Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Sunday Poet: Gary Fincke

Gary Fincke
Gary Fincke's latest collection is Brining Back the Bones: New and Selected Poems (2016, Stephen F. Austin University). His next book will be The Killer's Dog, which won the 2015 Elixir Press Fiction Prize and will appear early next year.  He is the Charles Degenstein Professor of Creative Writing at Susquehanna University.

The Chernobyl Swallows

In April, near the anniversary
Of catastrophe, barn swallows returned,
Flying inside the exclusion zone to
Nest in the radioactive ruins.

Like disciples, the swaddled scientists
Marveled. The work crews, weeks later, toasted
The newly hatched, especially the fledged
With albino feathers after they soared

Like their siblings, devouring insects
With the ravenous hunger of swallows.
For months, the left-behind celebrated
How weak the worst was, and when the swallows,
No exceptions, flew southward, how feeble
Apocalypse could be. But come spring, not
One of the white-flecked birds returned, only
The ordinary nesting and spawning

Their own mutations. Families, by then,
Had moved back to where the world was quiet
And uncrowded, reclaiming rooms inside
The official radius of poison.

And through succeeding springs, no flight with white
Above them, just guards and squatters were left
To praise what they took for heroism,
Even if only among the swallows.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Souped Up Poetry Slam @Dudley Café Roxbury, Mass.

Souped Up Poetry Slam
@Dudley Café
23 Warren St. Roxbury
Right at Dudley Station
7 PM, the first Tuesday of the month
Next Slam, November 1
Cover $10

Dear Readers and my fellow white armchair radicals and knee-jerk liberals, who have been so politically correct in our support of  "Black Lives Matter,"

I invite you to come along with me on Tuesday, November first and allow that slogan to mature into a more heartfelt reality, encounter some black lives and let them begin to matter. I warn you; this has risks, because it will mean letting the individuality of a black life grow out of the abstraction of  “Black Lives” as a masterpiece would emerge for Michelangelo from a block of Carrera marble. The risk comes because, while Michelangelo's marbles wouldn't bleed if you were to hit them with a nightstick or 38, a 45 or a 357; an individual black life that you allow to matter might at anytime become collateral damage in a firefight of the urban war that sputters in Roxbury and Dorchester or a victim of the liberal rules of engagement we have given the police.  Nevertheless, I'm suggesting we need make those attachments even if they do put our souls at risk of grief.

My particular risky connections began to stalk me late last spring, when Kirk Etherton brought Matt Parker of SOUP, the Society Of Urban Poetry (http// into the Bagel Bards. Although Matt hasn't been back to the Bards (could it be that we Bagels are too white bread?) he did extend to us an invitation to the Dudley Café for their “Souped Up” slams on the first Tuesdays and their poetry/performance workshops on the last Tuesdays of every month.

I took Matt up on his invitations. I have been attending the workshops regularly and on October 4 attended the slam, which has provoked this review. Superficially Souped Up was much like any other open mike, performers come in and sign up but this one has a cover charge, which finances a $100 prize for the best slammer of the evening. It also had a larger crowd than any open mike I remember and that crowd was unusual in the number of its members who were not part of the performer’s claques. The community was interested in what was happening at the Dudley Café and this audience’s attention had to be earned. I think that fact, more than anything else, gave the evening its vitality. Because the performers could not assume that any one would pay attention out of some reverence for “poetry.” At this venue poetry would have to entertain; it could not be merely read.

The slam had three rounds; it started off with eight poets and then winnowed those down to six and then to the three from whom the winner would be chosen. All of the slammers held my attention; not once was I embarrassed for a performer, as I often am at events where anyone who signs up in time has a crack at the mike. And it was obvious from the greetings and banter around the poets who were collecting the covers that SOUP is part of a vital, vibrant and dedicated community; one where poetry is considered an important ingredient in any recipe for progress towards sharing our humanity.

While the roster on November 1 will no doubt to be different from the one I saw October 4; here are some quick notes on four of the eight poets I saw in October. I think they are an indication of the range of work that you might encounter next month and I feel confident from what I've seen, that you will be similarly rewarded for attendance:

·        Rasheem Muhamed finished one poem describing his reality with "They still wonder why we talk about despair." Rasheem, of course, was not despairing and lasted into the third round; his poetry overcame the lack of polish in his delivery (too much bombast) but at 17 he has plenty of time to Simonize it.

·        Ashleigh Randolf, who performs as Leigh Lahane, came in second. With her piece about lying men in the first round she struck me as a sort of whiny young woman but when she made it to the final round I realized that the persona in her opening performance was just that, an assumed persona, and that she has a strength to be reckoned with.HERE ?! 

