Saturday, March 19, 2016

Poet Jennifer Barber and her “Works on Paper.”

Jennifer Barber

Poet Jennifer Barber and her “ New Works on Paper.”

Interview with Doug Holder

Poet Jennifer Barber is the founder of Salamander magazine based at Suffolk University in Boston, and the author of a number of poetry collections. Her latest collection is “Works on Paper.” We discusses her new book and other aspects of her rich and varied career on my Somerville Community Access TV show: “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”

Doug Holder: Salamander used to be based at your home. Now it has been at Suffolk University in Boston for a number of years. How have things changed for the magazine since its transition?

Jennifer Barber: Well-- my dining room table has been cleared of manuscripts. We can actually eat on it. Being at Suffolk has been great for us in a number of ways. I have a managing editor who helps me now. We have a budget from Suffolk—that makes things much more stable. And of course office space makes a big difference.

When I started the magazine I had recently graduated from the MFA program at Columbia University. I loved the work of my fellow students but I did not see any of it in journals at the time. So I started the journal to see their work more often. We started out mostly with writers from New York and New England. Now it has expanded and we get work from around the country.

DH: Who do you have in the current issue?

JB: We have selections from Martha's Collins new poetry collection “Admit One: An American Scrapbook.” We have two poems from Gail Mazur who founded the Blacksmith House Poetry Series. We have an emphasis however on newer writers. One that comes into mind is Jessica Greenbaum—she regularly appears in The New Yorker.

DH: Has the magazine helped your career in any way?

JB: I think it has helped my writing. As you know, when you edit a journal you see a lot of manuscripts. At one point I think I was letting myself get away with things stylistically. So after seeing some really fine manuscripts, I was inspired to make my work stronger. I started the magazine when my son was very young, and I was isolated from a lot of writers in the area. So through the magazine I became friends with poets like Fred Marchant—the founder of the Poetry Center at Suffolk University.

DH: I have noticed you won a grant from the St. Botolph Foundation for translation.

JB Yes. I translated the work of Emilio Prados-- a contemporary of Lorca. After the Spanish Civil War he went to Mexico. He published his own work and those of his contemporaries. I loved his work--especially the poems about the Southern landscape of Spain. In general, I love Romance Languages. Back in the 80s I lived in Spain with my husband, who is a translator and fiction writer. So I was immersed in the culture and language.

DH: Are you competitive with your husband?

JB: No—not now anyway. We critique each others work. And he never questions the time and commitment I put into writing because he is a writer himself.

DH: I noticed your new collection is dedicated to your late father?

JB: Yes—he passed in 2014. In his later years he took classes on poetry. He was in the lighting business for many years. But he had many interests that he pursued. I remember that we had a lot of books around our house and my mom used to read to us all the time.

DH: You got your MFA at Columbia University. Who did you study with? Who made an impression on you?

JB: Well I took workshops with Dan Halpern, and Stanley Kunitz to name a few. I really love Stanley. He was inspiring... he got to the essence of poetry.

DH: Has poetry changed you?

JB: When I was young Emily Dickinson really had an effect on me. I loved her intensity... what she did with a few short lines.

DH: You seem to be hyper-aware in your poems. I saw that in a number of poems in your collection—one that concerned a falcon that was killing a pigeon, and another about the anticipation of the onset of rain.

JB: I am very aware—the rain, nature, etc... I think it is part of being a poet.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Sunday Poet: Helen Bar- Lev


Helen Bar-Lev





In The Course of Contradictions

The electrician leaves the house
with safety switches that shock and
fuses that don’t work

The mover promises he’ll come tomorrow
but leaves her sitting on the cartons
until the muse moves him

The contractor doesn’t do half the work
he promised but doubles his prices
with the confidence of the righteous

The enemy declares a cease-fire
but continues to bombard us
with rockets and katyushas

so at night she lies awake
and gets through the days on tranquilizers
but it’s all somehow expected isn’t it?
par for the course of living on this planet

But he who today declared forever love
compared her to saints and angels
tomorrow will scream
with the vengeance of a hurricane,
the anger of a tsunami

From this contradiction
she can never recover

© 12.2006 Helen Bar-Lev

Helen is the assistant to the President of Voices Israel, an artist, and poet. Her work has appeared widely in journals and anthologies.

