Friday, January 19, 2024

Longfellow Audio Book Project


From Doug Holder--Co-President of the New England Poetry Club

“As a member of the Board of Directors of our partner organization,  Friends of the Longfellow House, I am engaged in a project, with fellow board member Mike Bavaro, to create an audio book of Longfellow’s poetry. We plan to emphasize his Revolutionary War and Civil War poems. We are looking for suggestions of poems that would be a good fit for our project, and eventually, for selected readers from the community and beyond...

Contact me if you are interested in this project, at

Red Letter Poem #191

 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 #191






Practicing the 12-Bar Blues


to my father



Raised black and flat whites.


Left hand arpeggio, pinky to root;

third and fifth pressed with middle and ring;


thumb at six, counterpoint

on the right for improvised melodic licks—


yes, it’s all coming back.


Minor verse, major chorus, the honkytonk

rhythms shuffle, toe-tappable riffs,


deep as fingerbones

know, beyond knowing—


separation takes practice.             


Loose knuckles stretch the octave.

Tension.  Release.


How do hands hold such memory?


The groove returns: backbeat pocket,

my piano hands two planets orbiting


free of each other.  I remember

how I unlearned unison,


how it’s not all that hard,

and I’m sorry forgetting you feels this good.



                         ––Sarah Anne Stinnett




I don’t believe her––the voice of the protagonist in Sarah Anne Stinnett’s new poem.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying she’s lying or inauthentic (far from it); nor is she an example of the fiction writer’s tool, the unreliable narrator, whose perspective is intentionally skewed.  No, Sarah Anne’s poem comes across as matter-of-fact, carefully observed, and quietly confessional––as if there’s little space between the speaker and the poet bringing her to the page.  But there is a gap and––in the act of reaching out in the dark, for self-knowledge, for control over grief’s always-threatening tidal wave––that’s where the emotional crescendo of the poem is most keenly experienced.  So let’s (as bandleaders like to say) take it from the top.


I’ll start with the dedication–– to my father, not the more customary for.  And so we are clued in that this may be what’s called a ‘poem of address’, language supposedly offered to one particular pair of eyes and ears.  It’s as if we readers were (continuing the metaphor) overhearing this music drifting up from a downstairs neighbor.  Quickly, we come to trust the authority of this speaker; she’s certainly put in the time seated at that piano.  And as she reacquaints herself with the instrument, we almost feel our hands atop hers, picking out the riff: “thumb at six, counterpoint/ on the right for improvised melodic licks––// yes, it’s all coming back.”  Listen to that succession of short vowels cushioning the intervals between the hammering of percussive k-sound consonants.  How can we help but begin imagining the jangly blues she’s practicing?  Slowly, we too come to “know, beyond knowing” that loss must be learned over time like a new and heartbreaking song––that indeed “separation takes practice.”  And as the two hands across the keyboard learn to move independently, the speaker must develop that same life-skill if the love she’s carrying inside is to sustain rather than undermine her performance.  You won’t be surprised to learn that, before his passing, Sarah Anne’s father was a jazz musician and musicologist who taught at the famed Berklee College of Music for over three decades (where the poet herself studied the electric bass.)  “The language of music,” she told me, “was a prominent part of my upbringing and something that binds my family together.”  Though the poem has not confided such detail to us, don’t you imagine her father as her mentor and collaborator––the music of their duets now enduring within this solo performance?


Sarah Anne, I must say, is quite accomplished for someone so young.  Taking a multidisciplinary approach, she completed her undergraduate work in the humanities and recently received two Masters degrees: one in Dramatic Arts (from Harvard Extension), and her MFA in poetry from Lesley University.  Presently she teaches a variety of classes in business communications, theater, and poetry through Berklee; and she’s developed a course on “the oral interpretation of literary works” at Lesley, among other educational projects.  Because she was one of the winners of the Cambridge Sidewalk Poetry Contest, one of her poems is incised in concrete at the crossing of Walden and Raymond Streets.  She is currently working to complete her first collection of poetry, and today’s piece is among an extensive group of elegies to her father.  I lost my own father when I was a child––and while, of course, we all bring our personal history to bear when delving into a poem, being part of this wounded brother/sisterhood raises the bar when reading about loss.  I was moved by this poem’s quiet awareness of how the world is both continuous, unchanged––and, at the same time, dramatically reshaped by the death of a parent.  In the closing lines––and with something of an apology to her father for a life that goes on without him––the speaker celebrates the balm of forgetting.  True––but at the very same moment, and a hairsbreadth above her, the poet is engraving remembrance in the lyric of this poem.  In this contradiction, I hear grief’s refrain cycling around––the blues of a conscious mind.  And that I believe utterly.





