Saturday, June 17, 2023

Red Letter Poem #164

 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 #164





It’s graduation season – and mine was yesterday.  After forty-four years as a poet-in-residence – working through the Massachusetts Cultural Council and conducting programs in hundreds of elementary and secondary schools throughout the Commonwealth and beyond – I have decided to step away from those larger teaching commitments to make room for. . .whatever my days have in store.  It’s going to involve quite an adjustment, I’m sure – because, for as long as I can remember, a good deal of my psychic energy has been devoted to exploring new ways of turning students on to their own imaginative resources and enrolling them into the vast literary academy where every thoughtful reader matriculates.  Ours is not a species where the just-born are equipped to survive on their own, so we are all beholden to those who came before us, offered shelter, and helped teach us the lay of the land.  I hope it comes as no surprise that every individual – no matter their parental status, profession, or path through this world – has had student and teacher as part of their curriculum vitae.


Since the job of poet will not secure a livelihood for any but the rarest of individuals, we are forced to seek gainful employment in other areas and, in our country, teaching (in some fashion) is the most common choice.  Today’s Red Letter poet, Barry Sternlieb, worked as an elementary and middle school teacher for decades (and an exceptional one, by all accounts) – even while developing his careers as poet, small press publisher, and letterpress printer.  Like most poets I know, he was content to work at other jobs in order to support the primary one he felt he was born to – and most (I am happy to report) would not wish they’d chosen (or were chosen by) some other, more lucrative profession.  Poetry sustains, in ways we never imagined when first starting out on this path.  Perhaps that’s why we are so grateful for those artists, those teachers, who fortified our precarious journey and helped us learn to navigate.  In today’s Letter, Barry shares a poem from Sole Impression, his marvelous retrospective collection published recently by Codhill Press.  The work earned the Pauline Uchmanowicz Award, and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Award in Poetry.  The poem celebrates another storied poet from Western Massachusetts, Paul Metcalf; the great grandson of Herman Melville, Metcalf created his own literary genre with books that are inimitable collages of history, cultural anthropology, natural science, and the cartography of our imaginative life.  Like the Sung Dynasty poet/recluse imagined here in the scroll painting, Paul (and Barry himself, and so many devoted practitioners of this art form) traveled widely but then chose some small corner of the world hospitable to his creative efforts and rooted his life there.  Paul was a mentor and honored member of that literary community, far from the clamor of Boston; Barry speaks with pride about having published a chapbook and several broadsides by his friend.  “The Illumination” (making great use of the varied meanings inherent in that term) pays homage to the small but trustworthy light that results from such a committed life, a beacon capable of guiding other travelers.  Paul Metcalf and his ancient Chinese counterparts have long since graduated into carbon and starlight.  Yet our June night sky is ablaze with all their candles in all their distant windows across the cloud-strewn hills of memory.



The Illumination


for Paul Metcalf  (1917-1999)



As we enter

the old hilltown graveyard,

stone rows rise


toward the church

like a long flight

of stillness, but the afternoon


flows with rain and fog

recalling that Sung Dynasty scroll,

Thatched Hut on Orphan Mountain,


where the nameless hermit

can’t be seen.

Just a wild line


of peaks streaming

into clouds

and the blink


of his one room shack

where a candle

is left burning.



––Barry Sternlieb




The Red Letters 3.0


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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


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Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Shir Lovett-Graff: A Somerville writer who uses humor and eroticism to grapple with vital issues

Recently I caught up with writer Shir Lovett-Graff. She is a new Somerville resident and is attending Harvard Divinity School.

Shir Lovett-Graff is a writer, community organizer, and divinity school student based in Somerville, MA. Originally from New Haven, CT, their work has been published in numerous literary magazines and journals, most recently in EcoTheo Review, West Trestle Review, and The Bangalore Review. They are currently working on a chapbook about trans erotic poetics and climate change, and can be reached via email here.

How has it been for you as a writer in Somerville? I know you are from New Haven—is it a different atmosphere there?

My growth as a writer has taken place primarily in the literary communities of Philadelphia and New Haven—I attended short story reading series, helped found a literary journal, and co-led spiritual writing workshops. My father is a book editor, and my mother is a public librarian, so I grew up immersed in libraries and literary arts. As a new resident of Somerville, I am searching for a writing communities that engage generative practice, diverse voices, and cross-genre collaboration. This summer, I am looking forward to exploring local readings at The Press Room @ Oxford Street, the Grolier Poetry Book Shop, and Cantab Lounge.

You are very much steeped in the Jewish tradition. Does your writing address things that might need to change in Jewish ritual, etc., or shed light on assumptions we make about Jewish practice?

Yes, to all the above. My work contains love letters, open criticisms, and self-deprecating satire directed towards traditional Jewish practice, political ideologies, and cultural norms. I use poetry as a space to play with radical imagination, whether through creating visions of anti-assimilationist Jewish practice or drawing beauty out of centuries of grief and trauma. I am drawn to the idea of translating the untranslatable and writing the impossible. I write as a spiritual practice, and is one of the ways I express, grapple with, and devote myself to a relationship with divinity and ancestry.

Why did you decide to continue your studies at Harvard Divinity?

I initially entered the Master of Theological Studies program at Harvard Divinity School to study religion and politics in a multifaith environment. My interests lie at the intersection of conflict transformation and spiritual care, and over the past two years I have been fortunate to study queer liberation theology, multifaith chaplaincy, decolonial theory and civil resistance.

I could not have anticipated that creative writing would play a part in my studies, but to my surprise, I found poetry woven through my essays and readings. I wrote final papers about decolonial Palestinian poetry, explored queer poetics and liberation theology, and have found a community of artists trying to figure out how writing and faith intersect.

In your bio it states that you are a community activist—how does that play out? Have any of your efforts been in Somerville?

My core organizing work supports incarcerated people across the U.S. and Canada with Jewish resources and penpal connections. Although we work remotely across two countries and seven states, it has been beautiful to connect with Massachusetts-based organizers and activists since moving here. I also run a project collecting oral histories from prison chaplains, and in the next iteration, I hope to interview prison chaplains in the Boston area.

Why should we read your work?

One of the things I find most surprising about myself as a writer is that I am funny. I use humor (and eroticism) as tools to grapple with concepts—climate change, antisemitism, and settler colonialism—I find heartbreaking and heavy. I cannot say whether you should read my work, but I think—I hope—my work serves as a balm to despair and a reminder that creative expression is our blueprint for creating a better world.

For more info:

Monday, June 12, 2023

Somerville Artist and Curator Bess Paupek is on 'Borrowed Time'

 I recently caught up with artist/curator Bess Paupek. The objects of her affection are-- well...objects.

How has it been for you as an artist and curator—living in Somerville?
I moved to Somerville just about 20 years ago when it was the perfectly located and inexpensive city near Boston and Cambridge. I would quickly discover so much more. At that time, and still!, there were so many artists to meet and talk to and to make cool art happenings with, and I fell in love with this amazing city, where friends live and work around every corner. I only just recently moved a couple of miles down the road to East Arlington, but I've kept my studio and practice in Somerville and continue to draw deep inspiration from the people, stories and neighborhoods of Somerville.

According to a press release from Somerville Open Studios you " create experiences out of objects, community and research." Explain.
I source my inspiration from the variety of ways I've been taught to see: some training as an artist, a curator, a museum professional and an academic, how I put things together is a fusion of all of theses tools. As I constantly refine my art-making and curatorial practice, I find myself interested in building experiences for others based on the people and stories around me.

I am drawn most recently to people, their stuff, and their stories about their stuff. I imagine our homes as individual storage rooms for vast collections, the city a container for these worldly possessions. I think a lot about the choices people make in what objects they choose to keep near them. I am interested in considering nostalgia before monetary value, and celebrating and studying the impulse to keep and to collect.

All of this leads me to the model of community-curating that I've been digging into since around 2018. In this model, I don't choose the objects to show - I don't make any of the selections of the objects, purposely de-centering a curatorial voice. Instead I put out a call to the community for loans of their 'stuff', either open-ended or with a specific directive, and whatever I get, I must then turn into what I call an 'exhibition installation', made up of the everyday stuff of the people in my community. I find this model leaves space for a more interesting vision to surface as I listen to the stories of these objects, and find ways that they fit together in the moment.

Most recently I put out a 'call for time' in an effort to build what I called a community time machine. For this show Borrowed Time, I was interested in examining the various ways people think about time, and how much of a healing space we could create for ourselves in this post-pandemic era, aka this period after which our sense of time was vastly shifted. Did we time travel in this time machine? I think so. There is a palpable amount of ancestral energy, history, and sense of time that these heirlooms, objects and stories bring to the surface -- I do believe some sort of momentary time travel takes place in those moments where memory takes over and we forget where we are.

You were a community curator for The Somerville Museum. Can you tell us about that experience?
I was the Community Curator for the Somerville Museum during the first year of the community curator program, in the winter of 2019. It was a wonderful opportunity to make use of this incredible resource right in the center of our city. I am so grateful to the museum for including me in that wonderful program!

What did you learn from the objects that Somerville residents contributed to your project?
My Somerville Museum show Our Stories, Our Stuff, Our Somerville pulled together loans of the heirlooms and prized possessions of 85 residents of the city of Somerville, honoring the stories, individuals, families and ancestors within these objects. What became clear was how much amazing personal history lives within the objects in our households, and how easy it becomes for people to meet and connect when we share the stuff of our life stories. It was a special opportunity for residents to turn their homes inside out and let strangers see the things and hear the stories of what they cherish most. People found similarities in the objects they cherished and kept, and seeing these objects all together seemed to bring on a flood of memory.
I have since continued along the path of exploring domestic objects, and in my show Borrowed Time I simple asked people to 'lend' me their time. In the end, some 53 people loaned me a wide variety of objects that mean time to them - from advent calendars to newspaper clippings, wall clocks and vintage travel clocks to kitchen timers, watches and old electric alarm clocks. This show was held at the gallery at Washington Street Art Center in Somerville, ticking, chiming and creating space for people to leave comments on their thoughts on time.

Why should we view your work?
It is my hope that the relevance of this work speaks for itself, directly to individuals, inviting them to find their own way toward participation, be it via loaning an object to a show or simply experiencing the communal energy of our stuff put together in a space. It is my hope that more and more individuals will learn about this work and participate, and continually to be able to find something of themselves in these gallery experiences I am so grateful to create.

Keep your eye out for the next show, which will most likely focus on clothing. Yep - I am putting it out there that I'm going to be asking folks to lend me objects of clothing. Stay tuned for more on that!