Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Decline of Fishes: Review by Alex Miller

Peter Anastas, a member of the generation of Gloucester writers influenced by Charles Olson, is by now a familiar figure for attentive readers on the North Shore. Having adopted Olson’s pattern as a writer-plus-activist, Anastas has made a career out of hearty involvement with his own place. His emphatic view is that, for an author of his disposition, citizenship and art must grow through and out of one another-hence his dual role in Gloucester as a writer and, at various stages, a social worker, a protester, a teacher at community colleges, and a sitter on numerous committees. Now in the mature flowering of his career, and more hounded than ever by questions of responsibility toward his endangered home landscape, he has released what he refers to as “the most personal book I have written.” Decline of Fishes, whose Greek-American-writer character Jason Makrides bares a massive resemblance to Anastas, is an arresting work of storytelling, which functions as a crash course in local politics and economics while managing to be neither preachy nor fact-clogged.

Set in 1993, Decline of Fishes narrates the struggle of several Gloucester residents to resist the building of a mall on the city’s waterfront; a project which, according to local regulations, is prohibited due to the fact that it depletes the docking and loading space available to working fishermen. Additionally, the mall is seen by many Gloucesterites, including Jason Makrides, a social worker and former novelist, Allison, the intelligent wife of a local pro-mall development committee member, who is having an affair with Makrides, Nina Calogero, a tenacious fisherman’s wife, and Frank Acciaio, an aged and wise sculptor and connoisseur of local flavor, as nothing less than a stain on the city’s “soul”: an exploitative and trivializing project that will poison Gloucester’s home-grown industry while inviting more rich out-of-towners to come in, build condos and luxury boutiques, and speed up a destructive process of gentrification. Though much of the novel’s action takes place in committee rooms, restaurants, and around kitchen tables, where those resistant to the mall discuss its implications for the city and strategize about how to defeat the development committee’s request for special permission to build on property reserved for the fishing industry, the lives and struggles of the characters remains its focus, and as a result, it flows smoothly and remains, perhaps surprisingly, a page-turner.

Gloucester, like many communities, is really struggling to define itself-and hang onto itself,” says Anastas. “I am an activist; I have lived through this struggle, and I wanted to participate in any conversation that would help people understand how real this place is.” In Decline of Fishes, he has certainly done this. By the time we are ushered into the meeting where the mall will at last be voted up or down, the tension is wound harrowingly high. But the tension of Allison and Makrides’ Romeo-and-Juliet affair, which breaches warring clans, and of the Gloucester Daily Times reporter Lori Lambert’s internal struggle to reconcile painful memories of an abusive fisherman-father with increasing sympathies for the fishing families who would suffer an economic body-blow from the mall’s presence, is just as involving. Decline of Fishes proves to be as much about the inner lives of its major characters as it is about the eco-cultural life of a city. In fact, the implication is that these two aspects are, ultimately, synonymous.

--Alex Miller

Decline of Fishes
By Peter Anastas,
Back Shore Press, 382 pp., $18.95

(This review appeared in the November 29, 2010 online edition of North Shore Art Throb)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Decline of Fishes: Reviewed by Rae Francoeur

“Decline of Fishes” By Peter Anastas. Back Shore Press, Gloucester, 2010. 382 pages. $18.95.

The view from your window matters.

Jason Makrides, the protagonist in Peter Anastas’s beautiful and thought-provoking new novel, “Decline of Fishes,” gazes upon Gloucester, Mass., the venerable but troubled fishing town he loves. Gloucester appears to him like a painting of Venice by Canaletto, rising in radiant sunlight.

In a moment of solemn reverie he takes in the city’s special, endangered beauty — as lovely as it is sad. “I saw fishing vessels making into port, trailed by gulls. I saw the shining Birdseye tower and seawalls along the Boulevard holding everything in against the power of the ocean. Gloucester, I thought, Glowing City….” Readers must complete this passage on their own to understand the significance of this concluding meditation.

In “Decline of Fishes,” the last empty waterfront parcel becomes the focus of a heated citywide debate between developers and the imperiled fishing enterprise. The parcel pits those who see a proposed new mall as a way to bolster the flagging tax base against those who want to hold on to Gloucester’s unique culture. It examines the difficulties of choosing between promising profitability and preservation of existing businesses subsisting on meager profits.

Simply put, the book tracks the divided community’s preparations for the City Council debate up to and including their final vote on the mall’s future. Or is it Gloucester’s very identity as a fishing community they are deciding here? The focus is less on the immediate drama — neighbor vs. neighbor — and more on the far-reaching consequences having to do with community, values and economy. A man does wield a rifle, the automatic response, in some cases, to oppressive conflict. In this book, though, discussion prevails over violence.

The parcel, remarkably, is smack in the middle of the fishermen’s working waterfront. Is this symbol or just good storytelling? Neither. In real life, such a parcel exists. If you take that empty lot away from Gloucester’s fishermen, what will follow but condos and yachts and the demise of a sacred, centuries-old way of life?

Among the key players in this story are the mall developer Win Guest, originally from Gloucester, and project’s lead attorney Jock O’Hanley. They want to build a mall with 25 stores, two restaurants and a 200-car underground garage. Their backing, though impossible to pin down, includes leaders in Boston politics, the Catholic Church and other outside special interest groups.

