Saturday, October 21, 2017

Just Like a Professor

I dislike catching myself in a lie. It's always bad to be caught in private. But it's worse in public.

Yesterday, before meeting with my 101 college comp class, I reviewed an interview in which a colleague had asked if I bring into my classes things I think they should have already been taught. I said, yes, cinema literacy and poetry are two things students need to know before college. This semester I was able to accommodate bringing in cinema literacy because Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis was one of the selections I could assign.

In Persepolis, Marji drifts numbed by the losses of Uncle Anoosh and God. 
But somehow, my quote said, "I don't see poetry in the textbooks," which was a lie, one that would pass by most readers.

I don't see poems in the textbooks assigned for college composition. But if analogy is a move of figurative language, then I see poetry often in the rhetoric manuals. It is of course for his sin of distrusting The Poets that Plato will be best remembered for his allegory of the cave.

The problem is not that there is no poetry in college composition. The problem is that many if not most students can't see it.

So after checking the interview for accuracy and sending it back to my colleague, I was standing in front of a class analyzing an introductory paragraph that compared itself to meeting someone: "we feel the pressure of wanting to make a good first impression on our readers, just as we feel feel the pressure of wanting to 'impress' our classmates or co-workers the first time we meet them" (Gorup 198). I came back to the word as and dwelled on the power of comparison. One student briefly looked up from her cellphone.

I shifted gears and diagrammed the author's funnel on the board as an example of how to write an introductory paragraph, but my dry-erase picture couldn't raise all the heads. It went downhill from there. As was beyond the class' collective grasp. I was destined to read a large number of regurgitated summaries, analogy free for at least one more week. I said silent prayer for God to send one analogy after the next deadline.

My subversive consciousness whispered, "Bring in Sohrab Sepheri or Rumi next week, get them whirling like dervishes."

Probably, I won't. The majority of faculty are non-tenured for good reason. Poetry is not on the syllabus even if it is a rhetorical device politicians campaign on: the assonance in "great again." Let that be another class, later.

So I tried to focus on identifying the elements that made the thesis in the textbook complex, while my subversive consciousness whispered the late Richard Wilbur to me, thoroughly distracting me in front of the whiteboard: "Odd that a thing is most itself when likened." Standing there with the dry-erase marker poised over the whiteboard, I probably looked just like a college professor.  

Works Cited
Group, Natalie. "How I Write an Introduction," Carol Lea Clark, Praxis. Southlake: Fountainhead, 2016. Print.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

"Where Was Fidel When I Needed Him?"

The story Fidelito cracked The Castro Monolth for me. Here's a poem from Driven into the Shade.

Where Was Fidel When I Needed Him?
to ElĂ­an Gonzalez

Because your father looked nervous during his interview with the INS,
your granduncle’s attorneys don't believe you should go home,
they say your father doesn't really want you,
that Fidel is making him say such things.

When I was six, my father was across the ocean, too.
Divorced from my mother before I turned a year old,
in arrears for child support, hiding from the court,
he'd gone to Vietnam to research how the communists 
brainwashed people out of the comforts of exporting rubber.

When I turned 16, I met him. He took me 
to a Baja bar where I listened to his voice
as I tunneled beneath our wasteland of memory,
trying to resupply our love, but
the tunnel didn't lead that way.

Throughout the afternoon, he uncoiled his story
how my mother and grandparents hid me from him.
Later his story wound back on itself like a python,
how he drank in Saigon, drank at San Diego State,
drove around Berkeley with a Marine friend 
yelling "faggots" out the window at the longhairs. 
I could not hear myself in his voice.

He said we were alike because we played football, 
but despite the distance between us,
he'd never thrown one pass to me, nor
had I been close enough to hit him with a block
and feel him hit back.

