Thursday, December 16, 2010

When Pigs Fall in Love premiere at Café des Artistes

The first reading from the first edition of When Pigs Fall in Love took place last week at Café des Artistes in Fallbrook. Kit-Bacon Gressitt runs a great reading. Kit-Bacon was one of the first editors to publish my fiction.

The short story "My Fear of Snakes" appeared in her publication The Bridge Illustrated. Although I thought about reading it from When Pigs Fall in Love, I instead read "The Lost Tribe of Boston," a fiction based on The Boston Tea Party of 1773. After all, it was nearly 237 years to the day.

The story is told by Gerald Folger, a colonist with nautical experience, who's has been promised a reward if he leads the less seaworthy Sons of Liberty in a raid on a ship loaded with tea in Boston Harbor. The narrator begins to feel self-conscious about being disguised like a Mohawk when he sees in the crowd Ruthie, an indigenous woman his father once kept as an indentured servant:

When the tea leaves again pile so high that they spill back on deck, Gerald Folger kicks them out onto the harbor’s mud flats. Wearing nothing above the waist but a layer of burnt cork over his skin and chicken feathers in his hair, he has been moving fast to stay warm in the cold December daylight, but the tea leaves keep coming as if they grow below decks. So far they’ve hauled over 200 tea chests out of the ship’s hold and emptied them overboard. They’re a tad past halfway through. The leaves are wearing down the party guests. 
The number 200 is accurate. But I was really interested in the relationship between Gerald and Ruthie. Relationships between men and women are often difficult enough when they're the same race.   

I also read "The Long Pass" from Driven into the Shade and "The Cough of Dissipation" and "Men in Trees" from Light in All Directions

Kit-Bacon invited me back for National Poetry Month. Of course I love to perform my poems, but there were moments in "The Lost Tribe of Boston" that eveleoped me in the scene and the feeling was sustained. I had a chance to read "Lovers Lie" a couple of months back at Mt. San Jacinto College and had the same eveloping experience. The challenge with fiction is first to create the emotional intensity and then sustain and counter it, all which is challenge enough without trying to do it within the five minutes allowed in an open reading. But if a writer can't find a story's internal stakes within five minutes, they probably haven't found them yet. Reading fiction has a different feeling from reading poetry.

So the difference between stories and poems as spoken word seems to be that stories are arranged primarily around scenes; poems are organized by lines. I wasn't conscious of the difference. At least for today, I feel as if stories hold me by scenes and poems hold me with images and sometimes the music of a line. 

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Night in D.C.: They Blamed the Ducks

No way could we sleep. My wife, our youngest son & I were in Washington, D.C. for The Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear. Even though it was after midnight, we walked around The Mall, beginning with the rally stage set up so the Congressional Dome could be seen through the arch.

I wanted to visit The Lincoln Memorial at the opposite end of The Mall, because that's where Glenn Beck had made his speech that the U.S. "turn back to God," saying "for too long this country has wandered in darkness." If he had meant torturing bad intelligence out of the mentally ill to send over 5,000 dedicated citizens unnecessary early deaths, I would have agreed. 

But what Beck really meant was that the darkness had fallen 18 months prior when the nation elected a president who, according to Beck, followed Liberation Theology, which Beck attributed to Marxism. It's odd Beck should say that because in The American Indian Museum just off The Mall, Liberation Theology is attributed to a Vatican pronouncement in 1962. Beck opened his rally with prayers and references to God  and then distorted Liberation Theology to drive a wedge between us & them. Beck had The Lincoln Memorial as a platform to distort someone's private spiritual beliefs so a political opponent could be isolated, marginalized and defeated.

What follows are some impressions from that night's walk. I wrote these down after the Poetic Justice Reading at CSUSM on 11/18/10.

They Blamed Ducks
October 2010
After the Rally to Restore Honor and
before the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,
we walked around the WWII Monument,
something looked wrong.
The Lincoln Memorial lit in the dark,
the white marble president luminous behind the columns,
but not as bright as a postcard.
A park ranger explained the Reflecting Pool was drained
because migrating ducks had defecated in it and polluted it.
The memorial, less luminous with less reflection of its light.

Gracefully, Lincoln's words were still on the walls,
The Gettysberg Address & his wartime inauguration,
words to fight, die--and as Liberation Theology would have it--
to shoot back and kill over.
I can't say it was sweet.

Unlit between Lincoln and the Jefferson Memorial,
was the unfinished Martin Luther King Memorial.
How difficult to reconcile King's "Where Do We Go From Here?"
with Glenn Beck's cry to "Take our country back."
How impossible to match Jefferson's "progress of the human mind"
with Beck's "Progressivism is the cancer in America."