The Work of the Body Poems by Jill Kelly Koren

The Work of the Body
Poems by Jill Kelly Koren
(Dos Madres Press, 2015)

Review by Denise Provost

I confess that I’m drawn in by book titles, and that Jill Kelly Koren’s recent publication had me wondering, what is the work of the body? The cover art suggested a lush physicality: on a cluttered dressing table, a female figurine shown twice, its half-draped back mirror-reflected. Will the “work of the body” written here prove to be a hot-house hedonism?

The answer is that in these pages, work is work. Bodies fight gravity (“which never tires,” notes the narrator of Inside Out) - and they lose. They bleed, and age, and sicken. They muse, and mourn; they clear out the belongings of past generations, and they reproduce.

The epigrams in this volume make clear that Kelly Koren is singing the body electric, and that she means work in many senses, the literal sense being prominent. As if to establish the bona fides of her framing of this collection, the poet has arranged each chapter under a heading which is a law of physics. I confess I was concerned that this approach – frankly ambitious – might prove to be precious, or contrived.

Yet Kelly Koren pulls it off. Her poems, most of which are meditations on the small episodes of domestic life, manage to connect physicality and physics. They start with particular moments, like the butterfly emerging from a hollow shell in Winter Hatch:

My two-year-old son toddles toward it.
Don’t touch it, my brother warns.
I won’t, Sonny says…
…unaware that the Swallowtail
will not survive the week….

There is momentary interaction of these lives. The sun traces the passage of the hours, leaving the narrator “[t]ired of all the brilliance…,” and reflecting that, “[w]e are all on our way/to somewhere else.” This thought is so lightly expressed that it might as well be the Swallowtail.

Kelly Koren treads potentially treacherous territory in this book, populated with her children, parents, husband, extended family (living and not), and the imagined lives of others. A poem like Yard Sale Day, for instance, might have turned sentimental in less skilled hands:

The house where my father grew up
has upchucked its contents
onto the old horse field….
a life undone, bared for the hunters
of bargains to claim….

The poem, though, while tender, never becomes mawkish. It – and presumably the poet – inhabit a space where emotion can be laid bare and examined, but not distorted, or used for other ends:

He closes another deal,
then weaves his way back
through the forest of furniture,
voice low and serious now:
Don’t write a poem about this, okay?

It’s an impressive equilibrium to keep, and one that Kelly Koren boldly pursues. Some of us would only read “the latest mother-on-child/atrocity in the newspaper,” and shudder. Kelly Koren goes there, in The Ache, imagining infanticide from the inside:

Something has happened to my child!
She also means: something has happened to me.
I have done something
so unspeakable
that only prayer
or the edge of a knife
can answer.

She takes on a similar theme in Icarus Bounced, exploring the chemical (hence physical) disarray of post-partum psychosis:

What better way to kill
anxiety than to extinguish
its source? Spare the broken-winged
bird a life of low flight?

It occurs to me that one of Kelly Koren’s past lives, as a gymnast, might help explain her willingness to take risks in her literary work. Some of the risks she takes are with edgy material, but many of her risks consist of taking on topics so ordinary that they challenge preconceptions of what poems can be made of. For instance, The Work of the Body starts with the poem Tooth, Fairy, in which a six-year-old drops a pulled tooth down the drain:

I lose everything!
his sobbed refrain,
and I can do nothing but sit with him
on the red futon and marvel
at the completeness of his grief.

This poem’s epigram is from Elizabeth Bishop: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” Like the doomed butterfly in Winter Hatch, and the dispersed heirlooms of Yard Sale Day, teeth, and other body parts, and the mortal lives of generations keep proving themselves to be on their way “to somewhere else.”

