Saturday, February 18, 2023

The Poetry of the Eternal Now, in Donald Hall’s The One Day, for three Voices at the Cambridge Public Library

The Poetry of the Eternal Now, in Donald Hall’s The One Day,

for three Voices at the Cambridge Public Library

By Michael Todd Steffen  

The Hastings Room Reading Series is excited to announce its upcoming presentation of Donald Hall’s book-length master poem The One Day, adapted for recitation by Michael Todd Steffen, with readers Mary Buchinger, Lisa DeSiro and Steven Ratiner.The reading will take place at the main Cambridge Public Library, 449 Broadway Street, inthe Lecture Hall, at 7pm, on Thursday March 2nd, 2023. Mark your calendars!

Donald Hall needs no introduction. He served as the 14th U.S. Poet Laureate from 2006to 2007. His many awards include the 1987 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and the 1994Ruth Lily Poetry Prize for lifetime achievement.

His first published poems date back to the late 1940s, Hall then in his late teens and early twenties. At age 86 he published his last verse in the Concord Monitor (New Hampshire),a political rhyme which had given Hall great pleasure to write, its subject the opponent of Jeanne Shaheen in the 2014 New Hampshire U.S. Senate race:

Get out of town

You featherheaded carpetbagging Wall Street clown,

Scott Brown.

At the time, Hall commented, he’d stopped writing poetry in the last few years. Poetry was largely sexual, the poet said, and he had run out of testosterone. He was the author of over 50 books across several genres from children’s literature, biography, memoir, essays, including 22 volumes of verse.

The book-length poem The One Day has been described as the greatest achievement in Hall’s poetic career, carrying public power rare in our time, a poetic confidence and inclusiveness that we associate with the major works of Modernism. Yet twenty years after the publication of The One Day, in his memoir Unpacking the Boxes, Hall made reference to his “greatest achievement” in utterly dismissive notes of failure:

Behind my neck roosts a rookery of bad manuscript. To write as much as I have done, I have needed often to fail. There is another book-length poem behind my neck, ten-line stanzas that look like surrealism but are actually bad dada. (page 136)

What is the difference between Surrealism and Dada? Dada is interruptive, unexpected, disjunctive and offensive in order to make criticisms of society and the logic and syntax that give order and direction to society. Surrealism tends to the psychology of dreams and of art. Dada is deliberate and strategic, with social consciousness in its masthead. In presenting an adapted version of The One Day for an audience, our intention is to re-present the generous and brilliant genius that brought Hall to the laborious task of this dark horse of an American masterwork of poetry.

I undertook the adaptation for public presentation with three readers after I’d gone to see The Poets’ Theatre present Dylan Thomas’s radio drama Under Milk Wood at the Sanders Theatre in the autumn of 2015. At the time Hall’s book had become a revelation to me and I was somewhat obsessed by its different voices: mother, son, father and daughter in the first part; in the second part more dramatically the voices, indicated for the text, of Marc and Phyllis in the poem “Pastoral” and the opposition of Senex and Juvenis in the poem “History,” which had won attention by being included in the first (1988) Best American Poetry anthology edited by David Lehman and guests.

Due to its textual length, the diversity of its topical registers from autobiography and the very personal, confessional, to items of modern history and pop culture clashing with ancient literary genres and history – Hall uses anachronism to great effect! – the long poem resists comprehensive analysis. The theme announced by its title (with a possible wink at Joyce’s Ulysses with its echo of epic and action inhabiting the one day, June 16 in Dublin?) suggests in a sense of Eastern mysticism the compression of all the memorable days of one’s life, along with the days recorded in history which become part of a writer’s awareness—all days into the one day of the present, accumulated and ongoing, the never-ending Now.

