Saturday, August 18, 2018

Spare Change News Poems: An Anthology of Homeless People and those Touched by Homelessness--Edited by Marc Goldfinger and Lee Varon

Spare Change News Poems: An Anthology of Homeless People and those Touched by Homelessness
Editors: Lee Varon and Mark Goldfinger
Ibbetson Street Press ( 2018)

Review by Doug Holder

In the introduction to the new anthology Spare Change News Poems... editors Lee Varon and Marc Golfinger write:

" The Spare Change News newspaper was founded in 1992 by a group of homeless individuals and a housed advocate. Since its inception, Spare Change News has worked to elevate the voices of the homeless and economically disadvantaged people in the Boston Area.

In these pages you will find the poetry of many people who are who are homeless, or who have been touched by homelessness in some way. You will find the poetry of veterans, of those with mental health issues, or those struggling with substance abuse disorder. You will find poems written by incarcerated or formerly incarcerated  people."

Personally-- I have a real connection to the paper not only for its laudable mission of giving the homeless a voice (and in some cases a chance to make a living by selling the paper),  but years ago I was an arts reporter under the managing editor at the time Linda Larson--and assisted the poetry editor Don DiVecchio. I worked closely with late assistant editor Cynthia Baron, and former editor Marc Goldinger, as well. I learned a lot during my tenure with all these people.  That being said, the poetry you will find in this anthology is not New Yorker-style work. It can be raw as the streets, visceral,  heartbreaking and even heartwarming.

There are many fine poets, with fine poems in this collection like: Martin Espada, Marge Piercy,  Alexis Ivy, the late Sarah Hannah and many more. In a poem by the editor Lee Varon  titled "Colleen,"  the poet uses colors to vividly portray a young woman doomed by her torrid love affair with heroin:

Heroin is white
      but your lips are blue
and blue is seeping into the room
where you passed out last week,
the room
where your head hit the floor,
blue dust is wafting from the ceiling,
oozing froom the floorboards...

In Martin Espada's poem " How We Could Haved Lived and Died This Way," Espada quotes Whitman,

Not songs of loyalty alone are these,
but songs of insurrection also,
For I am the sworn poet of every dauntless rebel the world

Here in hardscrabble detail Espada, like Whitman, takes it all in-and sings a song for the marginal rebels who survive or don't survive the vagaries of the street:

I see the dark -skinned bodies falling in the street as their ancestors fell
before the whip and steel, the last blood pooling, the last breath spitting.
I see the immigrant street vendor flashing his wallet to the cops,
shot so many times there are bullet holes in the side of his feet....
I see the man hawking
a fistful of cigarettes, the cop's chokehold that makes his wheezing
lungs stop wheezing forever. I am in the crowd, at the window,
kneeling beside the body left on the asphalt for hours, covered in a sheet.

From reading this poetry it is evident that there is tragedy, and beauty on these mean streets  and perhaps. ..salvation.

There will be a reading at Porter Square Books in Cambridge  7PM  Aug 22

To order the book go to:



Friday, August 17, 2018

The Sunday Poet: Meg Smith

Poet Meg Smith

Meg Smith is a poet, journalist, dancer and events producer living in Lowell, Mass.

Her poems have appeared in The Cafe Review, Poetry Bay, Astropoetica, Illumen, Dreams & Nightmares, the Dwarf Stars anthology of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association and many more.

As a journalist, her coverage has been in honored by the New England Newspaper And Press Association, including first place awards for coverage of racial and ethnic issues, and coverage of religion.

She is a past board member of Lowell Celebrates Kerouac! and produces the Edgar Allan Poe Show, honoring Poe's presence in Lowell, Mass. She recently published a second book of poetry, Dear Deepest Ghost, available on Amazon.

The Amulet

For keeping,
on a Cairo balcony
gardens of satellite dishes
rooftop flowers
and rose-colored dusk
calling, chanting.
I know
every life here.
I hold this, close,
wearing, to signify,
everything copper,
everything in a diminishing sun.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

The Hastings Room Reading Series Presents: Seamus Heaney Memorial Reading: August 29th 7PM Tobin, Buchinger, Vincenz

Seamus Heaney Memorial Reading

The Hastings Room Reading Series presents   August 29th  7PM

Polished linoleum shone there. Brass taps shone.
The china cups were very white and big—
An unchipped set with sugar bowl and jug…
“Clearances” from The Haw Lantern

W i t h g u e s t r e a d e r s—

Daniel Tobin is the author of eight books of poems, most recently of The Stone in the Air, his suite
of versions from the German of Paul Celan (Salmon Poetry, 2018). The translation is called “lucid and lyrical” by Stephan Schneider. Tobin’s many honors include the Julia Ward Howe Award, The Robert Penn Warren Award, the Massachusetts Book Award in Poetry, "The Discovery/​The Nation Award,"the Robert Frost Fellowship, and creative writing fellowships in poetry from the National Endowmentfor the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.

