Saturday, December 09, 2017

Interview with poet Kate Hanson Foster: Exploring her past in Lowell in her new collection “Mid Drift”

Kate Hanson Foster

Interview with poet Kate Hanson Foster: Exploring her past in Lowell in her new collection “Mid Drift”

with Doug Holder

Kate Hanson Foster is a fortyish woman with an easy smile and has an animated way of describing her passion—writing. Kate Hanson Foster's first book of poems, Mid Drift, was published by Loom Press and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Center for the Book Award in 2011. Her poetry has appeared in Comstock Review, Harpur Palate, Poet Lore, Tupelo Quarterly and elsewhere. She was recently awarded the NEA Parent Fellowship through the Vermont Studio Center. I had the pleasure to speak to Foster on my Somerville Community Media TV show  " Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer."

Doug Holder: In your new collection “Mid Drift,” the city of Lowell, MA. is a character in your writing—explain.

Kate Hanson Foster: Well—it is hard to explain. I grew up in a very Catholic household. I moved to Lowell for college—for my undergraduate years. I spent the entire duration of my twenties in Lowell. For me—living in Lowell, being in that sort of environment ( that was entirely new to me), exposed me to a lot of harsh realities of city life. I was from a suburb of Boston—Andover. So my being in Lowell was sort of redefining moment for me spiritually. At the time—from 2000 to 2009—everything in the city was being renovated—mill buildings, streets, etc... So Lowell was a character for me like anything else. When you talk about place or a subject—there is a presence there—whether or not you want to admit it. I was always latching on to that sense of presence. It was almost a God -like thing.

DH: You went through some hardscrabble times there.

KHF: Yeah. Definitely. Like I said-- I encountered a lot of things I never saw before: prostitution, homelessness—things you didn't see in Andover. Lowell has a sort of energy. It has a great history and backstory. That's why the energy lingers. That's why I chose to live in the city—it was my muse.

DH: You had a wonderful poem about your grandmother who was succumbing to Alzheimer's disease. You sort of focus the poem down to her throat.

KHF: That poem was a hard one to write. My grandmother was on her last legs. That poem deals with her becoming just a body—just a machine that was wheeled around. She was losing herself. These were the last moments of herself.

DH : Your language in the poem is stripped down—nothing florid. Would you characterize this as your style?

KHF: It is my feeling of language. My dad plays a guitar—my words are my guitar. I know how to strum the chords at the right time. I love lyrical language, and plainspoken too.

DH: You seemed to have moved away from Lowell in your new work.

KHF: I live in Groton now. I got married and had three children. It changes everything. But I was happy to move on. There is a time and place for everything. It makes you think about your voice as a writer. I am no longer writing for me. I am emotionally split—I have a family.

DH: Does domesticity help or hinder you as a poet?

KHF: It does both. I mean after my third child I experienced depression. I had to make sense of things so I incorporated motherhood into my writing. I write about the self, family and people—this has been a bridge to a new phase of my writing.

DH: You got your MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. How was the experience?

KHF. Great. Major Jackson was the first writer I worked with. Everyone was a great help in their own ways.

DH: Can you talk about your affiliation with the Loom Press of Lowell?

KHF: Paul Marion—who founded the press—has an unbelievable commitment to the cultural life of Lowell. I knew him. It was natural to go to him about publishing this book—that concerned Lowell. Once you publish with Loom—you are part of the family.

Mill City

No human echo—
Just a hum that drips from the street
wires, a pulse that lets loose
from the glass of vacant storefronts.
My mind is filthy with old, dear secrets.
Another room sinks into its pine boards
and someone comes to assign value;
pull sewage out of the canal.
So much left over from so much
ordinary life.
I am seduced
by the red X on buildings
where no one bothers. Another ceiling
gives in and my gutters fill.
It is the unlit room,
the windowpane that keeps hold
of that flat ochre light.
It is absence.
And not even post and beam can escape
the flutter of that grey wing.
A crack opens another foundation—
Something in the flesh trying to beat its way out.
Just watch it go.

