Sunday, December 04, 2022

Red Letter Poem #138

 The Red Letters



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.


                                                                                                          – SteveRatiner





Red Letter Poem #138





The term itself conjures mystery: horology.  It is the science (or art – even Webster’s equivocates) of making timepieces or measuring time.  In mankind’s earliest development, an understanding of time’s passage was something akin to wisdom.  From Egyptian sundials and water clocks; to the elaborate 17th century contraptions harnessing pendulums, springs, and hand-wrought gears; through the high-tech chronometers adorning wrists today where an oscillating sliver of silicon carves each second into a hundred pieces – it seems something in human consciousness takes comfort in the attempt to regulate the horological, knowing full well how time defies our timekeepers at every turn.


And so Denise Bergman returns to the Red Letters with a fascinating linguistic device where the springs and escapements of grammar make us all into watchmakers, our workbench surrounded by the echoes of history and desire.  Can we rely on our tools, our skills, to coax that “dead 1:22” back from oblivion?  Has time’s arrow been misplaced in our understanding, or has it already found its target?  I’m left feeling a little befuddled, one eye gazing through a jeweler’s loupe at the minute details of our fragile now, while my other eye squints at the bright window where flocks of days and months seem to race past like birds on a southward trajectory.  The poem makes me savor that faint tick-ticking inside my ribcage, as words trickle through the hourglass of couplets.  Denise is the author of five poetry collections, the most recent of which is The Shape of the Keyhole (from Black Lawrence Press.)  As was her penchant in the earlier volumes, this one is formed around a single historical figure and incident – in this case, one week in the year 1650 as a woman accused of witchcraft awaits her hanging.  No surprise that time is again a protagonist in her verse.  Denise is also the editor of the anthology City River of Voices, a literary panorama of Cambridge, MA where she’s made her home for decades.


I must add that “Split Second” is also an ekphrastic poem – a piece created in response to an existing artwork – in this case, the eccentric and engaging Watchmaker by Jacob Lawrence, the noted Harlem Renaissance painter.  And it dawns on me that one of the projects of both the artist and poet is to arrest time so that even the momentary can be seen as momentous, capable of bearing our scrutiny, our delight.  We lose ourselves briefly, standing before the canvas or rereading the poem, only to reemerge into our morning refreshed, invigorated – blissfully unaware of how much time has fled in our absence.




Split Second


                   (Watchmaker, Jacob Lawrence, 1946)



Into the split second where the gear’s teeth will engage,

a man peers, head tilted, eyepiece wedged against gravity’s claim


Arm on a ledge of air, his fingers with tiny tools mend time

Look who’s waiting: Cupid on a table-clock’s brass bell


arched back, arrowless bowstring pulled taut

Nude stretched on a tangerine sun, hour hand mired in dusk


On the wall behind intent’s blue-stripe shoulders, a dead 1:22,

jittering 7:10, paralyzed ticktock swinging on a wristband


Mouth to the watchmaker’s earless ear

the 11:45 waits to start counting


The hand in his hand stutters  His work is working on time



                                                ––Denise Bergman





The Red Letters 3.0


* 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:



To learn more about the origins of the Red Letter Project, check out an essay I wrote for Arrowsmith Magazine:


Two of our partner sites will continue re-posting each Red Letter weekly: the YourArlington news blog



and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene


For updates and announcements about Red Letter projects and poetry readings, please follow me on Twitter          



Friday, December 02, 2022

Working 9 to 5 A Women’s Movement, A Labor Union, and the Iconic Movie by Ellen Cassedy


Working 9 to 5 A Women’s Movement, A Labor Union, and the Iconic Movie by Ellen Cassedy (Chicago Review Press, Chicago, IL, 2022).

Review by Karen Klein

In her foreword, Jane Fonda, actor, activist, and maker of the film 9 to 5, praises the women of 9 to 5 who built a nationwide movement, started a women-led union, changed the image of working women and “made it clear that women[are]workers in the own right…with rights.” She claims their story will inspire you. It does. I need only quote from the numerous examples of male bosses bad behavior toward their secretaries to convince you of the need for the 9 to 5 movement. Take, for example, banks in Boston in the 1970’s when this movement began. In these banks profits increased annually about 27% or more; pay for women clerical workers--and almost all the clerical workers were women--was close to minimum wage. Boston’s cost of living higher than national average; clerical women paid less than national average. Much of the forward movement of this book includes an abundance of personal stories which makes the narrative compelling and real. Diane , a bank secretary, asked for a raise; her boss suggested she see a psychiatrist. Gail worked for eleven years at the same bank and was the sole support of her 8 year old. She applied for a job opening, but a 19 year old male got hired instead. When she asked why, she was told “he has a new house and wife to support.”

