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.