Saturday, December 30, 2017

Interview with Poet Michael Casey: From the Mills of Lowell to the Combat Zones of Vietnam

 with Doug Holder

From Michael Casey's website,

"In 1972, Michael Casey won the Yale Younger Poets Prize for Obscenities, a collection of poems drawn from his military experience during the Vietnam War. In his foreword to the book, judge Stanley Kunitz called the work “a kind of anti-poetry that befits a kind of war empty of any kind of glory” and “the first significant book of poems written by an American to spring from the war in Vietnam.” Its raw depictions of war’s mundanity and obscenity resonated with a broad audience, and Obscenities went into a mass market paperback edition, and was stocked in drugstores as well as bookstores. In the decades since, Casey’s poetry has continued to document the places of his work and life. Then and now, his poems foreground the voices around him over that of a single author; they are the words of young American conscripts and their Vietnamese counterparts, coworkers and bosses, neighbors and strangers. His compressed sketches and unadorned monologues have appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, and Rolling Stone. There It Is: New and Selected Poems presents, for the first time, a full tour through Casey’s work, from his 1972 debut to 2011’s Check Points, together with new and uncollected work from the late 60s on. Here are all the locations of Casey’s life and work—Lowell to Landing Zone, dye house to desk—and an ensemble cast with a lot to say."

I talked with Casey on my Poet to Poet Writer to Writer TV show at the Somerville Media Center studios,

Doug Holder: You started out as a physics major at Lowell Tech, but you wound up as a poet. How did this happen?

Michael Casey: As it turned out I was not a good match for physics. I was always a big reader and I enjoyed the English classes I took. I only took physics because my friends were. The teacher who inspired me was William Aiken. He was a very nice man and he encouraged my writing. He gave me lists of magazines where I could send my work. He influenced my style. When you grow up in New England like I have—you try to write like Robert Frost. Aiken did not care for my Robert Frost-like poems but he did like my poems about mill workers. When I grew up I worked in textile mills and even one that produced fish sticks.

DH: You were a military policeman during the Vietnam conflict. Your Yale Younger Poet Prize-Winning collection was titled “ Obscenities” which was based on your experiences. Tell me about your time in the military police.

MC: At the beginning of your army experience you are given a battery of tests. They test you about leadership potential—your inclination toward adventure. They asked me if I would like to be a mountain climber or a librarian—I said librarian. My intelligence test indicated I would be best placed as a military police officer. This was a very good job in the army. People would enlist just to get the job. But it seemed every Irish name over 180 pounds went to the military police school. I was uniquely unsuited to be a policeman. People would enlist just to get that job. You would see a lot of humanity pass by on any given day. Ask any policeman what does he or she think about the goodness of mankind—you would be laughed at. They see the worst in mankind. It was fairly well-established  that members of the military police in the black market in Vietnam. We were privileged in many ways. I think because we were the last defense for the officers. They could call on us if they needed help.

DH:  Were you writing poems then or was that after the fact?

MC: Yes. I kept my ears open and I listened to the stories. So not all the stories were mine by any stretch. The idiom of the soldier was fascinating. You know I would write idiomatic poems about mill workers. So it was a logical step to write about army life. I remember Pogo--the comic strip--  Walt Kelly used the language of the soldiers who were denizens of the South's swamp-lands. .The way they talked was fascinating to me.

DH: Diction adds a lot to poetry.

MC: Yes it does. Like the boxing manager--whose fighter loses. He might exclaim, " We was robbed!."  Well if he said, "We were robbed!" it wouldn't have the same effect.  But in some cases its use is excessive. In the case of the movie, "Raging Bull," there two many four letter words used. It became too much for me.  That being said-every time you walk down the street you hear something interesting--to my way of thinking.

DH: In your bio it said that you were the first poet to write about the soldier's experience in Vietnam.

MC: That is a bit exaggerated. There were a lot of Vietnamese who wrote poetry about it. Bill Ehrhart came out with a chapbook of poetry before me. But I was one of the first.

