Monday, December 28, 2015

Poet Richard Fox: A Cancer Survivor Brings His Suffering to Verse

Poet Richard Fox: A Cancer Survivor Brings His Suffering to Verse

By Doug Holder

Richard Fox didn't start out wanting to write about his bout with cancer. It came to him as unexpectedly as the nefarious disease did. Fox has penned a new collection of poetry that deals with his trials and travails titled,” wandering in puzzle boxes” ( Big Table Books)

 Richard H. Fox was born and bred in Worcester MA. He attended Webster University, as much artist colony as college, in the early 1970’s. These diverse cultures shaped his world view and love of words. He is a former President of Poetry Oasis, Inc., a non-profit poetry association dedicated to education and promoting local poets, and was Managing Editor of its journal Diner. Richard’s poems have appeared in numerous journals including Above Place, Boston Literary Magazine, OVS, Poetry Quarterly, Midstream Magazine, and Worcester Review. He is the author of two poetry collections: Time Bomb (2013) and wandering in puzzle boxes (2015). A cancer survivor, many of Richard’s poems focus on cancer from the patient’s point of view drawing on hope, humor, and unforeseen gifts. He seconds Stanley Kunitz’ motion that people in Worcester are “provoked to poetry.”

I talked with him on my Somerville Community Access TV show  " Poet to Poet Writer to Writer"

Doug Holder: You are from Worcester. Stanley Kunitz , the late, acclaimed poet was also from Worcester. He said that people from Worcester are provoked to poetry. What do you think he meant?

Richard Fox: While he was Poet Laureate of the United States he came back to Worcester. His home is out in Worcester. There are a lot of events out at that house. The people who own it now treat it like a museum. Getting back to your question, he was asked by someone from the press why were there so many poets in Worcester. That's when he replied that people in Worcester are provoked to poetry. Worcester has more poets that you think for a city of its size. It has interesting atmosphere of blue collar workers, many ethnic cultures---it turns out a lot of writers. Your dentist could be a poet. Poetry seems to be everywhere.

DH: Did you grow up in a poetry-loving family?

RF: I didn't grow up in a poetic background. I had an uncle who was a Beat and he introduced me to a lot of the Beat art and literature. He was a bombardier on a B24 in WW ll, and went to the Rhode Island School of Design on the G.I. Bill. Later he went to Greenwich Village and supported himself as a painter.

DH: You help found the organization “ Poetry Oasis” in Worcester.

RF: Yes. The Poetry Oasis was a weekly venue. We brought in a large selection of poets from New England and nationally. We sponsored open mikes, workshops, and did outreach in schools and senior centers. There were a lot of poets who developed their voice with us. We had an eclectic mix of Slam poets, religious poets, etc.... There was an acceptance of the diversity and style. There was a lot of support. You know it is a hard thing to get up there and read your poem—here we encouraged it—there was a lot of positive energy. We also had a magazine “ Diner'”that came out four times a year. This was before the Internet was in vogue. We had a wide distribution of poems. Eve Rivkah was one of our poetry editors.

DH: In your poetry collection “ wandering puzzling boxes” you deal with your experience with cancer. Why did you want to revisit such a painful part of your life?
RF: I had a friend who was a medic in Vietnam. I would talk to him on the phone about his experiences. He told me, “ You are fighting a war.” For him—his defining time was his ten months in Vietnam before he got injured. Cancer becomes a defining moment in your life. Some people have asked me,' “Did cancer change you?” It is hard for me to look back at myself before cancer because life is incremental. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I don't feel good. But then I say to myself “Yeah, but your are alive.” I am really all about not wasting days after seeing people with cancer not make it. It took me about 15 months after my own experience to read and write poetry. I talked to poet John Hodgen,. I asked him to send me prompts. And John is a master at this. I viewed the prompts as a puzzle. I did not intend to write about cancer—but it was in my subconscious. The prompts helped bring it out.

DH: Have you read to other people who have or had cancer?

RF; I have. I have had poetry readings that specifically dealt with cancer. The q and a after is about 50% cancer, and the other half is about poetry. You know if you haven't been through cancer then you can't really understand it. What you have to understand as a cancer victim is that the depression and despair you feel is normal. That is a hard thing to know. Most people who have it feel they have to fight harder. Your body experiences a lot of damage from chemo and radiation. Your strength is greatly diminished. You have to pick your battles.