The Sunday Poet: Susan Tepper

Poet Susan Tepper
Susan Tepper has been a writer for twenty years. Her stories, poems, interviews and essays have been published extensively worldwide. An award-winning author, Tepper has been nominated multiple times for the Pushcart Prize and once for a Pulitzer Prize for the novel. 'Let's Talk' her column at Black Heart Magazine runs monthly. FIZZ her reading series at KGB Bar, NYC, has been ongoing for eight years. Before settling down to study writing, Tepper worked as an actor, singer, flight attendant, marketing manager, tour guide, television producer, interior decorator, rescue worker and more


If you don’t have cash
to spare
give an apple, anyone can
afford one apple, or
maybe a muffin,
a corn muffin for a
stomach on a cold night
anyone could,
Or maybe you could
give a coat
you never wear anymore
stuffed in the dusty
back of your closet, there
must be sweaters and jackets
back in there, too,
you could give
gathering cobwebs
you could shake off
in the fresh air,
you could give a scarf or
peaches in a can,
anyone could
spare a can of cling peaches
from inside your cupboard,
smashed against other cans and
spices and crinkly bags of
pasta, maybe you could give
a sandwich, some meat and cheese
between two slices
of bread, anyone could
give a sandwich.
So many things
lying about you could give
without missing
a single beat.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Filched Poems by James Tolan

Poems by James Tolan
Loveland, Ohio
ISBN: 978-1-939929-79-2
69 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Without an intermediary, a thickly (or at least thinly) constructed persona to absorb sentiment’s backwash, confessional poetry often erodes and collapses of its own weight. Some of it can be downright dangerous. In his new book, Filched, James Tolan avoids that pathetic destructiveness using tonal restraint, irony, and damn good storytelling. Each poem Tolan breathes onto his pages burns with a purloined joy, freed from time’s untoward tyranny.

In his poem, The Big Sleep, Tolan summarizes his father’s last ambulance ride to the crematorium in some detail. Since the poet had opted to stay in Brooklyn at his teaching job during the funeral rites, he could not really know the particulars first hand. His absence generates the ambiguous emotional power that drives the poem. Like many who grieve by fixing their attention on a seemingly random oddity, the poet remembers the book that he had been teaching his class—Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. He uses this book to order and give meaning to the dysfunctional apathetic world surrounding him. Here is the juxtaposition that conferred significance on Chandler’s book,  

Some hospital joe  wheeled him down the long, white hall,

            While Santa Anas  spilled desert across the town.

            While I ducked the rain in Brooklyn, my collar against the storm,
            sodden strangers  plunging with me to the train,
            an ambulance drove him slowly  to where the fires blaze,
            hot enough to roast  flesh and bone to scrap and ash.

            While undertakers readied  to fit him for the flames,
            I taught  the book  that I had plucked
            From the rack beside his Lazy Boy.

            He told me to take it, if I wanted.

            He was done, tired of Chandler anyway.
            On a fall day in Vegas, strong winds whipping in,

                        Tourists went on laying down their bets

According to Tolan the River Styx has nothing on Waukegan Harbor in Lake Michigan. The harbor apparently has a great view of Zion nuclear plant (now decommissioned). His cautionary piece, Tag, promises to a bunch of boys playing on the beach a paradise to come on the opposite shore in the form of “loose-limbed girls.” But, like all paradises promised, falls terribly short. One of their number claimed to have travelled there and, disbelieved, is pelted with dead fish during a game of tag. Deadly irony and unchildlike horror conclude the poem,

Allied against his all too certain lies’
we bore what arms were given us
            and fired
the rank corpses that fit so nicely
into the empty pockets of our hands.
Bombarded, he wailed and snarled,
            Fish-stung from the beach.

Our ammunition caked with sores,
we wiped our hands off on the sand,
            the sand off on our jeans,
and went on, half hearts denying
            all of us were It.

Filched, the title poem of Tolan’s collection, works wonderfully, both tugging the reader’s heart-strings and engaging his or her intellect with show-stopping irony. The poet chose a perfect metaphor, his father’s old watch. Moments of pathos seem to implode into great complexity. The poet craves love’s time, but settles for a memento, a timekeeper. He fabricates his life as it should be, using his father’s swiped watch as both anchor and proof. Tolan describes his childhood crime this way,

I found it among tie pins and cufflinks in his top drawer,
filched it years before I knew the word,

            knew only that I wanted something I could take from him
            who knew work and the bar better than home,

            something I would have never called
            beautiful and ruined.  

Crystal scratched, leather dry and stitching frayed.
He never noticed it was gone

Boyhood, as I remember it, sparked with adventure and marvel. Imagination could transform the intimate into the epic. But there was a dangerous downside. Not all of us made it through those years. These were the days before well-meaning helicopter parents stifled the rough and tumble coming of age rituals of young males. Perhaps saving some, but weakening the genetic trajectory of many more. With this in mind, Tolan’s brave poem, A Wild Rumpus, after one of the boys pours gasoline on the play-battlements, ends in an affecting parental prayer,

… he doused
the ungarded enemy fortifications
with the contents of that quart

then torched it with a Bic. My team
commenced to hooting and high stepping.
Even the losers joined in, two armies

circling the flames. This the happiest
I’d ever seen sober people be: boys disarmed
around a fire lapping blankets and dry wood.