Lori Lambert follows the story for the local paper. The daughter of an abusive fisherman, she counters any possible sentimentality readers may conjure about the fishermen and their plight. Her life is a struggle still. Her marriage is on the rocks but she managed to get an education and a job at the newspaper. Still, the publisher is pro-development and the tendency is to quash findings that endanger the mall’s chances.

Among Lori’s mentors is Jimmy, the paper’s editor. Brilliant and community oriented, his days are numbered because the local paper is about to sell to outsiders. Lori’s other mentors include Jason and his friend and a fellow intellect named Frank. Nina Calogero, the president of Save Our Fishermen and a lively, articulate, committed wife of an Italian fisherman, is a natural-born organizer who makes delicious espresso and biscotti. When the battle begins to coalesce, she’s right there to help rally and organize. Allison is an attractive mother and teacher currently taking time off to raise her children. Her husband Dennis, a successful local builder in a position of power, has grown away from Allison. Allison and Jason conduct a passionate sexual liaison resulting in affection, self-examination and change.

This carefully constructed, layered book, so tightly focused in on Gloucester, is nonetheless a book of universal importance, especially in our country at this moment in time. Though a study on the deliberation of economic investment, growth and a community’s decision-making, “Decline of Fishes” is at its core a book about passions — intellectual and physical and entrepreneurial — and our attendant responsibilities. How do we function and choose, given these powerful, complex, at times warring drives?

Anastas, author of several works of fiction and nonfiction, is also a respected expert on the works and life of the poet Charles Olson. In “Decline of Fishes” he explores, with care and precision, a number of timely themes.

First, of course, is the future of this city that’s still, by most comparisons, as unique an “island” culture as any in existence. And there is, indeed, a last undeveloped parcel that was the source of contention in the 1980s. Now its disposition is a bit more resolved, with half the property reserved for maritime use. At the current time, this vacant parcel, called I-4, C-2, is under “idea development.”

Another resonant issue is the empowerment and importance of women. Allison, Lori and her less fortunate sister, as well as the fishermen’s wives take on vibrant heartening roles via Anastas’s pen.

My own favorite theme is the deeply explored meditation on reading, writing and study. In Gloucester’s world of fishermen and poets — and unique and fully realized characters — books are as significant as the fishery. In this city there are bookshelves crammed with books. Books, though possibly as imperiled as fishes, are here key to man’s most passionate of all endeavors — the search for self and meaning.

Writing, too, emerges as a significant theme. Jason is the writer who suffers tremendous unhappiness when he tried to merge his writing life with his family life. Unable to resolve the conflicts, he puts his writing aside.

For now, there’s enough of Gloucester’s unique personality to celebrate and debate. Yet those who read the development attorney’s dire warning at the end of the book will know what he’s saying. The “Decline of Fishes” takes place in the past — when the fishery was larger and more viable.

The view today, though stunning and reminiscent, is not quite the same.

This review appeared in the Cape Ann Beacon, on November 17, 2010. Rae Francoeur can be reached at Read her blog or her book, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” available online or in bookstores.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Why I Wrote Decline of Fishes

Set in the historic fishing port of Gloucester, Massachusetts during the summer of 1993, Decline of Fishes depicts the battle, led by an intrepid group of local citizens, to prevent the construction of a shopping mall on the last remaining parcel of the city’s harborfront. The mall’s promoters—city councilor Joyce Benson; the out-of-town developer Win Guest; and Jock O’Hanley, his well-connected attorney—claim that with Gloucester’s fishing industry threatening collapse, the harbor should be redeveloped as a tourist attraction and commercial center to raise tax revenue and create jobs. But the development’s opponents, led by native son Jason Makrides, artisan Frank Acciaio, and Nina Calogero, president of Save Our Fishermen, wage a pitched battle to convince their community that, instead of providing jobs and taxes for the city, the shopping mall will pave the way—literally—for this proud, gritty fishing port’s extinction.

Decline of Fishes is a multi-layered novel about the recklessness of growth at any cost, the survival of an endangered industry, and the value of hard-won principles. The novel tells the story of a choice faced by cities and towns across America: whether to stay true to their historical selves or sell out to the highest bidder.

I had long wanted to write a novel about my hometown that encompassed the struggles of the often beleaguered fishing industry of America’s oldest seaport and my own conflicts about having come home to live and work. But it wasn’t until I returned in 1962 that another dimension of the struggle surfaced. Urban renewal was eating away at the infrastructure of Gloucester’s working waterfront, as well as the fabric of the city, followed by the stirrings of what would shortly surface as a building boom—subdivisions, condos, industrial parks—that threatened to transform both the nature and character of this historic fishing community. Not only was the city under economic pressure because of fluctuations in the fishing stocks, we also faced the social and environmental consequences of overdevelopment. Everything we loved about our human-scale city was under siege.