DH; I have interviewed the playwright and screenwriter Israel Horovitz. I noticed you wrote a poem about his visit to your high school in the late 60s.

RF: In high school I had a great drama teacher. He had worked Off-Broadway as an actor, but he wanted his marriage to work so he came up to Worcester to teach. He treated high school students like professionals. He had play-writing competitions. He had top notch playwrights judge them. He also got playwrights to speak to the students. Israel Horovitz came in 1968, during the Vietnam conflict. He made his talk into a exercise in improvisation, and asked the students “ Will you strike the school?” he even threw a chair across the stage. He created quite a stir. The student body was pro-war . I was anti-war. The interesting thing is when I went to my high school reunion all the pro-war kids came up to tell me how wrong they were.

Chemo Brain

Lost in the grocery store you've shopped in
since you pushed a cart for your Mama? Have
a cup of Peppermint Tea, the red box on the
shelf opposite your belt buckle. Leave your
pants alone, grab a couple of bags, stumble
four aisles left to the household articles,
choose a ceramic mug, #1 DAD or I’M GETTING
SUPERPOWER? Next to the pharmacy is a water
dispenser with twin taps: boiling and cold.
Put the tea bags in your mug, tags over the
rim. Fill with your preference but hot must
be best because you are shivering suddenly.
Suppose shopping is a spoiled idea when you
wanderlust for two hours to fill a thirteen
item list. Perhaps you should sit down here
on the floor til your wife can pick you up

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Somerville author Stefan Cooke's new book sheds light on a long lost child prodigy Barbara Newhall Follett

Somerville author Stefan Cooke's new book sheds light on a long lost child prodigy Barbara Newhall Follett

Article by Doug Holder

Part of life is losing touch. People disappear from our lives, sometimes never to appear again. Somerville writer Stefan Cooke author of “Barbara Newhall Follett: A Life in Letters” is not satisfied to let the disappearance of his half aunt Barbara disappear into the ether. With his new book he traces Follet's life through her letters. Follett was gifted child prodigy writer, who vanished in 1939 from her home in Brookline, Mass. at age 25. She was never to be heard of again.

Cooke has long been fascinated by Follet's story and writing. He told me over coffee at the Bloc 11 Cafe in Union Square that, “ I love her work, her skill with words, language, vocabulary and imagery.” For the book he researched Follett's papers at the Columbia University's rare book collection in New York City. Cooke said," The book is basically a collection of letters to various correspondents.” Cooke told me that Follet did not have a formal education ( she was home-schooled), and never went to college except for a few dance classes at Mills College. In spite of this Follett had the talents and skills of a master wordsmith.

At he age of eight Follett wrote her first novel “ The House Without Windows.” Follett explained that it was about, “ ...a child who ran away from loneliness, to find companions in the woods—animal friends.” Her father Wilson Follett (the noted critic) sent it to the prestigious New York City publisher Knopf, and in 1927 when Follett was 12 years old it was published. The New York Times lauded the book—calling it, “...truly remarkable.” The Saturday Review of Literature opined that the book was,  "Almost unbearably beautiful.” Later, when Follett was at the advanced age of 13 ( with her parent's consent ) she took to sea as a crewman on a lumber schooner. And of course a book ensued: “ The Voyage of the Norman D.” The Times Literary Supplement raved about the book saying it was,  “... embellished by a literary craftsmanship which would do credit to an experienced writer.”

But as fate would have it Wilson Follett left her mother for a younger woman. The father did not provide much money or support. Eventually Barbara Follet's life unraveled. She got married as a teenager, but the marriage eventually soured. She eventually left her marital home in Brookline, Mass. in December of 1939—never to be heard of again.

Cooke told me he has lived in Somerville for years with his wife artist Resa Blatman. Blatman designed the cover of his book. Cooke works as a web designer as his day job. One of his projects is the “ Afghan Women's Writing Project” that publishes the work of Afghan women, hosts an online workshop, and occasionally publishes books by these women, sometimes in their native language of Dari.

