Grappling with Pandemic: An Interview with Poet Robert Carr

Photograph of poet Robert Carr by Sharona Jacobs

I met Robert Carr at the Solidarity Salon, a performance series featuring music, poetry, and theater where we were both featuring. A tall man with an arresting presence, Bob read a number of poems about Robert Mapplethorpe, a photographer whose work capturing gay male desire and the BDSM subculture has become an important part of gay history. Bob is the author of Amaranth (Indolent Books), and The Unbuttoned Eye, (3: A Taos Press). His poetry appears in the American Journal of Poetry, Massachusetts Review, Rattle, Shenandoah, Tar River Poetry, and elsewhere. Robert is a poetry editor with Indolent Books and recently retired from a career as Deputy Director for the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. 

Frances Donovan: Tell me about your book, The Unbuttoned Eye.

Robert Carr: I wrote the book following a 34-year career in infectious disease response. These poems became my way, in hindsight, of grappling with issues of identity and sexuality through the AIDS pandemic. The editor at 3: A Taos Press, Andrea Watson, was instrumental in pushing me with these poems. Since the release of the book, in 2019, COVID19 has changed the collection for me. Today, I experience these poems as reminders for how to survive the realities of global pandemic. I’m not saying the issues across HIV and COVID19 are the same. But I do find the dynamics, the human response to health crisis, sometimes mirror each other. 

Donovan: You have a whole cycle of poems in The Unbuttoned Eye about the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. For readers who may not be familiar with his work, he was a groundbreaking photographer whose images of gay male desire during the AIDS epidemic form an important part of queer history. Some of his work was also deeply controversial. Can you explain your own relationship with Mapplethorpe and the impetus for these poems?

Continue reading “Grappling with Pandemic: An Interview with Poet Robert Carr”

Memoir Class in November/December 2021

I’ll be teaching a generative memoir class in Roslindale this November and December. At $100 for the entire six-week session, it’s very reasonably priced. 

Class description:

Join writer and teacher Frances Donovan for a mining expedition into your lived experience.  Both new and seasoned writers will enjoy a variety of exercises designed to get the creative juices flowing. Using all five senses, we will find bright gems of vivid memory, laying the foundation for longer work or simply enjoying the act of creation. Sign up here.

Gloria Mindock Talks About the Cervena Barva Press Reading Series

Gloria Mindock has been a fixture of the Boston literary scene for decades. In addition to running Cervena Barva Press and The Lost Bookshelf, she offers multiple reading series throughout the year. An accomplished poet in her own right, she is the author of six poetry collections, most recently Ash from Glass Lyre Press. Gloria’s poetry has been translated into 10 languages, and has appeared in numerous literary journals including Poet Lore, Muddy River Poetry Review, and Nixes Mate Review. Among other accolades for her service to the poetry community, she was the Poet Laureate of Somerville, MA in 2017 and 2018.

Gloria took the time to speak with me about the readings she offers at the Cervena Barva’s space at Arts at the Armory in Somerville. Since the pandemic began, she has moved her series online.

Does your series happen on a regular schedule, such as the second Tuesday of the month? If so, what is it?

I started out having the Cervena Barva Press reading series on Wednesdays but since I have my own space (Arts at the Armory, Basement B8), I am flexible and schedule readings when the readers are available. It is wonderful to not depend on other places for scheduling.

Before I had my own space, I had the series at the Pierre Menard Gallery in Harvard Square. I loved having it there. It was such a beautiful space and easy for people to get to. John Wronoski and his staff were the best! The gallery is no longer there.

How did this reading series come about?

I wanted to give my authors a place to read as well as other writers in the community and the world.

Continue reading “Gloria Mindock Talks About the Cervena Barva Press Reading Series”

A Poetic Variety Show: Talking with Steven Cramer, Author of Listen

Steven Cramer taught one of the first seminars I took at the Lesley low-residency MFA program, and I later learned that he founded the program itself back in 2003. Like most of the Lesley faculty, his bio is studded with accolades: six books of poetry, a page on the Poetry Foundation website, prizes from the New England Poetry Club and the Massachusetts Center for the Book, and bylines in major publications like Poetry, The Atlantic, and The Paris Review. But perhaps more importantly, he’s a sensitive soul with a deep and comprehensive knowledge of literature. When I was writing a craft essay on Dickinson, I went searching for interpretations of a particularly obscure line, and an interview with him was the only relevant result.

His newest book Listen (Mad Hat Press) came out in 2020 amidst all the chaos and isolation of the pandemic. Fortunately, Zoom readings have in many ways made poetry even more accessible than before. And writers often prefer to communicate using the written word. Steven and I corresponded via email for a few weeks, with prodigious results. We discussed the ways that poetry collections come together, the pros and cons of printed page versus screens, and white space as a craft element. And, as I do with every poet I interview, I asked about his individual writing practice, the ways he manages the writing life, and what he might tell poets at the beginning of their careers.

