Monday, March 5, 2018

Mourning James Luna

This morning I am missing my neighbor James Luna. We worked together at Palomar College, but we weren't just colleagues and So Cal guys; I loved his work and went to his installations whenever I could.  He showed California in it's complicated beauty. This image from the Chris Eyre movie Bringing It All Back Home shows James on an exercise bike while Marlon Brando in The Wild One rides along behind. James was a great installation artist and a "sacred clown."

I could go on about why I love Eyre's movie about James' work, especially this shot, and James would expect me not to be quiet, but I just can't this morning. When an installation artist like James passes, the loss is too great to talk about immediately because it was James' use of his body and voice within his art space that can never be replaced, but later we will try as he did in making his Chapel for Pablo Tac. To feel that loss, I think James would say that home was more important than art, so at La Jolla there's a great piece missing this morning.

I want everyone "down the hill" to have a sense of what we've all lost. I wrote the article below for The Union Tribune around 1995. It's not up to date because over the years James gave much more. Just a month ago after dinner  he shared a movie he made using The Beach Boys' "In My Room."

James Luna told us, "we got it tap it down." We will do so.

James LunaWhen James Luna says, "I'm a California dude," he doesn't mean that he surfs. He means that he knows who he is. And who he is an installation/performance artist who uses traditional Native American art forms as well as surf music and video.

Ironically, much of Southern California does not know about Luna though he is nationally respected performance and multimedia artist. Luna may have performed and had his work in some the most prestigious museums in the United States--including The Whitney Museum of Art in New York and the Smithsonian Institute's Museum of Natural History--but he has never presented a performance piece in San Diego County where he is a member the Luiseño Indians at the La Jolla Reservation in North County (He has, however, exhibited installations at Centro Cultural de la Raza, and his "Artifact Piece" from the Museum of Man later gained international attention at The New Museum of Art's Decade Show in New York).

On August 21, The Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in La Jolla will present Luna in a lecture/performance that brings local audiences as close to a Luna performance as they have ever been. Whether the evening at MCA concludes as Luna's performance did at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts--with the audience either standing on their feet or falling in worship at Luna's--is yet to be seen.

"Let's get this out front: theater is not what I am, though there are any number of similarities," Luna says. "Installation is very broad and that's one of its strengths. I approach it as I approach a painting. I don't think about acting. I am not a trained actor. But that's not to say that I don't script or monologue. I do, but it comes out of the art."

Many of Luna's monologues emerge from the objects he creates. As multimedia art, Luna's verbal expression cannot be separated from his visuals. He uses anything he can to get his point across. In his performance piece The Shameman, Luna portrays an enterprising shaman who sells objects that combine such disparate materials as condoms, a tennis racket, a cellular phone and a buffalo horn.
Many artists lecture on their work, but few move back and forth between two-dimensional and performance work as Luna does. Consequently, Luna's lectures are unusual. "James' lecture is unlike anything we've done," says MCA education curator Seonid MacArthur. "His use of sound, movement and music in his performance pieces will be new for us...he's not so much about ritual as he is about combining his heritage and sense of ritual with humor."

Luna's lectures did not always include performance. "I do this a lot and found that showing slides or video of a performance didn't do it," Luna says. At MCA, his lecture will include excerpts from Artifact Piece, Places for People to Meet and The Shameman.

"I am not a trained actor," Luna emphasizes. "I am a visual artist when I do a performance piece, which comes from a different place than where actors come from," Luna said. "And I am not just about Indian issues . . . that should be clear in Shameman because there were other issues in that piece. I'm a therapist, used car salesman and an evangelist."

Luna is a California dude of this century, if not the next: "I use pop imagery because I like it. It makes a nice soup, a blend. . . . Political art gets caught up in being the victim and loses sight of the whole person."

Humor is a good portion of Luna's recipe. "I've had people come to see me thinking I'm going to do a nice tom-tom dance. And as I unload, they realize this isn't what they came to hear," Luna says. "But they have every right to leave--or to laugh."

The laughter at his performance of Shame-Man at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts was loud and long, coming from an audience primarily made up of Indians. Those who came to see him dance to a tom-tom instead saw him fancydance to Marvin Gaye's "I'm Too Sexy."

Luna asked the audience to hold hands: "It's not easy to hold hands. That's the feel of humanity," he told the crowd." Touch that white person. Come on you rich Arizona Indian."

In "The Shameman," Luna's sense of humor cuts deeply in two directions: first against "shamans" who sell spirituality and secondly whites who buy it as a commodity. America may not be a happier place since European contact complicated land, language and religion. But at least America is a funnier place with white people here.

In "Notes on My Art Work #674," Luna writes, "I am not a healer but can be considered a clown." And clowning has its own healing power; as Luna says humor is "the first step in recovery."
"That's an Indianism, to be able to laugh at ourselves," Luna said, discussing the sharp satire in Shameman. "We are really more alike than we are different." It's the humor in Luna's work that lets the audience get close enough to feel where the painful wounds are between us. 

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Place Poems, II: "Dreaming America" and "Boca de Tijuana"

"What is the literature of Southern California today?" moderator Shadab Hashmi Zeest asked at a recent panel discussion at The Carlsbad Library. 

For me, the roots of literature in this area go back to the stories embedded in the bird songs of indigenous people. You won't find any bird songs in Erle Stanley Gardner's or Raymond Chandler's books. They got the weather into their writing. But if literature is a text that a culture finds significant, then the diversity of SoCal's migratory ebb and flow--especially where birds, animals, fish & plants are included--makes Zeest's question difficult and worth trying to answer. But diversity is difficult enough just in the context of people, so let's start there.