Cooke tells me there is opera planned about Follet's life, and in 2017 Penguin books plans to release a critical study of her work and life. Cooke is quite glad to be part of this conversation about this lost genius.

Cooke shared this with the Times:

Here's an excerpt from a letter Barbara wrote in 1930, when she was 16 and living in New York City; it's what I picked for the back of my book. (The book she was going to write was Lost Island, which I transcribed and posted on Farksolia a few years ago: )

Do you realize that a year ago yesterday I set sail from Honolulu harbor in my beloved Vigilant? I was rather glum all yesterday thinking of it. It hurt. I suppose it will be years before I go to sea again, and I may never even see that schooner. I suppose that I spent about the happiest month of my life during that sea-trip in her. And it lasted even during that week in port, when I took over the cabin-boy's job, and when Helen, Anderson, and I had cherry- and ice-cream-parties in the cabin after everyone had gone ashore, and when we used to walk up into that virgin forest two miles up the road, and eat salmon-berries. Life was beautiful then. This doesn't seem like the same era. Here the beauty consists of great stone towers against the sunset—sublime, symbolic, but away above the plane of us poor ants that hustle along the swarming streets at their feet, so engrossed in ourselves that we never even see a fellow-mortal, but bump into him with a bang, and then hurray and hurry on.
Oh, my God, my God!

It makes one's heart and soul suffer—it stabs them to the quick. Oh, for wings, for wings!
That is, in general, the theme not only of my own heart, but of the book I'm going to write. I ought to be able to write it—I live it constantly. My heart is the field of a thousand battles every day.

Ibbetson Street Press celebrates the release of the 38th issue of the literary magazine Ibbetson Street-- Jan 13, 2016

Article by Doug Holder

 Somerville, Mass.

In 1998, in a Brueger's Bagel shop in Cambridge, Mass. the Ibbetson Street Press was founded by Doug Holder, Dianne Robitaille, and Richard Wilhelm. Since then the Press has put out 38 issues of the magazine Ibbetson Street, and has published close to 100 collections of poetry and some memoir. Ibbetson Street has been included in the Pushcart Anthology, featured in such noted websites as Poetry Daily and Verse Daily, and has published the work of hundreds of poets since its inception. The press  was located on 33 Ibbetson Street in Somerville until 2001, but now is located on School Street in Union Square in Somerville, Mass. In the current issue you will see poetry by the likes of Marge Piercy, Andrea Cohen, Ted Kooser and many others. We are also grateful to have great photographs on our front and back covers by Glenn Bowie and Jennifer Matthews. Lawrence Kessenich has an insightful review of Endicott Professor Charlotte Gordon’s new book, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley.  Our core staff of Harris Gardner ( Poetry Editor), Lawrence Kessenich ( Managing Editor), Rene Schwiesow  (Managing Editor), and Steve Glines ( Designer) have produced another fine issue as usual.

Ibbetson will be having a reading at the Somerville Central Library on Highland Ave. in Somerville. A potluck dinner will be served at 6PM, and the reading will start at 7PM. Open to the public.

**** Ibbetson Street is now affiliated with Endicott College in Beverly, Mass.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Fall Shoes: An Essay by Elena Harap

