Thursday, June 06, 2013

Poet Philip Burnham, Jr.: A Poet of surfaces and depth

Poet Philip Burnham, Jr.:   A Poet of surfaces and depth

Philip Burnham, Jr. is a poet who can describe the sizzle as well as the steak.  A lake's surface may glitter in the sun, but beneath it are dark, murky depths. Burnham's poetry is a denizen of both settings--the light--the darkness- and everything in between.

Philip E. Burnham, Jr. lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was born in Rochester, New York, and grew up in New England. He attended Groton School, the University of Edinburgh, and Harvard College. A former member of the United States Foreign Service, he served as American Vice Consul in Marseille, France, from 1962 through 1964. For the next 35 years he taught history in both public and private secondary schools and colleges in the Boston area. He holds a PhD in Medieval History from Tufts University. He has traveled extensively in Europe and spent two sabbatical years abroad, one at Cambridge University and another in Paris. He was married to Louise Hassel for 42 years and has three children and four grandchildren, all of whom live in California. Burnham has been published widely, and his latest poetry collection is " Shore Lines" (Ibbetson Street Press.)

I had the pleasure to speak to him on my Somerville Community Access TV show  Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.

Doug Holder:  You are a longtime member of the Somerville, Mass Literary group The Bagel Bards. How important is literary community to you?

Philip Burnham: I think it is very important. I think the Bagel Bards is a great place to come to get ideas--maybe to decompress a bit--and to meet other people who do parallel things. Folks are often involved with readings, working on a book, etc...When you hear about the accomplishments of others it spurs you on to want to do it yourself. I really enjoy listening to other people. Tino Villanueva, who is a Bagel Bard member had a wonderful reading of his poetry collection " So Spoke Penelope" at the Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge. He took  Penelope's perspective as she pined for Odysseus over 20 years. At the reading he spoke about it in Homeric tones--this is the kind of experience you have with the Bagel Bards.

DH: You have a PhD in Medieval History--how did your interest in poetry arise?

PB: Well... I was always into poetry Two things influenced my love of poetry. One was my mother reading poems to me as a kid. We belonged to the Episcopal Church and their hymns were rhymed, metered and set to music. I grew up with those in my head. My father was an English teacher and he knew some poets. In fact he knew Robert Frost. So I was familiar with the poems of poets he knew.

DH: Did you ever meet Frost?

PB: I did actually. I did know Frost.  Once I was in Washington, D.C. and he was reading at the Library of Congress, and we went up to talk to him. I was working at the State Department at the time and he looked me straight in the eye and said: "Don't you think working for the State Department is betraying your country?" This was right after the McCarthy Era. He was a man who talked a lot, and he liked to be the center of attention. I saw him in his native habitat of  Vermont near the end of his life. It was a very rural life and his connection to the land was profound. He saw the landscape--life in the countryside as very dignified and very tragic. I think he saw the isolation of people--it was a lonely life. He was lonely in many ways.

DH: We met years ago at a poetry workshop that I lead at Newton Community Education. You had recently lost your wife. Was poetry therapeutic?

PB: It was extremely therapeutic for me. My first book that you published Sailing From Boston dealt with my loss among other things. After my wife died, I sat down and wrote about 3 or 4 poems a month for about a year that were explorations of grief and remembrance.It was a way of working through things. It was a way of putting on paper of what I remembered about her. And I started to write poetry every morning. Even when she was ill I began to formulate what I was going to say about her. I didn't dare to be a poet when I was young. I had a family and I couldn't see me being a poet would support a family. It wasn't until I retired and lost my wife did I start taking poetry seriously.

DH: The noted critic Dennis Daly wrote in a review for the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene wrote that your poems are like the Impressionistic painting of say Monet. Do you agree with this and do you you go beyond the surface of shimmering light--so to speak?

PB: I think in some ways my work is Impressionistic. I hope it goes below the shimmering light of the surface as Daly puts it. If you talk about Impressionistic painting--yes, there is that superficial application of the paint to the canvas. But then there is also the sense that we come back to the poem and the painting again and again because somehow it reaffirms us. It reinforces our sense of our daily life.

DH: You wrote a poem about baseball titled "Assignment 1: Write a Poem about Baseball," that was on the "Writer's Almanac" on NPR, and other places. What is it about Baseball that attracts so many writers?

PB : It always attracted people who were intellectuals. Think about John Updike's fascination with baseball. I think it might be that there are so many possibilities of what can happen at any given moment.

DH: But isn't this true true of football, or basketball?

PB: Well--it is but the action that goes on before goes so quickly that you can't follow everyone. In baseball there are a lot of people involved, but at one moment only a few people are involved. It has a sort of grace to it--it is an interesting sport. A lot of people have grown up with moments of baseball in their lives. It is a game of failure and I think that is poetic. In baseball if you hit 3 out of 10 then you are dong well--but you missed 7 times--that's failure--but not in baseball.