DH You have a deep connection to Lowell like Paul Marion--the founder of the Loom Press--who published your new collection.

MC: :Yes. I grew up in a house in Lowell where my parents never used any four letter words. But when I worked in the mills there was no restriction on language there. Also there always have a lot of immigrants in Lowell--Portuguese, Cambodians, etc.... In Lowell I got used to different languages. And yes Marion has big supporter of my work.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017


AFFAIRS RUN IN THE FAMILY by Lee Varon  (Finishing Line Press, 2017)

Review by Julia Carlson

Lee Varon’s book, Affairs Run in the Family, (Finishing Line Press, 2017) is an exploration of and testament to the fragile feelings of the author’s memories of her Southern upbringing and relationship with her grandmother.  When the husband of the grandfather’s mistress attempted to murder him, her grandmother’s life was forever changed. And then, there were also the events of the civil rights era, which played out during the author’s childhood and left a deep impression on her.  Those complex feelings are explored as the author attempts to reconcile these events and their consequences to her grandparents, family, and herself.  In “Court”, Varon describes her grandmother at the trial of her husband’s aggressor -

            “You wear your grey tweed
            threaded with lavender
            smoky silk stockings,
sensible shoes.
            Nothing too flashy….

            Let Mrs. Harlot paint herself
            wear her flared skirt
            her pink cloche skirt
            in discrete perfume….”

“You have been with him
            teaching him slowly
            to hold a cup
            sip water…”

And her grandfather in “After the Affair” -

“After the affair, he cursed the bullet embedded in his brain
After the affair, he never saw her green eyes
After the affair, all they had were fireflies-
small lanterns of longing scattered between them.“

Varon is on point describing her childhood confusion about the mixed messages she received from her grandmother, a Southern woman who carries on despite the shame of her husband’s indiscretion.  We meet the steely will and fight for respectability of this woman done wrong, in both her judgement of her husband’s mistress, and other aspects of her Southern life.  Varon’s desire for her grandmother’s love are especially poignant in the poem “Blister”-

“”Every summer
I entered the cage
of her love
dreaming in a circle of fire…

I wanted her to love me forever
but what will I do
for her love?
Skate out
over the black ice.”

all the while acknowledging that her grandmother’s character did not sit quite right with her.

In “1959 With My Grandmother”, waiting in the bus station with Grandmother, they are sitting across from a black woman:

            “You don't know the black woman
            across from us.

You lean over, loudly whisper,
Honey, everyday I thank God

I wasn’t born a colored person.”
I try to fold my ticket

into a schoolyard fortune teller,
to lean against the blonde oak bench

become invisible.”

Varon’s poems deal with her experience of the negative aspects of the South during her childhood.  In her poem “We Sat Every Night”, Varon describes how her 11 year old mind tries to make sense of this -

            “The government says colored people can vote, Nana.
            Why are whites against it?
            People up North are always criticizing us southerners
            but the colored are still treated
            with more respect here
            than most anywhere else….

            “Where is that anywhere else?”

            When I argued with you
            you chalked it up to my tainted Jewish blood
            something I couldn’t help…”
Varon’s descriptive, lyrical language evokes many flavors of the South:  pecan pie, crab cakes, burnt sugar cake, lavender, cedar, cinnamon, honeysuckle scent on a hot night, the sound of birdsong   In her poem “After”, written about her mother’s death, Varon writes:

            “…..I watch birds fall
            from the sky and shake

            their wings in the dying sun.
Vireo, Thrush, Cedar Waxwing.
The magnolias have just begun
to spread pink gauze over deepening

green, as your face returns
in the luster of dark wood…”

There are many more excellent poems in this fine collection and it’s well-worth reading more than once.  I was taken back to that time when church bombings and Freedom Riders dominated the evening news, and recalled the same question I had:  Why do grownups do these awful things?   A longer compilation of these poems was awarded the Sunshot Poetry Prize and will be published in 2018, and I look forward to reading it.           

