WooVoice #9: Eve Rifkah, Poet

Eve Rifkah once wrote a poem for me about her giving a gift to a friend who says she wants nothing. She gave me, the friend who wished for nothing, a set of beeswax candlesticks she had found at a craft fair. She often inspired me to put my own pen to the paper. Since she arrived in Worcester in 1983, Eve was an active member of the Worcester County Poetry Association before co-founding the Poetry Oasis, Inc. with her husband, Michael Milligan in 1998 for its seven year run and the literary poetry journal, Diner, in 2001. The public accessibility of the arts – poetry, music, theater – is a key ingredient to building a vibrant city. Eve has published two poetry volumes,Outcasts: The Penikese Island Leper Hospital, 1905 – 1921, chronicles the true life stories of leprosy patients cast out from the mainland to a secluded island off of Massachusetts. Her second novel of poetry, Dear Suzanne, describes in lyrical verse the life of the Impressionist artist, Suzanne Valadon. She has yearned for recognition as an artist. In our free flowing question session, we asked the underlining question: what if you lived a whole life and no one knew your gifts? Can you be happy with the gifts you have even if they are never recognized by anyone? If someone writes a beautiful poem or paints a startling canvas or writes a blog and no one knows, did it ever really matter? Or is the reward of getting lost in the zone of creativity enough of reward?

Arriving in Worcester thirty years ago to an incredible arts and poetry scene

"I was living in Winchendon at the time. My dear friend, David had just bought a condo in an older building in Worcester. I was helping him paint the rooms and he said, ‘You want to move in?’ So, I did! That was in the fall of 1983 and he died on Valentine’s Day in 1984. I didn’t expect to be anywhere for thirty years! I always bounced around. At that time thirty years ago, the arts scene was thriving – art galleries, poetry, theater. I met many involved in the arts. It all comes down to who you know and getting into a community of people you are comfortable with. There was theater I could afford to go to. I mean, five bucks for a play! When I first came here, I could go to poetry readings very often for free and see really good poets that came to Worcester through the poetry association. This used to be a mecca for poets coming here."

Founding Poetry Oasis

"There were no venues for serious poets. One day, I asked a group to come to the Sahara. Twenty-four people showed up. So, the owner of the Sahara agreed to allow us to hold poetry gatherings twice a month. The first meeting we had, over fifty people showed up. It was a really good location except that people who came, would not support the restaurant. My God! You’d think they could buy a cup of coffee. No! We were there quite a long time. Finally, the owner said, “Well, you know, I’m opening up just for you on a Sunday morning.” It means he has to hire people to come and open the store. It’s not paying off for him. We were forced to look for another location and then another. Every time we moved, we lost people. We were at Cool Beans, a great location near downtown. You could take a bus there. Some people came from western Mass to Poetry Oasis, but they wouldn’t even buy a coffee. Cool Beans was owned by a single woman trying to run a business. She’s looking at her place packed to capacity and she’s not making any money. If you want this to happen, you have to support the restaurant. Buy a cup of coffee! Don’t bring your own bottle of water!"

"I was bringing in poets from around the world from France, England and Greece. I wasn’t paying them. I had no money. I wrote to them and asked if they would come. We would pass the hat. Once, I got Annie Finch here because I was able to line up two readings at colleges. I had her stay at my house so she read at Poetry Oasis for “pass the hat”. I taped every performance. I kept archives on who we had, what they read and who they were. I bought a sound system and had a microphone for people. We donated this to the Worcester County Poetry Association."

From welfare mother to blue collar to white collar work

"I got an MFA at Vermont College. Now, I have this totally worthless degree that enabled me to go from part time blue-collar job with no benefits to a part time white collar job with no benefits, working my ass off and making less money than the blue collar, “you must be dumb” job. Being an adjunct (at colleges) was actually a step up, not in pay but in the “you’re a professor, therefore, you must be intelligent.” (Compare that) when you are a compositor for the Telegram and Gazette, you must be dumb. This is a carryover from being on welfare. Now I’m no longer seen in the public eye as dumb. I just don’t make enough money to survive on my own. People stereotype. If you are poor, you are dumb."

"I taught English at Worcester State, Fitchburg State, Clark and WPI. The head of the English department at Fitchburg didn’t even think of adjuncts as people. Today, 70% of professors are adjuncts and aren’t making enough to survive."

Creating art for its own sake versus getting public recognition

"The arts: music, visual arts, dance, writing are a form of communication. Without an audience there is no communication. Some people can be happy doing what they are doing and they are giving to their community, family and friends. They can be content. I wanted to feel validated with my writing, that what I was doing was good and that didn’t happen to the extent I had hoped. I didn’t go through the circuit. I didn’t go out of high school, go to college, become the teacher, schmooze with all the important people that would help me in a time period when I may have been published by larger presses. There are many incredible poets in the Worcester area, Dan Lewis, Susan Roney-O’Brien, Joyce Heon and others yet they won’t be known outside of Worcester. That is sad."

