Saturday, April 01, 2023

Red Letter Poem #154

 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 #154





My mind seems to go there of its own volition: last snow erased, sun returned, afternoons outdoors – and I can almost feel their presence, these tightly-wrapped buds, surprising bits of color.  I’m excited by the knowledge that each pert slow-motion eruption contains whole worlds not-yet-visible, filling the mind with its flowering, with the fruitfulness that must follow. 


Not garden blossoms (though they, too, are a captivating presence these days); no, I’m thinking about haiku – those potent three-line poems from Japan that have proliferated across the planet, one of the most popular forms of poetry written today.  And since the form is predicated on careful observation of the natural world, it is integral to every season, not just this one; but as I watch spring rapidly remaking the New England landscape, I seem to find myself scanning my bookshelf for titles by Basho, Buson, Issa, Shiki. . .and, not surprisingly, Arlington’s own Brad Bennett.  Featured several times previously in the Letters, Brad is a contemporary practitioner and teacher par excellence of this literary form whose roots extend, first, back to medieval Japan – and then a millennia further to the Chinese four-line jintishi.   He’s a writer wholly committed to the practice, which means to the daily discipline of being present to the most extraordinary and the most mundane of experiences – searching for the focused image that somehow unlocks an unseen world.  So I asked Brad for a sampling of his spring haiku to help us celebrate both the new season and serve as a prelude to April’s Poetry Month.


Most of Brad’s haiku resemble what we typically expect – visually-clear, psychically-charged three-line verses.  But some of his poems are the newer style of one-line haiku which, in ways, more closely resembles how the poem had traditionally been written: a single line of characters descending from the top of the page, where only a kireji, or cutting word demarcates the end of a phrase, often hinting at a parallel train of thought or prompting a sudden leap.  Take this poem for example:


spring clouds I have yet to write


You can see where thought suddenly jumps the track and veers into a new direction (were those spring clouds what the poet intended to compose – or a gentle scolding that the poet had yet to lift the pen that day?)  And how would you parse the syntax for this one-line gem:


each day follows the next duckling


Again, my mind flirts with an imagined comma, wholly shifting the meaning.  Some of these poems are taken from Brad’s earlier collection, a drop of pond, or the recently-published a box of feathers – both issued by Red Moon Press.  Returning each day to poems like these, I notice a bit more of their unfolding – not unlike the early daffodils in my wife’s garden; and this means I am watching how language seeds and takes root within my own mind, adding a fertility both unexpected and tremendously pleasurable.  The haiku is not a display of the writer’s verbal acuity; it is a thought-mechanism lending its generator to the reader, an invitation to more fully participate in this moment.  And this.  And of course. . .



Spring Haiku



my first

first warbler poem—

a break in the rain




the dead owl

mostly soil



kite weather

an inchworm spins

at the end of a thread



cumulus clouds

a wheelbarrow full

of topsoil



  ––Brad Bennett




The Red Letters 3.0


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Andrea Read: Of Academic Pedigree and the Common Touch


Article by Doug Holder

I met with poet Andrea Read after I heard about her work for the Somerville Cultural Capacity Plan  that will happen in late April. This project will involve conversations with artists and writers. Read will lead the discussion with writers--asking them pointed questions about their needs in the community.

Read told me she was previously renting an apartment in Cambridge, but she kept going through Somerville on her way to the Home Depot. She reminisced, " I loved that Somerville was hilly, and I could see a lot of vegetable gardens around. I felt at home in Somerville." So eventually she bought a house  (not far from where I interviewed her--the Bloc 11 Cafe)-- and seems to be happy with it.

In 2015 Read ( who has a PhD in Romance Languages from the University of Chicago), got her MFA from Lesley University. She told me, "I had  fabulous teachers, such as: Kevin Prufer, Steven Cramer, Cate Marvin  Teresa Calder, and others.

Back in the day, Read worked in the theatre as a dramaturge--where she read original scripts-- in order to decide what the theatre might be interested in  She worked at the Organic Theatre in Chicago. Later when she was studying poetry and art in Spain--she loved the fact that other poets and artists mentored her. She reflected,  "But in the states it is different-- so I decided to go to the low residency program at Lesley. She continued, " I was at a crossroads in my life. I could have been an academic or poet--I chose to concentrate on my creative side."