In the American Indian Museum, beaded Bibles on one wall,
rifles on the other side,
Liberation Theology defined as the poor's right to shoot back.
All around The Mall, ideas Beck cannot abide with.
He'd blow the fourth floor off the American Indian Museum,
grind the words off the eastern wall of the Jefferson Memorial,
dream a MLK memorial silent on militarism.

In caves and condos around the world, terrorists
dream of blowing away as much of Washington as Beck did
during his rally to restore honor. Both begin by invoking God,
then invoking "great men" and "giants,"
then defining President Obama as an infidel God does not recognize.
Beck, however, got close enough to drop the load he'd been carrying
on the steps of The Lincoln Memorial and
shit flows downhill.

Later, they drained the Reflecting Pool.
They did not blame outsourcing, deregulation,
counter-insurgency training for despots,
pipelines for oil & cocaine,
warterboarding the insane for bad intelligence,
land wars in Asia, deficit spending to do so.

No one blamed Becks' tacit compliance with the above
or his faith of division, his dogma deceit or
his blindness to the person in the president.
They blamed the ducks.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

"Commie Balktalk" as Mask (Every Night Is Halloween, Part V)

I'm not a communist. I'm you.

Believe that? Most voters in Delaware--where early election results show Christine O'Donnell with 39.1% of the vote--seem to want more than that in their political discourse (they also appear to want O'Donnell more than they want the poetic discourse found Light in All Directions).

It was the second part of O'Donnell's infamous ad that gets me. If she is me, then she's got to be a communist because that's what people called me when I objected to Contra Aid. While it was true that Nicaragua nationalized considerable property following the '79 revolution, it would be incorrect to say that Nicaragua had free enterprise prior to that; likewise it would be incorrect that Nicaragua had a communist economy following the revolution. Unlike the truly communist economy in Cuba, the Sandinista-led government maintained a mixed economy. Ironically, it was the investment interest from Japan and other Pacific Rim countries that probably concerned the Reagan Administration in the 80s. Nicaragua's private sector would've accounted for more of the economy had it not been for the Contra War, which drove the Nicaraguan government to go from spending less than 16% on the military in 1981 to 55% in 1988. But perhaps that was the strategy: destroy the Nicaraguan economy through military spending.

Also killed with Linder were
Sergio Hernández and
Pablo Rosales.
In any case, I've been called a communist on several occasions having little bearing on economics and nothing to do with the violent overthrow of my country. One memorable example happened after I published a letter in the Los Angeles Times praising a U.S. engineer who was murdered in Nicaragua by contras who first wounded him with a grenade and then shot him in the head at close range. The engineer was working on a hydroelectric dam at the time. My wife and I received several anonymous phone calls from people who called me a commie, and one even said he'd "get" me on my way home because he knew where I worked and lived. Maybe he became the analyst who later got the intel on WMD. 

And for the record, I'm not a commie. I'm you. Just imagine the following poem as a Halloween mask someone once put on me:

Commie Backtalk

Being the commie you call me,
I’m taking it all back:
Diamond panes of glass for anyone who came to our front door.
I’m taking back Grampy’s rub-downs after football practice.
You don’t believe me? Sit down, let me massage your shoulders.

The glances at Sara Montoya’s house
whenever I rode past. I’m taking them back.
The shine from her brown hair I’d forgotten until just now,
the boulder that Paradise Creek flows under.
I’m taking them back.
Don’t try to stop me.

Every trail Gary Bates and I ever left through the brush,
we’re rolling them up through the middle of homes,
property rights be damned.

The pisses over the canyon ledge every night,
I’m taking back those nocturnal pleasures
to add all together and hit the new casino on the other side.

Being the commie you call me,
I’m giving you everything I love:
the brown mare who carried me safely through childhood, like a mother;
The wedges of lasagna Grammy stacked just the way I liked them.
Everything I’ve taken, I redistribute.

Here, have a couple of notes I took off Jaco backstage at The Roxy
or a couple of rests I stole from Count Basie one night in Montreux.
They lifted them from America,
and God knows where she got them.

U.S. engineer Ben Linder appears in a mural with others devoted to peace & justice.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Morning-After All Saints' Eve (Every Night Is Halloween, Part IV)

There were many more Halloween poems I wanted to post but couldn't because I was too busy traveling to Washington, D.C. for The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear (yes, it was color coded that way on signs.

Now the rally is over and so is Halloween. But the struggle to maintain consciousness and identity continues least it does for me. Being born on Nov. 1 might've made me a pensive kid. One Halloween, I dressed up as Popeye because inside I had a rage to be strong enough to knock out Bluto.

