Paul Steven Stone turns the tables and interviews Doug Holder on Doug’s Somerville, Mass. cable TV show “Poet to Poet, Writer-to-Writer”
Doug Sets The Stage:Paul Steven Stone makes a living by being creative. Stone, the Creative Director of W.B.Mason in Boston, and the author of the novel “Or So It Seems” and “How to Train a Rock” had an idea. He thought it might be interesting to interview me, Doug Holder, on my interview show on Somerville Community Access TV “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.” As you probably know I am the founder of the small literary press, “Ibbetson Street” and the author of a number of poetry collections including: “The Man in the Booth in the Midtown Tunnel.” We figured a novelist interviewing a poet might bring some insights to the creative process.
Paul Steven Stone: When did you have the “calling” to be a poet?
Doug Holder: Well I am 54 years old now, but I didn’t start publishing till I was in my mid 30’s. But I was writing and formulating many of my writings into poems in my 20’s. I think I had ideas of being a writer in college, but I really didn’t start writing consistently until I started keeping journals in my 20’s after college. I recorded snippets of conversations in my journals, passages from novels, quotations, etc… and eventually this raw fodder became poetry.
PSS: Did you read poetry when you were younger?
DH: Oddly enough I read poetry, but much more fiction. I got a lot of material from that, literary history, newspapers, etc…
PSS: By the time you were in your 30’s did you call yourself a poet?
DH: By the time I was in my 30’s the dye- was- cast. I had a need to publish. I published my first poem when I was 35 or so in a Canadian journal Sub-Terrain. They are still around. It wasn’t until I was 40 or so that I graduated with my MA in English. I felt this was another step to become a serious writer. Through this education my writing improved a great deal and I was exposed to many other writers, ideas, and even theory.
PSS: So you feel you needed to get an advanced degree?
DH: I think so. When someone on the Harvard faculty says you are a good writer that gives you a lot of confidence. It’s one thing when your friend, mother or wife says you are a good writer, it’s another when Ruth Wisse, a scholar of Yiddish Literature, a woman who worked with Irving Howe tells you. She was my thesis advisor at Harvard.
The thesis is an intense process. It takes more than a year and a half to complete it, and your initial proposal is often rejected three times before you can call it a go. They don’t make it easy for you. For a thesis you have to read closely, and do an exegesis of the work. This was hard for me because my writing is more impressionistic and journalistic. I did these “exercises” for years, while I worked fulltime at McLean Hospital. It was marvelous discipline, and exposure.
PSS: You have a book of interviews out, the “From the Paris of New England: Interviews with Poets and Writers.”
DH: The book has many of the interviews I conducted on my Somerville Community Access TV show “ Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.” I have interviewed a helluva a lot of people in the six years that I have had the show. The best thing I ever did was to come to Somerville Community Access TV. It opened up a whole new world for me. People are really enthusiastic about coming on the show from the accomplished writer to the novice.
PSS: I found the book to be fascinating. Anybody who is interested about how the creative mind works, or what the creative process is like, will enjoy this book. It is very accessible. One of the things I liked about your poetry is that it’s accessible.
DH: Yeah. It is accessible. I hope it is layered with insight.
PSS: I immersed myself with Doug Holder poetry. (laugh) And your “mundane” characters (as they were described in a review in The Harvard Crimson) are always a little off balance, and they are caught in the moment. The “moment” seems to be what interests you. From the woman you wrote about who sat on the toilet for two years (From the collection “The Man in the Booth in the Midtown Tunnel), and the other characters you write about, you capture something that visually speaks to you in the moment.
DH: Someone told me at a reading that my book “The Man in the Booth…” reminded her of the Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters. “Spoon River…” was a portrait of townsfolk, just regular people. So I guess she was right. I am interested in the common man in the moment, maybe the uncommonly common man.
I always loved the old Twilight Zone on TV. You know Rod Serling would come out in a dark, tight-fitting suit, a cigarette in his hand, with that great enigmatic, narrator’s voice and say: “Have if you will. Mr. Henry Beamish, a bookish man, whose only passion is the written word.” These were marvelous character studies. I also loved Paddy Chayevsky, his movie “Marty” and “Requiem for a Heavyweight” these were great character study films I think.
I used to say to my father as we passed through the Midtown Tunnel to go to Manhattan, “Hey Dad, do you think the guy in the booth has a girlfriend, wife, family?” I was talking about a man in a plastic booth in the middle of fume-filled tunnel. He responded: “How the hell do I know?” Most people don’t think about these things. But I think to some extent we are all captured like that man by our own skins, our own baggage. The book was published by Gloria Mindock’s press Cervena Barva right here in Somerville, Mass.
PSS: Can you name some poets you like?
