Friday, June 19, 2015

Bird in the Hand Poems by Lianne Spidel

Bird in the Hand
Poems by Lianne Spidel
Dos Madres Press
Loveland, Ohio
ISBN: 978-1-939929-09-9
69 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

A luscious elegance secrets itself in the mnemonic tableaux of Lianne Spidel. She lays out her poetry collection, Bird in the Hand, in easily accessible compositions that belie curiously colored insights into the human condition. Not only does Spidel contemplate the complexities of what she knows best, but she seems to imbue everyday events and connections with numinous significance. These poems narrate ordinary lives into being again and again, while reveling in individual value. The word “uplifting” comes to mind.

Before There Were Barbies, Spidel’s paean to long ago childhood innocence, opens the book by establishing the Cinderella bona fides of the poet’s persona. Dolls were at the bottom of the hand-me-down chain, but prized nevertheless. Society allowed little girls to be little girls during the World War II era, at least on the home front, safe from the world’s insanity. Spidel describes those comforting times this way,

… our hems were turned down twice
before our mothers cut up our dresses
for doll clothes. Somehow

there was always a doll for a birthday
or Christmas, certain as a ration book
or a terrifying newsreel at a Saturday matinee.

While faraway children starved
and the faraway world blew up and fell apart,
our grandmothers knitted miniature sweaters.

Even now we cannot part
with our childhood dolls, loved so tenderly
within our years of being safe

In the poem Godspeed, written in homage to John Glenn, the astronaut and later politician, and his wife Annie, the poet provides the reader with a commentary on love and the human need to pioneer, to push the envelope. The juxtaposition of daring on the world stage and the quiet adventure of domestic life work together quite nicely. It’s worth noting that Annie, a hero in her own right, engaged the public in support of her husband in spite of a difficult battle with a speech impediment.  Spidel’s persona speaks of her own son in this context,

… my black-haired son
bundled in his cart, caught up
in the first of wordless dreams
he would never learn to compromise,
while an Ohio-born traveler
circled our adventure with his own.

When we met him years later,
stumping Ohio in the seventies,
he crinkled his eyes and said
I looked like Annie. She told me
they ate by candlelight every night,
even if it was only hot dogs.

Not all the poems in this collection are narrative. One of my favorites is a lyric entitled River Song for the Grandmother I Never Knew. Both a celebration of life and meditation on family connection, the poem draws the reader into life’s daring, its dance toward forever. Spidel internalizes an Irish river and launches her piece magically,

Full of salmon and the music of mad fiddles,
the Corrib River churns, rushing the tide,
defying the margins of its banks
with wild rhythms of forgotten songs.

The Corrib River churns, rushing the tide.
When it leaps to crescendo
with wild rhythms of forgotten songs,
Echoes of dancing feet ring along the waves.

When it leaps to crescendo,
fiddles crowd and clash, racing over stones.
Echoes of dancing feet ring along the waves,
beating out loss and sorrow, fury and joy.

Fiddles crowd and clash, racing over stones.
My grandmother’s feet come flying…

Mortality’s moment very rarely mimics the sparking of great souls. Spidel describes the deathbed scene of a woman known to her persona in a piece entitled Comh Bhron Dhuith (Gaelic for Rest in Peace). Due to the family’s attention everything seems appropriate, arranged just so. The food sits prepared. The table ready to be set. The plants watered. Arrangements had been made to dress the woman in a white dress and paint her nails clear before burial. The poet considers another, more dramatic, scenario,

I wanted them to bury you upright
in a sandpit like a Celtic queen,
spear in hand, facing the enemy

wearing your good gold rings, a cross
set with jewels on your mutilated
breast, your hair still growing,

displacing sand tendril by tendril
red flames spilling the heat
of your living at the core of the earth.

Penultimate poems have a certain transitory charm. So does Snowfall at Solstice, a lovely sestina by Spidel that brings heaven’s landscape to earth along with recognizable angelic company. It’s as if the footfalls of poetic craft are absorbed in life’s snowpack and the resulting silence spreads effortlessly outward. Consider these lines,

learned ski trails curving into night
up the Gatineau, and every path wound

its way through some adventure, wound
magically toward one who would shepherd
you through cities on starless nights,
whose homecoming you awaited at windows,
who carried your furred boots for you
through seventy winters of snow.

He will find his way in winging snow,
white-haired, a woolen scarf wound
at the neck, coming from darkness to you
stooped but sure-footed as a shepherd,
an overcoated angel reflected in the window,
stamping from his shoes the snow, the night.