This involves one of time’s great paradoxes, both what T.S. Eliot named “the ecstasy of the animals,” and the poet/artist’s aspiration for immortality—Shakespeare’s So long as men can breathe or eyes can see…—the timeless expression of the short life through long labor for art:

by these hands I join

the day that will never return. This is the single

day that extends itself, intent as an animal listening

for food, while I chisel at alabaster. All day I know

where the sun is. To seize the hour, I must cast myself

into work that I love, as the keeper hurls

horsemeat to the lion:—I am meat, lion, and keeper…

This passage, and much of the beginning of my adaptation, comes from the beginning of Part III, To Build a House, of the original book-length poem. Initially, editing this manuscript for a public presentation came to me intuitively. Yet as I reflect, I wanted material that welcomed the audience both in theme and in tone. I wanted the reader/listener to get comfortable and settle in before introducing some of the more difficult themes, personal obsessions such as parental indiscretions and failures, as well as social and historical concerns, professional hypocrisies, marital silences, the clash of classes, the awareness of civilization’s rises and ebbs, the apparent inevitability of war, the long-term consequences both of empire and technological advancement, use, dependence, abuse, failure and erosion.

Hall might well have said of this undertaking what Pound said when setting out to write The Cantos: It’s a poem about—everything. In an insightful and very interesting NOTE ON THIS POEM the author imparts to us as a postscript to his book, Hall describes the initial intervention of the whale of inspiration for the poem on him:

The poem began in the fall of 1971. Beginning to emerge from a bad patch of middle-life, I was briefly subject to long and frequent attacks of language. I wrote as rapidly as I could, page after page, loose free verse characterized by abundance and strangeness rather than by anything else, certainly not by art or the discipline of imagination. The meteor shower continued for several weeks. If I drove to the supermarket I carried a notebook: I might stop three times in a ten-minute journey to take dictation…

It would take Hall 17 years to grapple the material into a coherent sequence, which he published as the book The One Day in 1988.The actual recorded intervention of the poem’s inspiration, these “long and frequent attacks of language,” are behind the extraordinary visit to the poet depicted in the poem, toward the beginning of my adaptation, also to treat the audience with something strange and humorous to get the reading going. This passage also is taken from Part III in the poem’s book version:

This afternoon the king and queen of Norway drove

downtown from their consulate to my studio. As we sat

drinking tea together, they were fastidious and democratic;

I had been told: It was not required to curtsy…

When the entourage disappeared into Third Avenue

I changed into jeans and climbed on my sore ankle

to the marble under the skylight. Matisse said, “Work

is paradise”; Rodin, “To work is to live without dying”;

Flaubert, “It passes the time.” For three hours

my mallet tapped while Donatello hovered above me.

Such an extraordinary visit (as unexplained and unsubstantiated as any weird appearance in a dream, which the best poetry models itself on) makes a good equivalence in expression to what Hall describes as the undertow of the especially focused language that came to him emerging from his bad patch of middle-life. We might know and acknowledge the accuracy of the astonishing experience and of its expression. We furthermore may smile at the extraordinary humility of the self-defined realm of the vision upholding the labor of love, listening to Donatello (containing the poet’s first name, Don) hovering above the artist as she taps away with her mallet. In this way, and in so many other ways throughout the poetry of The One Day, the very near and isolated and the utterly present meet with the far away and the far over and lost.

About us:

Mary Buchinger is the author of six poetry collections, including Navigating the Reach (2023), Virology (2022), /klaʊdz/ (2021), and einfühlung /in feeling (2018). Her poetry appears in AGNI, Hollins Critic, Interim, Nimrod, PANK, phoebe, Plume, Salt Hill, Seneca Review, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and elsewhere. She serves on the New England Poetry Club board and teaches at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Boston.

Lisa DeSiro is a writer and musician. Her poetry collections include Simple as a Sonnet(Kelsay Books, 2021), Labor (Nixes Mate Books, 2018), and Grief Dreams (White Knuckle Press, 2017). Her poems have also been published in many literary magazines and anthologies, and set to music by several composers. Lisa works as a professional accompanist and a freelance editor. She resides in Cambridge, MA. Read more about her at

Steven Ratiner has published three poetry chapbooks. His work has appeared in scores of journals in America and abroad including Parnassus, Agni, Hanging Loose, Poet Lore, Salamander, QRLS (Singapore), HaMusach (Israel), and Poetry Australia. He's also written poetry criticism for The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, and The San Francisco Chronicle. Giving Their Word – Conversations with Contemporary Poets was re-issued in a paperback edition (University of Massachusetts Press) and features interviews with many of contemporary poetry’s most important figures, including two interviews with Donald Hall. From 2019 through 2022 Ratiner served as the Poet Laureate for Arlington, Massachusetts.