I still occasionally have my Popeye impulses. Let's call them, "Punch Theory": the supposition that it's acceptable to take swings at/satirize/critique someone who abuses his or her power over you. In the case of Popeye, it was okay for him to go after Bluto who valued muscle mass and force over love. Punch Theory says it's okay to punch up but that you should be scorned for punching down. Punch Theory is my variation on Finley Peter Dunne's maxim of journalism: "Comfort the afflicted. Afflict the comfortable."

When I grew up enough to know I couldn't knock out the Blutos of the world, I became a kind of Bluto. In the the case of John Blutarsky, it was the right thing to go out in a blaze of youthful glory because in reality the Deltas would soon become part of the system and begin abusing their positions of power although in reality actor John Belushi went out in an infuriating blaze of youthful excess. The story of Belushi's life was so sad because it outlined the limits of play. Ah, there's some more of that pensive morning-after stuff for those of us lucky enough to have a morning after (Did I mention I turned 50 today?).

So on Halloween, many of us play at death because it feels so good to survive. Others play at identities we wish we had, but even these disguises are temporary deaths of self. Sometimes there's just not enough sugar in the world for me.

Morning After All-Staints’ Eve
How good it is to be alive after the horror of last night,
driving the children around the dark neighborhoods,
glad to see the few pumpkins, brainless but luminous.

I check the treats to make sure they’re wrapped and
wonder if it wasn’t an underemployed dentist who
slipped the first razor-blade into an apple.
Could people who open their doors more dangerous
than those who hide on the live side of their t.v.?

We passed a pack of teens in no costumes, unless
they wanted to show us that horrific moment of transformation when
the mask of childhood slips and reveals the cruel grown-up creature
smoking, sulking, hulking, drunken, humping, thumping after dark.

Now in the morning paper, a victim-bites-vampire headline
about a Cuban spy expelled from The Pentagon.
Watching cartoons, my son still wearing plastic fangs
munches a Snickers that contains no embargoed sugar,
and my daughter, still wearing her diaphanous wings,
flits between us, practicing for the after life.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Every Night Is Halloween, Part III

Here's another poem for Halloween. "Vermont Street" comes from the early part of "Light in All Directions." Stories haunt us, which makes them like ghosts or people who won't go away.

Vermont Street

Our home on Vermont Street—
named after a state I’ve never visited—
my memory of that house belongs to my mother.
Once every two or three years, she asks if I remember
the intruder or the police, have I recovered the memory
of the darkened hallway with a gas heater at one end?

Then the flames go out. On the wooden floor the weight of
someone’s foot, and when the heater lights again,
the silhouette of a man.
From her place on the bed, she almost calls out,
“What are you doing home” because the shadow is
the height and build of her husband in Vegas on business.
She pretends to sleep and prays until it walks toward my room.

I don’t remember the intruder or the policeman
whose gun I asked to see.
I don’t remember that night.
She reminds me the doors were locked from the inside,
reminds me so often that I believe I remember the keyhole.
Only a poltergeist could seep in, she knows.

One July afternoon, lying in the shade between the fence & hedge,
I watched the back door on Vermont Street.
I hid from my parents.
Who else would look for me?
They want to bring me indoors
where they believe I will be safe.
I remember the fence on Vermont Street
and learning to climb it,
what some neighbors call, “trespass.”

Monday, October 25, 2010

Every Night Is Halloween, Part II

In the finest Salem tradition, you know someone's a witch when she denies it.

Trick. No treats on me right now.

My step-brother once had a job colorizing movies. Although he was glad to have the work, he also had qualms about what he was doing. The more he researched It's a Wonderful Life or The Maltese Falcon, the more he wondered if he were doing the right thing. Things that worry us rise in nightmares. On Halloween we share nightmares; usually they're about the monsters within.

In my poem "My Brother's Nightmare" from Light in All Directions, I wrote about our shared fear of colorized movies. It scares me to think some people think John Huston, Frank Capra and Orson Welles didn't know what they were doing. Some directors have theorized that movie audiences lost interest in early hand-painted color movies because they recognized black & white movies from their dreams. A debate continues about what came first: black & white movies or black & white dreams.

One theory says that because color is the interaction of light with pigmentation, and because there is no pigmentation or real light rays in dreams, all but the most personal images appear in gray scale. Even at that, some people never dream in color. Another theory says that people never dreamed in black & white until the movies showed it to them.

Whatever the case, during the 1980s, Ted Turner believed that younger generations wouldn't go for classic movies unless they were in color.

But what about classic movies that were intended to be in black & white? In 1939, The Wizard of Oz used black & white in sepia tones for the Kansas scenes and Technicolor for the Oz sequence. MGM intended the movie to be partially in black & white and the rest in color. In 1995, director Tom DiCillo mixed up dreams, color and black & white in the cult classic Living in Oblivion.

