Saturday, November 27, 2021

Toastmasters Around the World Zooming to Camberville


By Bill Lewis


On Saturday, December 4th, at 10:00 AM, Members of Toastmasters clubs from over a dozen countries will descend upon the “Humor and Drama” Toastmasters club, which meets in Cambridge and Somerville, for a warm, happy, welcoming meeting entitled

Stories of the Solstice

Members of clubs from Japan, Kenya, England, Aruba, Columbia, and France will Zoom in and talk about their “Stories of the Solstice,” in word and art and music. Along with these formal presentations, Toastmasters meetings always include a section where all of the attendees get the opportunity to speak in some fashion.

For this meeting, our “Table Topics” session is going to involve small breakout rooms where you will work with two of three other people and plan something-yet-to-be-determined and presented at the end of the meeting. We’ve done this before, and it is both fun and personal—you get to know people.

We would love to have you visit us and share in the fun.

And improve your public speaking skills!

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When I first joined Toastmasters, I joined because of work. I did not have many opportunities to present at work, because at that time my role did not require a lot of presenting. I sought out Toastmasters as a safe place to practice speaking. This way, when the time came to present, I would be prepared.

As the years went by, I gained confidence through speeches, and later, District Leadership opportunities. Subsequently, I pushed myself more in my career, taking on more demanding roles. Inevitably these involved speaking, presenting, and leading.

And you know what? I was prepared for it all!

In a few years I went from being a technician to management. Toastmasters absolutely played a role in helping me develop these skills. To this day, I still speak at Toastmasters, and I always recommend it to anyone looking to develop and improve themselves.

Toastmasters International is an organization of some 16,000 clubs and 400,000 members, which helps people learn how to speak effectively in public meetings and teaches its members leadership skills, all by doing.

New members are shepherded through their first speeches, with the assistance and support of the other members. As they grow in experience and confidence, they move into leadership roles—first in their own clubs, then in wider and wider circles as they see fit. Each year, one person, who started out exactly like everyone else, is elected to be the World President of Toastmasters International.

As a High School Teacher in Peace Corps, Kenya, I felt confident in public speaking—right up until he was in front of an audience of his peers.

I felt like an idiot at my first meeting. My mother had convinced me to come to her club, and as the Table Topics Master, she asked me to speak briefly on a simple topic. My mind went blank.

Now I am comfortable and confident in front of any audience. I speak professionally about Computer Science and I teach in costume as James Madison. I never would have been able to do this without Toastmasters.

In 2010,  I was the District Governor for some 130 Toastmasters clubs in Eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. With a budget of $50,000 and 50 direct reports, it forces one to lead. I was responsible for two major conferences, 20 officer trainings sessions, and some 200 speech contests. Along with starting new clubs.

One of the “new” clubs I helped charter was the Somerville Toastmasters, which meets in the XXX church on Williams street, one block away from his erstwhile home in Somerville. While a professor at Tufts University, I worked to start a club there also. (Without success—but if someone were interested…)


Red Letter Poem #86

 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 #86

 

 

“Istanbul does not have a color of its own other than gray. Concrete is the predominant tone, massed shapes overwhelming and pressing down upon the individual. I carry within me this immense longing for empty lots, deserted areas yet to be seized by commercial intruders. Slivers in the grid where my fellow poets and I can express ourselves freely, breaking away from the oppressive apparatus of social normativity and the surveillance state.”  So begins poet Efe Murad’s The Pleasures of Empty Lots: Scenes of Istanbul 2015–2016, recently published by Bored Wolves Press.  It’s a sort of memoir/aesthetic panorama/and red-alert warning concerning the effect totalitarianism has on poets in his country and the citizenry in general.  Reading about the internecine poetry conflicts in Turkey between rival schools of thought – made all the more intense because the state has clamped down so dramatically on all freedom of expression – I experienced a growing uneasiness, though it took a few moments to figure out why. 

 

At first, I thought it was simply the shock of contrast: in recent years, American poets have enjoyed extraordinary freedom, mainly because we’re so marginalized in society, no government would feel the need to attack us – privilege undermined by the fear of irrelevance.  But Efe’s account made me realized how our situation, too, has changed.  The forces of suppression in our country, though, have become decentralized, the result of a confluence of societal riptides: battling mass media outlets; campaigns of political disinformation; storms of social media opinion; and our own fearful self-censoring impulses in response to these culture wars.  A poet like Efe reminds me of how precious and utterly vital are our open gathering spaces – the virtual and cerebral ones as well as those boisterous cafes and verdant public commons where anyone can retreat for either fellowship or solitude, as is needed.

