In Gloucester, Poetry and Prose on Writing and War

Thanks to Henry Ferrini and the Gloucester Writers Center for this photo of yesterday’s readers.

In opening, Gloucester Poet Laureate Ruthanne “Rufus” Collinson read a vivid and touching poem about a dear friend from college, being with him the day he received his draft notice, and years later visiting the Vietnam War Memorial with her daughter, and finding his name on the Wall.

Kevin Bowen, former director of the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences
  read poems and–in Vietnamese, follwed by English translation– a piece from a Vietnamese poet; there is an interview with Kevin on the website for “Voices”  .  I’ve been immersing myself in novels set in WWI, so I was interested to read  this from Kevin: ”  I think the poetry of the Vietnam War does hearken back to poetry from World War I. The themes of betrayal, of the enormity of war, of its brutality, the creation of an enormous gulf between past and present, the world before and the world after the war, they are there. “

Bowen and his fellow poets were unsparing in brutal detail; the work makes it clear that the war is very present for them, a well of horror continually yielding fresh images. In the poem “Body Count: The Dead at Tay Ninh”, Bowen writes of stacking bodies beside the mess tent. “Their bodies black and crisp curled in the purple light. Dawn, we flew them out in bags,/ mopped up the mess for chow.”

Marc Levy, the next reader, served as an infantry medic and Vietnam and, as he read, there was an electric intensity in the room as he made the war very real for us through his words and images. As Marc writes in his essay “Whatever You Did in War Will Always be With You”, “That was thirty-seven years ago. Or was it last night?” Hearing his poems left me eager to watch a video, “The Real Deal”, featuring Levy reading his works accompanied by a background of sounds and images from the Vietnam War. You can read his poem “Dead Letter Day Poem”  online.

Fred Marchant, accomplished poet and educator (he is the director of Creative Writing at The Poetry Center of Suffolk University), opened with an amazing poem by William Stafford, sharing that Stafford was a conscientious objector in WWII. The poem contained a terrifying image of the atomic bomb “mushroom cloud” as an immense snake rising up from the earth; I wish I could find the poem and share it here but it’s well worth looking for.

Marchant’s 2009 poetry collection from Graywolf Press, “The Looking House”, was named by Barnes & Noble as one of the five best poetry collections of the year. You can read two of these astonishing and hard-hitting poems here.  The review of the book in the Christian Science Monitor notes that Marchant was one of the first Marine officers to become a conscientious objector. I need to share his photo here because I kept thinking, as he was reading his searing verse, that he has the face of ….maybe an angel who has passed through hell without losing his light. Stefi Rubin took this photo, which appears on The Poetry Foundation website, and I hope she will not mind me sharing it here, so you can see what I mean.Fred Marchant

Helen Garland, wife of the late Joe Garland (author of Unknown Soldiers), shared some moving reflections
about Joe, their correspondence during WWII–a contact which Helen later discovered was redemptive for Joe–, their experiences with his post-traumatic stress disorder, and the writing of this book, a compelling mission in his life. Most of us were in tears, as was Helen, when she closed her portion of the talk with a poem.

Scouts Bob Richardson, George Ruder and Bob Coleman

Martin Ray, who arrived in Vietnam in 1971 as an Airborne Ranger Combat Engineer, discovered a new dimension of the war and of humanity when he enrolled in a basic photography course and began taking his camera around Saigon at every opportunity. He speaks of the images of his subjects rising up to him from the developing tray and asserting their common membership in the Family of Man.  “I went there to test my manhood and came home to test my humanity”. As he read poetry and prose reflecting on his war experiences, the audience circulated several of his eloquent photographs of the people of Saigon.

George Kovach (editor/publisher of Consequence), spoke about the mission of his magazine, of which Kevin Bowen and Fred Marchant are contributing editors. The Spring 2012 issue is just out; copies of the journal were available for perusal and purchase, and, with its focus on the cultural consequences of war and injustice,  it’s clearly a valuable addition to the selection of literary journals focused on social issues.

The final featured reader was Aldo Tambellini, a visual artist, filmmaker, poet and peace activist still vibrant and visionary at 82. He shared his experience of surviving an Allied bombing of his village when he was a teenager in Italy; and he read some powerful poems that brought the reading full-circle, as he had not been a combat veteran, but a civilian witness to and victim of the horrors of war. I’d encourage you to explore his website to learn more about his genre-stretching and boldly imaginative creative works and to experience his authentic voice through his writings.

This event made me hungry for more of what literary Gloucester has to offer, and also eager to deepen my acquaintance with the works of these artists, all of whom were new to me. What a rich afternoon; out of pain, such gifts.


Poetry from War Veterans, Sad Facts of Nature, Bra Stuffing, and the Mean Streets of Gloucester

This day really ran the gamut, and I don’t want to trivialize the serious, really meaningful parts by sharing everything but I’m going to share everything anyway. If I put “bra stuffing” in the tit(t)l(at)e I might get more readers, after all.

