Sunday, May 28, 2023

Red Letter Poem #162

 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 #162





What is required of a poet to achieve authenticity in their writing?  Certainly, it’s a quality that readers prize, even if it’s only through intuition or a strange neural excitation that we are alerted to its presence.  I don’t know if it’s a course of study in the innumerable creative writing programs across the country – or whether it can be taught at all – but it’s worthy of consideration because, lacking it, even the most inventive poetry becomes mere pretense and performance.  Across her long career as poet, essayist, translator, and educator, Jane Hirshfield has for me been a touchstone of the authentic, a writer I return to when I feel myself blown off-course by my own inner storms.  And so I’m delighted to debut a new poem in the Red Letters, one that will appear next fall in The Asking: New and Selected Poems (from Knopf), Jane’s 10th collection.  When I encounter a sense of the genuine radiating from a body of work, I can’t help feeling it’s a principle operating in that poet’s life as well, the two inextricably entwined.  There’s a kind of daily practice that slowly shapes the mind’s sensory instrument, our interface with the world.  Such honesty (and, I hasten to add, perilous clarity) can’t simply be turned on when there’s a pen in hand.  Coming across this on the page, it’s as if these voices possess such magnetic force, the iron filings of our consciousness cannot help but respond. 


In our formative years, we often first identify the magnetite of our own authentic voice when it’s unearthed in response to that of some other much-loved writer.  We suddenly apprehend just how much one mind can invest in language and, once initiated into this rare literary brother/sisterhood, can’t help but mine our days for this precious ore.  It doesn’t surprise me that there’s a whole genre of poetic memoir in praise of lost poets, honored mentors.  I think of Donald Hall's Their Ancient Glittering Eyes, remembering the likes of Pound and Eliot; or Eileen Simpson's Poets in Their Youth, focusing on John Berryman and company.  Jane is herself unfailingly generous in her praise of poets and artists who’ve helped identify and reinforce her sense of this artistic necessity.  And so, upon learning that the great Polish poet Adam Zagajewski had died, Jane told me she spent a day rereading each of his collections, astonished that one’s life work can be so compressed and yet so consequential.  In today’s poem, she remembers a walk she once took with Adam leading, it seems, from the streets of Kraków down to the banks of the Lethe.  Delicately, she touches on the poet’s life, on and off the page, as only one can who has spent her own lifetime in similar pursuits.  It feels to me as if the wind rises and falls through these stanzas, sweeping thoughts away, allowing new ones to settle.  It is her unmistakable regard for this writer that guides our steps.


Judging from today’s literary marketplace, it’s hard to remember that – before the 1950s and the post-war boom in MFA programs – poetry was more of a passionate calling than a career.  I think young writers these days have developed an unprecedented expertise in building audience, developing a creative brand, and harnessing technology to capitalize on their endeavors.  The challenge, still, is whether they’ve also figured out how to connect their language-making abilities to what is most essential in their beings.  The finest poetry is always about more fully inhabiting one’s own life, and comprehending the ways each life is connected to the totality of the living – both in this present moment and the ineluctable past.  This experience of connectivity is, perhaps, the primary purpose of literature and, without it, meaning bleeds away from existence.  Such awareness requires that you write with a different sense of urgency, knowing what is ultimately hanging in the balance.  Without it, how can you expect the work to sustain you, or offer sustenance to a stranger?


A student once asked me the question: what’s required of a writer who desires such authenticity in their work?  I answered, perhaps too quickly: simply everything.  Was I romanticizing, overstating the situation?  Thinking now of the work of Adam Zagajewski – and reading poets like Jane Hirshfield today – what’s the requisite price of admission?  Not everything – just everything that matters. 



Letter to Adam Zagajewski 





As if walking the Old Town of Kraków

in one quick half hour

in the midst of a lengthening conversation—

in one afternoon and an evening, a life's work can be read.


Of all you had hoped for, much did arrive.


A new saeculum opened – however briefly – its windows.                     

You loved and were loved. 

Your poems became themselves fully.

Also more sad.


The passion for birds, animals, insects, cities, mystics,

stayed for a lifetime.


To them, you compared many things.


The wind yawned for you once like a foxhound.

Dusk spoke in Sanskrit.


You noted, calmly, the earth's indifference,

then noted its chestnut trees' openings, summonings, calls.


You lived in three countries, carried three countries' passports.

Time stamped onto each of their pages

its visas' ornate, colored inks:

griefs, loves, meals, musics, haircuts.


Is it now—already so quickly?—for you

as you once imagined for poets then already dead?


“Their doubts vanished with them,” you wrote.

“Their rapture lives.”



