Friday, March 08, 2013

GRAND MAL Poetry by Dennis Mahagin

Poetry by Dennis Mahagin
Paper,  $12.95
122 pages
ISBN 978 1 60864 051 5


Review by Susan Tepper

GRAND MAL Book Review

What makes Dennis Mahagin run?  Run, as in jet engine propelling tons of steel down a runway and up into the sky.  From his opening poem GRAND MAL W / GROWN UP, it’s clear things are out on the table:

“Back then there was Grandma, / stuffing your thoughtless pie hole / with a freshly-bought / Ivory soap cake, / after you just popped off / to your impressionable siblings / at breakfast, a wisecrack / about the sweet / peach ridge panty cleft / on February’s / Sports Illustrated / swimsuit cover model— /… ”

GRAND MAL can be frantic, it’s often funny, often strung out, yet the craft here never wavers.  The poems hang together the way a talented musician knows to assemble dissonant chords, making them something powerful and profound that will move people; provided it’s done without strain or artifice.  For many years Mahagin was a bass player and song writer— no surprise!  Music punches up each of his fractured poetic lines, so when they coalesce into lyrical scenes they move and shout and lament from that deep well in the land of the down and out: the almost dead; or dead for all practical purposes. 

So why Grand Mal?  Medically speaking, Grand Mal is a seizure characterized by 4 phases (there’s an epigram explaining each Phase as it delineates the book’s 4 sections).  Mahagin writes in BANISHING THE SNAKES: 

“It’s a go-fast world, and green / is the color of my disease— / … / I’ve done that / Riverdance sidestep, / caught the flak of dripping fang / that makes you so dreadful sick; / and I can tell you: no driftwood / wishbone stabbing stick at arms length / will work on this bitch it’s strictly up / close and personal, under your thumb / in a fire nozzle grip, until she opens wide, / blasting poison like syphilis piss / on a slush bank…”  (from Phase 1). 

Sub-dividing the book in this way allows the poems a forward momentum that tightens narrative tension, while at the same time maintaining the Grand Mal as its driving metaphor.   He writes in FARE:  “The Laotian impresario / at the outcall agency / recommended her / as a star in his stable: / “She go slow— she so / con-sooo-mate… pro.” / Now, as she slips on / the glistening condom / with her mouth / in a frisson of python, he bats back / the eyelid splash of rushing purple dusk /…”  (from Phase 2). 
So what makes Mahagin run?  Perhaps the demons of his past, present, and the always uncertain future, which is part and parcel of what makes poetry such a compelling art form.  Some can channel these demons better than others.  Mahagin puts it transparently out there, saying to anyone who happens to amble by, for a read:  “Stuff they give / to empty you / out, / makes sleep / tough, / getting up / to go, crapper / to sack , and back / …”  from ENDOSCOPY (Phase 4).  

GRAND MAL  is the second book by this prolific poet.   I eagerly anticipate more. 
—Susan Tepper

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Novelist Perry Glasser: Sending Archie Andrews to a Brothel

Perry Glasser has lived in Haverhill, Mass for the past 30 years, but he still has the brash, streetwise  persona, of a What Makes Sammy Run--like  Brooklyn Jewish kid that he once was. Glasser who has taught writing at Salem State University for many years, is an accomplished man with five books to his credit, the most recent:  Riverton Noir, which won the Gival Press Novel Award  for 2011. The novel deals with a bunch of teenage characters in a fictional Riverton, Mass. and it hysterically sends up the relatively pristine 1950s notion of the teenager exemplified by Archie Comics.  I had the good fortune to interview Glasser on my Somerville Community Access TV show  Poet to Poet :Writer to Writer.