Mary Buchinger is the author of three books of poetry, most recently e i n f ü h l u n g/in feeling (Main Street Rag, 2018) and Aerialist (2015, Gold Wake). Her poetry was chosen for the Raining Poetry Project on Boston sidewalks and will be permanently installed in the city of Cambridge, where she has served as a Cambridge Poetry Ambassador. She’s been a featured reader at the Library of Congress and is President of the New England Poetry Club (founded by Robert Frost, Amy Lowell, Conrad Aiken).

Marc Vincenz has published twelve books of poetry, including, most recently, Becoming the Sound of Bees (Ampersand Press, 2016), Leaning into the Infinite (Dos Madres Press, 2018) and The Syndicate of Water & Light (Station Hill, 2018). He is also a prolific translator and has translated from the German, Romanian and French. His work has received fellowships and grants from the Swiss Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, among others. 

 7pm at Christ Church ,O Garden Street--just outside of Harvard Square..

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Sunday Poet: Susan Tepper

Susan Tepper is the author of seven published books of fiction and poetry. Her most recent title “Monte Carlo Days & Nights” is a Novella set in the South of France. For more please visit her website at

Petal by Petal

The moon has settled down
to dust, and the sadness
of time overwhelms
your eyes—
Each morning
an otherwise unobstructed view
they scarcely open
Despite the beauty of
the day
beyond window shades—
O darkness
scrape away what you can
gouge them ‘til they open wide
Letting in deliverance petal by petal.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Jesus in the Ghost Room by Rusty Barnes


Jesus in the Ghost Room
by Rusty Barnes
Copyright © 2017 Rusty Barnes
Nixes Mate Books
Allston, MA
ISBN 978-0-9991882-7-9
Softbound, 63 pages, $9.95

Review by Zvi A. Sesling

Rusty Barnes’ poetry is cold, hard, raw. That is exactly what makes it an engaging read. It is about Rusty Barnes … at times Rusty and his late father. Barnes is also warm, soft and polished. His poems are down-to-earth, easily accessible.

In “Arrow-Fishing” he recounts his days fishing in what was once fairly deep water and how animals get the best of the quarry he was after.


The pond has become marsh now
but when it was waist deep I would
go to the middle in the depths
of much to arrow-fish for the huge gold-
fish my landlord had stocked years
before. I remember brining the bow
to my eye and sighting like a gun7
along the top of my thumb the string
tense in my fingers and the feeling
as I Barnes f I were going under. I remember
overshooting as I adjusted my shot
for refraction. I didn’t make that one
but eventually the heard heart of the world
won out and the goldfish became bones
on the bank killed by coon or mink.
But I love the tense thrill of the shot still
I have only to close my eyes to recall.

As in his other poems, Barnes reflects on his past and in this poem, “Circus,” he recalls
some aspects of those days.


If the Ringling Brothers were alive today
they wouldn’t know how to begin.

Freak shows today are everywhere
if you know where to look,
there on the common field of life
with the tattooed and the pierced,

the extraordinarily hairy together
with the unfunny and the trolls

who try to ruin it for everyone who
is not so jaded. I can see the tents in

my mind, the huge spikes that serve
as pegs and the groups of rope fest=

ooned with elephant shit and stale popcorn.
It is pur magic and we only have so much.

What makes Rusty Barnes interesting is that many of us have, “been there, done that,” but have not seen it in the way Barnes portrays it in this book.

In “My Father’s Hip: 1972 Flood” Barnes provides insight into not only his childhood and tenderness toward his father, but his daughter as well. He recalls an important moment in his life despite the dangers he encountered.

One day the crick rose a couple feet
after three days steady rain that brought
logs ramming into rocks and a couple
dead dogs floating in the brown spume.
My dad lifted me up and brought me
to the very edge of the eroded banks
that with every rainstorm came just
a little closer to our house. I don’t recall
what he said to me but I felt safe next
to his gritty cheek and the typical cigarette.
Beside me my brother Joes jumped from foot
to foot excited as all hell to be a branch
in that raging water. He slipped down
the bank screaming but dad never lost
a beat still holding me he whipped around
and caught my brother by the back
out pretty heavily once he was safe
but sitting on his hip in the driving rain
I felt overcome by my smallness.
Like all kids I returned to the site
of the scene 30 years later, dipping my
young daughter’s feet in that same water.

These are examples of Barnes’s recollections of life. In particular his poetry recollects memories of his father, the death of his uncle and his leaning on his loving wife for support.

Barnes grew up in rural Appalachia. He weaves those years with his life in the Boston, MA area into a book of poetry that moves along at a rapid, always interesting pace,
with many poetic stories not soon forgotten.

