Interviews

An Interview with Poet and Promoter Bob Zell

zell1Robert Zell is the author of two chapbooks (One and Reflections). His poems have been published in Whirlwind Magazine, Danse Macabre, Poetry Ink and others. Bob has a B.A. in Psychology and Philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. Zell hosts monthly readings at the historic Pen and Pencil Club in Philadelphia.

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Interview with g emil reutter

GER: Did your background in philosophy have an impact on your poetry?

BZ: When I was younger, I thought the purpose of philosophy was to clarify language and search for truth (Logical Positivism), but then I took a course on Friedrich Nietzsche and that kind of twisted my brain inside out. He wrote about subjectivity, hidden motives behind people’s beliefs, highlighting the many nuances and limitations of language. In particular, I think his writing of aphorisms was what eventually (many years later) led to my writing poetry. He’d write these bite-sized, little nuggets of wisdom or come at you with a unique and highly original perspective that you could meditate upon. I experimented with aphorisms, then later, much to my own surprise—poetry—during a difficult time in my life. Frankly, I had no interest in poetry and never read any except in high school when I had to, until I started writing it myself. My only inspiration I can imagine is song lyrics, especially Ronnie James Dio and some other metal artists who wrote songs that had a lot of meaning behind them. Listening to music is a great inspiration to me.

GER: Why poetry?

BZ: First, I wrote for catharsis, then I shared some of my early pieces to friends who encouraged me to write more, and I found it came relatively easy to me. I had worked on my vocabulary over the years and found a way to inject some improvised structure into my writing. I have a background in psychology and hypnosis and there’s almost always a line or two (sometimes almost entire poems) which were informed by those fields. Nietzsche was a multi-level writer who explored a lot of unconscious themes and I kind of follow in his footsteps. But I don’t ever think I made a choice to be a poet, it just bubbled up from inside.  

GER: It wasn’t too long ago you took a road trip and reconnected with nature. What impact did it have on you as a person and as a poet?

BZ: I live in South Philly and there’s not a whole lot around me or in my everyday travels that allows me to get away from the hustle and bustle of modernity. When I get out into the woods, hiking and photographing, I feel like I’m in an altered state. My senses awaken, my mental chatter diminishes, and I look at my surroundings almost from a child’s viewpoint, and I feel at peace. I think being in nature enhances your powers of observation and you sense details you never did before, and then you can bring those details and imagery to your poems. And as a person, you become less self-absorbed because you realize there are so many experiences you can open yourself up to and that the world is enormous and often beautiful once you stop focusing on the negatives in your life.

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GER: How long have you hosted the Pen and Pencil Poetry Series?

BZ: It’s been almost 8 years from the first reading until now (we didn’t have reading for almost two years during the height of the pandemic).

GER: How would you describe your interaction with poets who visit your series?

BZ: I love it. There’s a real positive energy in the room during the reading and the conversation afterwards is always lively. P&P transforms into a super supportive environment with everyone encouraging each other to write more or read at the open mic. I’m hoping to continue building a sense of community and continuity by doing readings every First Sunday.

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GER: You have recorded over 300 poets reading in Philadelphia at various venues, but mostly at your series at the Pen and Pencil Club. Your YOUTUBE channel is a historical record of poets in Philadelphia. Have you ever viewed yourself as a poetic historian?

BZ: No. I thought it would be nice for everybody to have a record of themselves reading so they could share it with their family, friends, and fans. It also helps with promoting everyone’s material and readings, including my own. But you are correct in pointing out the channel is a historical record, as I pat myself on the back. 

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GER: You have published a few collections. Can you tell us about your collections, One and Reflections?

BZ: One was a collection of poems from my first year of writing poetry. Reflections was from the second year. I planned on doing at least one chapbook a year, but that plan didn’t quite unfold the way I hoped. I love the creative act of writing poetry, but I’m not as dedicated to the editing and publishing process. I don’t know if there’s any themes I had in mind when I compiled the collections; I just selected what I thought was my best work during those time frames. Both collections are quite diverse. I have a sonnet in each, I have several storytelling poems that were created out of thin air, and some based on my life experiences, I have some confessional poems and some that are isomorphic metaphors for something in my life that I disguise. I think the one thing that ties most of my published work together is there’s a positive message by the end however dark and gloomy I veer off along the way. That’s as much for me (who probably reads my poems more than anyone else) as it is for the audience.   

 GER: How many poems have you written, and do you plan on developing another collection for publication?

BZ: There was a point several years ago where I was writing at least 10 poems a week (most not very long). I haven’t approached that pace again, but I still have a huge number that I thought were worth keeping at varying degrees in the editing process. I probably have about 100-120 poems close to fully edited. I have several hundred more which may or may not be worth revisiting. 

GER: What poets do you look to for inspiration in your own writing?

BZ: John O’Donohue, Diane Ackerman, William Butler Yeats, Walt Whitman, the Romantic Poets, William Blake, Seamus Heaney, Robert Frost, William Shakespeare, and several local poets who have read at my series (no names).

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GER: Where is Bob Zell heading?

BZ: I’ve been working a lot between bartending and bouncing, and I’ve been burning out, especially from the latter. I’m planning on opening a hypnosis practice in the coming months and I’m hoping that if I start getting clients, I will not continue to work three part-time jobs and I’ll have more free time to edit and hopefully publish a chapbook or a full-length collection by year’s end. I will continue to host the Pen and Pencil reading series for the foreseeable future and I think I’ll be going to many more readings elsewhere now that things have opened-up again. And I’m opening-up again, writing more, and welcoming positive changes into my life.

Find Bob Zell at Amazon:

https://www.amazon.com/Reflections-Robert-Zell/dp/1530220165

https://www.amazon.com/One-Robert-Zell/dp/1530054567

Bob Zell’s YOUTUBE channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCVXeHjv2E1a8UBWCIS6OcAQ/videos

You can contact Bob at: zellpoetry@gmail.com

g emil reutter can be found at https://gereutter.wordpress.com/about/

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Ways to Read the World by Robert Scotellaro

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By Charles Rammelkamp

A triptych is an artwork made up of three folding panels. It can display a narrative sequence, show different aspects of a subject, simultaneously, as it were, and it can make a moral statement. Typically, we think of a triptych in terms of painting. Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights is a famous example, displaying paradise and hell in smaller panels alongside the larger middle panel that displays humanity in all its sinful glory, indulgences of the flesh. The genius of Robert Scotellaro’s work here with the flash fiction genre is in using this three-part imagery to do all of the above, and he does it with a humor and compassion that has a reader wiping his (her) eyes. These deeply satisfying stories are riddles and three-act plays all at once.

“From a Hitman’s Sketchy Last Will and Testament Written on a Placemat at The House of Pancakes” is composed of three parts, “P.S.,” “P.P.S.,” and “P.P.P.S.” (Several other stories have the same three part titles, including “SensationalSaints.com,” “The Small End of the Funnel,” “Black Bananas” and “The Penalty of Silence.”) Without even reading the text of the flashes, the reader already has a vivid image of a gangster feverishly scribbling his thoughts in a booth at a diner, maybe on the run from the police or from some mafia bosses he may have double-crossed.