“Faced with the prospect of moving,” somewhere else, the narrator of Green Atlas inventories every plant in an “unruly patch of Earth,” with pertinent advice:

Along the fence, you’ll find
Dwarf Arbor Vitae and holly
but the honeysuckle will take over
if you let it, and you might, just to
smell that knee-knocking sweet-sweet smolder….
The Work of the Body provides its own inventory, of sorts. The landscape of mothering, daugthering, nurturing, comforting, creating, and taking the moral measure of the world are all here. You may find that its unassuming poems do take over a part of your own consciousness, and smolder there long after you’ve put the book down.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Ibbetson Street #38

Ibbetson Street #38
Somerville, Mass.: Ibbetson Street Press, 2015.
ISBN 978-1-329-66814-0

Reviewed by David P. Miller

The November 2015 issue of Ibbetson Street offers poetry and prose featuring a wide variety of styles, approaches, subject matters, and moods. (Disclaimer: two of my own poems have appeared in past issues, but nothing of mine appears here.) It would require a most lengthy, and patience-testing, review to cover everything. In addition to those discussed here, notable contributions include poems by Marge Piercy and Ted Kooser, an elegy for Hugh Fox by Eric Greinke and Glenna Luschei, and a review by Lawrence Kessenich of Charlotte Gordon’s study, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley. We are also fortunate to have “Douceur,” a poem by Haitian poet Ida Faubert, with a translation by Boston Poet Laureate Danielle Legros Georges. This is part of an ongoing project (see

I was interested in “Aglets” by Gary Metras even before I knew what aglets were. It turns out that an aglet is altogether commonplace: it’s the “small plastic or metal sheath typically used on each end of a shoelace, cord, or drawstring,” according to some website or other. So most everyone I know handles them every day. Metras begins with two references to aglets, which spark a series of free associations: from a quoted “inelegant” pun, to a trout’s leap scattering water droplets in the sun, to jewels atop a pool table, somehow landing us with a turtle in a tree.

Tomas O’Leary’s “Dining Out With Our Zombie” is a hilarious kind-of-shaggy-dog story. It’s premised on a highly open-minded family who not only takes a zombie into their home, but even takes him out to eat in a very liberal-minded neighborhood indeed: “But with ribs and pasta smothered in sauce / and a cheering family circled around, our zombie / assumes a transcendent grace, which gives / added charm to the famously tolerant eatery.” Of course, this is also a ploy in the service of training their house guest away from human brains: “down to cauliflower, which had the right look.” And by the end (the shaggy dog moment), this might only be a way of marking time: “We know the climate’s changing as he eats. / Why skimp on raw gestures, bereft of good will, / while the world grows warm enough to toast us all?”

“The Teacher’s Prayer” by Afaa Michael Weaver is, for me, one of the standout selections in this Ibbetson Street issue. Weaver, who teaches at Simmons College, testifies movingly to the depth of responsibility and self-questioning felt by anyone who takes seriously the complexity and ambiguity of the teacher’s challenge. Here is the incessant circling of the mind and its sometimes painful leaps to doubt and memory, even in the middle of one instant of intended purpose. One brief selection may suggest the extent of this work:
& they are all so young, and something hurts in all
of where my joints connect, where the memories and dreams of my life
are connected with locking tubes and cylinders filled with jelly,
and it is another day without a Motrin, because I take pain
over side effects whenever possible, so I begin the questioning,
ask myself how I came to be a man who teaches women how to make
the world something they can trust will given them what they need
on their own terms, and I see my mother in her old slippers
and blue house dress, the one my father and I put in the trash

In “Casa de la Luz,” Krikor Der Hohannesian provides a sharply recalled vigil at the death of a family member, after an apparent period of separation. It begins with the abrupt declaration, “Nothing more could be done, so / on a bright desert morning they came,” although as things develop the “they” might be hospice personnel, loved ones, or anyone outside the skin of the dying. The speaker feels like a stranger in the environment, musing on the feral cats, marijuana plants, and four vintage Volkswagens. The moment of death is given an image that take the deceased’s final breath, suggests his passage outside the body, and ends ambiguously, without punctuation: “Sun-up, three loud breaths, then / silence, a settled hush, a wisp of a breeze / flutters the curtains. You, unfettered, / a fresh memory stripped of its flesh”

The Fukushima, Japan, nuclear disaster may seem geographically remote to most of us on the U.S. East Coast, but it is closer than we’re willing to acknowledge, as evidenced by Teisha Dawn Twomey’s “They’re Not That Unusual.” An unsettled vagueness pervades the poem, beginning with its “Meanwhile, mutant daisies grow” and compounded in “Or so I read that day I had the nightmare for the first time” and later “… or so I read or heard somewhere // about the two-headed daisies or daughter / or was it just a single girl, one only stem // to the flowers I continue to string / individually in my nightmares.” An always-almost-present disaster, however much out of sight, will link the reality of mutant daisies and a dream of mutant daughters. The poem’s title might refer to two-headed daisies, but given that there is no “away” from radiation, might it not come in time to refer to two-headed girls?