Got up today determined to get a cool summer job, so I put in the paisley turquoise and green skirt and the bangle (both acquired yesterday from The Dress Code, a hub of Gloucester culture); I have a nice aqua top but the waist to bust ratio wasn’t cutting it. You know those pesky socks that get separated from their pairs? I’m so glad I held on to mine. I helped nature out a bit with one green-striped fuzzy sock and one purple one. I gave Harold an unnecessary speech about how things have not changed so much in the food service business, and took off into the gorgeous, clear-blue-sky day towards the paradise that is downtown Gloucester.

My first encounter of the day was with a VERY relaxed friendly looking couple (did I mention it was 10:30 a.m.?) sitting on a bench outside a tavern across from the water. They greeted me in a friendly way so I said “I’m looking for a job! Do you have any advice?”. I elaborated that I wanted a “fun job”, someplace with food and a bar, and they held forth. Jackie, a 60ish hippie complete with gray pony tail said “don’t be insulted, but it’s all about the cleavage”. Ann, a funny and clearly wise woman who has spent a lot of time squinting into the sun, agreed. “We were in the tavern business. We always loved to have a woman bartender with…a friendly personality”. They shared their thoughts on several places I should try, and I decided they were my good luck angels for the day. A really sweet, cool pair. In 15 years or so it might be fun to join them on that bench.

I walked down the waterfront street and back up Main St. collecting applications and trying my best to simply beam friendliness and competence to everyone I met. After about an hour I passed Dogtown Books, a leathery-dusty-old papery-smelling haven of bliss, and chatted with the utterly charming owner Bob Ritchie. I want you to click this link and see his website right now. It says something about the way this man does business:

By which I mean, it’s much better just to walk in and meet him and his ever-changing towering piles of wonderment in person.

I HAD to scope out the poetry and New England history sections, which meant I bought some books: an elderly copy of Spoon River Anthology, an anthology of Russian poetry including lots of Ahkmatova, and a really nice book about the history/architecture of Portland; an out-of-print volume put out by Portland Landmarks a few decades ago. It’s more source material for that book I really am going to write. I’m in the note-taking phase. Please don’t ask me about it. Thanks.

While I was browsing, a very elderly and loud, disheveled, bent-over, eccentrically dressed–which is to say, clearly brilliant–man returned a large volume of Milosz (are you still there? It took me a while to find the right spelling), and proclaimed “I have no use for contemporary poets!”. I gave him the side-eye but decided to let it pass realizing that if I engaged with this man I might be a long time getting dis-engaged.

 I will never return a book by this poet. Just saying.

As I checked out, the Frowsty Old Formalist was still browing, and I admitted to Bob, in a whisper, that I did, on occasion, write poetry, and did he know about the Writers Center? (There is no apostrophe anywhere in that title. I checked. I’m not sure what that implies. By which I mean both the lack of apostrophe and my checking).

Bob praised the Center’s events enthusiastically and reminded me there was to be a reading this afternoon, featuring the poetry of war veterans. I’m so glad he did remind me. More on that.

After this nice interlude I drove to Rocky Neck, THE OLDEST WORKING ARTS COLONY IN AMERICA, because I heard the hippest eateries were out there. I applied at the Mad Fish Grille and now it is the only place I really want to work. I can’t overstate how cool this place is–right on the water, with a deck, a dock, a patio, and even the “inside” part, which is mostly all bar, shows the harbor from every table. They have just opened for the season and might be adding more staff and I sat there and filled out the app in painstaking detail and I just need to work there. They have live music. It has a tiki bar vibe, but tasteful. I’m so glad I checked to make sure I tucked those socks in before I approached the manager. You have to see it so click here and say a little prayer for me.

Sad part of the day: when I got home, Harold told me that Fred, who is an INDOOR CAT, walked out onto our tiny balcony and snagged a sparrow right out of the air. He trotted in with his prey and Harold tried to save the little bird but, as he kept repeating, “you could see the life just fading out of him”. Harold’s been depressed about this most of the day, and I am, too, if I let myself think about it. I’m also thinking that now that Fred’s had a taste of this sport, I’m going to have to keep the cockatiels caged unless I’m looking directly at them. We still love Fred, he was just doing what cats do, but we’re sad. The sparrows were building a nest next door in the air conditioning housing. Fred is grounded until further notice.


To top off this very eventful day, I walked a sunny mile to the poetry reading at the Writers Center, and the poets were all amazing. The reading was wonderfully well-attended and, in speaking with other listeners at the reception afterwards, I discovered that we were all so profoundly affected by the readings we couldn’t talk about it yet. The poets were, for the most part, war veterans, with one widow of a veteran who was recently deceased and left an incredible legacy of creative work, and one war survivor who survived a bombing by US bombers when he was a 14 year old boy in Italy. I’m going to have to write more about the event tomorrow, because it was so intense, and deserves more thoughtful treatment than I can give it so soon after the experience.

I’m thinking I should take out the part about stuffing my bra. It makes me sound really shallow and it’s probably a blow to my reputation, if I ever had one, of serious feminism.

Still, I’ll leave it in, because no one can tell me what not to write. Nyeah nyeah. Going to spend some time adoring the pets now, and try to persuade Harold that a funny movie might ease our grief and guilt over the little sparrow, just a bit.