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.

The Sunday Poet: jojo Lazar

jojo Lazar

jojo Lazar, “the burlesque poetess” is a Somer-vaudevillian multimedia visual and performance artist. She plays ukulele and flute in ‘The Army of Toys’ band, and teaches uke, creative writing, and zine-making. You can find blackout poetry & more collages - @poetessS on social media