Saturday, October 15, 2011

An Afternoon with Tranströmer in Stockholm by Steven Ford Brown

Article by Steven Ford Brown

An Afternoon with Tranströmer in Stockholm

I first met Monica and Tomas Tranströmer in 1983, in Houston. I had left my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, to attend a graduate writing program and nominated myself to pick them up at the airport. We immediately had a connection, since I had met Robert Bly in the 1970s and published a special feature on his poetry in Aura Literary Arts Review, a magazine I edited for the English Department of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. They were delighted as their close relationship with Bly dated back to the 1960s.

The arrival of the Tranströmers on campus coincided that week with the arrival of Howard Moss,the poetry editor of The New Yorker. Ambition is very much an American trait, and most of the writing students chose to spend time with Moss on the chance he might choose their work for publication. That left the Tranströmers to me, and so I gave them a guided tour of the city. We lunched at an Asian restaurant and visited a music store where Tomas could buy sheet music for piano to add to his growing library at home. Since childhood Tomas had played piano, and he was as talented with music as he was with poetry. The rest of the week Tomas conducted a poetry workshop and met individually with students. He concluded his residency with a reading before a large and enthusiastic audience.

Tomas was aware I was a publisher, and before he left asked if I would publish a small selection of prose poems from a book soon to be published in Sweden. I said yes, and the result was then the only American selection from the book, a beautifully designed bilingual (Swedish to English) chapbook titled, Det Blå huset (The Blue House). It included the originals and translations to English by Göran Malmqvist, a prominent Swedish writer, literary critic, Nobel jurist for the literature prize, and friend of Tranströmer.

Illustrated with striking blue water colors by artist and poet David Chorlton of Arizona, the Cultural Office of the Swedish Embassy funded the chapbook. I gave several hundred copies to Tomas, and he gave them all away to audiences at various readings on his next American reading tour.

At the airport, despite just meeting them and spending only a week together, I was sad to see them go. As the plane lifted into blue skies toward Europe, I did not think of Tomas as a famous man but as good and kind, gentle in his way, perceptive as in his poetry. The connection and love I saw between Monica and Tomas made it impossible over the years to think of one without the other.

We corresponded sporadically after he left. I would not see him again until ten years later. Soon after I moved from Houston to Boston, I became a member and board member of the New England Poetry Club. Founded in 1915 at Harvard University by Conrad Aiken, Robert Frost, and Amy Lowell, the Poetry Club sponsored a regular reading series, the oldest continuous series in the country. Within a year of joining the Board, I used my previous grant writing experience to help write a successful grant of $5,000 to the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C., for support of the reading series. The NEA grant included a stipend and travel expenses to bring Tomas Tranströmer from Sweden to Boston for a reading in Cambridge.

Tranströmer read to a packed audience in one of the seminar rooms at Harvard. More than 300 people filled seats and lined the walls of the room as he read. In reading, Tomas provided explanations of his poems and used his dry sense of humor to add levity. And then there were the poems, the beautiful, luminous, remarkable poems.

The after-party was held in Cambridge at the home of Diana Der-Hovanessian, president of the Poetry Club. I made my way through the party to Tomas, and he remarked how strange it was to have previously seen me in the flat, dry landscape of Texas and now here in the snowy landscape of New England. He was in robust health, vibrant, engaged with the party people. It would be another fifteen years before I would see him again.

Some years later, I ran into Diana Der-Hovanessian on a street in Harvard Square, and she told me Tomas had suffered a stroke. The details were unclear. This was stunning news as he was still a young man in his 60s and had lived a healthy lifestyle. Details began to emerge from various sources over the next year. I did not write to Monica because I felt it would be intrusive to ask questions.

In January 2007, I resigned my job and left Boston to live in various European cities: Amsterdam, Barcelona, Dublin, London, Paris. Flights then within the European Union were cheap: $40 American to fly from Madrid to Rome. I obtained a residency at the Swedish Writers Union in Stockholm, and in March flew from Barcelona to Stockholm. I took a train from the airport and taxied to the Writer’s Union, a three-story building that included a flat owned by the Union. I had the address but could not read the sign in Swedish. The pass code for the door did not work, so I had to wait until someone came out to go in. I found the director waiting for me in a three bedroom apartment on the second floor. It was small but nicely appointed with private bedrooms and a common area. I would share with a middle-aged German man from Berlin, who wrote plays for radio and television, and a young, attractive Russian woman from Moscow, who taught at a university and translated fiction by Cheever, Faulkner, and Vonnegut into Russian. Over dinner, we discussed our different experiences in the literary world.

