Friday, November 13, 2009

Lois Ames: "Confidante to Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.”

Lois Ames: Confidante to Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.”

Interview by Doug Holder (2005)

Recently I was privileged to hear Lois Ames speak at the “Wilderness House Literary Retreat,” in Littleton, Mass. Lois Ames is a poet, biographer and psychotherapist. She was a confidante of the poet Anne Sexton, and has published many essays on both Sexton and Sylvia Plath including: “A Biographical Note,” in Plath’s “Bell Jar,” She also was the editor of “Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters.’ I talked with her on my Somerville Community Access TV show “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”

Doug Holder: Is it a natural fit for “confessional” poets like Sexton and Plath to have a trained social worker , and a literary historian, as a confidante?

Lois Ames: I don’t think it is usual. I don’t think that’s why I was their friend or confidante. I knew Sylvia from high school and Smith College. Anne I once met in high school, but I didn’t know her till much later. I was then a trained social worker, but I don’t think that’s why we became friends.

Anne certainly asked me to go to McLean Hospital when she first started teaching poetry there. She wanted someone trained to help her when she reviewed the patient poems. She didn’t want to hurt these fragile patients’ feelings. She wanted me to monitor what she said. She turned out to be superb.

Doug Holder: You wrote the biographical note for the “Bell Jar.” Did you ever want to do a complete biography of Plath and Sexton?

Lois Ames: I did. The book “Anne Sexton: Self-Portrait in Letters.” was my idea. It was done partly to get an understanding about what material was there. She had appointed me her official biographer. But it was also to help her children to understand aspects of their mother’s life they weren’t aware of. I thought if I was there for them we could go through the letters, and this would be very helpful.

I was the first one to be asked to do the biography of Sylvia Plath. I had a contract with the family. Harper and Row was my publisher. It became increasingly difficult for me to do this, as other biographers have found out. And I finally decided for the sake of my own sanity and my family; that
it was better to pay back the advance to Harper’s. I always felt it was a wise decision.

Doug Holder: Did Plath have any interest in teaching poetry at McLean Hospital, like Sexton?

Lois Ames: Oh, no, I don’t think so. Sylvia was a junior in college when she was at McLean. In those days she wasn’t trained to do anything like that.

She went to England after she graduated Smith. There was no reason for her to even think of doing that. That was not Sylvia’s interest. Anne loved teaching. Sylvia found teaching very difficult. She taught one year at Smith College and felt that it drained her. I assume going to England with Ted Hughes and leaving Smith, was a wonderful opportunity for her.

Doug Holder: Anne was not formally educated beyond high school. If say, she was educated in the Liberal Arts at Harvard, would she be a different poet?

Lois Ames: She was very interested in form when she first started and she studied it very diligently. When she was in Robert Lowell’s workshop she studied it as well. She read a great deal. She tried to make up for the great gaps in her education. Her teachers in public school gave up on her very early. They told her parents that she was hopeless. She was sent to the “Garland School,” a finishing school for girls at the time. She said she learned to make perfect white sauce there, but that was it. But she was writing poetry when she was there and it was published in a magazine the school put out.

Doug Holder: Have you had any clients since Sexton and Plath who have reached literary heights?

Lois Ames: I knew a lot of the people in the workshop Anne ran. I am sworn to confidentiality however. But a lot of people, who came out of the workshop, have been or are published poets. They do very well in the poetry world.

Doug Holder: Is your own poetry influence by either poet?

Lois Ames: Anne certainly taught me a lot about reading. She taught me to get as many critiques as possible. Have I ever tried to follow the style of either of them? No. And no one has ever accused me of that.

Doug Holder:
Do you think if Plath didn’t have this dramatic background of suicide, Smith, and marriage to Ted Hughes, etc...and was a working-stiff from Waltham, would she be as celebrated as she is today?

Lois Ames: I am wondering where Plath will stand in a hundred years. Ted Hughes was very good at marketing Plath. He kept her reputation growing by the astute publication of her work. I think the fact that she and Ted Hughes had a passionate romance, were from a tumultuous family, and the fact that Sylvia killed herself, all lead to the mystique. It contributes to her present fame. Some of Plath’s poems were superb and she knew a lot about poetic form.

Doug Holder: Where will Sexton’s work stand in a hundred years?

