Saturday, May 07, 2022

Somerville's Rajiv Raman: Transit Maps as a means to teach equality to children


I had the pleasure to speak with Rajiv Raman about his work, and his new children's book " Last Stop: A Story of Transit Equality."

As a sculptor and a digital artist-- how has the Somerville experience been for you?

I used to do more sculpture, mainly in wood and metal, but that's been a bit rough recently with the space constraints of living in Somerville (and having kids!). I still dabble in 3D occasionally, but my main artistic pursuits are in digital art now. Somerville has been a great place to grow as an artist. There's a vibrant artist community, as exhibited by the successful Open Studios event we just had! Almost 300 artists were showing! I've been a proud Open Studios volunteer for many years now. Unfortunately, our community is under threat primarily due to gentrification. Today's Somerville is very different from the one I first moved to in the '90s. Many artists have been able to adapt and I hope that this city can continue to be an interesting place for the arts.

You describe your work as a kind of narrative that has a universal quality. Explain.

My digital work which I call “Mapuccino's,” resemble subway maps. They fall into two categories: edition prints and commissions. My edition prints cover a variety of topics from local cities and town to politics to the environment. My commissions tell a story about a particular person (or couple). Why subway maps? I've always been fascinated by them. The way that they distill complexity down to a simple bold geometry is mesmerizing. The story told through each map isn't immediately obvious at first glance. There's an element of surprise in my pieces that captivates viewers when they realize they aren't just looking at an “ordinary” subway map.

Recently, I've been doing a lot of “subway-style sketches” and posting them on Instagram ( My sketches are usually narratives about current events. Trying to translate something as complex as the Ukraine conflict, for example, into the language of subway maps is an immersive challenge for me.

You have an interest in subways, particularly subway maps. And in fact you make personal subway maps for people. How do you determine what a person's map will look like? Has the new Union Square line inspired you?

I call my commissions “interactive art” because the customer provides me with a list of places that are special to them. I'm just the composer! I take what they give me and build a beautiful subway map out of them. In that way, I'm more like a city planner! Every single commission is different and unique. They make great gifts for birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, graduations... you name it. I use basic tools of the trade like Adobe Illustrator. The final result is a signed digital print. They're easy to order and you can find out more about them at

Before the Assembly stop was built, there hadn't been a new stop in Somerville in decades. Now Union Square is open and we have many more coming soon. These are exciting times! There's been a renewed interest in my work due to these popular transit projects. The downside of these projects is that they also spark gentrification and income inequality, which happen to be topics I cover in my work. Public transit has always had the power to be equalizer. People of all walks of life use it. But it has to be done right and that starts with making sure new projects don't push longtime residents out.

You have written a children's book-- " The Last Stop" that allows parents to explore with their children prejudice --through the 'lens of transit and equality.' You use subway maps here as well. How do you make the connection with transit maps to the issues with equality and equity?

My book, available at, is illustrated in the style of subway maps. The story is about a neighborhood called Colorville that has been ignored for too long by city planners. The proud People of Colorville (pun intended) make a lot of noise and finally get the subway stop they've long desired. Only then do all of the other neighborhoods take notice in the beauty that Colorville has to offer. My book is meant to instill in children the idea that public transit is an equalizer that is meant for everyone. It provides the means to explore new places, meet new people, and build connections. Some adults who've read my book have commented that it ends on a positive note and does not address the gentrification that often arises from a new subway stop. That's for a follow-up discussion between a parent and their child, or maybe a second book about gentrification! People sometimes get jaded about public transit planning because it's not always done right. In my opinion, there should've been massive affordable housing initiatives surrounding every new GLX stop. But that's a bigger discussion for another day.

Friday, May 06, 2022

Red Letter Poem #109

 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 #109




Recently, I mentioned to a friend that I’d spent all morning “working my way through a poem” – and I could actually see him bristle.  Was this, perhaps, an involuntary response?  A telltale vestige from years of American schooling – an experience that convinced him poetry was indeed work (and often tedious work at that), a daunting undertaking, utterly fruitless?  For many, poetry is something the curriculum required of teachers who, often, were themselves scarred by their own early introduction to the artform?  Over the years, I’ve had others confide in me that they felt poetry was used like an intelligence test “to separate the smart kids from the rest of us” – the very antithesis of an activity (reading poetry, let alone writing it) that deepened understanding, broke down cultural barriers, provided delight.  Having done residencies at several hundred elementary and secondary schools, I am happy to report that the skill-level of today’s teachers is far advanced from those of my childhood; they’re much more comfortable with all sorts of art endeavors.  Perhaps this has been one of the most important lessons we’ve derived from contemporary poetry and art: a willingness to be surprised – and that, through the upsurge of the creative act (in words or colors or sounds, no matter how other-worldly or matter-of-fact), the actuality of our human experience becomes manifest.  And, as Robert Frost noted, “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows” – work worthy of our precious time.