Ellen Cassedy’s way of telling the story of the 9 to 5 movement is an example of a guidepost of second wave feminism: the personal is the political and vice versa. She tells the story of a remarkable coming together of women to make a miracle with hard work and interweaves the movement’s historical growth with her personal journey. It all begins in 1972 with a group of ten young White women who work in clerical positions at Harvard. All are educated or skills trained and have hopes for career advancement. When they meet for coffee and talk, meeting in each other’s homes, they all have the same issues. Not only are there no prospects for their advancement, but also they are asked to do things that are not filing and typing, the job for which they were initially hired. One woman’s boss asked her to take down a calendar in his office; a philosopher professor hired one to type out his handwritten notes which detailed all the sexual services he had ever received. All made the coffee or were sent out to get it. By the time, 1974, they wrote a 13 point Bill of Rights for Women Office Workers, it’s not surprising that the First Right was “the right to respect as women and as office workers” and the Second Right was “the right to comprehensive, written job descriptions specifying the nature of all duties expected of the employee.”

The ten women brainstormed, coined the name 9 to 5, created and reproduced with old technology a newsletter for Boston area office workers which they leafleted every morning in the office buildings and business neighborhoods of Boston. They went into coffee shops, talked with working women 9 to 5ers, visited their offices, got contact numbers, called them, invited them for coffee, joined them for lunch breaks. Gradually their numbers and their strength grew; they were getting known by management, government, and media. By 1974 they hold a public meeting and over 100 people come.

But in 1973 Ellen and her coworker best friend from college, Karen Nussbaum, realize they needed to learn how to organize efficiently and effectively. They learn of a summer school in Chicago for women organizers, partly run by Saul Alinsky-trained Heather Booth, who should be a household name for all the wonderful work she has done and continues to do to make this world a better place. Going to Chicago to learn to be an organizer brings the author into the tangled personal dilemma of how to be an organizer

and a girlfriend, as she is already in a serious relationship with a man. This relationship which ends in marriage, kids, grandkids, parallels the author’s personal growth throughout the book and increased confidence in her ability to be a leader, to create a union, a movement, and to balance the life she wants.

Ellen Cassedy is honest and forthright in telling of the particular roadblocks, social, cultural that women organizing for change face. Many women are not comfortable speaking in public, or confronting strangers on the street with a leaflet, or standing up to a male boss. Comfortable speaking to other women office workers, complaining about work conditions is one thing. Confronting the bosses, the huge institutions, the cultural dicta about being ‘good girls’ quite another. But, as she says, “we see what happens when women join together and figure out how to turn their complaints into action.”

Working 9 to 5 tells that history of “complaints into action.” Cassedy begins with the origin story of the ten office workers. The first three chapters document their beginning struggles and achievements. Chapter Four ends with the triumph of the public meeting for office workers in Boston November 19, 1973, where one of the few Black women in the office workforce was among the speakers. Hundreds came; the Boston Globe headline:

Hub Office Workers Unite for Higher Pay, Overworked, Underpaid, Undervalued. They were launched.

Subsequent chapters are devoted to the work of 9 to 5 as it becomes the union 925 affiliated with SEIU, the service employees union. Most office workers hadn’t thought of themselves as labor, but realized unionizing would further their cause. Women had been in the labor unions before 925 came in, but office workers thought those union members were blue collar. They had to learn earning a living is all about work and pay.

Based on the 1912 women mill workers demand, ‘give us bread and roses’, 925 took the lyrics farther and adopted the slogan ‘Raises not Roses.’ and printed it on T-shirts.

As subsequent chapters show 925 battle giant industries in finance, insurance, publications, facing down New England Telephone and Telegraph, John Hancock Insurance, Bank of Boston, readers might be confused about the exact time or year these fights for maternity leave coverage, for adequate salaries, for enforcing laws against discrimination, etc. or for going national with chapters forming all over the United States happened. But take heart because there is a most helpful and specific Time Line after the Acknowledgements. I referred to it frequently, found it grounded me in 9 to 5 to 925 to District 925’s developmental history and the historical events through which they lived.