Lois Ames: I think it will fare well. I think Sexton was more daring than Plath. The problem is that people don’t read Sexton today. I don’t think she is promoted. She hasn’t been marketed the way Plath is today.

Doug Holder: The poet Ted Hughes, Plath’s husband, has been much maligned.Both Plath and his other wife committed suicide. It has been said he drove Plath to suicide through his infidelity, etc... What’s your take?

Lois Ames: Ted had a lover during their marriage that he later had a child with. This was the source of Sylvia’s rage. Later she killed herself the same way Sylvia did. I felt extreme sympathy for Ted. There is nothing more rage full to do to other people than to kill yourself. I don’t think other people are responsible for other people’s suicides. With the medications we have now maybe Sylvia and Ann could have been saved.

Doug Holder: Did the limitations on women coming of age in the 50’s play a role in these untimely deaths?

Lois Ames: Each of us was a warrior trying to find herself. Every achievement was huge. To get out from under the dish washing, the daycare, and to create anything took enormous courage, and strength. I am sure it took its toll.

Doug Holder: Did Sexton and Plath’s mental illness contribute positively to their poetry?

Lois Ames: Each wrote in spite of their illness. It took enormous courage to do this.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Somerville's Wendy Blom Gives Us Food for Thought

Somerville's Wendy Blom Gives Us Food for Thought

I have worked with Wendy Blom for a number of years at Somerville Community Access TV where I produce my show “ Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer." Blom, the director of SCAT, is so busy coordinating other projects that I was surprised and glad that she decided to produce one of her own. Blom’s project is the much lauded film documentary "Eating Local in Somerville," airing on Somerville Community Access TV through the month of November. The film concerns the local food movement in Somerville. I guess you can consider Blom a film producer of fresh produce! Anyway I shot her a few questions for Off the Shelf:

Doug Holder: What is the local food movement?

Wendy Blom: The local food movement is a reaction to large scale industrial agriculture that dominates food production in the United States. People want to know where their food comes from, and that it is chemical-free. Local food tends to be much fresher and tastier as well. People also want to support local farms because they preserve open space, offer more diverse varieties of produce, and use less fuel for transport, making the process more environmentally green. Besides buying produce from local farms, the local food movement includes backyard gardens, community gardens, New England cheese companies, and local organically grown meats.

DH: You wrote that Somerville is in the forefront. How does this play out? What restaurants, etc... are part of the movement?

WB: It is in the forefront because the Somerville school system has managed to adapt the government-mandated school cafeteria bidding process to allow local farms to compete. This results are in the students having a lot more fresh fruits and vegetables in their meals and snacks than other communities. In addition, each elementary school has an educational garden for after school activities that lead to an appreciation for vegetables and hands-on biology lessons. There are numerous restaurants in Somerville that advertise their local ingredients, finding that local produce draws patrons. Examples are the Teele Square Cafe, Bloc 11, and Sherman's Cafe.

Somerville has a very active group of food activists. Groundwork Somerville gets numerous grants to support local agriculture projects in the schools and in the community. The Community Growing Center is a leader in garden education, working with the Somerville Arts Council and Groundwork Somerville to expose Somerville students to gardening. Adding to the possibilities for eating local are the 150 community garden plots in Somerville, (despite the City's lack of green space), Somerville's two busy farmers markets, and hundreds of community supported agriculture (CSA) participants.

DH: What are the challenges you faced in producing this documentary?

WB: This documentary came together very easily. The amount of material I found exceeded my expectations. I met so many wonderful people who are excited about being part of the local food movement.

DH: Do you have ambitions for the documentary beyond SCAT?

WB: I hope that the information presented in the documentary will be used by other communities for expanding their own options for local food. For example, in my town of Needham, there is a group of people who are trying to convince the school committee to allocate land for a community farm. They are using my film to show people the benefits and possibilities of farm education. Here in Somerville, I hope the film will encourage people to think about the food they buy, and possibly purchase more local foods.

DH: Has Scat had a history of documenting with film other innovative aspects of our community? Some examples?

WB: SCAT has always been involved in spreading the word about community projects and issues. Often that means videotaping community meetings about the Green Line expansion, zoning issues, immigrant issues, and other topics that are important to Somerville. We produce programs about health (Bill Barrell recently produced an excellent hour-long show about H1N1, and our intern is currently creating a documentary about bed bugs), the arts, culture, etc.