So I explained to my friend that I hadn’t even left bed that morning before I felt something launched inside me, like a boat.  The prow was a single line that appeared out of nowhere, and the craft began to assemble itself around that possibility.  I felt myself both passenger and crew.  I steered and was steered, trusting in the currents.  It all felt confounding, thrilling, thoroughly unexpected – and slowly, the far shore came into view.  In the end: twenty lines; ink on paper; a thought-contraption I’d combed through, read aloud, rewritten again and again, and felt grateful to have received.  Such neural clarity; such a retreat from the demands of the busy day!  Then I stretched, dressed, and entered (re-entered?) the morning.


A poem like Chloé Firetto-Toomey’s “Images” does make some demands on our attention, requires a bit of work – but then it rewards us with a marvelous sense of arrival when we finally stand before her symbolic mirror.  The prow of her vessel was, as she explained to me, a collection of “lost lines from failed poems”, resurrected and given a new form.  She’s led me to think about how we receive (and alter) images as the external world joins with the inner.  I must say, I’ll never read mirror again without noticing that pair of reflective r’s at the heart of the word.  ChloĆ© is a British-American poet and essayist living in Miami Beach.  She earned an MFA degree from Florida International University and went on to teach Creative Nonfiction and Poetry at FIU and at Everglades Correctional Institution with the nonprofit Exchange for Change.  Having studied with the acclaimed poet Richard Blanco, she currently works as his assistant.  Her most recent chapbook of poems, Little Cauliflower, was published in 2019 by Dancing Girl Press.  A Pushcart Prize nominee, and winner of the Scotti Merrill Memorial Award in Poetry, her poetry career is off to an auspicious start.  I’m happy to welcome her voice to the Red Letter conversation.








As though nowere a landscapein the mirrorand thingstood before itwith a single inquiry—


I know nothing.


II.All images are mirages.



Every day, I pass a man selling white roses

from a green bucket. He hauntsthe halted traffic in the winnowing heat

and I think of all the snipped roses,

gasping; his face unclear in the shadow

of his wide-brimmed hat.



If images are miragesr buds between letters, sprouts above the water

through a crack in the concrete bridge. I admire it from my canoe:

green bud, blue bridge, roots dangling like snagged mermaid hairs.



Spring evenings,two women prod luminous green bulbswith metal pipes, arms raised to the highest branches.


I like their voices, bright saris,the sounds of the fruit falling,

clipping leaves, the inevitable thump.



Mirrors hold bodiesof unanswered questions,

as do eyes and windows,

smooth as gyroscopes.


VII.All images are mirages, the r makes us mirrors.




                         – Chloé Firetto-Toomey







The Red Letters 3.0


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Thursday, May 05, 2022

Thorny by Judith Baumel

Ruth Baumel


Judith Baumel, Thorny.  Arrowsmith. 2022. 122 pp. $22.00

Review by Ruth Hoberman


            Recently I’ve been thinking about land acknowledgments—those statements that precede many poetry events these days, recognizing our complicity in the violent confiscation of the land we stand on.  Judith Baumel’s recent collection Thorny, while not overtly political, performs some of the same work—complicating our sense of who we are by insisting on the layers beneath.  Thorny is thorny in the best ways:  tangled, resistant, resilient, complex, deeply rooted in landscape and its histories.

            “Passeggiate,” the book’s first section, is set mainly in Italy—the place Baumel describes in interviews as her “happy spot,” and where she taught as a Fulbright scholar.  “Passeggiate” is Italian for “stroll”:  the poems suggest the rewards of walking, looking, absorbing; but each at some point also digs beneath the moment into the past.  In “Hic Adelfia Clarissima Femina,” for example, a contemporary observer describes the elaborately carved sarcophagus of Adelfia, at Syracuse: “I want to look this way and be looked at this way,” she says, of the husband and wife carved into a fluted shell at the sarcophagus’s center:

Turned toward each other but askew, as if the planes

of our shoulders were made for different

vanishing points and still impose flesh

on each other’s flesh. 

Husband and wife exist in different planes and will, in death, be separated, but with effort come together in life:  “I find him in sleep/from another country, a momentary act of will.”  The reward of “crossing the border to seek that sheltering coast” is sensual intimacy, ample compensation for the “thorny labor of marriage.”  But then the poem shifts its focus as a piece of music might change key: looking backwards to Eden, where joy was already inseparable from suffering.  “When He damned the soil into which we return,/Yahweh gave us the mercy of pains in birth and bread.” 

            These shifts add context and poignancy.  In “Passeggiate and Cena in Erice” (Stroll and Dinner in Erice), for example, sightseers admire cobblestones, shops, flower pots;  but here, too, the present is haunted by “the petitions of the past,” when  intruders arrived in waves—“came and left their Y chromosomes with the Ierodule,” the local priestess-prostitutes. Then the poem returns to dinner:  swordfish and couscous. “The local salt,” its speaker concludes, “was almost rosy, almost sweet/with iodine and tasted of sacrifice.”

