BHCC Humanities Faculty Doug Holder Elected New England Poetry Club Co-President
Tuesday, July 19, 2022
Somerville poet and longtime BHCC Humanities faculty member Doug Holder was elected co-president of the New England Poetry Club in June 2022. The club, founded in 1915 by Robert Frost, Amy Lowell and Conrad Aiken, offers writing workshops, sponsors contests and grants to poets, and hosts the oldest poetry reading series in the country. Holder, who has taught writing at BHCC since 2010, is joined as co-president by poet and former Massachusetts legislator Denise Provost.
In addition to his teaching, Holder is the founder of the Ibbetson Street Press. He is the arts editor of The Somerville Times, and the curator of the Newton Free Library Poetry Series. His own work has been published in such places as the Worcester Review, Lilipoh, Rattle, The Boston Globe, The Cafe Review and elsewhere.
For over thirty years, Holder ran poetry groups at McLean Hospital for psychiatric patients. Holder has received a citation from the Massachusetts House of Representatives for his work as a poet, editor, publisher, and professor. The Doug Holder Papers Collection is archived at the University at Buffalo libraries. Many of his interviews of poets and writers are in collections at Harvard University and UMass Boston. He is also the co-founder of the literary group “The Bagel Bards.” Holder’s latest collection of poetry is The Essential Doug Holder (Big Table Books).
We talked with Holder by phone about his election as NEPC co-president and his life as a poet and teacher.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Congratulations on your election as co-president of the New England Poets Club! What does it mean to you to be recognized by your peers as co-leader of this storied organization?
It’s very gratifying. A lot of people on the club’s board I’ve known for a long time because I’ve been on the poetry scene for a long time. They’ve had a lot of achievements, so to be selected co-president with Denise Provost, a former state legislator…it’s great because I’ve always been community-minded and wanted to bring poetry to people. It’s not an arcane thing like in elementary school where you have to memorize a few poems, I want poetry to appeal to a diverse group of people. That’s the club’s work--we have grants that we’re offering, $3,000 grants for poets of color, and we have contests that students can get involved in as well--so all this is part of what I’ve been doing for years, and this just gives me another venue and a very prominent venue to keep doing it.
You’ve been teaching at BHCC for ten years now—you're currently teaching College Writing—can you tell me a little about your approach to teaching and how poetry enters into your pedagogy?
I haven’t taught poetry at BHCC—I’ve been asked to in the past, but it just hasn’t worked out yet. I teach English 111 [College Writing], and for that, I try to bring in various works of literature students can analyze so they can write college level papers. I use short stories, nonfiction, and poetry. I try to bring in poetry that evokes emotion in folks and bring out an analytical process. I definitely see some interesting papers come from that.
Endicott College, where I also teach, is a white middle class or upper middle-class school with not that much diversity, and students are younger. At Bunker Hill, my students-- I admire them because they’re working full-time, they’re single mothers, I’ve had homeless students in class. You don’t see that breadth of life in other places I teach. It creates a different experience for student and teacher—education seems to be more life and death…There’s a visceral element to it.
In higher education and community colleges in particular, we talk a lot about preparation for career, which is certainly a cornerstone of what we do, but it also seems like sometimes writing and poetry are sidelined almost as intellectual luxuries—things that are less important than the technical skills of doing a job. I suspect you think that is not the case—why is it important to teach writing or poetry in community college?
If you can’t write, how many jobs can you be qualified for? Clear, analytic writing, critical thinking skills, there’s a direct application to career, and Bunker Hill I think recognizes this by making College Writing a required course.
Poetry is an art. I think it has a particular importance now. Because we’re so hooked up to phones and our electronic devices, the poet, and the reader of poetry, has to rip all that stuff off and look at the world. In the world we’re also so fast paced, when I’m able to stop and smell the roses and look at things beyond the surface--it makes you analyze. When a poet is writing about a tree, it’s not just a tree, it’s something connected to the whole world. There’s an analytical skill there, too. You don’t want to just look at the world, you want to look at what’s behind all that. That promotes innate understanding in the world and a place to bring light to darkness. A place to learn about yourself. It has a lot of uses…I think it affects the inner workings of the brain, and it gives you a new perspective on life.
