Saturday, January 13, 2024

Red Letter Poem #190

 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.









Red Letter Poem #190






The Lock



When we met, I cared for no one.  Just myself.

Still I wanted to impress you with my mouth––


“Such a mouth on her,” my mother groaned

to neighbors.  I practiced lip trills a long time


before I let you hear.  My candles burned

down to essential scents, fire and wax.


You smelled like balsam, like the forest.

I was a city girl until I tangled with you, sure


the way a child is sure, no one knows me.

I felt the tumblers twist, a combination


that opened me to kissing my mother’s

wrinkled hand, and then you.  Everything.



                         ––Joyce Peseroff



I spent over four decades of my life teaching poetry: to elementary, secondary, college and graduate students, as well as adults and senior citizens.  I always felt rejuvenated by the tremendous upsurge of creative energy present in those workshops, but this was especially true when working with very young students.  Having endured what––let’s be honest––can often feel like the tyranny of English grammar, they intuited in my approach that poetry was about liberation: at last, they thought, all the chains could be smashed, all the rules broken.  Certainly, it's thrilling to surrender to the siren song of imaginative language; but then my message would grow more subtle: the rules can indeed be bent or broken if (and that if loomed largeit was in service of a higher purpose, the inner requirements of the emerging poem.  Simply abandoning, willy-nilly, the rules of the road that syntax provides will usually result in head-on collisions and sheer unintelligibility.  You I and talking each other to might never without them communicate (if you catch my meaning––and you may very well not.)  Reading and writing poems can definitely affirm the idea that everything is, indeed, possible when pursuing your creative vision.  But most important: to experience that sense of utter necessity, an impulse that drives both the poem and the emerging poet. 


Joyce Peseroff’s new piece is rife with that spirit of rebelliousness––linguistically and emotionally.  She twists syntax, fragments sentences, and reassembles lines in ways that might make her English teacher scowl.  And the narrative thread of the piece is so ambiguous, we can’t help but insert our own stories into the gaps––which, I’m guessing, is at the heart of the poet’s intention.  We begin in media res with a teenage protagonist (at least that’s how I’m envisioning her) and another mysterious presence (the bond of “we” already formed.)  What passion has so enthralled the speaker, it‘s spurred a jailbreak from her own solitude?  “Still I wanted to impress you with my mouth” she says––and if you’re not writing your own fevered scenarios when you read that line (ranging from the intellectually precocious to the downright risqué), then you’ve likely suppressed all memory of adolescence.  But then the poem jukes right: “"Such a mouth on her,” my mother groaned/ to neighbors”––and I’m laughing and wincing at the same time.  “I was a city girl until I tangled with you,” (tangled?!  and now we’re squirming a little in our seats.)  “Sure”, she goes on––and what a marvelous enjambment, surety leading to the ultimate insecurity––“sure/ the way a child is sure, no one knows me.”  Right then, I am remembering my first serious girlfriend and how consequential such a connection can be, even if the world terms it ‘puppy love.’  The poem’s final and encompassing “everything” presents a panoply of possibilities.  It represents our first giant step toward true personhood––moving away from the bond of parental love, as the heart begins staking its own claim on existence.


Readers may remember Joyce from three previous Red Letter appearances, but I’ll remind you that she is the author of six poetry collections––her most recent, Petition (Carnegie Mellon University Press) was named a “must-read” by the Massachusetts Book Awards.  As a poet, editor, and educator, she’s been a vital presence in the New England literary scene for decades.  This new piece brought to mind a chorus of other voices celebrating intellectual independence.  It was Robert Frost who famously commented that “writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net.”  I’ve heard teachers use this comment to disparage the ‘unregulated’ (implying ‘unskilled’) nature of the genre.  But without the crucial constraints of formal verse, the poet must rely on his/her own imagined architecture to make the poem cohere.  Said another prominent poetic contrarian: “To live outside the law you must be honest” (it sounds better in that Dylan drawl)––not free from all rules and standards but governed by ones of your own determination.  And as for Joyce, let me quickly agree: such a mouth on that girl!  You never know what will emerge, how it will nudge us off-balance, or pick the lock on an unsuspecting heart.