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

John Harrison and Kim Nagy: “Dead in Good Company”

John Harrison and Kim Nagy: “Dead in Good Company”

Dead In Good Company is a compelling collection  of essays, poems and wildlife photographs of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Sweet Auburn, as it is affectionately known, is America's first garden cemetery.

An amazing group of authors have come together to celebrate this unique resource - including Harvard Law professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz; historical novelist William Martin; former Mayor of Boston and Ambassador to the Vatican, Ray Flynn; Boston author and television icon, Hank Phillippi Ryan; Pulitzer Prize winner, Megan Marshall; mystery/true-crime author Kate Flora; mystery author Katherine Hall Page; medical thriller author Gary Goshgarian (Braver); broadcasting legend Upton Bell; world renowned bird guide author and artist David Sibley; drama critic, author and host of the Theatre World Awards, Peter Filichia; screen writer, author Chris Keane; Mass Audubon's Wayne Petersen; Talkin' Birds radio host, Ray Brown; author, naturalist Peter Alden; founder of Project Coyote, Camilla Fox; Director of the World Bird Sanctuary, Jeff Meshach; senior scientist for wildlife at the Humane Society of the United States, John Hadidian; historian Dee Morris; and sports writer and commentator, Dan Shaughnessy.

Interview with Doug Holder

I had the pleasure to speak to Nagy and Harrison on my Somerville Media TV show  "Poet to Poet Writer to Writer."

DH: The founding of Mt. Auburn cemetery in Cambridge, Ma. spawned a new movement—am I correct?

JH: It was the first garden cemetery in the country. Before that it was known as Sweet Auburn. It was a place people could stroll and enjoy. When the garden cemetery became a reality it was not only a place to commune with the dead, but a place to enjoy life and nature. It was designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted—the same man who designed central Park in NYC. If you go there and walk around it can be easy to forget it is a cemetery. If you do what Kim Nagy and I do- which is to photograph wildlife, then it is even easier to forget.

DH: I know you photograph wildlife but do ever feel the presence of the people who were buried there?

JH: Well in the sense that the many of the folks who were buried there are very well-known—famous people are buried there. When I would pass their graves it made me think about them. In our first essay in the collection by William Martin—the historical novelist—it deals with the brother of John Wilkes Booth –Edwin Booth—who is buried there. In the cemetery you could come across the graves of Isabella  Stewart Gardner, Buckminster Fuller—to name a few.

DH: Kim-- tell me what you think is behind the concept of Mt. Auburn Cemetery?

KN: First off when they created Mt. Auburn they wanted to change the notion of death. They wanted to be about the circle of life. Rebirth, transformation and the circle of life.

DH: There are a lot of interesting essays in the anthology by the likes of Alan Dershowitz, sports writer Dan Shaughnessy, and many others. I was particularly interested in the Henry Cabot Lodge piece by former Boston mayor Ray Flynn. Flynn revealed that in the end the patrician Lodge was an ally of the “ Rascal King,”( Mayor Curley) who rests in Mt. Auburn.

JH: When I went to see Ray Flynn—well--we became friends. Flynn told me that he had a story about Curley and Lodge that no one knew about, and that became the subject of the essay. In the end Lodge did speak well of Curley.

DH: There is a great picture of a Great Horned Owl proudly exhibiting his headless prey.

KN: Yes that picture was by Jim Sorrento. To get a shot of a predator with his prey—well-that is a very big deal for the photographer. Yes—the picture is a bit gruesome. But—after all-we are all carnivores—right?

DH: You have said the owls and owlets of Mt. Auburn helped you get by a particularly trying time of your life.

KN: Wildlife and nature helped me rebuild myself during a very challenging time when I became a reluctant caregiver, and lost my executive job. I went to the cemetery because I now had time on my hands. The owls helped me establish who I used to be. When you photograph wildlife you have to focus. And when you focus everything else falls away. I felt very close to was a magical experience.

DH: What fascinates you about owls?

KN: A lot of people associate owls with death. They like coniferous trees and old growth trees, and they happen to be in cemeteries. I remember I was in Guatemala . I rented a horse and climbed up a volcano. I felt sorry for the struggling horse so I walked him. When we reached the top of the volcano—there was a store—and the owner identified my “spiritual” animal  as the “owl.”