DH:  You were a finalist for the Loft Prize.

PB: Yes the Prize is based in Providence, R.I. You had to submit a poem based on a painting from a New England museum. I chose an Impressionistic painting titled: "New York Blizzard" by Childe Hassam.

PB: " Shore Lines" your new poetry collection from the Ibbetson Street Press, has an Impressionistic painting of a beach on the front cover.

 PB: Yes. It reminds me of a beach I go to  in New Hampshire between Hampton and Rye beaches. I started going there when I was very young. Ogden Nash use to vacation there. One day in early September we were all sitting on the beach. It was hurricane season, and they told everyone to get off the beach. Nash said" I think we better get off the beach or we are going  to be misspelled in The Boston Herald.

A Little Boat, My Heart

A little boat, my heart,
Curved gothic to its bow
From starboard and from port,
To plow an ocean’s row,

To turn the slightest waves
Brief furrows, to expose
The undersea, a spray
Of foam, a path to lose

Across the sea astern,
A dip and sweep of oars,
Cut circles that become
Skin smooth and disappear.

My heart, a little boat
Set on your waves of skin
That on my voyage out
I cross to cross again

A sea of passages
To India, a rise
And fall of tides.  It is
Moon driven. From your eyes

Glances like quick fishes
Leaping, circles that part
Still water round, kisses,
A little boat, my heart.

Shore Lines, 2012

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

A Theory of Lipstick by Karla Huston


A Theory of Lipstick
by Karla Huston
Main Street Rag Publishing Company
Charlotte NC
Copyright © 2013 by Karla Huston
ISBN: 978-1-59948-407-5
Softbound, 73 pages. $14

Review by Zvi A. Sesling

Last year I reviewed a poetry chapbook by Ms. Huston and Cathryn Cofell. This year Ms. Huston is flying solo and proving what a good poet she is on her own.

In the title poem it is beware men and women you will learn more about lipstick than you ever wanted to know, from lip plumper and bee stung devil’s candy to alizarin crimson and lead – to men who kiss women wearing lipstick to fruit pigments. It’s almost TMI.
But O it is fun. Huston as we learned can be fun with a lesson.

She can also be funny in a serious poem as in The Girl With God On Her Pants. It opens
I almost said “in” her pants/but this isn’t that kind of poem/and she isn’t that kind of girl.

As you read this one you learn that a good girl is chased by a hungry boy and the hunger is nothing less than the ultimate main course.

There is also Sway which begins:

The cruelest thing I did to my dog
wasn’t to ignore his barking for water
when his tongue hung like a deflated balloon

Huston is also capable of wonderful descriptions such as:

  • his dark eyes like Greek olives, moist with desire
  • pecking at her dreams like a chicken
  • Were you always a shadow of a shadow, imitation of an imitation, a chameleon in sheep’s clothing?
  • When I think of you, I think of earworms
  • old woman skin that hangs like the hide of withered peaches

Huston is a sort of Mort Sahl or Dick Cavett. A Nancy Griffin or Chelsea Handler. She makes you laugh but at the same time she telling truths and you realize, not that you have been had, but instead that you have learned something, which raises that age old question about poetry—does it entertain or teach or both. Huston would fall into that last category, both.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Somerville Artist Ariel Freiberg: An interesting mix of found objects, eroticism and militarism.

Blazoning Arms by Ariel Freiberg

Somerville Artist Ariel Freiberg:: An interesting mix of found objects, eroticism and militarism.

Doug Holder

 Ariel Freiberg is an artist I see in passing at the Bloc 11 Cafe on any given morning from my table outpost. About a year ago I interviewed this 30 something woman in the said cafe. She contacted me recently about another interview and we decided to meet at another of my favorite haunts in Union Square-- the Sherman Cafe.

 Since the last time we chatted Freiberg, a colleague of mine at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, landed a p/t teaching gig at Smith College. She told me: " I taught Drawing I to freshman students. I loved the level of discussion, and the focus the students brought to the plate." Freiberg told me she tries to instill the visual experience of seeing... seeing light, color and texture.

  Freiberg, who has a decidedly literary bent, recently had a show with the celebrated local author Steve Almond. The title of the event was " Art of the Erotic." Although not exclusively erotic, Almond touched on themes like: putting the body before the heart, and Freiberg complimented this erotic theme with her work. One of her paintings depicted a woman holding a book, wearing a corset and skirt, bearing a child's face and a well-developed woman's body.

  Freiberg revealed that she uses seemingly banal objects like gardening tools and shoes, to explore sexual or erotic themes. Freiberg explained: "The gardening tool cultivates the earth. With the shoe--well, it connects to the earth. The shoe in essence acts as a conduit to the fertile earth. At the same time its architecture restrains the foot from actually touching or  having consummation with the earth."