DH: I like Philip Larkin, love his dark sense of humor. I know it is not fashionable but I like Edward Arlington Robinson: “Richard Corey,” “Miniver Cheevey” and other poems. Some contemporary poets I admire are Mark Doty, Sam Cornish, Robert K. Johnson, Afaa Michael Weaver, Ed Galing, to name just a few.
PSS: Is there a poet out there who reminds you of you?
DH: T.S. Eliot ( Laugh). Sometimes Sam Cornish reminds me of me. If you read my stuff you know I am not a product of an MFA school. I have a signature style, whether you like it or not.
PSS: What is it like to write a poem?
DH: Well today I read a line: “Why speak to the monkey if the organ grinder is in the room?” I thought this might spur on a poem but I drew a blank. Right now I’m in a block, other times I’m in a streak. Paul, you are a Creative Director for W.B.Mason—how does it work for you?
PSS: When I am paid to do a job something always responds. If I have more time I can go more deeply. Something always comes back to me to work with.
DH: I was shopping at Market Basket and there was a bunch of elderly ladies sitting there. There were lined up on chairs— the hustle and bustle of the market was their daily drama to view. You never know when your inspiration is going to come, and when this is going to translate into a poem.
PSS: If I am writing commercials for W.B. Mason I know when the ideas are fully cooked and ready to serve, so to speak. Over the years I’ve come to understand how my creative mechanism works. I can sense ideas coming for my next novel—a sequel to “Or So It Seems.” An interesting idea comes into play and something inside me plays with it.
Doug, talk about poems you did complete.
DH: Samuel Beckett has always influenced me. Recently I revisited his play Krapp’s Last Tape. It concerns a 69 year old guy whose life is in shambles, lives in a gone-to-seed furnished room—the whole deal, you know the suicide suite. He keeps playing back this tape to a recording that concerns the one love affair he had at 39—at the end of his youth. He keeps going back and forth to that time. A constant replay, a constant rehash. I am a ruminator so I was very taken by this rumination, about age, love and lost chances.
PSS: Can you talk about some favorite poems you have written?
DH: The poems I wrote for my late father in the collection: “Wrestling With My Father” were sentimental favorites. One poem concerned the image of my father reciting an old ditty he picked up from the Vaudeville halls he attended as a kid in New York City. There was this line he used to recite to me while I was on his knee: “Ladies and gentleman take my advice, pull down your pants and slide on the ice.” I used to laugh—we had a great time. There were also the times we used to visit Benson’s Deli in my hometown of Rockville Centre, NY. Dad introduced me to Doctor Brown’s Celray soda, knishes; you know all the food he sampled from his seminal grounds of the Bronx. We lived on Long Island, so the Bronx to my brother Don and me was the exotic old world. Paul-you grew up in the Bronx so it was no mystery to you. But coming from the Island, going over the Whitestone Bridge to the Bronx, was a source of endless fascination. So these poems are steeped with sentiment. I wrote some poems I was quite pleased with in my collection: “Poems of Boston and Just Beyond: From the Back Bay to the Back Ward.” These were poems from the psychiatric ward. I have worked at McLean Hospital for the past 27 years, and many of the poems spoke to my experience there. It was a Pick of the Month in The Small Press Review, and is archived at the poetry collection at Harvard University.
PSS: I found these poems had an interesting energy. Especially when you saw people from that environment out in the world. You shared an experience that most of us have not witnessed.
DH: Yes. Working in a mental hospital you see a slice of life many don’t. I have seen highly accomplished men and women, professors, poets, entertainers, captains of industry in a raw, primal and psychotic state. I have also worked with the homeless, drug addicts, the whole gamut. One poem I wrote was about my first time I worked on the psychiatric ward as mental health worker in 1982. A very psychotic patient thought he was God, and he called me his “finest creation.” So he created me. And I created a poem. Another poem I wrote was about working the 11PM to7AM shift and this drop dead gorgeous girl came running out in the nude, and we had to restrain her. On one hand you are a professional, on the other hand you are a man, wrestling, well almost dancing with a woman in the dead of night. Romantic and horrific at the same time. Another poem was about a homeless guy I knew who was hospitalized on the unit. I lit his cigarette at one moment, a few minutes later he was dead. The drama on the psychiatric ward is certainly arcane, and most people want it that way.
When I was working on locked psychiatric wards, I ran poetry groups for patients for 10 years. I published patient poems in Little Magazines. There was a lead article in the Arts/Leisure section of The Boston Globe in Feb. of 2000 about the groups and my press Ibbetson Street.
PSS: Now you have run poetry workshops. How does the workshops help you as a poet?
DH: You learn from other people. They are commenting on your poems. When you constructively criticize you work you realize there are parallels in your own work. It’s like anything else—you can’t work in a vacuum