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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Longfellow Birthday Celebration: Evangeline Marathon Reading Feb 24, 2024 10 AM to 12PM


Our friends at the Longfellow House-Washington's Headquarters National Historic Site, in collaboration with Mt. Auburn Cemetery, have sent us this invitation:

“Join us in Mount Auburn Cemetery's Story Chapel to celebrate the 217th anniversary of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's birth with a special marathon reading of one of his best-loved poems, Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie…. Enjoy an hourlong read-a-thon of Evangeline (slightly abridged). Sign up to read a section of the poem at, or just come enjoy the unique structure and moving story of this iconic work. Registration required at

The reading will be followed by birthday cake and, weather permitting, a visit to the Longfellow family tomb for a brief wreath-laying ceremony.”

The Facebook event is at

Sunday, January 07, 2024

Somerville's Melissa Nilles: Grooving in the Ruby Grove Band

Recently I caught up with musician, therapist. and poet Melissa Nilles. Her latest project is the Ruby Grove Band. Like many artists in our community she juggles a lot of things to make the daily nut--but her music is her passion, and she makes sure it stays a big part of her life.

 Doug Holder: First off—How has it been for you as an artist to live in Somerville?

 Melissa Nilles:  I’m generally grateful to call Somerville home. It’s the right fit for me and my (fellow artist) partner to live here as we feel generally supported by the city and its increased focus on creativity, well-being, social justice, and sustainability. With defining events like Porchfest and other local festivals like Somerstreets that we’ve been grateful to be selected to play at by the Somerville Arts Council, I appreciate the music and arts opportunities and culture that exists here, and the ability to be seen and heard as a growing indie musician. As a bisexual woman I also love the distinctive queerness of the city and the relative perceived safety and security of living openly here as opposed to less supportive areas of the world. My only real gripes are wishing for increased affordable housing, a city-funded monthly music rehearsal space, and the improved condition of Highland Ave. I’m also worried my partner and I will have to leave Somerville in the next few years due to rising housing costs (we found a rare deal from an elderly private landlord that many people don’t have in the area, and when we want to expand our space to have children, we’ll likely have to leave).

DH: You wear many hats. You are a therapist, poet, and a musician. Is there a cross current with all these disciplines? As a therapist, do you employ music as a therapeutic tool? 

MN: Definitely. Everything informs everything else. All three disciplines require curiosity, artistic expression, and a willingness to dive deep into the core workings and insights of life. I first hatched these tendencies as a writer, poet, and pianist in middle school (and I guess I’ve been singing since I was very, very little). I’ve always been an introspective and sensitive person which naturally led me to writing, getting really, really into playing piano (especially dramatic minor classical pieces as an angsty teen), and deeply reflecting on my own life and intensely supporting friends and others I care about (an experience that I find most therapists have). This year I’ve done some deep reflection on my motivations to continue with music full steam ahead. During these moments, which included driving into the Joshua Tree desert expanse for several days to walk alone and listen to the sound of nothing and scribble in my journal, I’ve realized that even as a musician I’m a writer at my core. I most deeply value writing lyrics and poems alone- that initial process of developing a seed for a song. The luxury of taking a deep dive when I’m in an introspective place into a little solo writing hole while I’m traveling is my gold. At the minimum I get really focused at local cafes after work or on the weekends or over workweek morning breakfasts. It’s like a little journey into my mind, my view of the current, past and future worlds, where I think I am, where I’m headed, who’s around me, what I dream about, what might inspire me or move me forward in that moment in time. Then I re-emerge into the world and share my little jewels with the band and see if they work and vibe with everyone else. This balance works great for me. It’s always a little vulnerable but very fun developing the songs with a band, and that is my strong preference as opposed to solo musician work after working with bands for many years. As I got older, I also became a lot more social and extroverted, and I see the music world as more social, more fun, and more energetically uplifting, so it’s where I like to live. I really get a lot out of performing and sharing my energy with a crowd, and I also like being known in the scene and going to shows. I don’t think I’d get quite as much fulfillment out of just being a writer, as it has a reputation for being more of a solitary career, and I guess I need/want both aspects of energy (I am a true ambivert I guess). Though someday I do hope to publish at least a book of poetry, if not more.

