Friday, August 11, 2023

Red Letter Poem #172

  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 #172





A new global survey from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University confirms what is likely obvious to even the casual observer: many people––in America and abroad––are simply choosing to avoid the news.  The main causes identified in the report include the coverage of the devastating war in Ukraine, but also rampant political polarization and the threat of climate change.  Bad news depresses people – who’d have imagined?  The findings revealed that, while the majority are still regular consumers of the news, 42% of Americans actively avoid news reportage at least some of the time, feeling it grinds them down, or lacks trustworthiness.  A stunning fifteen percent declared they have disconnected from news coverage entirely.  And since many who say they are paying attention to current affairs do so via social media sites like WhatsApp and Telegram, where they are simply discussing the news with friends – and where things like well-researched data and alternative viewpoints will prove scarce – this goes far in explaining the increased feelings of alienation as we become more and more siloed in our comfortable viewpoints.


Europeans – closer to the conflict in Ukraine and more directly affected – admitted they’re turning off the war coverage in even greater numbers.  I shouldn’t have been surprised; how emotionally debilitating it is to continually see images of innocent lives (very much like our own) being so brutally and wantonly destroyed.  How many times can you witness apartment buildings torn open like paper parcels, or marketplaces strewn with dead bodies, before you just want to bury your head under the blankets?  But we know that, without an informed electorate, democracies can’t help but wither on the vine – and we’re seeing those effects around the world.  Yet sometimes, even with our guard up, things like poetry and art can find a way to sneak past our defenses.  Perhaps it’s that sense of sharing a first-hand observer’s point-of-view; or the fact that artists are willing to place their own hearts and minds at risk in order to come to terms with the maelstrom.  And so, every few months, I try to feature a poem from a contemporary Ukrainian poet who can remind us (gently, sometimes, or desperately) that the unprovoked war in their homeland continues – and real lives are hanging in the balance.  Perhaps we can actually do something to help.  But, in any case, our honest attention – to both the daily suffering of Ukrainians and their increasingly common instances of true courage – becomes a small act of solidarity.  And so I offer you a poem by Lyudmyla Khersonska from a new book of English translations: Today Is A Different War, published by New England’s own Arrowsmith Press.  Lyudmyla is an esteemed poet and translator, author of four previous collections.  I expected the heartbreak such a book must certainly contain, but was caught off-guard by the abundance of humor in the poems.  Perhaps laughter is the human mind’s only defense against such madness.  A perfect example is a poem like “Where, She Asks, Are My Irises”; the speaker is wondering where her flowers have gone – “they were tall, with their little tongues sticking out.”  The answer comes in the form of a Russian propagandist: “oh yes, we saw them. . .we denazified your irises,/ they were preparing an attack,/ planning to join the eu and nato,/ stockpiling biological bees”. 


For today’s Red Letter, I bring you the opening poem from the book, “War. Day 1”, a darkly playful lyric whose speaker can’t quite wrap her head around what’s taking place in her country.  Ah, the innocence –when she (and we) hadn’t grown quite so accustomed to the horrors occurring almost daily.  Because of its almost Alice-Through-the-Looking-Glass tone, we accidentally allow our minds to inhabit that bedroom, to witness the beginning of the onslaught, to consider how we’d respond. . .if it were me.  That’s the beauty of poetry – the you morphs into me before the heart has a chance to raise the steel shutters – and for that I am profoundly grateful.  An often-quoted passage from William Carlos William’s begins: “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/. . .” – but Lyudmyla’s poetry respectfully provides a counterargument.   “. . .yet men die miserably every day,” Williams continues, “for lack/ of what is found there.”  May that not be our fate.  We – who are fortunate enough not to suffer daily bombardments, the cold-blooded sacrifice of our loved ones – need to strengthen our resolve, turn on the news broadcast, open the daily newspaper, discover how our startled minds will respond.  Or perhaps read a poem that shakes our very spirits – like stemware trembling on a snow-white tablecloth – and then raise a glass to the people who are willing to give everything so that their nation might endure.




War. Day 1



In the morning, rockets sang outside the window

instead of birds.  She tumbled out of bed in her cheery pajamas,

ran across the chilly floor, like a blue sky, barefoot.

What is this red blob, flying outside the window?

What is this, so frightening?  Flying over our heads

towards a peaceful morning

with such a demonic whistle?

Why are these clear glasses shaking, the clear soul, shaking,

why is she trembling?

So the war is here.  No one asked it for a visit,

no one made its bed, or set the table

with a snow-white tablecloth.  How would she wash blood drops

off the white linen fabric?  “Is this war?” she asked the closed door,

barefoot in her cheery pajamas.

