Friday, October 22, 2010

Rocks Stars and Bad Poetry: Interview with Steve Almond

Rocks Stars and Bad Poetry: Interview with Steve Almond

by Cam Terwilliger

Steve Almond’s prose walks a tightrope between irreverent humor and deeply felt sorrow. Half the time, Almond’s readers bust a gut laughing. The other half, he breaks their hearts. The author of two story collections, a novel, and three books of nonfiction, his newest, “Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life”, offers Almond’s take on the experience of rock and roll “drooling fandom.” Meanwhile, his recently self-published works, "Letters from People Who Hate Me" and "This Won’t Take But a Minute Honey", have not only received sterling reviews from readers, but have also caught attention for his grass roots method of distributing them. Fortunately for me, I had a chance to talk with Almond about some of these things this week. Fortunately for you, you can catch him for yourself on Nov. 13 at The Somerville News Writer’s Festival.

CT: I’m excited to hear you’ll be featured in The Somerville News Writers Festival next month. Can you tell us a little about what you’ll be reading?

SA: Yeah, not sure exactly. But the work will probably come from these little DIY books I've been making. The new one is called “Bad Poetry”, and with any luck it'll be out in time for me to bring some to the festival.

CT: This spring, when I heard you read from the new book, "Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life", I was happily stunned not only by a great reading, but also a slick PowerPoint, accompanying music, and a performance by a rocking band afterward. Do you have any philosophy when it comes to performing your work? Do you take any inspiration from the rock stars you admire?

SA: I take plenty of inspiration from rock stars. I worship and shamefully covet them. And obviously, with a book about music, it made sense to have a soundtrack for those readings. But I do think there's a danger to jazzing up the readings, which is that the performance begins to overshadow, or obscure, the prose. My interest, when I'm reading, is to get people excited about the language, to make them realize that literature is not some esoteric pursuit, but the ravings of mad men and women. So I want people to have a good time and party like it's 1999. But I want them to leave the reading excited by what words can do, not the bells and whistles around them. Does that make sense?

CT: Your self published books, “This Won’t Take But A Minute Honey” and “Letters from People Who Hate Me”, have been popular sellers at The Harvard Book Store. But you’ve also written about how these books are intended to be “artifacts,” available mainly at readings. Can you tell us about your recent experience of distributing books in this do-it-yourself fashion?

SA: Oh it's just been a delight. That's why I keep making new ones. It's such a nice way to combat the prevailing late-model-capitalist-vertical-integration-media-platform nonsense. I just head out and do readings and if people want the books they come up and give me a little cash and I give them the book. It's a lot like a drug deal. As much as I appreciate the help I've received from traditional publishers, selling directly to readers is a much more personal and organic a way of putting art into the world. And I get to work with an amazing visual artist (Brian Stauffer). And I get to put whatever I want in the book. There's no executive to say: You can't do that! Of course, there's a lot of schlepping involved. And some low-level humiliation. But that's the life of a writer anyway these days.

CT: You recently concluded your web feature on “The Rumpus”, “Bad Poetry Corner,” where you revisited some wretched poems you’d written as a less experienced writer, some of which, for better or worse, had their sordid origins right here in Somerville. How was it to return to that work? Cathartic? Were there any pockets of unexpected embarrassment?

SA: The whole point was to get to the pockets of unexpected embarrassment. All the terrible language I was flinging at the page, hoping some poor misguided English major would sleep with me. But, you know, a big part of how writers get better is that they just get tired of their bad decisions and start making better decisions. So I'm happy to wallow in the wretchedness of those Somerville years, and to remember how awesomely lonely and hopeless and vulnerable I was. (Also: I live about a hundred yards away from Somerville, so I'm still honorary!!!)

CT: Part of “Bad Poetry Corner” allowed people to submit their own bad poems. How was the response by readers? And what do you think we stand to gain as writers by spending time with our failed attempts?

SA: Like I say, part of getting better is confronting your suckassitude. But I have to say that I never got as many bad poems as I thought I would. Not everyone is such a jolly self-mortifier, I guess.