Once settled, I called Monica and arranged a meeting at their apartment. The Tranströmer flat was in an older building and included an ancient, creaky lift with ornamental iron gate. The apartment itself was spacious and charming. Through large windows oriented to the harbor, we could see the ferries as they departed to Finland.

When I walked into the room, Tomas became animated. I could see, however, the effects of the stroke. Paralyzed on the right side of his body, his arm was perpetually curled to his chest. He possessed very little speech. He communicated with Monica in his own peculiar abbreviated language she telepathically understood and translated for me.

I presented him with a recent book, Century of the Death of the Rose, my translation from the Spanish of Ecuadorian poet Jorge Carrera Andrade. I knew he would be sympathetic with the style of poetry. His eyes lit up, as he directed Monica to retrieve a magazine from his study. The Danish literary magazine Bogens Verden featured his photos on the cover. The entire issue was devoted to his life and work in celebration of his 75th birthday a few years before. With his good hand, he directed me to a page. The text was in Danish, but there was a list of his top ten influences and favorite poems. What a surprise! My poet Carrera Andrade was at the top. The list also included T.S. Eliot and other classic poets of the century.

With strong tea in porcelain cups and delicate pastries on a polished silver platter, we had a small party. Then Tomas played piano. Although it is true the right side of his body suffered the strongest blow from the stroke and his arm and hand were now helpless, he could walk, and was insistent he not be helped. He had spent his career as a psychologist helping accident and stroke victims with their disabilities, so he was unusually well prepared to deal with this transformative act to his body.

At the piano, Tomas played only with left hand. In the musical world, there is a whole genre written for piano for left hand. The genre of compositions evolved from handicaps of pianists who had lost an arm or hand. The German Paul Wittgenstein lost his right arm during World War I, but he resumed a musical career by asking several composers to write pieces for piano that only required the use of one hand. Tranströmer had retained his musical powers, and they were now fully concentrated in his left.

The Swedish afternoon outside grew late. Through the windows the apartment gathered the darkness into itself. I thought of a line from “The Couple,” a Tranströmer poem: “They switch off the light and its white shade/ glimmers for a moment before dissolving/like a tablet in a glass of darkness.”

Tomas left to go to his study. Monica and I moved to the kitchen. She opened a closet to reveal a large collection of books. They were all the Tranströmer books translated from Swedish into some sixty other languages. The time of our meeting was exciting because new books had just been translated and published into Arabic and Chinese. There were five copies of my own The Blue House in the stack. We sat and talked. Our conversation moved to Robert Bly, now also in his late 70s, and she remembered the first time they met Bly in the 1960's. She likened their relationship during those years to young schoolboys, inflamed by the passion of their explorations in the new modernism of poetry.

Swedish poetry to an American in the 1960s was exotic, if they ever even thought of it. The hip college crowd and cultural intellectuals of the era knew the films of Ingmar Bergman and plays of August Strindberg, but no one knew anything about Swedish poetry. Then Bly began translating and presenting the poetry of Tranströmer to English language audiences. Along with his essay "Looking for Dragon Smoke," on the concept of deep image poetry, and his translations of Neruda, Georg Trakl, and Vallejo, he was creating a powerful new presence for world poetry in translation on the American poetry scene.

In 1975, Boston’s Beacon Press published Bly’s edition of Friends, You Drank Some Darkness: Three Swedish Poets – Harry Martinson, Gunnar Ekelof, and Tomas Tranströmer. The book was immediately influential by introducing several generations of poets that demonstrated the lineage of modernism in Swedish poetry. Bly translated and published early American editions of Tranströmer English poetry collections, including Twenty Poems, Night Vision, and Truth Barriers. In 1979, Ironwood, a literary magazine in Arizona published a special issue on Tranströmer with essays by prominent American and Swedish writers.

Over the next four decades an increasing number of translators published Tranströmer books in America and the U.K., as he became popular on the U.S. university reading circuit. One of the jokes Tomas told me was he was being paid so much money by American universities he had to visit Swedish tax officials to ask how to do his taxes. He was not used to celebrity he suddenly had in America, and at the time he was rarely paid large sums of money in Sweden or Europe to lecture and read.