Doug Holder: You have lived in Haverhill, Mass. the home of the late Andre Dubus. Many writers that I interviewed on this show have been in his workshop he used to hold out there. What is your association with him?
Perry Glasser: I met Andre at a writers conference years ago where he was running a workshop. I guess there were about 15 people in the class...we became good friends. I assisted him. I read a lot the manuscripts so he didn't have to. (Laugh) He had just got married to his wife Peggy. I remember his daughter Candice as an infant. A couple of years later I got a call from Bradford College where Dubus taught. He said he was moving on from his position there, and wanted to know if I wanted to take a shot at it. So I took the job. I applied for it and I was accepted.
DH: They made a film based on Dubus' fiction, didn't they?
PG: Yeah. We Don't Live Here Anymore. The film wasn't too good. His son's novel The House of Sand and Fog was made into a film and it was much better. When Andre lll learned that his novel was to be was one day after his father died. So he never knew that his son was going to be a big deal. Then Oprah picked the book up. I always say if you have a choice between the Pulitzer and Oprah, pick Oprah--you sell more books. (Laugh).
DH: In your novel  Riverton Noir you have a sort of jaded, hip, sexually-advanced group of teenagers, involved in drugs, murder and mayhem. Are you throwing pie in the face of the 1950s version of the typical teenager?
PG: The answer is yes. Haverhill, Mass. is the birthplace of Archie Comics. When I first moved there over 30 years ago there were people who claimed they knew the characters, which was of course impossible. The comic was designed by a World War ll vet. The Archie Comics annoyed me, perhaps because I taught school in New York City  for 10 years.  My sense of who were typical were not the kids in the Archie Comics. I mean the female characters were divided into three categories: blonde, redhead and brunette. Hair color was how they were classified. I created a dark plot. I wanted dark lives for my high school kids. I fell in love with the protagonist--Madge. She's puzzled by the fact that everyone who lives in Rivereton, appears not to grow old. She begins to think she is in a fictional plot. And then there is the pressure of the real world to contend with...drugs enter into Riverton.
DH: You seem to have a great knowledge of drug use or should I say abuse.
PG: I asked a student of mine about drug use--who had a boyfriend who knew much too much about it. I found out about different doses of drugs, what colors are the pills  etc... I found out if you are abusing painkillers--you want to chew the pills rather than have them go down slowly--this way you can get an immediate hit. I did research. I didn't come from a druggie past.
DH: I remember reading an essay of yours about these brilliant, eccentric but troubled youth you have taught over the years. They later wound up killing themselves. Are any of these characters based on this?
PG: That's very astute. The two formative experiences in my life--are the fact that I was a single parent, and an English teacher at a all girl's school in NYC. This was in 1969. I was a 60s boy and this was the inner city. I thought I was going to bring the revolution to people who needed it. But I of course was the guy who became educated. The kids did not want to change the system--they wanted to get into it. Much of my fiction expressed this, especially through my female characters. These characters are the archetypical young women I met while teaching. My characters experience some of the same things my students did. And to some extent my own daughter--although she was not a character in the novel. The characters are mash ups of several other people. Madge would be the most like me. She is not happy to accept things the way they are. And she uses the strategies young women need to in order to succeed, especially in the crime-ridden milieu of the novel.
DH:  There is a lot of graphic violence and sex. Have you got any flack?
PG: I wish I did--then there would be more people reading it. I haven't gotten any flack. But it is difficult to find pages that I can use at a public reading.
DH: You teach Creative Writing at Salem State University--how do you go about engaging the students?
PG: You give of yourself. You are honest. A student will eventually ask you in class: "What do you think?" You are obliged to tell them rather than evade them. I also think all good teachers are good actors. You also have to provide structure--so the student has the comfort of knowing what comes next and how each step is related to the other.
DH: One of your characters is a sort of Ma Barker-like Jewish aunt. She could cook Matzo Ball Soup, and at the same time be a den mother for a bunch of nefarious criminal types. She was also very literate.
PG: She is based on my first mother-in-law. She was a Holocaust survivor--she smoked cigarettes --and was very well read. She grew up in Vienna--she knew Freud. She was not a drug dealer like the fictional character Sasha. I am grateful to her because she brought  me above my provincial upbringing in Brooklyn.
DH: You have a great talent for dialogue. Your remind of the Boston area crime writer George Higgins of The Friends of Eddie Coyle  fame. I loved his line: "Life is tough and it's tougher if you are stupid."
PG: This is great. I adore Higgins. I don't make up dialogue. I record what my characters are saying. What they are saying in my head. I transcribe what I hear in my mind. It gets sharper when I revise it. It is easy to hear Sasha's voice because she was based on my mother-in-law. So I am either psychotic because I hear voices or else my characters just play out in my mind.
DH: You are a great admirer of Raymond Chandler too?
PG: Chandler is one of the strongest writers ever. I don't think he was a great mystery writer--he was a great writer--period. He gets the feel of the West Coast down cold. William Faulkner did at least two screen treatments of Chandler novels.
DH: Do movies influence your work?
PG:  The movie  Pulp Fiction certainly did. The dialogue is priceless.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Women Musicians Network 16th Annual Concert, with guest CD Collins, March 7 at the Berklee Performance Center.

Women Musicians Network 16th Annual Concert, with guest CD Collins, March 7 at the Berklee Performance Center.

By Kirk Etherton

Award-winning poet, spoken-word artist, and activist CD Collins is the Special Guest at this year’s WMN concert. “We’re thrilled to have CD in the show,” says Lucy Holstedt, co-director, and concert M.C. “She is a great, courageous artist. I’ve admired her work for years.”

CD will be performing the title track from her just-released album, “Clean Coal/Big Lie.” In a recent radio interview, Collins thanked Holstedt for putting together a talented backing band of Berkee women students “who helped me take this piece to a new level.”

The concert—which is produced by the WMN student club at Berklee College of Music—has 13 acts this year. In original jazz, you’ll hear a contemporary big band, vocal soloists, and a virtuosic Israeli recorder player. Co-director Christiane Karam is bringing her Balkan choir to the show for the second time.

Other acts: R&B, rock, Scandinavian folk, and very hip Italian a cappella doo-wop. All together, 100 performers are involved (including about 25 male students). Men are definitely welcome on stage and in the audience.