Centre Street in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, an August afternoon: on the sidewalk outside a storefront full of elegant high-heeled shoes and boots, a sandwich board announces Fall Shoes Arriving Daily. In the daze of late summer, a parade approaches me––brand-new sling-backs, platform shoes, patent leather slippers, alligator pumps, silver stilettos, suede winter boots––down the sidewalk with a steady click and tap. Must be coming from the Post Office, I think; they’ve vaulted out of their packing cases to head straight for the shoe store.  
Pair by pair, the New Fall Shoes process sociably along, past the toy store, the yoga studio, the barber shop.  Maybe they are making appraising remarks about ordinary pedestrians’ dusty sneakers and unfashionably blunt-toed pumps; they sneer at my sockless feet in square-cut Birkenstock sandals. ”At least she ought to paint her toenails,” they chatter, in French, Italian, Hebrew, and Chinese; do shoes speak an international language, converse in Esperanto?   
They disappear into the dark alcove of the shoe store doorway, tappity-tap, tappity-tap, leaving me out on the sidewalk with shoppers, kids in strollers, office workers returning to their cubicles, couples on their way to a late lunch. A vision of high fashion has passed among us and vanished, to reemerge on the feet of stylish Boston women.  Trudging home in my sandals, in a different foot-world, I ponder: how does one walk and dance, balanced on those tapered heels?    
In subsequent walks on Centre Street, I observe the sandwich board continuing to announce new  arrivals. I see in the bold black letters the turning of the seasons, a call that demands some response, just as the crying of Canada geese in their great V, flying south, demands that I run outdoors and see them off.  
And so I greet them: Welcome, Fall Shoes, as you sashay down the street, broadcasting your glamour, drumming your challenge in the tapping of your heels, reminding us—It’s a new season, ladies! Streamline your toes, be sexy and daring, risk your accustomed balance.  Next time I’m going to enter the shadowed doorway and get introduced. I’ve already borrowed my granddaughter’s toenail polish. Any day now, I might  be arriving somewhere—chic, au courant, sophisticated, in my new fall shoes.  
Elena Harap E

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Chintz Age: tales of love and loss for a new new york.

The Chintz Age: tales of love and loss for a new new york.  ( Cervena Barva Press, Somerville, Mass. 2015)

Review by Doug Holder

I was just having breakfast with an artist acquaintance at the Bloc 11 Cafe in Somerville, Mass, when the subject turned to where we would move to if we were forced out of our city. We thought of isolated burgs like North Adams, an old mill in Lawrence, far flung nowherevilles in the western part of the state. But of course none of these places are like our hometown of Somerville, where both of us have lived for many years. Across the country artists, low income folks, and others are being forced out of their communities due to the hungry tendrils of gentrification.

In “ The Chintz Age...” (published by Somerville's Cervena Barva Press), this short story collection gets deep into the heads of punks, beatniks, hipsters, junkies, derelicts, artists and others as they hold on to the threads of their community with its bodegas, bookstores and all night cafeterias  that once heavily peppered the streets of New York City. The author Ed Hamilton knows of  what he writes. Hamilton, the author of “ Legends of the Chelsea Hotel” is still a resident of the Chelsea, known by many as the last bastion for bohemians. It is now gutted and a shell of its former self—as it waits to be turned into a boutique hotel.

Hamilton doesn't abandon his characters, and let them vanish into the ether. They reinvent themselves. They take their careworn carcasses and prop themselves up. Hamilton, in his title story “The Chintz Age,” writes about a middle-aged East Village photographer being forced from her long time  apartment. She is long past the beauty and promise of her youth, but she is able to rekindle  friendship and more with a figure from her past—a minor league comic book artist now gone to seed. Here, with a tender yet brutal honesty Hamilton describes their tryst:

“The battle-scarred warriors looked at each other for a long, silent moment. Then they drew themselves together—all the years dropping away as the barrier between them dissolved. They fumbled like two teenagers, kissing and struggling out of their clothes in a car because there was nowhere else, embarrassed by their middle-aged bodies, their lumps and cellulite, their wrinkles and scars and age spots and sagging skin. It had been a long time for both of them and neither was young any longer, though they felt reborn in those brief few minutes, the lingering sin of betrayed idealism washed away in the surge of quickening blood through their freshly supple limbs, and rapidly-firing brains....When they grasped each other they reached through time to grasp, as well, the final shreds of their forgotten selves.”

In his short piece “ Fat Hippie Books,” a long-time East Village used bookstore owner, an unapologetic acolyte of all things Kerouac and the Beats is being forced out from his hole- in- the- wall bookstore. He manages to find a smaller space and some peace of mind albeit with compromises:

“ His life underground would represent a winnowing, a stripping down, a belt-tightening as he reduced his desires to match his straightened circumstances... He would not need to make as much money... He would lead a smaller, more compact life, subsisting on bare necessities and nourished by the strength of his soul, waiting for the cycle to come back around, enduring middle-age, old age, even death if need be—waiting to take his place in a better world that was ready at long last to listen to him when he emerged lean, and wiry, a Holy Barbarian, a wild-haired prophet of Beatitude, from the solitude of his urban grotto.”

