Friday, July 12, 2019

Aleef Mahmud: A resident of the Asylum brings artificial intelligence and poetry to Somerville.

Aleef Mahmud: A resident of the Asylum brings artificial intelligence and poetry to Somerville.

By Doug Holder

Aleef Mahmud, a 30ish young man, met me in the lobby of the Artisan's Asylum-- a hotbed for technology and the arts in Union Square in Somerville, Ma.

Mahmud is the founder of PROTYO, a concern that develops artificial intelligence for things like automated cars, robots, thermostats, medical devices, etc... Although he is located in Somerville-- in the Asylum, he has employees working all over the world.

Mahmud, who was previously located in Brooklyn, NY said Somerville is well-positioned for technology. Many of his customers happen to be in Cambridge, MA. “Somerville is fantastic for business, the arts and technology. People here have the skill-sets and the background for innovative work, and we are surrounded by major corporations,” he said. Mahmud continued, “I plan to always have a space in the Artisan's Asylum.

I asked Mahmud about his view of gentrification in our burg. “ It is a double-edged sword. There is a lot of displacement. Some of the artists at the Artisan's Asylum had to move from Somerville because of the high rents. They now commute. On the other hand, I feel it has brought a new vibrancy to the city.”

Mahmud told me he is the recipient of the Maritime Hero Award. This was presented to him by the U.S. Olympic Committee. It seems that Mahmud developed the technology that makes it possible for the disabled to enjoy sailing. He told me, “ I developed an exoskeleton—so a disabled sailor Richard ramos was able to compete in races. The technology is available for anyone to use for free. I want technologist to help people. I want it to make things more inclusive.”

Now—many people may have issues with artificial intelligence –but for the most part Mahmud does not. I asked Mahmud if all this technology will lead us to be at mercy of robots. He said, “ No I don't think it is going to be what we see in the movies. AI will relieve us from monotonous duties. It will be used for jobs that no one else wants, like bomb detecting, for instance. I told him that I know people with lower level jobs like cashiers have been losing their jobs because machines have replaced them. Mahmud said, “ Humans will always be in the loop. AI will make it more convenient to do what you want to do."

Mahmud came to this country from Bangladesh. His family lived in a cramped apartment in Queens, NY, and relied on food stamps.” So it stands to reason that Mahmud, who describes himself as an amateur poet, would pen work that is socially aware. It seems that this young entrepreneur in the Paris of New England is going to continue making technology and poetry that will be inclusive and with the good for broader society in mind.

Dreams of tomorrow:

dreams I hope will come tomorrow
dreams I hold close
shattered by a plane in September
dark days and sleepless nights that followed

dreams of my mother who struggled to stand
dreams of my father who begged for a hand
dreams become fears seeing my sister harassed
dreams become fears watching my brother's arrest

these dreams keep me steady
keep me ready against the night
these dreams of my mother,
my father, guiding lights of my life

dreams I hope will come tomorrow
dreams I hold close
for brighter days and safer nights
a better tomorrow for those who follow

Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Number 5 Is Always Suspect by Bob Heman and Cindy Hochman

The Number 5 Is Always Suspect
by Bob Heman & Cindy Hochman
2019 Bob Heman & Cindy Hochman
Presa Press
Rockford, MI
Softbound, 24 pages, $8
Review by Zvi A. Sesling

This book contains twenty-four sonnets by Bob Heman and Cindy Hochman. Heman was the editor of CLWN WR (formerly Clown War) and is known for his collages that have appeared in a number of poetry magazines. He was also the artist-in-residence at the Brooklyn Museum. Heman is poet who has published in numerous magazines and authored several poetry collections. Hochman is renowned as an editor of fiction and poetry as head of “100 Proof” Copyediting Services. For those who submit poetry or read it online she serves as editor-in-chief of First Literary Review–East. Additionally, she has done book reviews for a number of publications and is on the book review staff of Pedestal. Hochman is the author of three chapbooks.

When two fine poets get together in a collaboration one might think the final results would be a tug of war. But the opposite is true. One of them write a line, then the other writes so that each line is alternated between the two. The results contain humor, sometimes dark as in Poem 2.
he arrived at that place where the foghorns don’t blow

where the rocks are deeper than the sea
you can hear the sirens’ delusory call
as real as real as the horizon’s lure
but what is real in these shipwrecked days?
only the words that trickle through us
as the captain steers in blind avigation
toward the port where the sentence ends
punctuated by ballast to batten the hatches
and let the sea crawl slowly away
like rats onboard with stowaway faces
making their own siren calls
as the vessel veers north on its unsteady course
toward a horizon suddenly far too real

This poem shows how two people in their own homes emailing lines back and forth in a set order can create a poem with a touch of humor and with an unexpected dark ending. Even though the poems in this chapbook are experimental, the quality of each poem is extraordinary as if one poet alone had written experimental lines to be published.