                                     ––Jane Hirshfield



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:


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          



Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Conceptual Artist J T Bullitt Evaporates the novel Moby Dick

While at Open Studios in Somerville I came across conceptual artist  JT Bullitt. According to his website:

"My studio work is an ongoing series of conceptual listening experiments that investigate the invisible, inaudible, intangible forces surrounding us and underlying human experience.

I am particularly fascinated by questions of identity & name, language & symbol, and the fluidity of our perception of time & space.

I work primarily in sound — both large and small — and in mark-making."

I was also fascinated to see he evaporated the novel Moby Dick--we will explain later!

What made you move from Maine? How do you like working along with the community of artists at the Joy Street Studios?

I’m originally from the Boston area but I lived in rural Maine for about 12 years. I loved the wildness of the coast and the deep silence of the night sky. It was really the perfect spot for a studio. But I eventually missed the stimulation of Boston’s art and science scene, as well as my two young granddaughters down in Massachusetts. So I moved back to the area and found a studio at Joy Street, where I’ve been working on a variety of projects involving sound and making marks on paper.

I’m primarily a conceptual artist, which is a rather peculiar niche, so it’s been wonderfully refreshing to meet outstanding artists here at Joy Street who are grounded in more traditional art practices. We’re an eclectic group, but there’s a good sense of community here. Lately we’ve been organizing ourselves to respond to the threat of displacement by high-end real estate development in the neighborhood. It’s a challenge for artist communities all across the city, but we’re doing our part. It feels good to be a part of that.

Your main work seems to be conceptual listening projects. Can you explain this endeavor and how it is presented to the public?

Listening is all about making deep connections with the world. Because sound is so intimately tied to the flow of time, those connections shift and change from moment to moment. It’s a very mysterious thing! My projects in sound and in other media are all “experiments” that explore these mysteries and try to get to the heart of things.

Over the years I’ve shared my work in many different ways: by publishing CD’s, presenting recordings at galleries and museums, and sharing them with dance choreographers, composers, musicians, and film makers. In my multichannel sound installations I invite listeners to walk around my studio and explore the shifting soundscapes, to give them a chance to tune in to the act of listening itself. It can be a powerful inward-looking experience. In some of my sound experiments I translate seismic recordings of the Earth’s slow vibrations into audible sound. In others I’ve recorded the sounds of snails eating, the sound of the tides, or the “sound” of the grooves that the glaciers carved like a phonograph into bedrock 12,000 years ago. It’s a way to experience the world at different scales of time and space and to contemplate where we fit within it all. I’ve also enjoyed streaming the sounds of the Earth online and broadcasting them into the air via FM radio. There’s nothing quite like turning on your car radio and hearing the Earth speak!

It’s always fun to see how people respond to these sounds. Sometimes when young children hear the seismic background “noise” of the Earth, they will curl up in their parent’s lap and settle into a very relaxed state. At the Joy Street open studios events I’ve had some really fun conversations with artists, mathematicians, philosophers, and people who are just plain curious about what I’m trying to do. It’s a great opportunity for me to learn from others.

Were you influenced by such minimalist music composer such as John Cage, etc...

My background is in science, so I feel some camaraderie with artists who borrow techniques from the world of science and technology to explore the nature of sound and silence. Cage himself was a master of silence, but he also did some brilliant compositions that used randomly tuned radios. His compositions raised deep questions about our assumptions about “noise” and “silence”. Sometimes it takes just a little bit of technology to make a profound esthetic discovery. When conceptual artist Juan Geuer shone a thin laser beam into a suspended drop of water, it filled the walls of a dimly lit museum gallery with a spectacular world of shimmering light and color. Who knew that the humble water drop contained such beauty! Seeing technology applied this way has had a huge influence on me. It expands the idea of what “art” can be. At the other extreme, I also enjoy the use of maximal technology when it can reveal fresh minimalist ideas. For example, Janet Cardiff famously used forty loudspeakers to create a sonic sculpture from a choir of forty individual singers, while Tristan Perich built a wall of 1,500 loudspeakers, each softly playing a different tone. All of these artists who use technology to various degrees have made an impact on my approach to art. But I’ve also found inspiration from painters like Mark Tobey, Lee Krasner, and Hossein Zenderouti, among others. And of course, sometimes the best inspiration comes from simply listening to a field cricket on a summer evening.

Although your interest is in sound, you published a version of Melville's "Moby Dick," entitled the "The Evaporated Moby Dick." Your conceit was never to use the same word twice from the original novel-- after a world appears—it disappears-- never to be seen again. What is the germ behind this idea?

