Saturday, September 09, 2023

Red Letter Poem #176

 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 #176









not in the woods, the desert,

not to violence or illness,


not in the shuffle or in

the crowd, not by default


and not to someone,

not to time, not


long, just lost to me



                        ––Martha Collins 



There’s so much I’d like to say about so diminutive a poem!  It’s such a vast and unsettling thought-landscape that Martha Collins presents here, deftly sketched with just a few dozen words.  Martha is, of course, one of America’s most esteemed poets, a master of minimalist technique and the power of elliptical thought.  Exploring the body of her work, we soon discover how this poet can say more with syntactical shifts and intentional silences, carefully embedded within spare lines, than many poets capture in their fulsome parade of stanzas.  No, let me correct myself: time and again, the poet is going to lead readers into challenging territory and enable us to suddenly say to ourselves what has been unearthed but unarticulated in her verse.  The completion of her poems takes place only when we invest our deep attention and make them our own. 


But first, indulge me: if we were sitting together and came across this poem, I’d beg you to go back and read the piece again, and perhaps a third time.  It takes that sort of patience before the poem begins to give up its secrets.  We pick our way, from line to line, as if moving across a rutted field, taking care with each step to secure our footing.   Starting out: all those negative statements confuse us a bit––precisely what is missing from those woods, that desert?  But line two shifts the grammar slightly with those prepositions–– to what or who are we reaching in the dark?  Something has escaped us and, by the third line, we guess what it is: the word lost.  Lost is the missing piece that would fulfill all those colloquial expressions.  Still, who’s been lost––not to illness or in the shuffle––and why?  With line five’s seemingly simple statement–– “not to someone”––suddenly we perceive this may be a matter of the heart.  And when we reach the final line (bolstered by its connection to the title), the statement “just lost to me” both satisfies (granting us the understanding we’ve sought since we began reading) and leaves us bereft.  We’ve identified the yearning within this poem only to––and without warning––find ourselves engulfed by the pain of this absence.  Loss is hard enough when we can at least specify its cause (the result of illness, violence, distance––or when our affections are supplanted by someone new); but it’s infinitely harder when there is no reason whatsoever.  Sometimes what was present yesterday is simply nonexistent today.  I thought of the film The Banshees of Inisherin; except Martha’s island is a mere seven lines across.


Avid readers of Martha Collins’ poetry have gotten used to, not so much single poems, but long interwoven cycles of poetry––collections that have brought her more honors and awards than I can list here.  There was the acclaimed trilogy of books (Blue Front, White Papers, and Admit One,) focused on race and American history; and a pair of volumes of interlocking poems (Day Unto Day and Night Unto Night) that act as a journal of a heart and mind making their way through time.  Most recently, Martha published Casualty Reports (University of Pittsburgh Press) which centers on coal mining as a means of examining what’s been brutally excavated from the American dream.  But as we wait to see what encompassing project will next seize her imagination, I am delighted to have a pair of new short poems to share as Red Letters.  If you’re like me, at the very moment “Friend” concluded, a brand-new stanza began to appear, scrawled across memory––and it was centered around a name, a clearly-envisioned face.  Mine was a thirty-year friendship that one day simply vanished.  It is more than a little astonishing to sense how the ache within that unwritten poem was teased out by the hesitations, the evasions, the slow acceptance within the one Martha brought to the page.  Perhaps it’s the ubiquity of this process–– thought-becoming-language––that reminds us of the kinship we all share.  




The Red Letters 3.0


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Friday, September 08, 2023

DUCKDOG DAYS by Lawrence Kessenich



by Lawrence Kessenich

When I met my wife, Janet, she was a pianist and Eurythmics teacher. She had a variety of ways to make me melt, but one of them was playing Brahms. She would sit at the piano, back straight, head held high, fingers poised over the keyboard, her beautiful green eyes aglow, and then start in, leaning into the piece as she played with incredible feeling, teasing every ounce of emotion out of each measure. It sent shivers up my spine.