Loving the process of writing

"My books were really important to me because I loved doing research and history. It took me 3 ½ years for each book but as much of it was in research as well writing. The first book I did about the leper’s hospital; I gave people a voice who did not have a voice. That’s what I thought I was doing and it fascinated me. They became my family. The granddaughter of one of the patients on the island, Isabella Barrows, found me through one of the first poems in my chapbook. She sent me pictures, newspaper clippings about her family. She said I gave her back her grandmother!"

"Worcester is having a revival of an activists scene. Strong in the sixties is faded away as it did elsewhere but today there are many activists groups doing great work. Along with political issues, there is a strong move towards community gardens, farmers markets, tiny houses, affordable living spaces, community technology areas as Technocopia. On the other hand,  the powers-that- be want to gentrify Worcester which means creating a lost population of the poor but underground there is movement towards a more humane existence."

Ode to the Canal District's Farmers Market

"I love my farmers market! That’s where all my eggs come from.. I always go there for my local honey (just thirteen dollars for 2 pounds) and sometimes for meat. I will not buy meat in the supermarket. Local farms bring grass fed meat to the farmers market. These animals are out in the grass, not standing still in a pile of shit, getting shots of hormones or antibiotics. I bought an herbal remedy that healed a rash that prescription meds didn’t heal from one vendor, Savannah Rose. Oh and the almond croissants from the baker there are heavenly."

Sweet Po Spread by Eve Rifkah

I never wanted a microwave

mine is a guilt gift from the lover

that walked the day before

Christmas four years past

knowing I never wanted a microwave


still the micro and I have become pals

and without it I wouldn’t be bothered

with this recipe

ovens will do but I get impatient

when it comes to sweet po spread

so cook a big or two mid sized

sweet potatoes or yams if you

have a hankering for that deep dark

earthy orange color

until soft


saute half an onion and some garlic

garlic wards off infection, vampires

and unwanted company


in a food processor

ah, this is one of those

use all those kitch tools

that plug in recipes

but then whirrrrrrrrr and dip in finger and lick

and hmmmmmm

so you didn’t use up calories

chopping and mashing and getting hot


into the machine place

cut up potato, onions intimate with garlic

all in the same family

a coupla big spoons of tahini

and maple syrup ( the real stuff)

lick spoondream of warm days and cold nights

sap rising through wakening trees

shadows longon twilight snow


push that button

heaven right there in the bowl

taste    add anything you feel bereft of

spread on good bread


a thick crusty sort or a braided challah

delicate yellow with a crust that curves in waves

pita is ok too

after all it is kind of ahumus sort of thing

a good alternate when you are not in a mid-east mood

but an autumn heavy root veg

mood instead

think of the south

warmearth bedding

moistand dark

blending with sesame seed from the east

and oh so sweet syrup

from cold climes

dream of travel

south north east whirling together

eat in a cozy place

or make into sandwiches

hike through falling leaves


Pasta Again by Eve Rifkah

I cut the leeks into fine crescents and add chopped garlic

more than most people want

saute in olive oil,  marsala and the juice of a half lemon

then cut a yellow pepper and a tiny hot brilliant yelling red pepper

the kind that are plump and pointed like a radish

I don’t know what they are called

I add the peppers to the leeks and garlic and let them bubble and murmur

in a language unknown to me

add some dark tart/sweet blackberries, need some color here

and when tender pour over fine vermicelli cooked with green beans

a strange dish hot and sweet and tart

with colors that stir the imagination

of times lost and times yearned for. I dine with a glass of red wine to fog

the loneliness of eating alone,  of eating pasta again.

of doing for myself, good food sans conversation, the missing ingredient

that dulls all the flavors merging on mywordless tongue

Isabelle by Eve Rifkah

The day my son was born, I breathed fear and joy

gazed at his perfect body, inspected each finger and toe.

My son, my son, held a fleeting twenty days

sent to join brother and sister.

Dear husband, where are your gentle hands,

your soft voice my comfort?


I dreamed of beginning.

In our new home we would live and prosper.

Napoleon, my husband, out to sea at daybreak

provided well.

The children came, first lovely Dorothy

then a son strong of limb and lung.

He howled so hard I thought he called

the devil to enter our home.


Perhaps he did.

Another woman holds my children

presses their clothes sends them to school

and Napoleon, who cares for you?


Doctor Edmonds whispered hope into my heart

said the word cured, oh, how happy

until the new doctors came and slammed my joy

down hard on the rocks. Husband, my arms are empty

I can’t hear my children’s cries

my home one room and a narrow bed,

your letters laundered by my tears.

This is not the beginning I bargained for.

Isabelle Barros, 27, a Cape Verdean was diagnosed on April, 24, 1905,  and isolated in her home. until the opening of the colony November 18, 1905.  Her husband, Napoleon acted as nurse and their 2 childrenwere placed in foster care. After five months she gave birth to a boy she kept 20 days then turned over to Board of Charity. Leontine Lincoln Barros joined siblings in foster care. Thought cured and almost sent home. This however proved false. She died March 13,1915.