How I wish Fidel had walked into the bar,
taken my father at gunpoint,
locked him in Cuba's darkest prison 
without rum and brainwashed him,
electrified the genitals I came from,
made him scream that he wanted me with him.
Where was Fidel as my grampy sang me too sleep, 
where was Fidel as my father bought Saigon Tea 
for the mothers of dust?

Thursday, October 6, 2016

"Green Afternoon," for Mark Steinbeck

Green Afternoon
for Mark Steinbeck

Mark, sorry I didn't want to see The Louvre. 
At 17, What did I know of painting? 
40 miles inland, over the fireplace
we had a Robert Wood seascape,
moon through clouds doubled off a wave regressing, 
the beach now gray glow and hush
while outdoors the orange groves took the beating sun, 
Santa Anas, late April frosts. Art was a kind of denial.

You knew so much from books. You turned last pages,
shut them and went into the world with educated momentum.
I tried to catch up to your Thompson with my Huxley,
you in Escondido, me in Northridge
That acid we dropped in Chapman
fell a long way. The cello played "When You Wish
Upon a Star" just blocks from The Happiest Place on 
Earth. I couldn't believe our luck then, so 
now that it's run out, I'm not surprised.

Still I go around saying your name.
Forgive me for calling you back from the paradise.
When Dorothy scattered your ashes from the stern,
I saw the gray flash green and recognized it:  
our afternoon off Ensenada Grande, the late sun off the 
sandy bottom. I call your name not in denial of death,  
not to fill the empty spaces (there's no such music);
you are not alive on my breath,
just ahead of me. 
                              So when I saw The Louvre,
it was too late to tell you about it. Now I know,
friendship is about going when your friend says, "let's."
For everything we saw in the same space and light,
I say your name and am blessed as so much memory 
regresses, how the images emerge from utterances
letters at a time, the space between two words,
never a full sentence, and no full epistle,
but the kind of denial I keep in the center of home
with the spirits homes are built to hold.
Photograph by Dorothy Steinbeck

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Place Poems, Part I: "Poem in Black and White"

As Califonia's snowpack returns, the poem "Poem in Black & White" comes to mind. It begins with an epigraph from Roget's Thesaurus:

The ... classification of colours does not entirely accord with the theories of modern science: Complete lists of shades are beyond the scope of this work.

On a December afternoon so cold it would snow
if the sky over Palomar weren't so dry,
we move around to keep ourselves warm:
run the mower back and forth over the umber grass
and believe that it will grow back. But for today
we natives want snow, while the snowbirds from
Montreal and Kansas City tell us, “You don't know
what you're asking for.”
                                      We want snow to fall on
last Spring's ferns and hush their rustling,
to cover the autumn montage of leaves from
white oaks and sycamores that pile high,
to hold the pages still and whiteout all
but the wet, black trunks that stand up,
through the heavy white.
                                     We want the snow to fall and
cushion the rocks and gorse bushes and
leave nothing but the reaching trees. But the
snowbirds tell us, "Only fools wish for snow."

Why would we want a black and white movie, when
under the blue sky we have the florid fallen leaves,
and beneath Palomar, green fairways?
We try to describe snowy light cooling our eyes,
and the click of stones in our dry summers,
dry like Chicago doesn't understand.
We seem to have a drought of words
to make them hear how we need the water, and
how our sunny weather can sustain only so many streams, only
so many towns where the chief joy is not having to shovel snow,
how subtly ceanothus fades from purple to gray in March, and
that gray is a color.

Click to here Drought Buoy perform this poem.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Peace Arch Revisited

Although the sentiment since the end of The War of 1812 has been "May These Gates Never Be Closed," you can see in the background the construction of a reinforced crossing on the U.S. side.
I’d visited Peace Arch during a trip to promote Driven into the Shade back in 2006, and I remembered it as a special place: a big grassy meridian with a concrete arch on the border that said, “May These Gates Never Close.” Those words meant a lot to me because I’ve watched the park on the international border near where I live shut tight. Given the recent changes at Friendship Park/Plaza de Amnistad on the Mexico-U.S. Border, I wanted to revisit Peace Arch this year to resupply my hope.
A crowd gathers on the Mexico side to participate in communion with Rev. John Fanestil on the U.S. side.