Thirteen is supposed to bring bad luck but Poem 13 shows the humor two people can put together:

A priest, a rabbi, and a bear walk into a bar
“Are there any stars in this story?”
No, Just some whiskey with a beer chaser.
“Is the priest a rabbit?”
No. He’s a lapsed cabbage.
“Are his sermons part of the story?”
No sermons, just poetry readings and fairytales.
“Is the bear allowed to have a meaningful role?”
Indeed! No fairytale is complete without a bear.
“What about the rabbi? Will we see him again?” Oy. The rabbi is trying to find his missing “t.”
“So then he really does believe that he’s the rabbit?”
And oh dear, he’s late, he’s late.
“Is that where the story ends?”

One cannot tell who wrote which line when reading these poems. This makes the poems enjoyable. Who thought of the rabbi being a rabbit? Does it matter? The poem unleashes some absurdist humor reminiscent of some of the jokes traversing over time. It shows that two people can be in sync to write a humorous poem.

While Bob Heman and Cindy Hochman are not married to each other, their poetry engagement has produced a poetic child, a chapbook of twenty-four sonnets, each of which is a collaboration of seven lines each. To accomplish this successfully the two poets are in tune with each other when writing these verses.

Having tried a similar collaboration with a friend years ago, I found the results immature and silly. With Hochman and Heman there is a touch of the silly, but the poems are absolutely worth the read. This chapbook a worthy addition to any collection.

Saturday, July 06, 2019

From the Bloc 11 Cafe: Interview with poet Toni Bee

From the Bloc 11 Cafe: Interview with poet Toni Bee

With Doug Holder

Toni Bee met me in the backroom of the Bloc 11 Cafe to discuss her life as a poet, mother, woman, activist, African-American, etc... Bee made it clear to me that she doesn't want to be straight-jacketed into any particular label. A formidable figure, with a voice that makes sure it is heard, Bee also exhibits a great deal of warmth. But she is not one who is afraid to spit out the truth no matter how uncomfortable it feels.

Bee, who lives in Cambridge, but has many Somerville connections, said in an interview that she has an affinity for 'odd people,' and being a dues paying member of the group, I asked her about it. She told me, “I probably got that from Jason Wright, the founder of “Oddball Magazine.” Odd people are not embraced within society. I want to embrace them through my poetry and art.”

Now, I am proud to be among the band of three who created the Somerville Poet Laureate position, and as it turns out Bee was the Poet Populist of Cambridge from 2011 to 2013. I asked her what the difference is between a populist poet and a poet laureate. She said, "The poet populist is elected by ballot. Citizens of Cambridge voted for the populist poet, unlike Somerville where a committee selected the poet laureate." According to Bee her tenure in the position was a positive one. She recalled, “ The position gave me a sense of professionalism and also a chance to work with youth—always an emphasis of mine.” Bee has a TV show on Cambridge Access, she ran a venue for music and poetry at the Middle East Restaurant in Central Square, Cambridge-- among the many activities she is and was involved in.

Bee is not a native of Cambridge, but of Boston. She found that living in Cambridge was a good fit for raising her daughter. Bee reflected, “ Cambridge has its problems, but it has less of the violence than I experienced in Boston.”

I asked Bee if we could talk about her being a founding member of the Black Lives Matter group in Cambridge. She said, “No,” but then politely qualified this. She stated, “ I am a believer in 'intersectionality.' I don't want to be known only as an African American woman—because like all people I am many things. I am a woman, poet, activist, mother, daughter. I don't like to be placed in a  pigeon-hold. So I  do discuss it but with that light in mind."

Many poets from Somerville and beyond—have been a great help to Bee. She mentioned a number of them,  Chad Parenteau,  Afaa Michael Weaver, Dexter Roberts, Gilmore Tamny and of course her own mother. But she fondly recalled being a student at Simmons College. She was an older student, with a child, and a limited income-- so it was a tough stint. But she remembers taking the final poetry class that the celebrated poet Afaa Michael Weaver taught  before he retired. She recalled, "His class was inspirational—it was a catalyst for my life as a poet today.”