And Hamilton is a keen observer. A master of the telling detail. Here he puts a microscope to the archetypal New York City dive bar; a place where a long gone-to seed failed writer takes refuge in:

“ Past the thin corridor that contained the bar, its row of stools, and not much else, the room opened up sufficiently to hold a pool table, a row of booths along the wall, and a scattering of wood tables and chairs. The back part of the space was dimly lit by a beer light over the pool table and by tiny red lamps on the wall above the booths. There used to be a steam table along the wall of this Ninth Avenue dive, but that was long gone. Instead, on a card table beside the bar sat three warming urns. Taking a plate from the stack, Theo lifted the three lids in turn: chicken wings in a reeking garlic sauce, disgusting-looking stuffed mushroom caps( shriveled, probably poisonous), and frozen pizza squares with crisp little pepperonis on top.”

Hamilton has an uncanny ability to show how the inroads of time, age, etc.. forces choices in our lives. His characters find some sort of redemption, and keep on keepin' on.

Highly recommended. 




Review by   William Falcetano

In the long and distinguished catalogue of Boston movies Spotlight will take its rightful place at or very near the top.  Like that other great Boston movie, The Verdict, it derives its dramatic energy from a clash between a powerful Boston institution, the Roman Catholic Church, and its seemingly powerless victims.  Boston is ground zero for the discovery of the world-wide epidemic of child rape by priests.  It was due to the valiant, dogged efforts of the spotlight team of The Boston Globe, another powerful civic institution, that these ugly crimes were brought to light.  No one wanted to believe it; not even The Globe could digest the information when it first fell into its lap in the 1990s, and Editor Walter “Robby” Robinson, played by Michael Keaton with subtlety and nuance, buried the story on the Metro page.  

            Then a newcomer arrives on the scene to take over editorial management at The Globe – Marty Baron, played with phlegmatic doggedness by Liev Schreiber, is an outsider: he’s not from Boston, he’s not married, he doesn’t even follow baseball, and he’s Jewish in a town run by Irish Catholics.  Baron immediately recognizes the potential of this story and redirects the spotlight team to pursue it.  This is their second chance to get it right.  Enter Phil Saviano, played with intelligence and intensity by Neal Huff; he is head of SNAP (Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests).  He brings to a meeting with the spotlight team a box full of books about pedophilia in the priesthood, documents, court records – all the information is there but no one has bothered to connect the dots.  No one except the attorney for the plaintiffs, the indefatigable Mitchell Garabedian, played by Stanley Tucci with amiable bluntness.  He is “not a people person”; like Marty Baron he is an outsider (“How many Armenians do you know in this town?”); but he’s a careful lawyer and is able, through a mistake of the opposing counsel, to make public sealed documents which prove the complicity and the guilt of the Archdiocese of Boston.  Garabedian has connected the dots; he knows that “if it takes a village to raise a child it takes a village to rape a child”.  Director Thomas McCarthy, who has to his credits another journalism movie: Good Night and Good Luck, about Edward R. Murrow, along with the TV drama, Boston Public, has somehow made a compelling drama out of library research and the hunt for court records.  As we all know the Devil is in the details; and the Devil it seems is alive and well in ye old Puritan stronghold, which has furnished plenty of material from real life and legal proceedings for a long list of gothic horror stories from the Salem witch trials to the Winter Hill gang. 

This is a movie about the importance of information, and the importance of the kind of investigative journalism it takes to discover and piece together fragments of data into a coherent narrative that demands reform, that pricks the conscience of the public, that brings to heel powerful institutions, that sends priests to prison and cardinals into exile.  It is hard to overestimate the importance of this function to a democratic society; and it is easy to take for granted that it will somehow be done by somebody.  One comes away from this movie feeling that a vital function of our democracy – “the Fourth Estate” – hangs by a thread.  The spotlight team is nothing if not a modest bunch – they drive to work in Toyota Camrys, the wear chinos, rumpled sweaters and bad coiffures; but they do some of the most important work in this democracy.  It makes you wonder where things are trending in the age of cable news, the facile mix of opinion and fact, news aggregator services, and slickly produced propaganda presented as fair and balanced journalism.  