The first part begins, “You’ll find the key to a safe deposit box in the hollowed out copy of the one Agatha Christie novel in my bookcase.” He’s leaving his fortune to his son. In the course of his three fugitive thoughts we see his whole life. He cautions the boy to get rid of any guns he finds, but leaves him his collection of ceramic elephants. (“Notice how all the trunks are facing up. That means good luck.”)

“Okay so everything I did I did and that’s that,” he wraps up in “P.P.P.S.” No doubts, regrets or qualifications, certainly no apologies. “Enjoy the elephants.”

The forty-nine triptychs in Ways to Read the World feature a lightning-strike survivors support group, a prison guard “cowboy rap” band, a rodeo clown, a husband and wife in a horse costume (“Horse’s Ass”), a frustrated preacher’s wife, soldiers in Vietnam, and a plethora of husbands and wives, parents and offspring. Gangsters and hoodlums recur, in East Harlem and elsewhere. The effect is like opening a box of chocolates with four dozen wrapped pieces, each one a surprise.

The stories unfold (think of Bosch’s folding panels!) like a stage drama. Freytag’s Pyramid, devised by 19th century German playwright Gustav Freytag, a paradigm of dramatic structure that outlines seven steps in successful storytelling – exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution, and denouement – is another way to appreciate what Scotellero has accomplished here in brief strokes.

Take the story “Close as We Get.” A husband and wife enter the stage for the first act, “Moon Dance.” They have a hobby of purchasing abandoned storage lockers, steamer trunks, treasure chests. The wife’s name is Rita; the story is told by the unnamed husband. Act two, “Negative Entropy,” introduces the inciting incident, the rising action: the discovery of an old boat’s log. It is the chronicle of a Ponce de Leon-like search for the fountain of youth! The chronicle is smeared with age. “I think about time, how it travels fast, sandpapers us down.” The third act, “Close As We Get Sometimes,” describes the climax, falling action, resolution and denouement: “I stop reading, can sense how this ends. Like all wild goose chases end. But I want to believe in the quest. It’s all about the quest, isn’t it?”  Resigned, he glances over at Rita, her hair down, so “you might think she was years younger.”

“Little Race Cars” is another example. The narrator’s cousin Peter, with whom he fought as a kid for the little gray race car token when they played Monopoly, has won the lottery! Lucky him! Only, now his wife Cynthia is leaving him because of the bimbos and hangers-on who’ve started flocking to their house looking for backing and handouts. All this happens in the first frame, “Fins.” “Hot Chocolate” develops the complications, the inventors who want his financial backing. “Hot Chocolate Again,” the third and final panel, brings us full circle to the inevitable. Peter could never tell a joke, try as he might, the narrator confides, but he gives his cousin a second chance. When he asks Peter if he has any new jokes, Peter replies, “Yeah, my life,” as he clicks on an enormous TV screen that’s like the emblem of his “success.”  The moral, of course, is implicit. Character equals fate, or something along those lines.

The story “History Lesson” sums it all up. A young woman (“Audience” – the first panel) is visiting her ailing grandmother, pill bottles arranged on her nightstand “like a medicine man’s rattles laid down.” In a burst of candor, the grandmother tells the girl about her risqué  life long ago (“I wore the reddest lipstick”) in the next panel, “Beehive.” Finally, in the third panel, “Snow Cave,” the grandmother winds up – her throat is dry “from spillin’ the beans,” advising her granddaughter to maintain her innocence. “You keep it that way for as long as you can. There’s no hurry, hon. Life will catch up on its own, no matter what. You’ll see.”

Robert Scotellero truly shows us new ways to read the world, backwards, forwards, upside, down, inside out and all at once.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Ways-Read-World-Stories-Triptych/dp/B09TYSFMSS

Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Sparring Partners from Mooonstone Press, Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.

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Poets Speak Back to Hunger – An Interview with Hiram Larew

By g emil reutter

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GER: How did you get involved with the United Nations and the formation of Poetry X Hunger?

HL: My career at the US Department of Agriculture and the US Agency for International Development was all about guiding international anti-hunger programs.  And over those years, I was actively involved with poetry.  It took retirement, however, for me to realize that there was very little available poetry about hunger of the stomach.  In discussing this with staff at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, they offered to showcase such poetry if I would rouse poets to write it.  Fast forward – as a result of that partnership and in collaboration with The Capital Area Food Bank and the Maryland State Arts Council, the Poetry X Hunger website (www.PoetryXHunger.com) holds many, many poems from poets around the world.  And, those poems are being used in Houses of Worship, in K-18 classrooms, and by anti-hunger leaders and organizations to raise awareness about the scourge in the US and overseas.  

GER: Through your efforts poets have written about hunger and malnutrition as well as other areas directly impacting food supply. What impact do you believe this will have on world hunger?

 HL: I always make the point:  Poetry will never eliminate hunger.  But I immediately follow that admission with my solid conviction that poetry can surely help.  How?  Well, unlike data, trendlines, statistics and even science that are very useful tools-of-logic in the anti-hunger toolkit, poetry speaks to the heart and soul.  Poetry can move people to take action in ways that those other tools simply don’t.  In fact, poetry has been so important in advancing other social issues such as immigration (think of Lazarus’s poem, The New Colossus, at the base of the Statue of Liberty), poverty, inequality, and the like.  So, why not bring poetry to bear on hunger?

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Poetry X Hunger  logo by Diane Wilbon Parks

GER: What was the selection process for Poets Speak Back to Hunger: An e-Collection of Poems from Around the World

HL: We chose a few of the powerful poems from the Poetry X Hunger website.  We showcased a diversity of poets from all over the world.  And, we presented their work in text form and, in many cases, as audio or video recordings.   The e-Collection has been featured by award winning hunger author, Roger Thurow, on his blog.  It was also used by the US-wide group, Hunger Free Communities, to find poets who then presented at HFC’s national summit.

The PDF can be read here: https://www.poetryxhunger.com/uploads/1/2/5/7/125799040/poetsspeakbacktohunger.pdf

GER: The Poetry X Hunger website also publishes poets writing about hunger, (https://www.poetryxhunger.com/poems-submitted-for-the-2021-world-food-day-poetry-competition ). How often will the site be updated?

HL: We constantly update and add to the website as volunteer time allows. 

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GER: On October 23rd at 2pm you will be hosting a virtual reading with the Moonstone Arts Center in Philadelphia. Share with us how this came to be and who will be reading at the event?   

HL: I’ve known Larry Robin for several years.  He recently reached out to ask if Poetry X Hunger would feature a few poets, in conjunction with October 16’s World Food Day, on MAC’s series, and I jumped at the chance.  Featured poets will be Aaron R (Virginia, USA), Josephine LoRe (Alberta, Canada), Tony Treanor (County Limerick, Ireland), Ladi Di Beverly (Maryland, USA) and Taku Chikepe (Zimbabwe).  We’ll also replay a haunting poem by Patience Gumbo (Zimbabwe).