A number of years back Read started running a poetry group for the Little Sisters of the Poor ( now run by the VNA)  on Highland Ave. in Somerville. Read told me about her experiences there, " With this group there were special challenges. Although the group membership are not cognitively challenged-- I have to make accommodations with folks who have hearing and vision issues, for instance. The same people who joined in 2018 are still coming to the group--unless they passed away, of course. The members are not filtered--they say what is on their mind. They are open to the creative exercises that I bring to the plate". She continued, " One member who used to travel a lot, and cannot now--said she now travels in her imagination."

Read is a strong advocate for poetry as a healing agent. And indeed, Read brings poetry and healing--here, in the Paris of New England--Somerville, Ma.

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Psalms Composed in Utter Darkness by Dennis Daly.


Psalms Composed in Utter Darkness by Dennis Daly. Dos Madres Press, Ohio, 50 pages. $19.

Review by Ed Meek

We deceive ourselves, and there’s no truth in us. Why then belike we must sin. And so consequently die. Ay, we must die an everlasting death. –Marlowe

New England poet Dennis Daly, like John Milton in Paradise Lost, uses the elevated language of poetry to write about the human condition. Where Milton chronicles the fall of mankind from Eden, Daly writes from the point of view of Dr. Faustus who sold his soul to the devil for personal gain. Satan in Milton’s epic poem thinks it is “better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.” In our Anthropocene era, we are the masters of our planet and our fate. Yet, has our hubris led us on the wrong path? We are on our way to finding that out and Dennis Daly gives us much to think about in this regard in his excellent new book of 50 psalms.

In Psalm eight Daly says, “Outwardly fools believe in Something/ Inwardly fools believe in Nothing.” That certainly seems to capture the shallowness of many public figures today. Daly goes on to delve into the issues raised by Dr. Faustus who at first might seem an unlikely candidate for an American everyman and yet, the “doctor turned necromancer who makes a pact with the devil in order to obtain knowledge and power” sounds like he’d be right at home in our current period. Unfortunately, the deal is a little too good to be true and eventually the good doctor pays the price of eternal damnation. Word to the wise, friends.

Faustus goes on to ask, “Must we sacrifice our inventions, / Our hard-won constructions of justice, / Our free will?” We have accomplished a few things, haven’t we? Do we really need to return to the past when we were in God’s good graces?

Daly’s Faustus has compassion for those of us in the same boat as he. “Blessed be the lost creatures, / the God-forsaken ones...”

Daly’s book raises questions like: What do we actually believe in today? Many of us would identify with Daly’s narrator: “I thirst, Lord, thirst for knowledge.” Will we find it in our “ink-slathered forsaken world”? Or will we end up like Dr. Faustus in the nether regions?

Faustus hopes the Lord will change his fate and give him (and us) a reprieve.

Judge me, a bloody, guileful man,

Who regrets all anger and impious cuts

That once governed my every step,

Who died in shreds, torn by demons

Called upon by contracted dread.

Yet each agreement expires

Over time as dissolution reverses

And entities revive upward,

As certainty and doubt determine

Your godly will, or a game of thrown dice.

Here Daly is echoing the famous statement by Einstein: “God does not play dice with the universe.” But Einstein later explained that “God tirelessly plays dice under laws which he himself prescribed.”

In Psalms Composed in Utter Darkness, Daly, like a monk in a monastery, pleads for the many of us who are lost souls in contemplative, memorable psalms that are, like those from the Bible, worthy of repeated readings. Add Dennis Daly’s new book to your library and consult it often.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Poet Doug Holder Interviewed on WriteSeen   

Professor /Poet Janet Sylvester to Read at Endicott College April 24, 2023 4PM

Janet Sylvester


Winner of a Pushcart Prize, a PEN Discovery Award, a DeWitt-Wallace Reader's Digest Fellowship to the MacDowell Colony and fellowships to Yaddo and VCCA, Janet Sylvester's poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including the Best American Poetry, Georgia Review, Poetry Daily, Boulevard, Harvard Review, Sugar House Review, and Colorado Review. She teaches writing courses at Harvard Summer School, Harvard Extension and Endicott College.