A final word to the young women and men who will, I hope, read this book. If some of what happened, if the prejudice, the misogyny, the harassment sexual and otherwise seem excessive or unbelievable, remember this remarkable movement began in the early

1970’s, 50 some years ago. We didn’t have ‘me,too’ then; but we had everything that that movement exposed. Diversity wasn’t a governmental or business policy yet. Very few women were in public life, elected to office or heading companies. It was a different world then, though some old problems have an unfortunate way of lingering. But in this, our current time when all good policies and changes for the better country and planet seem to be fighting an uphill battle, read this book. It will give you hope, lots of gasps of astonishment, and laughter. It’s a good read.

Karen Klein, Emerita Faculty in English, Interdisciplinary Humanities, Women’s Studies, Brandeis University.

Web Site: Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene

Bend in the Stair, by David P. Miller


Bend in the Stair, by David P. Miller, Lily Poetry Review Books, 2021.

54 p. $18.00

Review by Lee Varon

“Bend in the Stair” is an exquisite collection from a gifted poet who looks keenly at the world and in doing so helps us see it afresh.

In his opening poem, the poet contrasts death (his father's ashes—"wordless gray grit") with birth, namely his own entry into the world ("pissing, screeching, astounded"). This contrast is woven throughout the book.

In "The Story So Far," the poet reminisces on his own life while disposing of his departed parents' odds and ends. The poem ends with a touching note as he sees among his father’s things: "mother's high school pictures/ with her love note in his sock drawer." It is poignant moments like this which illuminate this collection.

Intense memories of the departed are often crystallized in treasured objects. In “Dinosaur,” the poet recalls a small bronze pterodactyl from his grandfather's study. Addressing the small object, the poet asks: "what allowed me to carry you away/when my grandparents departed?" It is in this poem, the title of the collection appears. As the poet drives by his grandparents’ house many years after they have departed, he writes: "Something inside must still know me." And he continues: "The bend in the stair, ascending to the study, / knows who I was. Remembers the extinct creatures."

These poems speak to how we hold dear the memories of our departed loved ones.

In “Sunrises with My Father,” the poet visits his father in a senior community in Florida. It has been twenty years since his father moved into the community when he had, “barely stepped across/ that definite senior discount line." Spry as he was, on his daily walks, his father was happy to help other seniors by carrying their newspapers up to their doorsteps. But now, the poet, wryly referring to himself as “The younger elder,” is the only one who brings in a paper after his morning walk.

The juxtaposition between the living and the departed often figures in Miller’s writing as in one of my favorites, “His Mouth.” In this gripping poem, the narrator stands with his brothers by his dying father's hospital bed. The stark contrast of a loved one who is dying in a hospital which plays the digital sound of Brahms’s lullaby whenever a baby is born in their maternity ward, is at once jarring but also strangely soothing. Even in the face of grief and imminent loss, there is the joy of new life.

As the book begins with the image of his father’s ashes, it comes full circle at the penultimate poem “Add One Father to Earth” in which the narrator, and many other family members, consign his father’s ashes to the earth: “Seventeen people stooped to the earth.”

Like a treasured object these poems reverberate long after reading them. I found myself wishing the poet’s father were able to read this moving tribute.

If there is anything lacking in this wonderful collection, it is that, having heard Miller read his more recent poems such as the powerful and troubling, All the People Were Singing, I would have loved to have seen them here. I look forward to reading Miller’s next book!

Lee Varon is a writer and social worker. She co-edited: Spare Change News Poems: An Anthology by Homeless People and Those Touched by Homelessness and recently published the first children’s book about the opioid epidemic: My Brother is Not a Monster: A Story of Addiction and Recovery.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Ibbetson Street Pushcart Nominees for 2022


Dennis Daly  "Judgement Day at the All- Souls Lounge"

Charles Coe   "Night Birds" 

Claire Scott    " Rearranging" 

Joyce B. Lazarus  "Losses"

Ruth Hoberman  " How to Cezanne"

Deborah Leipziger  "Self Archaeologist'

* Thanks to Harris Gardner, Lawrence Kessenich, and Ravi Yelamanchili for their choices.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Somerville writer Rachel Ranie Taube: A Fabulist and a Feminist


Recently, I was contacted by Rachel Ranie Taube about a project she is working on. She has created a website that collects comments from Somerville writers about how they view Somerville as a 'place' to write. After she contributed her article about the project to Off the Shelf, I decided to interview her about her own writing life.