On Zoom: https://moonstoneartscenter.org/event/virtual-poetry-reading-poets-speak-back-to-hunger/

Other Links:

Poets call for empathy and action towards a hunger-free world

https://www.fao.org/north-america/news/detail/en/c/1444423/

Email: PoetryXHunger@gmail.com

Two Poets, Straight and Queer, Find Common Ground in Femme ID and Content

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In this Q&A, poets Susana H. Case, winner of the bronze IPPY in the Independent Publisher Book Awards for Drugstore Blue (Five Oaks Press, 2017) and Lynn McGee, whose latest collection is Tracks (Broadstone Books, 2019), ask each other about their work, and touch on topics including the tender eroticism of scars, historic fights for gender expression, the death poem as love poem, absorbing the New York City subway into the acceptance of loss, femme identity both queer and straight, and more.   

SC: Death and potential mortality hover over your work—in the poems about your sister in Tracks and in the poems in Sober Cooking about your lover’s transplant. Emily Dickinson wrote she could not stop for death, a death she personified in her poem as a gentleman caller. You have, in a way, stopped for death in your poems, yet death in these is no gentleman caller. Can you talk a little bit about the imagery you’ve used in your writing about death?

LM: My poems about death are love poems. I don’t think we stop interacting with people, once they’re gone, but off course, without their response, we skew the interaction, in a sense, to serve our grief. We commemorate details of the person we’ve lost and spin the significance of those details. I should stop saying “we,” and take responsibility here for myself and my process. In Tracks, many of the poems—my work is image-centric—were triggered by observations I made, on my daily New York City subway commute during a period of sadness and recovery. It can be a meditative time, that communal ride, and privacy, I’ve learned, is a state of mind. Likewise, the content of many of the poems in my first full-length collection, Sober Cooking, was triggered by details of domestic life that grounded me when I was out of my mind with sadness, having been banned from my lover’s hospital room by her family. Also during that time, my father died. Those experiences became portals through which the poems emerged.

SC: If I ask about death, of course I have to ask about sex. Erotic sex is very difficult to write about well and “Scar,” in Sober Cooking, for example, is an extremely erotic poem. I say that as a hetero woman about what I know of course to be a poem about a female partner. That doesn’t seem to make a difference in its erotic character. Should it?

LM: It feels affirming to me, when a heterosexual woman recognizes the eroticism in “Scar,” which is a love poem from one woman to another who has had a mastectomy: “dark track where your breast / once was …” The poem is about intimacy, which of course transcends sexual preference. The speaker in “Scar” is granting another person “all kind of access” to her body—it is a display of trust, and if the reader finds that delivery of trust, that negotiation of power to be erotic, then I think that reader will find “Scar” to be an erotic poem. That said, I write about attraction knowing full well that not all readers share with me, an appreciation for the same signifiers that trigger sexual interest—but they understand the poems through the lens of their own experience. In Tracks, coming from the lens of my own experience, I convey in several poems my attraction to women whose presentation puts them on the “blue” side of the gender-expression wheel. For example, in “Details Heading Downtown,” I write of one woman who has caught my interest on the train: “Straight people would call her / ‘handsome’— / salt-and-pepper sideburns, / button-down shirt … / … wingtip boots / elegant cuffs…” In Sober Cooking, there is actually a poem that serves as a kind of homage to the bedroom closets of my butch lovers, comparing myself in “Pinkish Hue” to the comically picky George Costanza character in the TV show Seinfeldwho insists any woman he dates has “a cheek with a pinkish hue”—my version being, “Does she have a closet of button-down / shirts?She has to have a closet / of button-down shirts.” While gently poking fun at my own quite-specific preference, I’m also acknowledging the universality of preference, and perhaps its arbitrary mysteriousness. I accepted a long time ago, the nature of my attraction to women, and that was a kind of coming out, in and of itself.

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SC: Tracks is not a collection of poems “about” New York, but the New York City subway system is a unifying device in the manuscript. I know you to have a love-hate relationship with the city. In what ways does that find its way into your poetry, in particular the poems in Tracks?

LM: I’ve heard people describe New York City as a character in certain movies and I think it is a character in the work of many poets. It certainly looms so at times in Tracks, but serves more as catalyst than focus. Every poem for me starts in the body, and in the environment that holds the body, past and present. I moved to New York in 1986 for graduate school, and left only once, for a couple years when my sister died and my parents were charged with the care of her children. Those two years in Dallas were the most lonely of my life—and it’s not that Dallas doesn’t have its charms, it’s just that I felt like an outsider, despite the demographic sameness I shared with most people I ran into in the university and high school where I taught, and in my parents’ neighborhood. In New York, there is a splendid range of difference among those of us who live here, and yet I feel we are somehow in the same boat, faced with whatever is our version of the struggle to preserve civility, privacy, safety and compassion as we seek housing, jobs, friends—and physically push together to get where we are going, on the train. I hate it and love it, as you said.

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LM: One of the things that draw me into Drugstore Blue is your nuanced reimagining of icons like Marilyn Monroe. You identify women who have been relegated, culturally, to a narrative that secures their visibility but erases their individuality—and then you create a glimpse of who that woman might really have been. There’s something liberating to read a poem like that. How does it feel, to write those poems?

SC: I’m focused on the ways in which women are objectified, but, of course, don’t want to write didactic poetry and don’t want all of my poems to focus on the negative consequences of gender inequality. I’m been a bit obsessed with Marilyn, it seems, as I’ve written three poems about her, one of which appears in Drugstore Blue. I was staying at a hotel in DC, which at that time, had that iconic statue of Marilyn Monroe from The Seven Year Itchstanding over a subway grate by J. Seward Johnson, her dress lifting up. It was gigantic and a tourist attraction, and I would pass it in the morning when I was disheveled and grumpy and hadn’t yet had coffee. People wanted to be photographed with the sculpture, which didn’t interest me all that much, as, though I try for some glam once I’m awake, I don’t think I can compete with Marilyn, but it got me thinking of her life and identifying with some features of it: how do we persist and how do we get ourselves taken seriously? And then what happens as we age, with all those unforeseen consequences as to visibility and invisibility? I’m keyed into the tragedy in the Marilyn poem, but that’s not always the case. I’ve written a poem about Hedy Lamarr, also in Drugstore Blue, which ends with her running through the woods, nude in her film, Ecstasy. That poem focuses on how bright she was, not on the kind of sadness that was present, of course, in Marilyn Monroe’s life. I’m not all that interested in celebrity, but I am interested in that power imbalance and so I came at the Marilyn poems through that interest. I’m interested in famous people very little, but I am interested in who is really behind an iconic image, the wizard behind the screen. Beauty is fascinating because it’s liberating, but it can also be horribly constricting. Of course, given the choice, who wouldn’t opt for it? But it comes with baggage. I’m more interested in the baggage than in the beauty in my poems. Confronting that baggage is freeing; it suggests a kind of  “fuck you” to those who profit off of someone else’s physical advantage and who want to control it and/or who want to assert their own gender advantage. That experience of others trying to control your narrative is a universal part of experience, but more so for women, as well as other power minorities. I try to come at women’s experience from that direction. Plus, I’m interested in gender as performance. In the academic position I had before I came to the university with which I’m currently affiliated, some of my male colleagues at lunch one day jokingly declared that they were presenting me with an honorary penis, since apparently my behavior was not considered feminine enough. There were some issues, as I recall, concerning who was going to be the first author on a paper. There is pretty much nothing about me that doesn’t scream Feminine with a capital F, and I remained the first author of the paper. I guess that’s not performing gender to everyone’s specifications, but you can see why I’d be conscious of gender inequality. Well, any woman who is conscious, of necessity, has to be.