·        Arafat Akbar had the best poem of the night; all five judges in the second round gave him 10's so, after the high and low scores were thrown out, he had a perfect 30 for his long riff on fairy tales and the problems princes charming have with princesses. Akbar is not a prince because his “daddy's rich” but because his “principles are rich,” so he keeps telling the princesses to wake up, to act, to become independent women, to stop lying around waiting for him, for some prince charming to make them happy. At one point this challenge becomes a refrain, "I'm not your Romeo; you're not my Juliet." He then makes it clear that what he means is that she is not his "jewel, yet," but might be if she would just wake up. Unfortunately it took him 50 seconds too long to tell his tale so his score was docked five points and, with a 25, he didn't make it into the finals.
·        Art Collins won with a confessional poem, "I was a fool" about losing his soul mate because of his infidelities. He is on the Lizard Lounge slam team and his delivery was the most polished of the evening.

I have not addressed this review and its invitation to white folks because I want to feel more comfortable or less alone at the slams; in fact, I felt less alone in the Dudley Café than I do in Newton Center. I'm addressing them because most of the white folks I know need to hear what these poets have to say. We need to bear witness to their anger because bearing witness is healing. It will be healing for them to have us listen without being defensive and it will be healing for us to come to know and empathize with the costs of their reality. After all, how can we learn to live together (and we must learn) if we don't get together and talk about “How!” The SOUP events at the Dudley Café are one location where we can start the conversations. I am sure there are others; if you know of any, tell me about them.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Rainer Maria Rilke New Poems Translated by Len Krisak


Rainer Maria Rilke
New Poems
Translated by Len Krisak
Copyright © 2015 Len Krisak
Camden House
Rochester, New York
379 pages, hardbound

Review by Zvi A. Sesling

Too often reading a translation of a well-known poet like Rainer Maria Rilke one gets the feeling of reading more of the translator’s poetry and not the original poet. So while a number of people have translated Rainer Maria Rilke’s New Poems-- one of the more accessible and interesting versions is by Len Krisak, a four time winner on the television show “Jeopardy” and a person who has published more than 500 poems  including translations from Latin, Greek, Spanish, Italian, Russian and German. 

Despite his successes and intellect he remains a rather modest individual and as you will see in this work, he is an excellent translator who makes Rilke readable to those who are familiar with Rilke as well as those who may be reading him for the first time.  As a bonus you will “feel” Rilke and not be acutely aware you are reading a translation.

George C. Schoolfield, who wrote the introduction to Krisak’s translations, was  a professor emeritus of German and Scandinavian literature who focused his research, among other things on German literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially the works of Rainer Maria Rilke. He died on July 21, 2016 at the age of  90.

In his introduction Schoolfield notes, “To date there have been four translations of Neue Gedichte [New Poems] into English…These four are now jointed by Len Krisak’s translation…but Krisak’s translation, it seems to me, comes closest to replicating Rilke’s poems’ vitality and their subtleties of diction and form.

Thanks to numerous translators who have engaged poetic traditions from many languages poetry has risen to an even more significant place in American literary form and tradition,   
Aside from reading English, Scots, Welsh and Irish poetry, translators have brought to the American shores the work of poets from Germany, Greece, India, China, Japan, Italy,
France, Russia, Nigeria, South Africa and the Eastern European countries of Romania, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Albania and many other countries.   These translations have added new words and styles as well as new poets for us to read and enjoy.

In the “Translator’s Preface” Krisak points out, “Any translator – but especially a translator of poetry – owes his reader an account of his practice, out of both necessity and courtesy…So I have tried to translate these poems line-for-line,  rhyme scheme – for –  rhyme scheme, and, as far as possible, meter-for-meter. 

In the following two excerpts from New Poems you can see Krisak’s ability to follow through on his translating prowess and present a Rilke who is intellectual, accessible and entertaining.   For that we say thank you to Len Krisak.

In a Strange Park

There are two paths, and neither shows the way.
But sometimes, when you’re left in thought, alone
in the wrong place, one lets you go ahead,
and suddenly you’re in a flower bed,
a clearing, left once more beside her stone.
Again you read there what the letters say:
Barness Brita-Sophie. Once again,
your finger searches for a worn-thin date:
so this discovery never ages then?

Just as before, why do you hesitate,
so hopeful in this stand of elm trees where
it’s damp and dark and no foot ever treads?

What counter-inclination draws you there
to search for something you might find in sunny beds,
as if discovering a rose tree’s name?

What’s that you hear? Why do you stop so? Why,
at last – half-lost – do you see in the high
phlox, butterflies that flicker like a flame?