In her introduction to her poetry collection “22 Again” she writes, ( often in the vernacular) “ The language I use in this book is an amalgam of word rhythms I have been hearing my entire life. Me, my native country—we is an exquisite mix. I celebrate that. My Daddy made sure we met our half-African great-grandma from Jamaica. And I could neva' understand how she was speaking. Mommy, Eartha Mae, were from South Carolina. And when she called home on weekends, her accent became that sing-song I rarely heard, yet adored. R&B and Hip-hop was the background beat. And growing up in Dorchester was madd diverse. My language became otherized; it seeps in my work.”

Toni Bee is yet another creative person I have encountered here-- in the Paris of New England.

This here body

This here body should eat double chocolate donuts when it's bulk is sleepy or rather wait on the peanut butter cocoa cookie it wants this body is a berry batch, batch juice better than chocolate, body This body, is fluffy pillow needing crunches This body thrills on this Slim paper,slim paper, make body slimmer, do I care if my body swings? do that speak to my pride? In other countries they'd say I was rich, praise body for its excess, its fertileness, in this land just bulk. Yell -body move quicker- put fork down faster- stop eat cheese- leave chocolate alone-forever unless the oxiAnti kind, dear this body you pretty amazing body, don't fuss at the teen, stop wanting so very much more, Body wonders what to do next, first no eat nasty donuts tomorrow or the 30th, yawn, crunch, take stairs, Love? make it stretch you. Body fly your body flies your body is fly, fly my body be

Twoxism Poems by Claudia Serea. Photos by Maria Haro.

by Michael Markham

Poems by Claudia Serea. Photos by Maria Haro.
8th House Publishing, Montreal, Canada. December 2018.
116 pages. Color. Paperback.

is a collaboration between two artists, the poet Claudia Serea and photographer Maria Haro. The basic premise is the pairing of objects in a photograph and then the pairing of that photo with a poem. The photos are essentially documentary, being of found objects paired up, sometimes in suggestive ways.

The objects themselves are ordinary and day-to-day—things we might easily overlook or take for granted as we move about our hurried lives: traffic lights, bicycles chained together, a pair of abandoned shoes. A photo showing the shadows of a table and chair on a sidewalk is paired with the following poem:

A question for you

Tell me,
if I caught your shadow
and kissed it,

would you walk only
on the sunny side of the streets

so you wouldn't lose
my kiss?

The essential art, in a book such as this, is the collaboration itself, with one art form provoking or enhancing the other. When this is successful—as it certainly is here—the image and the poem engage and tease out associations that neither, on its own, might so easily suggest. The following is one of my favorites, which reflects also on the fact that Haro (Spain) and Serea (Romania) are both foreign-born New Yorkers, exploring, documenting, and commenting on their surroundings. A photograph of two paper signs taped together onto a wall reading "WET PAINT! / PINTURA FRESCA!" is paired with the following poem:

About languages

In what language
does the house painter paint?

Does the wind in Chile
speak Spanish to the trees?

Do the gulls over the Hudson River cry
Whitman's verse?

And what about
the Statue of Liberty?

In what language does she
keep silent?

As someone who's worked in a number of artistic disciplines—visual art, photography, music, poetry—I've always been interested in art that is multidisciplinary. There's a dynamic between the various art forms that is always suggestive and open to exploration. This interest extends to artists of differing backgrounds or disciplines or attitudes who collaborate, as if in conversation. This book is an excellent example of that kind of dynamic.

Michael Markham was born in England, raised in Canada, and currently resides in Brooklyn, NY. He received his art instruction at the Instituto Allende (Mexico) and the Vancouver School of Art (Canada). He has exhibited in Canada, the United States, Mexico, Europe, and Australia. Markham is also a published poet and an active musician.

Monday, July 01, 2019

Magellan’s Reveries By R. Nemo Hill

Magellan’s Reveries
By R. Nemo Hill
Dos Madres Press
Loveland, Ohio
ISBN: 978-1-948017-23-7
83 Pages
Review by Dennis Daly

Perhaps life’s never-ending voyage? Perhaps the tidal pull of infinity? Perhaps an ekphrastic exercise of love? R. Nemo Hill retells the tale of Magellan’s first circumnavigation of our world with formalist elegance through the swells and troughs of rolling consciousness. He matches up each poem with a seascape photograph. There are 33 of each and the photographs are gorgeous. The resulting dual sequence astounds beyond marvelous.