Michael Todd Steffen is the recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship and an Ibbetson Street Press Poetry Award. His poems have appeared in journals includingThe Boston Globe, E-Verse Radio, The Lyric, The Dark Horse,and The Concord Saunterer.Of his second book, On Earth As It Is, now available from Cervena Barva Press, Joan Houlihan has noted Steffen’s intimate portraits, sense of history, surprising wit and the play of dark and light…the striking combination of the everyday and the transcendent.

The Hastings Room Reading Series is now in its 10th year of hosting poetry events, featuring area poets. We have also organized a yearly Seamus Heaney Memorial Reading, a Happy 100th Prufrock (2017), and, last November, a centenary celebration reading of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

Friday, February 17, 2023

Somerville's Greg Jukes: A musician/performer who tangoes with his instruments.

Recently--I caught up with Greg Jukes, the co-founder of the Somerville-based musical performance group   "The Fourth Wall,"  that explores a new hybrid of the performing arts in which musicians are also dancers and actors. According to Jukes, his group "stretches the boundaries of instrumental performance. The Fourth Wall commissions new interdisciplinary works and reimagines established repertoire to make music that leaps off the stage!"

How has it been for you as a performing artist to live and work in Somerville?

Living in Somerville is fun. It’s a vibrant community with interesting things to do and easy access to the greater-Boston area. That said, it’s an expensive city and as a performer, I barely do any local shows. Thanks to grants from the Somerville Arts Council and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, my main trio, The Fourth Wall, was able to self-produce a few shows at the Crystal Ballroom and the Center for Arts at the Armory in the past year. We mostly perform away from home, having found a lot of success on the Fringe festival circuit around the US and Canada along with teaching/performance residencies at colleges and universities, shows on classical music concert series, and in-school performances in other parts of the state through Young Audiences of Massachusetts. Before the pandemic, we organized a series called The Fourth Wall Presents… where we brought in other artists we loved from the Fringe circuit to share a couple evenings of shows at The Lilypad in Inman and the Cambridge YMCA (RIP to their big, old theater as a local, affordable venue). Sharing great performances with our community was wonderful and we had fabulous audience energy, but it always felt like an uphill battle trying to get the word out about the shows. Even at our best selling events, we only ever barely covered venue rental fees plus expenses and an honorarium for our guest artists without paying ourselves. We became a nonprofit in 2020 which opened up new funding opportunities for us with local and state arts councils, without which we couldn’t have put on the local shows we did this past year. Grant support is huge, but money doesn’t inherently solve our challenges in marketing our work and trying to build a local audience. Maybe we’ll keep trying to establish a following for shows in Somerville, but as more national and international bookings come in for The Fourth Wall and other projects I’m involved with, my identity is probably going to remain as a performing artist who lives here and works elsewhere.

You are a co-founder of the Fourth Wall. On your website the you say the mission statement of your group is to " break down the barriers between serious art and serious fun." How do you do that?

We play classical music, but we do it while riding hoverboards, dancing, or hanging upside down! Rather than doing those things for the spectacle and novelty impact of ridiculous juxtapositions of “high art” and silly tricks, we build our shows and repertoire around a desire to give audiences a unique experience where everyone will have their own favorite moments and things that resonate with them. For some it might be the playfulness of hearing a Chopin waltz while watching the performers zoom around on hoverboards, other might appreciate the serenity of Florence Price’s piano music performed in darkness with lights inside and on the ends of our instruments that evoke fireflies in the night sky, others still might be excited to get the inside joke that the lift we do while playing Stars and Stripes Forever is called a flag.

