Saturday, June 03, 2023

Red Letter Poem #31

 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




Dear Reader,


I’m on the road teaching this week, so here’s a Flashback Friday Red Letter you may have missed; it first appeared during the early days of this project.


I’ll be back with a new Letter next week.






Red Letter Poem #31





Not the least of poetry’s strengths (and delights) is its ability to allow us access to another reality: to stand for a few moments in someone else’s shoes, viewing the day through a surprising sensibility, our thoughts informed by a radically different sense of history.  This is one of the first things that attracted me to the poetry of Adnan Onart.  I will never experience the pain inflicted on Crimean Tatars as their country suffered invasions – vivid still in the long memories of his Turkish family – though some of his poems provide me with a mouthful of that anguish.  Nor can I feel those American eyes at my back in some street or market – in this, our post-9/11 circumstance – triggered only by the accent of my voice; but Adnan’s poetry has made me imagine what that tremor must be like.  Poetry confirms what most of us have long suspected: that our lives are dramatically different from each other and, paradoxically, utterly alike.  So it is with “Morning Prayer” – a poem that somehow reminded me of voices as disparate as that of Yehuda Amichai and Wislawa Szymborska.  When the young protagonist is instructed in the ways of prayer, I found something of my eight-year-old self re-awakened, and I remembered what I first yearned for in the world.  And when the much older speaker (an immigrant now in Boston) repeats that same gesture, I suddenly felt how sweet and unpredictable is the nature of our answered prayers.

Adnan lives in Boston, MA. and his work has appeared in a number of journals including Prairie SchoonerColere Magazine, Red Wheel Barrow, and The Massachusetts Review. ”Morning Prayer” was published in his first poetry collection, The Passport You Asked For (The Aeolos Press), coupled with Kenneth Rosen’s Cyprus’ Bad Period He earned an honorable mention in the New England Poetry Club’s Erika Mumford Award, and was one of the winners of the 2011 Nazim Hikmet Poetry Competition.  Discouraged from poetry as a young man in Turkey, he has now begun to find an appreciative audience in his adoptive land.  Talk about paradoxes.


Morning Prayer


In a poor Istanbul neighborhood, 

at the ground floor of our house, 

my great-grandmother says: 

It is time for morning prayer.


If you pray, she says, pure as a child, 

from this corner of the room, 

an angel will appear.


I am five years old closing my eyes. 

Allahü Ekber.


Essallamü alleyküm ve rahmetullah. 

I am fifty opening my eyes.


In Boston, Massachusetts, 

in a not so poor neighborhood 

at the top floor of our house 

praying my morning prayer.


From that corner of the room, 

my great-grandmother appears.


                    ­­–– Adnan Adam Onart




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          


Friday, June 02, 2023

Somerville's Daniel Coughlin: An Artist with a Basketball Jones.

At a recent Open Studio Event in Somerville; I came across an interesting artist Daniel Coughlin. What struck me at first was his work with old basketballs. Coughlin is much more than a basketball artist, and works with many different objects in his practice.

How has Somerville been for you as an artist? What has your experience been like at the Joy Street Studios?

Moving to Somerville represented a significant step forward on my path as an artist. Prior to finding a space at Joy Street I was living in Western Massachusetts where I kept a small home studio. It was isolating on many levels. After a short residency in Berlin (Germany) where I was exposed to a thriving creative community I realized interaction with other artists was vital to the artistic process. Since then my work has greatly benefited from access to the larger Somerville arts community, epitomized by my neighbors here at Joy Street. It's all support. At a time of rapid development in Somerville and the greater Boston area, I hope these communities and art spaces can continue to thrive.

You studied with Cambridge sculptor, Peter DeCamp Haines, and he introduced you to the lost wax bronze casting process. Can you tell us about the process, and how has it manifested itself in your work?

Peter provided my first introduction to a professional art practice. He shared his creative process and taught me the importance of developing your own voice as an artist. He has worked with bronze for decades and during that time created a language that allows viewers to immediately recognize and connect with his art. The lost wax process specifically, allows an artist a high level of control and accuracy in re-creating a wax form in bronze. I have created a number of small bronze works that were an extension of what I learned while working at Peter's studio in Cambridge. I look forward to creating a series of new bronze pieces sometime in the future.

