Tuesday, February 12, 2019

"The Patient" by Lawrence Kessenich Presented by Playwright's Platform (Newton, MA)

Playwright Lawrence Kessenich

"The Patient" by Lawrence Kessenich
  Presented by Playwright's Platform (Newton, MA)
  Adapted from a short story by Doug Holder
  Feb. 10, 2019

Congratulations to Lawrence Kessenich (playwright) and Doug Holder (memoir author) for the 26 minute actors’ reading of THE PATIENT: a wonderful story brought powerfully to the stage. I loved the contrasts between monologue, where the young writer character, appeals to audience sympathy for his lonely and hardscrabble life; and dialogue, as he is upstaged by a restrained and sedated mental patient, whom he’s supposed to watch all night—his miserable job. Where the writer has been appealing to “us” to listen and commiserate with his situation, the patient reads his character, even in silence, all too well, and berates him for self-pity: no girl, shacked up in some “suicide suite.” Get a life! Finally a nurse sedates the patient, leaving him silent, while the writer’s eyes fill with tears. I was reminded of that scene in Richard Yates’s REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, where the self-doubting Frank Wheeler is critiqued and exposed by a mental patient on family furlough--arguably the best scene in Sam Mendes’s film version, with Givings, the patient, played by Michael Shannon.---DeWitt Henry

*** DeWitt Henry is the founding editor of Ploughshares Magazine. His latest book is a collection of essays  titled,  SWEET MARJORAM.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

A Conversation with Lloyd Schwartz: Somerville's New Poet Laureate.

By Doug Holder

I have seen Lloyd Schwartz in various venues over the years. I read with him once, and had the occasion to talk to him a few times. Of course, I knew of his many accomplishments, his poetry, his body of work, his Pulitzer-Prize winning music criticism, his Elizabeth Bishop scholarship, etc... Over the years I had lobbied for the creation of the Somerville Poet Laureate position, and finally Greg Jenkins, the director of The Somerville Arts Council, Harris Gardner and myself created the position--got the mayor's blessings- and formed a committee. As it so happened I wound up on the committee that voted for Lloyd Schwartz for our third poet laureate. On a balmy day in February--the very day the Patriots marched through Boston with another Superbowl win, I met with Schwartz at my backroom table at the Bloc 11 Cafe in Union Square, Somerville.

Schwartz is easily recognizable with his shock of white hair, a slight scholarly stoop, and a flowing white, biblical beard. But if you look behind your initial take you will notice a man with child-like eyes, seemingly receptive, amused, and full of curiosity.  They are not glazed over from that "been there, done that"  of someone with a long and distinguished career.

Doug Holder:  First off you had a poetry column in the Boston Phoenix for a number of years. This inspired me to have my own in The Somerville Times.

Lloyd Schwartz:  Yes. I had that in the book supplement, the Phoenix Literary Section, for four or five years. I thought that this was the best book section in Boston. I was the poetry editor and I picked the poems. Years after the supplement closed people were still submitting poems.

DH: You have had a long and illustrious career--why now did you decide to apply to be the Somerville Poet Laureatre?

LS: That's a good question. It is nice that I have the title. I think I have lived in Somerville now for over thirty years, and it feels like home. It is such an interesting community--such a changing community. Somerville is probably the most densely populated city in the USA--it has been voted an All-American city three times. A lot of poets live here. Somerville has had two previous poet laureates, like Gloria Mindock, Nicole Perez Dutton--each of them very different from the other. It means something to me to represent the city. I thought why not give it a shot? I told the committee that I have devoted my life to poetry, and teaching poetry. I have tried to convey my own passion to students. I thought, " Why not do that with my neighbors?" It is a new adventure--maybe I can make a difference.

DH:  Part of your vision for the poet laureate is to have elements of former U.S. Poet Laureate  Robert Pinsky's "Favorite Poem Project," in which the regular, non-poet kind of men or women can talk about and read their favorite poem.

LS: Yes. I have been advised to get a space first and establish dates, and then bring it to the mayor's attention. I really want to have the mayor part of this. I bet anything that the mayor has some poem or poetry that has been important to him. I don't want poets to be a part of this, at least not initially. I want people who are not necessarily part of the poetry community. I want regular folks to read a poem that was important to them, and explain why the poem is important to them. We need something like this.

DH: Your are known as an accomplished music critic and poet. What did you start out wanting to be?