Do you think a staid, older classical music aficionado could appreciate your hybrid approach to music?

I can say with confidence that they do! We’ve got voracious appetites when it comes to classical music and take pride in sharing a diverse spread of pieces in our shows including works by underrepresented composers, living composers, and arrangements that encourage our audiences to rethink what they consider so-called “classical” music. We also take on iconic works from the classical cannon to offer newer listeners something familiar that they may have heard before. For many aficionados, these pieces have lost their sparkle after being overplayed in the public sphere, but our hybrid arts approach gives them new ways to experience something they’ve maybe written off. Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédie No. 1” has become synonymous with “relaxing classical music” to the point that it feels like an innocuous waiting room track, but it’s really a spectacular piece with an interesting chord progression and a beautiful melody that weaves in and out of dissonance with the accompaniment. Our interpretation rearranges the music from a piano solo to a flute and vibraphone duet in which Hilary (playing flute) and Neil (not playing bass trombone) dance a counterbalancing pas de deux that has Hilary hanging upside down on Neil’s back for the whole second half of the piece. The visual interest and acrobatic spectacle give folks who are over-acquainted with the music a new way to connect to a splendid piece that they might have abandoned after hearing it 10 too many times.

You and your band of performers seem to be dance partners with your instruments. It is hard enough to play an instrument; how do you manage it when you are full flight?

Well, we start off by doing it very poorly! Some of our best pieces have been developed following the words “you know what’s a dumb idea?” One of my favorite things about our creative process in The Fourth Wall is that we give ourselves permission to explore the “dumb ideas,” knowing that behind something silly, we often find something striking. It takes a lot of practice and patience to make sure a piece sounds great even when we’re doing a lift, upside down, or riding hoverboards, but that’s all part of our process and one of the greatest ways we connect with our audiences. Choreography often aids musical memory: by embodying the music, we give ourselves another way to connect to what we’re playing and give context to what happens when.

I noticed a video where you ensemble performs in the middle of a highway. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Ha! That’s an oldie! As a gigging percussionist, I’ve spent many hours on the highways of America in my minivan. Sometimes I’d be the only car on the road late at night after a show and for years I thought it would be cool to do a photoshoot or short video in the middle of the road, but it never seemed practical or safe. The perfect opportunity presented itself on I-80 in northern Indiana when traffic came to a full stop and was backed up for miles with no off ramp. We had just passed the turnoff for a rest area when everything came to a full stop. The car in front of us pulled across the grass median to use the facilities which left a perfect, protected stage space for our antics. It was pretty fun to fulfill that little fantasy. My phone ran out of space/battery during that tango, but we played a few more pieces after that since we were getting some supportive honks and cheers from neighboring cars and folks in the rest area.

You offer classes and workshops. How can Somerville folks access this?

The Fourth Wall’s classes and workshops primarily happen at schools, but what we teach about creativity, communication, leader/followership, and exploration can be great for anyone! College and university performing arts departments are our biggest market followed by grade schools, though these programs usually aren’t open to the public. Sorry to say that we don’t have any public programs near Somerville on the calendar as of now.

On a personal level, I teach private drum lessons online and out of my apartment near Davis. I also co-created an electronic bucket drumming workshop program called the Beat Bus that occasionally does public events at festivals and educational events at schools, summer camps, and field days. Folks can certainly reach out to me for bookings and lesson inquiries!

What will people come way with after witnessing one of your performances?

Refreshed feelings of wonder and joy! That’s the goal, at least. We want our audiences to share a delightful experience with a community of others and leave with fun memories of pieces that made them say “How do they do that!”, made them laugh, and touched their hearts.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Somerville Writer Daphne Kalotay brings us "The Archivists"

I caught up with Somerville writer Daphne Kalotay, who has a new collection of short stories " The Archivists." Published in 20+ languages, Daphne Kalotay’s books include the award-winning novels Russian Winter, Sight Reading, and Blue Hours, and two story collections: Calamity and Other Stories, shortlisted for The Story Prize, and the Grace Paley Prize-winning The Archivists, forthcoming in April 2023. A recipient of fellowships from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, MacDowell, and Yaddo, she lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

You are a Somerville writer and I see you have a story in your new collection that is based in Somerville. It is about the death of a woman who lived with cancer for 9 years. It is, I believe it is about your late friend's life. Setting is so important in fiction--how is Somerville a character in this story?