  Freiberg also has an interest in Heraldry . This is a visual way of describing a unit in the military. An example would be a coat of arms, and things of that ilk. Freiberg uses this conceit to explore the connection between the power of sexuality and the power of militarism.

  Freiberg has had a number of exhibits recently. One was at the Oresman Gallery at Smith College, and she will be curating an event of art and poetry at the New Art Center in Newton in the fall of 2013. She is also scheduled to have an exhibit of her work at Boston University's Sherman Gallery in 2014. She has a solo show
"Blazoning Arms" at Miller Yezerski Gallery in Boston's South End through July 9, 2013.

Freiberg left the Sherman Cafe with a smile and a slightly far away look--obviously pondering another new idea in the  PARIS OF NEW ENGLAND.

  ****Freiberg told me if you would like to commission work from her she can be reached at

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Spinning Wheels of Noir Fiction: Fausto Paravidino’s Still Life in Ditch

Spinning Wheels of Noir Fiction:
Fausto Paravidino’s Still Life in Ditch

article by Michael Todd Steffen

The denouement of the mystery plot in Fausto Paravidino’s novel noir drama Still Life
In Ditch (Natura Morta in uno Fosso) intercepts the reader—it is at once so unexpected, shocking and psychologically convincing. It is a revelation that silently encores the sum of its speakers and narrative with its illustrative guy-gal polarity, resonating with the reader (audience), as the play holds true to its proposal as a noir genre piece. A lot of the language is blunt, consistently stylistic in its display of brevity, irony and repartee. So if we at first wince at the rawness of the speakers’ vernacular, little by little we can come to appreciate the authenticity of the characters in their linguistic portraits as fulfilling and adhering to pre-established genre criteria. The text even transcends its literary intentions by capturing the gratuitous bluntness of our current day street and pop-culture speech.

                 If he gives me 5 million up front, I’ll sell him the 7-mil debt.
            Sounds pretty cool to me.
                 He thinks about it for a second. I quickly do the math and tell
            him that he’d be making more than 20% on the deal.
                 He thinks about it another second and says, “Will you give me
            back the 7 million?”
                 So I ask him if he’s shitting me. If I wanted a loan I would
            have asked him for a loan and he wouldn’t have charged me a 20%
            interest rate.
                 I’m turning over a debt to you—I tell him—you front me
            the 5 and then, whenever you want, you go and collect the 7.
                 So then he gets all pissed off and says he doesn’t like the idea,
            that it sounds like a rip-off, that he doesn’t buy debts from people
            he doesn’t know and besides, he doesn’t trust me.
                 So I ask him how things are going with Elisa.
                 “What the fuck do you care?”
                 “I was just wondering whether you killed her because you
            couldn’t stand to be with someone who was smarter than you, or
            someone else killed her to let you know that they didn’t want to
            deal with someone dumber than them.”
                 He asks me what the fuck I’m talking about. I don’t know if
            he’s playing dumb or if he really is a moron. (p. 28)

     To be released this September, Still Life in Ditch is the 2013 winner of the Loose Translation Prize sponsored by Queens College, The City University of New York, and Hanging Loose Press. Kimiko Hahn, Queens College-CUNY, comments, “The series name…speaks for our collaborative mission to introduce voices new to English through translators able to foreground the extraordinary writing with which they work with great craft and attention to the original language.”
     This translation of Paravidino’s writing by Ilaria Papini reads itself, effortless and transparent, as though it were an original text in English. Richard Schotter calls it, “luminous…a gift to English-speaking audiences and to anyone who loves challenging, intelligent theatre, artfully rendered.”
     Papini has shown her ability, moreover, to background Still Life in Ditch with an insightful Afterward in this edition.

As a lifelong reader of both fiction and theater, I find this play contains some of my favorite elements: the style of a literary noir, a multiple perspective narrative—among my lifelong favorites are such novels as Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and such films as Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Bertolucci’s The Grim Reaper (La commare secca)—and a group of very flawed, supremely human characters. Also, it has a very unusual structure for a play, with its long, uninterrupted monologues, blurring the line between fiction and drama. (pp. 60-1)

Papini’s Afterward goes on to reveal some depth of research into the text and its author’s inspirations.

I reminded [Paravidino] about his initial commission to write a one-man show, and asked him how he ended up with a multiple-perspective narrative with six characters, two of which are women. He told me that he did try, initially, to write a one-character dramatic monologue, but after a while the other characters just insisted on being heard.