I was an editor at Houghton Mifflin, then, and I wrote some poetry and short stories on the side. I was the word guy. I had never played an instrument in my life, so what Janet could coax from a piano astounded me. Happily, though, she was as impressed with the way I used words. We had our separate creative spheres, and though I sometimes wished we could share them more intimately, our mutual appreciation for each other’s skills was enough.

Janet was surprised the first time I asked her to critique something I’d written.

“I can’t do that,” she said.

“Why not?”

“I’d have no idea what to say.”

“Just say what you think about it – what you like and don’t like.”

“But I’m not an editor.”

“An editor is just an intelligent reader, someone who takes the time to read something carefully and respond honestly.”


“Pretty much.”

“What if I give bad suggestions?”

“I don’t have to take them. No writer does. If it resonates with me, I’ll use it. If it doesn’t, I won’t.”

She hesitantly agreed, and, after reading the piece, offered a few tentative criticisms.

Over time, Janet became more confident in her editorial instincts, and it turned out she had good ones. I always found her criticisms valuable (not that I didn’t occasionally get huffy about ones I didn’t want to hear, but she persevered.) Over time, she got better and better at it.

It also turned out that when she had to write something – a course description or instructional material or family newsletter – she wasn’t bad at stringing words together, herself. Feeling insecure about her writing, and being less experienced taking criticism, she didn’t always enjoy being edited, but she was open-minded enough to learn from it.

About fifteen years into our marriage, in the midst of raising two children, Janet began to have less and less interest in teaching and performing music. She had experiences with an acupuncturist and a homeopath that piqued her interest in alternative healing, and she started thinking and reading about it. Eventually, she decided she wanted to become a healer. She was trained in Reiki, and went on from there. She stopped teaching at Longy, kept a handful of piano students, and took on a few healing clients. As her business grew, she eventually gave up the piano students as well.

Sadly for her Brahms-loving husband, she also gave up playing the piano. Her heart just wasn’t in it any more. I cried foul, at first. I’d married someone who could serenade me while I sat reading in the living room, and it just wasn’t fair for her to bait and switch like that! But I got used to it. She couldn’t bring herself to get rid of her “engagement piano,” though (we’d bought it in lieu of an engagement ring – just as her parents had done), so it became an obstacle around which she had to work in what was now her healing room. Her clients didn’t seem to mind. Apparently, there is something comforting about lying down on a healing table beside that lovely black hulk.

I had made a career change, leaving book publishing my living writing software manuals and marketing materials, which left me more energy to do my own writing. Over time, I’ve written in virtually every genre: children’s books, short stories, novels, poetry and plays; and though I’ve never worked hard enough at getting published to have more than a little success, I love writing.

When the second of our two children flew the nest, Janet suddenly had a lot more space, literally and figuratively – in her day, in her mind, in the house. Part of what emerged in that space was a desire to write about her healing work.

“I’m not really a writer, though,” she said.

“Anybody who writes is a writer.”

“But what if I’m no good at it?”

“You are good at it. You’ve just never put a lot time into it. If you do, you’ll get better.”

She started with a few paragraphs on a spiritual theme in the monthly email she sent out to more than two hundred clients and acquaintances. The pieces were well-written, and they got enthusiastic responses. She started thinking about someday writing enough of them to produce a book.

Then, she got another inspiration. She often used musical metaphors when talking with her clients about spirituality and healing, and it suddenly occurred to her that she had enough ideas to start exploring a book called something like Music Lessons for the Spiritual Life. She jotted down notes for a while, and then started in on trial chapter. But she found it difficult to set aside blocks of time to write, so it didn’t get very far.

At about this time, I reconnected with Steve Lewis, an undergraduate writing teacher of mine, who, it turned out, held writers’ workshops at his summer place on Cape Hatteras. Five solid days of serious writing and critiquing in a cottage on the Outer Banks of North Carolina in October didn’t sound bad at all to me. Janet encouraged me to go.

Then a thought occurred to me: Why don’t we both go? Our time was much more flexible with the kids out of our daily life, we liked to get away to new places, and we both loved the beach. I suggested it to her.

“I can’t go to a writers’ workshop!” she said.

“Why not?”