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LM: In a poem about Juana La Larga of Guatemala, who was subjected to dehumanizing cruelty by doctors for the size of her clitoris, you bring the reader into a quietly defiant moment of acceptance for La Larga and others who have been punished for being different: “Tonight I light a candle to all surprises/of the body…” In my view, this quality of your work equates to powerful consensus building. Do you agree? 

SC: I think we all write from a point of view, and sometimes from a point of view that isn’t our own necessarily—in a persona poem, for example—but I’m hesitant to try to generate support for my point of view. I feel more comfortable just laying it out. If someone feels the same way, fine. That person will identify with the work, relate to the work, etc. If not, I’m not trying to have a conversation geared toward conversion. I may put something out there because I think people may not know—the industrial chemicals that make roses a desirable commodity, but poison the women, and their children, who are involved in the harvest, in “Cayambe Valley Greenhouses,” for example, and in my personal life, people generally know not to buy me cut roses, because sadly I can’t look at them without thinking about birth defects, but otherwise not so much. I’m more into writing about my responses. I like the idea of the body’s surprises, of celebrating difference. Anything else is boring. Yes, Juana La Larga was an actual person, Juana Aguilar, possibly of ambiguous gender, or to phrase it better, somewhere in the middle of our artificial gender dichotomy—it was a long time ago, over two hundred years—but for that she ends up in court? It started out, actually, as a sodomy case, as she was having sex with both men and women. The court thought it important to categorize her definitively as male or female. Interestingly, the defense strategy was to argue that she couldn’t have committed sodomy as sodomy required she be male or female and she was neither, and it was a successful defense. It’s good to have a clever lawyer! For that, a newspaper at the time published stats on what a normal clitoris should look like and how big it should be. What are you supposed to do with that information? What are you supposed to do when you don’t fit? Who gets to decide these things and how do they get away with this? I respect Aguilar’s dignity in the circumstances. But I’m not trying to suggest via my poetry that anyone else feel that way. Well, if it were easy to change minds that way, then okay, sure, I guess I would.

LM: As an older queer woman who came up as a femme lesbian, I feel a kinship with your straight-woman’s nostalgia about “wanting the gaze”; about the allure of drugstore cosmetic displays and yearning to emulate women like fashion designer Vivienne Westwood. I realize this question is worthy of a book-length response, at the very least, but if you feel like tackling it—what are your thoughts on gender, sexuality and the emergence of style? 

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SC: I think I’ve alluded to some of that in responding to the first two questions, but yes, the gaze is important, has been important to me. I don’t see it as some kind of false consciousness. I think it’s both possible and desirable to gaze back. I have always liked men, maybe too much. And I have been fortunate to have met many good ones—though clearly from my poems, which are sometimes semi-autobiographical, not always. Self-expression is important to me. It represents a kind of freedom. I have no interest in negating that freedom to decorate myself however I wish, in the same way that I have an interest in decorating my environment. I don’t consider it frivolous at all, but rather an art form, a choice in how I live my life that I am fortunate to be able to make as an urban middle-class professional in an industrialized country, and I don’t want to be shamed for the makeup, the heels or anything else. I don’t live somewhere where I will likely get beaten or killed for such things, fortunately, and I also don’t consider it a form of tyranny. Life is short—we need as much pleasure in it as we can make for ourselves. And it doesn’t require having to buy expensive clothing. Last time I saw a Vivienne Westwood coat at Century 21 (a clothing discounter), it was tagged at $400, and if you want to throw money at your clothes, there’s one right now on her website for about $1800. I wasn’t interested in buying either—but remember, the speaker in “Bleached Blonde with Spiked Dog Collar,” the poem written for Vivienne Westwood, says at the end that really all she wants is to be able to stop traffic in a latex négligée. She doesn’t need the coat. And I think I need to add that, though it is more discouraged in this culture for men to self-decorate, I think it’s perfectly legitimate and interesting. It’s a form of creative play. We need more play in our lives, particularly as the quality of life goes downhill through external political forces that we can’t fully control. We’re not going to have another chance at it. Well, I think my ability to stop traffic dressed like that has come and gone anyway, but it’s the idea that’s important to me. An actual latex outfit would be way too uncomfortable. It’s a metaphor.

LM: Many of the poems in Drugstore Blue capture the pivotal moment when a romantic relationship goes wrong. That unraveling could be embodied in a man smashing a radio, or the point when being with a younger lover “begins to seem like shoplifting.” However they present, these moments seem to have something to do with the shifting of power. I can relate, though my lovers have been women. Am I onto something, in your work, or just seeing it through the lens of my own experience?

SC: Ha-ha. The universal experience of both women and men, however their partners are gendered. I write a lot about love going wrong. A good friend of mine, another poet who reads early drafts of my work, suggested to me that I write about that going wrong part with much more facility than when I try to write a love poem about something going right. Maybe it’s the imperfections which make that subject most interesting to me. Yes, the power shifts—sometimes. In “Summer of Love,” the poem which contains the man smashing a radio, that might be the very beginning of the shift to the speaker in the poem taking charge of her life, but it still takes a while. In “Hold Me Like You’ll Never Let Me Go,” the poem with the line about shoplifting, it’s not so much that the power has shifted as that the speaker is tired of her (okay, very inappropriate) fling and quotidian things like food take over desire in her mind. It’s just time to stop fooling around. But everything goes wrong in its own way. Maybe when love goes right, it follows a stylized ideal that is harder to write about in an interesting way. The going wrong parts are often quirkier. and since I use a lot of self-deprecating humor at times, what better theme for viewing my own foibles? I’m not embarrassed to put my imperfections out there—they provide great material for poems. It’s possible to mine both tragedy and comedy for subject matter, sometimes at the same time.

BIOS

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Susana H. Case is the author of six books of poetry, most recently, Erasure, Syria, (Recto y Verson Editions, 2018) and Drugstore Blue (Five Oaks Press, 2017, winner of an IPPY Award), as well as four chapbooks, two of which won prizes. One of her collections, The Scottish Café, from Slapering Hol Press, was re-released in a dual-language English-Polish version, Kawiarnia Szkocka by Opole University Press in Poland. Her poems appear widely in magazines and anthologies including recent publications in CalyxThe Cortland ReviewFourteen HillsPortland ReviewPotomac Review,  RattleRHINO and others. Dr. Case is a Professor and Program Coordinator at the New York Institute of Technology in New York City.

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Lynn McGee is the author of the poetry collection Tracks (Broadstone Books, 2019); Sober Cooking (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2016), and two award-winning poetry chapbooks: Heirloom Bulldog (Bright Hill Press, 2015) and Bonanza (Slapering Hol Press, 1997). Her poems are forthcoming in UpstreetLavender Review and The Tampa Review, and have appeared in the Potomac ReviewThe American Poetry ReviewSouthern Poetry ReviewLiterary MamaPainted Bride QuarterlyOntario Review and others. Lynn earned an MFA in Poetry at Columbia University and has taught writing at George Washington University, Columbia University, Brooklyn College/CUNY and others. A 2015 Nominee for the Best of the Net award, Lynn received the Heart of the Center Award from the LGBT Community Center in New York City for starting their first adult literacy class. Today she is a communications manager at Borough of Manhattan Community College, The City University of New York.