     The elements of noir fiction, film and drama smack us, direct as they are recognizable: laconic, gruff characters caught up in the bang-up side-blinding consequences of decadent lifestyles. Sarcastic, stripped of sentiment, it portrays humanity at its rawest levels of gullibility, rage, selfishness and resignation. It’s easy to stratify or cross-identify the male speakers of Still Life in Ditch, as well as to make out polarities between the speakers, say, between Cop and Dealer, Mother and Hooker. The guy characters each have narrow objectives and blunt approaches, including abrupt and radical reversals of fortune. Loveless sex, greed, murder, bad drug deals, users run out on their luck and money, blackmail, burlesque brawls, hospital beds all make for stock turns in the genre, all employed adeptly and entertainingly by Paravidino.
     Under the shadowy fun-making veneer, however, the author suggests a sharp eye for humanity, by dealing his cards with credibility. The bereft Mother as a speaker makes a strong case against embellishments and sentimentality. Her daughter’s death still fresh and surreal to her, she wants the grounding of the plain facts, no matter how stark.

                 “The body is this way. If you will follow me I’ll take you there.”
                 His frankness makes me think better of him.
                 He takes us to her. Bruised, swollen, pale.
                 Naked in a way she hasn’t allowed us to see her in years.
                 Her broad nipples, the curls over her vagina are not familiar
to me.
                 But I recognize her smile over the teeth that someone has
smashed in.
                 I look at the policeman, who is waiting for a verdict.
                 “It’s Elisa Orlando, my daughter. Here are her papers,” I
hand them to him.
     We are all idiotically embarrassed. Should we leave? Should
he? How does it work? The policeman gives no sign, perhaps we
get to pick.
                 Mario keeps on looking at our girl and says in a low voice,
            “Find the bastards who did this.”
                 Hearing him invent these words that have no place in his
            mouth endears me as never before. He is infinitely small,
            suddenly I love him as if I were discovering something wonderful
            in him that he had never before shown me.
                 The policeman replies, “That’s what I live for.”
                 And of course that fucks everything up. (p. 14)

     Noir plays on stereotypes. As direct and brutal as the males are, the female characters are typically revealed as weak, confused, contradictory and passive—the victims. Yet with their feminine patience and allowance, the gals show more acceptance, insight and roll-with-the-punches turn-of-fortune. Paravidino enhances this intuitive nature of the ‘female’ by making the Hooker, who is a key witness, an illegal immigrant with a fluent fumbling grasp of her new nation’s language, rendered with delicacy and humor by Papini.

                 I am afraid, I don’t want to do it, because if my bosses find out
            that I there with them I get in big trouble.
                 Policeman insist it is very important for me to talk with him
            because girl in photo disappear and I can help them for girl.
                 I don’t want to, and cry and say let me go, let me go away,
            that this scare me.
     Policeman explain to me that he know our situation well and that
he not want to hurt me. And he say also if I want he guarantee
his protection, my bosses don’t find me and he help me get home again.
                 I tell him that at home there is war, I don’t want to go and I
            want Italian papers.
                 He tell me that what I ask is little too much for what he is want
            me, but if I tell him interesting thing and I can be useful to him
            again for trial and things like that, he will ask his boss to get me
            papers and in meantime he will put me in protection program. (p. 54)

     While creating his story within the criteria of noir, Paravidino demonstrates a curiosity to push his genre piece at its assumptions. To an extent, in the Marxian paradigm that crime and justice necessitate, and rely on, one another, the Cop and Dealer bear identity in apposition as two chess players across a board of strategic players. Yet at moments our Inspector Salti lends a suggestion of the virtue of magnified awareness on the side of justice.

I am following only one lead, one given to me by a snitch with
ulterior motives.
                 I want to believe it. I want this to be just about drugs.
                 I want my victim to be a woman selling sex in exchange for
                 I want this so I can neutralize the violence.
                 Make it less dangerous.
                 To prove that they kill only each other.
                 That those who die have chosen this and the victims know
their killers, just as the killers know their victims
     and all their lives they are hurtling toward this appointment
     and no one else has anything to do with it
     because the only ones who die are at-risk individuals.
     I want to catch Gipo so he can confirm this theory.
     I want to ruin the Orlando girl’s reputation
     sully her past
     so everyone can go to bed happy.
     But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe that’s not how it was.
     Maybe violence is not quite so predictable…  (p. 36)

     Could anybody have been the murderer? Is it the Dealer? Is it the Boyfriend? Could this be a noir noir drama with the culprit one of the most unlikely, the Mother or the Detective?
     To wonder, keep score for oneself, be on the trail of clues and cues of personality is all part of the fun and intrigue of reading a good mystery. Yet the speakers in Still Life in Ditch are so beguiling in themselves, it’s easy to forget, as we are being entertained, that the story has its objective of unmasking the murderer. And this makes the moment of the enigma’s solution all that much more startling, a moment duly left for the reader to discover.

Still Life in Ditch, 64 pp
by Fausto Paravidino
translated by Ilaria Papini
ISBN: 978-1-934909-36-2
published by
Hanging Loose Press
231 Wyckoff Street
Brooklyn, NY 11217
will be available for $18
this September