When Pat Nixon had dedicated Friendship Park in 1971, she shook hands over the waist-high fence. Years later, that fence was replaced with a metal-grate wall. Still, we met occasional  to play music, picnic and read poems across the border.

Then in 2006, Congress suspended the Clean Water Act and the Environmental Protection Act (both signed by President Nixon), so Homeland Security could build a double fence along with a fenced pen in the middle so U.S. citizens with I.D. could speak for a half hour at certain times of the week. No more interlacing fingers through the steel mesh, no more taking communion (essentially the same rules for visitors at the prisons a couple miles down the fence). Using sign language and parabolic discs, we still managed to speak across the increasing distance. (

On my second trip to Peace Arch, I noticed a Border Patrol SUV in the parking lot on the U.S. side of the park, but there was no fence, just a woman and two little boys, presumably a mother and her sons. They walked across the park and kept going until they went into a house in the Douglas on the British Columbia side of the park.

Looking north, we can see The Peace Arch reads, "Children of a Common Mother."
The Peace Arch is not just a sentiment. It’s a memorial to the 100 years of peace following the War of 1812, which officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in 1814. In 1914, Samuel Hill, a road builder and Quaker philanthropist, led the effort to commemorate the century of peace. Besides “May These Gates Never Be Closed,’ the Peace Arch also features the inscriptions, “Children of a Common Mother” and “Brethren Dwelling Together in Unity.” Could we do something like this in the south?

Besides Hill’s backing, Peace Arch has enjoyed the ongoing and evolving support of others. In 1931, school children from Washington and British Columbia raised money to expand the park from 7 acres to 40. Many other groups have made contributions, including the Kiwanis Club of Vancouver. In a pavilion constructed of the six kinds of wood from the region, I sat down at a table dedicated in 1947 by the International Peace Memorial Association. The acoustics were good for practicing poems. Berries grew along western edge of the park. I started walking north along the coast and eventually came to the band shell in White Rock. What a bunch of cool spots to write, workshop & perform poems, I thought.

In this season of bicentennial of peace, I've thought about trying to get poets from the Americas to meet someplace where the lines don't overlap as much as they grow wide, so that differences are not out of sight. The "dominion" of both Canada and the U.S. are articulated in plaques around the park. The treaty to leave the border unfortified by soldiers or forts is becoming a thing of the past.The War of 1812 gave way to The Peace of 1814. Friendship endures despite the security measures, but future generations will probably not know what it felt like to meet at the border with family and friends.

 Links to news items about Francis Scott Key penning the lyrics to "The Star-Spangled Banner" have been appearing online, but the song doesn't mean what it once meant. What song does? History messes with the groove. Since the fall of The Berlin Wall, my country has rebuilt it many times over for "security," but the more cage-like protection becomes, the less safety felt. I'll take the relative peace of Peace Arch over "The Star-Spangled Banner," which is also a collaboration a bi-national collaboration with Key's lyrics and a melody borrowed from a British drinking song.I'd rather have Friendship Park back along with a new policies that admit NAFTA has exacerbated immigration and counter-insurgency training of Latin American armies at WHINSEC has not made millions of undocumented immigrants feel like life south of the U.S. border was worth it. As Micheal Corleone says, "Keep your friends close, your enemies closer."

So give me baseball season, a beer and a song. I'd rather keep the peace where we used to find it. But if all we have is beer and music, play on.

Sing "Anacreon" Again

First-pitch politics
we stand with foamy schooners--
bombs bursting in beer.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Regretting v. Remembering

I was reading Faulkner's The Mansion yesterday, and was impressed by an uncle who tells his nephew who's just apologized not to be sorry. “Just remember it," the uncle says. "Dont ever waste time regretting errors. Just dont forget them” (231). The novel delves into, amongst other things, the difference between shame & sorrow, something I've been thinking about ever since the shootings in Tucson last week.