As I departed Sweden, I thought how I had now enjoyed the company of the Tranströmers in three landscapes on two continents over three decades. It is not often in life we have the good fortune to meet someone we admire, someone who has influenced our life and work. It was also reassuring to know despite misfortune Tomas was still strong. He still wrote and practiced piano every day, and Monica was a constant loving presence at his side.

When last I saw him, I understood he had insisted on not the defeat of disability, but the embrace of the victory of an active and continuing life. He still performed piano concerts and readings, although he would now have Monica, an actor, or fellow poet read for him.

As recently as yesterday the betting odds in the London betting parlors to win the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature were on either Syrian poet Adonis (Ali Ahmed Said) or Tranströmer. This morning in the few hours before the announcement it looked as if the odds had swung to Bob Dylan or Haruki Murakami. Several European newspapers already were reporting online it was Dylan. And then the news came early this morning: It’s Tranströmer! The Nobel announcement on European television was thirty-six seconds long. In the announcement there was reference to Tranströmer's “lumnious poems that show us all a new window of reality.”

To understand the beauty, power, and reach of Tranströmer’s poetry it is useful to know translations of his poetry into Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Macedonian, Romanian, Spanish, and Vietnamese are popular in those countries. An idea or image in a line of poetry by Tranströmer translates very well into the Arabic or Chinese heart and mind. Imagine a room of college students in Croatia, Indonesia, or Vietnam debating the meaning of “After a Death,” a well-known Tranströmer poem written after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

A typical Tranströmer poem will indeed include windows and striking images of perception that have ability to translate to a common readership across cultural, ethnic, and linguistic barriers. Thus he has become a populist poet, a traditional role in global societies that has declined in a modern world tied together by technology. Among scholars and the general reading public in countries such as China, Egypt, India, Lebanon, and Pakistan, there is still great respect for poetry and its tradition. In the West we have given ourselves over to technology, we are wired into it. Against the daily backdrop of a blizzard of words and images from the internet, we need powerful impulses to help return us to a connection to the natural world. The flickering screen of the computer consumes us. In this digital age poetry has lost its attraction. Consider that in this era, Twitter is the digital version of yesterday’s haiku.

Tomas Tranströmer is an international literary figure of great stature. With translations of his poetry in more than sixty languages, he is the most widely read poet in our lifetime. He has helped bring Sweden to the world and the world to Sweden. His poetry offers opportunities to see things in new ways, to view ourselves against the backdrop of cities and landscapes, the inner and outer worlds we simultaneously live in. His poetry speaks to all of us of what it is to live, to love, survive and thrive as a human being in this troubled world.

Prose poems from The Blue House by Tomas Tranströmer

Below Zero

We are at a feast which doesn’t love us. At last the feast sheds its mask and shows itself for what it really is: a switchyard, Cold colossi sit on rails in the mist. A piece of chalk has scribbled on the freightcar doors.

It musn’t be said, but there is much suppressed violence here. That’s why the features are so heavy. And why it’s so hard to see that other thing which also exists: a mirrored glare of sun which moves across the house wall and glides through the unknowing forest of flickering faces. a Bible text never written down: “Come to me, for I am laden with contradictions like you yourself.”

Tomorrow I’m working in another city. I whizz there through the morning hour which is a blue—black cylinder. Orion hovers above the frozen ground. Children stand in a silent crowd, waiting for the school bus. children for whom no one prays. The light grows slowly like our hair.


Reply to a Letter

In the bottom drawer I find a letter which arrived for the first time twenty- six years ago. A letter written in panic, which continues to breathe when it arrives for the second time.

A house has five windows; through four of them daylight shines clear and still. The fifth window faces a dark sky, thunder and storm. l stand by the fifth window. The letter.

Sometimes a wide abyss separates Tuesday from Wednesday, but twenty-six years may pass in a moment. Time is no straight line. but rather a labyrinth. and if you press yourself against the wall, at the right spot, you can hear the hurrying steps and the voices. you can hear yourself walking past on the other side.

Was that letter ever answered? l don`t remember, it was a long time ago. The innumberable thresholds of the sea continued to wander. The heart continued to leap from second to second, like the toad in the wet grass of a night in August.