As for music and therapy- I think traditional therapy and music are just two different types of healing. I’m an expressive arts therapist and mental health counselor, which means I have special training in traditional talk therapies and in utilizing music, poetry, art, dance, and drama in my therapeutic work. I regularly see how the arts can allow clients to express their emotions or release and contain overwhelming griefs or trauma, sometimes better than traditional talk therapy (and a little less energetically draining for the therapist). My experience as a therapist also informs the music I do which is about healing myself, and helping others find uplifting melodies and their own personal growth journeys mirrored in my words. I do love this job sometimes but I think the expectation for how many people I should be seeing per week at mental health agencies is beyond my capacity as a highly sensitive person and am working on building a small therapy private practice that is focused exclusively on the types of therapy work I like to do with people with ADHD, anxiety, trauma, mood disorders, or with LGBTQ+ identified clients. I am cutting back slowly on my caseload for more balance while I ramp up other avenues of my creative careers (sometimes paid original music, paid music gigs, and paid film/tv/video game music work).

DH: Tell us about your indie bands– Miele and Ruby Grove. What is unique about your sound? 

 MN: You first mentioned Miele I’m sure because it’s the one with more longevity and material out there- it was an indie alternative and art rock project in the Somerville and Cambridge area (2014-2020) that I was proud to make music with for six years with some very talented local musicians. Some of our best moments included playing to great crowds at venues like the Middle East, Great Scott, and Atwood’s Tavern, releasing our full-length album Transience (check it out on Spotify), and bonding with other local musicians to try and save the EMF music rehearsal studio in Cambridge (we failed but made friends along the way). But otherwise, for the record, Ruby Grove is my newest, current, active indie trip-hop meets indie rock/pop project, and all of my eggs lie in that basket now as the lead singer, keyboardist, band leader, social media updater, booker, de-facto indie band manager, etc. We’ve been growing recently and we’re now a 5-piece band with keys/vocals, backup vocals/bass, lead guitar, rhythm guitar/saxophone, and drums. Since 2022, we have been inspired to write uplifting music that aims to help people cope with their deepest fears, explore their potential, and engage more fully with the world. Miele’s bass player, Cedric Lamour, and I co-founded Ruby Grove knowing we also wanted to dive into exploring intersections between genres (something we also loved doing with Miele, though Ruby Grove’s exploration is more well-blended). Ruby Grove traverses the sonic landscape between jazz fusion, lofi hip-hop, trip-hop, soul, electro, indie rock, art rock, psych, and indie pop and hopefully lands the listener in a slightly dazed, euphoric, and inspired place. I aim to keep creating and releasing our material in Somerville for the foreseeable future. We’re currently in the process of recording our first EP at a Somerville-based recording studio we love called New Alliance Audio. We already have some singles online since it’s that kind of time for musicians (now the joke is that a single is like an EP, and an EP is like an album, due to decreased attention spans and the expectation to be releasing less material more often). Anyone who wants a good starting point can check out our latest single “Maybe It’s Time” on Spotify or any of the other big music platforms or check out And if you’re curious to come see us, our next gigs are on 1/14 at the Square Root in Roslindale, as part of a musical event honoring MLK and his legacy, or 2/23 at The Jungle in Somerville with Battlemode and New Jersey phenoms The Foes of Fern.

DH: What drew you to be a keyboardist, instead of the flashier guitar, etc.

