Thursday, May 20, 2021

See You Later, Poet-Sister: Abiding with minerva Gail Hawkins

For about 28 years, I worked with minerva, but it wasn't all work. There was the Stanley Clarke show at The Belly Up Tavern, sitting up nights at her church in North Park when it opened as homeless shelter, and watching her zip-line at the Safari Park. She loved teaching her students and passing along what she'd learned as a girl in Philadelphia, which she always called Philly, and I will, too, in loving memory of her. 

One time, the poet Terry Hertzler, my son Jesse and I were helping minerva move in San Diego (I think it was from  7th to 32nd Street). Jesse called me, "Pappy," and minerva picked it up.

l-r: minerva, Brandon Cesmat, Gabriela Anaya
ValdepeƱa, Lisa Stouder and John Oliver Simon
at a CPITS workshop at Casa Familiar in SanYsidro.

As most of those who knew her as minerva, we also knew she used the lower-case m out of deference to the goddess Minerva. Consequently, she acquired the nickname "minnie," which some of us in her extended family call her, even now. 

And minnie had a lot of extended family. minnie had lost her mother and father when she was young. Soon after her mother passed, her father told her to go to her fellowship in Italy. He died soon thereafter. He did not tell minnie that he was terminally ill; he sent her away with his blessing. She mourned in Italy while continuing with the education that so mattered to her father. minnie felt her sister Patsy never forgave her. After returning from Rome, minnie followed her niece  & nephews lives, first from Washington D.C. and Baltimore, then San Diego, then Burbank.

When The Victory Theater took proposals on the theme of "The Kids Are All Right," minnie's was selected. In her poems, Charlie Mingus watches out for her, perhaps a bit like a father; the jazz drummer Roberta Morrison becomes part of minnie's family in "Mother Downbeat." Between the two poems, listen to some backstory minnie wrote for television series. minnie asked me to help her work on her story about about Natalie Ebony, a young woman who had just graduated from the University of Massachusetts and is taking her on play to workshop in New York, but on the way she gets held up in Philadelphia with her grandmother. 

I loved writing with her. She wanted me to help with pace and plot-points. She had all the characters and a grasp of settings. Here's a monolog she wrote as a way of developing both character and as a way of closing the distance with her grandmother:


minnie & I met around 1993 as poet-teachers in California Poets in the Schools. Our professional relationship grew as we critiqued each other's poems and eventually trusted one another enough to collaborate on screenplays.  

minnie in one of the books she edited for
National Geographic.
In the video above, minnie reads in the voice of Grammommy Sis, a woman much like her own grandmother who became a force in minnie's life after her parents passed while she was in college. Although minnie's own grandmother had been part of "The Talented Tenth," Philadelphia's version of The Harlem Renaissance, the two clashed, perhaps because they were alike. With her MA in anthropology in hand, minnie was on her way to Washington D.C. to work for National Geographic.
 In her screenplay Those Ebony Girls, Natalie is on her way to New York to workshop her drama thesis. At a stop in Phillie, as Natalie calls it, her grandmother and sister discourage her from going, and when a broken leg delays the move to New York, only Grammommy Sis' friend Aunt Gal gives Natalie secret encouragement. 

In the first draft of the Those Ebony Girls, Aunt Gal was a real aunt, but one day minnie told me that she'd learned that although her grandmother and the real Aunt Gal lived together as sisters, they were not. 

"What do you think about that?" I asked.

"There might be something there," she said, "because my grandmother asked me about my roommate, like there was something between us. Do you think she was talking about herself?"

"Could be," I said. "The good thing about writing fiction, though, is that it doesn't matter whether there was or not. It would be a good way to understand a character other than Natalie. In fact," I told her, "it's more suspense in the plot if Natalie doesn't know." 

There is one other element of Those Ebony Girls that stands out to me. Besides prolonged time with her grandmother and sister, Natalie comes to depend on the doorman to her grandmother's apartment. There is a romantic spark between the two characters, but the distance in social classes was something that set up a longing. It seemed to me that with her sister's cajoling, Natalie would finally tell the doorman how she really felt about him. 

Marshal Allen and minerva
We talked about several possibilities for the relationship. Coming up with funny trouble can be troubling. Isn't that funny?

While her poem "Requiem for a Nubian Jazz Bass King" speaks to what Mr. Charles Mingus meant to
her, minerva's album with jazz bassist Rob Thoreson is worth the listen. minnie played the flute, grew up in a neighborhood where she could hear Sun Ra practice, took flute lessons from Marshall Allen, who made her weird woodwind-&-stringed instrument. It was the music of her voice that often set minerva's poetry readings apart. She took every line as it came. It was in "The Church of What's Happening Now," not the overlay descending pitch, line endings arbitrarily broken.