What brought you to Somerville, and how has it been for you as a writer?

After roving around a bit in the pandemic, my husband and I moved to Somerville for work in summer 2021. I’ve lived in a lot of different places, from Manhattan to Wilmington, North Carolina, and I feel lucky to live in a city where there’s both a wealth of cultural opportunities and space to be in nature. The wonderful Somerville Arts Council is always running some new program, whether a street fair or musical performance. I live a short walk to Alewife Brook Reservation and the bike path, and a quick drive to the Fells and Walden. When I’m stuck in my writing, a walk in the reservation or down new streets usually does the trick.

You describe yourself as a fabulist writer, which is defined as a teller of fables, but it also has a negative connotation. According to the Oxford Dictionary it also can mean, " A liar, a person who invents elaborates, dishonest stories." How would you respond to this?

I think two things are simultaneously true: writing always bends and transforms its subject matter, and the goal of writing is to tell the truth.

When I say I’m a fabulist writer, what I mean is that I incorporate speculative or magical realist elements into my work—things happen in my stories that don’t happen in the real world. For example, in one of my stories a girl transforms into a buffalo at night; in another, a woman shrinks over the course of a trip abroad with friends. Some of my favorite writers in the genre are Helen Oyeyemi, Samantha Hunt, Lauren van den Berg, and Carmen Maria Machado.

The reason I’m drawn to fabulist writing is actually because I find it more truthful; it makes intangible things literal. For example, the transformations in the stories I mentioned occur, in part, because of the characters’ relationship dynamics. In another project I’m working on, women inherit and dream their mothers’ memories—which has allowed me to write about the inherent strangeness of mother-daughter relationships. At its best, fabulism uses surreal or bizarre details to explore familiar situations in novel ways.

You work at a feminist communications agency. What is your role and the mission statement of the company. Does this work inform your fiction and poetry?

I’m the Director of Media Relations at Grey Horse Communications, where we tell stories for mission-driven clients across media, arts, tech, nonprofits, publishing, and more. I’ve gotten to work with some amazing organizations and individuals, from UNICEF and #FreeBritney to Melissa Mills, the first daughter of Jane Roe.

My job allows me to engage on topics like women’s rights on a strategic level. How do I tell this story most clearly? What angle is most compelling, and how does it tie in to larger trends? How do we get journalists and readers to care? Those practical questions certainly help me with clarity and plotting in my fiction, just as my writing experience helps me to get to the heart of our clients’ stories. I’m also of the perspective that all writing is political, so this work helps me to think of my writing as existing within larger dialogues about our world.

I read a piece of flash fiction piece about a girl and an intrusive, and nefarious crow. You also write poetry. What subjects draw you in, and which genre is more appealing to you fiction, non-fiction or poetry.

I’m especially drawn to writing about the way that societal forces work on girls and women. So that story is about an intrusive, nefarious crow; it’s also a fable that plays on the trope of a princess in a tower needing to be rescued. I also love writing about family dynamics, and investing stories with a strong sense of place.

I spend most of my time writing fiction. Fiction gives me the most unexpected opportunities for invention, and it feels the most like wandering the wilderness. After many years of practice, I still have very little idea what I’m doing every time I enter a new project, which is thrilling. I write some nonfiction too—book reviews, author interviews, the occasional craft essay—mostly because it’s such a good way to connect with the literary community.

Why should we read your work?

The writer Kelly Link often talks about genre as a promise of pleasure. My goal is that readers experience something thoroughly engaging and unexpected in my writing, whether that’s through fabulist inventions or carefully crafted language. I hope I leave readers feeling thoughtful; maybe a little unhinged.