Explorers require certain traits for their livelihoods: courage, imagination, self-assuredness, determination, faith in their God and/or themselves. The package most often includes a much darker side. Historically, many of them were colonizers, tyrannical leaders, slavers, and aficionados of greed. Humankind is nothing if not a repository of Manichean complexity. Magellan certainly qualified as a member and even an exemplar of that brotherhood.

Turned down by the king of Portugal, Magellan depends on the financial backing of the Spanish king. His primary mission is to find a westward route to the Spice Islands (the Moluccas) and Asia in general. He commands five ships with 270 men. The epic journey is fraught with terrible storms, mutiny, scurvy, desertion, and a pitched battle in the Philippines. Only 18 sailors return with their one remaining ship. Magellan doesn’t make it.

Hill calls his poems reveries and gives them a dream-like texture. He chooses the ghazal as his poetic form. Within the last two lines of each ghazal the speaker, in this case Magellan, embeds a signature into the piece. This works wonderfully for Hill, effectively cementing the narrator’s persona with the protagonist-explorer.

All the potential inherent in his coming adventure Magellan sees clearly. The Fourth Reverie of Magellan ends this way,

Land of Fire. White Bay. Bay of Toil.
Cape Desire. We name what we can’t hold.

Five pitch black caravels, five hundred tons
afloat, white sails, alone, ablaze—Behold!

With neither moon nor stars, the Hand of God
cannot, tonight, know how much dark it holds.

Wrapped in sailcloth, lashed to lead and prayer--.
Now whisper:
what the sea takes,
let the sea hold.’

Taste the wind, Magellan! Breathe the blast!
It’s asking—How much can the future hold?

Well, the future holds quite a bit for Magellan and his fellow travelers, both sailors and those harriers of consciousness, Hill and his readers. The poet, in fact, makes this a voyage of enlightenment, where Magellan and Hill both transcend themselves and ride the waves together as their fates unravel.

From desperate storm to desperate storm, tension building, Magellan’s crews fight their way forward through the South Atlantic. The flagship Victoria becomes almost a mystical symbol. Hill imagines the scene,

All night, on deck, blind watchmen lost beneath
capotes do mar, blue cloaks, blue capes of storm.

Our bloodied iron hooks tore tasteless flesh.
The ring of sharks could not contain the storm.

Strike each sail! Strip each trembling spar!
A sailor casts no shadow in a storm.

Which unseen, on board saint is this
Who closes the invisible gates of storm?

A plume of fire, Magellan? A covenant?
Victoria’s mast, a candle in the storm?

Asea, the world looks different, is different. Ships become islands of solidity. Everything else exhibits constant change, breeds illusion. Men see what they want to see. In the opening of The Tenth Reverie of Magellan the poet explains,

Bellowed out by surf there is an island.
Sailors, plug your ears! There is no island.

Why do we call it Earth instead of Ocean?
Do we dream these whitecapped waves are windward islands?

The weakest lie on deck all night, and count:
two luminous clouds, a billion brilliant islands.

Hill outdoes himself with a dramatic description of Magellan’s last stand. Metaphysical imagery and the ghazal’s insistent repetition work wonders. This scene in the Twenty-First Reverie is my favorite,

Low tide. Our longboats languish far from shore.
My senses dive, though into shallows dropped.

Knee deep in blood, beset on every side,
not once, but twice the Captain’s helmet dropped.’

Red brine fountain of my limb-lopped trunk,
Flush these breakers as they crest and drop!

I am the coral cave where the wronged Christ rots.
I am the cross from which the downed Christ drops.

Two pylons dream a gateway underwater.
A rising bridge is now a bridge that drops.

You still have eyes, Magellan? Witness then
how every fragment of the shattered drops.

After Magellan’s death in battle, he continues in the third section as a somewhat altered narrator. Hill’s own voice, speaking through him, becomes stronger and both voices merge into a more cosmic (read oceanic) consciousness. The Twenty-Fourth Reverie describes in evocative language the post-battle scene as Magellan’s sailors consolidate their force by destroying one of their own ships,

Bright feathers fall, I float through, as I turn.
From nothing into nothingness, I’m turned.

Conception will burn! In polished seaglass,
gulls of far-flung flame will wheel, and turn.

What shapes of scuttled ships, of men unloved,
complete these clouds behind me when I turn?

Rage once bade fling my useless maps
into the sea—not knowing where to turn.