DH: Do you consider yourself a gourmet or gourmand.... where do you eat in Somerville?

WB: I do not consider myself a gourmet, but I have gotten very excited about the freshness and variety of local produce. I live near a farm stand and during the season buy all my produce there. What inspired me was Barbara Kingsolver's book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle." I think there are so many benefits to having a strong farm presence in Massachusetts.

People can see the film, "Eating Local in Somerville" on SCAT throughout November and on the Web

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

dialect of a skirt by erica miriam fabri

dialect of a skirt
erica miriam fabri
Hanging Loose Press
Brooklyn, New York
ISBN: 978-1-934909-10-2
2009 $18.00

bravo bravo

immediately, the cover of this first book, by erica fabri, made me jealous. the energy portrayed, the vibrant color, the direct approach, the ice-cream sundae image, all lent to my initial shock, “how dare she smack us with her boldness, her youth.”
ahh jealousy is a roaring beast. I read of few of the poems and now I’m really pissed, “she even writes with knowledge of her subjects, writes in the vernacular of her day. after I calm down, smile, rejoice in her time, in her expressions, the book is exciting:

“it was an early round.
The judge presented it to her: Fish
The pride knife stabbed at her:

fabri gropes our language, she creates spells from idols, icons, from her own definitions of what it means to be forever young. she creates spells I am bound up in, unrolled, left ‘breathless‘:

“She knew she knew this one.
as she dug her two beautiful
bucked teeth
into her beautiful
bottom lip
and started
to say: eff-
two droplets
of nearly black blood
ran down her clefted chin.”

the goddess slips off her pedestal. I grab a chair to steady myself. can this be an indication of how we measure ourselves, the spelling of ‘fish’. even before her breasts are visible, this speller is ashamed of her not being able to measure-up. oh wonderous poet, how you have given us our icon-made real.

“Just then: Agatha.

Agatha, breastless, wanted to win,
Agatha said: Blood isn’t allowed
in a Spelling Bee.
Sit down, Norma Jean”

the challenge: we can compete: we can win: especially, if we take charge, charge in, take over, embarrass, make that blood count, blood power gives birth but some of us don’t want it, so we run until we stop bleeding:

"Agatha pressed
the bridge of her glasses
into her forehead,
hard, like bone.”

ahh, I’m exhausted by this one poem and release myself from the others until my energy returns…. “the animal of Love” is another goodie. we garnish the results of being peg holed spellers, or spelling an inaccurate verb, but we also recognize May Saton’s poem, ‘wild geese,’ “let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” Sarton seems more subtle in her recognitions of how we please each other. fabri uses the symbols handed down unrecognizably, for what is represented is not the truth. the truth is, no one needs to live without this book of poems?

“I will swim belly to belly
with you forever, and if you die first,
I will beach myself, because it would be
too lonely to live without your silver flesh”

the titles of the poems are an indicator of the content of the poem. these titles are wonderful. I leave you a sampling:

‘Sappho on the lower east side’
‘Mannequins at lunch’
‘The poet and the truck driver’
‘Love in an ice cream truck’



Lucia Perillo has published five books of poetry, including Dangerous Life (1989), The Body Mutinies (1996), The Oldest Map with the Name America (1999), Luck is Luck (2005) and Inseminating the Elephant (2009). She has also published one book of essays, I?ve Heard the Vultures Singing (2005). She has taught at four universities and was awarded a MacArthur Foundation fellowship.

Bellday Books will publish the winning bookand award $2,000 and 25 copies of the book to the winning author.

CONTEST RULES? Submit a manuscript of 60-90 pages of original poetry in any style in English. The manuscript must not have been published in book or chapbook, but may contain poems that have appeared in print or on the Internet. Entries may consist of individual poems, a book-length poem or any combination of long or short poems.

Submitted manuscript must contain 2 title pages: Name and contact information should appear on first title page only. Name should not appear anywhere else in the manuscript. Include a table of contents page, but do not send an acknowledgements page. Manuscript must be typed single-spaced, paginated and bound with a spring clip. Enclose an SASE for announcement of the winner. Manuscript cannot be returned.

