Saturday, April 29, 2023

Red Letter Poem #158

 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 #158




Years ago, when I was fortunate enough to interview Mary Oliver, I asked about her early introduction to poetry.  Because I felt I hadn’t experienced an inspirational poetry teacher until the middle of my college years, I wondered whether she’d been more fortunate.  She explained that the school she attended in childhood had only the very best instructors: Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley – and she was its solitary student, assiduous and endlessly engaged with these voices of the honored dead.


I suspect Steven Cramer has matriculated at a similar academy.  It’s hardly an uncommon trait among poets – attending to the long-gone voices of beloved writers as fervently as they do those of their husbands and wives – but Steven does more than maintain his avid dialogues with the past.  He is willing to challenge his own consciousness with the demands of this rich tradition in which we writers aspire to participate.  Case in point: this autumn, the always-daring Arrowsmith Press will publish this fine poet’s seventh collection, Departures From Rilke.  Knowing Steven as both a writer and educator (he was the founding director of Lesley University’s MFA Creative Writing program), I was not surprised to experience, in the manuscript Steven shared, a kind of rigorous engagement with what’s generally considered Rainer Maria Rilke’s first great poetic achievement – the two volumes of Neue Gedichte (New Poems) of 1907 and 1908.  But what exactly was the nature of what was being offered?  They’re not really translations, at least not in the academic sense – though several come close and will certainly seem familiar to readers who’ve enjoyed any of the host of Rilke versions available.  And they are more than imitations, that term that Robert Lowell used for his idiosyncratic English renderings from a host of European verse traditions.  The poems here make me imagine that this is what Rilke might have composed had he been born in the US and been thoroughly conversant in the trends of contemporary poetics.  Steven has stripped the originals of their archaic phrasing, their overabundance of adjectives and adverbs, so that each poem’s intention gains tremendous immediacy.  But at their most intriguing, what we have are parallel worlds that Steven felt compelled to explore because of Rilke’s primary conceptions.  And isn’t this what the poetry of a master demands from any student of his work?  Steven carried Rilke – not from German into English – but from one consciousness into another, to breathe in our atmosphere.


So the original “Portrait of My Father as a Young Man” has morphed into “A Photograph of My Father’s Twin” – focusing instead on the uncle Steven never got the chance to know, a casualty of the Second World War.  The power of the poem lies in more than its expected updates – ornamental braid replaced by ammunition pouches; saber hilt becoming a holstered pistol – but in what feels immediately at stake for both poets: the actuality of loss – that of the loved one, coupled with the loss of our very capacity to contain such absence.  Steven grasps here not only his own darkening photograph, and not just the German poet’s dimming memory, but the very moment when we feel ourselves both defined by and inexorably subject to the authority of time.  Is it a comfort, perhaps, that the words, the artistic images, endure beyond our mortal allotment?  Perhaps that answer lies in the poem Rainer and Steven will prompt you and I to write.    




Photograph of My Father’s Twin

K.I.A., Anzio, January 26, 1944



The eyes dream; the forehead

seems to sense some far-off thing.

The mouth seduces without smiling.

Under the ammunition pouches,

one hand rests on a holster clipped

to its pistol belt; the other so at ease

it appears to vanish, as if the first

to grasp what’s waiting in the future.

Everything else about him lies hidden

in a sienna tint so deep, I can’t tell

who this disappearing soldier is.


The picture fades in my fading hand.



             ––Steven Cramer




The Red Letters 3.0


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Thursday, April 27, 2023

Harris Gardner and Ruth Lepson win the New England Poetry Club's Sam Cornish Award


June 25, 3:00 PM | Poetry Reading: Sam Cornish Award   Longfellow House, Cambridge, MA 

Harris Gardner has been the Poetry Editor of Ibbetson Street since 2010. He has auth ored four poetry collections: Chalice of Eros, co-authored with Lainie Senechal; Lest They BecomeAmong Us; and No Time for Death. His numerous publication credits include The Harvard Review, A Poet’s Siddur, Midstream, Cool Plums, Rosebud, Fulcrum, and many others. He co-founded, with Lainie Senechal, Tapestry of Voices and the Boston National Poetry Month Festival; he also co-founded, with Doug Holder, Breaking Bagels with the Bards. Gardner was Poet-in-Residence at Endicott College from 2002-2005. He founded and hosted many poetry venues over the past 22 years, including Boston Borders, Poetry in The Chapel Series (Forest Hills Cemetery), and Mad Poets CafĂ© (Pawtucket, RI). In 2015, Gardner received a Life Time Achievement Award from Ibbetson Street Press and a Citation from the Massachusetts House of Representatives. He is currently a member of the Academy of American Poets.

Ruth Lepson recently retired after 25 years from the New England Conservatory of Music, and is now poet-in-residence emerita. Her books are Dreaming in ColorMorphology and I Went Looking for Youask anyone, and on the way: new and selected poems. Her anthology, Poetry from Sojourner: A Feminist Anthology, was published by the University of Illinois Press. Her poems have appeared in many periodicals, such as Let the Bucket Down, Ploughshares, Agni, Ping Pong, Ecopoetics, spoKe, and The Brooklyn Rail, and New American Poetry and other anthologies. Lepson has taught at Boston College, The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, The Kennedy School, Bentley College, Northeastern, and other Boston-area colleges. Lepson is most proud of volunteering for Oxfam America for 14 years, for which she set up poetry readings to raise money for famine relief. She has collaborated with musicians in all sorts of ways and performed in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Boston. She lives in Cambridge.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Endicott College Undergraduate Filmmaker Foster White brings " Make the Voices Stop" to the Somerville Theatre

" Make the Voices Stop!"