Michael Keaton brings a keen intelligence to the role with a clipped Boston accent.  Mark Ruffalo, as Michael Rezendez, from Portuguese East Boston (another outsider), conveys powerful feelings with close ups of his face; just as Rachel McAdams, as Sacha Pfeiffer, with her bad hair and rumpled sweaters, conveys earnestness – they both walk the fine line required of journalists between involvement and objectivity.  John Slattery (of Mad Men) plays Ben Bradlee Jr., whose father was a major player in exposing the Watergate story at The Washington Post.  But it is Michael Cyril Creighton who will make you cry for his portrayal of a victim of child abuse.  He conveys both the vulnerability and the resilience of Joe Crowley, a gay boy who was repeatedly raped by the infamous Paul Shanley, and then passed around to Shanley’s friends.  If you are a human being this movie will bring a tear to your eye and put a gulp in your throat.  If you are a Bostonian, or have once lived in Greater Boston, you absolutely must see this film; it will rip your heart out and make you feel both shame and pride.  Interspersed in the tepid applause at the end were the muffled sounds of catharsis: sniffles, sighs, audible moans.  And for those who have never lived in this great city – you should see this film, which ends with a powerful punch in the gut by silently posting an astonishingly long list of sister cities that have been touched by this scourge, illustrating once again the power of cinema not only to inform but also to enlighten the public.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Review: Steve Ausherman, Marking the Bend.

Review: Steve Ausherman, Marking the Bend.  2015, Encircle Publications, LLC. Farmington, Maine. 55 pages.

Review written by Zach Loudin

In the grand scheme of being a published author, the bio at the end of a book is often an afterthought. I picked up a copy of Steve Ausherman's Marking the Bend recently, and flipped to the back to get an idea of where he's coming from. Sure, he gets the expected data in his bio, but he throws a few juicy lines in there, too. He's interested in "the grounding transformational experiences that are found in connecting deeply to place"a profound, poetic statement that sets the reader's expectations high. And, well, with the chapbook's very first poem, he delivers:

            Fry bread, cooked corn, and pink cotton candy.
            The desert belly bursting open into blossoming, feathered dancers.
            Stars cry wind and icy darkness.
            Sticks against skin-covered drums like heartbeats eating memory.
                                                                                                -"Sticks Against Drums"

Indeed, the full-stop of each of these palpable, scene-painting lines lends pause to the cadence that grounds us in the moment. But that pause seems just as much a pinch in the arm of the author (crackle of bread on the skillet, an infinite backdrop of stars over my head... could this be real!?) than a ploy to impart the imagery's gravity onto the reader.

Marking the Bend Ausherman's secondtakes the reader on a journey through 45 poems written in (or about) half as many locations. The reader gets intimate with New Mexico (each poem is geo-tagged, about half are places in New Mexico) but a turn of the page brings stanzas inscribed with Colorado, Costa Rica, Norway, England, etc. The construction of poems is just as varied, giving the impression that the poet sits down just where he is and lets the breath of the land guide his hand, lets his pen capture the essence of the moment. In "Lone Baptism":

            I immerse myself in your brain freezing cold
            You desert of liquid gas, cuffing my imagination in hydrous wonder.
            I swim in you, childlike, open, fresh, and emerge trembling and renewed.

The wonder of the moment comes through clean, not mulled-over and processed. There is, true to the title, a baptismal quality to the meeting of man and the unfathomable gargantuan water (especially beautiful Lake Michigan) and Ausherman captures that moment. He captures it with the voice of clear imagery he uses throughout, one that refrains from abstractions-for-abstraction's-sake, and focuses more on the simplicity of the moment.