Magellan is reviled by most of his surviving crew and the Spanish king after the completion of his epic voyage. Then the official chronicler of the voyage finally makes his report and the explorer’s side of the story gets out. Acclamation follows. But this hardly matters to the poet. Magellan’s victory, as related by Hill, has become another thread in mankind’s complex tapestry, a tapestry stretched into a map of unconscious beauty and intrepid, timeless spirit.

Between the disarming visuals and the verbal variations I know of no better introduction to humanity’s unknowable spin and orientation than this collection of exploration reveries. R. Nemo Hill has stretched his poetic anchor line.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

William Stoner And the Battle for the Inner Life by Steve Almond

William Stoner
And the Battle for the Inner Life
© 2019 by Steve Almond
Ig Publishing
Box 2547
New York, NY 10163
ISBN: 978-1-63246-08-75


The title of this monograph on display at Porter Square Books grabbed my attention because reading Stoner by John Williams had provoked an abreaction five years ago. Once I read Almond’s introduction with my Sunday coffee I did not put it down except for bodily necessities until I finished it so I could go to bed. That kind of absorption is unique in my experience reading criticism.

For a book to have had such an emotional impact as this one has had on the both of us, Stoner is deceptively simple. Here Is Almond’s masterful succinct summation of the story:
Stoner, the only son of subsistence farmers, attends college, unexpectedly falls in love with literature, and becomes a teacher; he endures a disastrous marriage, a prolonged academic feud, and a doomed love affair, then falls ill and dies.

That hardly seems a story capable of meeting Aristotle’s requirement for a tragedy, but, as Almond will show us, William's genius takes his spare tale and infuses it with a power that is more than sufficient to evoke pity and fear and the weeping purging of those emotions.

The success of Almond's essay rests on a foundation he creates with his subtitle, “and the battle for the inner life,” and his willing engagement and perseverance in that battle. My engagement with Almond’s argument was created by the rhythm of his writing as he swings between lucid, if traditional, explication of the work, and narrative considerations of his own life problems elicited by Stoner. He has read the book some 13 times precisely because it provokes him to self-examination.

Here's a lengthy illustration from Almond’s third chapter, “Love Makes Us Zombies (aka Worst Marriage Ever).” First with a sample of his explication from the chapter’s middle:

The description of this honeymoon spends six excruciating pages. We know from the jump that Stoner’s abject desire will be met by dread, because the narrator tells us so. And yet these scenes are among the most heart-rending of the entire book, because Williams does just what most writers lack the courage to do: he slows down where his characters are most exposed and helpless.

Then as he concludes this chapter Almond, in his battle, charges into a territory that I would not have considered to be part of literary criticism, suggesting, as he does, when he shifts from an analysis of Stoner’s marriage into an arrestingly candid discussion of his own, that literature has a use as marriage counseling:

This is why Williams portrays them as zombies, I think: to suggest they have no conscious capacity to choose one another. Stoner is dumbstruck at the site of Edith and decides that he must marry her. She accedes to his ardor. They operate at the level of glandular instinct and social programming.
It's an extreme portrait, but anyone who has been in a long-term monogamy, especially a marriage, will recognize the outlines. Romantic love always begins with the dream, one designed to liberate us from the burdens of the past but inexorably bound to them. Erin and I dreamed of building a family impervious to the bullying and anxiety we'd experience growing up, though our relationship was fraught with elements of both.

I've often portrayed our romance as a tale of heroic self-determination, in which we boldly hurtled from long-distance lovers to rookie parents in a few exuberant months. But I was consistently controlling during our courtship, and Erin too often silenced her doubts and resentments, for fear I would abandon her. Like William Stoner, I fell in love with an idea and charged ahead, ignoring the woman I claimed to adore.

This approach reminds me of a mantra of my medical residency: See one; Do one; Teach one. I think Almond is advocating something similar: Read Stoner; Think about Stoner; Think about your life as you thought about Stoner, and, if you can be as honest about your failures as Williams is honest about Stoner’s failures, then the exercise may prove worthwhile. Indeed, later in the essay Almond will assert that this is the purpose of literature and that Stoner is supreme in fulfilling it.

That last sentence makes Almond sound all too serious, when he full of wit and self-aware self-deprecation. He follows chapter 5, “Everybody Loves a Good Fight (A Short History of My Many Feuds),” with chapter 6, “The Perfect Martyr,” which begins

The foregoing chapter should make two facts pretty obvious:
1. Most of Stoner is about a guy getting pummeled
2. The author of this book is somewhat pathologically inclined toward feuds.