Still, some didn't believe. In 1998, Gus Van Sant made a shot-by-shot color remake of Hitchcock's 1960 classic, Psycho; regardless of the fact that Hitchcock had already made many movies in color such as the classics Rear Window, North by Northwest and Vertigo. The Van Sant's Psycho '98 cost $25 million and grossed less than $22 million. The very next year, The Blair Witch Project, shot largely in black & white for $60,000, grossed more than $140 million during its first year of release, making it dollar-for-dollar one of the most--if not the most--successful cinema investment of all time. There were many contributing factors to the financial success of The Blair Witch Project including a brilliant internet advertising campaign. Another plus was the total misunderstanding of how much deeply black & white cinematography of horror movies resonated with the nightmares of young audiences.

I'll take a nightmare over a daydream because nightmares in all their irrepressible horror are more honest.

I have to say, as much as I liked The Wizard of Oz as a kid, in recent screenings I began to get impatient with Dorothy's decision to go home despite her aunt & uncle's willingness to let Mrs. Gulch destroy Toto. Wasn't the safety of Toto the reason she ran away to begin with? Since nothing has changed at home, isn't going back there unsafe for her dog? Dorothy returns to the scene of the crime not only before the villain is caught but while Mrs. Gulch has the law on her side evil side. Home, the scene of many crimes.

My Brother’s Nightmare

Of old the world on dreaming fed;
gray truth is now her painted toy.

--W.B. Yeats

After Ted Turner laid off my little brother who
color-keyed black & white films,
I consoled him by buying the beers while
silently and with ecstatic guilt I rejoiced for the classic
flashes in the dark that would haunt new generations.

As soon as my brother stopped lamenting, I planned to preach that
Turner’s dream of Charles Foster Kane in Christmas red & green
cost a fortune in imagination, more than any tycoon could truly afford.

The psychological fact that most dreams play in black & white with
no source of light haunts my brother:
from steel and glass, gray sparkles,
and what makes all those shadows?

He, however, tied a rainbow around my eyes,
insisting Bedford Falls was more wonderful with
Mary and George Bailey jitterbugging into a pool of blue
and with Zuzu’s petals in pink extreme close-up.
These colors awakened me not to Pottersville’s squalor but
to Pleasantville’s nightmare of technological firepower and
the smug pigmented engineering of contemporary enlightenment,
present-tense delusion being more dangerous than nostalgia.

“Black is not the only evil color,” my brother said with a wink.
In The Maltese Falcon, I made Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s eyes
the same green as yours for all those pranks you pulled on me.”

I didn’t speak but poured us more amber glasses to see through:
on the bar TV, a general’s khakis had the same tint as my $20 bill.
I closed my evil green eyes while listening to horrifying tales of
the Frankenstein creature tortured with real orange flame
and taking Dorothy home forever to a Kansas
with fields of emerald in spring but still
no escape for Toto when he finally faces Mrs. Gulch and the Sheriff.
Let’s assume the little dog’s blood is red.

Every Night Is Halloween

It’s a scary season. Halloween’s coming. The March to Keep Fear Alive will be Saturday in D.C. and the Tea Party takes its best shot on Election Day.

As I thumbed through Light in All Directions, I realized, this season belongs to me. I have lots of poems about vampires, ghosts and nightmares. Here’s one inspired by several shakedowns while working the late shift in LA during the 1980s:

After Dusk

Oh-no, my mistaken identity.
Police believe they’ve profiled me
but don’t know my vampiric mind.

I rationalized my belief in flesh,
blood and love. Just because
I wear sunglasses and keep to the shade,

left my home one August night
to split open hearts with mine, doesn’t mean
the other creature will break free of my skin.

I never needed a mirror as a mask;
nevertheless, last night I gazed into the police
as they shoved me around the checkpoint.

The jangley cop securely said,
“We know your thirsty kind.”
His constipated sidekick punctuated

with an accident-flare to my sternum.
They so longed for my purple of bruises,
but I fanned my lips and yawned;

they flinched politely when
I said, “Sorry, no spare crimes on me.
I just need a nap and some Novocain.”

With me packing the blood so deep,
they told me to carry on,
but we all knew it was an escape

after dusk. From their dungeons
of reason they let me go
because they could,

and I glided away, above the dusty sidewalk,
both my shoulders brushing the invisible
corridors inside our national castle. (79)

In some ways I got over it after a probe busted 70 LAPD for large scale corruption in the Rampart Scandal. It just so happened that during that time my favorite hamburger stand happened to be at the corner of Beverly & Rampart. In those days, I was often hungry in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I've gotten over my bad attitude somewhat. In my hometown, the deputies have always been fair to me. In the huge beat that Valley Center covers, they have enough real trouble. But sometimes people send the police looking for trouble and they find it. For example, last week as I was driving home from work through Escondido, I saw some people along the road holding signs that said, "Checkpoint Ahead."