“I can’t write for six hours a day.”

“You’ve been complaining that you don’t have blocks of time for writing.”

“What if I don’t produce anything? It will be a big waste of time and money.”

“There’s no pressure. We’ll be on Cape Hatteras. If you run out of things to write about, you can walk on the beach or read a book.”

“But strangers will be critiquing my writing. I’m scared.”

“Steve is the gentlest, most supportive writing teacher I’ve ever had. That’s why I still remember him after all these years. He won’t let anybody get nasty.”

She thought about it for a couple days, and decided it was worth a shot. If it didn’t work out as a writing workshop, it would still be a nice vacation.

At the affectionately name Duckdog Cottage, where the workshop took place, Steve set a schedule that freed us to focus on our writing. We ate breakfast between 8:30 and 9:00. Steve did the dishes, while we started writing, and we wrote from 9:00 to 12:00 or 12:30. Late in morning, Steve went out and bought sandwiches for us. We ate lunch together, and continued writing until 3:00 or 3:30. After that, went on an outing to the beach, a nature preserve or a historical site, and then we came back and, over wine and cheese, read to each other what we’d written that day. The goal was to produce 3,000 words each day. It was a productive and supportive atmosphere, and Janet, though “not really a writer,” was right in there with us.

On day one, she completed a draft of her first chapter. With many caveats about its inadequacy, she read it to us that evening. It began with her sitting under the piano as her mother played, feeling the sound waves wash over her body and watching her mother’s feet dance on the pedals. It was clear, concrete, well-organized, and moving. We all responded with sincere enthusiasm. We also offered some challenging critiques, which she took in without withering. She was clearly amazed at what she’d produced.

Later, as we lay in bed, she spoke about how she felt.

“Thank you so much for encouraging me to come down here. This is a life-changing experience for me.”

“Isn’t it exciting to write something like that, and have people respond to it?”

“It’s wonderful. And I’m looking forward to making the changes everybody suggested. I can’t wait to get started tomorrow!”

“Do you see why I love writing so much, now?”


Over the course of the workshop, I felt as if I watched Janet become a full-fledged writer. She stuck to her chair, took in the daily critiques of her work and set about acting upon them the following day, often going her fellow writers one better in making revisions. She went to Steve for advice whenever she got stuck or needed a clarification. Over days three to five, she rewrote her first chapter and drafted a second and third chapter – a level of production that even the most experienced writer would be delighted with. I was incredibly proud of her.

While we were on the Outer Banks, she and I resolved to have our own “Duckdog Days,” on which we would mimic the writers’ workshop schedule at home. And we did it, with a friend of ours and our daughter. We were both eager to get to our writing, and to share what we wrote with our fellow writers.

Although I occasionally miss the musician I married, that loss has been more than compensated for by finding out that was married to a fellow writer. After the workshop at Duckdog Cottage, our empty nest was filled with the sounds of pens scratching on paper and computer keyboards clicking away—which led to Janet finishing and publishing a book of essays called Music Lessons for the Spirit. The piano keyboard remained silent, but there was a different kind of music in our relationship then. We entered a whole new phase of creative sharing, of artistic camaraderie. And I have a feeling we'll be playing this tune together for the rest of our lives.

Thursday, September 07, 2023

Hastings Room Reading Sept 27 Gallagher-Collins-Levine

 R E A D I N G

Wednesday 27 September 2023 ~ 7pm

Christ Church ~ 0 Garden Street ~ Cambridge

Miriam Levine is the winner of the 2023 Laura Boss Narrative Poetry Award, and the author of Saving Daylight, her fifth collection of poetry. An earlier collection, The Dark Opens, was chosen by Mark Doty for the Autumn House Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, The Paris Review, and Ploughshares. Levine, a winner of a Pushcart Prize, is a fellow of the NEA and a grantee of the Massachusetts Artists Foundation. Her next book of poetry will be published in spring 2024. She lives in Florida and New Hampshire.