“What a guest––uninvited and scary.  I won’t

open up, won’t treat it to a good meal, or put on

my nice dress.”  “Don’t open,” the door boomed.

“Don’t feed it or put on your pretty dress.

If it forces its way in, hit it with an axe––“



                                ––Lyudmyla Khersonska


Translated by Olga Livshin and Andrew Janco




The Red Letters 3.0


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Sunday, August 06, 2023

Poet Jesse Diamond Breaks the 'stone wall' in her new poetry collection American Queers.

The Cervena Barva Press of Somerville has released a new collection of poetry "American Queers" by Jesse Diamond.  Poet Judson Evans writes of this book:

"In AMERICAN QUEERS: Poems Celebrating Mid-Century Gay Activists, Jesse Mavro Diamond imagines a metaphoric kingdom inhabited by four relatively unknown gay and lesbian royal champions. With sharp wit and whole-hearted empathy, the poet extols and elegizes Stormé Delarverie, Richard Leitsch, Pat Parker and Charley Shively. Appending the poems with well researched biographical notes on each activist, diverse readers, students and teachers will discover the work is compelling and informative. AMERICAN QUEERS "impresses with historical vision and authenticity."

I recently caught up with Diamond to conduct an interview for The Somerville Times.

What gave you the impetus to write this poetry book at this time in your life?

I’ll turn 75 next year. At this point in my life, it was a priority to count my blessings for those great gay leaders who preceded me. As a retired teacher, I wanted to continue teaching the next queer generation, and, hopefully, the one after that, to count their blessings.

Your poetry collection salutes the leaders of the Gay Rights Movement. This includes Charlie Shively, Storme' De LaVarverie, Richard Leitsch, and Pat Parker. I had the pleasure to meet Charles Shively at Stone Soup Poets in Cambridge, MA, but the other folks I am not familiar with. Can you talk a bit about them, and why you chose them for your collection?

All four of these remarkable people defined the word courageous.

Several decades ago, Charlie Shively and I taught in The Law and Justice Program at UMass Boston. I loved him fiercely because he was a brilliant historian with an impudent, intrepid approach to battling the world of gay oppression.

Pat Parker, a Black lesbian feminist, had my admiration for slaying racist, homophobic haters with her sharp tongue. Dying at 45 from cancer, she’d already contributed building the Canon of lesbian poetry.

I wanted to research Dick Leitsch and learn about him as a movement radical. Spinning off the Civil Rights Movement’s Sit-Ins, he and a few others created the Sip-In Movement. Gays were legally spoken of as “disorderly”; litigation attempted to shut us off from the choice of drinking in bars we chose to frequent. He helped change that.

Handsome, much younger looking than her age and a crooner in the style of Frank Sinatra, Stormé DeLarverie carried a gun and roamed the streets of the Village to protect other lesbians. She was fearless and ready to do whatever was needed to stop “the Uglies” as she called them from threatening and attacking her beloved sisters. Did she throw the fist punch at Stonewall? She said she did and I believe her.

You have a section of the book that deals with the Stonewall Riots—the famous gay bar that was raided by the New York City police, and the riot that ensued as a result.. And in fact, the Stonewall was aptly named --as sort of a metaphor for the stonewall that the gay community faced. Can you talk a bit about the bar—and were you a regular patron?

I wish I had been able to patronize it. Stonewall was just a bit before my time; I only knew of the bar after the Uprising. The poem Stone wall expresses that metaphor:

Stone wall

(n.)A structure of stone

built up to enclose, divide,

support or protect.


1.Take a polaroid

of that gorgeous queen in front

of the crumbling stonewall.

2.Rip a brick from that

crumbling stone wall and

use it to defend yourself.

3.Old Stonewall… tumbling down

Tumbling… tumbling down

Old … Wall…

Was writing this collection of poetry cathartic for you?

Yes and no. I did need to express the painful truths about my life and the lives of other women and men wounded by the battle we fought against ignorance. I came out in June 1970, at 21, the year of the first Gay Pride Parade. I had just recovered from an emotional breakdown and being released from a hospital. Recalling events that occurred then stimulated the memory of remarkable joy our community experienced at that time.

Why should we read your book?

My hope is the poems will educate readers, especially younger readers, about the inspiring leadership of these queer, heroic American women and men. Our time, as has so often been said, represents the terrible polarization between truth and lies, love and hate, courage and cowardice. Those who believe in the indefatigable power of Love will find a balm in these poems for the wounds they suffered battling against ignorance and hate.