Zvi A. Sesling, author of The Lynching of Leo Frank
and the forthcoming War Zones (Nixes Mate Books)
Publisher & Editor of Muddy River Poetry Review
and Editor of Bagel Bard Anthologies 7,8 & 12
Poet Laureate, Brookline, MA

Saturday, August 04, 2018

The Sunday Poet: Heather Sullivan

Heather Sullivan
Heather Sullivan’s work has appeared in numerous print and online journals, most recently Chiron Review, Paper and Ink Literary Zine and Trailer Park Quarterly. Her debut collection, Waiting for an Answer (Nixes Mate Books 2017), is available both through the publisher and Amazon. She is also the co-editor at Live Nude Poems. She and novelist Rusty Barnes live with their family in Revere, MA.

Piggy Bank

Every happy thought I have ever had
is stored away in a square shaped
piggy bank on my dresser. I dole them
out to pay the toll keeper of existence
like peeled off pesos in that trip south
of the border for low priced pain meds
for my slipped discs that we never took.
When I’m out, I’ll be holding up the line
behind me just like when I’d overshoot
the bucket with my change, digging
through the ashtray looking for quarters,
shoving my hand down the side of the
console for the profligate dimes. You
remember that old joke your uncle would
rib any newlywed with, every time you
have sex the first year of your marriage
you put a marble in a jar on the bedside
table, then pull a marble out every time
you have sex thereafter – you’ll never
empty the jar. My storehouse is almost
empty, and Joseph has left his post.

Friday, August 03, 2018

Three Poems by Geoffrey Gatza: Presented by the Poetry Collection at the University at Buffalo

Geoffrey Gatza

Geoffrey Gatza "Three Poems"
Publisher: The Poetry Collection of the University Libraries of the University of Buffalo
Reviewed by Ari Appel

“Three Poems,” published by The Poetry Collection of the University Libraries of the University of Buffalo, is a pamphlet of three poems by Geoffrey Gatza from his most recent book, A Dog Lost in the Brick City. The pamphlet is an excellent example of what poetry can be in its least inhibited form, when using language becomes painting with pens, paper, and word processing. It is an experimental force rather than a typical poetry collection.

The cover of the pamphlet introduces us to the author's use of font colors other than black, an innovation that seems to have so much potential once the unwritten rule of using black has been broken. In a world in which printers can print pages in color, why should a poet, someone who uses language in its most raw and ultimate form, not experiment with the possibilities that color printing technology has to offer? It seems that this use of color deserves attention and incorporation into more works. The titles of the three poems in the pamphlet, "What Is Done Cannot Be Undone," "Draw Up My Prisoned Spirit To Thy Soul," and "The Truth Is Rarely Pure and Never Simple," come together in a colorful circle of red, blue, yellow, black, green, and purple, with the end of the text meeting the beginning so the titles continue on infinitely. The cover demonstrates that Gatza has something unique to offer.

The inside of the pamphlet does not fail to deliver on the level of creativity promised by the cover. Each poem is composed of the words of its own title written thirty-nine times in three thirteen-line stanzas. Each line contains all the words of the title, with the first and last line of each stanza occurring in the exact order of the title, and the rest of the lines occurring in another order. The three stanzas of each poem are all exactly the same. The order of the words within each line in the lines that do not occur in the same order as the title may have a strict order such that the poem occurs according to a logical rule rather than the creative choice of the author; in other words, the author may have created a rule and structured these poems according to the rule. The colors, the formal nature of the poems, and the repetition within the poems are reminiscent of artist Bruce Nauman's neon displays like “One Hundred Live and Die.” Reading the poems is hypnotizing and magical. Effects like “The Truth Is Rarely Pure And Never Simple / Is Rarely The Truth And Pure Simple Never” toy with the meaning of the first line due to the orders of the words in the next, generating semantic possibilities latent in the words themselves and their formal arrangement rather than in authorial intent. The poems in this short pamphlet are very cool and make a good plug for both the pamphlet series and the author's book.

What I like most about “Three Poems” is that the poems are simultaneously highly formal and highly innovative. While most poetry that is formal reverts to old traditions, while innovation is seen to occur in free verse, this poetry makes its mark through formal innovations, by experimenting with the tools available to the poet. “Three Poems” innovates by using these tools in a new, yet highly structured way.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Somerville writer Shariann Lewitt: A Darkly Clad Scribe of Science Fiction

Somerville writer Shariann Lewit at Remnant Brewing

Somerville writer Shariann Lewitt: A Darkly Clad Scribe of Science Fiction

By Doug Holder

A darkly clad figure with long black braids—loomed outside the Remnant Brewery at the new Bow St. Market in Union Square. I approached her—she smiled and joined me at my well—appointed table that had a handsome view of the market's courtyard. My guest this afternoon was Shariann Lewitt, a prolific creative writer—who works in a number of genres. Her writing includes, but is not limited to: literary science fiction, young adult fiction, and military science fiction. For years Lewitt has taught writing at MIT. Lewitt lives with her husband in the Highland Ave area of Somerville, that is in walking distance to Union Square.