Postmark deadline: March 15, 2010. Include a check or money order for $25 reading fee, payable to BELLDAY BOOKS. Bellday Books reserves the right not to select an award winner, in which case all reading fees will be refunded. CONTEST MAILING ADDRESSBellday Books, Inc.P.O. Box 3687 Pittsburgh, PA 15230 Questions may be directed to

Sunday, November 08, 2009

LEN SOLO: A Poet and Painter who has seen the light.

LEN SOLO: A Poet and Painter who has seen the light.

The play of light figures in the work of Len Solo. Whether it is his paintings, or his detailed poetry, light transforms and illuminates the object of his creative desire.

Len Solo has been an educator for most of his professional work life: a public high school teacher of English, Math and Social Studies; founder of a small, private alternative school in Atlantic City; founder and department chairperson of the Teacher Development Program, Stockton State College, Pomona, NJ; principal for 27 years of the famous Graham & Parks Alternative Public School, Cambridge + Interim Principal, Cambridge Rindge and Latin High Schools for 1.5 years. For the past seven years he has been an education consultant. He has had 3 volumes of poetry published: Landscape of the Misty Eye, with Steve Weitzman (2004); Rooted in Place (2006) and The Magic of Light (2008).

Doug Holder: Len you have been an educator all your life. What do you think of the reading and writing of poetry as an educational tool?

Len Solo: Writing is what you aim for in teaching. If a kid can write, then you know that the kid can think, summarize, and plan ahead. If you can get one’s thoughts down that is the goal. It’s a goal beyond reading. It’s writing so others can read it. I taught poetry in high school and middle school. When I was a principal in Cambridge I had a math teacher; probably one of the best math teachers around. We had a lot of visitors ask him what they should read to be better math teachers. He said: “Read a novel.” That’s how I think about writing and poetry. It is a distillation of words and ideas.
A friend of mine told me my poetry is like prose, and in a way it is, but it is more than that. It is more heightened. I when I teach writing to kids I often start with poetry.

DH: So poetry can be taught?

LS: Yes. It can be in part. I can’t give you thoughts and ideas as a teacher. I can help you with the technical pieces of the writing. I can teach you about rhythm and rhyme—etc… It is the same argument about teachers. Are teachers artists, or can they be taught to teach? I think part of teaching can be taught.

DH: You have influences as diverse as Allen Ginsberg and Ernest Hemingway. What links these two for you?

LS: It is what I can take away from them. The things I can take away from Ginsberg is his style. He uses some techniques that I can relate to. Like E.E. Cummings’ minimalist usage of words—his placement of words on the page. So I take things from many.

DH: You have a scene of the North End of Boston on your collection “Magic of Light” that you painted. What was the attraction to the scene? Is your poetry and painting linked?

LS: I’m not Italian, but I like going to the North End. This particular scene grabbed me. The way I learn about things is primarily visual. So when I write I have a lot of visual images. That’s what I think I am really good at. It is part of almost every poem that I have written—strong visual images. I can see the act of creating a painting like the act of creating a poem. I try to catch a scene and grab and hold it. I do this with poetry and painting. The use of color is similar to the use of words and phrases.

DH: In your poem “Arranging Flowers”—it is almost an orgasmic experience—with a passion flower at the peak of an arrangement in a vase. Do you think we are driven as much by our own carnal desires as our creative?

LS: The ecstasy here is the merging of flowers, as in the merging of two people. The imagery really inspired me. When we get something down right, like a poem, it can be very close to an orgasm.

DH: In your new collection the “Magic of Light”—light plays an important role. Light has the power to transform, enliven, etc… What role does light play in your poems and paintings?

LS: When I started to put this book together I wanted to find the architecture for it or the unifying theme. I though how every one of these poems goes with light one way or the other. The power of light, its play. This is the way I deal with reality and my art, through my sight—you have sight because of light.


*Lyceaeides Melissa Samuels

He was walking

through a field

wild with scrub oak

and black chokeberry,

the mild sky clear

all the way up,

when he saw a cloud

of tiny butterflies

come fluttering down

out of that sky

like blue snowflakes

on a windless day.

He followed one

zigzagging slowly

through the weeds,

its wings flashing

silver blue,

orange crescents below,

and watched it settle

on a purple-blue lupine,

art and nature fused,

a Nabokovan delight

in the summer sunlight