The instrument Allen made for
 minerva, with sheet music.
minnie mentions loneliness in several of her poems. She longed for her family, frequently wishing she was well enough to travel to see a nephew in the hospital. But simply traveling form Burbank to San Diego took a toll on her health. She took time to build up her strength for readings, and she needed time to recuperate. She'd had multiple surgeries and had to go through rehabilitation to learn to walk again. 

Consequently, she believed in the initiative Focus on Ability, which strove to let disabled people tell their own stories. You can see that part of Natalie's story beginning to emerge in Grammommy's monolog. 

At minnie's celebration of life, one of her old friends told how minnie had confided that she struggled with depression and said that it was part of being a writer and facing things most people look away from. I loved to hear minnie laugh. I love the part where she breaks up the audience with the Grammommy's line, "Don't writers want to be alone anyway?" 

Oh Grammommy, if you only knew, and minnie always prayed that one day she could tell you herself, that she wanted a family world with all of us in it. So here the three of us are, four if we count the reader, and I'd like to take this moment to thank you for my poet-sister who changed the way I teach, the way I write and even the way I walk down city streets. The distance between Phillie and VC is vast, but it isn't so big a distance that someone couldn't write from here to there. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Dandelion WineDandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The word nostalgia is often used to put a disparaging end to something that won’t be forgotten.

After Terry Hertzler died, Patrick Heffernan and I were clearing out a storage locker full of Terry’s books. Terry loved a lot of literature, but especially loved speculative fiction, so he’d spent a lot of good time at Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore, talking with Patrick.

I didn’t know Patrick well, but Terry always spoke fondly of his knowledge of books; so when in the sad silence of all Terry’s books, Patrick turned and handed me Dandelion Wine and said, “Here, read this,” it was the kindest thing anyone ever did for me during our mourning.

In Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury ends The Summer of 1928 by letting it pass from memory into dream.

It's a book for mourning. The two chapters with Mr. Jonas are stellar, divine. Then there is the revival by imagination, the holy fictional breath. After a chapter about a great grandmother lying down to die, Bradbury follows with a chapter of Douglas contemplating his own mortality (while I think Terry contemplating death at 19). The book becomes about the reader. Everyone will sing a song of enough death, of enough life, but the music will move to a new movement. The conductor has provided an arrangement. I sing my part, bow, move into the wings, listen for a while there, then listen for a while outside.

Dandelion Wine is poetic novel with its POV shifts within and across chapters. Even if it isn’t fair to Bradbury's narrative, it encourages comparisons outside the text. Miss Loomis asks William Forrester, “Between ourselves, we old ones wink at each other and smile, saying how do you like my mask, my act, my certainty?” (142). My favorite passage, perhaps the one that makes me think of Terry Hertzler is the chapter Douglas on playing statues with his best friend John Huff who’s moving away (111). Terry moved away. I remember watching Mystic River with him in Clairemont, how the story hit us. We didn’t always agree, but that one resonated with us. The details of history split us.

As for technique, Dandelion Wine is solid but not rigid. In one particularly well-structured chapter, (view spoiler)(96). Col. Freeleigh’s time machine transports reliably but not necessarily accurately (87).

So now that a year has passed, I’m beginning a new phase of mourning: reading Bradbury as a way of being near Terry. I remember we’d gone to hear Billy Collins read at the Downtown Library in L.A. “Did you know Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in the basement?” Terry asked. I didn’t. We were in a shrine of the closest thing to Terry’s religion.

During our time, Terry and I had made multiple road trips from San Diego to LA or San Francisco for books. Terry loved them, but he especially loved books signed by authors. He had no doubt books were an intimate touch that only became deeper if you got to hear the author’s voice in person and get the signature proving the book wasn’t some mass-produced bauble but bound thing with evidence of a human touch. If you didn’t believe that, a forensic expert could lift a fingerprint from beside the signature.



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Monday, October 19, 2020

LoVerne Brown’s Garment for a Long Journey


LoVerne Brown’s The View from the End of the Pier is one of the best books to come out of San Diego. Bringing it back into print in Garment for a Long Journey: The Collected Poems of LoVerne Brown along with Brown’s other books and unpublished work makes the book a major event for poetry.