Lewitt told me she came to the “ Paris of New England” from Washington, DC in July of 2000. She is enthusiastic about the city stating, “ I love it in Somerville. We own our own home, the Board of Alderman is fabulous—I like the mayor. Somerville has great energy.” But not everything is a bed of roses for this writer. She reflected, “ I am also concerned about the lack of affordable housing, and how the diversity and uniqueness of the city is likely to suffer.”

Hewitt has not been stingy with her writing. Under the pseudonym Nina Harper she wrote two books: Succubus in the City and Succubus takes Manhattan. Both deal with a fashionable, urbane and seductive woman who is an agent—not for an upscale real estate agency-- but for the devil. This woman lures often boorish men into a sexual liaisons, and after the deed is done she leads them to an even hotter destiny—Hades itself.

Lewitt describes her work as speculative fiction—meaning science fiction or generally fiction that does not deal with the here and now. She has written in the genres of military science fiction that specifically deal with intergalactic wars. She also has written space operas. According to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction this genre consists of “colorful and dramatic stories ( sometimes melodramatic—like –well-- a TV soap opera) that deal with interplanetary or intergalactic conflict.” Lewitt has taken a hiatus from publishing—but has expressed an interest in more historical writing rather than speculative.

Lewitt, who graduated from Yale Drama, was first published at the tender age of 23. She /had a number of early influences, like the iconic science fiction writer Philip K. Dick—whose work inspired the movie Blade Runner. She also considers folks like Samuel R. Delaney as influences as well.
Lewitt told me, “ Although these guys were sexist in their writing I still admire their work. I mean they were coming up in the 50s and 60s and this was the status quo back then. Of course I don't endorse that sensibility.”

The writer told me she love teaching at MIT. She is the recipient of the university's Levitan Award for excellence in teaching. It is presented by the School of Humanity Arts and Social Sciences. And to her credit she was nominated by students.­

After our chat I separated from this dark figure and headed away from the wilds of Union Square. I looked behind me and saw her black hat bob up and down in the wind like a brimmed omen of yet more fiction yet to come.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

The Sunday Poet: Miriam Sagan

Miriam Sagan was born in NYC, raised in New Jersey, educated in Boston, liberated in San Francisco, and has lived more than half her life in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is the author of 30 published books, including the novel Black Rainbow (Sherman Asher, 2015) and Geographic: A Memoir of Time and Space (Casa de Snapdragon). which won the 2016 Arizona/New Mexico Book Award in Poetry. She founded and headed the creative writing program at Santa Fe Community College until her retirement in 2016.  Her awards include the Santa Fe Mayor’s award for Excellence in the Arts, the Poetry Gratitude Award from New Mexico Literary Arts, and a Lannan Foundation residency in Marfa, Texas.

Fogg Museum

I liked it better
than the rest
of Harvard. Sad
undergraduate, I’d wander,
depressed and damp,
my boots leaking
my vision compressed
among the world’s artifacts
that calmed me. Archaic
Chinese bronzes,
vessels that held smoke
or who knows what
sacrifice, a Greco-Roman torso
an Ingres of an odalisque
(now that
was something to look at!
Better than boys,
soft and voluptuous flesh,
mine? or another’s?)

Each frame was a window
each painting
promised someplace else
Gaugin’s “Poemes Barbares”
a kind of Waikiki Beach cliche
but still located far from here,
far from the rainy square
where I’d skip dinner, buy a magazine
and apple, read the unassigned
Jane Eyre.

Each reader sniffs the air.
There is a boat, a bus, a train,
the blue line to Logan, and a plane.
Or let me turn
inside myself
to anywhere but here,
self like the earth must spin,
the snowy road, the vanishing point
the figure’s back
will led me out of this
to somewhere else.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Animalalia Liz Hutchinson

Poet Liz Hutchinson

Liz Hutchinson
Salem, Mass.: Yes/No Press, 2017
ISBN 9780692837757, $14.95

Reviewed by David P. Miller

Poems about animals: a keyword search in on the simple word “animals” brings 326 results on July 19, 2018, including titles such as “Four Questions Regarding the Dreams of Animals” (Susan Stewart), “To Pipe the Animals Aboard Noah’s Ark” (Constance Urdang) and “O My Sweet Animals” (Salvatore Quasimodo). I immediately think of Ogden Nash’s poems for The Carnival of The Animals, read by Noel Coward on an LP I had in childhood. The book in hand, Liz Hutchinson’s Animalalia, doesn’t have animal, beast, creature, etc. words in any of the poems’ titles: the titles themselves are mute. That is, the titles are drawings: the contents page matches thumbnails with page numbers. There are thirteen sections, each dedicated to the creature in the drawing. In the drawings (by Scout Hutchinson), those creatures who have faces (not all do) have their backs to us or regard us obliquely. None of them face us. They aren’t performing or posing, and they certainly don’t explain themselves to us. They’re not available to become videos on social media.

