Saturday, August 08, 2015

Forty Years and Forty Nights: Tomas O’Leary’s In the Wellspring of the Ear: New and Selected Poems

Poet Tomas O'Leary

Forty Years and Forty Nights: Tomas O’Leary’s
In the Wellspring of the Ear: New and Selected Poems

article by Michael T. Steffen

One of the values of a collection of “new and selected poems,” in most cases featuring the new poems at the front of the book, involves this intrigue, tracing recurrent images and themes from the new poems back through the former ones. Defeat and (bad pun with a drum roll and crash of cymbals) the feet (prominent in the accents of an Irish lyricist), this haunts the muse of Tomas O’Leary from the outset of the new book, In the Wellspring of the Ear (Lynx House Press, 2015). For O’Leary characteristically adept at managing disappointments, this first poem “House on the High Road” surprises and nearly troubles the reader with tones of supplication, genuine remorse, and a plea of innocence on behalf of the offering of words which, it is suggested, have breathed on the first domino of a reaction that has gone awry (“the red treasure/Again on my hands…the dogs burn for my own blood”). Were it not for language, and the concentrated expressions of poetry, this grace of a medium for arbitration…

                                    my intention
            I swear was words only
            A reasoned package to deliver her…

The concentration delivering a phrase as fertile as “to deliver her” with its possibilities—of a physical birth, from a spiritual dilemma, or as the content of the parcel itself ?

The “her” evoked first in the book and juxtaposed with the poet’s trek of humility—

            High Lady low road

—remains otherwise unspecified, and harkens back to a poem from a previous collection, placed in section III of the new selected, “Love’s Virgin,” a tour-de-force of brevity and choice, making its margins and silence resonant. This earlier expression asserts the poet’s confidence with paradoxical terminology (magnified in “emerald of slime”) for the ambiguous experiences with inspiration, which James Joyce’s young Dedalus identified in the hot and cold faucets of the hotel room sink, James Merrill as the “up and down” journeys of the ski slopes. “Praise Death!” O’Leary exclaims, then more softly,

                        but leave a candle by for Love:
            Love’s Virgin, in her cove, keeps costly love,
            laying an altar cloth of emerald slime
            over the sacrificial face of time…

The determined trochaic meter and chiming couplets are the phonic inheritance, or Wellspring of the Ear, particularly of the folk of the isle of song and music.

As anybody who has had the pleasure of meeting and talking with him would attest, Tomas O’Leary’s manner and speech come across with enough Irish as to have you wonder that he was in fact raised in Somerville—by Irish immigrants. While sincere and gentle, O’Leary is full of character and wry humor tempering his playful, musical bearing, as one of the new poems describes his father:

            A genius of blather, a serious man to boot…

“My Father, My Sons” is a wonderful meditation on generations, preceding and ongoing, with a hint of the poet’s awareness of mortality in time that has passed, yet with the odd gift of memory that revives and retains his father’s speech:

            He died it seems almost forever ago,
            yet here he is to tell me this:
            “Sure eternity doesn’t take but a day,
            and day turns to day, and nothing ever missed…

and in the evocation of his sons and their inheritance of the genetic/cultural wellspring, with a marvelous fairy-tale-like image of the deflected passage from father to sons:

            My sons, alive and well, have never met
            the old man who was father to their old man,
            the mythic fish who barely missed their net.
            He’s theirs, though, surely as he’s mine.

Yeats is unmistakably present in O’Leary’s diction; though it is Yeats only in that Yeats widely embraced and appropriated the poetry of his nation’s speech, much as Whitman did for 19th century America. It is admirable and astonishing that O’Leary resists falling too mechanically into the stamped lyrical pattern very often, though the tetrameter (four-beat) line autographs his verse even in the poems lined in freer forms.

A good deal of the notes taken down for this article won’t have space here. The reader is left with much to discover, new and reorganized and presented anew. O’Leary is seasoned, wise with his allowance of scope about his subjects yet subtly poignant where he intends to be (notably in “Portrait of Alvarez” and “The Pleasures of Mourning,” a relentless go at the decorum and delicacies of a funeral wake). It will be one of the best collections from
a Cambridge poet in 2015.