I am particularly interested in your work with basketballs.

The basketball series represents the search for my own artistic process. I've spent years finding, collecting and organizing a library of diverse items that reflect my day-to-day built environment. Using recognizable materials to fabricate structural forms gives viewers immediate access to my process. Additionally, each basketball's unique patina - the weathering of the leather surface - conjures the time, place and histories of these objects. The moment where form and the context of each object or material meet, is the layer where I hope to create and exist as an artist moving forward.

Does your job as an architect inform your work as a sculptor?

Yes, absolutely. My understanding of form, scale and material, and the constraints of factors such as site and space, is a direct result of my architectural training. These elements show up in most of my work.

Why should we view your work?

My work explores the built environment we encounter each day. A new life for a found object, a new use for everyday materials, makes us reconsider our experience in the built world. I hope my work gives viewers a new way to interpret their everyday realities.

The Flounder and Other Stories by John Fulton


The Flounder and Other Stories by John Fulton. Blackwater Press, West Virginia, 168 pages. $18.99.

Book Review by Ed Meek

Some of the best fiction in the past one hundred years or so has come in the form of short stories: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munroe, Tobias Wolf, etc. Short stories have some advantages over novels. They can zero in on a particular time period or a conflict or a problem and they can usually provide the reader with a sense of an ending where the endings of novels can be unsatisfactory. Recently there’s been a trend toward micro-fiction but a well-developed short story creates its own little world of escape and contemplation. And despite the availability of so many other ways to entertain ourselves, Fiction still offers insight into the inner lives of characters in a way that is deeper and more satisfying than film and television to give us a portrait of our lives today.

John Fulton is already an accomplished writer with a novel and two short story collections published. He’s won a Pushcart Prize and appeared in Best American Stories. Fulton has a feel for the uncertainty of our age. In The Flounder, his characters are awkward with each other. They grapple with how to love one another and how to deal with childhood pain from fathers that walked out and mothers who were left fearful and sad. They may have grown up religious, and although they no longer are, they still struggle with what they believe in.

His stories jump right into conflict. A store owner is being held up at gun point and telling the robber to go ahead and shoot him, he’s dying anyway. A young wife confesses to her husband that she slept with someone else just before they leave for a vacation together. Fulton grew up in Montana and lived in Europe for a number of years and he is able to write with authority about both settings and give us an insider’s perspective on the American West and on places like Switzerland and Budapest.

The western writer Bill Kittredge says that in order for fiction to be effective, the writer, like a juggler, has to keep a number of story strands up in the air at once. In the best stories in The Flounder Fulton does just that. In “Nocturne,” a young couple, Miriam and Daniel, who fight a lot, comically have to fight in whispers when they rent rooms from an older Swiss woman because the Swiss do not want to be disturbed, ever. Because the older woman sees them as a happy young couple, they are forced to act as if it is true. Miriam reads Daniel’s journal and discovers he is critical of her. He’s indignant because she invaded his privacy. No one in Fulton’s stories is completely honest or forthright with a partner. Instead, they engage in power struggles while talking around things. Fulton is very good at capturing the nuances of our thoughts and relationships. The title refers to the piece by Chopin and the hostess, one night, plays it beautifully and the music seems to draw the couple back together. In this story and others, Fulton is able to delve into the sex his characters engage in in a way that is completely convincing. Here he pairs the sex with the music. The complexity makes for a great short story. Three other stories in the collection are just as good.

Writers of short stories, like poets, can use the form as a means of experimentation, a kind of how about this? So, collections of short stories are always somewhat uneven. Fulton occasionally violates Chekhov’s dictum about firing the gun by the third act. Two stories are sentimental tales of cold fathers and sad sons. One story is all telling and no showing. But, in a short story collection as in a book of poems, we have to judge the author by his best work. For that reason, The Flounder is well worth reading.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Red Letter Poem #162