Open to the Public.

Handicap Accessible.

Open Mic.

Halle Library

Endicott College/


Monday, March 27, 2023

Dirtbag, Massachusetts, A Confessional by Isaac Fitzgerald.


Dirtbag, Massachusetts, A Confessional by Isaac Fitzgerald. Bloomsbury Publishing, New York, 2022. 240 pages, S27.00.

Review by Ed Meek

Isaac Fitzgerald is a literary celebrity. He appears on The Today Show and recommends books. He has a very enthusiastic demeanor and a bubbly personality. Intermittently, when speaking, he puts his hand on his heart. Dirtbag, Massachusetts (a name his friend gave to a town in Massachusetts) is a collection of his essays focusing on periods of his life from early childhood to the present.

In his poem “What Thou Lovest Well, Remains American,” the poet Richard Hugo says “You blame this neighborhood for your failure. / In some vague way, the Grubskis degraded you/ beyond repair.” To apply this to Fitzgerald, for “the Grubskis” substitute “your parents.” Like Hugo, Fitzgerald goes on to become quite successful and like Hugo, he had an unhappy childhood and he sees the world from the perspective of someone who was victimized in Fitzgerald’s case by a physically abusive father and a needy, emotionally abusive mother.

Hugo remained humble and surprised at his late life success and happiness and his past lent him a level of gravitas. He responded to his past the way a lot of comedians respond to their pain, with a kind of cynical humor. “You might come her Sunday on a whim, / Say your life broke down.” (“Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg”). Fitzgerald’s response is more emotional. “At some point, if we’ve grown close, I’ll reward you by breaking down and crying over dinner, detailing the pain. The suffering.” So, Fitzgerald is rewarding us by sharing his pain. In the concluding chapter, Fitzgerald tells us: “My hope is that you’ll take one thing away from all this, maybe the only life lesson I’ve learned: Do not put off acknowledging your pain.”

If you find yourself nodding along with that sentiment, and you are in the market for life lessons, this is the book for you. Of course, this is the age of victimhood, isn’t it? Who among us hasn’t suffered or been attacked or abused or victimized? I have. My wife has. My brother who was apparently physically abused by my mother who was an undiagnosed manic depressive, herself the victim of shock treatments, moved to northern Maine in his twenties and never came back, not even for the funerals of our parents. Fitzgerald, now successful and happy, remains emotionally vulnerable and he explains why in Dirtbag.

The first few chapters cover his childhood, from a homeless period in Boston, when his parents depended on the Catholic church for help, (he loses faith in the church because of the predatory priest scandal) to a move to a working-class town in central Massachusetts where he became, for a short period, “the fat kid.” To tough early teen years of drugs, early sex and fights, to a transition to life in a boarding school where he was the scholarship boy who had to work part time. After an uneventful college experience, he is on to San Francisco where he finds home in a bar as both a patron and a bartender. This is not just any bar, but a “Tender Bar” (as in the book and movie) where Fitzgerald makes close friends and hangs out in his off hours.

The book and his life then take a couple of side trips. He goes to Burma with a Christian “humanitarian service movement” called FBR, the Free Burma Rangers, who work with people in the “conflict zones of Burma, Iraq, and Sudan.” This is a surprising and interesting move by Fitzgerald. It should be compelling but his focus remains squarely on himself in this mission. He finds he is a happy guy riding around on a motorcycle delivering supplies to people. If you want to find out what the FBR is really doing there, you have to go outside Dirtbag and look it up.

In the next chapter, Fitzgerald returns to San Francisco and hooks up with a company that makes porn movies. He is hired, first as an extra and then as a participant. “The fact is, I enjoyed porn.” He bonds with his fellow “models” and finds another “chosen family.” He also sees the experience as a version of sex education, getting more comfortable with his own body and how to communicate with partners about sexual needs and practices. Again, there is really a lack of self-reflection, depth and perspective in how Fitzgerald processes these experiences. I’m not a puritan by any means but the idea of being paid 300 dollars to be in a porn movie just seems appalling to me. Fitzgerald raises no questions about what might be objectionable or distasteful about this.