Tomas O’Leary will appear with Greg Delanty to read at the second annual Seamus Heaney Tribute, part of the Hastings Room Reading Series, on Wednesday August 26, 2015
at 7:00 pm, First Church Congregationalist, 11 Garden Street near Harvard Square.

In the Wellspring of the Ear: New and Selected Poems/ISBN: 978-089924-143-2
by Tomas O’Leary / is on sale for $19.95 / Lynx House Press  Spokane, WA /

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Interview with Somerville poet Afaa Michael Weaver: A poet with a strong sense of responsibility.

Afaa Michael Weaver

Interview with Somerville poet Afaa Michael Weaver: A poet with a strong sense of responsibility.

By Doug Holder

Afaa Michael Weaver does not just write pretty poetry. He pens poetry that addresses things like the recent tragedies in Baltimore, South Carolina, Ferguson and elsewhere, where African Americans were killed—victims of hate crimes, and questionable actions of the police. His poetry does not consist of rants, and hopefully his art is a potent catalyst for people to think about injustice and change.

Weaver is a recent winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Prize, and a Professor of English at Simmons College. I had the pleasure to talk to him on my Somerville Community Access TV show " Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer."

Doug Holder: You have written in response to the hate crimes, etc... against African Americans across the country. Recently The Somerville Times published a poem of yours that dealt with the killing in Baltimore. Does the artist have a responsibility in a time of social crisis?

Afaa Michael Weaver: I think he or she does. It is a complicated situation—as we saw in Ferguson, Baltimore, N.Y., etc...It is not always easy to write a poem in response to these things. But I felt compelled to write one in response to the situation in Charleston, where a young white man went into an African American church, and killed folks in a prayer meeting. We have to face facts about how influential we can be with our work-- how influential our poems can be. We have to ask: “ How can we move people?”I am always of the pinon that when I write a poem, I try to write the best poem that I can. I try not to write a poem that is political and that is a very difficult thing to do. It could turn into a rant. With the poems I wrote in response to the crisis, I tried to move people emotionally.

DH: You published a chapbook of poetry “ A Hard Summation” (Central Square Press) that covers African American history from the Middle Passage to the present day. How did this project come about?

AFW: About 3 years ago I was asked by friends in Wisconsin to write poems about African Americans. At the time I was finishing up a draft of a memoir—so I decided to work on a pocket-sized collection of poems about this subject. My friends in Wisconsin are conservative Catholic, Republicans. We are part of an international group of poets for peace. They are people that want to bring together different spiritual and ethnic communities for the common good. My friends didn't know much about African American history, so I wrote a series of 13 poems with the intent of educating and inspiring my friends. I wanted them to think about race and racism. I knew they would uncover things that they never heard of. I was afraid of how they would respond to the book—especially with regard to slavery.

Not many people know very much about slavery. Certain basic facts are not well known. There were two periods to slavery. There was the Atlantic Slave Trade that went right up until the 19th century when it was outlawed. When the cotton industry boomed—the demand for labor was huge—so slave owners, involved in breeding. The African American population went from 800,000 to 4 million before and after the Civil War. Slave pens were common on the city streets. Slaves were considered to be animals. And part of the problem today is that people are tied to this perception—and it is ingrained in the language.

DH: How do you mean it is ingrained in the language?

AFW: I mean value designations that are placed on certain words—black visual coding. For instance-- Hollywood, for years, has not wanted to portray Africa Americans in romantic relationships because it was believed they didn't have a romantic life. Even African-American are guilty of decimating themselves with Gangster Rap and Rap music lyrics. These can be very destructive forces to African American—with its glorification, violence and drugs.

DH: You are working on a play titled “ Grit” right now. I know the playwright August Wilson was an influence on you—and he wrote a series of plays about Pittsburgh. You are a native son of Baltimore—is this play going to be part of a a series too?

AFW: I am not looking to write a series. But I am looking to write a lot of plays about Baltimore. I am also studying acting—to add to my skills as a playwright.

DH: What exactly is the play about?

AFW: I can only talk about the play, generally. It involves generational shifts in demographics in the city.

DH: You studied with the playwright Paula Vogel at Brown University, right?

AFW: After my first two professional play productions I basically concentrated on poetry. But I continued to write poems when I went to Brown. Paula Vogel encouraged me around playwrighting. Grit is in its second draft—it needs a third. I am going to the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis to have it looked at by accomplished playwrights who act as advisers.