Instead of setting to work on my novel, I was forced into activism by the urgency of what was happening to the place in which I had chosen to spend the rest of my life. A series of skirmishes against luxury condominiums and upscale subdivisions soon turned into a struggle over the soul of the city itself. Would Gloucester remain the gritty working-class community we’d grown up in and loved, or would we give in to those development pressures that would transform the city into a bedroom for Boston while making housing unaffordable to natives? This was not an idle question as we watched towns like Newburyport, Portland, Maine and Newport, Rhode Island fall captive to the allure of tourist dollars and condominium lifestyles, which ended up forcing fishermen off the their waterfronts and natives into low-paying service jobs.

For three decades I worked with citizen-based groups opposing what many of us felt was inappropriate development and advocating for long-term comprehensive planning that would provide for orderly growth while preserving the vital character of the city. During this time I published At the Cut, a memoir about my childhood in Gloucester, and Broken Trip, a novel-in-stories based on my experiences as a social worker at Action, Inc., the city’s antipoverty agency. I also contributed over 600 weekly columns about local affairs to the Gloucester Daily Times. While carrying on these activities, I continued to be haunted by the novel I had hoped to write about the tensions I was experiencing in my daily life in a city rocked to its foundations by the battles between those who pressed to transform our community and those who fought to maintain its traditional character and folkways.

As I searched for a dramatic focus for my novel, an event or issue around which I could construct a narrative, a Boston developer announced his proposal to build a shopping mall on the last open parcel of the city’s industrial waterfront. The battle that ensued over that mall practically tore the city to pieces. I had become so intimately involved in the struggle, along with dozens of individuals and local groups, that it didn’t occur to me until much later that I had finally been given the subject and basis for my story, what Henry James called a donne`. I would write about the fight to stop the mall, which, in reality, proved to be the key struggle to preserve the soul of Gloucester.

During the battle over the mall, in the mid-to-late-80s, the fishing industry fell deeper into crisis with the virtual collapse of the North Atlantic stocks, actuating the most stringent government restrictions on fishing the industry had known. After days at sea were cut, along with the institution of catch limits, many fishing families lost both their boats and a large portion of their livelihood. Gloucester suffered from the effects of these onerous regulations along with the entire seacoast of New England. I observed the impact of the government regulations as I watched my friends in the fishing community fight to maintain their way of life. As a social worker, I experienced first hand the economic and emotional fallout from the crisis in the lives of the families I attempted to help stay afloat. Feeling the need to incorporate this crisis into my narrative, I decided to set my story about the mall in1993, eight years after its actual occurrence. This was the precise time when government regulations were beginning to have their most dramatic impact on the city and when, capitalizing on the crisis, out-of-town developers began to exert increasing pressures on city officials to grant permits to build what many citizens looked upon as unsuitable development projects in terms of size, placement and potential impact on the local character and environment. Combining the crisis in fishing and the city’s economy with the seductive demands of developers would, I hoped, increase the novel’s dramatic potential.

The narrative extends over the course of a single summer, in 1993. The novel opens with a demonstration at the federal National Marine Services office building during which fishermen, organized by Nina Calogero, president of Save Our Fishermen, try to prevent government workers from going to work, just as they believe restrictive federal regulations keep them from fishing daily; and it reaches a climax with the final vote of the City Council for or against the mall. The action of the story, its plot, unfolds in a series of contrapuntal chapters narrated from the point of view of four of the principal characters (Jason Makrides, Allison Banks, Nina Calogero, and Lori Lambert), beginning and ending with Jason. This enables the story to be told and the action and meaning of events to be perceived through diverse points of view, hopefully lending greater dimension to the novel. Narration is in the third-person, selective-omniscient, except for the chapters devoted to Jason, who speaks in the first person to create a subjectivity that I hoped would enhance the tension among voices while maintaining his role as the novel’s protagonist.

The dramatic payoff comes after the build up of suspense leading to the City Council’s vote that will determine the fate of the mall for its adherents and opponents. In the course of achieving this resolution in the narrative, each of the principal characters surmounts a personal conflict or challenge that results in growth or change, even if those changes are often painfully won.

Finally, this novel is about the process of its own composition. Jason has long wanted to write a novel about the struggle of his hometown to maintain its identity in a changing world and his own conflicts as he came of age as a writer. Decline of Fishes enacts that struggle. It is the novel that Jason has dreamed of writing and ultimately writes.

Though the actual battle against the mall took place twenty-five years ago, the story I’ve fictionalized has not lost its relevance. As federal restrictions continue to plague the fishing industry, which is still fighting for its life even as stocks recoup, and Gloucester, like the rest of the nation, suffers from the collapse of the global economy, new proposals continue to challenge our community, as we attempt to balance necessary growth against the equally vital imperative to retain our fundamental character, which brings people from all over the world to our city. But the will to persevere among fishermen and their families has not wavered, nor has the love of place of the majority of the city’s residents. It is these verities I hoped to celebrate in Decline of Fishes.

In conclusion, let me offer a word about the way this book has been published. Believing that writers themselves should have ultimate control over the content, editing, design, marketing and distribution of their books, Schuyler Hoffman and I founded the Back Shore Writers Collaborative in 2005. To date we have published two books under the imprint of Back Shore Press, Peter’s Tuttle’s road poem, Looking for a Sign in the West, and my novel, No Fortunes, both of which have been well received and reviewed. We have worked with local artists and designers and regional printing facilities to produce our books, and we distribute and sell them through local distributors, independent booksellers and the Internet.