 

A well-known writer in Turkey, Efe’s first gathering of poems translated into English is a sequence entitled Encirclings, part of an anthology of Mediterranean poets edited by Irena Eden and Stijn Lernout (published by Schlebr├╝gge.Editor.)  In each untitled segment, he explores a more avant-garde approach, undercutting the sentimentality of older Turkish poems with a ‘selfless’ vision – devoid of pronouns, adjectives, and the feel of ‘agency’.  He is just offering the world as he finds it, inviting us to simply plunge inside (as the boy in the poem does into the Sea of Marmara.)  Such poetry trusts readers and writers alike to make their own way through experience, and to so highly prize such simple human moments, we’d never allow anyone to take them from us – not via tweet, edict, force of arms, nor our own lavish disregard.  I, for one, will give thanks for the reminder.

 

 

 

 

from Encirclings

 

 

transparency arrives from above.

skies shadow salt water.     

as the angle changes,    

in the cloudy water, limpid cove.

the weave of the surface is honeycombed, as the boy

climbs the rock.

his eyes in dreams – the surface of the water, the boy jumpin’.

splashing against the water, eyes in the water and cloudy shadow.   

the boy’s entangled in the cloud of salt, the salt water in the mouth,

invisible water creature.

what we haven’t lived’re our mistakes

our lives can’t change

 

 

­­                                           –– Efe Murad

 

                                                            (translated from the Turkish

by Murat Nemet-Nejat)

 

The Red Letters 3.0: A New Beginning (Perhaps)   

At the outset of the Covid pandemic, when fear was at its highest, the Red Letter Project was intended to remind us of community: that, even isolated in our homes, we could still face this challenge together.  As Arlington’s Poet Laureate, I began sending out a poem of comfort each Friday, featuring the fine talents from our town and its neighbors.  Because I enlisted the partnership of seven local arts and community organizations, distribution of the poems spread quickly – and, with subscribers sharing and re-posting the installments, soon we had readers, not only throughout the Commonwealth, but across the country.  And I delighted in the weekly e-mails I’d receive with praise for the poets; as one reader recently commented: “You give me the gift of a quiet, contemplative break—with something to take away and reflect on.”

 

Then our circumstance changed dramatically again: following the murder of George Floyd, the massive social and political unrest, and the national economic catastrophe, the distress of the pandemic was magnified.  Red Letter 2.0 announced that I would seek out as diverse a set of voices as I could find – from Massachusetts and beyond – so that their poems might inspire, challenge, deepen the conversation we were, by necessity, engaged in.

 

Now, with widespread vaccination, an economic rebound, and a shift in the political landscape, I intend to help this forum continue to evolve – Red Letter 3.0.  For the last 15 months, I’ve heard one question again and again: when will we get back our old lives?  It may pain us to admit it, but that is little more than a fantasy.  Our lives have been altered irrevocably – not only our understanding of how thoroughly interdependent we are, both locally and globally, but how fragile and utterly precious is all that we love.  Weren’t you bowled over recently by how good it felt just to hug a friend or family member?  Or to walk unmasked through a grocery, noticing all the faces?  So I think the question we must wrestle with is this: knowing what we know, how will we begin shaping our new life?  Will we quickly forget how grateful we felt that strangers put themselves at risk, every day, so that we might purchase milk and bread, ride the bus to work, or be cared for by a doctor or nurse?  Will we slip back into our old drowse and look away from the pain so many are forced to endure – in this, the wealthiest nation on the planet?  Will we stop noticing those simple beauties all around us?  The poet Mary Oliver said it plainly: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  I will continue to offer RLP readers the work of poets who are engaged in these questions, hoping their voices will fortify all of ours.

 

Two of our partner sites will continue re-posting each Red Letter weekly: the YourArlington news blog (https://www.yourarlington.com/easyblog/entry/28-poetry/3070-redletter-111121), and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene (http://dougholder.blogspot.com).  If you would like to receive these poems every Friday in your own in-box – or would like to write in with comments or submissions – send correspondence to: steven.arlingtonlaureate@gmail.com.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Gary Metras, Vanishing Points







Gary Metras, Vanishing Point Dos Madres Press. 2021. 73pp. $18.00

   Review by Ruth Hoberman


Gary Metras has been an essential part of the Massachusetts poetry scene for decades. A widely published poet, for forty years he also ran the Adastra Press and in 2018 was appointed Easthampton’s first poet laureate. Vanishing Points, his eighth collection, is steeped in this local landscape: throughout much of the book the poet thinks through his own mortality by means of his relation to natural phenomena—mountains, clouds, wind, fish, snow.