Angels of infernos and safe distance,
be as kind to my boy. Lead him to joy
and sanctuary from joy burst into flame.

In another meditation on boyhood entitled Junuh at Nine, Tolan considers his evolving relationship with his son, Junuh. He balances his responsibilities with Junuh’s need for independence and a sense of self. The poem has a good feel about it. Despite the poet’s obvious closeness to his subject, he manages a  tonal objectivity that intellectually affirms life and fate. I like this piece a lot. Tolan opens his argument thoughtfully,

My son has begun to set out on his own,
to form allegiances with friends
whose secrets he, by age-old code,
            is compelled to keep.
His world more and more his alone.

Already, Jordan has broken a boy’s arm.
Daquan was caught at recess with a blade.
Jesse pummeled Andre. And Junnuh
            has no idea how
his fake leather coat was torn.

Uplifting and victorious, Tolan’s poems transport the reader through the real world of sensitivity and timelessness. Mortality holds no sway here. With each reading this gritty collection offers solace as it draws one further into its whirlwind confrontation of everyday humanity. Tolan, who unfortunately died this year, lives within his books and deserves our profound prayerful gratitude. 

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

For Want of Water by Sasha Pimentel


For Want of Water
by Sasha Pimentel
ISBN 9780807027851
Beacon Press
Boston, Massachusetts

Review by Wendell Smith

Sasha Pimentel has anchored this uneven collection with a substantial appendix: "Lines I’ve Stolen, and Other Notes," as if we might drift with these poems into a sea of vague references unless we were given lots of ancillary and factual information. So, whether you find her to be a good poet or a mature one will depend upon whether you are inclined to quote the apocryphal, “bad poets imitate; good poets steal,” attributed to TS Eliot or what he actually wrote, “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal.” I do commend these notes for their honesty; they reveal that the best lines in the collection, "as freezing persons recollect the snow:/first chill, then stupor, then the letting go," are Emily Dickenson’s, stolen (Sasha’s word) from “After great pain, a formal feeling comes —” to conclude her poem “Grave, ma non troppo tratto.” Unfortunately the implication of these notes, that the poet has an interest in accuracy, creates an expectation that is often unfulfilled, beginning with the first lyric of the collection, "If I Die in Juarez."

Her casual attention to detail in this first lyric undercuts its power. I give you the complete poem because I feel it is only fair to the poet and to you that I give you enough data to assess the validity of my rant.

When violins in our home are emptied
of sound, strings stilled, missing
fingers. This one can bring a woman down
to her knees, just to hear again
it's voice, thick as a callus
from the wooden belly. This one strings
are broken. And another, open,
as a mouth. I want to kiss
them as I hurt to be kissed, ruin
their brittle necks in the husk of my palm,
my fingers across the bridge, pressing
chord into chord, that delicate protest –:
my tongue rowing the frets, and our throats high
from the silences of keeping.

"My tongue rowing the frets," is a line that triggered my criticism of her craft; violins don't have frets. (If they did, how would a tongue row them!?) Did she choose violins as her metaphor without bothering to acquire a basic familiarity with them? And because of these lines, "my fingers across the bridge, pressing/chord into chord," I doubt that she knows how the instrument is played. Yes, a violin does have a bridge; it elevates the strings above the fingerboard, or top of the violin’s neck, so when you arch your fingers over the neck (not across the bridge) and press the strings to the fingerboard, you vary the vibrating length of strings and change their pitch. What is frustrating about this poem is that this metaphor could have served her purpose if only she had been observant and accurate. I give you my clumsy example of what she might have said, "my fingers massaged the neck pressing chord into chord," (or cord into cord) which would have turned the violin’s strings into the the neck cords of victims to produce the musical “chords” of mourning (or of the morning). Am I unfair to demand that once she chooses her metaphor, which I think we can agree has potential, that she has an obligation to use it with precision?

This poem also demonstrates another problem for this collection caused by the way she anchors the poetry to her notes. In them, after she informs us that the namesake for the title of that first poem is Stella Pope Duarte's novel, If I Die in Juarez, she carries on for some 200 words to give us facts about the killings of young women around Juarez and elsewhere in Mexico. Of course these facts are awful and deserving of our attention but I felt they are used here as emotional blackmail, that if I don’t praise these poems for their lamentations for injustice, I must be a philistine. This attempt to make her subject the reason to appreciate her poetry brought to mind these lines by Jack Gilbert: … “To make injustice the only/measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.”i Would that she had honored that truth and spent as much time examining violins and how they are played as she spent examining the journalism about her subject, and then let the journalism go so the poem could speak for itself.