I don't think anyone--probably not even Jared Loughner--understands yet why he killed 6 people and wounded 14. Mental illness appears to be the most likely factor. So the sane should know that if random violence is going to happen, we should avoid casual threats and apologize if we carelessly make one in a thoughtless moment.

I keep thinking about one of Loughner's victims living under physical threat for months. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, expressed concern about violent rhetoric back in March. Now that her concerns have proven valid, a discussion about how we talk seems appropriate. Gun safety also appears to be something we need to talk about: if Loughner's 30-round clip had been smaller, the people who overwhelmed him when he had to reload could have stopped him sooner, perhaps saving lives and at least reducing the number of wounded. At least these three areas--mental health, public discourse & gun safety--appeared to be appropriate topics to discuss after the massacre.  

Unfortunately, that was not my experience. When I posted the interview of Giffords expressing concern about the "Take Back the 20" webpage that put her district in crosshairs, a couple of my friends said there was no connection. Not that they saw no connection, but that there was no connection. Their not seeing is a measure of their refusal to recognize the visual rhetoric of Take Back the 20. It's a literary failure: first, by the website designers who failed to recognize the associations of their design until after the shooting when they removed the image; second, the defenders of Take Back the 20's failure to recognize the tacit acknowledgement of guilt in the removal of the website by its designers after an actual gun-sight was pointed at Giffords and the other victims. 

My point was not that the Take Back the 20 caused Loughner to shoot (If his poetry is representative, his obsessions swing incoherently from linguistics to the gold standard); the point was that it was unseemly for the Tea Party to keep the metaphorical crosshairs on Giffords for months and then offer no apology when someone literally did what they'd suggested. When Spencer Giffords, the congresswoman's father, was quoted as saying the "whole Tea Party" was his daughter's enemy, all Palin had to say was, "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean it literally." Her apology would have meant more than almost any other words. Instead, she issued a "condolence" that lasted about 29 seconds before shoe-horning in a long political screed that I'm certain brought Spencer Giffords no solace.

Perhaps Jon Stewart said it most succinctly on The Daily Show when he said, "It would be really nice if the ramblings of crazy people didn't resemble how we talk to each other on t.v. Let's at least make troubled individuals easier to spot."

Ability to understand figurative language might not only represent intelligence, it might be a measure of sanity. The Greek word logos includes as definitions both "word" and "rational discourse." In a video attributed to Loughner he makes an incoherent but specifically "political" argument. Although Loughner took a poetry class in college, there's little to show he thought figuratively. One of the most pathetic passages in his video is a syllogism: 
All humans are in need of sleep.
Jared Loughner is a human.
Jared Loughner is in need of sleep.
Sadly, we know from phone messages left by Loughner that he was awake in the early hours on the day of the shooting. His line "I'm a sleepwalker who turns off the alarm clock," appears at odds with the above syllogism as Loughner claims to sleep while in motion. His hallucination of sleep, our real horror.

In Faulkner's The Mansion, the uncle comes to regret his part in a murder that he cannot forget. We're not going to forget Tucson, even though Fox News and the mainstream media have been working overtime this week to deny-forget-delete months of gun-toting campaign rhetoric. It isn't to argue that SarahPac's graphics or Tweets by Palin caused Loughner to shoot: it's that Palin & Co. metaphorically agreed with what Loughner literally did until he did it and then none of them was sorry. They purged the tweets and graphics, tried to disassociate themselves from their actions. No one can make them regret. No one can make them remember. But poets can make it difficult for them to forget. 

"A word is dead,/when it is said/some say," Emily Dickinson wrote. "I say it just/begins to live/that day."