CT: As a former Somerville resident, how do you feel about the literary scene here? Any fond memories of your time in the city? Any favorite places to write, or dependable spots for inspiration?

SA: I moved to Boston, basically, because I found this amazing apartment in Somerville. It was one of those great old houses, built in the 1870s, I think, by a Senator. I lived on the first floor and had a big sun room where I wrote. Or sat around not writing. In a way, Somerville is more of a mood to me, a kind of yearning loneliness, a desperate desire to connect, to make sense of my life and the abundant sorrows of the world. The country moved in a really dark direction while I was in Somerville, and a lot of my work has been about trying to make sense of that, the cruel delusions of our diseased hearts.


Thursday, October 21, 2010

Jennifer Haigh: From Writer’s Cloister to Far-reaching Novels

( Photo by Asia Kepka.)

Well folks, the Somerville News Writers Festival is upon us (Nov.13 6:30 P.M. Arts Armory—Somerville, Mass.) and Somerville Bagel Bard Rene Schwiesow interviewed one of our featured writers Jennifer Haigh. For more information go to:

Jennifer Haigh
From Writer’s Cloister to Far-reaching Novels

by Rene Schwiesow

It was a lovely New England, autumn morning when I spoke with Jennifer Haigh by phone. A perfect day I thought for talking with a writer who has won the PEN/L.L. Winship award for outstanding book by a New England author. Haigh will be appearing at the Somerville Writer’s Festival on November 13th. While she is not on tour at the moment, she accepted the speaking gig in Somerville because the Writer’s Festival reputation precedes itself and out of friendship for the hard-working Timothy Gager who hosts the festival each year. Those in attendance will be the fortunate recipients of her sharing.

Jennifer spoke easily from her home and one can imagine the author who maintains a “large, lively circle of imaginary friends,” relaxing in the space where her words are allowed to spin themselves into fine novels. Jennifer Haigh is the author of four books. Mrs. Kimble, her first novel, won the PEN/Hemingway award for debut fiction. Her second novel, Baker Towers was a New York Time’s Best Seller in addition to winning the PEN/L.L. Winship award for outstanding book by a New England author. Her third novel, The Condition, was published in 2008. Her fourth novel, Faith, will be published by HarperCollins in May 2011.

It is “absolutely inevitable,” Haigh said. A writer, by the nature of the vocation, “spends a lot of time sitting alone in a room.” She understands that there is no way around it and she welcomes the aloneness. Yet, as an author with four published books, the fact is she must travel, must be in the public eye. How, I asked her do you find your quiet time then? “I don’t,” she said matter-of-factly. She made it clear that she enjoys those engagements that go along with each book publication, but that they are incompatible with quiet time and writing. In the beginning she attempted to combine the two, but has since learned that to write while promoting deprives her of the focus she needs for her work.

She talks about time and focus as a gift for the writer. And Haigh, who is a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop and their MFA program, says that time and focus is exactly what she had in Iowa. Haigh feels that time spent in an MFA program can be very valuable. In addition to her novels, she writes short stories, many of which were written while in Iowa and, subsequently, published. She has been working on a short story collection though a possible publication date for that collection remains a nebulous dot on the timeline. Her novel, Mrs. Kimble, which was written during the time she was in Iowa, was not a product of the workshop or the MFA program, because she feels strongly that showing a novel piecemeal in workshop is dangerous, allowing for judgment to be passed on the work via small segments. “Too much can be taken out of context,” she said. It was, however, written alongside the work she did for the workshop and her grad work.

Jennifer, it seems, has the heart of a writer. It beats through her as she speaks about writing, about the process of becoming a writer, about the writing coming before the need for publication. “No one becomes a writer overnight,” she said. Several times during our discussion she reinforced the need for time and focus, the inevitability of the aloneness and quiet that one experiences as a writer. Becoming a writer to Haigh is an evolutionary process. She always wanted to write, so she wrote. “The writing you control,” Haigh said. She feels that what happens once the writing is finished and sent out with the hope of publication is subject to so many variables that are not within personal control. Jennifer Haigh writes from a creative spirit. Her books have no biographical slant nor does she intend to write with a theme. “I love research,” she said, and her stories are often born through a serendipitous experience during research. For example, it was while doing medical research for a project never written that she stumbled across Turner’s Syndrome, the medical affliction Gwen suffers from in The Condition. From that discovery of a chromosomal abnormality, the story of Gwen and her family was conceived. It is the discovery that triggers her inspirational thought processes, the discovery that births the story.