Alexander Pope once said, “True wit is nature to advantage dress’d/ What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d. Lianne Spidel apparently got the message. Her poems delight.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

An interview with Somerville, Mass. author Pagan Kennedy, concerning her life and work. (2002)

Pagan Kennedy


 ........This is an interview I conducted with Pagan Kennedy for The Somerville Times back in 2002.

An interview with  Somerville, Mass. author Pagan Kennedy, concerning her life and work. 

with doug holder

Pagan Kennedy, a critically acclaimed Somerville, Massachusets novelist, once described the city she calls home as, " a rock and roll, Vietnamese student neighborhood part of Boston..." Much like Somerville itself, Kennedy has changed a bit since then. This writer, who has written about everything from Rock musicians in the hardscrabble hoods of Boston, to two eccentric spinsters who hit the road, has taken a new direction in her writing. Kennedy has just completed an accomplished work of nonfiction entitled: BLACK LIVINGSTONE: A TRUE TALE OF ADVENTURE IN THE NINETEENTH- CENTURY CONGO.This book concerns the experiences of a black American missionary, William Sheppard, who traveled to the Congo in the late 19th century. 

Sheppard exposed the cruelties of the Belgian colonists, and worked to dispel the "savage" stereotype of native African tribes, that was rampant in white Europe. I talked to Ms. Kennedy at Starbucks, in the heart of Somerville's Davis Square- a stone's throw from downtown Boston.

DH: Why did you become a writer?

PK: Wow. That all happened so long ago. In college I took some writing courses, and had the experience of stories...just coming to me. I had this coat that I bought at a thrift store, that was very much the picture of faded elegance.I began to see the character who had it before. A white Russian baroness. I made up this whole story, wrote it down...and this was my first short story. It was the experience of something coming full-blown out of my subconscious, that spurred me on. I had no control over it. I wanted to learn how to consciously bring these experiences on. So--I took writing classes in college.

When I graduated I worked for the VILLAGE VOICE as an arts journalist. I did everything. I was a gopher,and I wrote literary criticism, etc... In New York City I lived in eight places in two years. I couldn't take it anymore. I had friends who lived in the Boston area. I moved into a group home in Allston ( a section of Boston),for $160/month.
You could live for next to nothing then. Now, you can't do that anymore.

DH: You have lived in New York City, Baltimore, Allston, and you have been in Somerville for awhile now. What is it about the city that draws you here?

PK: I have lived in Somerville for five years. There was a time when I said, " I will never move across the river." My image of growing up, was moving to Somerville. (laughs) This is not everyone's idea of growing up and becoming an adult.

I had a whole bunch of friends in Allston. We had a vision of the kind of artistic community we wanted to form there. This was a place with cafes and venues. We tried to make that happen. I managed to buy a house with a friend. A tiny, falling-apart house that cost very little. We had a coup with that house. We were living in Lower Allston...but I became disenchanted. We watched Harvard knock down historic buildings, and put in box stores. The world we wanted to create was destroyed. This broke my heart. I felt there was no chance for Allston.

I bought a house in Somerville some 5 years ago. In Somerville I found what I was looking for in Allston. It is the most inspiring arts community I have ever been part of.

DH:Your first novel was SPINSTERS. In this novel you capture the sensibility of two spinster sisters, whose stifling stasis is threatened by a rapidly changing world. What experiences did you draw on to flesh out these two eccentric characters?

PK: SPINSTERS was a combination of two obsessions of mine. One was the rapid change in the country, during 1968. I wrote my senior thesis about this. The other side for me in that book was my Southern roots. My grandmother's family was full of spinsters. My grandmother collected hundreds of family anecdotes...she carried on the oral tradition. She was obviously married, but she was fascinated by all the spinsters, and celebrated them in stories. The South really loves their eccentrics. This leeched through in my work, without me intending it to.

I was nominated for the ORANGE AWARD (British Award) as a result of this novel. I got to read with all these amazing women, like Amy Tan, Mary Anne Wiggins  Salman Rushdie's ex-wife) and others.

DH: I also understand that you have put out your own little magazine or "zine", PAGAN'S HEAD, that was actually picked up by St. Martin's Press. I've been involved with the Small Press for years. I think it serves as the "minor leagues" of writing, and sometimes people go on to bigger and better things. Any comment?