I seem to be one of those strange people who actually loved reading Moby-Dick. I’ve read it three or four times. There’s something deliciously compelling about Ahab’s inevitable doom that’s foreshadowed beautifully in Melville’s story-telling and use of language. I was fascinated by the idea that something as concrete as language can propel a reader’s imagination towards an imaginary event as dramatic as (spoiler alert!) a shipwreck, where it seems that the entire world disintegrates into a floating pile of debris. The story’s crescendo is really the point where language itself breaks down. I wondered what would happen if language were allowed literally to disintegrate, until all that’s left is a sea of broken bits and pieces of punctuation? So I wrote some software to sift through the text, eliminating words one by one, but leaving the punctuation intact. I think that when the text “evaporates” this way, it reveals the ultimate fallibility of language itself. Evaporating Moby-Dick also surprised me because it revealed Melville’s impressive vocabulary. Even in the last chapters of the book, where the text consists mostly of white space sprinkled with punctuation, he’s still introducing new words. I think today’s best-sellers would probably run out of new words after the first few pages!

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Red Letter Poem #161

 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 #161





How do you know who – or what – is on the other end of these sentences you’re reading right now?  Since childhood, our minds have been trained to receive language in an effortless stream; we don’t spend much time considering authorship, and naturally assume the sender is precisely who the by-line says it is.  If, for example, you’ve been following my Red Letter installments for a while, is mine a ‘voice’ you’d recognize in a literary crowd?  If I tried to sneak in a paragraph generated by one of the so-called ‘large language’ artificial intelligence systems (AI) – like the famous ChatGPT that’s been in the news for months – do you think you could distinguish the diction of its silicon circuitry from the neural tangle of, say, your humble correspondent?  There are teachers and professors all over America right now, grading term papers, struggling with that very challenge.  And there may come a time in the not-so-distant future when you and I receive carefully-crafted messages designed to arrest our attention, capitalize on our preferential histories, and convince us to say yes to. . .whatever product, idea, or candidate the programmer (masquerading as an intimate) is attempting to sell.


But surely a computer-generated poem would reveal its metallic heart to any discerning reader – don’t you think?  I’ve examined numerous examples generated by AI and not one so far has elevated my heartrate or made me catch my breath.  There are, of course, some strains of contemporary poetry whose authors seem determined to create such opaque and non-syntactical verse – stripped of all emotional dimension or narrative connectivity – it almost feels as if it originated in some laboratory mainframe.  But still, reading their poems, I believe I can detect the human mind at work.  Or am I deluding myself?  Poet and educator Jack Stewart returns to the Red Letters with a poem that considers a literary landscape when AI becomes so sophisticated, its counterfeit voice will become undetectable.  And how will we feel about our culture if the machines – lacking delight or heartache, passion or despair – have become the authors of our narrative?


Jack is himself the author of No Reason, published in the Poeima Poetry Series.  His work has appeared in a variety of fine journals like Poetry, Iowa Review, and New York Quarterly.  Formerly a Brittain Fellow at The Georgia Institute of Technology, he now directs the Talented Writers Program at Fort Lauderdale’s Pine Crest School.  In his poem today, what seems to distinguish the human consciousness from the artificial is rooted in our frailty, our doubts and miscalculations, the delight in hard-won clarities.  Our species has evolved an ability to recognize something authentic in those most human of situations – hopefully so we can learn from them.  As we poets make our way from line to line, even our small choices reflect the emotional and intellectual accrual of our years.  Our intuition navigates each little cataclysm using word choice, shifting rhythms, and daring leaps of the imagination – some of which, in the end, may remain inexplicable even to its creator.  I think of a poem as the quintessential human document – and sometimes we readers find ourselves connecting to those sculpted lines as if they were as essential to our own consciousness as they were to the author’s.  I don’t believe I’ll ever experience that sort of intimate language connection from someone who had neither a mother nor a father.  Or is that just part of the self-deception?



Letter to AI


            upon hearing about ChatGPT



You have perfect confidence,

while my talent is never to know

most things and yet love silence,

not just the silence of making,

but the silence of understanding,

the silence when language

is not enough, which is

almost always.


But you who know all

will never comprehend

our resentment of perfection,

the flawlessness

you take for granted

and which we would like to

believe in, but we only have

the evidence of so many

categories of tears.

Can you understand those

variations? Can you invent

a word in English for

Mångata, the Swedish for

the road-like reflection

of moonlight on water

and make it common in everyone’s


like the moonlight itself?

Or for Waldeinsamkeit,

the German for the feeling of being

alone in the woods? Or a word

for the feeling of being lost

in despair

and unable to pray,

which no language seems

to have?


In the myriad essays you will write,

can you give us the language

we need, you, like a mole

tunneling through history, blind,

not knowing where you are going

but tearing up the earth so it

cannot be planted?


Yes, you are closer to a god

than we could ever be, and some

already worship you, but can

you read this letter and know

whether to respond to its absurdity

with either laughter or pity?



                         ––Jack Stewart




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:


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