DH: What is the new generation of American poets emphasis on?

AFW: The younger poets are more concerned with craft and the application of theory. But it is hard to make a general statement.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Buell Hollister: A Novelist with a Head for Shrunken Heads

Buell Hollister: A Novelist with a Head for Shrunken Heads
 By Doug Holder

Buell Hollister has a normal sized head, but one of his main characters in his new novel “Leeram in Fordlandia” has a decidedly shrunken one. Hollister, formerly the head of the august St. Botolph Club in Boston, has written his first novel “Leeram in Fordlandia.” I spoke with Hollister on my Somerville Community Access TV show, “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”

Doug Holder: So how does a shrunken head by the name of Leeram come into play in your novel?

Buell Hollister: At the beginning of the book a shrunken head makes an appearance. Actually, this has some basis of fact in my own life. A dentist friend of mine once showed me a prized shrunken head in his possession, and then put it away. Over the years I had the head in the back of my mind. A couple of years ago I used the head as a starting point for a short story I wrote. The protagonist in my novel Gilbert Greenbush helps the widow of the dentist to clear out his possessions after his death. The head happened to be high on the list of things she wanted to get rid of. So Greenbush agreed to take it. And that’s where the story begins. Greenbush keeps it around his house, and he slowly gets used to it. He says to himself that it is a perfect roommate. It doesn’t drunk his liquor and it doesn’t need food. Soon it becomes apparent that the head has a personality—a wise guy, like a New York cabdriver. And this head turns out to be a catalyst for change. Greenbush was the type of guy who would have spent his life as a barista at some out-of-the-way coffee shop—if not for this shrunken head.

DH: Was he fashioned after you at one point in your life?

BH: Well…maybe for a short period of time. I was jolted out of that state of inertia. This character is someone with enormous potential but he needed a situation that would propel him. Leeram was his alter ego.

DH: Also the women in his life propelled him, right?

BH: Several did, Laura, who was gorgeous and younger and Suxie, whois an Amazon. I envisioned Suxie as being six feet five inches tall—a larger than life figure. She has a very commanding presence. People do what she tells them to do. He meets both of these women at an anti-fur protest, where the protesters are wearing, literally nothing. Lisa and Gilbert wind up as a couple and, Leeram and Suxie wind up as sort of a couple.

DH: They all wind up in Fordlandia in Brazil.

BH: Fordlandia is a real place, with a real history. Henry Ford of the Ford Motor Company, wanted to have control over everything. They had their own steel mills, etc… but they didn’t have their own rubber production. So Ford decided to have a rubber plantation. He took the plans for a typical Midwestern town: the architecture, the bandstand, the church and transplanted it to the jungles in Brazil. It was very strange. He believed that he could do this better than the natives. It was a disaster; it never worked. He eventually gave Fordlandia back to Brazil. So this band of friends in the novel wanted to operate a self-sustaining community in this abandoned space.

DH: You are 76 and this is your first novel. What took you so long?

BH: I started to write short stories a few years ago. At first I couldn’t get published; later I got published in a number of literary magazines. Someone told me, “The way you learn to write a novel, is to write a novel.” So I did. I worked with a good editor. He helped me organize my work. And of course I wanted to publish my novel. Publishers were telling me that it was well written, but because it is so off the wall— they wouldn’t be able to sell it. I found Merrimack Media. Since I was 76 I didn’t want to wait for years to publish. Most publishers stop pushing a book after three months and it is put on the remainder list. But a Merrimack book remains on sale, there are no deadlines; it remains on Amazon. Now I am working on a sequel to the novel.

DH: You were president of the prominent St. Botolph Club in Boston—a big supporter of the arts.

BH: The St. Botolph Club is an old, venerable institution. There are many accomplished members. It is located in the Back Bay of Boston on Commonwealth Ave. Its mission centers on the arts. It celebrates visual arts, music, the written word, etc… Such writers as Saul Bellow, as well as musicians like Yo Yo Ma were members. There are also scientists who are members. I can think one of one retired MIT physics professor, who is now into sculpting. I was elected into the position. I had the time to do it, and I found it very rewarding.