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, January 18, 2024

Distractions En Route: A Dancer’s Notebook and Other Stories by Nina Rubinstein Alonso

Distractions En Route: A Dancer’s Notebook and Other Stories by Nina Rubinstein Alonso (available at Ibbetson Street Press and on Amazon.

Review by Off the Shelf Correspondent Lee Varon

Nina Rubinstein Alonso’s story collection Distractions En Route: A Dancer’s Notebook and other stories is a marvelous collage of thirty vivid stories.

The opening two stories keenly portray a dancer’s life, as in the opening story, The Redhead Number 37, which begins with the line: “Sixty girls lined up can’t see how they look because the mirrors are draped in paper.” One by one, these dancers are eliminated. The way in which women’s bodies are objectified is heightened in the world of dance. We are told “Eliminations start with ‘body cuts’ noted on our file cards—torso long, hips wide, head large, feet stiff.” It is painful to learn how heartless and capricious this culling process can be. “We’re trained to accept defeat with grace, maintain discipline, no bitching, no whining.” Those in charge of making these decisions are depicted by Alonso with trenchant accuracy. There’s Marina, drinking coffee and eating a wedge of pastry, and David, a Brit from the Royal Ballet who “pounds his cane, chain smokes…kicks people out who annoy him.” When he decides to close the dance studio he leaves with a flourish: “With parting rage he takes his cane and bashes studio mirrors, one sharp crack each, so they’ll be useless to anyone else.”

Although wonderfully drawn tales from ballet open Distractions, this is by no means a collection that primarily centers on dance. It is more about life itself; particularly male/female relationships. In addition, there is a golden thread of spiritual seeking that is woven throughout many of these stories as the protagonists seek wholeness and meaning in their lives amid their sometimes chaotic and tumultuous existence. This juxtaposition of everyday life and spiritual connection also reminds me of the cover of Distractions—pinpoints of golden light on a background of a blurred and tangled forest. This spiritual seeking often takes the form of journeys to India where Alonso, with a few deft brush strokes, brings the reader into the world of meditation centers and ashrams. This spiritual journey was, for me, the heart of Distractions, and yet overlaying this spiritual quest is a scintillating array of stories about relationships.

These stories are not told chronologically. A story about an early marriage may appear early in the book and then again near the end. This technique mirrors the way in which our minds often wander in and out of past and present.

Alonso is a well-established poet and this comes through in her stories. The wonderful attention to detail as, for example, in her depiction of a newlywed couple (Leah and Sam) sailing on the Chesapeake: “…watching Sam adjust the spinnaker while she tosses peanut shells overboard. They had nothing to say to each other, their silence not about the beauty of the waves, but about emotional numbness.” I felt like I was watching the beginning of a movie with growing trepidation. The denouement to this ill-fated marriage finally arrives in the story “Fog”—a gripping vignette rich with metaphor. Sam—arrogant and foolhardy—has insisted on a sailing trip despite oncoming fog. The couple sets out in their small sailboat with no auxiliary motor. As the sails are “luffing and flapping in the erratic wind” Sam himself remains unflappable as Leah fumes and regrets not only this voyage but the marriage, and reminisces, ruefully, about a former boyfriend whom she had dumped to marry Sam. The growing fog which turns out to be the worst in a century is an obvious metaphor for the growing muddle of their relationship. Despite this bleakness, Alonso is gifted at finding the humorous in awkward situations. Recalling her first encounter with Sam’s upper-class family —Leah, from a middle-class Jewish family— sits down for dinner, fiddling with her napkin, “watching Sam to be sure which of the many forks to select for the first course.” The meal unfolds as Alonso writes with exquisite detail: “Matzo balls bounce in the chicken broth and Leah cautiously pushes her spoon into the spongy stuff hoping one won’t jump out of her bowl onto the gray linen tablecloth.” And listening to the dinner banter: “Their words sift through her mind like salt, irritating, disconnected grains.” Other relationships and a second marriage which ends in divorce, are recounted in other stories—"…a series of dismal men” which includes Josh and Hank referred to as “dullsville duo, shaggy, unappealing computer-geeks” then Kent “ginger-haired, hyper-chatty about nothing much.” Also, along the way are deep connections—one with a man who passes away from lung cancer.

The book is replete with memorable images and phrases. Just to name a few of my favorites:

After the loss of a loved one: “The past is a pain museum whose doors never close.”

“The campus is a rippling anxiety caterpillar.”

On a trip to India with her lover: “Why obsess about the future, the ultimate lock box with no password? At the table, I pick up my chopsticks, try to focus on ‘now.’”