Says CD Collins, “this is always such a fun, fine, and diverse show. I’m honored to be part of it this year.”

Tickets/ more info. at, or at the B.P.C. box office.
$8 in advance / $12 day of the show. The concert is 8:15 pm – 10:00 pm. Doors open at 7:45

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Legally Dead by Dan Hunter

Legally Dead by Dan Hunter

In June 2011 when Dan Hunter's play Legally Dead had its first reading it was a serious drama.  Almost 2 years and 22 or perhaps 23 drafts later (the author himself was not even sure of the number) the play has developed into a comedy.  The playwright explains that this is what he discovered the play was apparently meant to be in the first place.  This discovery could have put the project on the right path if the author did not take things to such extremes in an attempt to make sure the play would be humorous. The play doesn't know if it should be a dark humor piece or a farce so it ends up being neither.  The humor is dark but not dark or interesting enough, and it doesn't have the lightness and sparkle to be farce.

The play would have been better served if the author had taken a lighter hand when he developed the humor.  There is not much subtlety here.  The quips and zingers come at you fast and furious without letup or real pacing.  This would not be as much of a problem perhaps if the jokes were not so one-note and in the same few veins.  They get very tired very quickly.

But then what can be expected when the characters are all crafted in a way that makes them very one-dimensional.  Each character seems to have his or her few specific odd traits, which Hunter pushes to the limit.  We have the alcoholic doddering mother Marsha (Kippy Goldfarb) with her various bottles stashed in all sorts of cracks and crevices in the home and even on her person, the germ-phobic Jesus-loving younger daughter Rebecca (Jen Alison Lewis), high-strung elder daughter Annie (Adrianne Krstansky) a lawyer with high gambling debts pursued by criminals and the recently released ex-con son Tommy (Christopher James Webb) who wants to take over the family business.  These are 4 of the 5 members of the Lincoln family. 

Missing is the patriarch of the family, who disappeared 5 years prior we discover into the play.  It is interesting to have the play center on a character who is MIA, not present but talked about.  But surprisingly not much is really made of the father's mysterious disappearance.  And no one seems particularly concerned or affected by his absence.  Only the younger daughter Rebecca seems to maintain any hope that he may still be alive, but then there is no speculation why he left and why he would stay away.  Filial love, as well as marital bliss between the parents come quickly into doubt.  It becomes clear very soon what the different possibilities are for what may have happened to the father. 

This is quite a disfunctional family, one of the most I have seen in a while, and in that the author does succeed.  I was not sure if this dysfunctionality was the cause or effect of the father being missing.  Nothing really is explained or occurs with any sort of logic.  This is exemplified perhaps by what happens at the very beginning when the younger daughter ends up killing her mother's incontinent dog when washing him and then vacuuming him, and then tries to hide the body from the mother and other members of the family.  More is made of the missing dog in fact than one imagines was ever made of the missing father.

Much of the story and its zany over the top characters come from Hunter's life.  He also is from the mid-west as are the family at the core of the story, the Lincolns, who have a prosperous car business that sells models by the namesake manufacturer Lincoln naturally.

The play is set on Christmas Eve, with Marsha looking forward to a reunion with all three of her children.  This will in fact be the first time they are all together since brother Tommy hired a hit man to kill them, why we can only guess, and only Annie harbors any fear or ill-will for his past actions.  But then Annie is dead-set to have her family sign a document she has drawn up to have the MIA father declared legally dead.  This is perhaps about time, and it would allow the family’s assets to be unfrozen and their car dealership to be sold.  Though a smart lawyer, Annie has some serious gambling and drinking problems, and now owes some very bad men a lot of money.  But then getting anyone in the family to agree to anything is a futile exercise, and everyone has their own agenda though some deal-making is attempted.  Money seems ultimately the common bond in the family and everyone is desperately trying to find the will to prove their claim to the family fortune.  But then what will turn up first, the body of Marsha's beloved pooch or the father's will?

The play's running time is 100 minutes and there is no intermission.  This is a piece that would have benefited from a short break.  Since there are several mysteries here to sort out and myriad of family secrets to be revealed, it would have been quite suitable to have a cliff-hanger of sorts leading into an intermission before things were revealed or discovered in the second act.

Much was probably expected from this new play by Hunter, who had received acclaim with his play RED ELM, also produced at the BPT.  Unfortunately the promise does not get delivered here, and perhaps yet another draft is called for.  Still the very capable team of actors and director Steven Bogart do their best with the material given them.  Probably the star of the production is the set designed by Christina Todesco; it is a wonderfully kitchy electric blue kitchen with all sorts of garish Christmas decorations including a life-sized Santa’s sleigh pulled appropriately enough by pink flamingos in flight above.

The Boston Playwrights Theatre production of Dan Hunter’s “Legally Dead.” Directed by Steven Bogart. At the Boston Playwrights Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston.