Friday, July 21, 2023

Red Letter Poem #169

 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 #169






Swift River Ballad



A winter sky darkens above Swift River;

Regulars gather at Charlie's Bar & Grill.

"I Fall to Pieces" plays on the old jukebox

Beside the grudge-handled cigarette machine.


Regulars gather at Charlie’s Bar & Grill:

There’s a faint smell of sawdust and spent dreams.

Beside the grudge-handled cigarette machine,

A grit-voiced redhead staggers from cheap gin.


There’s a faint smell of sawdust and spent dreams:

Five or six local boys get high out back.

A grit-voiced redhead staggers from cheap gin:

Who's gonna buy the lady another drink?


Five or six local boys get high out back:

Money is scarce and jobs are hard to come by.

Some guy buys Julianne another drink.

Larry, that's Butch's kid, his wife just left him ...


Money is scarce and jobs are hard to come by:

“I Fall to Pieces” plays on the old jukebox.

Like a comfortless man whose wife’s just left him,

A winter sky darkens above Swift River.



                              ––Thomas DeFreitas



There is a give-and-take interplay of energies within us – as individuals, as a culture: one force that wants to break loose from all form and spiral outward toward absolute freedom; and another that feels the need to contract, condense, solidify our understanding into a design whose dimensions will offer comfort (while still providing a jumping-off place for exploration.)  For the better part of a century, poetry and art in the West worked hard to escape the shackles of established principles and historical precedent, to invent new creations that felt as volatile and unimaginable as the age we find ourselves struggling through.  And even though unbridled experimentation continues to thrive today, we also see a resurgence of form and stricture in art-making – an aesthetic that stands in contrast to the lax vision or slack music that marks the more populist anything-goes creative expression.  Perhaps when we experience so much chaos all around us, the promise of, say, a sonnet or a villanelle (even in forms that have been treated to radical contemporary make-overs) is that what’s most essential will cohere – and, by extension, our lives, our dreams may also endure.


Thomas DeFreitas returns to the Red Letters with a new piece – the title poem from his forthcoming collection from Kelsay Books.  In the scene he portrays – one that could be taking place in any number of hardscrabble towns, in Massachusetts or beyond – the Bacchic forces of delight and dissolution are tempered by an undercurrent of despair.  But the poet has framed his tableau within the elegant design of the pantoum, a Malaysian verse form dating from the 15th century.  It’s built upon a series of interwoven quatrains where the second and fourth lines of the opening stanza are repurposed as the first and third lines in the subsequent one, and so on.  And thus we feel that tug of war between chaos and stasis in our lives – the heart keeping a look-out for a daring stab at possibility, while remaining in the comfortable embrace of Love’s Old Sweet Song.  Asked about the origin of the poem, Thomas said he aspired to a voice somewhere between James Wright and Bruce Springsteen (not that I’d ever compare myself to either of the masters, he quickly added.)  I took that to mean he desired a certain blue-collar reality where beauty and hard truths square off on the dance floor until they either come to blows or someone buys another round.  Thomas’ careful eye notes the sort of telling details that bring the drama to the lip of the stage, and his sympathetic heart seems to bear a quiet affection for these folks – for the hard days and jagged narratives that lured them out to Charlie’s this evening, and for those small moments of tenderness that might be enough to convey them safely to their beds.




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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Thursday, July 20, 2023

Somerville Artist Sam Fein: An artist who explores human relations, power structures with vivid art.

According to Sam Fein's website, "Sam Fein is a contemporary painter who explores human relations and emotional conditions within social frameworks of power. Drawing upon her upbringing in the American Southwest, Fein fuses memory and imagination with present-day events."

I recently caught up with her to talk a bit about her life and work....

First-- How has it been for you living and working in Somerville?

I have been part of the artist community at Joy Street Studios for the last 5 years. When I relocated to Boston, it was so important for me to find studio space in a shared building so that I could build my creative network and be a part of the local artist community. With all the development happening around us, many artists are concerned for the future viability of Somerville's creative community.

According to your website you were brought up in the Southwest, and this informs your work. How so?

I grew up in Southern Arizona, and oftentimes my artwork incorporates visual references unique to the Sonoran Desert. For example, my paintings incorporate desert creatures such as gila monsters and cacti that can only be found in the region. These images connect me with my upbringing. I also appreciate the metaphor of living beings needing a prickly exterior in order to survive harsh conditions.

From the paintings I viewed it is clear that you use vivid colors, characters, and there is a lot of movement going on. There is also a very dark undercurrent going on, too. Explain.

I create densely-layered narratives that fuse personal history and imagination with ongoing research and present-day events. The result is a form of visual storytelling that is both comedic and bizarre. I embrace paradox and complexity within the lived experience, and it is thus fitting that my narratives express abstract ideas in a nuanced, complex manner.

Tell us a bit about some projects you have been working on.

Last year I received a curatorial fellowship from ApexArt, and I have spent much of this last year creating the interdisciplinary art exhibit The Corrections, The Corrections is directly inspired by my work as a grassroots organizer, and showcases artwork by survivors of institutional abuse. The participating artists draw upon their first-hand experiences to expose the inner workings of the multibillion dollar behavioral modification industry known as the Troubled Teen Industry (TTI). The exhibition is a form of activism, empowering survivors to resist the institutions designed to silence them and celebrating their resiliency and dedication to fight this carceral system.

Can you tell us a bit about your work as a community organizer and educator, and how it fits in to your creative life?

As a grassroots organizer, I am passionate about disability justice, decarceration, and keeping vulnerable populations in their communities. I work with survivors of institutional abuse and educate and advocate for youth currently held in congregate care settings. The recurring themes in my work as an organizer oftentimes spill into my work as an artist. In my creative practice, I am interested in social frameworks of power, how they are expressed in relationships and embodied internally. My recent project The Corrections directly confronted some of these issues and included a protest at the Massachusetts State House to #StopTheShock. Activists of the #StopTheShock campaign are asking lawmakers to pass MA Bill H.180, legislation that would ban the use of physical pain in congregate care settings as well as other practices that deny a reasonable existence for people with disabilities. There will be another protest when Bill H.180 is brought to a hearing this fall.

Why should we view your work?

By design, so-called "corrective" institutions remove a person from society. My work challenges assumptions about how is entitled to inhabit civil society and who "deserves" removal. I present uncomfortable truths about society's ongoing use of surveillance, confinement, and forced removal. I also give voice to experiences that are overlooked by mainstream society. My hope is that my work elicits feelings of compassion, understanding, and support for community-based alternatives.

Monday, July 17, 2023

Walt Whitman and the Making of Jewish American Poetry By Dara Barnat


Interview by New England Poetry Club Co-President Doug Holder

In (2007) when I was running workshops for the Voices of Israel organization based in Israel-- one of the workshop members was a young poet Dara Barnat. Well, since then she has become a distinguished academic at Tel Aviv University , and has come out with a fascinating piece of scholarship. I caught up with her recently to talk about her new book Walt Whitman and the Making of Jewish American Poetry.

In a sense Whitman looked rabbinical with his long, white flowing beard—so even visually he could be construed as a Jew. Was he ever mistaken for one during his life?

Doug, first, thank you for these thoughtful questions and your interest in Walt Whitman and the Making of Jewish American Poetry, which is set to come out with the University of Iowa Press (Iowa Whitman Series). I’ll do my best to give some thoughtful answers. Though I’ve been asked a few times whether Whitman was actually Jewish (he wasn’t), I’ve haven’t read anything about him being mistaken for a Jewish person. However, in 1842, Whitman wrote a journalistic article called “Doings at the Synagogue,” about visiting a service in a synagogue on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. That article by Whitman was for me a natural starting point for discussing the numerous Jewish American poets that would come to react to, adopt, embrace, and argue with Whitman. Certainly, in many iconic photographs of Whitman, like those in later editions of Leaves of Grass, Whitman has that long grandfatherly beard. I believe it was a brilliant choice by the cover designer Ashley Muehlbauer to use a photo of Whitman that was taken in 1878 by the photographer Napoleon Sarony. This photo can be found at The Walt Whitman Archive ( along with a myriad of other Whitman-related poems, texts, manuscripts, images, and criticism. To me, the image deeply resonates with the topic of the book and adds layers of meaning in the Jewish context by evoking a rabbinical Whitman. Here’s the link to the photo:

Whitman fits the image of the Wandering Jew-who in legend was condemned by Jesus to wander the earth until the Second Coming. Whitman was an Adonis of wandering, and on his travels, he took in everything he saw and used it in his flowing free verse.

That’s an interesting association and I agree about Whitman’s free verse form. In Whitman’s poetry, there doesn’t seem to be any person, place, or thing too small or insignificant to bring into a poem. I might not say that Whitman was “condemned” to walk eternally, like in the myth of the Wandering Jew – often in Whitman, walking (whether in the city or in nature) is depicted as a joyful and exuberant act, like in lines from section eight of the 1891-92 version of “Song of Myself,” “Pleasantly and well-suited I walk, / Wither I walk I cannot define, but I know it is good, / The whole universe indicates that it is good.” This walking, witnessing, and recording in poetry what one sees is later reflected in the work of various Jewish American poets, each with different styles and ways of doing so, like Charles Reznikoff and Allen Ginsberg. The poetry of Gerald Stern has this quality, as does Muriel Rukeyser’s (though again, in distinct fashions). A commonality between all these poets is that the trope of walking is essentially democratic – a way for the poet to honor everything and everyone, and to bring those on the margins and the sidelines into the center.

Matt Miller opined in a blurb for the book that you show how Jewish poets redefined Whitman, how so?

I believe that Matt Miller’s remark here relates to Whitman’s legacy, and how it is shaped by the poets, writers, and critics that respond to him. In the case of this book, I specifically examine the tradition of Jewish American poets (and primarily English-language poets, with the fascinating turn to Whitman by Yiddish-language Jewish poets discussed, but largely beyond the scope of my project). I’ve long been drawn to issues of critical reception – how perceptions of Whitman as an iconic poet change radically according to literary, historical, cultural, and political shifts. I trace interpretations of Whitman in Jewish American poetry, prose, and interviews from the mid-19th century, through the 20th, to the contemporary moment. These responses by Jewish American poets have lent themselves to Whitman’s reputation as the paradigmatic American poet today (while also not a straightforward matter in terms of some of Whitman’s writings about race). I’ll add that questions about Whitman’s reception are in no way limited to the Jewish and/or American literary framework. Responses to Whitman have been analyzed by scholars of many literatures and in many languages across the world. This body of critical work has served as a vital foundation for my own research. One major reason I’ve stayed curious about this topic is due to its nuanced, ever-evolving nature.

What did the wandering New York City poet Charles Reznikoff have to say about Whitman? He seemed like Ginsberg and others to be heavily influenced by Whitman's work.

Yes and yes! If Charles Reznikoff and the group known as the Jewish Objectivists are of interest, chapter one focuses on Reznikoff and this milieu of the High Modernist period. The poetic adoption of Whitman displayed in Reznikoff’s poetry is a lot subtler than in Ginsberg’s, and there are sources where Reznikoff says he doesn’t even like Whitman that much. Yet Reznikoff’s poetry is found to be pretty steeped in Whitman’s poetics, not only thematically, but formalistically. And Ginsberg later expresses appreciation not just for Whitman, but for Reznikoff, which challenges an assumption that Ginsberg was the primary Jewish American poet to turn to Whitman. Reflecting for a moment on my research process, back when I was working on this project in dissertation form, I intentionally chose to leave Ginsberg out and look at Whitman in lesser-recognized Jewish American poets. When I was developing the manuscript for this book, I realized that I had to do new research and re-situate Ginsberg vis-à-vis this wider genealogy.

You are a poet—what attracted you to Whitman's work?

I would say first the music. The rhythms that resonate as prayer-like to me. Empathy. Inclusiveness. Compassion for the self and the other. Life and death. If I may, in 2016 I did an interview with Jessica Mason for the wonderful journal Poet Lore. I hope it’s okay if I link to it, since we had a delightful discussion (over email) pertaining to Whitman as an influence in a creative and poetic sense.

Why should we read this book?

If Walt Whitman, American poetry, Jewish American literature and poetry, outsider identity, democracy, intersections of poetry, politics, and culture, and critical reception are of any interest, I extend an open invitation to do so. I’m honored for the book to be part of the Iowa Whitman Series, together with scholarship on Whitman from a multitude of orientations, which can’t but evoke the famous quote in “Song of Myself,” “I contain multitudes.” There are a multitude of ways to approach Whitman, and this book is one contribution to the enduring and dynamic conversation around Whitman. And Doug, again, thank you for taking the time to pose these questions!