Yes, multiple stories in the book are set in Somerville, though the town is not named. In the one you refer to, “Heart-Scalded,” the entire story takes place at a party in one of the big old houses I particularly love here—in this case, one that hasn’t yet been fixed up and sold off. The house is inhabited by a few thirty-somethings who rent rooms from the woman’s friend, who also lives there. People at the party include former renters who have moved on—either managed to afford something on their own or taken a job in another state altogether. I think this situation is very real for many folks in Somerville, especially people in the arts, who want to live in town but can’t afford their own place and may eventually have to move away to continue to be able to support themselves (or the more typical “adult” lifestyle we are taught to aspire to). That theme—precarious financial stability in a city that’s been rapidly gentrifying—is a strong throughline in the other story, “Providence,” which addresses gentrification much more explicitly.

I have always been fascinated with food in fiction. Proust had his little madeleine, and you have an obscure French appetizer in your short story " Egg in Aspic."  I remember in graduate school I did my thesis on food in the fiction of Henry Roth. At first my advisor thought my subject would be trivial-- but I proved her wrong. How did you come up with the idea of this morsel as a symbol for the story?

I love that you chose that subject for your thesis! I imagine it was incredibly interesting to write and for your readers. In my case, the idea for this story first came to me through the setting, which then led me to the specific dish. A foodie friend and I had gone to a tiny cramped French restaurant much like the one in the story, and I found it comical that this somewhat physically uncomfortable situation was so coveted. Then, a wonderful artist and thinker living in Somerville at the time, Arlinda Shtuni, invited me to contribute a written component to an art exhibit she was curating for the French Library called “In Search of Lost Memory”—there’s your Proust reference. The theme of the exhibit was how the internet might be affecting our memory, so I had a prompt, and the French tie-in and Proust reference caused me to recall the tiny French restaurant, which I’d always thought would make a great setting for a story. I felt that since the physical space was small, the story itself should be very brief, which would work well with Arlinda’s parameters. I then recalled a dish I’d eaten in France, the oeuf en gelée—or Egg in Aspic—and realized that this amazing concoction perfectly encapsulated what I wanted to say about life and death and our own ephemerality, the way it seems to preserve a tiny scene (with an egg so representative of life and birth) that is then destroyed, and that the people in the restaurant were their own little scene within their own little jellied egg, trying to preserve their moments of experience on their phones, etc. These themes—memory, archives, how we communicate our experience to one another, and what is lost—form much of the connective tissue of The Archivists.

Of course each life will eventually end--you become off the table and out of the game, and then.... gone. But life goes on for the living, for the survivors. In your work you deal with absence--how it affects us-- how it changes our perception--how we need it to truly feel.

 Yes, many of these stories concern survival and perseverance after loss. In some cases, I’m drawing on my own family’s decimation by the Holocaust and what I know of that history from the survivors in my family—what life looks like after. Each person’s way of interpreting the world and moving forward differs from another’s. But absence—whether it’s a namable loss (death, dementia) or just a sense of something missing (loneliness, lovelessness)—certainly has its own shape and effects how we interpret the world around us.

If someone said, "Why should I read this book?" What would be your reply?

To take a break from life and phones and appointments and instead lose yourself in a good story— multiple stories—that will both entertain and move you. To see your familiar world from unfamiliar angles. To enter experiences and mindsets and lives not your own. To laugh and maybe even cry and be transported and nourished.

Kalotay will be reading from her new book in May:

Wednesday, May 17, 7pm at Porter Square Books in Cambridge

Wednesday, May 31st, 7pm at Brookline Booksmith