Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Some recent reading

Here's a hodgepodge of some of what I've been reading during the past three or four months.

The first four are from West End Press:

Refusing Despair: Selected Poems and Journal Writings by Teresa Anderson (published 2008). In spite of the slightly new-age self-help flavor of the title, these are beautiful deeply rooted poems of life near the earth and political commitment. The later part of the book is made up of Anderson's writings that chronicle her battle with cancer, of which she ultimately died a few years ago. "Yet we have been more than survivors; / all the best I will ever be lies rooted in the earth/ where my grandmother sleeps,/ on a prairie swept clean of trees,/ under harsh, cloudless sky,/ where wheat flows in waves/ over the first sod houses,/ and the dust of the dead/ sings under the blade of the plow." (From the poem "Our People.")

Life is a Fatal Disease: Collected Poems 1962-1995 by Paula Gunn Allen (published 1997). Paula Gunn Allen's life and work spanned a broad range of interests and experience; in addition to poetry, she edited several anthologies of Native American literature, edited and authored essays and critical studies, and other writing. Her poems are often roaming narratives that move back and forth between common daily life and astonishing worlds of spirit, sometimes solemnity and sometimes with quirky humor. "Climb the spruce tree and dance on the tip/ climb into the mountain when it opens for you/ follow the winding corridors of winter tales/ enter into the moving paths of shape and time/ on eight-legged horse of blue flame arise:/ they will not send you back./ Know the silence of dust, the ache of alone./ The sun will stop just two feet from your door./ The center of time will not turn in the space/ of now--noon, history, night are/ stars, are fixed and counted nails/ on the doors of hope, the dying bloody dream." (From the poem "Riding the Thunder.")

The Red Window by Marianne Aweagon Broyles (published 2008). Much subtlety and insight in this first book of poems by Broyles; many of the poems have the compelling clarity of snapshots, moments of life held in careful clarity. Broyles works as a psychiatric nurse in Albuquerque, New Mexico. "Then his eyes darken over--/ stars covered by a bank of storm clouds--/ as Philip leaves the moment/ and returns where he lies now. He releases a sigh,/ the same kind of sigh/ exhausted Pintos must have/ let go under his craggy weight./ Now, I smile at his leather boots,/ sticking out of crumpled hospital bedding,/ indicative of his unbroken will./ I sure do love them horses, he declares,/ and closes his eyes so he can/ rejoin the world he knew before." (From the poem "Mohawk Horse Breaker.")

Continental Drift by Arlene Biala (published 1999). Richly interwoven poems full of story and song, particularly out of tradtions from the Phillipines and Hawai'i, telling the lives and worlds of family and friends who have come to live in the United States. The poems have a strong spoken quality, evoking the sense of a solid body, a person speaking, standing right there in the room. "In the middle of the night, walking softly behind Fernando./ Up the path into the mountains. He turns around and whispers,/ soldados--shhh...// In the middle of the night it is the middle of the day in the churchyard/ in San Andres Iztapa, where love letters burn in sacrificial offerings/ and the lighting of different candles: blue for luck, green for money,/ purple for things unexplainable, the scent of need// In the middle of the night, a black sand beach, thundering// In the middle of the night, my face to the rain" (From the poem "In the middle of the night, at the corner.")


Two poetry anthologies have caught my attention recently, both for the similarities in their content and the differences in their approach.

Seeds of Fire: Contemporary Poetry from the Other USA edited by Jon Andersen (Smokestack Books, 2008); and State of the Union: 50 Political Poems edited by Joshua Beckman and Mathew Zapruder (Wave Books, 2008).

Poets featured in Seeds of Fire include Martín Espada, Jayne Cortez, Kimiko Hahn, Jack Hirschman, Robert Edwards, Joy Harjo, Michael Henson, Maggie Jaffe, Bob Holman, Adrian C. Louis, Sara Menefee, E. Ethelbert Miller, Margaret Randall, Adrienne Rich, Alexander Taylor, Grace Paley, William Witherup, John Bradley, Christopher Butters, Luis J. Rodriguez, Nellie Wong, devorah major, Patricia Smith, Rob Whitbeck, John Trudell, Naomi Ayala, Amiri Baraka, Mark Nowak, Leroy V. Quintana, and many others. Many of the poets here have a long history of action and commitment in the public, political life of the world, and the poetry in the anthology reflects that. Seeds of Fire is a stunning gathering of uniformly strong poems, by poets who speak instinctively with relevance and a close-up understanding of the larger struggles with which we move through the days and the years of life on the earth.

Poets in State of the Union include Wang Ping, Edwin Torres, John Ashbery, James Tate, Sesshu Foster, Dara Weir, Brian Turner, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Reginald Shepherd, Alberto Ríos, Juliana Spahr, Eileen Myles, Lucille Clifton, Ed Roberson, Rebecca Wolff, John Yau, Forrest Gander, Brenda Hillman, Michael Palmer, Marvin Bell, Albert Goldbarth, Wanda Coleman, and again many others. I found much highly effective work in this anthology also. Although there are are a few poets in State of the Union whose poetry I've read previously (Foster, Coleman and Turner, among others), and although I recognize the names of many of the poets here, I hadn't read the work of most of them before. (By contrast, with Seeds of Fire, I was very familiar with the poetry of many of the poets, and had previously read at least a little of nearly all of the poets in the collection.)