DH: I now you had a number of poets in the anthology including Wendy Drexler. How did you select the poets?

KN: We were referred to the poets by other writers. We had a 9th grade poet who wrote a poem about Red Tail Hawks. Poet Mary Pinard also had a piece in the anthology.

DH: John—you had a big study of coyotes in the book.

JH: Yeah—we followed Big Caeser and his mate in 2008. We followed the family and their 8 pups for a year. To have this access was unbelievable. For that matter Mt. Auburn Cemetery is unbelievable!

Monday, December 25, 2017

Obituary: Poet Joseph A. Cohen, Age 100

Poet Joe Cohen
Obituary for Joseph A. Cohen
William Falcetano

It is with regret that we learned of the death of Joseph A. Cohen, a beloved member of the Bagel Bards weekly meet-up. We last heard about Joe when he turned 100 in July; Ibbetson Street Press had just published his second book of poetry by the title “A New Path”. Let the irony sink in. Yet, despite his advanced age, Joe Cohen managed, somehow, to live up to the title of his book – seeking out new paths – up to the day he was stricken by a fatal stroke on Sunday morning December 10th.

We were lucky enough to see him at the Bagel Bards gathering the day before. It was snowing and we were all pleasantly surprised that he came at all, given his advanced age. Yet there he was, thanks to the kind assistance of his dear friend Victor, sitting among the bards, eating his customary cheese danish with black coffee, and kibitzing with the poets and the ladies; he especially liked the ladies and they returned his affections with warm embraces and kisses on the cheek. Joe was irresistible that way – you just wanted to kiss him.

He sat there looking out through the large window onto the courtyard watching busy people scurry by as the snow fell on them. He looked at them with the eye of a portrait photographer – he never tired of seeing people’s faces; he enjoyed studying them. His keen observations came across in his surprisingly revealing portraits.

Joe bid us farewell as Victor escorted him home for lunch and a little rest before heading out to Jordan Hall for a performance of Handel’s Messiah. It was / is the season for Handel, and all that wonderful music which Joe loved so ardently. He came from a family of musicians: his wife Sonia was a piano teacher and a composer; his daughter, Beth Bahia Cohen, is a violinist and faculty member at Berklee College of Music and Tufts University – her expertise is in Balkan and Middle Eastern bowed string instruments. When Joe read his poetry around town, it was often to the accompaniment of his daughter Beth and sometimes her friends as well.

Beth recently asked me to escort her father to The Museum of Fine Arts, where she was performing in the ancient Greek gallery. It was a great privilege to be out on the town with my centenarian friend along with another friend of mine who was visiting from Brooklyn. All three of us were able to talk about Brooklyn having lived there at different times in our lives. Joe grew up there in the 1920s and 30s; I lived there during the start of the recent tidal wave of gentrification in the late 1980s; and my friend is a bona fide 40-something hipster from Bensonhurst. We managed improbably somehow to bond that enchanted evening.

The MFA was hosting a 100th year anniversary of their musical instrument collection that night: soloists and ensembles were playing in different galleries using period instruments owned by the museum. Beth was playing a 100-year-old Cretan lyra, and her accompanist, a handsome Greek lad, was playing the Greek laouto. They performed Cretan music amidst ancient Greek pottery with themes labeled “Dionysus”, “Comedy”, “Tragedy”, etc. The music was enchanting, the setting incomparable, and Joe Cohen was as near to heaven as I have ever seen another human being. He was swelling with pride as he shouted out “that’s my daughter”, “play fiddler, play!” Like I said, you just want to kiss him.

I have already written about Joe’s long life and his many accomplishments. Here I wanted only to point out that since his birthday this summer, Joe blazed new paths in his life and showed us all that life is worth living – and enjoying – to the very end.

Joseph A. Cohen will be mourned and missed by his large and lovely family, but also by his many friends here in Cambridge, especially a little band of poets whose weekly meetings he graced for a few happy years.