The unanswered letters gather up above, like cirrostratus clouds foreboding a storm. They dim the rays of the sun. One day l shall reply. One day when l am dead and at last free to collect my thoughts. Or at least so far away from here that l can rediscover myself. When recently arrived I walk in the great city. On 25th Street, on the windy streets of dancing garbage. I who love to stroll and merge with the crowd. a letter T in the infinite body of text.


Icelandic Hurricane

No earth tremor, but a skyquake. Turner could have painted it, secured by ropes. A single mitten whirled past right now, several miles from its hand. Facing the storm I am heading for that house on the other side of the field. I flutter in the hurricane. I am being x-rayed, my skeleton hands in its application for discharge. Panic grows while I tack about, I am wrecked, I am wrecked and drown on dry land! How heavy it is. all that 1 suddenly have to carry, how heavy it is for the butterfly to tow a barge! There at last. A final bout of wrestling with the door. And now inside. And now inside. Behind the huge window-pane. What a strange and magnificent invention glass is—to be close without being stricken. . . Outside a horde of transparent splinters of gigantic shapes rush across the lava plain. But I flutter no more. I sit behind the glass, still, my own portrait.


The Blue House

It is night with glaring sunshine. I stand in the woods and look towards my house with its misty blue walls. As though I were recently dead and saw the house from a new angle.

It has stood for more than eighty summers. Its timber has been impregnated, four times with joy and three times with sorrow. When someone who has lived in the house dies it is repainted. The dead person paints it himself, without a brush from, the inside.

On the other side is open terrain. Formerly a garden, now wilderness. A still surf of weed, pagodas of weed, an unfurling body of text, Upanishades of weed, a Viking fleet of weed, dragon heads, lances, an empire of weed.

Above the overgrown garden flutters the shadow of a boomerang, thrown again and again. It is related to someone who lived in the house long before my time. Almost a child. An impulse issues from him, a thought, a thought of will: “create. . .draw. ..” In order to escape his destiny in time.

The house resembles a child’s drawing. A deputizing childishness which grew forth because someone prematurely renounced the charge of being a child. Open the doors, enter! Inside unrest dwells in the ceiling and peace in the walls. Above the bed there hangs an amateur painting representing a ship with seventeen sails, rough sea and a wind which the gilded frame cannot subdue.

It is always so early in here, it is before the crossroads, before the irrevocable choices. I am grateful for this life! And yet I miss the alternatives. All sketches wish to be real.

A motor far out on the water extends the horizon of the summer night. Both joy and sorrow swell in the magnifying glass of the dew. We do not actually know it, but we sense it: our life has a sister vessel which plies an entirely different route. While the sun burns behind the islands.


All prose poems rom The Blue House, translated by Göran Malmqvist, published by Thunder City Press. Copyright © 1987 by Goran Malmqvist. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


****Steven Ford Brown lives in Boston. He is an American journalist, music critic, publisher and translator in Boston, Massachusetts. Brown grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and attended the University of Alabama at Birmingham. After moving to Boston he worked for several local universities. For almost a decade he worked in the European Equities Department of a private investment firm in Boston's Financial District. He resigned his position in January 2006 to travel and live in Europe and pursue a career as a music critic and journalist.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Catalina by Laurie Soriano

Catalina by Laurie Soriano

Review byLawrence Kessenich

The impression I come away with after reading Laurie Soriano’s powerful first book of poetry, Catalina, is that she is a brilliant portraitist. She is like a skilled painter or photographer, who first sees the world with absolute clarity and then selects the details that will make it come alive for us. What she chooses to see most often are people and animals (though the animals are often with people or representing them), as a quick perusal of her poem titles reveals: Tim Roach, Parents, Sister, Turtles, Dogs, My Birds, Florence, Charlie’s Widow, Blessed Woman, Dogs II, Cat, Parrot, Fireflies.

But Soriano also has a discerning eye for the settings in which she and the people and animals she observes live. Take, for example, the first two stanzas of “Swimming Pool with Child,” where she moves from pool to child effortlessly:

A painting of blue and light—
white circles dappling the wall of the pool,
the sun tossing coins on the water’s surface,
the water’s aqua giggling at the bolder sky,

and a child swims the length of it, not yet four,
sturdy legs fluttering like that’s all God made them for,
eyes wide behind goggles. As she swims to me,
her mouth stretches back in a certain grin…

The words are well-chosen and none are wasted. The picture is as sharp and clear as the light of summer in that pool. We are there, in the water with the narrator and the child.