(Decline of Fishes is a available from area book stores and from our distributor Len Bolonsky, Good Harbor Books, 978-283-4769 or 978-283-9294. Also available from

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Paul Sawyer Honored at Charles Olson Centennial

The final weekend of the Charles Olson Centennial, October 8-10, began with a celebration of the life of a man who was a poet and writer himself and the friend of some of the country’s leading poets and writers, including Gloucester’s recently appointed Honorary Poets Laureate, Charles Olson and Vincent Ferrini.

On Friday, October 8 at 3 p.m. the life of Rev. Paul Sawyer was commemorated in words and music at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Gloucester, a church he often attended and sometimes preached at. Family members, friends, former colleagues and poets and writers, who had traveled to Gloucester for the Charles Olson Centennial, joined together to pay tribute to the life of this remarkable man at the church where Vincent Ferrini often read and Olson wrote about in his Gloucester epic, “The Maximus Poems.”

Rev. Sawyer, who died in Pasadena on June 23 of pancreatic cancer, was the animating force behind the newly founded Gloucester Writers Center, formerly the home of Vincent Ferrini, where Ferrini and Sawyer spent countless hours talking during Sawyer’s many visits home to Gloucester. Even as he struggled with cancer, Sawyer campaigned for the project, helped to raise funds for the purchase of Ferrini’s house, and visited Gloucester to garner final support for his dream’s realization, writing to board members:

“The Ferrini Olson Poetry Center will provide a setting for writing and scholarship in the spirit of these two outstanding Gloucester writers. It will carry forward their commitment within the Cape Ann community as well as the wider world, reaching out to schools and writers engaging in the ‘unfinished business’ in front of us.”

A native of Saugus, Sawyer grew up on Cape Ann during the summers, where his parents, a brother, sister, nieces, nephews and cousins lived. His schooling was completed nearby at Phillips Andover Academy and Harvard University, and Sawyer returned frequently to Gloucester to visit family and friends, always marveling at the natural beauty of the city and its ability to attract and nurture artists and writers.

As much as Sawyer was animated by poetry, which he shared often with his congregations as a Unitarian Universalist minister and graduate of the Star King School of Ministry in Berkeley, California, he was also a strong advocate for peace and social justice. According to his obituary in the Pasadena Weekly, he had been incarcerated “some sixty times during protests against the death penalty, nuclear power and the war in Vietnam.” His jail companions included singer Jackson Brown and “Pentagon Papers” author Daniel Ellsberg.

But “he had so many spheres—jazz, politics, history,” Susan, his wife of 25 years, said, describing his fifty years of ministry in Seattle, Oregon, Berkley, Pittsburg, New Jersey and Pasadena. His sister Charlotte, wife of retired Gloucester pediatrician, Dr. Hamer Lacey, told a story about how Sawyer, though gravely ill, attended a reunion at Andover with old classmates, many of whom occupied positions of power in the world.

“He didn’t want to talk about old times,” she said. “He didn’t want to discuss his illness. What he wanted to talk about was the war in Afghanistan and how to end it.” His wife added that Sawyer reminded his former classmates, “Your values aren’t worth anything unless you are ready to go to jail for them.”

Shortly before his death, Sawyer completed a memoir, “Untold Story: A Short Narrative History of Our Time,” in which he told his own story in the context of the turbulent years during which he preached, wrote, taught and made of himself an example of the “examined life,” so important to Emerson, Thoreau and the New England Transcendentalists he spent a lifetime studying and emulating.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Charles Olson Centennial Opens with Five Nights of Readings

(Charles Olson and Diane di Prima on Dogtown Common, in Gloucester, MA, during the 1960s. Di Prima will headline the Charles Olson Centennial in Gloucester, October 3-10, with Michael Rumaker and Ed Sanders)

Gloucester’s Charles Olson Centennial Week, October 3-10, will open with five evenings of readings at three separate locations. Each reading begins at 7 p.m. They are free and open to the public. The schedule is as follows:

On Sunday, October 3, poet, novelist and CUNY Graduate Center professor Ammiel Alcalay will read from and sign copies of his recently published novel “Islanders,” at the Bookstore of Gloucester, 61 Main Street. Alcalay grew up as a summer resident of Rocky Neck in the 1950s and early 60s, with Charles Olson as a close friend of his parents, painter Albert Alcalay and his wife Vera. He has written extensively about Olson and his childhood memories of Gloucester.

Of his novel “Islanders,” published by City Lights Books, the LA Times wrote: “Atlantic islands, Northeastern U.S. fishing towns, the last years of the Vietnam War: Ammiel Alcalay flies over this time and these places. .. Memories emerge, and from the memories, stories. The placement of details on the pages is stunningly simple.”

On Monday October 4, a group of local poets calling themselves "The Usual Suspects,” will read from their own work at the Gloucester Writers Center, 126 East Main Street. Readers will include James and Amanda Cook, Kent Bowker, Schuyler Hoffman and other local talents. These writers have been inspired by the work of Charles Olson and the school of writing which formed in the 1960s called “The New American Writing,” of which Olson was a major influence. They will read from their work and discuss it with participants. Parking for the Gloucester Writers Center is across the street in the East Gloucester Marina.