The last chapter is probably the best one in that he talks there about the abuse from his father, the neediness of his mother, and how his family, including half-sisters and cousins are still working to grow and heal. His parents, like him have followed a long, slow path of growth and healing.

In a review of Tar in The New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith says that millennials have managed to hold people (like Lydia Tar) to account for unethical behavior. They have determined that “No middle-aged person should use any young adult as an instrument or tool, sexually or otherwise.” This is a good thing. But “the holiness of always being the injured party” as Maya Angelou puts it, is a form of self-indulgence. Hugo longs for a life “the world will never let you have until the town you came from dies inside.” But it isn’t always easy to let the town you came from die.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Somerville Artist George Teshu: A painter of sensuality and spirituality

Interview by Doug Holder

I noticed that the Somerville Media Center is to have an art exhibit in April  and George Teshu is one of the exhibitors. I caught up with Teshu recently--and we talked about his colorful and evocative paintings, and his perception of art and life.

 How has it been for you as an artist living in the Somerville/Cambridge area?

I moved to North Cambridge with my family in 1992.  We had a close friend who lived in Davis Square at that time.  I was amazed at the extent of artistic activity in Somerville-Cambridge.  It seemed like there were lots of creative people of all kinds everywhere.  I had not painted for about 18 years.  What was going on around me inspired me to pick up a paintbrush again.  I've been painting since.
You were influenced by your upbringing in the Russian Orthodox Church. This is reflected in your work. Are you a religious man--do you find that art gives you a sense of transcendence?
I am not a member of any organized religion now.  I view myself however as a spiritual person.  As far as transcendence, yes I feel that my art does lift me into a transcendent state of being.  I feel very fortunate in that way.  I have read that scientific studies have shown that something very unusual happens in the brain when one is creating art.  What I know is that it is very relaxing and therapeutic for me.  I am lifted into a serene state outside of the everyday world and outside of time.
You choose to focus on the female form, why?
I believe that in one's art one should focus on what is inspiring, which is different for every person.  That is what I do.  I have always viewed women as beautiful divine beings, angels, goddesses, that I am in awe of.  I don't know why, but I have always been that way.  That is why they are the focus of my art.  For me they are the pathway to the divine.
You wrote that at times you feel more like the paint brush, than the painter. As a poet sometimes I feel more like a pen than poet. Do you feel there is some divine inspiration going on here, or is it the sensibility/circuitry  of your brain that leads you here?
This is a question that artists have asked for thousands of years, and I don't have an answer for it, that is, "What is the source of art?"  The ancient Greeks talked about the Muses, beings who bestowed inspiring works of art upon humans.  There is and has always been a sense that art comes from somewhere outside of ourselves.  The painter becomes the paintbrush.  The writer becomes the typewriter.  The musicians hands are moved by some invisible force.  A friend tells me that I am channeling the women in my paintings.  I guess that could be true.  I don't concern myself too much with what the source of my art is.  I just accept that it is a gift which has been given to me, which I am grateful for.  And I believe that it is always best if one has been given a gift to share it.
You say you want to create a Garden of Eden with your art. What would that look like?
The Garden of Eden for me is a place of love, harmony and beauty.  And a oneness with nature.  Beyond being a physical place, it is a state of being and a state of mind which we are all able to access.  Beauty can be found anywhere.  Love can be found anywhere.  We always have that choice as humans, whoever we are or whatever our situation, to live in that state of being, to enter that Garden of Eden.
Why should we view your art?
I never insist that anyone view my work, or question whatever reaction they may have to it.  One's reaction to an artwork is always very individual and personal.  We are all different, with different tastes and interests.  I simply offer my art as a gift to be accepted or not.  I never question either response.  

I love art museums and galleries.  Some people have told me that they love my work, or that they love a specific painting that I have created.  I myself love going to museums and galleries.  On a day when I get to see an artwork that I truly love, that is a great day for me.  The times that I am able to do something like that for someone else, or even come close, that's a great feeling.