Peppered with road trip buddies, coffee in diners, and beers in bars, Marking the Bend nonetheless sings a lonely tune. Ausherman seems more at home describing the flotsam of man: "An outcast, 1970's Camaro lies bent and broken in the belly of an arroyo" ("Driving Rt. 666 (US 491) North to Tohatchi") as the fauna who give humans no mind:

            A dingo hunts down upon the shoreline
               For carcass or running beast.
            There are Soldier crabs running in herds
               That measure hundreds. Their claw-clicking,
            Stony-backed, bulging-eyed bodies ramble like searchers.
                                                                                    -"Beasts to Beat Tribal Drums"

From campsites in New Mexico to street scenes in Copenhagen, the chapbook is a joy to flip through. While it leaves this reader hankering for a stronger sense of agency at points, the wonder of travel, of observation of the external comes through clear. True to the title, Ausherman is marking each bend in the road of his journeyand sharing the moments with us. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Give Him Away: A Review of Best Man by Owen Lewis

Give Him Away: A Review of Best Man by Owen Lewis

 Review by Emily Pineau

Owen Lewis’s haunting and eye-opening collection of poems, “Best Man,” reveals a story between brothers and family, and the pain that comes with loving someone with an addiction or a mental illness. Lewis’s honesty and rawness in his first poem “So,” starts with the line, “I am still mad at you,” (p.5). This immediately draws the reader in, and makes us feel the urgency and pain that Lewis’s brother Jason made him feel. Instead of being nostalgic, Lewis’s feelings are in the present, and have not been buried with Jason—Lewis feels Jason in the present tense.  Lewis’s poems make me think of addiction as a living thing that leaves a mark on those who have seen it, like seeing spots after looking into a camera’s flash.

Lewis’s poems, “En Route” and “Lingering Here,” take place in the Beth Isreal Cemetery and both illustrate integral parts of Lewis’s grieving process. Jason’s grave allows Lewis to face Jason, in a sense. In his poem, “En Route,” Lewis writes:

It doesn’t seem to matter, visiting
or not. Who the hell’s here?
So many people left pebbles near
to say hello. Not one for you. (p.7).

This poem reveals Lewis’s mixed feelings for Jason. Rather than “visiting” the grave, Lewis is trying to figure out how he feels about Jason when he is at the cemetery; he is reliving Jason’s death and the pain that was inflicted on his family. This poem contains Lewis’s anger and grief much like the cemetery does. In “Lingering Here,” Lewis is coming to understand Jason’s pain, rather than reliving his own. Lewis says:

    His soul was already flying off,
    off to his Italian birth mother, the one
he breach-busted out of, who gave him away. (p.11).

It seems like Jason’s soul was slowly leaving his body as his life became derailed. The poem references Jason’s birth mother rejecting him—this was another struggle that sent him over the edge. Lewis mentions that pebbles on a grave are visitors’ way of saying “hello,” in his poem, “En Route.” In the last poem of Lewis’s collection, Lewis places a pebble on Jason’s grave. By placing the pebble on his grave, Lewis is saying, “Hello,” “Goodbye,” and “I forgive you.”

    Lewis has come full circle with how he processes his grief, and how he feels about Jason. By producing this collection of poetry Lewis can fully heal and provide others with the same peace. His powerful words and imagery make us understand how one can both love and hate someone who is plagued with an addiction. Lewis is giving us permission to be confused about our feelings towards people who disappoint us, but who are also a huge part of our lives and who we are. This permission is invaluable, and his poems will always stick with me as I experience my own struggles.

Sunday, December 13, 2015


Review by Debra Wiess  

Robert Brustein's latest play EXPOSED is presented in a co-production by the Boston Playwrights' Theatre (BPT) and Boston Center for American Performance (BCAP) for a limited engagement December 10-18, 2015 at the Wimberly Theater of the Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont Street, Boston. The play is a re-imagining of Moliere's Tartuffe and is a political satire set in present day America. This is the second time these two organizations have teamed up; last season they put on Uncle Jack, another re-imagining of a theatre classic. That project was written by veteran actor Michael Hammond who plays the role of the Christian Televangelist who gets "over-exposed" in EXPOSED.

Loosely based on Moliere's Tartuffe, the play satirizes financial corruption and religious extremism taking aim at an apparently broken US political system. In it, a Jewish Texas Billionaire tries to avoid prosecution for prostitution occurring in his hotels and money laundering of profits from his gambling casinos by helping to elect a Christian Televangelist to Congress and then the White House who he thinks will protect him due to his sympathetic views. This idea is not too much of a stretch given our current political scene and the pool of candidates now running for office. Plans go terribly awry when the Televangelist comes to stay with the Billionaire in his Texas mansion. Though supported by his like-minded mother, the Billionaire's efforts are countered by his younger former chorus girl Jewish wife, and his two adult children (one a very Gay boy) who share very liberal ie. reasonable/sane views. They are the voices of reason, and the moral center of the play. One wonders how they are members of a family with father and grandmother having such opposing views.