Escondido is notorious for a couple of council members riding the popularity of blaming illegal immigration for the state of all things. The council passed laws outlawing the parking of cars on lawns and setting up checkpoints for driver's licenses and insurance because it's believed undocumented immigrants don't have such things. The problem is that while such checkpoints are in operation, they cost more than your average patrol and they net fewer drunk drivers. In other words, police patrolling the entire city costs less and catches more dangerous DUIs than a checkpoint.

I turned off Lincoln onto Ivy and approached the checkpoint from the other direction. The police had set up command in front of the shopping center at Lincoln & Fig. The parking lot was full of tow trucks, generators for the floodlights and trailers.

I noticed a young Euro-American couple standing in the grass beside two car seats and a half-dozen sacks of groceries. They were watching an SUV be pulled onto a tow-truck. I asked if they'd had their car confiscated.

"No," said the man. "It was my brother's."

"They said he wasn't on his brother's insurance," the woman said.

As it turns out, the couple is unemployed and living with the brother's family. No car. No house. And now the impound fee to get their brother's SUV back. But at least they were legal citizens.

When you go looking for trouble, it isn't hard to find.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Light in All Directions at Cafe Cuzco

(August 6 & 7)--Cafe Cuzco has an in-tune piano and a huge flat-screen that plays soccer 24 hours a day. As long as I don't touch the t.v., I can play any song, say any poem, tell any joke. Just don't obscure the black and white ball on the screen that is still rolling somewhere on this planet right now. I think the Peruvians who work at Cafe Cuzco--Dario, Luis, Fernando--like it best when the ball rolls in Peru.

On the second day, I play music for brunch. Cafe Cuzco holds down the corner of the neighborhood at 57th St. and 15th Ave. NW in Seattle. Someone asks for a hymn. Good. I love to play "His Eye Is on the Sparrow." I also cover "What A Friend" by Delirious. It's odd the way the two hymns work together. 'Sparrow' doesn't ignore the danger in the world; 'Friend' is at total peace. If I were to play the second without the first, it would sound complacent, unaware of the grace. I finish up with as funky a version of "Sweet, Sweet Presence of Jesus" as I can manage on the piano.

A table asks if I know any James Taylor on my guitar. Do I know any JT? Last spring I took a ride on the yacht Nirvana, and whenever we anchored, I tried to figure out one of his nautical songs. I make it through "Frozen Man" easily, but "Captain Jim's Drunken Dream" and "Lighthouse" are new to me. At moments, I hang onto the guitar as if it were a branch at the edge of a cliff. I have to breathe and loosen my grip if and music is going to come out. It's good luck that "Lighthouse" is a favorite with one couple and I don't screw the song up too badly.

Once the hymns and covers are out of the way, I play a couple of my songs, including one from my previous book Driven into the Shade:

I've been up with the dawn,
listening to the rivers in my veins.
Lightning in my brain,
playing along to that God song.

It's something I made up one early May-gray morning trying to find a 24-hour Kinko's. "Central Park West" was playing, so I put some words to it:

Fog on the road, from the sea.
Every wave Her blue breath rolling over me.
Heartbeats break on the shore to that God song.

People ask for a CD, but all I have are books. I made a CD with "God Song" on it back in 2006 and put them in 100 copies of Driven into the Shade. I have no idea where they ended up. Time to make a new one. They're not as popular as soccer balls, but I like to think that one of them spins every now and then somewhere in the world. Although in this digital age of iPods, I'm not sure anything spins. The iElectricity gets together with the iData and makes an iHum. How clean. How immaculate. How I miss the conception.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Green Lake Library in Seattle

I'm in Seattle to read at Green Lake Library, which really does look out over a lake. This dry SoCal boy can't stop looking at all the Pacific Northwest's water. It rained the day of my reading, but the temperature was comfortable, so people just walked amongst the raindrops. The gray clouds flattened out the color, making Green Lake gray, nearly matching the sky. It was the little splashes on the surface that made the lake a bit lighter. Light in all directions: down, then up.

I've been playing "Flow Between Storms" on this tour, but at the Green Lake Library, I got to play it in the rain, so the song got ambient percussion to accompany it. Back at Cottage Grove in Vancouver, it was the old wood of Les Clarke's guitar that gave the song something extra; at Green Lake it was the rain. For the musician, there is a release when a song resonates with the song you're playing...or you're resonating with the world. Sound in all directions: inside out or outside in.