Animalalia consists mostly of prose poems, with one numbered statement or section per page. The book design is generous, with plenty of white space to invite reflection or daydreaming before moving on. Most are in four to ten sections; the longest (fox) has twelve. The briefest consists of one unnumbered page: this is for the animal represented by a drawing of a constellation. It would be a spoiler to say more about that one. Three of the sections (rabbit, fox, and cat) are presented in pages of verse paragraphs.

It is difficult to generalize about Liz Hutchinson’s animal-writing, and that’s a sign of the work’s strength. Each creature requires its own approach to the challenge of minding the gap between our (often facile) sense of identification with other humans, and our typical difficulties with “understanding animals,” once we drop the habit of anthropomorphizing. We’re all sentient beings, but the spaces among our sentiences are permanent mysteries. And we just have to keep trying to find our way in: we don’t really know how Dr. Doolittle managed it, say. We can be sure, though, that “Hello, I’m a giraffe, have you ever seen anything like me?” or the like is pretty much played out.

Human/other animal communication is immediately enabled and prevented by the premise of Bear. The reader has been waiting, apparently – “After what feels like a long time” – and the spark almost jumps the gap – “the bear rips the page out of her notebook, folds it twice. When you open it, you see that her folding has marred the ink.” It’s the instant failure of anthropomorphizing hope: the bear has a notebook with a message just for you, available and impossible. “It might have been […] it might have been” a great many things: esoteric bear dance steps, a story about her break-in to the house of Three Goldilockses, a refutation of your intrusive action: “Do I come to your den in the middle of the day? I don’t think so, I do not.” It might have been a berry stain. The bear is gone, and nothing remains but an undefined gesture between species.

Unlike Bear, Skunk lives where we do. Skunks have a knowledge of our extended spaces, but theirs is alien to ours: skunks map. “Skunks map your driveway.” “They have maps for things you’ve never heard of.” “They map out whole neighborhoods in chicken bones, draw slippery trails through lo mein.” We more or less know that our garbage can make their landmarks; we didn’t know that “night, the smell of snow, despair” are mapped too, as well as “more constellations […] more stars, all the things they point to.” Skunk’s knowledge is hermetic to us, but unintentionally: they just make different transparencies overlaid on the same phenomena. We might have access to something like this if, when “stoop[ing] down to pick up one skeletonized leaf” from the driveway, you might then “trace the map of your life: the taste of something sweet gone sour.”

Cat is, of course, famously one anchor of the cat/dog polarity. Is Cat actually there for you, cat lover? Is she, as some insist, faking it for food and housing? Does she maybe have only an orthogonal relationship with what we call affection? “Cat is a cat / accidentally // She didn’t mean / to do it / but there it is”. Maybe both she and you form relationships out of continual misunderstanding:

When Cat is inside
she is a cat

She wears her
self for you

You don’t know
who Cat is
when she’s outside

She looks at you
with big eyes
brings the sparrow inside

You watch its head
turn back and forth
in her mouth

It could be a matter of misread signals — “you see her / out in the neighborhood // looking at you / like she’s never seen you // like she’s never seen anything / on such slow stupid legs” — which have somehow stayed in a wobbly balance for millennia.

Perhaps it is because rabbits are inherently furtive (rarely living with us as pets, mostly seen running away) that the rabbit poems are elusive. Full of suggestion but bounding off into the underbrush. Plums, a jacket, rain, rabbits (but mainly the idea of rabbits): these elements combine and reconfigure in a multiply-folded puzzle. Who is speaking here?

mother told me
not to run
with plums in my

mouth mother
isn’t always

(Note in passing the stark brief line, “mouth mother” and the affirmation of “right” free of the denial “isn’t always.”) Or, what is a rabbit’s paw – a good luck charm or a means of escape? “there is no way // or knowing / which one it means / at any given time”. Perhaps they’re not animals at all, but tokens for “your hands // which you fold / like two rabbits / in your pockets” over-filled by plums. In most of the sections of Animalia, the creatures are named in upper-case (Bear, Crow, Fox), like proper names assigned to individuals. Not here, as there’s barely any actual rabbit anywhere.

Two more instances will further suggest the range of animal being in Animalalia. Coyote is an antihero: his is the outside case here of solo animal readable as solo human. This coyote is one we all thought we knew. His name is silenced, and I won’t tell you, but we know him as an animated figure fixated on a roadrunner. (Oh, that coyote.) What might it be like if his cartoons were documentary, a kind of cinema verité? His obsession blossoms into self-loathing and regret, his ACME bills are out of hand, he becomes the object of his desire, the archetypal Roadrunner, in his dreams. He finds roadrunner roadkill: “consumed by lust and terror … He devours it, bursts into tears and shakes for days afterward.” When he “falls from a great height,” as we’ve so often seen him do in these pursuits, what does this actually mean? “He does not collapse into a limbed accordion. He sprains his wrist, twists his ankle and hits his head. It’s all he can do to crawl home.” Existentially miserable, a prisoner of his compulsion, Coyote goes to the mountain, “dances Roadrunnercoyote, Coyoteroadrunner, round and round.” A new transformative legend arises from the hilarity of the premise: Liz Hutchinson beautifully works a piece of popular culture away from any expected meme.

