Friday, November 12, 2021

 Who Do You Think You Are? Reflections of a Writer’s Life by Joe Torra


Who Do You Think You Are? Reflections of a Writer’s Life

Article by Doug Holder

As I sat on my porch with my cat Ketz, and a strong cup of coffee—I thought about Somerville writer Joseph Torra’s new memoir, “Who Do You Think You Are? Reflections of a Writer’s Life…”

One of the many things that struck me about this evocative memoir is the writer’s relationship with his wife Molly. I know it is a cliché about the love of a good woman, but often clichés are based somewhat on truth. As I struggle with my own wife’s battle with cancer, I can certainly relate to what Torra brings out here. Without Molly, Torra might not have had the strength to carry on; he would not would be exposed to the breadth of the arts; he might have remained stuck in the provincial milieu of Italian working-class Medford. He may never of realized his dream of being a poet, writer, educator, publisher and editor.

Yet Torra is all these things and more. He is the author of such novels as “Call Me Waiter,” “Gas Station,” to name just a couple. He founded the well-regarded literary journal Lift Magazine, and he teaches Creative Writing at U/Mass Boston.

Torra, although he is an adjunct professor of creative writing (where he got his advanced degree from) is not enamored with the academy. He realizes its worth, but on the other hand sees its major flaws. Torra, read the literary cannon –but realized that the universities are not as open to the non-mainstream voices that he was so influenced by. He has dealt with the tenure-track professorial pomposity, and the narrow strictures of a curriculum that stifled him as a youth. William Carlos Williams, a poet who had a great deal of influence on him, searched for the “American Voice,” not the ‘English” one. And Torra’s voice is truly authentic-- an amalgam of the poets, artists, writers, Medford characters, old Italian men gesturing at each other in a corner coffee-shop, not to mention all the stumble-bums, we all encounter in this life. He sees life straight, with no chaser.

Influenced by Kerouac and Beat generation writers, Torra has always experimented with form. His sentences can be like a short jazz riff, or long and breathless without punctuation. His fiction writing can be likened to an abstract painting—breaking out of the confines of traditional representational imagery. There is an immediacy to his prose and poetry.

Torra is unafraid to bleed in this memoir—he tells us of his struggle with his manic depression, the vagaries of addiction, and the nagging haunt of self doubt. But Torra is a survivor and he got by with the help of his community and the centering of his family. If did not have domesticity in his life, and was the stereotypical footloose artist —well... he might not be here to have written this book.

Like any writer worth his salt, he has read voraciously and gained solace and insight from Taoist philosophers and poets, Mark Twain, Gary Snyder and a host of others. He counts as his longtime mentors like Gloucester poets Gerrit Lansing, Vincent Ferrini, as well as Boston literary maestro Bill Corbett. He took what he could from these men, and recognized that some of them were deeply flawed, but brilliant in their own ways. He could separate the artist from the man or woman.

Torra is not one dimensional. He is primarily a writer, but he has engaged in cross-fertilization in the arts from painting, being part of Boston’s vibrant punk rock scene, to the art of mushroom hunting.. All of these things inform his body of work.

At 65, the writer looks back, meditating on his porch, at the struggle, joys, and the beauty of his life. He tells friends that “he is ready to die.” Which I can only interpret as man who is finally comfortable in his own skin, and can truly say, “it is, what it is.”

The Red Letter Poem Project 84

 The Red Letter Poem Project


In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.  To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.


                                                                                                – Steven Ratiner




Red Letter Poem #84



It’s an old expression, offered up to pregnant women: you’re eating for two now.  It came to mind recently, but with a rather strange twist: I feel like I’m seeing for two now.  Two months back, my cousin Lenny died – suddenly, far too young, and just as he was about to open a whole new chapter in his life.  The shock has not worn off.  Growing up together, he was the closest thing I ever had to a brother.  And since that loss, it’s my impression that I’ve been seeing extra – or at least trying to – in order to keep Lenny in mind.  Sometimes I’ll intentionally slow down thought in order to savor the small pleasures of the day: the smell of fresh coffee brewing; the dogwood trees in the garden going bronze; the happy cacophony as our grandson comes storming in for a visit.  And I’ll invite my cousin’s memory to participate in the moment, because such things are beyond him now.  Seeing for two. . .or three. . .or four – how many loved ones lost in recent years!  How many visions that remain thoroughly entwined with my own!


I think that is much the case with this new piece by Miriam Levine – author of five fine poetry collections, and Arlington’s first Poet Laureate.  The ‘Melissa’ of the title is Melissa Shook, an accomplished and deeply-empathetic photographer/artist/poet who died in 2020 from a brain tumor.  Miriam’s tribute to her dear friend is perhaps the greatest sort one artist can offer to another: to make sure Melissa’s unique slant on things, her delight in the physicality of this earthly experience, remains in the world for others to discover – and enduringly present in her own days.  Miriam’s poem is quietly gravid with memory and imagery that bind her to both friendship and art-making (ah, the mallard’s orange feet! that horse’s liquid gaze!)  Perhaps this is part of the job description of every poet: to work at refreshing the language in which we speak and think, and to hone the art of perception – so that the resulting creation becomes, paradoxically, both a unique expression of the author but also a companionable presence for the reader. And through this, we all may experience a richer and more diverse vantage on our passing moment – simply because of what others have known.  Walt Whitman wrote: “I contain multitudes” – as do we all (though often we forget.)  My hope is that we each try to speak our lives, our dreams into such a fine clarity that others around us will be able to embrace, to contain what we’ve discovered, weaving it into their own – something that will last, even when we exist only in absentia.





