to do everything in your power to try to leave this world a slightly better place than when you entered it. Perhaps it’s the 16th Cherokee Indian in me, I don’t know. But with that in mind, I believe that if you are lucky enough to have parents with the means and conviction to give you a great education, come from a tradition of taking a stand on the issues of the day, were born with a voice (for better or worse) that enables you to get issues and events going on in the world hi-lighted, then it is not a choice, but a responsibility to be politically active in some capacity. So, yes, I like to think you could say I am politically active. As for my views, I think that would take too long to get into here. On some issues I’m so far Left I’m Right, and on others so far Right I’m Left. Independent is the easy way to describe it.”

Your play “Crazy Eyes” has quite an interesting plot. Very much tied to events that had happened in the real world in 2001 around the events of 9/11.

“My hope is that Crazy Eyes captures the effects that living under such fear of terrorism (as we did most in New York in October of 2001, at the height of the Anthrax scare) has on the decisions we make that define our national character. It’s taken nearly ten years, but I do believe we are finally ready to look back on that time and get some cues as to how to handle the next one, if God forbid it should happen.”

How was it working with Israeli actress Meital Dohan in her one-woman show?

“Working with Meital is like working with a tornado, you are mesmerized by it until it sweeps you up and you realize you have no idea where you are going to land. She is so driven, so talented, so sexy, and so dangerous. In other words, she is an Israeli super star for a reason. "You can see her latest web series with Jon Heder called 'Woke Up Dead' on"

As a writer myself, I have always found it difficult to work with other writers on projects. But you shared writing duties with your father in “The Big Empty.” How was it to work with another writer? And not only another writer, but a family member?

“Again, to describe the privilege and sensation of working with my father is deeper than I can get into here, as I would need to write a full book about it to fully capture even the essence of the experience. But in terms of working with other writers, depending on the medium, I have always been open to the idea and have collaborated with one or two other writers over the years on various projects. However, I always prefer to write alone, as that is the most fulfilling journey for me as a writer today.”

What can we expect from “Buffalo” Mailer in the future? Theater? Directing? Acting?

“I’ve been shooting Wall Street 2 for the past month and will be doing that until November 19th. I play Robby, an Options trader and The main Character’s best friend, which is not hard because Shia Labouef is not only easily one of the best actors of his generation, but a truly stand up guy, as well. After that, I have seven screenplays in play at various stages and will be tending to them. The magazine industry is drying up faster than anyone can pour water on it, but if the opportunity to do any journalism before it is too late presents itself, I’ll be all over that. And of course, there is the novel I have been working on for ten years, waiting for my preparations to meet the opportunity that will enable me to take a year off and do nothing else but write it. Either that, or hopefully get lucky enough to find myself with the time.”

Thank you Mr. Mailer for your time and we hope to see more of your work in the future.

“Thank you. It’s been a pleasure answering your questions.”

Mr. Mailer will read at the Somerville News Writers Festival Nov 14, 2009