Other poems focus more on the person being portrayed, such as in “Sister”:

My little sister’s body carved itself out
this year, her legs got thin and shy,
like mine, her face took on the planes
and angles of our type of beauty, her hair
became a gleaming boast of abundance.

Or in “My Boy”:

The crack of the bat, and your torquing body
made it, and somehow nine years ago
my body made yours. Your cheeks
are streaked with manly pink,

and those blue eyes, which can glint
with the magic I’ve sprinkled in, those blue eyes
are dull steel, all about nothing
but finding the ball with the bat…

Soriano often deftly uses animal imagery when writing of herself or other people. Take for example the portrait of an aged couple in “Early Birds”:

They are hollow-boned, take their clawed hands
and guide them gently to the car…
Her hair is a puff of white, his a scattering of dry grass.
They bicker still, chirp/cheep in harmony…

Tired from the flight, they totter off to bed…

Bird imagery is again used effectively in “My Birds”:

I am knocked awake the final time;
the morning breathes through the blinds.
Birds are chuckling and singing
in the neighbor’s tree. I lie
still and listen, exhorting the timid
birds in me to call back
to the birds outside. Sing
the sunlight darlings. But my birds
are broken, their wings protrude bones.

As these poems demonstrate, Soriano’s detail doesn’t just convey physical characteristics; it’s loaded with emotional content, too. The reader gets both a vivid physical picture and the subtext of feelings. In a poem such as “Red Wine,” the powerful experience behind the imagery is even more apparent, as in “Bloody liquid, he make me fill his glass / to brimming…” or “…He fills / our glasses like love, daddy never loved me / like wine, and we start thinning our blood with this red stuff…” or “The next night he fills some glasses / so they dome with surface tension.”

“Red Wine” also brings us to the pain that permeates many of Soriano’s poems. This is a woman who has paid her dues, and who, like all great artists, uses her art to transform her suffering into something of beauty—terrible beauty in some cases, but beauty nonetheless. She sees life with a clear eye, and by conveying her own truth in an honest, powerful way, she transcends her pain and helps us transcend our own. This is a poet to watch.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Speaker’s Progress:Sulayman Al-Bassam Theatre: Written and Directed by Sulayman Al-Bassam

The Speaker’s Progress
Sulayman Al-Bassam Theatre
Written and Directed by Sulayman Al-Bassam
October 12-16, 2011
Presented by ArtsEmerson
Playing at the Paramount Center Mainstage
Special Post Performance Discussions

For information and tickets:

Review by Amy Tighe

At the end, the stage is chaotic. The sand that has been flowing from the rafters to the stage has stopped, time is gone now, the unused costumes whisked on stage during the liberation are still neatly hung in a dangling makeshift closet while the costumes that were used, are strewn all over the broken lab equipment. The sail boat has crashed in center stage, and I am not sure if the colleague who was a car mechanic, then a Tourist Board Director, then betrayed his co-workers, then was caged and tortured, is still in his cage. Two women are talking in a soft poetic rhythm. It’s up to the audience to decide what just went on, and in fact, after the play ends, there is a strong hesitation throughout the audience before we start to applaud. I think it’s because we don’t know if we have, indeed, witnessed the end.

Strangely enough, this ending is easier to watch than the beginning of The Speaker’s Progress. The beginning is like walking with a third leg which is not level with the other two—you limp, you regain balance, and then in the next step, you lurch left. You take a few good steps, you understand what is going on and then, without warning, you get unbalanced again and lurch to the right. It’s not arabesque --it’s just unsettling.

The Speaker’s Progress, presented by ArtsEmerson and showing at the Paramount Theatre in its New England Premiere, is written, directed and performed by the Kuwait-based Sulayman Al-Bassam Theatre. Showing for one week only, it is an uncomfortable experience of witnessing censorship, coercion and creativity through a retelling of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. It is definitely worth seeing. Written like nesting dolls that don’t quite fit right, it is a world within a world within a world. Choices in one world stressfully impact all the other dolls, and choices are made frequently throughout the play.

Performed in Arabic with English subtitles, the piece exposes audience members to many facets of Arabic culture. I had the good fortune to sit next to one of the few Arabic speakers in the audience. She told me there were many nuances and exquisite images I missed as a Westerner. I knew I had felt haunted throughout the entire performance and so I simply believe her. Tom Ashbrook, who moderated the discussion afterwards, said this piece breaks stereotypes that many of us in the West may have. Good to know.