The final example is the first: Owl, whose section begins the book. Owl is not found to be wise-old, and does not utter “whoo.” He begins in relationship with a dying tree, a state which seems apparent (“The owl rides the tree bareback. The owl and the tree are old friends.”) But the owl’s connections also seem opaque though plainly stated. He abandons the tree as soon as it dies and “takes the long way around the forest” to avoid it afterwards. The longings between owl and tree are asymmetric: the tree wants an owl hat but the owl only wears hats of other owls. The owl might stalk newborn kittens in a dumpster behind Burger King, but we only learn of the owl listening to their “collective, unsorted mewl.” Does the owl deliberately conceal its meanings from us, or are they disconnected by the owl’s very nature? (The opposite of the coyote’s tale.) Was it always impossible to go beneath bare observation? “Nobody knows if owls bury their dead because owls have a different definition of both the word bury and the word dead.” There’s a suggestion of linkage, that we might find owls in ourselves, but it stays empirical: “If I am an owl and you are an owl then we are probably all owls who drink from the same ceramic bowl.” The owl grazes us, scratching If you are an owl into the glass of a bedroom window, but there’s no then to go with if. A suggestion abandoned as soon as made.

I am pleased that Microsoft Word does not recognize the word Animalalia. Liz Hutchinson’s lucidly written but subtle parables could have been brought together under the title “Animalia,” of which the software approves. That could have signaled a more expected approach to the theme, instead of the faceted surprises found here. Congratulations and thanks to Yes/No Press for bringing this forward.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Poems from Miriam Sagan

Poet Miriam Sagan

Miriam Sagan was born in NYC, raised in New Jersey, educated in Boston, liberated in San Francisco, and has lived more than half her life in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is the author of 30 published books, including the novel Black Rainbow (Sherman Asher, 2015) and Geographic: A Memoir of Time and Space (Casa de Snapdragon). which won the 2016 Arizona/New Mexico Book Award in Poetry. She founded and headed the creative writing program at Santa Fe Community College until her retirement in 2016.  Her awards include the Santa Fe Mayor’s award for Excellence in the Arts, the Poetry Gratitude Award from New Mexico Literary Arts, and a Lannan Foundation residency in Marfa, Texas.

How To Find Henry David Thoreau

1. Wake up at 5 am. Take a small plane to a larger plane.
2. Arrive in Boston, a city you have too many feelings about.
3. See your body asleep in a motel bed, as if from a great distance.
4. Get on google maps.
5. Watch Lexington Street turn to Moody turn to Common.
6. Get lost at Hanscom Airforce Base and feel humiliated when the soldier you ask for directions glares at you.
7. Overshoot.
8. Ask the turbaned owner of the convenience store for directions and go back.
9. Bear left on to Old Bedford Road.
10. Turn right on to Virginia Road.
11. Sit at a green desk on a mustard colored floor.
12. Eat a peanut butter sandwich, because what would Thoreau eat?
13. Write haiku, by hand.
14. Get slightly bored because it is raining.
15. Realize you could have stayed home and read WALDEN.
16. Admire bright green lichen on tree trunks and the piles of oak leaves this raw November afternoon.
17. Realize every day is a fine day for Henry David Thoreau.


On Elizabeth Bishop

I bought, second-hand, not wanting to waste
The Complete Poems
of Elizabeth Bishop
in paperback
that someone named Emily
had already marked up
in green ink
for English 310—Section 1.

Her handwriting, firm and round
makes puerile comments
“Mirror to the soul?” and asks
“But who is he really?”
something we’ll never know,
are not supposed to know,
about hermit, gentleman, or boy
who populate these poems—
an animus, poet’s
masculine self
yet not lying wan
like a century of pale
Pre-Raphaelite girls
floated tubercular
in bathtubs
full of flowers
for the painter’s brush
to smirch.

I don’t think Emily
has chosen these poems herself,
they seem assigned, and she
although obviously a careful student,
is baffled.
Her comments further obscure:
“The negotiation between what is real
and what is real”
Then underlined.

I know she has gone on to other things.
The copyright is more than thirty years old.
Emily, if she is even still alive
has children, grand-children maybe, and I’m guessing
is on a second husband
and has forgotten all about
the inexpensive book
she sold back
or gave to Goodwill
or the library sale.
I doubt she misses it
while I, sitting in bed
am reading it bit by bit
hope not to drop
one stitch.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Grolier Poetry Bookshop Documentary Selected for the Massachusetts Independent Film Festival!