Interview by Doug Holder

Recently, a student in my Boston Literature and Film Class at Endicott College told me he is going to have a short documentary that he produced screened as part of the Boston Student International Film Festival Showcase. The film, along with many others can be viewed at the old and storied vaudevillian Somerville Theatre in Davis Square, Somerville, Massachusetts at 1PM--April 29th. According to the budding filmmaker, undergraduate Foster White:

"The film is named, "Make the Voices Stop!" and the logline is - Identical twins Alex and Aaron have grappled with addiction together for years. However, a distance starts to form between them as Alex gets sober and Aaron's mental health begins to decline. This is my first ever documentary film and I am incredibly proud of it. It follows my twin cousins Alex and Aaron who are both addicted to opioids. I would go to their separate houses a few times a month to get new footage and just check in with the two of them. I got a lot of warning about working on such a big project with my family and especially because it's such an important topic. But I think we were able to make it out okay. I will say that I wish I took those warnings a little more seriously, but in the end it turned out to be fine and I got a lot closer with both of them."

Filmmaker Foster White

Foster White is a senior filmmaking major at Endicott College. Last year his short film, "Skinwalkers of Beverly," represented Endicott College at the IFF Boston Student Showcase. This was in the horror/comedy genre.. He is very excited about the screening of this film that deals with both opioid addiction and mental health issues. About the documentary he has produced, he told me," I think I did the best I could on it." According to White, he always loved being around the camera ever since high school. He has two YouTube channels that he uploads semi-regularly - one is a board game channel and the other are random skits, short films, etc... Foster said,. "Once I graduate I am going to on making more films and take things a lot more seriously as a filmmaker. He reflected. " I would love to return to the narrative realm and focus on horror comedies. I am currently looking for a job somewhere in the creative space whether that's writing, editing or somewhere on a production team. "



Review by Lee Varon

It sounds clichĂ© to say of a book that the author’s words leapt off the page. Yet I can’t think of a better expression to describe the feeling I had when reading the poems of Susan Sklan. The letters on which all of these poems are based, are actual letters written by Sklan’s grandmother who lived in the Warsaw Ghetto before her presumed death in the Treblinka concentration camp. Most of the letters Sklan’s grandmother wrote were to her son (Sklan’s father) in England. He escaped Warsaw to England when he was seventeen, a few weeks before war began. After the war he immigrated to Australia, the only one of his immediate family to survive. These lucid and beautiful poems are reflections on the letters of her grandmother, and often contain her grandmother’s own words.

Although Sklan never met her grandmother, she is obviously very much alive to the poet and becomes alive for us through her poetry.

These poems particularly spoke to me since many of my own grandfather’s Ukrainian Jewish family had perished in pogroms and later, the Holocaust. And like Sklan’s father, my grandfather never spoke of the horrors he had witnessed.

Growing up, Sklan writes, “my sister and I understood intuitively that our father had suffered a terrible loss that was too terrible to talk about.”

The poems in “The Letters,” bear witness to this terrible segment in history. My stomach clenched when I read: “At day break there was/ a knock at the door. Did it wake you/ or were you already waiting? /How did you decide what to take/ and what to leave behind?”

Sklan’s language is simple and clear with strikingly powerful images. The descriptions of the worsening conditions in the ghetto are gut wrenching: “Children run faster, faster. / Thin limbs fly over shadows/ suitcases, bundles of bedding, / around swollen corpses.” And later in the same poem: “A man stuffs his thoughts in his hat/ and wedges it firmly on his head.”

The poet, trying to understand what her grandparents’ life was like, decides to google their street and finds: “Even the iconic holocaust photo of a young boy, / holding his hands above his head/ a submachine gun pointing to him, / the boy with eyes open with fear/ was marched along your street. / Did you see him?”

In a poem entitled simply, “Then There Were No More Letters,” Sklan wonders how her grandmother met her fate: “Did you survive the march to the station/ and be rammed in a train to Treblinka?” And later in this poem this breathtaking line: “You had no choice how you left with your wide awake heart” This single line could be emblematic for all refugees who in the fullness of their lives, are suddenly uprooted, their lives destroyed.

The experience of Sklan’s father was similar to the experience of of other refugees. She writes of him: “a glimmer of hope/ under Sydney sun./ The graffiti scrawled on a Bondi Beach wall, Go Home Reffos/ never let him forget.”

Incredibly, even as Sklan’s grandmother was wasting away in the ghetto, she wrote endlessly hopeful, encouraging, and loving words to her beloved son who she would never see again.

Some of Sklan’s poems are written as letters addressed directly to her departed grandmother as if she could read them beyond the grave. “Dearest Grandmother/ my father took the courage/ you sent him/ and clipped it to his heart.” And later in this poem writing about her father to her departed grandmother: “I want to assure you/ that sometimes happiness found him.”

Sklan speculates what her grandmother might have been like: “What was your hair color?” and “Did you have brothers and sisters? / Who made you laugh? / At the end did you hope, despite the odds/ for more hope?” she asks in a poem entitled, “Just Gone.”

The poet feels that the letters have given her the gift of her grandmother’s voice and she has now brought us this gift of her poems.

One might assume this book about such a dark time in history would be unremittingly depressing but, in fact, this is a book ultimately about hope, courage and fortitude. Of her grandmother Sklan writes: “You gather your coat of courage/ and wave your flowering spirit.” Her grandmother, Sklan writes: “rose to the light,/ despite the deadly pit/ you were forced in.”

I felt, in these words, the poet challenges us all, despite whatever darkness we may find ourselves in, and despite the sadness engulfing our world, to rise to the light.