The Speaker, our disingenuous guide for the evening, as well as the main character, starts the play from his podium. He explains how Shakespeare’s work was pivotal in building an empire for the British and this can impact Arabic culture as well. Although the play is performed in Arabic, The Speaker speaks flawless English. We rely completely on him to tell us what we see. As a Western audience, we are allowed in to witness Arabic repression and political inertia.

A 1960s performance of Twelfth Night is used to instruct us on current censorship guidelines. Actors playing actors recreate the 1960s version. But inexplicably, mid-scene, an actor, who is playing the car mechanic turned Tourist Board Director, motions subtly to the Speaker, who is still at his podium explaining scenes to us. The two quietly and viciously walk off stage and when The Speaker returns, he recants everything he has just so eloquently said. We witness him participate in his own silencing and we are lost.

In another scene, The Speaker cautions us to cover our eyes—we, of course, still want to believe in him. Bright spot lights are turned on us, O! Innocent Audience, while verses from the Koran are flashed on the screen which we are forced to watch. I think I might be being brainwashed. This is not an easy night of theatre to experience.

In the post performance discussion, Al-Bassam says several times that the ability to express oneself is the first thing to go in a repressed system. He is asked “Who is this written for?” and he laughs. At first, he says, he wrote it as a cry of despair and frustration. But now it is a tribute to the Arab Spring and “the undreamt-of leaps of change that have been made in the Arab world, and that are still to come.” He continues, “For an Arab who is 18 -- to live these last few months alters that 18 year old’s life forever…”

I can’t help it. I think of occupyboston, literally just 6 blocks away. I have been quietly donating to them. The evening at ArtsEmerson has been uncomfortable, but I am getting used to it. Our local and global political and environmental landscape is changing and old forms are falling. I want forms, but which ones? Will the next script have A Speaker who changes in a way I don’t accept? What am I supposed to do?

The placards that the occupiers write are intimate accounts of a system that is deeply unbalanced. “When I am in debt, I am alone. When I occupy, I am with all of us.” “Are you in control of the state we are in?” “I have a job. It’s not working. Now I have an occupation.” “You’ve got money. Use it right.” “I am the 99%.” It makes me clear to myself. I am the 99%. I am here. Just, where the hell is here?

Tonight at the General Assembly the occupiers are discussing what their message is. They have been criticized for not having a clear message, or a list of specific demands. They know they are creating a new language and a new form of community, but they don’t know what it will look like in the end. They know they are willing to occupy their lives to learn and to create. I know I am a witness to democracy gestating. This time it is not a theatre production.

At the post performance discussion, Sulayman Al-Bassam is pointedly asked “What is your message?” He says, “We worked hard to remove a message. This is about getting beyond prepared answers. We actors even used our own names in the play. We are finding a new territory. We are proud that the Kuwaiti government supports this production.”
ArtsEmerson’s motto is “The World on Stage.” Shakespeare said “All the world’s a stage.” Al-Bassam challenges us to see that on and in every stage of our common human pursuit for self expression, there are infinite worlds of possibilities. As a playwright, he asks me to accept this challenge. I do.

My favorite sign at occupyboston is “The beginning is near.” Through a profound performance by Arab artists at the thoughtfully resurrected Paramount and presented by ArtsEmerson, and at the General Assembly by the fragile tent city at Dewey Square, the unscripted expression of human courage and what we all can create is alive in the cement heart of our city. I hope you can enjoy it.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Compartments: Poems on Nature, Femininity and Other Realms by Carol Smallwood

Compartments: Poems on Nature, Femininity and Other Realms by Carol Smallwood (Paper, $15, ISBN: 978-1-937-53600-8, LCCN: 2011912611, 146 pp, 6x9, August 2011, Anaphora Literary Press)