While “Meeting of the Mavericks” might be her most famous poem (immortalized in The Maverick Poets, edited by Steve Kowit in 1988), her “Wild Geese” has become my touchstone for loss: “the perfect rose came perfectly apart,/tossing its petals into a spiraling wind.” The perfection in Brown’s poem is not just her euphony, but her ability to compress language and still get her arms around the multifaceted nature of a person or event. As with so many of Brown’s poems, the narrative has verisimilitude (When Brown’s husband died of a heart attack in 1952, Brown became a single parent long before women had the civil law protections against discrimination at work or in housing). 

“The Rapist’s Child,” on the other hand, is a long narrative poem that gives compulsory pregnancy the long, concrete look that the topic seldom gets. When we think of Brown whose life spanned 1912-2000, we get a pre-Roe-v.-Wade perspective. “There was no way to tell you,” the narrator says, nevertheless telling her husband. “It was all locked up in my head....” Poetry is not always a key in these poems. “The Rapist’s Child” ends with an honest lie, honest because it clearly delineates the limits of love.

Brown's love of poets comes through in the number of poems addressed to other poets. Many of them, such as "The Life of a Minor Poet," were sprinkled throughout her earlier books, but Garment for a Long Journey introduces a new section titled "Poems About Poets and Poetry" that shows Brown's practice of using the writing form for the people who appreciated it. One particularly beautiful new poem is "For Wanda Coleman." Although Coleman is often thought of as an LA poet, Coleman read in San Diego frequently, perhaps because her in-laws Franklin and Roselyn Strauss ran the Poets' Circle in Ocean Beach, which Brown was a member. "Some books bleed /when hands touch them," Brown writes. While she is writing of Coleman, she might as well be writing of her own books.

Even on this quiet shelf

I see them throbbing.


blood pools, thickens,

spills heavy as summer rain


on the books below--

those other offerings 

     pale

     anemic

so needing this transfusion 

that comes too late--

I should have bought you

      sooner.

What Brown thought Coleman's poetry might have brought to hers remains unstated. Both poets wrote with an edge. Without doubt, poetry flowed through Brown. 

New sections include poems for her family and humorous poems, poetry of everyday use. Her wit cut fast and clean, as in "Modesty Is Where You Find It":

Our theater's gone porno;

the window shows a crowd

of topless girls. The sign below

reads, "No bare feet allowed."

At some point, a book about Brown's life as a working widow needs to be written. Despite her long career with the City of San Diego, Brown came from that generation who lived when a single-women were denied home loans, yet she never used her poetry to attack this personal injustice. Instead, she takes on the larger system in poems like "Shell Games," a devastating poem about the devastation wrought by the status quo. The poem focuses on a father, Chandler, nothing like Brown, but her empathy for him in the scope of his life compressed into the poem is a mark of her poetry. "Shell Games," is one of the many poems in the book that "bleeds."

One of the new poems, "The Runner" maintains that empathy to the edge of her own life. The poem tells of an encounter with an old friend who has lost her mind. I once asked Brown if she'd seen Roselyn Strauss. She and her husband Franklin Strauss ran the OB Poets' Circle, which had been the energetic core that spun off Kowit, Terry Hertzler, Jesus Papoleto Melendez and Brown herself. Brown said that although Strauss still walked around OB, she was "gone" in her mind. Strauss had lost poetry. "The Runner" sounds like Brown's attempt to reach Strauss and bring her readers as close to edge as possible. The thought of a poet writing "The Runner" so late in life is daunting but, nevertheless, an excellent example of how long a journey Brown was willing to make. 

Garment for a Long Journey is a book that shows if you write away from yourself, you can't help but take yourself farther than life allows.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Whispers in the Background: I Read Djuana Barnes and Remember Seymour Cassel

Listen to this chain of thought clank: I picked up an anthology of cinema essays and read Djuana Barnes interview with John Bunny on the contrast of acting in live theater to acting in movies. I choose the interview because of an off-hand line about Barnes' dancing in Midnight in Paris. I become interested in John Bunny, a silent-movie actor I've never seen. Notice how all those sentences start with “I” and links me to the deceased (The anthology was edited by Roger Ebert).

I was an extra in a movie called Cosmic Radio. I did a party scene with Irene Bedard and Seymour Cassel. Bedard’s character was having an argument with her love-interest in the foreground while Cassel’s character mingled with guests in the background. I played one of the guests along with my mom.

A four of us were given blocking to move on a tracking shot, but on the fourth take the director called cut. “That’s the wrong blocking.”

The extras looked at each other as if asking how all of us missed the new blocking.

“That’s the wrong blocking,” the assistant director echoed. “We cut it after the last take.” Whether the director had told the A.D. to cut the move and he forgot to tell us or whether the director had just made that decision and the A.D. was covering for him, we would never know, we just moved to our second mark and prepared to emote casual cocktails.