Here is another example of her lack of precision this time in her use of language in “Old Beds and Hollywood,”

… My father
slumbered so loudly I could
never hear my mother's
sleep …
* * *
all joists trembled to him
from behind the plaster,

Those aren't joists behind the plaster they are studs. Her father’s room may have joists beneath the floor and joists above the ceiling plaster but it would have had studs behind the plaster of the walls. And if you don’t believe me go to a dictionary as I (not wanting to trust my years as a carpenter) did and she should have. And because she didn’t she missed the ironic pun of having her father make studs tremble, even as he slept.

Frustrated by how often I found myself going “?!” about poems (tongue rowing, vide supra) in this celebrated collection (it is one of five winners in the National Poetry Series for 2016) I went to the title poem, "For Want of Water." There I found evidence for why this poetry has garnered praise and awards. But even this poem begins with another distracting error, “an ant will drown himself.” Ants are female; these first lines should read, “an ant will drown herself, her body, etc.” This inaccuracy would be trifling were it not that she is so careful in her notes to let us know that the poem is based on a fact: “On August 2, 2006, the El Paso Times reported a case where a 13-year-old boy, Julio Hernandez, dragged his dead mother through the desert after she’d collapsed.” Once I got by the male ant of the first three lines, (ironically, because it is a mother who is dead, these lines would have been more powerful if she had gotten the sex of the ant correct) this poem showed that she can transform journalism into powerful poetry:

an ant will drown himself, his body submerging
into ease, his mandibles, head, antennae, baptized. How lovely
to lose your senses to the cup of your want. A boy
drags his mother's body across the desert, her fluids rising
to heaven in order to quench her skin. How divine
her body must have looked, clutched at the ankles, her
arms reaching out in exultation, her head stippled in rings
of sand and blood as he walked with her, slowly, her fallen
and moving shape the fork of a divining rod, her body shaking
with each of his steps, and for water, shaking to find
that deep and secret tributary.

Those lines confirm that this collection of Pimentel’s does have its genius. If you approach it with a will to dig away like the optimistic boy on the manure pile who felt “there must be horses in here somewhere,” you will find poems that are horses. I found some, but came away from this collection thinking that Sasha Pimentel needs to find some one to help her clean the stall, find someone who will be to her what Maxwell Perkins was to Thomas Wolfe.

Finally for the record here are those lines used by Ms. Pimentel to conclude “Grave, ma non troppo tratto.” as they appear in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickenson,” edited by Thomas H. Johnson, our best guess for how Emily would have wanted them to appear in print:

As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow —
First — Chill — then Stupor — then the letting go —

I think they answer the question posed by T. S. Eliot’s statement. The altering of the capitalization and punctuation as they appear in For Want of Water means they are not stolen; they are imitated.

i“Brief for the Defense” in Refusing Heaven, by Jack Gilbert, Knopf, New York, 2007

Monday, December 04, 2017

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Interview with Israel Horovitz with Doug Holder

  Here is an excerpt of an interview I did with playwright, filmmaker Israel Horovitz. This was several years back when he had a new book of poetry out.  He also released the movie " My Old Lady" with Kevin Kline and Maggie Smith.  at this time...

The Sunday Poet: William Doreski

Poet William Doreski
William Doreski lives in Peterborough, New Hampshire. He has published three critical studies. His poetry has appeared in many journals. He has taught writing and literature at Emerson, Goddard, Boston University, and Keene State College. His new poetry collection is A Black River, A Dark Fall (Splash of Red, 2018).

Drafts of Autumn

The drafts of autumn arrive,

trailing scraps of tropical storm

from the Gulf where small cities

have curdled along the shore.

You want to hang out laundry

for the last sun-dry of the year,

but the sun has lost its fervor

for casting lattice-works of shade,

and has stayed in bed this morning,

defying custom and science.

We should pack a lunch and drive

to that museum where Homer’s

seascapes open depths greater

than we experience in life.

Or we should stroll by a lake

inlaid with cloud mosaics

too complex for the eye to parse.

The logic of bedrock underlies

everything we do or don’t do

and leaves us with chilly mouths.

The drafts, blown by angels

or devils, from west or north,

flutter the most fragile tissues

even if they’re framed behind glass.

Do you want to say home and ply

the layers of indecencies

to learn their obtuse language?

We still have the textbook shelved

where we left off reading halfway

from the Indus and Yellow rivers.

Not all the rag or scrap or tatters

in our world can stifle drafts

blown from such tangential distance.

We might as well accept the logic

of painting the sea in motion

and drink from those cloudy lakes

until we’re sated enough to drift

away on the loss of our shadows

and become the landscapes we admire.