And towards the end of the book: “Shifting directions is like a big ship turning, dealing with forces of wind and water, requiring massive energy to redirect. But it’s the self, heart-center, trying to choose without making another blunder. If we were filming there’d be a close shot of my hands gripping the rail.”

The author seems far from distracted as she keenly observes the world around her and brings her cast of characters alive with realistic often edgy dialogue that sometimes reminded me of the quick repartee of a great film noir. I fell in love with many of the characters in this collection and recoiled at the crassness, narcissism, or pettiness of others. It is interesting that this book of thirty stories ends with the phrase…”no words feel big enough.” I was left with the feeling that no words were big enough to capture the depth and expanse of the stories  in this moving collection.

Monday, January 15, 2024

George and Ruth, Songs and Letters of the Spanish Civil War


George and Ruth, Songs and Letters of the Spanish Civil War

By Dan and Molly Lynn Watt

Educational Alternatives

175 Richdale Avenue #315

Cambridge, Massachusetts 02140-3352


Dan and Molly Lynn Watt have been performing George and Ruth, Songs and Letters of the Spanish Civil War for over two decades and, given how the news these days is filled with one or another government leader or leading candidate flirting with fascism, it has become a timely and thought provoking entertainment and we should thank them for publishing the play. The text for this two act play is the correspondence between Dan Watt’s father, 23 year old George Watt, and his wife of less than a year, Ruth, which occurs while George is fighting the fascists of Francisco Franco with the Abraham Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War, and Ruth is working as an organizer for the American Student Union in New York supporting the International Brigades and other leftist causes.

These are love letters of youthful longings interrupted by the political chaos of the 1930s as the world warmed up for WWII,

George, do you realize we have a celebration coming soon? Our first anniversary! Remember? So just imagine when you go to sleep, I say, push over. And I crawl in next to you and you say, brr you're cold. And I say, my, you're lovely and warm. Later, you're dying to go to sleep. But I won't let you because of the way I keep kissing the corner of your eye, and rubbing my nose in your cheek, and fiddling with your hair and murmuring silly things. And then you just turn around and go to sleep. And even then, I rub my face in your back and am so happy, I fall asleep too.

The metaphors of George’s sensuality were shaped by that chaos:

I wasn't issued a rifle instead I have the special honor of being a machine gunner for our section. And boy how I love that gun I got it last night took it apart and put it together a dozen times.

At present we are deciding on a name for the gun. But whatever it is called, i shall secretly name it after you, baby Ruth. And you'd be surprised it has many similarities to you. It's beautiful, a little awkward in spots, a little heavy, and oh, how I love to strip it I treat it with such tenderness and actually sleep with it under my blanket.

In performances the letters are given context by18 songs from the period adapted by Tony Saletan. Although most are songs that have themes of bravado, the mood they create is elegiac; the victories they promise didn’t occur. If you have ever attended protest meetings, many of them may sound, as “The Peat Bog Soldiers” did for me, familiar.

Wir sind die Moorsoldten

Und ziehen mit dem Spaten Ins Moor

We are the peat bog soldiers

We’re marching with our spades, To the bog.

* * *

But for us there is no complaining,

Winter will in time be past;

One day we shall cry rejoicing,

Homeland dear, you’re mine at last

Then will the peat bog soldiers

March no more with their spades, To the bog.

Dann ziehen die Moorsoldaten

NICHT MEHR mit dem Spaten, Ins Moor.

However, print isn’t a sufficiently effective medium for encountering this work; unless you are planning to stage a performance and will be reading it as a play script, you need to hear the exchange of letters with those songs, for without music the script seems flat. That is why I recommend you begin your encounter with the courage and idealism of George and Ruth, not by reading their letters, but by listening to the 2004 studio performances by Dan and Molly Lynn Watt accompanied by the folk music mastery of Tony Saletan on YouTube: Act I : and Act II:

Reading Songs and Letters prompted me to refresh my chronology of the Spanish Civil War. In 1937 the Spanish Communist Party betrayed the youthful idealism, courage and enthusiasm expressed in these letters when it began purging the Republican side of rival leftist factions. The purges were well underway by August of 1937 when the Abraham Lincoln Battalion arrived in Spain. Those purges would weaken the Republican forces and would be one factor contributing to Franco’s and fascism’s eventual triumph. I recommend Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia as a good place to begin a refreshment.