I co-featured with cowboy poet Clarke Crouch, who took me back to my early days in Valley Center when horses were still a form of transportation and not just a luxury. Clarke was really talking about the days before me when horses were tools to get work done. I enjoyed listening to him transport us east, to the plains and mountains east of Seattle.

Horses were big in my childhood and make appearances in "Lost Dog," "Suburban Cowboys," "The Reagan Memorial Poem," "Commie Balktalk" and  "Fire Mind." Here's video of "Fire Mind" that Adam Turner shot in SoCal.  
October firestorm rolls west over
the rim of Eden Creek Canyon.
Smoke from hundreds of homes, barns,
photos and lives of twenty-one neighbors
roils in incense of white sage
sacred to tribal people on two reservations
now ablaze, their outlawed spring burns
resurrected brutally in autumn.
Recognizing the ghost of smoke releases me
to accept losing everything so that when
our house emerges after fire, only planks of
patio aflame, I resist calling it “blessing.”

That night, hot spots burn around canyon,
the only lights there until neighbors rebuild—
power lines ignited like fuses,
exploding suburbs in the brush—
and above spot fires, stars
calling back thousands of others, dark insisting.

The day after fire, I walk the rim,
first time in twenty years. Consoling neighbors
I’d never met as they sift ashes over concrete foundations,
I trespass freely to the east,
catch five goats, two pigs, a cat with
burnt paws. I shoot two horses without hooves,
their lungs singed, the blood they breathed
the only moisture within miles. I shoot
into another mind that becomes mine.
The fire: the rifle, and my hand: the bullet.
I follow a trajectory heartless as flames over so many.

Next week at a funeral, people flow through my arms.
I survive to hold them, open my cage of ribs.
Their sobs become my heartbeat, their tears: my blood.
My warmth from pressure of motion,
the same heat Santa Anas raise crossing the Mojave.
The town weeps itself dry while I wonder,
where are my tears of survival?

Each March, I burn brush. The flame at
the matchtip, the shape of an orange tear.
Neighbors watch. Every spring a warning.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Vancouver Art Prompts Questions

Before heading to Seattle, I checked out the Museum of Anthropology at U of BC. Here are a couple of fragmented images from the totem poles by artist Susan Point (Musqueam) who uses new colors with traditional story figures who predate Ancient Greece.

A plaque beside one of Point’s totems says one of the figures holds a “fisher,” which was a healing force with powers neither good nor bad. At that moment I thought about my poems and revision. We want all our poems to be good, but…. Sometimes I feel good while writing a poem, but reading the poem never seems to make audiences feel as good as I did while writing it (“Saturday A.M. Parade”). Sometimes I feel terrible writing a poem, but audiences respond enthusiastically to something in it (“Hymn of Enough”).

Perhaps I misperceive sculpture because it seems so steady. Sure, we can step around a sculpture and admire it from different angles, but its physical presence is grounded. Words seem like a more slippery medium. I find myself letting words into and out of poems all the time. Especially when I try to hold the poem in my memory. Sometimes it’s the sound of the word that slips; often it’s the meaning. I always hope that the poem slips towards The Good, meaning, I hope revisions make the poem more useful, more honest, more of what it needs and what audiences need from it.
As I walked around the Museum of Anthropology, I marveled at how people have appreciated and, nevertheless, revised. Revision is neither good nor bad. With Point’s sculpture, she has used new applications of color to make traditional stories more of what they are. The stories survive as people do.
I also found more artists at work at W2, a big arts & media center in downtown Vancouver. A 30-by-20-foot painting hung on one of the walls. Although flier nearby said the painting focused on “Canada’s dirtiest secret”—the tar sands of Alberta—that secret was tied to all North America. So the tar washing up on the gulf coast is not the only tar to be concerned about. Although the painting was Canadian, a Californio like me could find himself in it.
On the right side of the painting is North America with words like “prostitution” and “drug addiction” painted longitudinally across the Mexico, U.S. and Canada borders. In the Canadian news there’s a story of a double murder in Surrey related to drug smuggling. As terrible as murder is, there is another kind of killing related to our energy consumption. Initially there are plants, animals, birds and fish endangered by habitat destruction. The destruction of humans through pollution happens at a slower pace. On the flip side of the coin, taking or “securing” energy sources in other parts of the world leads to destruction through war and the costs of conducting it. I made this tour (in a Prius) because I want to be a good neighbor and carry poetry across borders, but I know poetry is not a popular product. It is often bad but seldom lethal. It was good to find distant neighbors who raised good questions. See for some answers and more details.