LS: I wanted to be an actor when I was a kid. I was acting in children's theater from the very start. One of the things I liked about theater was how much team effort was involved. Everyone connected for a show, working together for a successful event. Later I went to Queens College in New York City. One of the first things I did was go to a meeting of the drama club. I was really shocked that everyone there seemed incredibly self-important. This was not the kind of theater that I wanted to be part of. The following week I went to a meeting of the literary magazine. The magazine was titled  "Spectrum." There were some remarkable writers there-- some of whom went on to be fairly well-known. I felt a sense of community there that I didn't feel with the drama club. Later I became editor of the school magazine. I was also part of the more radical school magazine, "New Poems." Actually, I wasn't interested in poetry until my senior year in high school. I had a great English teacher--who loved poetry--and did everything he could to get us interested. I remember he used to leap on his desk and recite Shakespeare.

DH:  You grew up in a working class family in Brooklyn. You said it was fortunate you had the option of a city college.

LS: Oh yeah. My father worked in a sweatshop in the garment industry. He was from Romania. He never learned to read or write in English. He was an extremely bitter man. My mother stopped working in the 1940s.  Queens College, a city college, was essentially free. I couldn't have gone to college otherwise,  because we didn't have the money. I got a Woodrow Wilson scholarship to go to graduate school at Harvard.

DH: Was Harvard a culture shock for you?

LS:  Yes and no. But it was a great adventure for me. You know I always loved music. I used to go to shows with my mom--I took it all in. I remember I moved into my first floor room on Oxford St. near Harvard's Natural History Museum. It was a hot day in August--my window was opened, and I heard a passerby whistle a theme from  Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. I thought this was fantastic. The best thing that came out of graduate school was the friends I made, especially other poets, like Frank Bidart, and later the poet Elizabeth Bishop.

DH: Did you take a workshop with Lowell at Harvard?

LS:  I never took his official workshop. I was a regular member of what was called his "office hours." This was opened to anyone--whether you were from Harvard or not. People came off the street to share their poems. It was an amazing group of people. I went every week for years.

DH: How did you meet Elizabeth Bishop?

LS: I met her through my friend Frank Bidart. I loved her poems. In 1970 she replaced Lowell and gave a reading at Emerson Hall in Harvard Yard. Frank asked her if he could introduce his friend Lloyd Schwartz. I said to her,  "I really love your poetry." She replied, " Oh, thank-you," and walked away.  She was very shy, also self-conscious. She also had a drinking problem.She was an odd alcoholic. She would go on binges. If she had one drink--she was over-the-top.  When she wasn't drinking she was fine--very caring.  At the time I had been struggling with my PhD thesis. So I decided to change my topic. So I thought, "What about Elizabeth Bishop?"  I think we became friends around 1974 or 1975. I called her up and asked, " How would you feel if I write about you?" She said, "There isn't much to write about." I said, " Let me worry about that." I had to promise that I would finish my thesis."

One thing Bishop couldn't stand was talking about herself. But she agreed to meet with me as long as I finished the thing. When I met with her she would talk about the circumstances around the poems but she would not talk about interpretation. She never got over the feeling of not being an academic. She questioned the worth of poetry itself.

DH: Did you ever meet Denise Levertov when she lived in Somerville, Ma.?

LS: I never met her. She did teach at U/Mass. One of my first professional reviews was in the Boston Herald. It was a review of a new book of hers. I thought it was awful. I hated to do it but I panned it.  But this is the critic I think I am--I have to say what I think.  Her poetry in this case was very political and I thought it didn't succeed as good poetry. I went out of my way to avoid meeting her because of that review. It is hard to write good political poetry.

DH: What do you find unique about Somerville?

LS: Somerville has changed a lot. I bought my house here in 1984, in East Somerville. I used to live in Cambridge, and I loved Cambridge. Eventually I lost my apartment. Then I came into some unexpected money. I found a house I could afford. The whole neighborhood was Italian and Irish. A resident told me that you could tell the difference between an Irish and Italian household by looking at their front yard. An Italian family would have tomato plants next to their  Madonna statues; the Irish family would not. Way back then Vinny's Restaurant opened on Broadway. Great Sicilian food--I still eat there today. But the community has changed. Now I live next door Haitian minister and his family. It is a much more inclusive area---just look at all the varied new restaurants that line Broadway. Somerville has changed radically. We now have the Assembly Row Mall. If you had told me in the past I would someday be able to walk to a Brooks Bros. store from my  house--well, I wouldn't have believed you. I just find the city so much more interesting--with all the young folks coming in--all the ethnic groups in the mix.  I am lucky to be here. I would never sell my house--unless they had to cart me away to some nursing home.