When I followed Dan and Molly’s instructions to search YouTube for George and Ruth, Songs and Letters, I found, as you may, a couple of performances but they had music that was inferior to Tony Saletan’s. But, I also found a link for a virtual performance via “ “Evenbright” on February 3, 2024, Here is Dan’s invitation “For more information about possible live performances, you may email or”

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Poet January O'Neil is making her own myth in her new collection Glitter Road.

Interview with Doug Holder/  co-president of the New England Poetry Club

I think I first met the poet January O'Neil quite a few years ago at a meeting of the Somerville Bagel Bards in Davis Square. Since then, she has become a respected English professor at Salem State University, and an acclaimed poet. She generously accepted my offer to interview her about her new collection of verse, "Glitter Road." ( CavanKerry). On her publisher's website it states:

"Glitter Road reflects on the end of a marriage, loss, and a new relationship against the backdrop of a Mississippi season. She explores the history and legacy of Emmett Till, how his story is braided with hers, and how race binds us all together. These poems reclaim the vulnerable, intimate parts of a life in transition and celebrate womanhood through awakenings, landscapes, meanders, and possibilities."

Doug Holder: Glitter Road deals with the many losses, transitions, as well as possibilities in life. You write about your poetry collection and yourself, "I am done telling the kinder story. I am a myth of my own making." Can you talk a bit about this statement, and its reflection in your poetry?

January Gill O'Neil : My favorite line! It is the truest line in the book. That line is from the poem “Woman Swallowed by Python in Her Cornfield.” As a writer of a certain age (I turn 55 in February), I am finding that all of the things I used to fret about—not having enough time, opportunities, love—all of those worries melt away as I get older and gain more experience. I am telling my story my way. If I don’t do it, who will?

Doug Holder: In your poem " Autopsy" you write about your deceased ex-husband. You take a hard look at yourself—the things that were said and perhaps not said. You write in the poem "This is a memory coming up for air." It seems that this memory is festering, and the only elixir for it is to bring it to the surface—the light of day. Did you have a catharsis of sorts, writing the poem?

JGO: It was cathartic in the way that saying that unsayable thing is cathartic. Making “Autopsy” the first poem in Glitter Road is scary and makes me feel extremely vulnerable. It’s also necessary for the book’s narrative.

DH: In the poem "On the Edge of a Field in Sumner, Mississippi" you write about your trip to the town where Emmett Till's killers were acquitted. The landscape is the main character in this poem, and it pulls you in to this poignant reflection about the plight of past and present African American men and women—and indeed, your own life. Did this poem come to you deliberately, or did it hit when you arrived in town, and saw that field of nightmares?

JGO: I imagined a field of my ancestors picking cotton. So much what I felt in the Delta was the trauma of the land. At the time, the feeling hit me in a wave all at once. But it took me months to write it down. I needed to live with it, to decide how I felt about it, and to reveal it in a poem.

In 2019, I was awarded a fellowship to the University of Mississippi, Oxford, as the John and RenĂ©e Grisham Writer in Residence. I moved my then-teenagers (and new puppy) down for one academic year, and we became part of the community. Everyone we met was kind and welcoming. In October, my daughter and I attended the re-dedication of the Emmett Till River Site Memorial Marker at Graball Landing. Previous markers had been vandalized on three separate occasions. We stood beside the turbid waters of the Tallahatchie where Till’s bloated body was pulled out. For the rest of my time, I researched Till’s story, went to sites and spoke with people who had first-hand knowledge of what happened back in 1955.

To my surprise, I found a part of myself in the red dirt, in every wild daffodil that was, most likely, on a plot of land worked by an enslaved person.

DH: Your poems deal with a lot of sorrow, but there are ample doses of humor and hope. How do you keep the faith?

JGO: I love that question, Doug! It’s not easy. But that’s precisely why poetry is a necessary art. We go to poetry for connection. To feel something. To not feel so alone. At my center is joy, which is the other side of the pain. I make a conscious effort to stay open to possibility and see the world anew each and every day. It doesn’t always happen, of course. Life intrudes: the dog wakes me up at 4 a.m.; the kids, home on break, leave dishes in the sink (a pet peeve of mine); someone cuts me off in traffic. And with so much unrest in the world today, it’s easy to lose faith. That’s when I need poetry the most.

DH: Why should we read your book?

JGO: Another excellent question! I hope your readers discover Glitter Road because it captures a story of self-discovery and transformation. My experience is both intimate and universal. I hope readers will be able to see themselves in these pages, and find community while exploring the themes of love, loss, race, history, and identity. Glitter Road weaves a personal narrative with the legacy of Emmett Till against a Southern backdrop. But there is so much wonder and joy in these pages. My story is an American one that revels in the beauty and complexities of life. I invite everyone to join me on this journey that celebrates what connects us all.