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An Interview with Poet John D. Robinson

john 5John D Robinson is renowned UK poet: with hundreds of poems published in small press zines and online literary journals including : The Raw Art Review, Rusty Truck: Outlaw Poetry: North Of Oxford: Tuck Magazine: Misfits Magazine: The Sunflower Collective: Winamop: Bear Creek Haiku: Chicago Record: The Legendary: Paper and Ink Zine: Algebra Of Owls: Full Of Crow: The Beatnik Cowboy: The Clockwise Cat:  The Scum Gentry: Message In A Bottle: Horror Sleaze ,Trash: Your One Phone Call: In Between Hangovers:  Rasputin: Revolution John: Vox Poetica: Hand Job Zine:  48th Street Press: Poems-For-All: Philosophical Idiot:  The Peeking Cat: Midnight Lane Boutique: Underground Books: Dead Snakes: Yellow Mama: Bareback Lit: Eunoia Review: Hobo Camp Review.
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Interview by g emil reutter
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GER: You have said that two of your major influences were the poet Josephine Austin and Jack Kerouac. How so?

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JDR: I had began to write poetry from about aged 16 or so: I told no one, I didn’t know of any other poets: talk of poetry was not done: it was soccer: music: movies: girls and alcohol; Josephine Austin: 1934-2014: had been published by the big publishing houses in London: she was friend’s with Robert Graves and would visit him at his Mallorca home, Josephine was also friend’s with poet Brian Patten: Josephine would organize poetry readings throughout the local area and established an annual  ‘International Poetry Festival’: she also produced a poetry magazine : First Time’ which gave showcase to many poets over the years: I attended one of the Festivals: I was shy and awkward but Josephine approached me during the intermission and asked if I wrote poetry: I showed her some of my poems: She asked if she could read a couple during the next session: and that was the beginning of our friendship that lasted over 3 decades: Josephine and her husband Brian were always very encouraging and I think their influence gave me the courage to become a publisher: about the same time I met Josephine, it was suggested by a female codeine swallowing charlatan that I should read ‘On The Road’: this book and what subsequently followed changed me: it opened up horizons for me: I read just about everything I could get my hands on that was beat connected which has lasted to this day: It was Kerouac’s self-drive and commitment and belief of himself as a writer that swept me up, the sense of spiritual exploration and riding the railways and roads seemed romantic: I wanted to taste it somehow.

GER: How important was it to you to engage the local poetry scene and workshops in your development as a poet?

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JDR: Thinking back I feel that it was very educating to participate in local poetry readings: mostly they were riotous drinking sessions: but the opportunity to hear the work of other poets and how they delivered /vocalised their work was valuable: it wasn’t always enjoyable: At that time I enjoyed reading, these days I rarely read in public: these days I am something of a recluse: I held/taught and introduced  poetry workshops in the local college and this was something that I truly enjoyed: I spent a great deal of time working on a programme that would be fun and easy to take part, remembering that poetry isn’t a part of many lives, it was important to present something that was accessible.

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GER: As a young man you engaged in the study of poets and poetry. How did this study influence your development as a poet?

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JDR: Pre-internet days I would spend hours in the public library reading through endless poetry collections and anthologies, taking notes of the poets that interested me and then I would read biographies of the poets: With few exceptions, I have very rarely read established UK poets and have always been very much more comfortable reading American poets: I have read at various times different schools/disciplines of poetry: surrealist: concrete: classical:  meat/beat and have been to some degree, influenced by them all.

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GER: You have published several chapbooks in addition to several more as a cooperative effort. Tell us about the process as a poet in addition to what led you to engage in cooperative publication?

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JDR: I try and write every day, sometimes I don’t manage it: sometimes it is not worthy work and I will discard: I may revise a poem several times, sometimes the poems do not need any editing: I hand write my poems: pen and notebook: I do not compose poetry on an electronic keyboard: I relish the opportunity to work with other poets: The Holy&intoxicated Publications Poetry Card Series provides me with the opportunity to reach out to selected poets for a contribution: a friendship develops and the chance to produce a split chapbook of poetry sometimes surfaces: creating and publishing books is something that I love doing. The chance to share the pages with another poet is always an exciting journey including reaching out to an artist for the cover art and collaborating the material and editing it into book form.

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GER: The poet John Dorsey said in a recent interview concerning Outlaw Poetry, “…I guess I don’t really like the term, it was made up by some marketing executive, really, there’s academia and then everyone else, and I guess that means me. These days an outlaw is anyone who loves with their whole heart.” What say you?

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JDR: I’d go along with John Dorsey on this one: Outlaw can be interpreted variedly and widely, as most things can: Robert Graves replied to the question: ‘what is the secret of writing poetry?’ ‘It must be written with Love-Magic’: so this fits with Dorsey’s statement: there will always be ‘labels’ ‘schools’ ‘fashions’ but if it is good, quality poetry it doesn’t matter what the label is.

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GER: Publisher Bill Henderson of the Pushcart Anthology stated in 2012, “I have long railed against the e-book and instant Internet publication as damaging to writers. Instant anything is dangerous—great writing takes time. You should long to be as good as John Milton and Reynolds Price, not just barf into the electronic void.” I took this to be elitist and condescending to poets who do work their poetry and believe the internet has opened up opportunities for those voices that would be ignored by folks like Henderson. What say you?

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JDR: I think the opportunity to have your work published online is not damaging in any way; this is the time we are in: the internet has given rise to a large number of ‘poetry journals and literary and artistic publications’ and the number of ‘paper zines’ is I think in a healthy state also: there is something special about ‘holding/handling’ a printed zine/book publication: so I am happy with both options of publishing: either way, I am always very thankful and grateful for any of my work to appear in either presentation.

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GER: How important is it to get your poetry published and do you receive any response upon publication?

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JDR: ‘Publish or perish’ said Bukowski: and there is a lot of truth in this: small press poets and presses come and go with some frequency: I will write for 2 or 3 months and then focus on selecting and sending out the work to various and numerous online/paper publications: I often receive emails commenting on my work, generally they are positive comments for which I am thankful for of course: about 3 years ago I decided that I’d like to get a poem, at least, published somewhere every month and I have been fortunate enough to have achieved this so far.

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GER: What poets do you currently read and why?

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JDR: I always have books by Doug Draime: Steve Richmond: d a levy, William Wantling: close by:  I read a great deal of small press poets: publications by Holy&intoxicated Publications are by invitation only and I spend a lot of time reading for future poets and potential Holy&intoxicated Publications: something I never tire of.

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GER: How would you describe the poetry of John D. Robinson?

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JDR: Honest: no bullshit.

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GER: What projects are you currently working on?