Has your own way of writing poetry, or the things you’re interested in, changed over the years?
I’m a poet of the street and of the coffee house, of Somerville and Cambridge. I do a lot of portraits of people, which goes back to when I was living in a rooming house in Boston on Newbury Street in Boston in the 70s—there were rooming houses on Newbury Street if you can believe it. I was writing a lot of journals, recording every day, snippets out of newspaper articles, things that were interesting to me. More and more that was turned into poems--journals were the basis of my poetry for about 25 years. It’s why in the classroom I tell students you have to journal, you have to write everyday.
I don’t journal as much anymore. If I have an idea, I keep a book in my back pocket…something interesting, some snippet of conversation, and I’ll write it down. I wouldn’t’ say I’m prolific in my own poetry, it has to hit me.
Even Bunker Hill has been a source for me poetry over the years. I wrote a poem about the parking lot at BHCC, this scene I saw one day standing in the parking lot in the rain, some people meeting and exchanging something, it reminded me of the movie The Friends of Eddie Coyle. I’ve submitted to Tell Magazine, which is just a wonderful student literary magazine at BHCC. And I know one BHCC graduate, Julia Kanno, who went on to Lesley University aiming to become a clinical psychologist. I got to know Julia because, as a nursing assistant at Spaulding Rehab, she helped care for my wife, who was dying of cancer. Julia is a brilliant African American poet who loved going to school at Bunker Hill.
You’re a significant public presence in the local poetry world-- you run the Boston Poetry Scene blog, you’re on Somerville Community TV interviewing local poets, you run Ibbetson Press, which publishes many local poets-- what’s the state of the local poetry scene? I suspect for many of us local poetry is something that flies below the radar.
Poetry is always flying underneath the radar. Thinking back, I think local poetry a lot more out there than in years past. We have the NEPC, Boston National Poetry Month Festival, the Mass Poetry organization-- poetry is becoming less in the ivory tower or a product of academic communities. The Cantab Lounge in Cambridge recently reopened and is one of all kinds of opportunities for poetry readings throughout Boston. In Cambridge and Somerville there’s poetry on the sidewalks, and a work of mine was recently adapted into a wire sculpture. The Somerville arts council prints poets’ works on signs that people walk through the park and read—it’s poetry for pedestrians rather than some rarified atmosphere shaded by the ivory tower!
It's so much wider and there are so many more avenues for expression. Often in my teaching I use a poem called Skinhead by a wonderful African American poet, Patricia Smith, where she gets into the persona of a white skinhead. This is powerful stuff and it’s powerful language, and students are really taken by it. You know ever since Alan Ginsberg came out with Howl, poetry has evolved towards something for the whole community not just for the rarified.
Poets also now realize they have to promote their own work. Even with a major publishing house, they’re not going to do much PR for you because poetry doesn’t sell. So poets have to get out there…you have to be more than an artist, you have to go out there to shake hands. My father was a J. Walter Thompson PR man and was always promoting things. I think I have that in my blood—my father was Mad Man and I’m a junior Mad Man.
Parking Lot: Bunker Hill Community College, Boston
I always feel
like I am in a movie.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
Cutting a deal with Robert Mitchum
our voices rumble
with the roar of the Orange Line
His beat-up Chevrolet
the omen of fuzzy dice
his rear view
as the day.
fit with the
metallic city landscape
a bird's bleak beak
sitting on a rusty wire
with fierce objectivity.
A clandestine slip
from my to his pocket,
a tentative handshake.
He looks at me
with deep, world-weary eyes:
“The world is a tough place kid--
and it’s tougher
if you are stupid.”