Portrait of the Artist as a Young Poseur: An interview with Doug Holder by Susan Tepper

Susan Tepper: You have written a mini-memoir, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Poseur – Boston 1974 to 1983, that is also a love story and homage to Boston. It takes place during the years 1974 through 1983. What brought this book to life suddenly?

Doug Holder: I was getting older, one of those milestone birthdays approaching, and this seemed to be the right time to do it.  I have kept journals since the 70’s when I first moved to Boston. They were a mine of old poems, snapshots of the city, people and places I had totally forgotten about. The focal point was an old rooming house where I lived in Boston, on Newbury Street.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Poseur

Tepper: 271 Newbury Street, the cover of your book. Beautifully photographed, very evocative.

Holder: This is in the Back Bay of Boston, now a very tony area, though at that time the brownstones housed any number of cheap rooms that you could rent and live the Boheme lifestyle.

Tepper: La Boheme style. Young artists find that so irresistible, n’est-ce pas? They don’t seem to mind the “shortcomings” such as those you describe in your opening lines:

I lived at 271 Newbury Street from 1978 to 1983… in a room on the top floor ($38 dollars/week), bathroom down the hall – a stairway to the roof – cockroaches – above Davio’s Restaurant.

Young artists still live this way, but not at $38 a week. What kept you going?

Holder: I had a romantic notion of this lifestyle. I grew up in the straitlaced, broad lawns and narrow minds of Long Island, New York, and yearned to be this character in NYC, like my late Uncle Sy was in Greenwich Village. I use to idolize him – he was bald, with this great walrus mustache, he knew Lenny Bruce, and when we walked around the streets of The Village everyone would say, “Hey Sy, how’s it going?” In my eyes he was the most urbane cat that could be. He had a great satirical piece of art in his apartment that blasted out in text “Fuck Communism!”

Tepper: I love it! The crazy-cool uncle who knew Lenny Bruce.

Holder: So in a way he was my inspiration. He smoked pot up until the day he died of lung cancer. I had entertained the thought of living at a cheap hotel in Washington Square, but I sensed NYC would have swallowed me up alive.

Tepper: You would have been OK in NYC, but it wasn’t your destiny. How did the book actually evolve?

Holder: Short lyrical snapshots from my journaling went up on my blog, and I read them at a few venues. The response I got was strong. One poet I respect a lot, Mary Buchinger Bodwell, told me she thought this stuff was very rich. Bert Stern, another accomplished poet, said I should run with it. People who never commented on my work were giving me the thumbs up.

Tepper: High praise from colleagues is always a sign you’re on the right track. In the book’s prologue you say: “This long, stream of consciousness poem concerns my early years in Boston.”
It certainly does read stream of consciousness, but with a knife-edge precision to your wording. Did you feel in a trance state, or what some call flow state, during the course of writing this book?

Holder: It was in some ways like automatic writing. You know, Thomas Wolfe wrote one of his novels standing up for a couple of days, non-stop, in this unending flow. I had that experience. The stuff just flowed out of me over the course of a few weeks, and I was sort of tweeting excerpts to other writers and getting great feedback. Once an image came to mind, a flood of other images followed. I had always kept those images of the first rooming house where I lived on the back burner – and they would make occasional appearances in my writing. But this was a literary enema – I was flushed out this time.

Tepper: The book is constructed in short parts. Part 5: Fernald School, Malden begins this way:

I met her at a school for the retarded – a working class girl – post Judge Tauro – we treated retarded women – trying to stop them from slapping feces on their clothes and ours…

I have to say this was one of the most “telling” parts in a very “telling” book, in that it conveys to me a sense of humanity and vulnerability on your part, the young man, or as you call it in your title: Artist as a Young Poseur. For instance, the mental hospital/asylum has always figured significantly in the lives of many artists. Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, William Inge – so many spent chunks of time locked up with their demons.

Holder: Mental hospitals seem to play a role in many creative people’s lives. And I think there have been studies pointing out that creative folks are more susceptible to mental illness than the general population. In a way, I worked in these settings because at times I thought I was losing it – my search for identity, my rootlessness. And in spite of restraining people, having shit thrown at me, and other indignities I experienced in these settings – I identified with these people raging against their demons.

They say there is a thin line between the keeper and the kept. McLean Hospital (outside of Boston) where I have worked since 1982, is a designated literary landmark. Sexton, Lowell, Berryman, David Foster Wallace, Plath, and many others were hospitalized there. Even Fredrick Law Olmstead, who designed the grounds, was hospitalized there! I remember working on the wards in Bowditch Hall at McLean, and saw a framed and signed copy of Robert Lowell’s “Waking in the Blue” hanging right there on the wall – his poem about his hospitalization there.

I was fascinated by the literary history of McLean, and even wrote a small chapbook that was a “Pick of the Month” in the Small Press Review titled Poems of Boston and Just Beyond: From the Back Bay to the Back Ward (Alpha Beat Press). The Back Bay a reference to the rooming house I mentioned earlier, at 271 Newbury Street, where I first lived as an artist and young poseur.

To learn more about Portrait of the Artist as a Young Poseur, read an excerpt, or buy a copy, go to DougHolder.blogspot.com.