The Blind Man

Look how he walks his city never seen
inside his darkness; how he interrupts
it like a black crack rifting through a cup’s
whiteness. As if he were a sheet, a clean

new piece of paper, things are painting him
with their reflections, but he doesn’t take
them in. Only his feeling stirs awake,
as if to catch the world’s small waves that swim

about him. Stillness and resisting bedrock.
Then, it’s as if he’s waiting whom to choose,
his hand held in a gesture one might use
to give oneself away in solemn wedlock.
Zvi A. Sesling

Reviewer for Boston Small Press and Poetry Scene
Author, Fire Tongue (Cervena Barva, 2016)
Across Stones of Bad Dreams (Cervena Barva, 2011)
King of the Jungle (Ibbetson Press, 2010)
Editor, Muddy River Poetry Review
Publisher, Muddy River Books
Editor, Bagel Bards Anthologies 7& 8

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Podcast: At the Bloc 11 Cafe with musician and lyricist Jack Holland

Left to Right:  Doug Holder with Jack Holland behind the bars of an old bank vault at the Bloc 11 Cafe in Somerville, Mass.

 Holder talked with Holland about his new band " The Dutch Tulips," his influences, Bob Dylan's winning of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and how it is for an up and coming artist to manage music and work, and to make the daily nut.  I spoke with Holland at the busy Bloc 11 Cafe in Union Square--Somerville. To hear podcast go to:

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Cinnamon Girl, by Lawrence Kessenich

Cinnamon Girl, by Lawrence Kessenich

North Star press of St. Cloud, Inc., St. Cloud, MN


Review by Denise Provost



The often-repeated cliché about the 1960s is that, if you can remember them, you weren’t there. In his debut novel, Lawrence Kessenich shows us that he clearly remembers those times, and was possibly taking notes. Otherwise, how could he spin out a novel recounting the kinds of events described, in such detail?


Cinnamon Girl is a quasi-picaresque coming-of-age novel (and possibly roman a clef.) Its first person narrator, John Meyer, begins his story in the midst of a political demonstration, as armed police are charging unarmed protestors. It’s the summer of 1969, and John is a youth of his time:  self-righteously angry at the conservatism of his parents, earnestly indignant about the war in Vietnam, and furious about the military draft that feeds young men like himself into its maw. Besides having a keen sense of life’s injustice, John is also a sensualist, drinking and smoking reefer while enjoying food, cigarettes, and rock music in the company of friends.


John and his friends are mostly students at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, preoccupied with maintaining their draft deferments while educating themselves out of the boring jobs they work at. There’s a touchy class consciousness about where families live, and fathers’ job descriptions. Yet there’s also the sense that even without these hovering social divides, John and his male friends would still stay at arm’s length, getting stoned together being the peak of their illusory intimacy.


It’s a strong illusion, though, and John becomes close buddies with affable dock hand and student Tony Russo. Or, possibly, John is drawn to Tony’s wife Claire, an enticing green-eyed blonde, with “freckles sprinkled like cinnamon across her nose.” There’s also the attraction of Tony and Claire’s infant son, Jonah; a lure for John, as conflict with his parents makes him want to break away from home, even as his strong love for his big pack of siblings anchors him there.


News of the far-off Woodstock Festival inspires Tony’s friend Tim Kolvacik to supply mescaline to a party at the Russo’s, enhancing the sense of closeness and trust growing between them, Meyer, and Kolvacik’s girlfriend, Mina. Soon after, as Myer recounts, “[w]e became a family almost instantaneously, incestuous longings and all.”   A few “inseparable” months later, the Russos, Meyer, and the intense young radical Jonathan Bradford move into a big Victorian house together, setting the stage for “the party months.”


What these young people do thereafter takes place in the shattering news of the Kent State killings and their aftermath; the local playing out of the national student strike; the shaky political alliance among the organizations on the Strike Committee, and the teach-ins, disruptions, and ideological hostilities of the day. Besides its psychological exploration of its characters, Cinnamon Girl is a collection of love stories, and a social history. It will have certain nostalgic appeal for those who came of age in the same era, and may well be a revelation to those whose experience of protest began with the Occupy movement, or Black Lives Matter.


John Meyer is an engaging central character. While he can be petulant and defensive, he simultaneously disarms the reader with his unfiltered candor, his lack of cynicism, and his willingness to behave in ways that are uncool. Kessenich shows Meyer goofing with his much younger sisters and brother, taking them out to a movie (and ice cream before dinner), volunteering to change Jonah’s diapers – a sort of anti-Holden Caulfield; not at all the typical male protagonist of that era.


Although he is an accomplished poet, Kessenich’s prose here is spare and straightforward, moving his story right along. The dialogue has a natural flow, although some of Meyer’s internal monologues about love, concerning cupid’s arrows, and a woman as an “open vessel,” while not unexpected from a besotted 19-year old, are a bit cringe-worthy. The use of cliché, even occasionally, is not what one expects from a writer of Kessenich’s talents.


That said, Cinnamon Girl’s flaws are as scattered as the faint freckles across Claire’s nose. It’s a good read, and a fine first novel. I’m already looking forward to the next.