All last night I searched for you in my dreams

but when at last I found our old meeting place

it was flooded completely, the soft sandy shore

where we had walked deep, deep under water.


The river did what it wanted, and mallards

flashed, already a lip of ice forming to seal

the grass.  Then mallards poked the weeds,

heads down, bottoms up.  You would have


been interested in the dangling orange feet,

as you were in the horse’s liquid and seeming-

sympathetic eye, your daughter’s dance,

the shadow of a hand—photos in museums now.


You would laugh at notions of an afterlife,

though in Eden you would have a Shi Tzu

in your lap; and, with your camera face down,

listen for hours to friends who told you secrets.



                                  ­­–– Miriam Levine

Monday, November 08, 2021




Episode #60

Enchanted Saturday

I visit Somerville about twice monthly to attend the bi-monthly live meetups of our little group of poets and writers known as the Bagel Bards. We meet now in the basement of Panera Bread in Porter Square - a windowless, airless space, with piped-in music. What it lacks in charm we more than make up for with heaping portions of poetry, camaraderie, and bonhomie. Today was exceptional and the poems read were even better than they usually are - a very special start to what turned out to be a very special day - an enchanted Saturday.

Poems were read by a few bards including Neal K., who has never gotten off the bus - a reference to Ken Kesey. Neal is a Harvard Man whose roommate was the unibomber. He arrived at the Bards sporting a wig - a kind of trashy, dippy thing which made him look like he is - marvellous and ridiculous at the same time - but not in a bad way, not at all bad. He is our Court Jester, our merry prankster - and he takes his role most seriously. It’s hard to describe Neal - tall, handsome, dishevelled - but stylishly, or his poetry, which is a clever mix of wordplay, Kabala, politics and society, neologisms (do you innerstand me?) and all sorts of strange allusions and random thoughts that tend to cohere into mini-masterpieces which we are treated to on a weekly basis.

It’s not easy for a poet to make an entire room roll with laughter by reading a poem, but Neal K. managed to do it today with exceptional skill. After a round of applause, he was succeeded by his friend Tomas O. who followed this hard-to-follow act with two poems of his own, which bore the indelible mark of the wit and whimsy of this Great Irish-American master of the art form. Again full-throated laughter rising from the tables jam-packed with versifiers - people who know a good poem from a bad one and whose spontaneous appreciation is the gold standard.

Others read too - Nina about Spain (another in her Spanish cycle) and a funeral, David D. and Johnna M. read. Doug Holder read a sad and graceful poem, and David P. Miller read a poem from his new book "In the Bend of the Stairs", in which he riffs on googling his name and finding multiple David P. Millers. Hilarious - but also very skillful. It was absolutely amazing to be surrounded by so much talent, so much love of language, so much good humor and friendship.

Having drunk my fill of poetry we wandered over to the small bookstore - The Lost Bookshelf - run by our friend, a fellow Bard, Gloria M., who is closing up shop and selling books for a buck each. Of course I was there with bells on, but also with a heavy heart that this arts center, a former armory, was taken over by eminent domain by the city of Somerville and many long established businesses run by local residents were now leaving. I walked away with 3 bags full of books but Gloria would not let me pay for them because I am a fellow bard. I wished her the very best and she is determined to make the best of it all as she will continue to publish writers from far and wide in her Cervana Barva Press along with her own poems, a recent collection of which, entitled “Ash”, has been winning prizes left and right.

As I wandered out of the bookstore musicians were playing in a cafe also in the armory, and I just had to drift in and listen to them. It was a duet of piano and bass guitar, and they were playing old standards like “Love for Sale” and “Autumn in New York”. So here I was again surrounded by music and art and books and eating lunch at the cafe listening to this live jazz a short walk from my house. These musicians were elder statesmen, sporting beards and the look and habits of old jazzers - real hepcats. They appreciated my applause and when I finished my lunch I offered to read them a poem I had recently written about a jazz musician I once knew when I was a college student at Rutgers, (Newark campus). They of course knew his name and kept interrupting my poem with sighs of recognition when famous names or places were mentioned. I was happy that they listened to me and gave me such an enthusiastic reception. Poetry read on the spot to strangers willing to listen is not an everyday occurrence; but it happened to me today - a day which left me with the distinct impression that I too was on the bus.


Leafing through books in Gloucester to select

Those that stay from those that go

Back to Somerville

I chanced upon a history of

Newark Nightlife,1925-50.

I would have placed it in the box to go

But I thought to look up a name

Of a gentleman I once met

In a New Jersey park long ago

Where he played his trombone

Under a spreading elm tree

On Eagle Rock all alone,

While our jejune flock picnicked

On a hot summer’s day.

The entry in the book for “Moncur, Grachan”

Was not about him - the avant-garde trombonist,

Grachan Moncur the 3rd,

But about his father, a string bassist

Who played all over town

With his half-brother Al Cooper,

Who led the Savoy Sultans.

Then a list of vocalists with whom he had recorded

Rolled out like pin balls hitting their marks

In my memory - household names I could hear

Clear and distinct in my mother’s voice:

Mildred Bailey and Red Norvo,

Billie Holiday and Johnny Hodges,

Mary Lou Williams and Bunny Berigan -

Musicians my mom saw up close and personal

In jazz joints on 52nd Street and other enchanted spots:

Eddie Condon’s, The Three Deuces,

Jimmy Ryan’s and the Onyx club,

The Savoy Ballroom, the Eagle Bar.

Those Jersey girls did not have far to go

In search of bebop and dancing.

And for the sake of such memories

I placed the book back on the shelf.