Friday, April 21, 2023

Red Letter Poem #157

 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 #157





Moon Light



Bless her who blessed us with

this gift, this bauble, pharos-


paraphrase of Earth’s,

our satellight, a bubble


to make your room a fable

of seeing through the night.


This 3-D-printed globe,

crater by crater true,


minutely rough—as is,

no doubt, the original


to the soft hand of God—

hankers to show us us.


Who knew it was so light?

—that clinker in the sky,


to rest its ounces on

a wireframe cube of basswood.


Who knew it had a button

to switch from gold to rare


blue, and dim it too?

We said this afternoon,


looking ahead to night,

Last up turns out the Moon!



     ––Charles O. Hartman



Fearing that I might rob you, dear reader, of even a bit of the pleasure contained in today’s offering, I decided to flip the order and present my comments after you’ve read the poem.  “Moon Light” comes from Downfall of the Straight Line, a new manuscript upon which Charles Hartman is just putting the finishing touches.  But since there will necessarily be a lag before you and I can enjoy this, his eighth poetry collection, I’ve found myself going back to his always-intriguing New & Selected Poems (Ahsahta Press, at Boise State University.)  There are abundant pleasures in his complex and spirited approach – but his work raises a question in my mind: how do we learn to sit with poems that may defy easy interpretation or that require our minds to race as nimbly as their creators through interwoven thoughts?  This much is certain: the course between a poet’s heart and the world is, indeed, rarely a straight line. 


This reminded me of something I heard recently on the NPR program Radiolab.  They were devoting their hour to The Universe in Verse which is, by its own description, “an annual charitable celebration of the wonder of reality through stories of science winged with poetry.”  How marvelous to discover that thousands flock each year to their in-person events, or to their website to savor animated poems combined with original music.  Such things represent the triumph of curiosity and delight in an age when science and deep knowing have become suspect in some quarters.  But during their introductions, Radiolab co-host Latif Nasser was honest enough to confess his fear about poetry: that perhaps he just won’t “get it.”  He is not alone.  For many – especially those whose introduction to verse came in a classroom with a less-than-sympathetic instructor – poetry was sometimes used as an assessment device to measure reading comprehension and intellectual dexterity.  Some of my own teachers seemed to believe that poets were simply syntax technicians creating elaborate coded tracts to defy comprehension by the average reader.  But the work of poets like Charles seems to underscore Robert Frost’s famous formulation that poetry “begins in delight and ends in wisdom.”  He – like any fully-empowered child – is more often engaged in a kind of serious play, granting his mind tremendous latitude to reach into unfolding experience and find new ways to grasp what the universe is offering.


Let’s begin with the quiet surprise in the title: not the moonlight we might expect, but a moon(-shaped) (night)light – a gift from one loving friend to a new couple.  And is it the light itself or her love-token that reminds the speaker of that ancient lighthouse in Pharos guiding sailors homeward?  The home (and the mind) certainly does become a ‘fabled’ place within the procession of these luminous couplets.  When you hear the deft and unexpected music within his lines, it will come as little surprise that Charles is also a jazz guitarist.  Reading “pharos/-paraphrase” aloud; or catching the echo between “bauble”, “bubble” and “fable” – it’s hard not to feel these sounds delighting the tongue and ear.  And when he contemplates “the soft hand of God” that “hankers to show us us”, that last bit of reverb pulses out into the atmosphere like a signal beacon.  When, on even the most glorious days, the poet must look “ahead to night”, I’m imagining a happy couple anticipating their warm bed – yet I cannot help but detect a bit of uncertainty in that minor chord, recalling the encompassing ‘night’ we’re all journeying toward.  Again, my heart lifts with his playful enjoinder: “Last up turns out the Moon!” but I’m mindful of that faint overtone of apocalyptic anxiety, picturing our universe quietly extinguished.  Despite what your eighth grade teacher may have implied, there is no one way to 'get' the fullness at the heart of a poem’s unfolding – but there is a more resonant awareness that grows, the precursor of Frost’s wisdom.  Reading “Moon Light”, I find my mind climbing those same stairs, grateful that my own beloved is close at hand.  And perhaps it’s only human that I’ve the urge to add an addendum to the poem: “…and may the first one down in the morning remember to switch on the sun.”




The Red Letters 3.0


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Somerville's Mila Cuda : A Weaver of a Web of Poetry


 Interview with Doug Holder

Recently, I caught up with Somerville poet Mila Cuda. A recent graduate of Wellesley College, she has weaved her poetry into film, slam performance, and other venues.

You are from L.A. -- how has Somerville been for you as an artist, compared to the environs of California?