And he is pragmatic when he shows us how these understandings that have come from his facing up to his feuds in the “battle for the inner life,” may have a use in in politics:

Edith and Lomax dominate Stoner in the same way demagogues dominate their political opponents; not through superior ideas or logic but the seductive force of uninhibited aggression. This is the secret sauce modern conservatives used to advance a plutocratic and bigoted agenda. At a primal level, they project a willingness to fight.
If John Kerry had turned to George Bush during any of their presidential debates and said, “In 1969, I was on the Duong Keo River killing the Vietcong and watching my friends bleed out. Where were you in 1969?” he would've been elected president. Just as Hillary Clinton would be president today if, during her second debate with Trump, she had turned to him and said: “Stop stalking me around the stage. It doesn't make you look tough, Donald. It makes you look like a creep who harasses women.”
But look: that's not who liberals are. They don't punch bullies. They go high, like Stoner, and wind up on the ground wondering what went wrong.

Almond applies this same intelligent analysis to the rest of the novel as Stoner deals with parenting, teaching, reading, writing, and death.

But for all of his book’s virtues and Almond‘s insights and humor that claimed my attention for that Sunday, a flaw in the last chapter brought me up short with its unconscious white privilege. Here is the flaw, which continues to rankle me:

My mom made it through the hike [during which her husband bullied her] but wound up in the ER with a racing heart. When we met the next day, she had recovered physically, but was uncharacteristically subdued. I assumed she was ashamed, though I can see now that I was ashamed. She glanced down for a moment and then said very quietly, “Stevie, I was the n[xxx]er of this family.”
Why would my mother – who had marched into segregated restaurants with African-American students and demanded service – utter such an indefensible word?
She was struggling, I think, to convey how powerless she felt, the enormity of the hurt she'd experience living within our family, nearly all of it invisible. The word was meant to startle and offend, in the same way Yoko Ono and John Lennon meant when they released “Woman Is the N[xxx]er of the World.” or maybe it would be more accurate to say that she was simply unburdening herself of her most closely guarded secret: the sorrow of her inner life.

This is the one place in his essay where, I think, his public exposure of a private detail doesn't work. I find his apology for her insufficient; it reveals a failure of the inner life of his mother and of Almond. I think it reveals that, because of their white privilege, neither of them know what “n[xxx]er” means in its historically American context, which is far uglier and more complex than what it means in the context of, say, Conrad’s The N[xxx]er of the Narcissus. Almond’s list of his mother's liberal credentials and his speculation about her motive does not excuse her lapse nor does the equally egregious example he gives of Yoko Ono and John Lennon's use of the word. John was British and Yoko Japanese so neither of them could have known the ugly extent of the word in American usage. We know his mother isn’t aware of what the word means in these United States because she has the leisure to play Bach and Mozart, because she's a graduate of Yale Medical School, because she's a psychoanalyst, because the day before she made this claim she had been on a vacation hike in the mountains, and because she (and Almond) don’t have to worry about him being shot at a routine traffic stop. They are Jews so they should know that Almond’s mother isn’t the “n[xxx]er” of her family for the same reasons that a goy who survived Auschwitz isn’t a survivor of The Holocaust.

In an ideal world Ig Publishing would recall this edition until Almond could do battle with a revision, but ideal worlds can be dangerous, so let’s hope in the world we have that this book will get to a second printing and that by the time it does he will have found the resources in his inner life to craft an adequate revision. But, I must admit when I saw Almond's book on display at Porter Square, I was primed to pay attention and my attention was rewarded with an essay as engrossing, in spite of its genre, as I once found John Williams’ masterpiece; when I finished I had to reread Stoner and Almond’s criticism has enriched my re-experience of the novel.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

From the Bloc 11 Cafe: Interview with magician Evan Northrup

Magician Evan Northrup at the Bloc 11 Cafe

From the Bloc 11 Cafe: Interview with magician  Evan Northrup

I met Evan Northrup at my unofficial office at the back of the Bloc 11 Cafe in Union Square, Somerville. Northrup certainly has a stage presence. He speaks in an upbeat cadence and flashes a winning smile. I have never interviewed a magician before, but from my childhood I remember some darkly attired men, pulling an unfortunate bunny out a top hat, or of the enigmatic smile of an attractive woman about to be in cut in half, and miraculously brought back to her whole state.