Frances Donovan: Tell me about your new collection.

Photograph of poet Steven Cramer
Poet Steven Cramer

Steven Cramer: Listen was a peculiar collection to assemble.  My previous book, Clangings, arrived in a kind of white, interruptive heat between 2010 and its publication in 2012.  By the time I’d written enough poetry for Listen, some candidates for inclusion in the book dated as far back as 2004, and others came of age as recently as two years ago.  How did these poems talk to each other, if they did?

I was never much good at organizing my own books. I always asked my friends for help.  I had poems that wrestled—sometimes rather covertly—with three years of depression; those had to go together.  I had poems that cast imaginative attention on my different clans—children (tweenish in 2004; by 2019 in no way children); a thirty-plus year marriage; the absences and presences of my diminishing family of origin; and reading, a subject I embrace without apology. With crucial assistance I came up with a first section that starts very dark, goes darker, and then begins to lift its gaze before the second section turns to the erotic life and two of its inevitable outcomes—offspring and death!  A number of poems that grapple with the social world’s impingements on the personal had accumulated for a third section. Finally, there’s a group that, by and large, honors writers I love, through adaptation or homage. I think that last suite completes the upward arc from Listen’s first section. 

Continue reading “A Poetic Variety Show: Talking with Steven Cramer, Author of Listen”

The Braid, by Carla Drysdale

First, my cry, then yours, split the sky
above that Brooklyn hospital
as you, limbs curled and purple
slid out of my body
after a prolonged and irreversible journey.
Pain, then
absence of pain.

The midwife held you up,
newborn body, alive in this world.
You peed an arc of urine
sparkling over the bed
and over her.

The champagne cork popped.
We all drank to life.
You suckled on a nipple.
Your lips still rimmed
with watery blood from that
other life inside.

We lay together, suspended,
holding on to each other.
Tough braid of blue and red
still binding us
cut for the first and last time.

From All Born Perfect, by Carla Drysdale. Published by Kelsay Books. This poem first appeared in the chapbook Inheritance from Finishing Line Press. Republished with permission of the poet.

Cucumber Psalm, by Lisa Bellamy

Flourish, unwashed, unpeeled, bouncy boys;
grow, citizen-workers, clothed in good dirt—
dearest ones, I place my hope in you—
your green is king, in my garden. Chopped, you are cukes,
(my Wisconsin mamma loschen)—fluted, celebrated,
bobbing in vinegar and dill; tastiest brine.
Emperor Tiberius, whom Pliny the Elder called
the gloomiest of men, enjoyed cucumbers every night
with dinner—yes, an attempt to self-medicate depressions—
but was his gloom depression or prophetic vision?
Caligula succeeded Tiberius. Today, the sky is blue—
so what. I cannot stop worrying about the republic.
When a Roman woman wanted a child, she tied
cucumbers about her waist; what, you ask,
do I want? Regime change. I want a sister or three,
subversive, fomenting coffee klatch, chatter,
plots against fascists over our Gurkensalat,
lopped, swished with sour cream—dearest cukes,
delight, nourish, fortify me—I want insurrection.

by Lisa Bellamy. Originally published in Salamander No. 50, Spring/Summer 2020. Reprinted with permission of the poet.

Dispatches from an MFA: Final Semester, First Packet

This is part of a series called Dispatches from an MFA which details my experiences in the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing program at Lesley University. In the final semester, I studied with poet Erin Belieu. We spent the semester working on my MFA thesis, which became the basis for the manuscript I began shopping in 2019. Graduating students are also responsible for teaching a seminar at their final residency. This is the cover letter to the first packet of the semester.

Dear Erin:

This month I’ve felt like I’m thrashing around in a very shallow pond. At one point I shouted, “I have no idea what I’m doing!” My partner Mark laughed and said, “It sounds like grad school.”

Continue reading “Dispatches from an MFA: Final Semester, First Packet”

When Was My Anger Conceived? by Jennifer Martelli

The summer of assassinations?

By the man-made lake? A hole
so shallow and muddy, all the men
held hands, formed a human net and
walked toward each other to the center
to feel for some kid who might have
gone under–there,

on its shore, in the Kodak, me,
in my little terry cloth bikini,
all round as the moon stomach.
I’d worn a Batman mask attached

by a thin rubber band all summer,
my hands fisted, the nails bit crescents
in my palms.

The summer of my menarche? I stood

against the lazy Susan in the kitchen and
watched the President resign on the small TV:
I cried because of the cramps and blood,
the garter belt biting me. My mother said
we’d never see this again and she was wrong:

even married to my father,
she couldn’t predict the depth
of a man’s rage.

A year after my abortion?

The clinic three stops down
from my dorm, three quick stops
on the Green Line, and no one shot
there yet but escorts needed, one pink
set of rosaries flung at my face.