Jennifer Haigh has had no concrete future agenda for what happens with the work after she has completed the writing, she simply writes. And through writing, her well-rounded characters develop; the story evolves. Later, when the book has left her control, the reader will lift the story from the page and allow it entry into their world. It is there, in the reader’s world, where insight may be drawn from Haigh’s gift to us. The gift of her time and focus, the weaving of her words that crafts her fiction.

***Rene Schwiesow is a Massachusetts poet and writer, co-host of The Art of Words poetry venue in Plymouth, MA.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

All Of Your Messages Have Been Erased by Vivian Shipley

All Of Your Messages Have Been Erased

Vivian Shipley

Louisiana Literature Press

ISBN 978-0-945083-28-3

2010 $14.95


"but you will still inhale my history"

In trying to live with the full, "squall", tipping the poetic boat ,

to the point of sickness, Shipley's poems rock reality, like a sibling

who always excels at everything, and finds no comfort trying

to speak with a father who is always composing in his head:


"Who cherishes the crooked, the stained, the crossed eyed?

Here for forty-seven years, silence has embalmed me,

I will die soon. I was twenty-eight in 1935 when with chain

linked logic my mother and Giorgio, my brother, quarantined

me for life in this asylum outside of Paris. For them, everything

was either flat or upright. I was not insane, but they wanted

to cage their history, razor my face out of family photos.

At first, I used to hurl a pewter vase into my window to hear

something break. Some days I never unclenched my teeth.

but helium filled, my anger defated. Now, I keep my pain

walled, knowing it's all there is left to feel. My body sloughed

off home. Yet, Because memory is a tapeworm threading

through my veins, in spring, I can not sit on a lawn chair near

purple lilac. I am seventy-five. I can't tourniquet my nerves

but I have been able to dam expectations, even in my heart."…


We are forced to hold our breath while the poems hold us under

water. Opening our eyes trying not to resist before our last

breath escapes and we drown or push ourselves to the surface.

Coming from a place we are not at home with. The individual

experiences in this book, each poem expose us to the inner

longings of others:


"…fingering the peel like Braille or a palm reader unable to predict

her own future. I had stored my poems on a disk, turning from

words that flattened injustice, unwilling to file genital mutilation

under G, rape under R. I was a woman of action, pictured Eve

barging up the river…"


and the others become part of the history, so long dismissed, so

many clouds hiding a sliver moon, even the full moon,

that feminine presence which silhouettes so many woody waves

that some people find themselves walking on water or trying

to traverse the night, without a map. so many stars can be seen

when Shipley puts us in touch, lifts our heads out of the water,

takes the apple out of our mouth and reads to us.

Irene Koronas


Ibbetson Street Press

Poetry Editor

Wilderness House Literary Review

Monday, October 18, 2010

Stone Soup Poetry Founder Jack Powers: Doug Holder Looks Back…

Stone Soup Poetry Founder Jack Powers: Doug Holder Looks Back…

By Doug Holder

The last time I saw Jack Powers was the last night I worked at McLean Hospital in the summer of 2009. Out of the blue he visited me with his companion Margaret at Waverly House, the hospital program that I worked at for the past seven years. The house was empty save for my co-worker Richard Wilhelm, who also has been involved with my Ibbetson Street Press since its inception in 1998. Jack obviously had seen better times. He had suffered several strokes, so this always articulate man was alarmingly mute. That was the last time I remember seeing him. I knew he was in a nursing home in the North End of Boston. My friend, the poet and artist Deborah Priestly recently told me he was near the end. She later told me that he passed.