So glad for the Grolier Poetry Book Shop and filmmaker Olivia Huang-- producer of the Grolier Poetry Book Shop Documentary-- "The Last Sacred Place for Poetry" ( which I was thrilled to be in!). It will be shown at the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square--Where the festival is going to be held?  When?-- to be announced! 

 Here is a trailer:  for the  Grolier Poetry Book Shop: The Last Sacred Place of Poetry.

Below is an interview I conducted with filmmaker Olivia Huang: 

Doug Holder Interviews Brandeis Scholar Rosie Rosenzweig about Mindfulness and C...

Sunday, July 22, 2018

A Memoir of Murder and Redemption: Notice of Release by Stephanie Cassalty


  Left--Doug Holder,  Center--Stephanie Cassatly, Right Dr. Mark Herlihy


Interview with Doug Holder


I am always looking to use different memoirs for my creative writing seminars at Endicott College in Beverly, MA. In the past I have use Alan Kaufman's Jew Boy, Nick Flynn's Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Patti Smith's Just Kids, Richard Hoffman's Half the House, Michael C. Keith's  The Next Better Place, and others. So when I had memoirist Stephanie Cassatly as a guest at the Ibbetson Street Press/Endicott College Visiting Author Series, I was very open to her new work:  Notice of Release: A Daughter's Journey to Forgive her Mother's Killer.

It seems that Cassatly ( who will be teaching at Endicott this fall), has written a memoir that deals with her mother's brutal death. When Cassatly was eighteen her mother was killed in a convenience store robbery in New Orleans. After twenty years she forgave the murderer-- just before he passed in the notorious Angola State Penitentiary

Cassatly eventually comes out of this tragedy as a whole person.  The reader witnesses her trauma-ridden journey and her redemption in this evocative book.

Recently I had the pleasure to interview the author....



Doug Holder: You wrote that it took over 20 years for you to forgive your mother's killer.  How long did the memoir percolate in your mind?


Stephanie  Cassatly:  It took seventeen years, with many fits and starts and long hiatus periods. Writing the book was emotionally intense, so I had to take breaks. I needed time to process events of the story, almost as if they were happening to me for the first time. The story kept unfolding even as I wrote it; it was a process that could not be rushed. I did not originally set out to write a book. I simply wanted to record the experience of forgiving my mother’s killer for my daughters, as I had not shared very much with them. I wanted them to have a record of the story, incase anything ever happened to me (mothers can die young, right?) I was not a writer at the time. Once I started, I realized how much I enjoyed the process and began taking writing classes at community college to become better at it. Then, I started writing for the newspaper and eventually found my way to an MFA program. For a long time, I wrote about everything else, until a very wise instructor challenged me to write the story I was meant to write. I began writing shorter essays that circled around my mother’s life and death, which were published in different anthologies and journals. Essays were easier, because the idea of writing a book was daunting. Eventually, I wove them into my memoir as chapters or parts of chapters. Each essay that was published felt like validation for the larger work.


DH: You move back and forth in your memoir--from your childhood-- to the time you were investigating your mother's death, her killer, and the final resolution of forgiveness. Why did you choose this route instead of a straight chronology?


SC I realized in my MFA program the many possible structures for a story, chronological being the most obvious. I wanted to try something different and not be bound by time. Writing this story was a deep exploration for me…in every respect. I allowed it to flow like my mind, which often moves from one thing to the next in no particular order. That being said, I think it’s essential to maintain enough of a thread between time periods in order to give readers a linear picture. I definitely worked to accomplish this and hope I did.

DH: You use dreams often in this memoir. Why do you find them an effective vehicle to tell your story?


SC:  I wrote much of this book in the early morning hours before my children woke for school (4-6 AM). Because the house was still dark and quiet, and my mind was a clean slate from sleeping, it felt like I was writing in a dream state. Additionally, I abide by the rule of consulting my pillow. Whenever I have something to figure out in my writing (or life), I pose a question or problem before sleep. More often than not, I wake with a solution (having worked it out in my dreams). The best example I can think of was the chapter in my book called “Turbulence,” about my husband and I buying a new home after the owner died in a plane crash. I knew I had to connect the dots between his story and mine. I was unclear on the relevancy, so before I went to sleep one night, I asked myself why I was so obsessed with him. The next morning I realized that he represented a combination of both of my parents (my father’s life and my mother’s death) and that his surviving daughter reminded me of younger self. I worked all this out in my sleep and the next morning the writing flowed like honey. I believe dreams are powerful, telling and helpful. Used as a device, they deepen stories and offer insight into inner landscapes of characters and authors.

 DH: Primary sources play a big role in the memoir as well: court transcripts, letters, etc... What does this add to the work?