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JDR: I am working on a chapbook by Doug Draime: some of the poems have not appeared in print form before and I am very excited about this publication: also a chapbook by the UK poet Adrian Manning: and chapbooks by Tohm Bakelas and David Boski: and George Anderson:  and Martin Appleby: all fine poets: I also have the Holy&intoxicated Publications Poetry Cards series to concentrate on as well as Broadsides:

 ‘Uncollected Press’ USA  will shortly be publishing my first full collection: ‘Hang In There’: www.therawartreview.com

Chapbooks by John D. Robinson

Cowboy Hats & Railways (Scars Press 2016)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1537539019/ref=x_gr_w_bb_sout?ie=UTF8&tag=x_gr_w_bb_sout-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1537539019&SubscriptionId=1MGPYB6YW3HWK55XCGG2

When You Hear The Bell, There’s Nowhere To Hide (Holy&intoxicated Publications 2016)

https://www.amazon.com/When-Hear-Bell-Theres-Nowhere/dp/0993206808

An Outlaw In The Making (Scars Publications 2017)

https://www.amazon.com/Outlaw-Making-John-D-Robinson/dp/1981468188

These Poems Stole Your Lunch Money with Bradley Mason Hamlin  (Holy&intoxicated Publications 2017)

https://www.amazon.com/These-Poems-Stole-Lunch-Money/dp/0993206875

Looking Down Both Barrels with Adrian Manning  (Holy&intoxicated Publications 2017)

https://www.amazon.in/Looking-Barrels-Adrian-Manning-Robinson/dp/0993206867

Hitting Home (Iron Lung Press 2018)

https://ironlungpress.bigcartel.com/product/hitting-home-by-john-d-robinson

In Pursuit Of  Shadows (Analog Submission Press 2018)

https://www.analogsubmission.com/product/the-pursuit-of-shadows-by-john-d-robinson

In Between The Curves  with Charles Joseph  (Holy&intoxicated Publications 2018)

https://www.amazon.ca/Between-Curves-Charles-Joseph-Robinson/dp/0993206891

Echoes Of Diablo  (Concrete Meat Press 2018)

http://adrianmanning.wixsite.com/concretemeatpress/single-post/2018/08/16/New-Chapbook-by-John-D-Robinson

Too Many Drinks Ago  (Paper & Ink Zine Publication 2018)

https://paperandinkzine.bigcartel.com/product/too-many-drinks-ago-by-john-d-robinson

Romance, Renegades & Riots  with James Gwill Thomas  (Analog Submission Press 2018)

https://www.analogsubmission.com/product/romance-renegades-riots-by-gwil-james-thomas-john-d-robinson

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g emil reutter is a writer of stories and poems and can be found at: http://gereutter.wordpress.com/

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A Poem by Gabriella Garofalo

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Call them twice, bitch –
I’m white, I’m clean,
Dancing angels are no danger –
OK, I know the question, I’ve been diving into it
As naked Persephone in luminescent shadows
Dives into her moony waters:
Them their eyes –
She knows we give no nice answers,
She knows we don’t spin it nice,
Now that mothers look so dazzled
Walking to sunny afternoons with dearest daughters,
They’re holding hands, you know?
Ejit, in due time they’ll empty guns
At each other: blazing words, scorching screams –
Ejit, they asked for a loan
So she made them mortgage her soul
And now it’s time to give it back
To the water, our chief mortgagee –
Sorry, the nice little lady can’t help you,
That dyslexic light so busy splitting life from limbs,
Forcing open the blue, lashing bodies,
Yes, sure, so they traipse and choke and traipse again –
Sorry, mothers, sorry, daughters,
It’s her frantic week, simple as that –
The sky? Well, he’s fed up sick
With your cries for help, forget it,
Don’t even try to ask, hard cheese if the henchman
Wrests dead children, dead seeds, scarves, nosh or dosh –
A deranged diagram of love and whatnot –
And never forget he might bait
That ambivalent April against you.
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Gabriella
Born in Italy some decades ago, Gabriella Garofalo fell in love with the English language at six, started writing poems (in Italian) at six and is the author of “Lo sguardo di Orfeo”; “L’inverno di vetro”; “Di altre stelle polari”; “Blue branches”, “ A Blue Soul”.
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Past Interviews at North of Oxford

chimera frank

An Interview with Frank Wilson

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2016/09/18/an-interview-with-frank-wilson/

Lynn Lifshin 2

An Interview with Lyn Lifshin

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2017/06/01/an-interview-with-lyn-lifshin/

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An Interview with Bradley D. Snow

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2017/06/01/an-interview-with-bradley-d-snow-living-with-lead-an-environmental-history-of-idahos-coeur-dalenes-1885-2011/

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©  Martin Desht 1995-2018

An Interview with Martin Desht

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2018/05/07/an-interview-with-martin-desht/

An Interview with Martin Desht

The Wellfleet Public Library in Massachusetts will host an exhibit of Martin Desht’s, Capes and Poets ,seascapes and portraits of poets from June 16th to July 6th. On June 20th at 7 p.m. Martin will present, Voices of Conscience, Then and Now, a reading from the works of 24 poets.  Capes and Poets, front (1)   Capes and Poets, back

Interview by g emil reutter

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©  Martin Desht 1995-2018

MARTIN DESHT’S interest in photography began in 1985 when he signed-on as an unpaid deckhand aboard the SV Harvey Gamage, a two-masted schooner out of Southampton, Maine. In 1989, after publishing photographs of the Canadian Arctic’s Baffin Island, he started photographing post-industrial Pennsylvania, a project that would occupy him for the next twenty-six years. Faces From An American Dream® was first exhibited in 1992 and has been on tour ever since. The book Photosonata, was birthed from this project. Harvard University, Dartmouth College, New York University’s Stern School of Business, United States Department of Labor, have all exhibited his work. In 2006, Desht accepted a teaching residency at Queen’s Univeristy, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. His exhibit A Certain Peace: Acceptance and Defiance in Northern Ireland concerns post-sectarian war/ post-industrial neighborhoods of Belfast. He has also taught fine-art photographic printing at Cape Cod’s Truro Center for the Arts. Desht lived in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley for many years before moving to Santa Fe, New Mexico. From 1980 to 2002, he lived on an island in a renovated summer cabin along the Delaware River, in Raubsville, Pennsylvania. Martin Desht continues to work in black-and-white film and still operates a traditional photography darkroom. Along with portraits of American poets, his social documentary work is represented in collections at Harvard University, Lafayette College, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, and in numerous private collections.

The Interview: 

GER: As a young man working at the Electric Furnace of Bethlehem Steel reading the work of poets in between steel pours did you have any idea that love of photography and poetry would lead you away from Raubsville, Pennsylvania to documenting postindustrial Pennsylvania and into the world of poets and poetry?

MD: Well, in a very subconscious way, yes I did have an idea that I wasn’t going to spend thirty years in a mill. I was bird in a cage back then (1970s), and reading Faulkner and Blake during night-shifts was a way out of the mills and into the larger world. That I would one day photograph Phil Levine, Gerald Stern, and Jean Valentine, who were among the stars of American poetry—no, that never occurred to me. My grandparents were Czech immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island and found work in Pennsylvania’s coal country. My father was a miner and a factory worker, my stepmother a nurse, and my job as a crane electrician at the Steel was the best they ever hoped for me. To them poetry was a foreign word. Art was useless. Even college for me was as far from their minds as the moon.

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Former industrial workers. Southeastern Pa.
©  Martin Desht 1995-2018

 

GER: You began documenting the decline of Pennsylvania’s industrial economy in 1989. What led you to this project?