Mr. Hammond plays the Televangelist most expertly and he comes off as appropriately smarmy while holier than thou even as he gets caught with his britches down. Jeremiah Kissel plays the Texas Billionaire to the hilt. Abby Goldfarb does a fine turn as the Billionaire's "trophy" wife. It was a nice surprise to have Remo Airaldi pop in on the scene towards the end of the play as G-D in the midst of some interesting special effects on stage. It is just too bad he did not have more of interest to do, though he does sing a song accompanied by Annabelle Cousins; his time on stage was all too brief. With this one song we can see the promise of the musical that this was originally intended to be, and maybe a composer can be found to take on the task of creating the rest of the music. Rounding out the cast are Annette Miller, Scott Barrow and Tess Wenger, who try to do what they can with their roles. Directing is a very busy Stephen Bogart, who had one of his own plays going up the same night.

The decor of this all student-made production is impressive and wonderfully creates the environment in which the play is set: the Billionaire's over the top home with multitude of animal heads on the walls from his various hunting excursions. Among the mounted heads, on loan and displayed with ghoulish pride, is that of Cecil the Lion famously and outrageously killed by a wealthy US dentist earlier this year. The Billionaire is of course an avid hunter and staunch member of the NRA, and there are a number of guns displayed with pride on the walls as well.

The BPT and BCAP are two fabulous BU organizations that nurture and support new work by local theatre artists. And the BU New Play Initiative is a program that provides opportunities for the development of new work. It is through this initiative that this new play, which is a self-declared work-in-process, is getting this workshop production opportunity that will aid in its further honing and shaping. So audience members should realize that though this is a great opportunity to see new theatre in an early stage, that also means that there are still some things to be worked out, quite a few in fact.

Mirroring Moliere's Tartuffe, the play incorporates dialogue that rhymes, but this is only periodic, signaled by a bell and shift of lights. The rhyming dialogue was very clever and added to the play's humor, but the constant back and forth between rhyming and natural language for no apparent rhyme or reason (pun intended) becomes a great distraction. In the talk back after the show with the actors and author all became more clear when we learned that the play was to have been a musical and the rhyming dialogue were the lyrics of the songs! Mr. Brustein was never able to engage a composer as all who were being considered or started to take on the task very strangely took ill suddenly with all sorts of health issues befalling them. Mr. Brustein ended up scrapping the idea of the musical while still keeping the lyrics. Unfortunately a very odd and confusing shifting back and forth from naturalistic language to the rhyming lines is the result. This short run is intended to help Mr. Brustein identify issues and see how he may sort them out. This may be one of the things he will want to sort out.

The play has quite a bit of humor, mostly of the dark variety, as it makes fun of and jabs at the political right, Christian Televangelists, etc. There is much to amuse and campy laughs abound. But many jokes were a bit one-note and obvious, and some were constantly repeated such as the mispronunciation of the Televangelist's name. Also the play seemed to remain on a soap box as it put forth its political views on the current ills of our society. Another bit intended to get laughs is the Texas Billionaire's deafness which causes him to misinterpret what is said to him. He mentions as explanation that like his father he has a hearing problem, but he does not appear to be that old. And his deafness, like the rhyming, is only periodic seeming to occur whenever convenient, coming and going with a randomness that is unexplained.

Just prior to the start of the show some music was played and the voice of the Televangelist was heard on a loud speaker; this, one figures out later is part of the Televangelist's TV show that goes on the air earlier in the day and is referred to several times. It was a great idea to have this lead in to set the stage for what is to come, but there were no signals to the audience to clue them in and many continued to chat through it not realizing. Much like the Billionaire who sleeps through the Televangelist's show, most of the audience, too, misses the show, which is a shame. Some means of communicating this pre-show bit would be very helpful and enhance audience enjoyment of it.

The play has some intriguing ideas, but the story which can be overly preachy, as well as characters which are a bit too much like cardboard cuts outs of types, could use more crafting. The play will surely get much after this run.