SC:  In my MFA program, I read several books written in epistolary style and realized how much can be revealed through letters, photographs and documents. I think these add an interesting dimension and texture to an otherwise more traditional style of storytelling.

DH: The old writing adage is "show don't tell". In your memoir you certainly "show"--but you also tell how things connect-- for the reader. When do you decide it's time to go into the didactic mode?


SC:  I struggled with this. I once had an editor tell me to “trust the reader more.” I think it’s a balance that requires finessing, because sometimes readers need a little help connecting the dots, but they shouldn’t feel like they’re being hit over the head. Dialogue, for instance, is a great device to “show,” because it puts readers in the moment or scene. It only works, however, to the degree that it serves the plot or theme. Like anything else, it can be overdone. I think this is where revision comes in. After I wrote large chunks of my manuscript, I went back to see what needed to be handled more “in the moment” of showing, versus telling. I did a lot of shifting between these two modes in the latter stages.

DH: Was it hard to decide what to leave in and what to leave out?


SC:  Yes. At different points I felt like I was throwing in everything, plus the kitchen sink. That’s where a good editor comes in. I read a book called Tell it Slant, by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, which essentially teaches writers that everything needs to slant toward theme. The question we need to ask ourselves is how does this serve the story? If it doesn’t, that’s usually an indication that it needs to be cut, as painful as that can be. It’s called “killing our darlings.” I try to recycle them my darlings into other works, instead of burying them.

DH: Memoir is part of the genre of creative non-fiction. Tell me how your writing differs from standard non-fiction?


SC:  I once had a historian writer friend turn his nose up at me when I told him I was writing creative non-fiction. I think standard non-fiction is a more historical and factual account of someone or something, where as creative non-fiction and memoir is also fact, but the boundaries are slightly blurred. My writing differs from standard non-fiction in that it is fact mixed with creative extrapolation, and a narrower focus and theme. Unfortunately, in the wake of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, memoirists (and publishers) are much more cautious about blurring the line.

DH: Tell us about your revision process?


 It’s endless. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so it’s hard to stop editing and revising until it’s printed. Even now, I still think of things I’d revise. I don’t have a set process, but I think it’s important to have a large enough body of work before revising too much. In the case of my memoir, there were many incarnations of it, with different structures, endings, etc. I made large and small changes all along the way. Mostly, I went chapter by chapter (multiple times), thinking both globally (how things fit within the whole story) and line by line (making sure every sentence was as good as it could be). My biggest challenge was to stay open to change, even if it meant giving up favorite passages. A sense of willingness and a trusted editor helped tremendously. A good editor is almost always right. There are never any guarantees when revising, but if we don’t try things, we will never know. That’s why it’s good to save drafts.

DH: Hurricane Katrina was a major prop in your story. The storm seemed to be a metaphor for a good deal of your life. Can you expand on this a bit?


SC: Sure. I’ll group Katrina and the Mississippi River (both powerful forces of nature) together in answering this question. Much of my story takes place in an around the Mississippi River, where I set scenes of my grandfather’s serene farm, a cleansing baptism, a chilling maximum security Prison and Katrina, the mother of all storms. The contrast of peace and violence and how storms destroy and people rebuild felt relevant. I wanted to juxtapose opposites in order to show how things such as joy and sorrow, peace and violence, hope and hopelessness, life and death coexist. Katrina took my family down, but it also provided a rich opportunity to care for my aunt in a way that I could not care for my mother. Katrina and the Mississippi symbolized death and destruction, yet resilience and rebirth.

DH: Do you think writing this book was necessary for full closure for your mother's death?


SC:  Yes, absolutely. It turned the tide for me. I think writing this book forced me to face her death (and life) head-on. Digging so deeply and for so long provided some kind of desensitization, maybe like they use for PTSD? That being said, it was also an excellent and fulfilling creative endeavor in and of itself. As I went along, I started to see myself more as a character outside of myself. I think writing this memoir wrote me as much as I wrote it. I am a different person because of it and so grateful for having endeavored it.

Give us the five top elements of memoir writing.

  1. First and foremost…Let go of fear. Telling our stories can feel like standing naked in front of a room of people, but we can’t underestimate the power and benefit of sharing them. If we censor too much or worry about who will be hurt, we’ll never write it. Write first, edit or apologize later.

  2. Narrow the focus. Memoir is not autobiography. It’s a slice of life, so stick to a theme or particular aspect of your life.

  3. Elevate life to art. Writing memoir is a cocktail of memory and imagination. Be creative without lying. There is plenty of leeway.

  4. Use elements of fiction: plot, characters, theme, setting, narrative arc, etc. While it is a history of sorts, it’s not just that. It has to captivate readers like a novel.

  5. It’s an internal narrative, so use inner mind workings: flashbacks, dreamscapes, memories, ruminations, letters, songs, poems, thoughts, etc.