Martha Collins’ eleventh collection of poetry Casualty Reports, a finalist for the 2023 NEPC Sheila Motton Book Prize, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in the fall of 2022. Her 2019 book, Because What Else Could I Do, won the Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams Award. Earlier books, which have won many awards, include three focusing on race and racism (Admit One: An American Scrapbook, White Papers, Blue Front). She founded the UMass Boston creative writing program, and later taught at Oberlin College. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Kevin Gallagher is a poet, publisher, and political economist living in greater Boston with his wife Kelly, children Theo and Estelle, and Rexroth the family German Shephard. His newest books are And Yet It Moves, and The Wild Goose, both published in 2022. He edits spoKe, a Boston-area annual of poetry and poetics. Gallagher works as a professor of global development policy at Boston University.



with the first decade Seamus Heaney Memorial Reading

Poet Doug Holder to Read at John Greenleaf Whittier House --Sept 27 5PM


Monday, September 04, 2023




By CD Collins

I am often asked if my writing is autobiographical.

How to answer. I search for the most raw and exquisite outliers in our galaxy. I endeavor to lasso them onto a page. I summon my own marrow. I write a line. I write another line like hoeing a row of beans.

I squeeze the words out like a baker pumping a confectioner’s cone. Shimmering letters on the nutty terrain of a German chocolate cake, the smooth cream cheese frosting on a red velvet cake.

I script with a quill pen dipped in the mineral grit of a slick slate sidewalk after a summer rain.

Here is the rough diamond I found deep in the mine. Working alongside my brothers, breathing in black dust as we go down, traveling four miles into the earth. We rise terrified, our faces stained in our cage of sunset.

Here, a garnet turned from the earth with my spade. Here, a seed from the heirloom tomato I purloined from the garden of childhood. My aunt and brother gathered tomatoes at noon and fled into the woods. We carried a pocket of coarse salt and a kerchief with Lucky Strikes we’d stolen from the kitchen table. Three Strike Anywhere matches.

The wall-mounted match holder, the bottle opener, the boot hook, all destined for the Jim Crow Museum of racist memorabilia. My grandfather’s ashtray, a tiny replica of an Asian woman, her legs swinging on wires. Open your bottle on my teeth; clean your boots between my spread legs; crush your cigarettes out on my porcelain breasts. Those breasts. What my grandfather saw. What I saw at seven.

What I write. What you read. What I say. What you hear.

When Bernhard Schlink’s novel “The Reader” was made into a movie, the author himself appeared on a panel discussion. When an audience member asked him if his book was autobiographical, he replied furiously. “Everything is autobiographical."

Why not tell me if you were moved. Did anything within you tremble with recognition? What happened in that that space of wonder between what I said and what you heard?

Every year, my friend Babette orders a cake for my birthday. She calls me “kitten.”

When I turned 50, she asked the bakery to write “Loving the Kitten.”

The baker thought she said, “Loving V. Kitten”

As though Loving was against Kitten. Loving vs. Kitten

As in Loving V. Virginia.

The state of Virginia found that Richard Loving, who was White, and Mildred Jeter, who was Black, had violated its anti-miscegenation statue, which criminalized Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act. The ACT established a legal definition of a white person as "one who has no trace of any blood other than Caucasian." The purpose of the law was to prevent interracial marriage and to protect the "whiteness" of the race. The couple was sentenced to a year in jail.

In 1967, in a unanimous Supreme Court decision, the justices held that laws prohibiting interracial marriage violated both the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. Thus overturning Virginia's Racial Integrity Act and Virginia's andand Virginia's Sterilization Act.

In Loving V. Virginia, the Supreme Court proclaimed that miscegenation was “odious to a free people.”

What I write, what you read. What you write. What I read. What you say. What I hear.

“Loving V. Kitten,” Babette and I now say to each other. Loving less what she said than what the baker heard.

“Loving V. Kitten,” Babette and I now say to each other. Loving less what she said than what the baker heard. Sterilization Act.

In Loving V. Virginia, the Supreme Court proclaimed that miscegenation was “odious to a free people.”

What I write, what you read. What you write. What I read. What you say. What I hear.

“Loving V. Kitten,” Babette and I now say to each other. Loving less what she said than what the baker heard.