MN: I’ve been a keyboardist since the third grade so it was hard to imagine playing any other instrument for accompaniment with voice. I considered learning guitar to a more proficient level, but the reality is that I don’t feel as fluid or expressive on other instruments (besides voice). I also started my first project in Boston playing with a guitarist (and then later two guitarists) so I was always able to find guitarists to work with I guess, and definitely more guitars were not needed! I’m also happy I stuck with keyboards because synthesizer, organ, and piano sounds are a must for the jazz fusion, lofi hip-hop, electronic, soul, and trip-hop styles we’re exploring. I’m currently knee deep in learning more about my synthesizer for these genres and I’m finally graduating from just using patches on the Nord to fall down the rabbit hole of custom synth programming and some wacky, weird sonic places. Maybe I’ll be able to get closer to what FKJ does this year. I’m also excited to do some flashier stuff in 2024 on keytar as a frontwoman kind of like Lucius (keytars are back, it’s officially the second coming of the 70s).

DH: I noticed on a Google search that you contribute to the Facebook page, "Musicians are people too.". It concerns the hard-knock life of many musicians. Do you ever question yourself about the time you spend with music, as opposed to doing something more lucrative?

MN: Absolutely. Being a musician in 2024 can seem like a very financially strange decision for anyone, unless you’re Billie Eilish. We love to joke and meme about it to decrease the tension. And yet I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. It’s what I’m meant to do, and what I’m supposed to do. Even if I take breaks, like I had to during one of the pandemic years, I know this impulse is just laying dormant waiting to re-emerge. If I didn’t listen to that urge or engage at all with creativity it would eventually come out in destructive ways, I’m sure. I know many people feel the same way and probably get taken advantage of for just wanting to follow their dreams. I’m sure I’ve lost out on a fair amount of income just by not following a more traditional route working full-time as a therapist (I’ve often opted for more flexible therapy work so I can do the original music work I want to do too). I’ve also certainly done plenty of time playing low-paying gigs, doing less-than-fulfilling cover gigs, or doing things for exposure (common jokes/memes on the “Musicians are People Too” FB page). If you get too jaded about it, it can start to feel like a lose-lose situation for many people and I’m sure that’s why people think of achieving success as a musician as such as a black and white situation (either a rock star, or dead, broke, or homeless). But it’s not all like this, and I’ve also had wonderful, beautiful experiences- going on a proper tour for the first time this last year with Ruby Grove, getting nominated for Rising Star of Massachusetts by the New England Music Awards, releasing an epic, dark album I was really proud of with Miele, making proper money gigging at local festivals with Ruby Grove or as a pianist at weddings, having people send me screenshots of how Ruby Grove’s latest single “Maybe It’s Time” was their top listened Spotify track of 2023, drawing bigger and better crowds at our shows in Boston, experiencing the sublime quality of remaking myself through the work, etc. I’m trying to open myself up through the internet as well as through people in my own life to examples of people who have made a moderate amount of livable income through music because that feels like the actual real next step for me. I love listening to thepodcast “Creative Pep Talk” for this reason because it has so many great examples of regular people just doing the work and finding ways to balance and sustain their creative careers. At this moment, I’m trying to take as many steps as possible to get out of my own way and also get out of the way of capitalism safely so I can survive, thrive, and also do what I’m supposed to do without as much interference as can happen. Being a therapist is disgracefully underpaid as well ($45k average for people with MA degrees) and I’ve made much less than that as well at the earlier stages of my career. Hopping into an even more notoriously unstable career after years of already low income is a hard move. But it’s the only choice for me in my opinion as I’ve done deep work on my path over the last year. Fear is a strong motivator to maintain the status quo but I am trying to let my fear inform me rather than guide my choices. Starting my private practice helps me get some solid income in the door at a higher base rate and opens up time for me to shift my focus on what I really want to focus on, which is music and writing. I have so many pathways and doors to explore in this area that I have been longing for so long and I am excited to move onto this next chapter of my life, even if I fail, or even if hilariously worse, my engineer dad judges me for being a broke but happy and fulfilled musician.