Kathleen Aguero’s “Night Beckons” reads to me like a curiously detailed set of images of inner stasis. Although “Night beckons like an empty staircase / promising to lead where you didn’t know / you wanted to go,” the speaker doesn’t seem to move. She stays with a whole set of blockages, perhaps preferring some kind of collapse: “Maybe you want the house in flames.” There is day as well as night, but it seems no better: “Day, the familiar hazard. / Night, the vacant dream.”

Charles Coe spins a whole series of meditations from a single sound in a historic jazz recording in “A Woman Laughs.” The title sound was captured in 1961, during a performance by the Bill Evans Trio. It’s likely that most listeners either barely notice this laugh, or let it go without thought, but Coe takes it further. He first puts the “jarring, even sacrilegious” sound in its context: “But then again, a jazz club’s not a concert hall, / listeners in polite rows, knees together, / waiting to cough in the space between movements.” He then imagines many of the possible “worlds within worlds” that might also have been associated with the moment:
In one world,
A man who follows Evans from gig to gig
sits at the bar alone, transfixed,
ice melting in the forgotten drink.

In one world,
The bartender counts his cash
while dreaming of the waitress’ embrace.
What would we also learn from our infinite number of daily moments, if we could reflect on them in this way?

The story of a family finding itself in sudden danger is at the heart of “Lost on the Little Island” by Alexander Levering Kern. A father and two children are threatened with stranding on an island far from the mainland after the son cuts his foot. Kern brings the reader to the heart of the story by structuring it entirely as a set of rhetorical questions, mostly beginning with “If I told you” and concluding with an appeal to the reader to enter the situation, for example:
If I told you that invading species curl their tongues
that chokeberry and poison oak lie in wait
would you walk this path with me?
Although the story is told “as if,” as the poem unfolds its actuality becomes clear. We don’t know the extent of actual danger the family faced, but we do understand their perception, which is reality enough.

In “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” Lyn Lifshin unfolds a complex series of memories, framed by a single moment in a ballroom dance studio that ricochets back to her mother’s final days. The song (by Stevie Wonder) was both played in the studio and a favorite of the mother, linked too to the daughter’s phone-home or the lack of one:
waiting for another call
from me, already becoming
a balloon pulling away, getting
smaller and not the girl in college
with curls and still white teeth
getting so many calls and dates
the other women wrote,
wrote, “Frieda, give us a chance,
No one can get to us.”
And the memory of the studio moment “in a tall dark stranger’s / beautiful arms, will soon become / a half remembered mirage,” as has every other association with the same song. (Or with anything.)

The overwhelming barrage of bad movies swallows everything, like a black hole or “the ganged living dead,” as Michael Todd Steffen tells us in “Bad Movies.” Even the sensible ones in these productions “cannot escape their roles,” and neither apparently can we, as bad movies are warped images of “our tilted lives” or perhaps vice versa. The world of the bad movie invades the holiday weekend and makes it an overstuffed thing: “torpid, overfed, / Indulging the star-studded team of special / Forces, another dirty dozen of them.” There’s not even relief in “wholly accidental glimpses” of naked actors in these films, as they are of course “bad actors.”

Pui Ying Wong’s “The Wind Takes Off” speaks of an understanding of the intricate relation between the living and the dead. Or rather, of one living person’s conflicted relationship with her dead, “my dead.” Is she solicitous enough, she wonders? “I cause them worries. / I know because I worried for them / when they were living.” Does she bear enough responsibility for them, even past grief? “Some days go by / and I wonder if I miss them enough.” Somehow, she hears her dead “chuckle” and say no: “like the wind they have gone far and do not need my grief.” This brief meditation exemplifies the potential for poetry to express much with comparatively little, allowing us unexpected breadth for our own reflections.