On Tuesday, October 5, Gloucester natives Peter Anastas and David Rich will read fiction and non-fiction inspired by Charles Olson at the Gloucester Lyceum and Sawyer Free Library. Anastas will read from a recently completed memoir, “From Gloucester Out,” and his forthcoming novel, “Decline of Fishes,” also set in Gloucester. Rich will read from the fiction of the late Gloucester playwright and novelist Jonathan Bayliss, including excerpts from Bayliss’ posthumous novel “Gloucestermas,” due for publication this fall.

On Wednesday October 6, the Gloucester Writers Center, located at the former home of poet Vincent Ferrini, will host a second evening of readings featuring works by Olson's friends and fellow poets, Vincent Ferrini and Linda Crane. A highlight of the evening will be the presentation of unpublished work by Crane. Readers will include Sarah Stotzer, Joanna Bowker, Jo-Ann Castano, Carol Weston, Peter Anastas, Dorothy Nelson, Elizabeth McKim, and Fred Dewey.

On Thursday, October 7, poets Gerrit Lansing and Charles “Chuck” Stein will read from their work at the Bookstore of Gloucester, 61 Main Street. Both poets were close personal friends of Olson’s and each has paid tribute to Olson in poetry and prose. Lansing’s most recent book is “Heavenly Tree, Northern Earth,” published by North Atlantic Books. Stein is the author of a major critical study of Olson, “The Secret of the Black Chrysanthemum: The Poetic Cosmology of Charles Olson.”

For further information about these readings and about the Charles Olson Centennial celebration, please visit

Friday, August 27, 2010

Diane di Prima, Poet Laureate of San Francisco, to be Featured Performer at Gloucester's Charles Olson Centennial, October 3-10

Diane di Prima

Diane di Prima, Poet Laureate of San Francisco, will be the featured reader at Olson 100, Gloucester’s celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Charles Olson, the local poet whose reputation was international. Sponsored by the Charles Olson Society, the Cape Ann Museum and local booksellers, businesses and non-profit organizations, and with a grant from the Bruce J. Anderson Foundation, the main events for the week-long celebration will take place on October 8-10 in downtown Gloucester.

Di Prima, who rose to prominence as a member of the Beat Generation of American writers, and who has published over forty books of poetry and prose, will be joined on Saturday night, October 9, by novelist, short story writer and poet Michael Rumaker. Both di Prima and Rumaker were close personal friends of Olson’s during the 1950s and 60s. Rumaker, who was Olson’s student at Black Mountain College, in Asheville, North Carolina, is also the author of Black Mountain Days, a memoir of the college and his friendship with Olson, who was both a teacher and rector at the legendary experimental school, which launched the careers of painter Robert Rauschenberg and dancer Merce Cunningham. Di Prima will be introduced at her featured reading by newly appointed Gloucester Poet Laureate Ruthanne "Rufus" Collinson.

The diPrima and Rumaker readings, at 7 p.m. on Saturday at the Universalist Unitarian Church, 10 Church Street, Gloucester, will be preceded by two panel discussions at the Cape Ann Museum, 27 Pleasant Street. The first, at 10:30 a.m., “Remembering Olson,” moderated by Gloucester writer and friend of Olson’s, Peter Anastas, will bring together speakers who actually knew Olson to share their experiences of the poet as a writer, mentor, teacher and friend. DiPrima and Rumaker are expected to join the panel along with poet and musician Ed Sanders and others. This panel will be followed by “Olson’s Project,” in which the poet’s legacy and contemporary relevance will be discussed. Beginning at 1 p.m., the panel will be moderated by poet, writer and CUNY professor Ammiel Alcalay, at whose Rocky Neck home Olson was often a visitor. Participants will include choreographer and writer Kate Tarlow Morgan, poets Charles Stein and Kristin Prevallet, writer, publisher and Los Angeles urban activist Fred Dewey, and others to be announced. The panels will be followed by the showing of Henry Ferrini’s award winning documentary film about Olson in Gloucester, “Polis is This” at 3 p.m. at the Cape Ann Community Cinema, 21 Main Street.

On Friday evening, there will be a marathon poetry reading at the UUC church, beginning at 7 p.m. Participants, including Gerrit Lansing and Ed Sanders, will read from their own poetry and from Olson’s. Events for Sunday, October 10 will begin at 11 a.m. with a “Maximus Walk,” led by members of the Charles Olson Society. Those who join the walk will visit local landmarks, which Olson has written about in “The Maximus Poems,” his epic about the city’s history. Relevant poems will be read at the various stops along the walk, which will lead from Stage Fort Park to downtown Gloucester.

The “Maximus Walk” will be followed by a presentation by Sarah Slifer and Mark Wagner of Olson’s dance play, “Apollonius of Tyana” at the Blackburn Performance Center. After the performance composer and musician Willie Alexander will present a concert of Olson’s poems, which he has set to music. A reception and party, at a location to be announced, will end the festivities.