Review by Dr. Christine Redman-Waldemeyer

If there is one thing that vexes a woman, it is her sewing box. Carol Smallwood is the sorter, a poet who can enter a poem and untangle thread. "The Sewing Box" is only one example of how Carol uses language and listing to empty and separate the compartments of our lives. Paying attention to detail she enters myth and the mundane with the same eye. Echoing in Carol's poem, We Are Told, is "It is Beauty alone that remained in Pandora's Box when she opened it-not Hope as we are told." Both poet and practitioner of this understanding, Carol relocates a spider from a gas station to Queen Anne's lace in her backyard, considers ants and their inherent sense to venture out of their home, takes the risk of comparing the tiny creatures to Lewis and Clark and ventures herself into topics that question our femininity. She pushes back, wags her finger at women concerned with Avon or who have masked their voice as a man, revisits her childhood centering on women's ability to gang up on one another, and enters the house behind the "white picket fence." She flips our trained understanding of violence on women towards an understanding that cancer is just as violent. She never ceases to remind us of the ugliness that pervades society that keeps us from loving our neighbor and even seeps into our relationships with family. In A Need to Know Basis she puts a spotlight on our human instinct to look away. Carol can envy and love what is wild. She can shed light on what is cultivated and domestic where there is rain and gray sky. She does not disappoint and will keep your ear tuned to what is outside your window and what enters.

****Dr. Christine Redman-Waldemeyer, founder and editor of Adanna Literary Journal; author of two books of poetry with Muse-Pie Press

Monday, October 10, 2011

Singer/Songwriter Jennifer Matthews brings 'Tales of a Salty Sweetheart' back to Somerville, Mass.

Singer/Songwriter Jennifer Matthews brings 'Tales of a Salty Sweetheart' back to Somerville, Mass.

Interview with Doug Holder

Somerville musician Jennifer Matthews was in the words of Willie Nelson, 'on the road again' for the past several years, and she has brought home 'tales of a salty sweetheart.' The sweetheart is not exactly flesh and blood, but her new album to be released in the spring of 2012 based on her experiences across the country, and in Europe. I met Matthews a number of years ago, and I was impressed not only with her musical acumen, but her strengths as a wordsmith. Later the Ibbetson Street Press published a chapbook of her poetry "Fairytales and Misdemeanors" that is in the library collections of Harvard and Brown Universities, among others. Matthews agrees with me that Somerville is great burg to be an artist, and I have had the privilege to interview some fine musicians like Audrey Ryan, Kristen Ford, Allegra Martin, Yani Batteau, Lucy Holdstedt,(of the Women's Musician Network), and others. So it was good to have dinner with Matthews recently in Union Square and see what she has been up to.

Doug Holder
: You have lived in Somerville on and off for years...and now after a 3 year stint touring Europe, living in Alaska, New Mexico and Austin, Texas you have come back to the Paris of New England --is it good to back home gain?

Jennifer Matthews
: Yes, it is interesting to be back after traveling to and living in these other places. Somerville does have a great creative energy and definitely a very progressive flow, which I can appreciate more now having experienced so many other cultures and towns. One of the significant differences I see is in the world of poetry. Here in Somerville there is a lot to offer for writers on all levels.

DH: Can you tell us about the Female Revolution compilation you were involved for ACM artists? I hear a song of yours is included in a soundtrack for an independent film?

JM: ACM records is a label based out of NYC and they signed on my record 'The Wheel' soon after it was released in 2005. They are a record company that really focuses on placing music in movies, TV, etc... I fond out what they were doing with my songs off that record after the fact... so it is always news to me too. I also found out recently that they placed one of my songs in a movie as well, which also has not yet been released.

:Your songs are often nature-based--and you seem to be open to what non-human and even inanimate objects are telling us if we stop and listen. Did this take conscious practice or do you have a natural poetic sensibility?

:I am a very nature based person... so everything I do tends to flow in and out with the rhythms of life and nature and at times what is unseen but felt through the veil. I tend to naturally tune in to the natural world around me. This tends to reflect in my poetry and lyrics and something as simple as the markings on rocks, or water, sky, ocean, tree can spark a song and filter through the music.... for example in one of my songs 'a dream of you' the lyric is .... "and there was music of a carnival, and you were waltzing under a silky moon and when you spoke the sky would turn from twilight into a haze of water falling blue" ....I am very drawn to the big mountainous areas which has led me to live in such places as Colorado, Alaska, and New Mexico. I like to be deeply in nature as much as possible. It speaks to me on all levels and provides a freedom and space to create. I think that is where the rootsy style of my music comes from... it reflects strength and peace at the same time....just like a mountain.

:You lived in Austin, Texas for a while, which is known as a last bastion for the bohemian, the low rent artists, and the alternative music scene. Give me your impressions of the town?

