Catching up with Doug Holder: a Q&A
by Laurin Macios | November 2016
Doug Holder is a fixture in the Massachusetts poetry scene—the host of reading and TV series, the founder of Ibbetson Street, and more. I had the chance to chat with Holder to learn more about how his expansive list of projects and productions got started and what it's like to manage them all, on top of his own writing career and life as a poet. This interview has been edited slightly for clarity and length.
You do so much in and for the poetry world in Massachusetts! From Ibbetson Street Press to the Newton Free Library reading series to Poet to Poet to teaching at the college level and more. Tell us a bit about the different things you do and how they got started.
Ibbetson Street was founded in 1998 in a Breuger's Bagel shop in Cambridge, Mass. A friend of mine, Richard Wilhem, and I always wanted to start a small press magazine—and we finally took the plunge. I was living at 33 Ibbetson Street in Somerville at the time—thus the name Ibbetson Street. The magazine was first focused on poets locally. My wife—Dianne Robitaille—and I put out the first issue with the help of the late Jim Resnick, who worked at Copy Cop store in downtown Boston. He got us a good deal on printing. Steve Glines, our designer, helped us get into the world of print-on-demand—which made for a more polished magazine—and more fiscally efficient. For many years we funded the magazine ourselves, but for the past few years Endicott College—where I teach—has helped fund the magazine. The magazine was included in the Pushcart anthology in 2012, with a poem by Afaa Michael Weaver called "American Income." We have regular contributors now such as Marge Piercy, Ted Koozer, Brendan Galvin, Jean Valentine, X. J. Kennedy, Kathleen Spivack, and many others. Harris Gardner, our poetry editor, has been instrumental in recruiting established poets and up-and coming-ones. Lawrence Kessenich and Rene Schwiesow are our managing editors.
Robert K. Johnson handed over the directorship for the Newton Free Library to me in 2002. Johnson, a retired English Professor at Suffolk University, was the former poetry editor of Ibbetson Street. He has been my mentor and a supporter for many years. Since then I have instituted an open mic, which help the neophyte poets have a voice. We have had many poets on the stage including Nicole Perez Dutton, Martha Collins, January O'Neill, Lois Ames, Franz Wright—to name a few. The Newton Series goes way back—and it used to be housed in the old Library—but now is in the Drucker Auditorium at the newer Newton Free Library. Many poets from Gail Mazur, Joyce Peseroff, Celia Gilbert and others read at the old library early in their careers. Every April we have a poetry festival that includes major regional poets. This year we will have Martha Collins, Miriam Levine and Andrea Cohen.
There's also The Somerville News Writers Festival that I started with Timothy Gager from 2003 to 2011. During that time our festival hosted such writers as Franz Wright, Afaa Micheal Weaver, Steve Almond, Robert Olen Butler, Robert Pinsky (given the Ibbetson Street Lifetime Achievement Award), Frank Bidart, Hallie Ephron and many more. We gave out Lifetime Achievement Awards to Louisa Solano (former owner of the Grolier), the late Jack Powers (founder of Stone Soup Poets), noted publisher David Godine, Frank Bidart, Robert K.Johnson, and others. It could be wild at times—I remember I was on stage introducing David Slavitt, the former Cultural Columnist for Newsweek, and poet and translator, who was running for the state legislature. We couldn't stand each other, so we got into a pissing match on stage—he would get up and throw a barb at me, then I grabbed the microphone to dis him. People were hysterical—they thought it was a joke... Ah! Those were the days!