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Red Letter Poem #137

 The Red Letters



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 #137





It’s an obligatory moment at many holiday gatherings: taking turns around the dinner table, each one coaxed to mention something you’re thankful for.  Many of us are so fortunate, we have a long list to choose from – but for me, the place of abundance always begins with the people in my life, the friends and family who are the source of such confounding joy, such a compelling sense of purpose and meaning.  If you’re especially lucky, those very faces are arrayed around the table at which you sit.  But there are others scattered across memory (those distant or vanished completely) upon whose love the foundation of your life, your growth, was built – and perhaps they too must be summoned to this occasion.  I remember, years ago, hearing the famed writer Maya Angelou speaking at a local college.  She began with a sentence intended to startle us: "You have been paid for.”  It required no explanation to grasp how volatile a statement that was, especially coming from a person of color.  “Each of you, Black, White, Brown, Yellow, Red. . .has been paid for.  But for the sacrifices made by some of your ancestors, you would not be here; they have paid for you.  So, when you enter a challenging situation, bring them on the stage with you; let their distant voices add timbre and strength to your words.  For it is your job to pay for those who are yet to come."


And so in today’s Red Letter, we are introduced to “Miss Lutie”, courtesy of poet, storyteller, and singer CD Collins.  Kentucky-born, she now makes her home in the Boston area, having transplanted her Southern musical and storytelling roots into our flinty New England soil.  She’s the author of Blue Land (short stories, published by Polyho Press); the poetry collection Self Portrait With Severed Head (from Ibbetson Street); a novel (Afterheat – issued by Empty City); and five spoken word/music recordings (the first, Kentucky Stories, was chosen as Best Spoken Word album at the Boston Poetry Awards.)  In this new poem, she places herself once again in that tiny kindergarten classroom of her childhood Mt. Sterling community, remembering Miss Lutie Quisenberry, a teacher whose outsized effect on her life has extended through the decades. 


A masterful storyteller, CD understands how the specificity of sense-impressions are capable of situating a reader in a new circumstance so they might vicariously take part in the moment unfolding.  That “mineral breath”, that whiff of the Fryolater, the glimmering dime-sized droplets of rain – they help us inhabit the mind of this precocious four-year-old (yes, four!  Her working parents needed to find some sort of childcare for their young daughter and lied about her age.)  We are witnessing here a poetic consciousness beginning to emerge – and thank goodness she had that generous soul, Miss Lutie, as her spirit-guide.  Educators rarely know what sort of lasting effect they are having on their students’ lives.  Teaching is both a profession and act of faith.  And whether we know it or not, we are all constantly being taught and teaching others in turn.  Ms. Angelou added: “We are braver and wiser because they existed, those strong women and strong men... We are who we are because they were who they were.  It's wise to know where you come from, who called your name.”  Miss Lutie called this child’s name.  As a matured talent, this poet is now calling ours.  Grateful that others “paid” for her life, CD is now paying it forward – “for those who are yet to come.”  I’ll give thanks for all the poets and wordsmiths, singers and dancers, who helped make a place for me at this table.




Miss Lutie



This woman with the mineral breath knows

you still speak to the forest animals,

that you once tried to make fireworks with flowers and precious sand,

thought you could walk off the chicken coop and fly.


She will hold all of you tenderly at your little desks,

will free you as often as she can,

because your body craves tearing through the playground,

sliding into third base, gathering as much dust as possible,

because you thrive in the dirt you’re made of.

She knows you need to stride to the pencil sharpener

just to relieve that spring inside you.


Her breath is silver with the frost of the mountain,

she has climbed down from,

to teach you letters and numbers,

which sacks have seeds you can plant,

which ones are too heavy a burden for your small bones to bear.

She will teach you that it’s not important to count the polished dimes

in the storm you got caught in,

but to watch them flashing from the sky,

under whatever shelter you can find. 

She will show you how to decipher letters and words

so that you can learn the stories of other children,

their small hands in the fur of the creatures that walk beside them.


Once, she dissolved a tiny square of paper in her mouth,      

ate breakfast at dawn in the diner,

scented with the seductive oils of the Fryolater.

Saw the towers spring up and down like accordions,

The birds in the trees outside the library chattered excitedly;

she understood them.


And may divine you, too, if you allow her.

Miss Ludie’s eyes are the blue of the hyacinths

she brought in one day,

setting the vase on her oak table.

Gaze into her eyes, that unfathomable blue.

The color of the sea under a shimmering dome of sky.

You’ve never seen a blue like that before.



                                    ––CD Collins





The Red Letters 3.0


* 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:



To learn more about the origins of the Red Letter Project, check out an essay I wrote for Arrowsmith Magazine:


Two of our partner sites will continue re-posting each Red Letter weekly: the YourArlington news blog



and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene


For updates and announcements about Red Letter projects and poetry readings, please follow me on Twitter