Other scheduled events include a week of poetry and prose readings by local writers leading up to the main events, the launching of “Letters Home,” David Rich’s edition of Olson’s letters to Gloucester residents, published by the Cape Ann Museum, on Saturday, October 3 at 4 p.m., followed by a reading and book signing by Ammiel Alcalay of his new novel “Islanders,” at the Bookstore in Gloucester’s West End. Concurrently, the Gloucester Lyceum and Sawyer Free Library will sponsor “Olson in Print,” an exhibit of Olson books and memorabilia, curated by Gregory Gibson of Ten Pound Island Book Company. There will be a contemporary art installation by painter Susan Erony and photographer Paul Cary Goldberg, sponsored by the Cape Ann Museum at the White Ellery House, filmmaker and writer Henry Ferrini will give a reading from his children’s book about Olson, “Little Charlie Goes to Gloucester,” at 10 a.m. on Saturday morning, October 9, and Gloucester writers James Cook and Peter Anastas will lead a weekly Charles Olson Study Group at the Bookstore, in Gloucester’s West End, beginning on Thursday, September 9 at 7 p.m., which is free and open to all to sign up for and attend (see posting below).

For more information about the Charles Olson Centennial Celebration please visit

Contact persons: Peter Anastas, 978-283-4582

James Cook, 978-281-5570

Henry Ferrini, 978-281-2355

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Charles Olson Study Group Begins Thursday, September 9 at the Bookstore in Gloucester's West End

Poetry lovers and those who would like to learn more about the life and work of the internationally acclaimed Gloucester poet Charles Olson are invited to join a free study group at the Bookstore in the West End, beginning on Thursday, September 9.

Sponsored by the Charles Olson Society and the Bookstore of Gloucester, the study group is open to everyone without charge. It will meet weekly through October 7 at 7 p.m. each evening.

Leading the study group will be poet, editor and teacher James Cook and writer and former Gloucester Times columnist, Peter Anastas. Anastas, a personal friend of Olson’s, edited the poet’s letters to the editor of the Gloucester Times, published as “Maximus to Gloucester.”

The purpose of the group, according to Cook, is to make Olson’s poetry and prose accessible to participants.

“We’ll be reading the major poems together,” Cook said, “trying to place them in the context of Olson’s multi-faceted career as a Harvard-trained scholar and historian, a wartime bureaucrat and Democratic Party politician in Washington, DC, and a teacher and later rector of the famed experimental Black Mountain College.”

“Our special focus,” Anastas adds, “will be on Olson’s life and work in Gloucester, particularly ‘The Maximus Poems,’ Olson’s epic poem about the city through history.”

The only required text for the study group will be Ralph Maud’s comprehensive “A Charles Olson Reader,” which is available for immediate purchase at the Book Store (see above cover photo of Maud's book).

Those interested in joining the group are asked to stop in at the Book Store and sign up or to call at 978-281-1548 to reserve a place.

The Olson study group is part of a series of events leading up to Olson 100, Gloucester’s celebration of the 100th anniversary of the poet’s birth, which will take place over the weekend of October 9-10.

The celebration will include readings by local and visiting writers, panel discussions about Olson’s legacy, a Sunday morning walk to Gloucester sites mentioned in Olson’s poetry and the performance by Sarah Slifer and Mark Wagner of a dance play by Olson, followed by a concert featuring local musician and composer Willie Alexander, who has set some of Olson’s poetry to music. For more information on the centenary or the study group, please go to

Monday, June 14, 2010

Gloucester’s Charles Olson Centenary Celebration Receives Grant from Bruce J. Anderson Foundation

The Charles Olson Society, a local 501 © (3) nonprofit organization, has received a $2500 grant from the Bruce J. Anderson Foundation to assist in planning and organizing a series of events to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the renowned Gloucester poet, Charles Olson.

The Bruce J. Anderson Foundation is a supporting organization of the Boston Foundation. It makes awards for preventive programs, direct services, and new initiatives in the fields of mental health, environmental protection and the arts. In past years, awards have gone to seArts, Gloucester Stage Company, Cape Ann Art Haven, and the Cape Ann Symphony Association, among other local recipients.

The main events of the Charles Olson Centenary celebration will take place in downtown Gloucester on Columbus Day weekend (Friday, October 8 through Sunday, October 10), though other events will be held before the main festival. The Olson Society is soliciting matching donations to make it all happen.

Events will include a Charles Olson study group for local citizens, led by writers James Cook and Peter Anastas, meeting at The Book Store in Gloucester's West End once a week for five weeks prior to Columbus Day weekend; nightly readings at venues throughout Gloucester in the week prior to the main events; symposia and panel discussions, co-sponsored with the Cape Ann Museum, followed by a screening of Henry Ferrini’s award-winning film about Olson and Gloucester, “Polis is This”; a marathon reading at the Independent Christian Church UUC on Middle Street on Friday, October 8; featured readers on Saturday, October 9; and an Olson walk with readings highlighting sites in “The Maximus Poems” on Sunday, followed by a performance of Olson’s dance play, “Apollonius of Tyana” presented at the Blackburn Theater by Gloucester dancer and choreographer Sarah Slifer and Mark Wagner, director of Worcester’s Charles Olson Centenary, held on March 25-27, 2010 in the city of Olson’s birth. Following the dance performance on Sunday, Willie “Loco” Alexander, the "legendary Godfather of Boston Punk,” will perform with his band, including the presentation of Olson’s poems set to music.