That year, the year of Ferraro, my aunt said she wouldn’t vote
for anything

that menstruated, could get pregnant,
could bear a child.

– Jennifer Martelli, from In the Year of Ferraro, published by Nixes Mate, 2020. Republished with permission of the poet.

Buy Jenn’s chapbook at:

Please consider supporting small presses and local bookstores.

See all of Jenn’s publications on her website.

Read an interview with Jenn at Broadsided Press (where you can download broadsides and spread poetry in the streets).

Read an interview with Jenn at The Rumpus

Slower Than Turtles, Slower Than Bees

How do I tell the turtle that I am slower than he? — Pablo Neruda, from The Book of Questions

Vaster than empires and more slow – Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress”

I would spend the whole day dreaming, nestled in my comfy chair, the wind making music from the wind chimes, the sun making its slow round in the window. Once, after the hospital, my husband took us to a cabin in the woods built by hippies out of old houses, and I nestled on the couch and watched the sun make its slow round over the cathedral windows, while Mark brought me oatmeal, and tea, and sandwiches. He took his snowshoes out and came back smelling of woods and winter, but I sat there and watched the window change, watched the shadows of the trees bend from one side to another and was happy.

After days and days in the comfy chair I stop being able to put on my shoes. The door develops a sort of static at its edges, an invisible field made of vertigo and fear. In summer I can venture barefoot onto the porch to sit in the sun and watch the bees and butterflies — and once a hummingbird moth — in the flowers, but the concrete tears at my tender soles, and the complicated laces of my walking shoes unravel in my hands.

Sometimes I force the laces tied, force myself outside, take those dizzying steps off the porch and trudge through the neighborhood — curiously light and not-quite-there. Now, in this our first infected winter, I have to remember my mask, and in the cold my own breath condenses clammy and chilled against my mouth and nose. Curiously light and not-quite-there, stunned at the lack of catastrophe that follows me down the sidewalk, I cross Poplar Street and pad down the footpath carpeted in wood chips to the tiny piece of conservation land my neighbor has turned into a garden. In the infected summer of 2020, she wangled a mountain of free wood chips from a tree company, and a host of donated plants from Needham, and Dover. The lot had had its beauty before, but in the summer of the plague she and her wife shoveled and dug and rolled wheelbarrows until it became something more. She’s placed educational signs: “Why let the nettle grow?,” “Why a bug house?,” “Why the rotten apples?” (which she harvested from our apple tree and rolled downhill to make good soil). Why a fairy house?

Why the buds that came last spring as doctors named the marks of COVID in the lungs “ground glass?” Why the cherry blossoms in my driveway, as millions lost their jobs and the lucky ones confined themselves to laptops, and pajamas, and InstaCart. Why a madman in the White House, driving his minions to storm the Capitol? Why the Q-Anon believers, rife for recruitment now to the Proud Boys and the Hammerskins, the Aryan Resistance and the Boogaloo. Why the virus that still rides the waves of humans’ breaths into our lungs, into our vessels, into, into, into.

Today the sun has turned to clouds and I’ve fed myself and dressed myself and done my work, and I have yet to tie my shoes and go outside. Will I? Or will I do ten jumping jacks and call it a day, nestle in my comfy chair and read my Mary Russel novels, safe in my home, lazing with my cats?

On Marriage Equality and Why I’m No Longer a Catholic

I’m happy for LGBTQ+ Catholics that Pope Francis said that monogamous, same-sex families are kinda sorta okay. Since the initial story broke, it turns out that he was endorsing civil unions while vehemently fighting gay marriage. Now that we have full marriage equality in the USA–for now, anyway–it still feels like too little too late. I was happy being a Catholic until I read the Baltimore Catechism during Confirmation classes, and until I realized exactly how conditional the Church’s “unconditional” love really was. It still pains me to think of the Franciscan Friars who treated me with such love and caring as a little girl, versus how they would have viewed my “lifestyle choices,” if I’d been brave (or stupid) enough to tell them about them. It makes me bitter to think that they’d approve my marriage to a cis man but would have condemned the other relationships I’ve been in. Those particular Friars are mostly gone now, and their political views were more conservative than many other Catholics. Those were the ones I grew up with, though.

I know there are LGBTQ Catholics out there, and I’m glad that they’re working to change the system from within. I just couldn’t reconcile myself with the Church’s basic theology (original sin, the sacraments, transubstantiation), let alone its positions on social issues near and dear to my heart. Yes, Catholics continue to do a tremendous amount to help the most vulnerable communities across the globe. Yes, they provide real spiritual succor to many, many people, including my husband, my mother, and my family in California. I’ll always have a deep grief for having to leave the Church. I’ve tried to go back to services but always end up crying in the middle of them. But it’s also a relief to have left an institution so completely out of step with my own view of the world, my concept of Divinity, and the life of the spirit.

Continue reading “On Marriage Equality and Why I’m No Longer a Catholic”
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