I had lost touch with Jack the past few years. But I can remember 10 years ago bringing a rather affected editor of some tony arts magazine to Jack's ramshackle abode so we could conduct an interview. The editor hailed from some upscale suburb and had a fancy degree from some arts college. He was cutting edge, and as haughty as Betty Davis in her prime. He seemed very dismissive of Jack. He looked askance at his bohemian digs. But I think after the meeting he was rather impressed with this very complex and nuanced man. He just wouldn’t invite him to his Lincoln, Mass. cocktail parties or anything.

In addition to the above mentioned interview, I also had conducted several solo interviews with Jack at his apartment around this same time. This ranged from his birth at Boston City Hospital, to his last apartment in the North End of Boston. This was before he became incoherent from the booze and the strokes.

I had been aware of his poetry series since the 1970’s when I was an undergraduate at Boston University. I was even in the audience at one of his events back then. In those times I had no idea of myself as a poet so I never read.

He was a striking man in the old days, with a thick black Afro, broad shoulders, and standing well over six feet tall. He was to say the least charismatic. He was admired by many women and men alike; he had a deep and commanding reading voice, and was very adept with hand gestures. When he read he evoked something in you—you reacted—you weren’t inert. He was deeply spiritual; a mixture of Boston housing project Catholicism and Eastern Religion.

His gone-to-seed apartment in the North End was a living archive. In a dark and damp basement there were piles of letters, posters, and books from the poetry world. He used to show me correspondence from Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Herbert Huncke, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and many others in his makeshift living room. There were piles of videos of the thousands of poetry readings he held over the years. I once asked my friend Mike Basinski, the curator of the University of Buffalo Poetry and Rare Books Archive to come down to Boston and bring back items from Jack’s apartment to start a Jack Powers collection. But when Basinski arrived Jack couldn’t bare to part with his stuff. It was so much a part of him. A second skin, an arm or leg—his heart.

Jack showed me a good selection of the eighty or so books he published under his Stone Soup imprint. Many of the poets he published are now in academic posts and in the bright lights of the literary world. Ironically, this is not where Jack felt comfortable. Most any poet I have talked to has had some experience with Jack. They have either got their start at one of his venues, or passed through there. I read for the first time there in 1985, and I was absolutely thrilled. I read my McLean Hospital poems, and Jack was very encouraging. Julie Stone, his long-time girlfriend was also very supportive. The rest is history—I haven’t stopped reading since.

I will always will be grateful to Jack for the help he gave us putting out the anthology “City of Poets: 18 Boston Voices” (Singing Bone Press 2000). He got blurbs from his old pals Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Lyn Lifshin, and Dianna der Hovanessian. He set us up with his printer in Boston and he promoted the hell out of the book.

When Timothy Gager and I started The Somerville News Writers Festival in 2003 I wanted and did give Jack the first annual Ibbetson Street Press Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to the small press. Jack was always a friend of the small press—to the poet “outside the academy.” And he gave a voice and a venue to them.

From his early days Jack was dismissed by the mandarins of the Boston poetry world. He started Stone Soup in 1971 at the foot of Beacon Hill (or as it was know “Beatnik Hill”) as a reaction to this. Although many poets have not read at the hallowed halls of Harvard, or the Blacksmith House, and other venues of that ilk, he always gave a place for them at Stone Soup.

Like many artists and writers from Robert Lowell, to his pal John Wieners, to Anne Sexton, he suffered for substance abuse and perhaps mental illness. It is hard in this society to live as an artist. But Jack did. His last years were spent in poverty, surviving on the kindness of strangers and friends like the street artist Sidewalk Sam. Deborah Priestly was a close friend and was with him near the end and Chad Parenteau, carries on the tradition of Stone Soup at the Out of the Blue Gallery in Cambridge.

Jack Powers—no matter what you thought of him-- inspired countless people. He inspired me to start the Ibbetson Street Press that publishes poetry books like Stone Soup did. He truly believed poetry could transform things, and as he put it “You translate yourself when you write a poem.” This quote needs no translation…it comes from the heart—may he rest in peace.