Friday, September 23, 2011

Another America's Cup Village, Another Flashback

Author's Note: In the news today, California will get another America's Cup Village, this one in San Francisco. I remember a couple of them we've had in San Diego: opaque photo ops miles out to sea, subsidies, corporate schwag, the lull between The Cold War and The War on Terror. Good times. 

I wrote this column for the Times Advocate (R.I.P): "Kiwis to get more than they expect: Curse of America’s Cup goes to New Zealand too" (C2, 5/14/95). With The America’s Cup returning to California, excuse me if I don’t go with the flow. I’ve already been downstream.

SAN DIEGO--The America's Cup is cursed. Look at the carnage around it, businessmen who should have known better: Alan Bond, Raul Gardini, Sir Michael Faye. Now Peter Blake wants a crack at holding the Cup. That's a real challenge.
 The America's Cup was really England's way of getting even with the colonies for The Revolution. After winning the Cup from England, sportsmanship at New York Yacht Club was lost in a fog bank for more than a century. San Diego Yacht Club has done no better.
Few moments define SDYC's stewardship of the America's Cup like the three-way defense deal struck before the Citizen's Defender Finals (Sponsored by Citizen Watches: "With Citizen, you won't run out of time") when the rules would have left Conner watching the America’s Cup on ESPN.

Allowing Conner into the finals only lit the fuse for more mistakes. Usually the captain goes down with the boat. In Conner's case, the captain went down on someone else's boat.

So is the America's Cup a sport or not?

Conner explained the three-way finals like this: ''It's best for the defense and its corporate sponsors, and what's good for the corporate world is good support for the world market if you think it through."

So there it is. The America's Cup is a professional sport with the emphasis on profession. It’s like trickle- down sports: once sponsors get the rules committee to say what they want the rules to say, there will be competition.

Yachtsmen are not the best role models for the nation's youth. Wasn't it Bill Koch who said winning is the most important thing? And Conner himself defined yachting sportsmanship at the victory press conference for the '88 Catamaran's when he hurled the supreme put-down at New Zealand's boat designer: "You're a loser." 
Blake, however, is no loser. He won the Whitbread and met the Jules Verne Challenge to sail around the world in 80 days. Blake is a serious winner. Now he has won big, and big winning has a way of changing people. Sometimes it even helps them.

Not only does he stand taller than most sailors, but Blake also has the reptilian ability to never blink. So from a great height, he seems to look down at and right through people to a brighter day when we won't be here. Blake was allegedly the force who set U.S. hired gun Rod Davis ashore during the challenger's finals for the Cup in '92. The mood around Team New Zealand's compound has been described as "darkly militaristic." (This was the sailing syndicate that took a Navy SEAL reservist into custody in Coronado for taking underwater pictures of its boat’s keel.)

And now he's going on the offensive. Consider Dennis Conner. Ever since winning the America’s Cup from Australia in 1987, Conner has hucked, shucked and liquidated so many pieces of himself that he fell apart like the U.S.S.R. In order to save his life, he had to lose the America's Cup. Look at Conner's tenure with Diet Pepsi. Most diet products want spokesperson who loses rather than gains weight. Conner may have talent for knowing which way the wind blows, but the product the man is most qualified to represent is health care insurance.

Now, by losing the Cup, the U.S. can finally get even with Nuclear Free New Zealand for not allowing our nukes in their harbors. The America's Cup is like a neutron bomb that punches microscopic holes in the poise of whoever holds it, leaving only the hulking human remains of men behind.
Although New Zealand has the Cup, the real sport has only just begun: can Blake hold onto the America's Cup and his dignity at the same time?

Postscript: In 2001, Sir Peter Blake was killed during a gun battle with pirates who had boarded his boat in the Amazon delta off Brazil. In 1995, winning at any cost seemed to be the greatest threat to the “dignity” of America’s Cup challengers and defenders. Although Blake surprised the pirates and shot one of them first, his gun then malfunctioned.