How can we cover our carbon footprints?
How do we divide the impact?
How aware is the poem of the tree its page came from?
How far can we trace the electrical charge that brings you to the lighted pixel at the bottom of this question mark?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

"Flow Between Storms" @ The Cottage Bistro

Forest fires and fog have created a rare air quality alert here in Vancouver, B.C. The news just featured a woman on vacation standing with a barely perceptible island in the hazy background. “I’m from Southern California,” the woman said, “so this is wonderful.”
So Canadians cease cardio-vascular training for the day, and we So-Californios tell them, “Situation better than normal.” Did they have fires to make me feel at home? I swear I didn’t mean to bring them with me. Even in the smoke I could read the inscription on the south side of the Peace Arch, which says, "Children of a Common Mother."
But indoors is not such a bad place to be. I read and played from Light in All Directions at The Cottage Bistro, a blues hang on Main. Les Clarke the host made me feel right at home. He played a Bill Lewis guitar and even offered to let me try it, one of 24 ever made. David Gilmour plays a Lewis on Pink Floyd’s “Money.” Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page also played Lewises, but the luthier Mark Wilson passed away at a young age and the guitars were discontinued.
You could see Les loved this guitar and his work at The Cottage Bistro. Before he opened the night, he told me about some health issues, but when he leaned back with the Lewis during his set and shredded some blues, he changed his state of mind and ours, too.
In this environment, poems like “Hymn of Enough” were well received. It’s interesting to see how easily the blues leads to gospel. A young man named Yonny Vizzala came up after my set and asked about the “spiritual” quality of the poem. “Hymn of Enough” is one part Genesis 9:17, one part Matthew 6:10 and tragically only a fragment of California’s endangered species list. Of course, every poem also strives to be one part Exodus 20:16.
Anyways, Yonny has been in Vancouver for four years from Venezuela, so he mentioned “Men in Trees” being interesting to him. I didn’t really know how a poem about Southern California’s migrant workers would go over in Canada, but Vancouver is a city with many migrant workers (So why are the gates open between Blaine and White Rock? Perhaps the $1-to-$1 exchange rate takes away an economic incentive to go south). Yonny says he wants to go to Los Angeles someday to rock ‘n’ roll, but for now, there’s plenty of that in Vancouver.
At the end of my set, I performed “Flow Between Storms,” which began as a poem, but given its topic of guitars, it fought to become a song. The music revised the poem, so for anyone who wants to contrast the revision to the version in Light in All Directions, here it is:
Two gray clouds drop bronze notes
through the storm behind my eyes.
I’m a tree in this rain,
my fingertips, the leaves.
Songs are seeds of memory
sown into the dust.
The roots dig down and the limbs reach out
to carry the rain to the sun,
yes, rain runs from the roots to the sun.
There’s no drought in my heart while it beats
with the rhythm of waves rolling over the depths of the sea,
waiting for the breaking.
Guitars are seeds exploding across the shell of sky.
The wood grain swirls against the saw opening a hurricane’s eye.
These storms overhead, are they blessing or wrath,
metaphor or subterfuge?
This song that you hear is a fragment of faith
something survives the deluge
between the blues of daylight and the blues of night.
It felt good to be playing that song with Les Clarke’s Lewis made out of African ebony and Honduran mahogany sitting on the stand a few feet away. I thought I’d feel something about my Grampy's being from Canada, but Quebec is too far from the West Coast. Vancouver is more about the Pacific. The place reminded me a bit of Singapore with its shops and clean narrow streets. I didn’t feel like too much of a stranger; though far from home, I wasn’t alone because the blues were there ahead of me.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Light in All Directions on U.S-Canad Border: "Pine Speak"

The narrator in Paul Simon’s “America” walks off to look for it. I drove a Prius. Public transportation is greener, but I’m in hurry. What’s the opposite of “green”? If you’re a tree, I suppose the opposite is brown. Red leaves like the one on the Canadian flag are transitional.
I’m in a red hurry between teaching summer school and starting classes again in two weeks. So I drove off in the Prius to look for “America.” Just outside of Grant’s Pass, I saw a shed in a field with a big sign that said, “Wake Up, America!” Will waking up America end the American Dream? Does someone who shouts, “Wake Up, America!” not participate in the American Dream? Do they have insomnia? Have they been snorting meth? Are they even tired?
No time to find out. I want to find the American Dream in as many permutations as possible, America being a land mass extending from the northern to the southern hemispheres of the world. I think I can fit the North American neighbors of Canada and Mexico into my sleep cycle before the maw of the fall semester swallows me.