Once the shot started, Seymour Cassel came up to where we were mouthing conversation and he asked soto voces, “Isn’t this the worst movie you’ve ever been in?”

“It’s the only movie I’ve ever been in,” my mother murmured.

“You’re in luck,” Cassel whispered back, “your career can’t anywhere but up from here,” and as he made one of the extras snort a laugh, he moved off to liven up another cluster of human scenery.

At first I thought Cassel was upset about being used as part of the scenery. While the drinks in our hands were fake, he was pulling real beers from an ice bucket. “Don’t you wish you had one of these?” he asked me on the next take, lifting his bottle to mine. But looking back on it, his joking made the party more like a party.

I don’t know if Bedard felt the same way. Her character was frustrated, and between takes she stayed in character. Although Wes Studi wasn't in the scene, he was in the movie. He stood outside the shot, observing something, maybe Cassel’s clowning. Maybe something was going wrong on the movie. Somewhere around the seventh or eighth take, Cassel disappeared. Maybe his six-pack ran out.
Gena Rowlands and Seymour Cassel in Minnie and Moskowitz.

But I still remember him from Minnie and Moskowitz, a movie that shocked me when I was a teenage boy. Having been raised on “wholesome” movies, I was amazed I felt compassion for such a transgressive character. I would come to associate Cassel with director John Cassavetes whose aesthetic had no pretense to glamour. I’d spend decades trying to figure out such characters.

But I’ve never seen Cosmic Radio. The scene lives in my memory; I used words to incept it into yours, which is what Barnes did with John Bunny, an actor I’d never seen, and who had no dialog to incept himself into my mind.
John Bunny had the clown's rubber face that worked in medium-shot.

I'd never really seen Barnes, either, although I'd seen an actor playing her in Midnight in Paris. The real Barnes had watched Bunny, spent an afternoon listening to the silent film star, transcribed his words and embedded them in hers. Through her writing he breaks his silence. It's a great profile.

Then, Woody Allen wrote her into Midnight in Paris' dialog, so I picked her essay out of Ebert's massive collection. It was such a random process, but it defied death. Barnes listened to the funny man be serious. Bunny was going to die a month later. Writing and photography are part of the resistance. The camera loved Bunny. Not everyone could flow from the music hall stage, through the lens and onto the celluloid, but Bunny could.

"Wait," Gil exclaims in Midnight in Paris. "That was Djuna Barnes?"

And Barnes had the gumption to write down his words.

So while reading her essay, I thought of Cassel whispering in the background of the shot. I thought of all the whispers that ended up more memorable than the movie's dialog and remembered the late Seymour Cassel.


Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Make Use of Us

I just read a heavily foot-noted blog post on theory, and have the strong urge to bill the author. Or maybe I should bill my colleague who recommended the blog. Yes, as the post suggests, life can be ambiguous. Some ambiguity comes from shifting cultural barriers, some of it from changing vantage points. Yup. Got it.

Some of it comes from writing something so opaque that when people got to a passage like the following quote, they didn't notice the typo: 
What distinguishes images (including motion pictures) from language and from other modes of communication is the fact that images reproduce many of the informational cues that people make us of in their perception of physical and social reality.
Or maybe I'm the first person to ever read that far. Yes, many of "us" have been made constructs, and many of "us" have been made to see something, but if we have resistant spectators, aren't social realities up for debate? 

My point here is that although spellchecker did not differentiate between "make us" and "make use," the ultimate theory passive that the typo offered at least one point with some immediacy. 


In a moment of despair, Solomon Northrup appears to look directly into the lens, as if looking through and past production to the audience, challenging us.

I think it's great that Christian Metz theorized about a gaze beyond a particular character's, but John Gradner's modulation of psychic distance already had writers on notice. Gardner's writings on fiction technique are the smoking gun. But "the author's dead," and ballistics can't match the bullet in his brain to the semi-auto fire on screen or in theory.

But who am I to dis a colleague who landed on the wrong side of auto-correct's double-edged tech? If you've read my blog, you know syntax will occasionally suffer friendly fire.

So I wanted to say three things, not because there are only three to say, but because three is an easy number to start with after melting one's brains in a vat of semiotics:

1) Although people are more important than movies, people can use movies to give a sense of their lives; nevertheless, curve back around in person whenever possible to check out the verisimilitude of a movie, book, radio report, corrido, etc.
2) Beside noticing the gaze and asking whom it belongs to, be honest when it approximates your perspective and be just as honest when you have to resist it (Diawara).
3) Keep track of the diegetic shifts. Sometimes they will bring you far from yourself; when that happens, make a note to circle around and listen to The Other (person). Does ze confirm & reject a movie's details. Rinse & repeat.