These events, and several others being discussed, will complement an Olson exhibit at the Cape Ann Museum, which will open the first weekend in October. In addition, the Gloucester Lyceum and Sawyer Free Library is sponsoring a special catalog/exhibition of rare, inscribed, and out of print books, letters, magazines and broadsides by Olson, curated by Greg Gibson of Ten Pound Island Book Company.

According to Olson Society president, Schuyler Hoffman, the Olson centennial celebrations in Gloucester will provide people with an opportunity to extend and intensify discussions and debates begun at events celebrating Olson’s life and work in Worcester, in March, and at Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver, in June.

Hoffman noted that the Gloucester events will also provide a unique opportunity for Olson's readers to encounter many local sites described in Olson’s masterwork, “The Maximus Poems,” in the company of other poets, scholars, and enthusiasts.
“The ways contemporary poets, artists, teachers, and activists are responding to Olson's work— exploring, extending, critiquing, revising—will be a principal focus of the Gloucester events,” Hoffman said.

“We’re grateful to the Bruce J. Anderson Foundation for the core grant to plan and coordinate the celebration. With help from other contributors we can make Gloucester's Charles Olson centennial events challenging, nourishing, and of essential use to those who attend,” Hoffman added.

Tax-deductible contributions to help organize the celebration may be sent to Olson Society treasurer, Kent Bowker, 11 Indian Rock Lane, Essex, MA. 01929, with checks made out to “The Charles Olson Society.” Further up-to-date information can be obtained by visiting the web site,

Monday, May 17, 2010

Remembering Albert: Albert Alcalay, 1917-2008

It was July of 1956. I had just completed my first year of college and I was beginning a summer job as editor of the Cape Ann Summer Sun, the weekly cultural and entertainment supplement of the Gloucester Daily Times. My sidekick and chief reporter that summer was Andy Leaf, son of Munro Leaf, the author of Ferdinand the Bull, who was spending the summer on Rocky Neck with his family before heading off to his first year at Harvard.

One day Andy came running into the office on Center Street, in downtown Gloucester.

“I’ve just met the most amazing painter,” he enthused. “He’s Yugoslavian and he doesn’t paint like anybody else on Cape Ann! He and his family live on the Neck. I’m going down this afternoon to interview him.”

It was important to us that this prospective subject for our weekly interview spot didn’t paint like anybody else in town because that summer we had begun to review the shows at local galleries and art associations and we’d had our fill of schooners under full sail, fishing vessels making into port trailed by seagulls, flower arrangements and pet dogs. We were both yearning to experience what we called “real art.” Neither of us understood exactly what constituted this vital new art we hoped to discover for ourselves, but I realized there had to be something beyond the faux Impressionist autumn landscapes that hung at the North Shore Art Association, in East Gloucester.

Having completed his interview, Andy rushed back into the office in the late afternoon and started typing away at his article on one of the paper’s old Royal manual typewriters, while Charlie Lowe, the in-house photographer and dark room technician, developed and printed Andy’s negatives (we used the old Graflex 4 X 5 Speed Graphic cameras then). When the eight by ten glossies came out of the darkroom I was astounded. There was Albert sitting behind an easel, working on one of his big, abstract cityscapes. This had to be the real thing, we both felt. The painting was not of a fishing boat, though Albert taught his students during those seven summers he and Vera spent in Gloucester, to paint wharf scenes that incorporated what was truly visually interesting and exciting about the place.

Andy finished his article. I headlined it “Albert Alcalay’s America Shown in Color and Design,” and when it appeared in the Friday July 6th edition of the paper it revealed this unbelievably articulate painter, who not only talked about his own art, but about the art of being an artist: “I am not an artist only when I am working, but all the time,” Albert told Andy.

“You’ve got to meet Albert,” Andy said. Not “Mr. Alcalay,” Andy insisted, because he liked to be called by his first name.

The next day we both turned up at Albert’s house, the Rambler Cottage at 50 Rocky Neck Avenue, across the street from the Studio Restaurant, after Albert had finished the day’s teaching and painting. We met Vera. Leor and Ammiel, aged 3 and 1 respectively, were playing in the yard. The first thing I noticed in Albert’s studio—after his astounding paintings, including brilliant figurative works depicting Rocky Neck scenes like no other painter in Gloucester had rendered them, in marvelously bright colors—was Albert’ collection of avant-garde literature including some of the new Grove Press editions of Beckett, Ionesco and Robbe-Grillet, and Botteghe Oscure, the great international literary review that was published in Rome by Marguerite Caetani, which Albert immediately lent me, opening me up to a whole new world of European writing.

In visit after visit we talked about art, about writing, about life in America as Albert was discovering and depicting it. Vera’s hospitality was warmth itself, as she offered us fresh lemonade and wry asides, busy as she was with two energetic toddlers. And then, in a series of memorable afternoons, Andy and I drove Albert all over Gloucester at his request.