Another essential element in my literary life is a group I started with Harris Gardner and Steve Glines in 2004—The Bagel Bards. This group was started in response to the cliquishness that tends to prevail in the poetry community. With all the prestigious colleges around—and accomplished faculty—it is hard for poets outside the academy to be heard. So we wanted to start an all-inclusive group. Our first meeting was in Harvard Square at the now defunct "Finagle A Bagel." Later we moved to the Au Bon Pain in Davis Square, our permanent home. We have all kinds of poets and writers, from nationally and internationally acclaimed poets like Afaa Michael Weaver, and Tino Villanueva, to poets of all levels and accomplishments. Some of note are: Bert Stern, a poet from Somerville who was the founder of the Off the Grid Press, a publishing house that caters to talented poets 60 and over, to Tom Daley—a well-respected poetry teacher in the Boston area, to Lawrence Kessenich, an award-winning poet, playwright and novelist, and a one-time editor at Houghton Mifflin during its glory days, to Zvi Sesling—the publisher of the Muddy River Review—and so many more. We have a membership of over 100 people, and a core group of 25 to 30 poets and writers that meets every Saturday. We publish a yearly anthology, and have an online literary review—the Wilderness House Literary Review.
How do these many public roles play into your own writing or life as a writer?
Well I learn a lot from my students and other poets, of course. It is good to be connected at Endicott College and Bunker Hill Community College because I am exposed to a diverse body of students from many cultures (especially at Bunker Hill) and this just helps with expanding my horizons and experience. At the Newton Free Library I have heard so many accomplished poets read, with many different styles—this of course has seeped into my own writing as well and how I present my work. I am also a director of the Ibbetson Street Press/Endicott College Visiting Author series, as a result of my involvement there I have had dinner with Marge Piercy—a fascinating woman...I interviewed the playwright and poet Israel Horovitz—and he told me fascinating stories about his experience in Paris with Samuel Beckett....not to mention his time working with Al Pacino, Maggie Smith and other accomplished actors. It so happens Horovitz published his first book of poetry, and his publisher wanted him to get publicity—so he reached out to me—and we filmed the interview at the Endicott TV studios. Endicott College has been instrumental in supporting Ibbetson Street. Also I am the arts/editor for The Somerville Times—and I can't tell you the number of poets I interviewed, reviewed, and published in my 14 years there.
Tell us a bit about your role in creating the Somerville Poet Laureate position.
I asked my friend Harris Gardner (founder of the Boston National Poetry Festival), who helped select the Boston Poet Laureates, and the Cambridge Populist Poets, to help me with the process of selecting a Poet/Laureate for Somerville. We met with Gregory Jenkins at the now defunct Sherman Cafe in Union Square, and it was basically a done. Harris has been an invaluable friend of mine over the years, as well as his partner Lainie Senechal, the Amesbury Poet Laureate. deal. We met with the mayor, got city funding—formed a committee and our first Poet Laureate was Nicole Terez Dutton. Dutton has done a fine job.
You've been working as a counselor at McLean Hospital in Belmont since 1982. What is that experience like?
Well—34 years has been a long time. For many of those years I have run poetry groups on the locked ward—with a very ill clientele. But often the poetry groups offered an almost spiritual elixir to patients who were labeled as psychotic, and gave them a chance to express themselves creatively. I wrote an introduction to Robert Lowell's poem "Waking in the Blue" for Robert Pinsky's America's Favorite Poems anthology. The poem dealt with Lowell's hospitalization at McLean. I remind clients that McLean has been declared a national literary landmark—so there is a rich literary tradition. Over the years I have published patients’ work in my column in the Somerville Times and in Ibbetson Street.
Is there a poem you remember reading early on that sparked your love of poetry?
Probably "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg. I am an urban poet—and lived the bohemian life in Boston in the 70's and early 80's—so this poem with it's unrestricted use of language—the freedom it represented was very attractive to me. Ginsberg believed poetry should be to some degree conversational—and I liked that.
Speaking of Ginsberg—after talking with so many poets, what do you think about his famous sentiment that a poet stands naked in front of the world?
I think you have to be naked, vulnerable...or it is just not honest work. Posturing, artifice, things like that makes the poem dead on arrival. You have to able to be brutally honest for the sake of the poem. Philip Roth said you must willing to insult your mother if need be, if it's important to your work. Although he is not a poet, I think it rings true for both genres.
How important do you feel it is for a poem to be accessible?
I write accessible poetry...but hopefully it is not facile. I mean you want to be accessible but not with a hammer fist. You want layers of meaning in your work. Sometimes work is so abstract that it only means something to the person who wrote it. That being said all poetry should consist of "ideas" and "things"—I paraphrase William Carlos Williams. So when I say accessible poetry there are subtle images, metaphor, word play, and of course music.