 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 #162





What is required of a poet to achieve authenticity in their writing?  Certainly, it’s a quality that readers prize, even if it’s only through intuition or a strange neural excitation that we are alerted to its presence.  I don’t know if it’s a course of study in the innumerable creative writing programs across the country – or whether it can be taught at all – but it’s worthy of consideration because, lacking it, even the most inventive poetry becomes mere pretense and performance.  Across her long career as poet, essayist, translator, and educator, Jane Hirshfield has for me been a touchstone of the authentic, a writer I return to when I feel myself blown off-course by my own inner storms.  And so I’m delighted to debut a new poem in the Red Letters, one that will appear next fall in The Asking: New and Selected Poems (from Knopf), Jane’s 10th collection.  When I encounter a sense of the genuine radiating from a body of work, I can’t help feeling it’s a principle operating in that poet’s life as well, the two inextricably entwined.  There’s a kind of daily practice that slowly shapes the mind’s sensory instrument, our interface with the world.  Such honesty (and, I hasten to add, perilous clarity) can’t simply be turned on when there’s a pen in hand.  Coming across this on the page, it’s as if these voices possess such magnetic force, the iron filings of our consciousness cannot help but respond. 


In our formative years, we often first identify the magnetite of our own authentic voice when it’s unearthed in response to that of some other much-loved writer.  We suddenly apprehend just how much one mind can invest in language and, once initiated into this rare literary brother/sisterhood, can’t help but mine our days for this precious ore.  It doesn’t surprise me that there’s a whole genre of poetic memoir in praise of lost poets, honored mentors.  I think of Donald Hall's Their Ancient Glittering Eyes, remembering the likes of Pound and Eliot; or Eileen Simpson's Poets in Their Youth, focusing on John Berryman and company.  Jane is herself unfailingly generous in her praise of poets and artists who’ve helped identify and reinforce her sense of this artistic necessity.  And so, upon learning that the great Polish poet Adam Zagajewski had died, Jane told me she spent a day rereading each of his collections, astonished that one’s life work can be so compressed and yet so consequential.  In today’s poem, she remembers a walk she once took with Adam leading, it seems, from the streets of Kraków down to the banks of the Lethe.  Delicately, she touches on the poet’s life, on and off the page, as only one can who has spent her own lifetime in similar pursuits.  It feels to me as if the wind rises and falls through these stanzas, sweeping thoughts away, allowing new ones to settle.  It is her unmistakable regard for this writer that guides our steps.


Judging from today’s literary marketplace, it’s hard to remember that – before the 1950s and the post-war boom in MFA programs – poetry was more of a passionate calling than a career.  I think young writers these days have developed an unprecedented expertise in building audience, developing a creative brand, and harnessing technology to capitalize on their endeavors.  The challenge, still, is whether they’ve also figured out how to connect their language-making abilities to what is most essential in their beings.  The finest poetry is always about more fully inhabiting one’s own life, and comprehending the ways each life is connected to the totality of the living – both in this present moment and the ineluctable past.  This experience of connectivity is, perhaps, the primary purpose of literature and, without it, meaning bleeds away from existence.  Such awareness requires that you write with a different sense of urgency, knowing what is ultimately hanging in the balance.  Without it, how can you expect the work to sustain you, or offer sustenance to a stranger?


A student once asked me the question: what’s required of a writer who desires such authenticity in their work?  I answered, perhaps too quickly: simply everything.  Was I romanticizing, overstating the situation?  Thinking now of the work of Adam Zagajewski – and reading poets like Jane Hirshfield today – what’s the requisite price of admission?  Not everything – just everything that matters. 



Letter to Adam Zagajewski 





As if walking the Old Town of Kraków

in one quick half hour

in the midst of a lengthening conversation—

in one afternoon and an evening, a life's work can be read.


Of all you had hoped for, much did arrive.


A new saeculum opened – however briefly – its windows.                     

You loved and were loved. 

Your poems became themselves fully.

Also more sad.


The passion for birds, animals, insects, cities, mystics,

stayed for a lifetime.


To them, you compared many things.


The wind yawned for you once like a foxhound.

Dusk spoke in Sanskrit.


You noted, calmly, the earth's indifference,

then noted its chestnut trees' openings, summonings, calls.


You lived in three countries, carried three countries' passports.

Time stamped onto each of their pages

its visas' ornate, colored inks:

griefs, loves, meals, musics, haircuts.


Is it now—already so quickly?—for you

as you once imagined for poets then already dead?


“Their doubts vanished with them,” you wrote.

“Their rapture lives.”



                                     ––Jane Hirshfield



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