Take the opening poem, for example, “The Flame”: “Wind and snow./ A white persistence/as unforgiving as night.” A sleeper wakes from oblivion and lights a candle (whose long, narrow shape is mimicked by the poem): “A heart moves on the wall/like a shadow.” The poem feels brief and breathless, a half-waking vision that suggests the brevity and immateriality of human life.

The book is divided into four parts, the first two of which strike me as particularly death-haunted. Part I culminates in an ominous and ultimately comic encounter with a hearse, and Part II opens with “Approaching Harvest,” a 14-line poem with a hint of Shakespeare’s “That Time of Year” to it: The squash “huddle with fears of impermanence,” and “I sit atop the worn/wood table . . . one more thing/that will not survive the season.” In “Narrating the Pond’s Night,” the speaker catches and throws back a trout after sniffing “the death sprouting under his fins.” This wonderfully precise poem narrates the process of fly fishing at night under conventional headings—“exposition,” “complication,” “climax” “denouement”—while evoking a mystery unstructured by human devices. Images startle with their strangeness: the speaker stands on a “weed throttled shore,” as “water licks my sneakers and the bony flesh inside.” The fisherman and the fish are equally liable to be consumed: “Night is a simple mouth admitting all.” As the fisherman heads home, “Darkness has swallowed/the human way out.”

If “Narrating the Pond’s Night” provides a key to the collection’s structure, parts one and two being “exposition” and “complication,” then the final two sections are “climax” and “denouement.” The poems in these sections deal less with nature than with cultural and domestic experiences: the poet’s response to the “complication” of aging is to celebrate the consolations of human-made things, including a long marriage and a future made real by the presence of grandchildren. Perhaps my favorite poem in the book is “Lint,” which concludes the third section, making it the climax to the climax:

It doesn’t bother me to have

lint in the bottoms of pant pockets;

it gives the hands something to do,

especially since I no longer hold

shovel, hod, or hammer

in the daylight hours of labor

and haven’t, in fact, done so

in fifty-five years.

In an interview several years ago, Metras cited Robert Frost as an influence, and his previous book, White Storm (2018), includes a poem entitled “Frost’s Chair.” Certainly there are echoes of Frost in Metras’s snowy, rural landscape, and an “After Apple Picking” sense of mortality hovering over it all. What struck me reading Metras, though, is how many of Frost’s poems describe labor—a working in/with the land. When Frost’s speaker sees birches, he thinks of boys swinging on them. Metras’s speaker mainly looks. He does fish and in one poem mixes stucco, but after mixing in the scenery with his stucco, he tells us, he “quits the job.” This aging out (or professionalizing out?) of physical labor widens the gap, I think, between the speaker and his physical environment and contributes to the book’s poignancy. Instead of “shovel, hod or hammer,” there’s “lint”—that unnoticed detritus of wear and tear produced by the unnatural collision of clothes and washing machine. The poem’s speaker imagines giving his wife a sweater made from it, or wearing a tweed coat of woven lint to class. “Who would believe it?/ Yet there are stranger things,” he concludes: “the son of a bricklayer with hands/so smooth they’re only fit/for picking lint.”

I thought of Seamus Heaney’s pen, “snug” in his hand in “Digging,” but no match for his father’s spade. Digging, of course, is the poet’s task; Metras offers “picking lint,” an apt if modest analogy for the poet’s skill at noticing, the magical way minuscule observations coalesce into substance (am I the only one who has wondered how those invisible particles that fabric sheds somehow transform into fuzz?).

Part four, our denouement, is dominated by love, the word appearing in multiple poems and underlying the title poem, “Vanishing Point”: “Staring, you look for clues,” the poem opens, the “you” being anyone who has wondered what makes a marriage work. But “Love, when it stays, is traceless,” disappearing into whatever it touches, dissolving boundaries between those who share it: “When two people journey far enough into the distance/they merge.”

In the process they pass beyond the horizon, leaving children and grandchildren to take their place. This is where the book ends: “It is the child who speaks to my future,” the speaker says in “The Birth.” And in the final poem, “Engineering Sweet Dreams,” the speaker confesses to having eaten his son-in-law’s last mint to spare his granddaughter the smell of “stale tobacco” on his breath: “we/want her dreams to be sweet.” That “we” makes his son-in-law (and us) complicit in the theft of his own mint—a funny, complicated commentary on the relation of old to young, of poetry to the world.