In short: distinguish cues that make people us from those not-us. And spellchecker can be an evil genius.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

A Poem from minerva for Day 24 of Poetry Month 2019

Gail "minerva" Hawkins 4/12/19
For Day 24 of Poetry Month, we have a new poem from Gail "minerva" Hawkins.

minerva read "Friendly Fire Forgiving Spirits" at the San Diego Art Institute earlier this poetry-month. The first Patsy mentioned in the poem was the wife of Joe Milosch with whom minerva taught in California Poets in the Schools (CPITS). The second Patsy was minerva's sister.

After long careers as a researcher and then as a poet teacher, minerva has turned to television writing. Her series is called "Those Ebony Girls," and is a comedy about a black family in 1970s Philadelphia, the matriarch being a member of the 30's intelligentsia and her granddaughter being a new post-graduate who has come to the edges of answers that don't match the new questions.

The story also includes the post-grad's sister, not unlike the one mentioned in the poem below. "Friendly Fire Forgiving Spirits" is the voice of a woman writing her way through life's Act III, paying attention and respect.

Gail "minerva" Hawkins will perform at The Victory Theater on May 19 as part of Backstory's "The Kids Are Alright" reading at 7 p.m. The Victory Theater is located at 3326 Victory Boulevard in Burbank, California.

Friendly Fire Forgiving Spirits
--for Patsy's husband Joe and for my late sister Patricia

Burning bright years after their friendly fires
Were said to have gone out forever
Patsy and Patsy passed away from a same-named illness.
Cancer separated them from their loved ones.

Spirits times two. Linked bright eternal.
Both help me fight fire with fire each God-given day
Like the outdoor California nature job of a wife named Patsy
And the cold indoor bookkeeper’s bed-for-a-desk of my sister Patricia.

The Patsys worked for years and retired with accumulated ER visits and sick days.
Laughter-laced warm conversations roamed their sick rooms from time to time
Answered by friends’ slips of tongues and lips outside hospital doors, metal and shivering
Conversations after ablaze, thundering with thoughts of what likely comes next.

I’m alone again and again; gone are a friend, my mother-sister and yet another sibling-sister!
California husband Joe, me and the rest of us went down a few pegs when they all passed.
Poet Joe was back, I know, when he translated the alphabet, letter by letter
Each page a poetic matrix of poems by himself, on his own with his wife for life.

Our Patsys were Frida Kahlo spirits of female forests.
They climbed Mount Everest like broken-bodied super hikers
Crossing a summit of earthly chasms between fullness of life and wholeness of pain
Morphed into a crescent moon of death, a cradle for a comfortable departure.

Thank you Patsy and Patsy for allowing me to be human, right, and wrong.
To be one’s sister and the other’s friend, and forgiving me when I was neither.
My sister Patricia leaves off. The other Patsy remains in her husband’s care.
Friendly fires extinguished. Bright smoke wafting.  

Monday, April 22, 2019

Lori Davis "The Same Story Without the Weapon" from White Dime

For Day 23 of Poetry Month, here's a poem from Lori Davis' book White Dime. 

When it came out, White Dime was one of my hard-edged favorites for a hard-edged year.  The poem "Caring for Your Spider Plant" was a classic about the toxic romanticism of parenting. The epigraph about Andrea Yates, who drowned her five children, sets the context for a culture with policies that burdens future generations with environmental disaster, a huge national debt and multilateral destruction as a cultural values. Well worth the read if you can find a copy.

Davis has a dark sense of humor in some of her best poems like "How To Relax While Making Love" or  "The Same Story Without the Weapon" from White Dime

Pretend for the moment there is no knife in his hand.
This way you won't worry when he compliments
her necklace or suggests they go walking together, 
down a stairway, into an alcove she can't see into.
Even if without the knife, he gets right to the point.
Holds out his fist, as if to appropriate something. 
He tells her to take off her pants. Is he kidding?
She never learned alleys are like rickety bridges.
She giggles and says no. but senses something 
mandatory about this man. He takes his words
and pushes them up against the pale of her neck.
From a distance, they look like two old friends, 
reuniting, but if you stood closer you'd hear him
hiss quiet bitch in her ear. No, she says. Period.
That she has her period. And like so many men, 
he believes her, immediately. She wonders why
he hasn't leaned how to hug without crushing
a girl's toes or how to look a woman in the eye 
without liquefying her insides. Ok, let's pretend
for a moment, the knife has been here all along.
Unforgiving and lethal. This time it's in her hand.