Northup portrays magic as a mixture of slight of hand and practical psychology. His mission statement is to bring the magic of life to his patrons.

Northrup has volunteered at the Artisan's Asylum outside of Union Square for a number of years. He finds inspiration for his work from many of the creative types who work there. As he goes from work space to work space, he picks up ideas from this high tech buffet of- the- grid inventors, artists, and artisans.

Northrup used to live in Somerville. Like many artists I have interviewed he has left our city to live on Beacon Hill in Boston. It is ironic of course—but he and his wife found a better deal there!

Northrup is not only a magician, but he provides stage craft and illusion services to such theaters in Boston as the LYRIC STAGE, and the HUNTINGTON THEATRE. He told me, “ I once developed a metal illusion for a production of ' Beauty and the Beast. ' It was basically a framed wood enclosure that included metal to ensure stability for the Beast.”

Northrup, who is a graduate of Brown University, recalls some of the very first projects he provided magical design, and special effects for.  He reflects, “ My very first production was at the Gloucester Stage. They were putting on a performance of 'Carnival.'" At the Huntington Theater in Boston, Northrup was involved in the production  of“I was most Alive with You”--a production performed by members of the deaf community.

Northrup is not your dad's musician. He sees magic through many different lenses. He told me,  "Respected scientists now study magic's effect on the brain. MRIs are employed to see how the brain reacts when it is exposed to magic.” So Northrup infuses many different sources in his work.

Northrup said in the past he did his act for children, but now he likes to do it for adults. He reflected, “ I like to get adults off-guard. I want to challenge their assumptions."

Northrup performs in many venues—weddings, private parties, but he seeks more corporate work—to make the daily nut. He is working on an idea using magic to explore the dining experience. He envisions diners choosing what they want to eat, and then have it materialize on their plates--also an appointment of floating candles could be thrown in the mix.

Northrup is a student of the “ Spanish School of Magic.” In this school of thought there is an emphasis on magic theory. Northrup said, “ American magic is more procedural. The Spanish School has  more contextual content with magic—rather than simply tricks.'

Northrup performed a few tricks for me at our table. One that I took interest in was when he changed one dollar bills into twenties. Boy—would I like to know that guy's secret!

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Interview with poet Ravi Taja Yelamanchili: A Young Poet with an Old Soul

On any given meeting of the literary group Bagel Bards in Somerville, amidst the bobbing, hoary heads--you might notice a strapping young Indian man-- taking in all the chatter around the table.
He is comfortable in the crowd of 50-60-70-80 year old men and women, and has been a consistent member of the group. Meet poet Ravi Taja Yelmanchili. Ravi, who is currently working at Vision 33 as a Technical Business Analyst, and has had his poetry published in the Muddy River Poetry Review, The Somerville Times, Muse India and is featured in Ibbetson Street 45--a well-known Somerville-based literary magazine.

Doug Holder: You are a high-tech business analyst--what brought you to poetry?

Ravi Taja Yelamanchili: When I was a freshman in high school I decided that I would have folders for my work. I had a red folder for my English papers. I was raised in India in my early years and then we moved to the States.  English was really a second language for me; so I thought my papers would be marked up in red.  I didn't have much confidence then.   But I remember meeting an established writer at a reading. We hit it off and he told me to send two poems. He put them on his website. He mentored me for a while. After a number of rejections I started publishing.

DH: In your persona poem, " Atma Tu Radhika Tasya," you inhabit an illiterate old woman, who late in life has fallen to the status of beggar. Being a young male, was it a stretch to do this?

RY: I had long been working with the idea of voice. Rodger Reeves was lecturing at my school--after the reading I asked him, " What does voice mean?" How do I find my voice? He advised me to write in a voice that was not similar to my own. So I figured an elderly, old women was completely different from me. The poem was steeped in Hindu mythology. In order to see if the voice was authentic I spoke and read to folks in their 70s and 80s--to see if I was on the mark.

DH: In one of your poems you write of a tree that breaks through a fence in Somerville. It is scarred but still triumph. It seems you are concerned about issues of containment in your work.

RY: Yes . Contained free will. Free will with parameters. Containment by choice and then breaking free from the social order. In my own life I do things that I am expected to do without really thinking about them. So I like to question, be a skeptic of sorts.

DH: In your work there seems to be a conversation between the ancient and the contemporary.

RY: When we are talking about the ancient we are still talking about the contemporary. Historical events inform today's events. So there is always a conversation.