            Literary and mythological figures turn up as speakers in some poems.  Meliboeus and Tityrus, for example, arrive from Virgil’s first eclogue to talk over 9/11, placing our disaster in the context of Augustus Caesar’s land confiscations following the Civil War.  And in On the Death of Boys,” the three Greek Fates discuss motherhood and loss with Nyx, Greek goddess of night.  “What were the boys thinking?” Nyx asks, of four teenage boys from the Bronx who drowned in an ill-judged effort to row a boat from City Island to Hart Island on a January night.  Clotho (who spins the thread of life), Lachesis (who measures), and Atropos (who snips) point out the role of bad judgment as well as the ironies provided by Hart Island’s history: “a heap/of bad ideas,” it has been a prison, a hospital, and a Potter’s Field. “Stop,” Nyx interrupts, giving voice to modern as well as ancient mothers’ complaints: “You spin their flesh, measure their nine months, cut the cord so they are not ours.” Don’t finish your sentence, she begs.  But Clotho has the last word, relentless, insistent on the cyclicity of life and death. 

            The book’s second section, The American Cousins A-Z,” is lighter, brisker, in its portrait of Jewish immigrant life, though here, too, history haunts:  In  “Proem: ‘A Vort Far a Vort’” (the Yiddish title of a book by Scholem Aleichem), we learn of those who stayed behind, blurred figures in the German photographs documenting their slaughter.  But each had a name, the speaker insists;  each, in fact, was a “library of infinity.”  In the poems that follow, scenes speed by of Catskill resorts, Alexanders department store, conversations in which the cousins exhibit their acculturation and their anxiety at once. “Long treks ended for the lucky/in this land of pizza,” Baumel notes in “Z: Ziggurat.”

            More specifically, “long treks” end in the Bronx, where many of the book’s final poems are set.  In this final section, “Bound,” the journeys are in time, not space.  “I am assembling those who are gone like a doll party,” one speaker says.  The culmination is “Gueule de Bois” (Hangover), a gorgeous summation of wonder and regret.  Here the speaker contemplates her past by way of Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting of Suzanne Valadon looking glum beside a bottle of wine.  “Plenty of mistakes we see coming/and can’t stop, won’t stop,” she says, thinking of her own hangovers long ago.  But now, “a hangover is about time”—the way past moments return, “the way/the smell and the pour bring distant ghosts/forward to the spilled circle, bring regret and promises to bear against the future.” Is what happened next something we could have changed?  Or are we “bound”?  Anyone of a certain age looks back and wonders.  And here both poem and book end, with a hypothetical, poignant supposition:  “As if, perhaps, the future just proceeds/upon the street, the cold of April rain/on the rangy disappointments of forsythia.”

            Baumel’s title sent me back to Wordsworth’s 1789 “The Thorn,” where a thorn tree grows beside a moss-covered mound, the grave of an infant possibly murdered by its betrayed mother. A mass of knotted joints . . . bound/With heavy tufts of moss that strive/To drag it to the ground,” that tree strikes me as an apt image for these poems.  Laden with the past, they speak in a strange, allusive, often beautiful language, reminding us that the earth is littered with such burials.

Wednesday, May 04, 2022

Endicott Undergraduate Poet: Megan Donahue


Megan Donahue is a freshman at Endicott College studying English with a minor in Digital Media: Concentration in Film and Television Production. She hopes to one day be a screenwriter and director. She is passionate about film watching and film making, and she loves storytelling as well as poetry, reading, and painting.

Confessions of an Amateur Plant Owner

I over water my plants, though they never see much sunlight-not a lot comes in through dusty dorm windows.

And I tend to like the smell of wet soil, and for some time,

the resilient spider plant found comfort in its dark, damp home.

But recently, some of the leaves have turned brown, the consequences are beginning to show.

Perhaps I was not taught the proper way to love and care for this nature thing, perhaps my approach has been wrong all along.

Perhaps it was the routine put into place, after being told I water it too much-once every five days, rather than every other.

Don’t overfeed, it will grow sick and tired, its roots will rot and it will lose its vigor.

Don’t underfeed, the leaves will wilt and crumble, and the roots will rot the same.

Yet I tried everything in between, and the conditions were unchanging.

But then again, maybe it is the shifting of the seasons-

the spider plant survived the winter, inside with the heat on. And now it’s spring, and I keep the windows open a crack, mild air in the day, cool ocean breeze at night-so, resilience does have an Achilles heel.

All my methods and alterations have been wrong, but this feels wrong too.

Maybe it’s time to cut off the supply,

end the biting of my hand.