PK: Boston was a hub in the 80's for the zine scene. I had graduated from grad. school in fiction writing. I found a real antidote in the zine world for some of the ills of the Lit. world, like its over-seriousness and rigidity.I started to embrace it and put out my own zine. With 50 copies of my own zine, people would stop me on the street, and say: " Hey, Pagan, I read your piece!" It was really fun because it was so community-minded. I like zines that break the form. The person who collects Pez dispensers, and makes up a zine for it. The best zines are about community.

DH:You have just finished a book, BLACK LIVINGSTONE...", that is a departure from your usual fare. Sheppard was a black man who ran in direct opposition to the conventions of the time. He was a missionary in Africa, when this vocation was usually reserved for whites. He discovered the sophisticated Kuba tribe in the Congo, and spread the word about these aristocratic people around Europe. He was a crusader against racism, a truly unique character. Why have you gone from writing about fictional rock musicians in Boston,to writing about a true -to-life,charismatic Black missionary who travels to the Congo in the 1890's?

PK: I have done a number of nonfiction books.I've always done a lot of journalism. This was a great story. I found out about this story...that no one told before. I burned with a desire to tell this story. I read about William Sheppard( the Black missonary), in a book. He was a side-character. I then searched for his own writing. This enchanted me all the more. He really wrote in that boy's adventure style...a very 19th century way. There was something very familiar about the way he put together stories and his sense of humor. I really didn't think I was writing a book. I just wanted to understand who this guy had been. I was fascinated by this story because it was a reverse HEART OF DARKNESS. Through my grandmother I learned that her first cousin replaced Sheppard at his job. At this point I was off and running. I thought this was beyond a coincidence. I felt I had to do this.

DH: Do you think this was a book that needed to be written?

PK: First off it was a great story. William Sheppard was completely lost to history. The story of black missionaries who went to Africa in the 19th century, has been lost. This was a certain moment in time where all this could happen, before it was seen as threatening by the white world.

DH:Do you think William H. Sheppard shared any traits with your fictional characters?

PK: People who have vivid internal lives, and what happens when they try to realize it. The tragedies and ecstasies that come about, as a result. It is so difficult to map your vision to the world. So Sheppard fascinated me. To write about a black man was a leap and the fact that he was a missionary was a leap.

DH: How did you manage to portray Sheppard's internal life, and the racist milieu he lived in?

PK: It was hard to get into Sheppard's internal life., There were things he couldn't say. I did an enormous amount of research about his contemporaries. There are well-documented scenes, where I gave a fully fleshed account. I tried to create scenes that would give the reader a sense that they were there. I didn't put words into Sheppard's mouth. I tried to fill in the patches of his life in America, where he couldn't openly complain about racism. I felt a deep moral obligation to say- this is what he faced.

DH: Moving from the Congo to Somerville... where in Somerville do you hang out?

PK: I love the Diesel Cafe. I have so many friends here, so I find I spend time at their houses. It's like a big family.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