Do you remember the first poem you ever got published? Or even the first poem you ever wrote?
Yes. It was a poem titled "Public Restrooms." It appeared in a magazine "Sub-Terrain" in Vancouver. I believe they are still around. The poem, as the title reflects, takes place in a men's room—where I had a religious experience... It was very influenced by Ginsberg.
What does it mean to you to be a [tireless!] arts administrator as well as poet—how do you balance those things?
Well—I have a lot of friends. I guess you can say I get by with the help of my friends. And they help me in the production of the magazine, and the publication of books. We must have close to a 100 titles: full length poetry collection, chapbooks, memoir, etc... Some of our most noted books were the first Boston Poet Laureate's ( Sam Cornish) "Dead Beats." Another that comes to mind is Gloria Mindock's " Blood Soaked Dresses." Gloria is the founder of the noted Cervena Barva Press.
With my Somerville Public TV show "Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer" a lot of the technical stuff is handled by the studio—they have always been supportive in the 13 years that I have been doing the show. I have had many poets and writers on that show over the years like Mass Poetry's own January O'Neil, Mike Ansara, Laurin Macios, as well as Martha Collins, Celia Gilbert, Elizabeth Swados, Mark Pawlak, Dan Sklar, and writers like Endicott College's award-winning writer Charlotte Gordon, Timothy Gager (Founder of the Dire Literary Series), Lois Ames (who wrote the Introduction to Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar), Christopher Busa (Founder of Provincetown Arts Magazine), Michele Hoover, and many more. I must have interviewed well over a hundred people over the years. Some of the interviews are in the Harvard Poetry Room, Poets House in NYC, and the University of Buffalo. I have a whole collection of these interviews on YouTube and the Internet Archive.
I also should mention another friend of mine Robin Stratton of the Newton Writing and Publishing Center—she published my latest collection Portrait of an Artist as Young Poseur: 1974 to 1983. She offers a lot of advice and readings and she awarded me with the Allen Ginsberg Community Service Award about a year ago. On my blog, "Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene," which I started in 2004, I have a number of people who write reviews. Michael Todd Steffen (Director of the Hasting Room Series in Cambridge), the noted critic and Salem poet Dennis Daly, Zvi Sesling (Founder of the Muddy River Review), Lo Gallucio (Former Cambridge Populist) and many more. I could not have done without these people who feed me constant copy—and high quality copy at that. I have noticed the blog has been referenced in scholarly books, and often writers use our reviews for blurbs on their books.
And of course my friends Donald Norton—the publisher of The Somerville Times—and the managing editor Bobie Toner, have been instrumental in getting the word out in my column " The Lyrical Somerville," and " Off the Shelf."
Tell us more about your new book.
Portrait of an Artist as Young Poseur: 1974 to 1983 (Big Table Publishing) is a long stream of consciousness work that deals with my boheme life in Boston when I was in my 20s. I lived in a rooming house in the Back Bay ( Yes there were rooming houses there then!) with my hot plate, bathroom down the hall, and cockroaches. To me it was very romantic—living the life of a down-at-the heels poet, meeting all kinds of eccentric types, discovering my voice...it was a Boston that is very different than today.
This is what Sam Cornish, First Boston Poet Laureate, blurbed on the back of my book: “Doug Holder is a poet of the old city, the city of our fathers, of the 1950s and later. Mr. Holder writes poems like notes in a diary. I found myself struck by their economy, wit, and urban melancholy... He has a voice unlike that of any of his contemporaries. Holder is a poet of the street and coffeehouses, an observer of the everyday. He writes of old Marxists, security guards and his relationship to his deceased father—themes of the common life. I am drawn to these poems as I am to the poetry of Philip Levine and the prose of James T. Farrell. But Holder’s poetry is deeper than that. He sees the world not for what it is, but on his own terms. He is living in the poem rather than in poetry.”
For more about Doug Holder and these many projects and programs, visit dougholder.blogspot.com.