MD: In two words, reading and photography. First, books such as Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams and Stern’s Lucky Life; then Robert Frank and Lewis Hine who, I later learned, may have photographed my father as a nine-year-old kid working in the mines. Not sure, of course, but the dates and locations are right. Anyway, books have always taken me places and inspired me to act. I read Arctic Dreams and then took off for Baffin Island. After publishing some Arctic photographs, Lafayette College’s History Department asked me about documenting the decline of Lehigh Valley’s industrial economy. In essence, what I was documenting was the decline of the American dream for skilled and unskilled workers as America’s industrial economy was being displaced by overseas manufacturing. Obviously, as you and Diane well know since you’re both poets of conscience, this economic transition would later have enormous social and political consequences.

GER: The results of the project, Faces From An American Dream®, an exhibit that has been on tour for a few decades and continues as well as the book, Photosonata, that was birthed from the project have been widely praised. How did the exhibit and the book come about?

MD: Lafayette College exhibited some of the early photographs in January, 1992, and newspaper and magazine articles followed, as were exhibit requests from Harvard, Dartmouth, New York University, Philadelphia, Washington DC. And so it went, with eventually a book based on the work. I was lucky. But, then, I wasn’t.

If you’ll pardon a digression here, I feel a need to explain something about my view of art. First, You have to want to work—all day, all night, all ever, if that’s what it needs. It’s Want and Will. For me, art isn’t something one just learns in school. It’s a way of life. It’s how I live. It’s living on levels of consciousness—personal, social, political, and artistic, if that’s your calling. There’s no other way for me. Put simply: You can not ask someone else to do your breathing for you.

GER: In 2006 you accepted a teaching residency at Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. What was your experience like in Belfast and what led to your exhibit, A Certain Peace: Acceptance and Defiance in Northern Ireland?

MD: Belfast is a very artistically alive city, considering all the bombs and blood. To academically understand Northern Ireland one should read The Irish Troubles, by J. Bower Bell. Then sit in a pub with a few artists—poets and painters, photographers and filmmakers—to grasp somewhat the human experience of living in a war zone; to understand the consequences of racism and blind religion. Blind religion here means both Protestant and Catholic, each of which chooses to remain obstinately ignorant of the surrounding bleeding world.

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Honest Lou’s. Philadelphia
©  Martin Desht 1995-2018

GER: Your poem, Because You Want To Love, is full of imagery and passion about Philadelphia. The poem covers large swaths of a city that was then in decline and love for Philadelphia explodes throughout the poem with all its grittiness and suffering. Tell us of the inspiration and the time period of the poem.

MD: I think it was spring, 1997, when Gerald Stern had scheduled a reading at Temple University and asked if I would drive down Route 611 with him from Easton. (We were neighbors then.) Once in the city, we toured his old neighborhoods—North Broad from the Oak Lane Diner to Girard Avenue, then to the Liberties, Marvin Street, Fishtown, etc. All along the way, he’d point and say This used to be a laundry. That was stinky Sammy’s, the fish man. Here was Harry’s Grill, where the drunks used to piss and puke after hours while waiting for the bus. That used to be a synagogue. God. What the fuck happened here. Schmidt’s Brewery. Breyer’s Ice Cream. Mid-Vale Steel. Now all roof-less piles of brick half-burned to the ground. Who’d believe it. How, at the snap of a few corporate fingers, you could brutalize and impoverish an entire city.

You can read the poem here: _Because You Want To Love

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GER: The Wellfleet Public Library in Massachusetts will host an exhibit of yours, Capes and Poets, June 16th to July 6th. The exhibit will feature your photographs of seascapes and poets and will be the first exhibit of these portraits and seascapes. In addition you will read the works of 24 poets on June 20th at 7 p.m. in a presentation, Voices of Conscience, Then and Now. How did the project come about and how did you select the works of the poets your are going to present?

MD: When I lived east I vacationed on Cape Cod, and still do. Last October the Library asked if I’d like to show anything I haven’t yet shown—they have a large exhibit area and I have two rules about exhibiting: 1. Never refuse an opportunity to exhibit. And, 2, love your audience. How I selected what to memorize for the recitation is … Hard to say. The poem has to reach me on a deep personal level, like Sekou Sundiata’s “Harlem, A Letter Home,” because it expresses his deep love for a fallen city; Levine’s “What Work Is,” because I do know what work is. Stern’s “Lucky Life,” for its compassion; Alicia Ostriker’s “Listening to Public Radio,” because its so pertinent today. Then there’s Neruda’s “Poetry” for its dream of relativity that I think even Einstein would envy.

http://wellfleetlibrary.org/index.php/general-event-list/event/3125-poetry-recital

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Office Workers – Easton, Pa.
©  Martin Desht 1995-2018

GER: Since your days at Bethlehem Steel you have defined yourself as an artist, a writer of poems and essays.. It is an amazing story. What does the future hold for Martin Desht?

MD: More words and more pictures. I have a digital camera for fun work. But still use film and darkroom for love. There’s a project that’s long been on my mind. I’ve written some about my orphanage years, a rough-and-tumble place that had once been a cattle breeding farm and later donated to the Roman Catholic Church. I need to put all those words and old photographs together and then publish, if not the entire thing all at once then pieces of it, here and there. The whole of it is mystery, in a way. How I got there. Why. Who. Strange, and memory getting more remote everyday. Thanks for asking.

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You can visit Martin Desht here: https://martindesht.wixsite.com/martindesht

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g emil reutter can be found at: https://gereutter.wordpress.com/about/

 

 

 

 

An Interview with Bradley D. Snow – Living With Lead- An Environmental History of Idaho’s Coeur D’Alenes, 1885-2011

 

Living with Lead

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  •  g emil reutter

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Living with Lead by Bradley D. Snow is a compelling, fact filled book concerning the environmental history of the Coeur d’Alenes Valley in the state of Idaho. Bradley brings us to the initial finding of precious metals, quite by accident by a wayward donkey to corporate America’s mining of lead and silver, production of zinc and of construction of smelters and blast furnaces that dominated and destroyed the landscape of the Couer d’Alenes, to the rebirth of the environment when the famous Bunker Hill facility was finally torn down. The release of Living With Lead is timely as present day demands of deregulation of EPA rules and regulations are in open debate. The question of relaxed rules bringing back blue collar jobs is also in question as corporations only have allegiance to themselves. Living With Lead is a necessary read for those who value the environment and for those who desire to relax regulations for it is good to know why these regulations came into place and what their impact on the lives of people have been.  You can find the book here: BookDetails

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Bradley D. Snow

The Interview

GER: How long did it take from the accidental discovery of lead and silver in the Couer d’Alenes to the decline of the environment?

BDS: The galena (lead-silver) deposits were discovered in September of 1885 and area residents were reporting significant damage to their crops and livestock from mine tailings that washed down the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River and the main stem of the Coeur d’Alene River by the late 1890s. Downstream farmers also reported that by 1898 the South Fork, which formerly had supported healthy stocks of trout, had seen its fish populations “destroyed.”

Bunker Hill blast furnace and refining buildings

GER: In its prime how many people were employed at Bunker Hill and the mines located in the Couer d’Alenes?

BDS: At its peak Bunker Hill employed 3,151 people. I’m not sure how exactly how many were employed in Shoshone County’s many other mines, but in 1981, just before the closure of Bunker Hill, 4,200 people were employed by the mining industry in the county. As 1981 was far from the industry’s zenith in Shoshone County, my guess is that at its peak (ca. 1957) close to 5,000 people were employed by the mining industry in the Coeur d’Alenes

GER: What was the output of the Bunker Hill facility?