New Ibbetson Street Press book to address sociology of punk rock

Jim Sullivan, journalist, former Boston Globe rock music critic and host of the XFINITY on Demand music-interview show Boston Rock/Talk, and freelance journalist/author Susie Davidson have begun a book project on the political and social elements of punk, post-punk and new wave rock of the mid-late 1970s and early 1980s.
Punk rock got rolling in America - credit the Ramones, Heartbreakers and Television - but its appeal was limited, early on. It spread, however, like wildfire in England, especially after the above-mentioned American bands toured there. In England, punk rock was, for a time, pop music (meaning: popular) - far more so than in the U.S.  In 1976 and 1977, England was in the throes of high unemployment and under the reign of the union-busting Margaret Thatcher. Unrest and disaffection was in the air. Politics infused the music.
The Sex Pistols and the Clash seized the moment, the Pistols releasing the most powerful 1-2 opening salvo in rock history with the singles “Anarchy in the U.K.” and “God Save the Queen.” The Clash likewise sounded the call for London youth in “London’s Burning” - it was “burning with boredom now” - and in “Career Opportunities,” where those opportunities were “the ones that never knock.”
As Sting told Sullivan in 1979, backstage after a concert at Boston’s Paradise Rock Club, “The Police are not a punk band, but punk kicked open the doors for bands like us.” And while the Police were not overtly political, a number of those who rushed through the doors were. In the aftermath of punk rock, no subject was off-limits.
Although some bands from its heyday are still performing live and even releasing new works, the ambiance of the era is now both finite and nostalgic. Therefore, Sullivan and Davidson believe that the time for archiving and documenting the political and social aspects of punk rock and its musical outgrowths is now, as the movement recedes into musical history, and as misleading caricatures tend to prevail.
To wit, Sid Vicious and his personal and public demise may be the face of punk rock to many - then and now. He lived fast and died young. But as Johnny Rotten told Sullivan in a 1996 Boston Globe interview conducted during the Sex Pistols 20th anniversary tour, "He was a coat hanger from start to finish. Amazing. He's the most popular coat hanger in this history of bad music. . . . Old Sid. That man never played."
Added guitarist Steve Jones, "It was kind of a mistake getting him in the band. It was mainly 'cause he looked the part and he'd come to all our shows, and John knew him. But he couldn't play, and when he joined, the whole chemistry just went out the window."   
Sullivan and Davidson aim to explore and publicize the social consciousness inherent in punk rock - some of it, anyway - and dispel the myth that the scene was one of self-destruction, negativity, and purposeless anger. (Although, of course, there was some of that!) But at its best, there was a mix of intellectual integrity and pure passion, a reflection of the political and social forces of the times.
The book, tentatively titled "The Politics of Punk Rock: A Mythbusting Primer," will include anecdotes and insights from Sullivan's interviews with major players of the punk scene, and draw from Davidson's own past music articles and personal insights as it explores both the varied social issues and influences of the day, and the wide, continuing musical manifestations of punk rock.
For Sullivan and Davidson, the late teens and early to mid-20s ages of most punk musicians reflected their own comings of musical age, and their emotional reactions to these same pressing issues and the music that individually interpreted and defined them.
Photos from Boston scene photographer Phil-in-Phlash and songs throughout the book will depict well-known original and latter-day punk, post-punk and new wave groups such as the more well-known Green Day, Midnight Oil, The Jam, The Sex Pistols, the Clash and Gang of Four. Other classic punk and post-punk bands will include Dead Kennedys, Agent Orange, the Adverts, Mekons, the Anti-Nowhere League and Naked Raygun; topical punk performers including Attila the Stockbroker, Billy Bragg, the November Group, the Proletariat and the Fall; Ska and 2-Tone bands The Specials, The Selector, UB40, Madness, The English Beat and other skankers; and pioneering female-led punk ensembles such as X-Ray Spex, Crass, the Au Pairs, the Slits, and Siouxsie and the Banshees.
These are just a few of the bands and the punk genres that will be covered in this new work, which will explore post punk and new wave, and touch on modern-day influences.
Sullivan writes::
     I saw the Clash at their first Boston area performance, in early 1979, at the long-gone Harvard Square Theatre. Anticipation ran high - for as the hype went, the Clash was “the only band that matters” - and, hype be damned, the Clash did not disappoint. In fact, they opened the assault with the salvo that was “I’m So Bored with the USA.” It was a British kids anthem - they were not only fed up with their own system, be it pop music or politics, they were tired of being fed American pop culture.
     Here, when they performed the song, it hit home immediately. We too were bored with the USA. (Well, bored and angry … Jimmy Carter’s malaise had settled in.) At the Harvard Square Theatre, people were standing, pogoing, fists pumping. At one with the band, with those sentiments.
    But here’s the thing: The song wasn’t originally conceived as an anti-American song at all. When Joe Strummer wrote it, it was initially an anti-love song, a kiss-off to a soon-to-be-ex. “I’m so bored with … you!” It was only through the band working it through together that it became what it became. Iconic, important, cathartic. It surely would have been a great song had it remained in its initial form, but in its political form, it gained a whole lot more traction than it might have had, had it remained personal and pissed off.
     It is worth noting: The song has got to work as a song - the melody and rhythm - before is works as a message. People hear and feel the music first; understanding the lyrics - or the thematic thrust - comes a bit later down the line. For the bands, for fans.
The book, which will be published by Ibbetson Street Press of Somerville, will be available in print at local bookstores, and in print and online through Amazon.
For information, contact

Somerville’s Julie Ann Otis: A Poet Who Feeds the Mind, Body and Spirit.

Somerville’s Julie Ann Otis: A Poet Who Feeds the Mind, Body and Spirit.