Somerville offers weather and walkability that Los Angeles simply cannot match. While I love Los Angeles, and am grateful to have been raised in the city of angels, it was time for a change. I was tired of planning my days around traffic — tired of the sparse landscape and (if you can believe it) the sunshine. As a poet who is inspired by nature and time, I love that Somerville allows me to experience the shifting of the seasons. I did not know the true meaning of winter until I moved to the East Coast. I did not know the shades of autumn or the joys of spring. The poetry scene in Los Angeles is vibrant and expansive, but I love how the city of Somerville encourages creativity within a closer community. I can attend The Moth, develop film, pick up fresh produce, return my library books and take a dance class all within a few blocks!

You were lead poetry editor for the film Summertime -- Tell us--how is it for a poet working in film?

The film Summertime was an exciting collaboration unlike anything I had ever done. I worked with 25+ young poets to edit and weave our writing into a cohesive, cinematic narrative. The film was directed by Carlos López Estrada and premiered at Sundance 2020 before releasing in theaters nationwide the summer of 2021. I found that poetry and film are surprisingly alike; they have the ability to distill experiences and immense emotion down to their most essential images. While I have not continued to work in film, I hold this project close to my heart — primarily because I cherish the collaborative creative efforts that went into the making of Summertime, but also in part because it revealed to me the many ways poetry can evolve off the page.

You studied at Wellesley College. Who were your mentors; who inspired you?

Yes! I was lucky enough to study under three wonderful poets: Frank Bidart, Dan Chiasson, and Octavio R. González. Each mentor offered a distinct and valuable insight. Bidart (whose poems I had memorized by heart, long before I knew he was a professor at Wellesley) taught me how a title can make or break a poem. Chiasson taught me to consider the shape of a poem—how enjambment can inform rhythm and setting. González taught me how to balance whimsy and rage. Other inspirations I hold close to my creative heart include Mary Oliver (of course), Hanif Abdurraqib, Jamaal May, Naomi Shihab Nye, Imani Davis, Paul Tran, Tarik Dobbs, Richard Siken, Franny Choi…the list goes on and on and on…

I noticed that you have been described as a Sapphic Slam poet. How would you describe that label?

As a poet who came up in the spoken word scene, and whose queer identity is the heartbeat behind many poems—I have no qualms with the label, though I do feel I have evolved past ‘slam poet’ as a descriptor. I don’t perform often, let alone compete in poetry slams anymore. While that subculture is still alive—beautiful and thriving—it has grown harder for me to find joy in performing. I say performing to distinguish from reading. I don’t think I will ever tire of reading poems for an audience—letting the words speak for themselves without the added pressure and theatrics of slam poetry. Maybe one day I will find my way back…but for now I want to focus on cultivating a relationship between word and reader, experimenting with new forms and methods of expression.

It seems you like all things spiders. Are you spinning a sort of web with your poems in order to capture the reader?

I love this question, and I certainly do hope to capture the reader (in a non-threatening way—haha). The poem I have included below is titled “Wordum Wrixlan,” which is an expression that was used to describe the making of poetry in Old English; it means to weave together words. I learned this phrase in a class called ‘The History of the English language’ — a class I admittedly dropped out of as I struggled to find my footing — my sole takeaway being this concept of weaving words. “Wordum Wrixlan” reflects on my first year at Wellesley College, a time when my writing was heavy with sadness—a teenager struggling to find her place on this cold coast. Back then, I wrote out of necessity. Now, I write out of habit. Some weaver spiders eat their webs at dawn and construct new ones at night. I think of this action as a metaphor for my own writing. It is okay to write at night and delete it all at dawn—to remake and reinvent your art in the name of efficiency, practice and joy.

Tell us about your recent project with the Somerville Arts Council.

Earlier this year, I was awarded a Literature Artist Fellowship from the Somerville Arts Council. For my community benefit project, I created mason jars full of poems (some my own, some by authors I admire) in honor of National Poetry Month and placed them throughout Somerville, encouraging passersby to take a poem to keep with them. I wanted to find a way for folks to celebrate and engage with poetry—especially folks who maybe don’t have the time to attend a workshop or read an entire collection. These jars can be found along the community path, by the new green line extension, on the Somerville library shelves…My hope is that people take a moment to pause and pocket a poem, carrying the words with them as encouragement or inspiration.

Wordum Wrixlan

At eighteen,

impulse and daydream

divided by silkscreen.

The commute to Cheever

is two miles of blind spots,

rounded up.

Each walk,

I want the wind

in the road to make ice

out of me—

stutter into

stained glass.

I write to keep

from spiraling, spinning, drifting,

dancing into traffic.

At twenty-two,

the urge to disappear


& Oma asks

where the poems have gone.

I show her the steady weaver,

yanking sunlight from inside,

scribbling threads

to swallow at dawn.

Patient as an ocean

brought to boil.

Still still.