:Yes, Austin is absolutely more affordable than most places I have been for artists!! Lower rents, lower food and gas prices... and audiences that LOVE original music. I had a great time and really enjoyed playing shows there. I found that the audiences truly appreciate the craft of singing and songwriting!! As for what is surrounding there is Barton Springs that runs through the town of Austin and the actual springs are heavenly... pure water that regenerates itself every day.... lots of cool turtles floating around as well... but that Texas sun does burn blazing and mighty hot for half the year.

: How have the thematics changed in your songwriting since you first hit the scene. Has wisdom tempered some of the fire or is it now more a powerful but controlled entity?

: Yes, still fire, but perhaps a quieter, more reflective one. I have been writing songs for what feels like all my life... so when I write now it feels like an old friend... even though each song is born new, there is a deeper sense of familiarity... and when a great one comes through, it resonates very loudly and deeply.....

: Can you tell us about your upcoming new CD coming out?

JM: This record is a special one for me as it was written over the last three years as I was living a very different life style, on and off the road...traveling extensively.... some days feeling richer and luckier than ever and some days not knowing where my next penny was coming from... missing the loved ones that I am close to here. Through that time I was living the dream in some respects. I was living off the grid on a New Mexico mountain in an artist hand built house made of mud and stucco....we had no running water, only an outhouse.... but was surrounded by gorgeous views, endless freedom, sounds of howling packs of coyotes at night and nature abounding... Other songs were written on the road while on tour playing shows in Alaska, also rural area of Florida, in Italy as well as other states in between that I spent some time in and played shows like Louisiana, Texas,and Arkansas.

This record, I am having a great time with... it is as if I am recording it on my own. I am engineering all of the basic tracks on my 8 Trk Tascam home studio. I have some great local musician friends of mine whom I have played with and recorded with in the past who are adding color to the tracks .... Russell Chudnofsky is laying down some guitar magic as well as Rohin Khemani on drums/percussion and Matt Glover on mandolin and an exotic Bulgarian instrument.

The beauty of this is that it allows me all the time I need to lay down each song in its own time and not have a clock ticking behind me.... and in turn it has a really sweet magic to it in vibe and sound.

I think this collection of songs is one of my best and I am very excited to have it released and share it with the world. Each song has a strength of its own, a strong message and hook ... it has me at my best I think as a singer/songwriter... it is clearly an acoustic, rootsy rock album... of course with a poetic sensibility.

It is entitled 'Tales of a Salty Sweetheart' ... and am working for an early 2012 winter or spring release.

For more information about Jennifer go to

Sunday, October 09, 2011

In the Shadow of Al-Andalus: Poems by Victor Hernandez Cruz

In the Shadow of Al-Andalus
Poems by Victor Hernandez Cruz
ISBN 978-1-56689-277-3
Coffee House Press
Distribution: 800-283-3572

Review by Dennis Daly

Like cubist paintings, the words and the cadences of these poems insist on taking you elsewhere. The Caribbean, Moroccan Africa, and Andalusian Spain are divided and sub-divided into sparkling shards of history and sensuality, then arranged within Cruz’s poetic themes. His poem, The Dance of Blood, begins surreally with the cello of Pablo Casels walking down an Antillean street, answering to the name of Sonia, a black haired Spanish beauty, who is filled with Berber music and historical connections.

“The Mexican composer Agustin Lara wrote the song “La Malaguena” without ever stepping foot in Spain,” says Cruz in his luscious poem, Malaga Figs. “Did he sail his mental frames through the blood rivers of his mestizo bones,” the poet asks. The poem answers in metaphorical music that the physical connections between geographical planes are inherent. As I read this poem I was reminded of D.H. Lawrence’s overtly sexual poem, Figs.

Cruz’s lines are irregular, but rhythmic and often intersect in a geometry of cultural sensuousness, each plane distinct but connected. In his poem, “North Africa,” the San Juan sky is “filled with polvo dust that floated from North Africa: the orgasms of the Sahara.”

New York City in the poem, “Manhattan Transfer,” becomes a “simultaneity of places”, where a rivalry of languages exists, and where Spanish fixtures, such as the picture of San Miguel above the family’s apartment door, encourage accented English. Accents to Cruz are lacerations and scars from the battle of these languages.

Evoking his family history in the poem, Clan, Cruz recalls his young life as “a collision with a new language.” He also recounts the derailment of his Puerto Rican family into an unsettling “new time and dimension.”
The continued richness that Cruz’s unique cross-cultural poetry exhibits in this book is both a rewarding and a timely feast of exploration.