Seedless Guavas

But from fire, wind, and sun [Brahman] drew forth the threefold
eternal Veda, called Rik, Yajus, and Saman.”
                                                (Manusmriti I.XXIII )

I saw the gods of my ancestors turned to artifacts,
chipped faces, broken arms—stolen by 
flea winged Earth nymphs: 
Bulkeley, Lee, Hunt,
Willard, Hosmer, Meriam, and Flint still call all this their

creation. Mountains drowned by today’s teachers
of ancient art. Dying languages forgotten and

thrown away. Under the dim light of a parking garage,
a Snickers wrapper looks like a sparrow preening its feathers.
Coming of age novels are always about a country
that had already come of age, ideals, identities, and

a kid finding his place
. In-country, in two different countries— 
the sunset was so red I thought I was being pulled over.

“In the middle of the cave of the
 skull between the four
doors shines Āṭmā, like the sun in the sky.”
                                                (Dhyanabindu Upanishad of  Samaveda)

We stop by the roadside. Roll down our windows.

Buy roasted peanuts from a girl with jade stained eyes.
Her skin is as dark as mine.

She makes a cone
out of yesterday’s paper.

“...she hath hid the darkness,
this Dawn hath wakened there with new-born lustre.
Youthful and unrestrained she cometh forward:
she hath turned thoughts to Sun and fire and worship.”
                                                (Rig Veda VII.LXXX)

On the paper, I see pictures of fruit.
When I first came back to America, I wouldn’t eat pears

until I was told they were seedless guavas.
Alas! The Romans traded gods like baseball cards.

A bad harvest meant a beating for 
What about 

No Common War by Luke Salisbury

No Common War by Luke Salisbury
(Black Heron Press, 2019)
Reviewed by Lawrence Kessenich

There are two things that Luke Salisbury does not shy away from in No Common War: the horrible reality of the battlefield in the Civil War and the deep love and pain experienced by those fought in the war and those who watched their loved ones depart and then return, dead or damaged. One of these things can easily crowd out the other in a novel about war. When they are both given equal weight, as they are by Salisbury, the combination is potent. I’ve read very few novels that I found it difficult to put down, but this is one of them.

Often using short, powerful sentences, Salisbury drives this narrative forward relentlessly, from beginning to end. I would compare this approach to Hemingway, but Salisbury has much more heart and soul than Hemingway, whose work I often find cold and distant. This is not to say that there aren’t moments of peace in the novel, before the main protagonist, Moreau Salisbury, goes off to war, and even in the breaks between battles after he does. But overall, and especially after Moreau tastes battle, the story moves forward with increasing power and intensity. The reader simply must know how it turns out. I know one reader who stayed up all night to read the book, and it’s easy to see what motivated him to take in the story without even stopping to sleep—it’s that compelling!

It's quite possible that some of the story’s intensity stems from the fact that Salisbury is writing fiction based on facts about his own family. The Salisburys have been involved in U.S. wars from the revolution through World War II, and No Common War is the first volume of three that imagines the experiences of his great grandfather Moreau in the Civil War and then his grandfather in World War I and his father in World War II. (After reading this first book, I can’t wait for the next two.) Whatever the reason, the story has an unusually passionate quality, and, as I’ve indicated, it is as passionate about love as it is about war.

The loves involved include Moreau’s love for his neighbor Helen, and hers for him when they find each other just before he leaves for the front; Moreau’s love for his cousin Merrick, with whom he fights side-by-side in the war; Moreau’s mother Mary’s love for her son; the somewhat conditional love (which matures over time) of Moreau’s father for his son. These loves grow and develop, and sometimes get shaky, over the course of novel, but it is clear by the end that real love—love that stands the test of time and difficult circumstances—is the only saving grace in a violent and unpredictable world.

No Common War is not an easy read. The violence and sexual encounters, when they occur, are graphic and sometimes disturbing. But none of this is gratuitous or carried on too long. Salisbury is brutally honest about human behavior, but he doesn’t dwell on the horrible any more than necessary to create a true-to-life picture of this era in U.S. history. And, ultimately, the horror of war is at least partially redeemed by the love that makes it possible to overcome those horrors.

This is not a “beach read,” by any means—unless you’re ready to take the world seriously while you’re on the beach and be compelled to not put your book down. If you’re up for that, No Common War will deliver.

No Common War is available in hardcover from Porter Square Books and other bookstores, Black Heron Press ( and in hardcover or as an ebook on Amazon (