I want to carry poems across borders. So tonight, I’ll perform “Men in Trees” and a few other pieces from Light in All Directions in Vancouver, B.C.
Yesterday, I was in California, sitting on Hatchet Falls with my cousin Evan. He asked me what this book is about. Literally, it’s about the sun; metaphorically, it’s about what my last book was about: sons who become fathers. We fuse. We implode. We radiate…at least that’s what the long view of the cycle looks like to me. And the cycle repeats. And it can end on any step.
One of the poems in the book I’ve been thinking about lately is “Pine Speak.” It was a poem I’d written in the voice of a pine tree. Not your usual pine tree with the wind whispering through it. This pine was imbued with my attitude, so it was guilty. The first line goes, “I stand here by the grace of my scars.” I recalled the poem for Evan as looked at the forest around Hatchet Falls where people might not see the place had been burned over unless they looked at the tallest trees in the right way.
I said the whole poem, and Evan said, “I like poems like ‘The Wake of Sam McGee.’ You know, they have that rhythm.”
I took it as a good omen. The next day I would take Lights in All Directions north to Canada while the Northern Lights were going to be visible in the south because of an explosion on the sun. The Americas were moving closer together at turns by nature and by human obsession.
Here’s an early draft of the "Pine Speak." The part about “My wood can burn or rot for all I care” seems in retrospect to be a variation on the fuse—implode—radiate cycle.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Playing a Request: Lost Dog

John Guzlowski asked me to post a sample poem. I tried to post one but couldn't get the breaks to work in html. So here's a link to my poem "Lost Dog."

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Light in All Directions: Wins SDBA

My second full-length book of poems received a San Diego Book Award, so in honor of Light in All Directions, I'm beginning this blog. With the words "all directions" in the title, I have a lot of leeway.

Light in All Directions is my second book of poems from Poetic Matrix Press in Madera, California. Back in 2001, Poetic Matrix had a chapbook contest to which I submitted a manuscript titled "Liquid Monolith," my twist on 2001: A Space Odyssey. The contest was focused on the new millennium. Since I think trauma has an incredible shelf-life, my poems were about how we wouldn't escape the past in the future. Not the festive tome Poetic Matrix Press was looking for.

Still Poetic Matrix gave my chapbook an honorable mention (It would later be published by Oak Grove Press as "River Murmurs"). About a year later, an editor of Poetic Matrix Press called to say that he wanted to publish a book with "duende." Did I have a full manuscript like "Liquid Monolith" and, if so, did I have a better title?

"What's a duende?" I asked.

"It's an earthiness that transcends into the metaphysical, giving rise to a dark music," John Peterson of Poetic Matrix told me. "And there's also a touch the demonic to it."

"Then I'm your man," I said and then sent in Driven into the Shade. Poetic Matrix published the book in 2003 and 100 copies of it included a CD of musical performances of the vocalese poems in the book. Where those CDs went, I don't remember.

Now I'm back with a new book and at least three people beside my mother like it. Any questions? Yes, the man with the beard in the back.

What concord can light have with darkness? What's the relationship between Light in All Directions and Driven into the Shade?

Good question. Very Biblical. The concord of light and darkness is shadow. Aesthetically, shadows represent the ineffable that poetry implies. Driven into the Shade was perhaps a bit more reactive than Light in All Directions. For example, in the poem "Fireworks," the persona is a bit passive in his relationship to fire, whereas in "Fire Mind" from the second book shows someone who's more reactive. I'd like to think the second book is the kind of book someone with a little more experience would write. Yes, the woman with the scowl in the front row.

At key points this book gets political. Don't you think poetry should avoid politics?

Two things, first, if I were dealing with theoretical politics, you're correct. I should just write op-ed columns. But I tried to write about moments when policy intersected with someone's life. Perhaps I pushed the metonomy or allegory at points, but I tried to keep physical contact with the world we live in. Second, politics can't be avoided. To quote the late, great Lucille Clifton, "The decision to go out your front door is political." Yes, last question to the man in the third row wearing the double-breasted pin-striped suit that I wish I had.

The voice in Light in All Directions is inconsistent. In some poems there's a strong narrative and in other poems you leave the reader floating in a dark void and bumping up against random words. Where's the light in that?

Well, the truth is, sometimes there appears to be no light. I know some of the poems in the middle section are difficult, but by the time readers make their way to the "Radiate" section of the book, their poetical eyes will have adjusted to dark so they can see.

Now, I want to thank you all for coming. You're invited to join me for a special reading of Light in All Directions at Winston's Beach Club in Ocean Beach, California, on July 12, 2010. The reading will be hosted by Chris Vannoy of the Drunk Poets' Society. The reading begins at 6 p.m. and there is no cover. Winston's is at 1921 Bacon Street.