“This is a very European town,” Albert insisted as we roamed the Fort, the heart of Gloucester’s Sicilian community, or climbed Portuguese Hill on one side of Gloucester and Beacon Hill on the other, affording spectacular views of 17th, 18th and 19th century houses all seeming to tumble down the hills toward the waterfront; church steeples rising among them. For the first time, and with Albert’s help, Albert’s eye, I began truly to look at and to appreciate the place of my birth.

Some of what we saw began to appear in Albert’s work, abstracted in ways that helped me to understand what contemporary painters were after, not just the objects themselves but essences, shapes in space, spatiality itself; rhythms, motion. And Albert was tireless in explaining what it all meant, always with references to the work of other artists and books about art that became seminal for my own understanding of the aesthetic impulse.

But there was more. When I shared with Albert and Vera that I was going to begin the study of Italian after I returned to college in September, they suddenly began speaking the very language that had intrigued me for years. For the following three summers Albert and Vera, who were joined in 1959 by their friend Emiliano Sorrini, the graphic artist and print maker from Urbino, helped me to grasp the living language, just as Albert had opened my eyes to the entire world of avant-garde art and writing.

Finally, it was in Albert and Vera’s house, during the summer of 1959, on the eve of my departure for graduate studies in Italy, that I met Charles Olson and his wife Betty, beginning another important relationship. And all because Andy Leaf had come rushing into the office on that morning of Thursday, July 5th having met Albert and Vera and having written this article, published the next day (who needed the Internet?) Had I not met Albert and enjoyed his friendship during those crucial years of my young life, I simply wouldn’t be the person I am today. Thank you, Albert. Gracie mille per la tua amicizia cara e profonda.

(These remarks were delivered at a service in thanksgiving for the life of Albert Alcalay, on Sunday, May 16, 2010, at Memorial Church, Harvard University.)

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Charles Olson Centennial Celebration in Gloucester, October 8-10, 2010

Letter from the Charles Olson Society of Gloucester
To the extended Charles Olson community:

Gloucester's Charles Olson Society, a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization, is organizing a series of events to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Olson's birth. The main events will take place in downtown Gloucester on Columbus Day weekend (Friday, October 8 through Sunday, October 10), though other events will be held before the main festival. We need your donations to make it all happen.

Events will include a Charles Olson study group of local citizens meeting once a week for five weeks prior to Columbus Day weekend; nightly readings at venues throughout Gloucester in the week prior to the main events; symposia and panel discussions; a marathon reading at the Independent Church on Middle Street on Friday, October 8; featured readers on Saturday, October 9; an Olson walk with readings highlighting sites in the Maximus Poems on Sunday, followed by a performance of Apollonius of Tyana.

These events, and several others being discussed, will complement an Olson exhibit at the Cape Ann Museum, which will open the first weekend in October. In addition the Gloucester Lyceum and Sawyer Free Library is sponsoring a special catalog/exhibition of rare, inscribed, and out-of-print books, letters, magazines and broadsides by Olson, curated by Greg Gibson of Ten Pound Island Book Company.

The Olson centennial celebrations in Gloucester in October will provide people with an opportunity to extend and intensify discussions and debates begun in Worcester in March and at Simon Fraser University in June. The Gloucester events will also provide a unique opportunity for Olson's readers to encounter many Maximus sites in the company of other poets, scholars, and enthusiasts. The ways contemporary poets, artists, teachers, and activists are responding to Olson's work -- exploring, extending, critiquing, revising-- will be at the core of the Gloucester events. With your help we can make Gloucester's Charles Olson centennial events challenging, nourishing, and of essential use to those who attend.

Please send checks to Charles Olson Society c/o Kent Bowker, Treasurer, 11 Indian Rock Lane, Essex, MA 01929, with "Olson 100" in the memo line. Those interested in contributing toward the establishment of the Vincent Ferrini/Charles Olson Writers Place should send donations to The Charles Olson Society c/o Henry Ferrini, 5 Wall Street, Gloucester, MA 01930.


The Charles Olson Society of Gloucester

Olson 100 events in Gloucester (as of April 7, 2010):

one day a week for five weeks at The Bookstore
Charles Olson Study Group led by Peter Anastas and James Cook

from early October on, Cape Ann Museum
Charles Olson exhibit

Monday, October 4 - Thursday, October 7 (readings by and of Gloucester writers)

Friday, October 8, 7pm, Independent Church on Middle Street
Marathon reading

Saturday, October 9, 10am, Cape Ann Museum
Moderated "Town Meeting" Discussion

Saturday, October 9, 7pm, Independent Church on Middle Street
Featured Readers

Sunday, October 10, 11am, from Stage Fort Park to 28 Fort Square
Maximus Walk with readings

Sunday, October 10, The Blackburn Performing Arts Center
Apollonius at Tyana

Become a member of the Charles Olson Society of Gloucester

To become a member send $35 to Charles Olson Society c/o Kent Bowker, Treasurer, 11 Indian Rock Lane, Essex, MA 01929 with "Member Dues" in the subject line.

By becoming a member you will be helping to support our efforts to organize Olson 100 events for Columbus Day weekend 2010 and to raise money for a Vincent Ferrini / Charles Olson writing center.