Saturday, January 07, 2023

Red Letter Poem #143

 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 #143





My thinking was that – for this, the first Red Letter of 2023 – what was needed was a bit of delight.  Fortunately, I had just the ticket.


But it would be criminal of me if I said too much about Susan Donnelly’s new poem in advance of your reading – and so, I’ll give this Letter a different look and save the bulk of my commentary until after you’ve enjoyed her piece.  But for readers living far from our locale, let me just say that her poem was triggered by a recent news event that caused quite a stir in staid old Boston: the three-day visit of Britain’s Prince William and Princess Kate in early December. 



Five Different Looks



“The Princess had already stunned

with five different looks.”

­­                                                – The Boston Globe, 12/3/2022



For her first trip to the bathroom

this morning, the poet chooses

a simple pair of Cuddl Duds pj’s,

efficiently donned the evening before.

Then, as the kettle simmers,

she assembles her working outfit:

(vintage L.L. Bean), making it clear

she’s all business, yet loyal

to both nature and Maine.

Her re-use of that CVS

shopping bag—sustainable!—

is also a nod to national chains,

and she wows in the same Talbot’s

puffy coat we’ve seen for years,

showing awareness of inflation.

But look— today she’s added

a brooch at its open collar

thus granting everyone’s need for

a bit of “razzle dazzle.”  It’s true,

she’s one of us, this poet,

who, waving just slightly,

now steps aboard the #77 bus.



––Susan Donnelly



First and foremost, heaven forbid that I might detract from the wry humor of the piece.  But let me hasten to add that Susan plays this poem for far more than laughs – and so I wanted to share a bit about where my thinking was carried.  The Royal Family, of course, always seems to generate a good deal of zealous attention – especially in the wake of shows like The Crown and Harry and Meghan – and our city was abuzz with their spotlit appearances (not to mention the traffic imbroglios caused by their motorcades.)  But Susan used that occasion to reflect, not only on their notoriety, but the very essence of glamour The word first entered the English lexicon from the Scots, and its roots hint at ‘occult knowledge’, the radiance of the fairy realm – a quality, it would seem, nearly every individual thirsts for in our age of social media and self-promotion.  Scroll through the rafts of blog posts friends generate hourly, detailing their ‘exploits’ – or examine the Facebook accounts featuring glorious lunches that just need to be chronicled (complete with rapturous photo-documentation) – and you get the idea that the philosopher’s dictum is being amply demonstrated: esse est percipi – unless we are being seen, we fear we may not exist at all.  And so, as I relished Susan’s poetic account, I couldn’t help but feel myself checking out my own image in the mirror, wondering how my protagonist was doing today in our ongoing movie epic.


Susan, I’m happy to say, has been a frequent Red Letter contributor; she’s the author of six poetry chapbooks and four full-length collections.  The newest is The Maureen Papers and Other Poems (issued by Every Other Thursday Press) whose title sequence was awarded the Samuel Washington Allen Award from the New England Poetry Club.  What I most admire in her work are her portrayals of our everyday existence, presented with such sly clarity, such delicate modulations of our thinking voices, we cannot help but perceive our lives anew and in ways the outer world may never have occasion to notice.




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          



Monday, January 02, 2023

Somerville Photographer JJ Gonson brings the Boston Music Scene and more, to the walls of the Bloc11 Cafe


Elliot Smith photographed by JJ Gonson

You might know JJ Gonson. You may have seen her ubiquitous photograph of Curt Cobain floating around in the ether on the Internet. You may have attended her music venue the ONCE LOUNGE and BALLROOM, or you might have sampled some of her food from her catering company. In any case, I became more familiar with the punk/rock/grunge scene after talking with her at my favorite haunt-- the Bloc 11 Café--where she has an exhibit of her work.

JJ Johnson is a caterer-- in order to make the daily nut. She told me she first got her foothold in Somerville  at Kitchen, Inc., which was located on Somerville Ave.-- across from where Target is now. Then she move to 156 Highland Ave to another kitchen/catering space.

As for her time running the Once Ballroom and Lounge, she told me a plethora of musicians performed there. People like Amanda Palmer, Phoebe Bridgers, Mitszi, a lot of heavy metal bands hit the stage--to name just a few. The ambitious Gonson told me, " " I also run a Somerville-based summer music series at the Boynton Yards development. We use their huge parking lot for our venue--people hear bands playing all day, and have a great time."

During Gonson's college years in the 80s, she was always at clubs like the Rat in Kenmore Square, T.T. the Bear, in Central Square Cambridge,  and many others. The bands playing there were her friends, and she took photos of them in action. Her work was appreciated and bought by such publications as The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, Boston Rock, and others.

In terms of her photography, which started when she was a student at the Massachusetts College of Art, she said " Photos are about memory, what we hold on to, what we choose to preserve." And indeed, Gonson is a curator of her own memory.

One of the many musicians that Gonson befriended and photographed was Elliot Smith.  Smith was an acclaimed song writer with a melancholic sound. He was part of the vibrant music milieu of Portland, Oregon, and released some highly influential albums. Gonson recalled, " I was working in a cafe in Portland, where I met some of Smith's friends. I wound up going to the second concert he ever did. His talent just oozed out of him, his voice, his mastery of the guitar, etc..." Gonson said she did the cover for his first album, and they were close friends for 2 or 3 years. Gonson reflected, "We moved to different places eventually and lost touch. He later committed suicide. He came from a troubled and abusive background. I am still in touch with his sister."

As for her display at the Bloc, she explained " A lot of my pictures are in 'visual storage.' Some are in record stores,  and some are stored at a production company. So I took a lot of them to display on the walls at the Bloc.

Gonson pointed out a portrait she did of Billy Ruane--a champion of the Boston music scene, who passed about 12 years ago. He was responsible for bringing the music scene to the Middle East, a famed venue in Cambridge, Mass. Like Smith, Ruane was troubled--suffering from alcoholism and manic depression-- thus his early death at 52.

As we looked around the said café Gonson had photos of Henry Rollins, Elliot Smith, Curt Cobain and many more on the walls. There was an intensity to these photos that made you stop and look.

Gonson does not make a living from her collection of photography. She said, " My pictures are all over the internet. To track down everyone would be a major project --time-consuming, and not a very lucrative one  at that." Her photo of Curt Cobain for instance, has been used by thousands on the Internet. Gonson laughed, " They even made tattoos  of that photo."

Gonson hopes that her passion will eventually be her sole living. But until then she will cater delicious food, and keep an eyes, or lens out for another fabulous shot.