By Doug Holder

Julie Ann Otis

There is something to be said about my unofficial office in the back of the Bloc 11 CafĂ© in Union Square in Somerville. There is a nice brick wall where I can rest my glasses, books and papers, and a fireplace rests on top of the brick, a perfect pick for a winter’s day. My space also provides a sense of intimacy where I can probe the minds of my subjects for my column in The Somerville Times. My subject in this week’s column is Julie Ann Otis, a poet, a writer, a personal coach, a motivational speaker, to name just a few roles she plays.

Otis has lived in Somerville since 1996, and is originally from Omaha, Nebraska. She told me, “I love Somerville. It has the second highest number of artists per capita in the country. Only New York City beats it. I love the vibe here.”

Otis is currently running a workshop for the Art and Business Council for Greater Boston, titled: “Artistic Dharma.” According to Otis this workshop deals with,”…the active receptivity and letting go of undue effort that leads a person to be a vehicle for great art to be made. Otis, a graduate of Tufts University and Boston University, said the workshop consists of discussion, creative exercises, meditation, with the aim to find one’s creative self. Otis is well-versed in Buddhist philosophy, and uses this in her teachings. According to Otis, “I explore aspects of our thinking that prevents us from expressing ourselves. Things like pushing yourself to hard, believing more is better, or there is never enough, etc…

Otis is also an experienced life coach. She has studied with masters in  Indonesia, the United States, and elsewhere. Her practice provides a living, and feeds her own creativity.

In 2011 Otis had a major life change, she told me, “My poetry floodgates opened. I felt poetry was coming through me—I was a medium for something. My poems are contemplative and earnest, and I use my heart and my body to write them.” Otis has studied at the Martha’s Vineyard Institute for Creative Writing and the Noepe Center for Creative Writing on the Vineyard as well. She has an artistic residency coming up at the Art Farm in Marquette, Nebraska, where she will live and create with multi-disciplinary artists.

Earlier in 2015 she presented an exhibit in Union Square titled “Free Verse” that involved vintage typewriters, live-time poetry performances, community creative writing, and a public art installation.

Like many members of our artistic community, Otis has her hands in many pots and is actively creating—here—in the Paris of New England.

For more info go to 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

A World Less Perfect For Dying In Ralph Pennel

A World Less Perfect For Dying In
Ralph Pennel
Cervena Barva Press
W. Somerville, MA
Copyright © 2015 by Ralph Pennel
ISBN: 978-0-9861111-7-4
Softbound, 66 pages, $17

Review by Zvi A. Sesling

My favorite thing about poetry is discovering a poet who has written a book of poems in which I get hooked the minute I read the first words, and better yet, I feel the same way at the end.  I know people who hate to reach the end of a novel because they have become a part of the book. 

Ralph Pennel has done something similar me with this book of poetry. I hated closing his debut volume as much as any book of poetry I have read.  That includes some pretty good company for him to join.

Most of the poems are a page long, some longer than a page.  One of the shorter ones is “FREE THIS POEM IT WANTS TO FLY”

You told me once about the day
your professor asked your class to write
 poem about milkweed then loosed
a pod full into the air, the window open,
the sun shining in, a new autumn breeze blowing.

Everyone in the room watched closely,
heads turned as white tufts passed by –
ghosts, like the spirits of loved ones
freed into the open air.

One see floated down into your hair.
Your professor walked by and lifted it out, held it up for you to
see. You each smiled. But not at each other.
To yourselves, thinking hard
about who you wanted most to be set free.

Here are a couple of short quotes from two other long poems.  The first is “WHAT WE’VE COME TO EXPECT FROM BEAUTY”

It is midnight. My apartment is quiet.
I can hear the cars rushing down Somerville Avenue,
my neighbor shedding her clothes to the floor –
the faint shuffle of feet, the scrape of a hanger.
And I think about her now.


From here, downtown is magnificent. Bold. Stark.
Bright, against the dull haze of cloud cover. Light
fits so easily into so many different places:
in the office windows across the river, in the face of the moon,
in the puddles that still dot the earth after this afternoon’s rain.
Even in these bricks in the street, as if placed her like seeds.

This is a book of poetry I will cherish because I will want to read the beauty of Ralph Pennel’s words over and over.  His poetry is a winner and Cervena Barva Press is a winner for bringing it to lovers of poetry.

Zvi A. Sesling

Reviewer for Boston Small Press and Poetry Scene
Author, King of the Jungle (Ibbetson St., 2010) and  Across Stones of Bad Dreams 
(Cervena Barva, 2011)
Editor, Muddy River Poetry Review
Publisher, Muddy River Books
Editor, Bagel Bards Anthologies 7& 8