BDS: Not sure I quite understand the question. Do you mean output over its history, peak annual output, or something else? In 1981, Bunker Hill’s production represented twenty percent of the national total for silver and seventeen percent for lead. Bunker’s lead mine and its zinc mine were the largest in the Coeur d’Alenes, an area that between 1885 and 1997 yielded eighteen percent of the nation’s silver, seventeen percent of its zinc and six percent of its lead. For that period, the Coeur d’Alene Mining District ranked first in the nation in silver production, third in lead and third in zinc.

Bunker Hill Smelter

Bunker Hill

GER: Could you describe the Bunker Hill facility and the land mass it occupied?

BDS: Bunker Hill owned and operated much of the land in and around the towns of Kellogg and Smelterville, Idaho, where the bulk of its plant and equipment were housed. This included the Bunker Hill Mine, a major producer of lead and silver, a large lead smelter and a large zinc refinery (each with a ‘tall stack’ after 1977), tailings ponds, and a corporate office in Kellogg. As aspects of its effort to purchase pollution easements or simply the right to pollute lands it owned, Bunker Hill also owned (or leased) tens of thousands of acres of former farmland adjacent to the South Fork and the Coeur d’Alene River. It also purchased “smoke easements” for thousands of acres of Shoshone County land likely to be damaged by its lead and zinc plants’ effluent. In addition, at various times in its history the company owned or leased thousands of acres of area forest lands for its logging operations. The Star Mine, which Bunker co-owned with the Hecla Mining Company, lay within the District but several miles from Kellogg and Smelterville.

GER: Briefly describe the damage inflicted on the waterways and landscapes of Couer d’Alenes by the Bunker Hill facility?

BDS: By the early 1930s, if not earlier, the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River had become essentially a “lifeless river,” devoid of organic life. Below it, the Coeur d’Alene River was not in much better shape. Significant fish populations could not be found in the stream until it had emptied into a large body of water, Lake Coeur d’Alene, and mine tailings were diluted by a large quantity of water. Lead sulphate (dissolved lead) appears to have been a principal culprit in the diminution of the streams’ capacities to support life. Since the installation of modern tailings impoundment facilities by Bunker Hill and the other major mining companies in the late 1960s and early 1970s in response to federal clean water mandates, water quality in the watershed has seen marked improvement. Healthy fish populations now can be found on the Coeur d’Alene River and on parts of the South Fork. Heavy metals in and around the lateral lakes along the lower Coeur d’Alene River also have been significantly cleaned up by the EPA and no longer kill as many geese and ducks as they formerly did. The Bunker Hill smelter and zinc plant rained down many, many tons of lead, sulphur dioxide and other toxins on the landscape of the Coeur d’Alenes over the decades. In August of 1974, following Bunker’s decision to run its smelter at full bore for months without a working pollution control system, the children of Kellogg and Smelterville registered some of the highest blood lead levels ever recorded. After the shutdown of both plants in early 1982, the declaration of the area as a federal Superfund site, and years of household yard cleanups (in which yard dirt down to four feet in depth was removed by the EPA), children’s blood lead levels in the area dropped to below the national average by the early 2000s.

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Bunker Hill Lead Blast-Furnace

GER: Could you describe Ulrich Beck’s theorization of two discrete stages of modernity and how it related to Bunker Hill and the Couer d’Alenes?

BDS: Beck holds that under the stage he calls ‘classical industrial society,’ the risks produced by industry (to health, quality of life, etc.), are essentially discounted by people as ‘the price of progress.’ In a later stage, which he dubs ‘advanced modernity,’ people begin to reject the risks as too great to be discounted and to demand that industry do a better job of minimizing them, for example by demanding safer workplaces, less industrial pollution, etc. In the Coeur d’Alenes, the watershed decade when both the larger society (i.e., the U.S., as represented by new federal environmental laws and agencies such as the EPA) and some locals began to push the area’s industrial chieftains into ‘advanced modernity.’

GER: How did the production of lead and zinc effect the workers at Bunker Hill and the residents of Kellogg?

BDS: Workers at the zinc, and to an even greater extent the lead, plant, suffered from a variety of maladies, primarily due to excessive amounts of airborne lead in the workplace. NIOSH studies have shown that Bunker Hill’s lead smelter workers have suffered from heightened death rates from chronic renal disease and renal cancer, both of which are associated with lead exposure, and stroke. A large cohort of children who were exposed to the area’s stratospheric rates of lead in 1973-’74, studied twenty years later as adults, were found to be significantly more likely than the median U.S.  population to suffer from a variety of health problem. These included high blood pressure, infertility, sleep disorders, memory loss, trouble concentrating, learning disabilities, anemia, and depression.

Bunker Hill Stacks Demolished

Demolition of Bunker Hill – Courtesy of Newsweek

GER: What was the environmental/economic impact of the destruction of Bunker Hill on the town of Kellogg and related communities?

BDS: Economically it was devastating. The town suffered the loss of its economic base and consequently lost a major portion of its population and tax base. Kellogg really has never recovered, although it has tried to reinvent itself as a ‘Bavarian Ski Village.’ Environmentally, the area has improved significantly since 1982, and, thanks to the EPA’s cleanup efforts, is probably the cleanest and most healthful it’s been since the early part of the 20th Century.  

GER: Do you believe the current political environment calling for reductions in EPA rules and regulations will bring back smelters, blast furnaces and steel mills to the United States or will they remain in poorer countries without regulation?

BDS: The latter. It’s still a lot more expensive to do that kind of industry in the U.S. than it is in less-developed countries, and even if current efforts to repeal federal environmental regulations are successful, there still will be far more such regulation here than in, let’s say, China.

GER: Has the United States reached the point that residents will put a higher value on their living environment as opposed to sacrificing it for good paying blue collar jobs?

BDS:  I think there are places where folks might be willing to sacrifice the environment to ‘bring back good paying jobs,’ or to retain them – a good number of people in West Virginia appear to support mountaintop-removal coal mining for example – but I think it’s extremely difficult to bring those jobs back once they’ve been lost to other countries. In addition, there are some things U.S. communities just don’t seem to be willing to put up with anymore, for example the level of pollution associated with lead smelting.

GER: Do you believe corporations place a higher value on profits rather than allegiance to communities and nations they once operated in?

BDS:  As a rule, yes. For-profit corporations generally operate in an environment of global competition and are legally bound to maximize profits for their shareholders. Loyalty to community, while perhaps a value to corporate executives, cannot compete with the mandate to maintain competitiveness and maximize profits.

GER: Many residents born in the United States after 1995 have no idea of the high rate of pollution that plants such as Bunker Hill inflicted on the living and working environment of the areas they  once operated in. Living With Lead is a timely release with the calls for deregulation. What impact do you hope for with this book?

BDS: I hope it will encourage readers to think about the level of worker health and environmental tradeoffs that not so long ago were commonplace in the U.S., how and why that has changed, and what kind of world we want to live in going forward.

You can find the book here: BookDetails

 

Bradley D. Snow is assistant teaching professor of history at Montana State University.

g emil reutter is a writer of poems and stories. You can find him here:About g emil reutter