When I was a boy, my grandfather took me to Mission Valley to see the late San Diego Chargers play the then-Cleveland Browns. The crowd was cheering the Browns loudly, and when I asked my grandfather why that was, he just shook his head and said, "There's no such thing as a home field advantage in San Diego." 
Because he attended the same elementary school as my cousins
and because one of his childhood homes 
was on the the street I drive to work, 
Juan Felipe Herrera has always been my poet-elder.

The same holds true of literature. At a bi-national poetry conference in Tijuana, just months before Juan Felipe Herrera was appointed poet laureate of The United States, the audience asked a California State University (CSU) professor about the poetry of Juan Felipe. 
"I don't know who that is," the professor said.
The literary crowd seemed to fidget as one in their seats.
"He's California's poet laureate," someone from the Tijuana home-audience said. 
"I don't care about things like that," the professor said. 
Maybe there is no home-team literature in So Cal.

Another professor from The States leaned over to me and whispered, "I am not impressed."

It was a sober moment. Of course that CSU professor would later bemoan why attendance at his east-coast dominated reading series was poor and why more students avoided majoring in his program. Meanwhile, the vice-president that same CSU invited Juan Felipe to a standing-room-only reading in the college concert hall. The home team, apparently, had become so rare at home, it's an exotic example of "multiculturalism."
Raymond Chandler's cameo in Double Indemnity.

So Cal is the kind of place east-coasters come to get tenure on their way to a job at a liberal arts college in The Midwest. I've heard it called the "scorched earth career path," work like hell in overcrowded classrooms on the way to better job in Iowa, Ohio or some other state with only four letters. Since there's no home field advantage, So Cal lit has a strange rep. Raymond Chandler, for example, was an out-of-towner. Perhaps the most famous California novel written by a Californio is about emigrating here: The Grapes of Wrath.

Roberto Costillo receiving  the Felino Prize.
But there is more to contemporary local literature. Roberto Costillo's friendship with the late Robert Jones has been and enduring story of literary love crossing the border. On the commemoration of Jones' birthday, Costillo sent a poem to el norte to be at a reading in Jones' old neighborhood near University and 30th in San Diego. On the centennial of LoVerne Brown's birthday, the late Steve Kowit--himself a San Diego treasure--gave a lovely overview of her work for the Ocean Beach Historical Society. But what seems to characterize the best-known California poets is that they were from elsewhere. 
Steve Kowit, whose many poems
remain San Diego treasures.

The current poet-laureate, Dana Gioa is the exception. He often introduces himself as being from Hawthorne, home of the Beach Boys, setting for several Quentin Tarrentino movies. And he does have a poem about a Beach Boys song; it might not be Southern California today, but his roots are undeniable. 

For my MFA thesis, I credited storyteller Rocinda Nolasquez as an inspiration. Nolasquez was the oldest living survivor of the removal of the Cupeño tribe from Warner's Springs. While working as a research assistant on the documentary So My Grandchildren Will Know, I had a chance to hear Nolasquez talk. Her stories were an incredible work of survival. She set the standard.

Although Nolasquez didn't write literary theory, I think she would have agreed with N. Scott Momady's "Man Made of Words" in which he said, 
Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind on the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it. He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon it. He ought to imagine the creatures that are there and all the faintest motions in the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of noon and all the colors of the dawn and dusk. (164-5)
Although Momaday wrote most famously about the Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico, his tribe, The Kiowa, traced its origins to what is now Kansas. Once while in Greensberg, I went into the Kiowa County Library to look for Momaday's Pulitzer Prize-winning House Made of Dawn. That branch of the Kiowa County Library had no copies of the most famous novel by a Kiowa. When a tornado destroyed the library along with most of the town a few years later, it was more evidence for the aesthetic of the survival and the oral tradition... in other words, living to tell.

So, here are a couple of place poems I've lived to tell.

Dreaming American

Trying not to be the white ring around the sun,
I circle slowly like a raven over Mt. Soledad
where you sing down the sky.

The man thinks a disguise of beads and weavings,
but I think otherwise, and being like a raven,
I want to call out but have the voice of adobe bricks stacking.

On this morning after a winter storm,
let your eyes follow my turn away from the Pacific,
you'll see the Cuyamcas rise higher than I can fly.

You have a voice that would make a man fall from the sky,
so I try to be a raven to follow your sound
east to Tempe or Albuquerque,
into the desert where you will work your life
like an olla, the mouth pouring
the precious water from the cool, quiet dark
and into the dry light. I would be the man
who waits with the patience of a boulder in
the gold desert light for water to bring
out the flecks of mica in my skin.

One world slams into the other so hard.
I can hear the rumbling from the quarry
and under the river’s surface. In the Next World,
I want your voice to crease this desert where we know
who we are, and a black freeway
hisses east to west, and we love nevertheless.

La Boca de Tijuana  
for Francisco Bustos y Michael Cheno Wickert
Cuando la boca del Rio runs into the ocean,
when it rises onto the delta
and you hear its united tributaries undercut the sets of waves,
when this Tijuana River meets this Pacific Ocean,
its mouth says "I know both sides of the border."

Antes de la lectura en el faro,
caminé a la boca donde las palomas y la migra estan de pie
y caminé a la boca del rio que cruza la frontera,
antes de la línea it made the same music but sang different words.
It said “Gravity is my God and
‘here we are, here we go’ and
we couldn't stop if we wanted to."

There are no roads to la boca.
So I walked and listened before returning to the monument
where I said whatever words with whatever music I carried back,

boca a boca.

Works Cited
Momaday, N. Scott.  "Man Made of Words," The Remembered Earth, ed. Geary Hobson.  University of New Mexico Press, Alberquerque, 1979.


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 Elían 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.