On the whole, the poetry in State of the Union feels to me to grow out of a more conscious effort to address explicit political content, rather than from an instinctive impulse. This is a very broad generalization, and there are exceptions. Although there are certainly poets in both anthologies who teach or have taught in colleges and universities, I notice that the bio notes in State of the Union tend to list academic credentials more often than in Seeds of Fire. These are subtle differences, and I don't want to diminish the importance of either collection. If I could only read one of the two anthologies, I would certainly read Seeds of Fire; but there is vital poetry in both, and I'm glad I didn't have to choose between them.


Recently in the mail arrived Strip by Jenni Russell (Finishing Line Press, 2008). This is an agile, quick-witted, and sometimes tough-skinned collection of poems, dealing in part with Russell's years dancing in strip clubs and doing other kinds of work in that world, and with her life and family in general. Her poems often read as though she has just started talking, telling whatever she feels moved to tell, without needless ceremony, bringing life from the shadows into the light of day. "Grandma worked odd jobs/ Cleaned the wealthy lady's kitchens/ Sewed real pearl buttons/ On the collars of blouses/ Mended silk slips and washed underwear/ I couldn't sit on her red velvet furniture/ I could't play with her red velvet furniture/ I couldn't play with her dusty walking doll/ I couldn't open the green parakeet's cage/ I couldn't go near the abandoned number 32 bus/ But I smeared blackberry jam on Chatty Patty/ Chucked her on the driver's seat/ Wiped a circle in the dirty glass/ Cracked the folding door so I could hear/ Let's make funny faces in my mirror" (From the poem "Sound of Hangers like Wind Chimes.")

Although she's taken a bit of a break from blogging at the moment, Jenni Russell's blog Chanticleer is here.


Moving Targets by Stephen Kessler (El Leon Literary Arts, 2008) is a collection of essays by a poet who has, over the past two or three decades, edited the poetry magazine Alcatraz and two newspapers (he's presently the editor of the quarterly paper Redwood Coast Review, to which I subscribe). I've always enjoyed Kessler's straightforward approach, free of literary-industrial entanglements; this is evident in the essays in Moving Targets, as he treats variously the work and lives of Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, William Everson, Bob Kaufman, Denise Levertov, Ernesto Cardenal, and the other poets he approaches here. The collection also includes a group of essays dealing more generally with such topics as translating poetry (something Kessler himself has done much of), poetry and radio, and (in an essay from 2003) the notion of a definable antiwar esthetic in poetry.

Stephen Kessler's website, with further information about his life and work, and samples of his writing, is here.


Finally, for the moment -- I wouldn't have guessed I'd be talking about a detective novel here, but here one is: The Man in the Blizzard by Bart Schneider (2008, Three Rivers Press, an imprint of one of the large New York publishing companies).

The novel, which takes place in Minneapolis and St. Paul, features a private investigator and his police detective friend who both have a fondness for poetry, and are constantly quoting (mostly modern) poets to each other. The private investigator, Augie Boyer, busies himself in odd moments with memorizing, a dozen lines at at time, Tom McGrath's epic poem Letter to an Imaginary Friend. The story involves a slowing unfolding assassination plot during the 2008 Republican national convention, which winds its way past right-wing anti-abortion fanatics, Nazi sympathizers who collect rare (stolen) violins, and other complications. The book is written in short sections, and breezes right along; Schneider is good at leaving out the dull parts.

I was actually reading The Man in the Blizzard during the week leading up to the Republican convention here, which gave it (the book, that is) an extra sharp flavor. I had a lot of fun reading it.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


A couple of things

Sharon Doubiago is one of the poets whose work has, for many years, been most important to me, to my conception of how I want to write, and in my thinking about what poetry is and can be. Sharon is, as well, a longtime friend. Though we see each other face to face only at long intervals, when our lives happen to land us in the same city for a few days, we've kept up a long and endlessly enriching conversation, for many years by paper mail, and more recently by e-mail. I can't now imagine my life, and certainly not my life as a poet, without her being part of it.

Cruising around the web this evening I came across a few poems by Sharon Doubiago, in the online literary magazine, Big Bridge. Sharon's poems are here.

Big Bridge has much else in it that is highly worth reading. The main page for their website is here.

If you're not familiar with Sharon Doubiago's poetry, and if (after reading the sample at the above link) you want to go find more of it, a good place to start might be her book Hard Country, published by West End Press originally in 1982, and reprinted a few years ago (and still available) in a new edition. Also, Love on the Streets: Selected and New Poems is forthcoming sometime in the near future from University of Pittsburgh Press. More of her work (poetry, short stories, and other writing) is available if you go looking.


Thirty-five years ago today, September 11, 1973, the U.S. government participated in an act of political and military terrorism against the people and the elected government of Chile. An intelligent succinct account of the events of that time, and the context in broader U.S. foreign policy before and since, can be found in an article from September 2003 by Paul Street in the website of Z magazine, here.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008


The Albuquerque conference (2008)

The Albuquerque Cultural Conference was great again this year. My notes from the past weekend are not as organized as when I wrote about the event last year, so this may be a little scattered in places. The conference took place from Friday Aug. 29 through Monday Sept. 1. It was once again a stunning and deeply memorable experience.

I flew in a day early, on Thursday, and spent the afternoon and evening pretty much laying back and getting acclimated to the altitude. A hot bright desert day, a warm evening. At some point, Thursday night or maybe Friday night, there was a thunderstorm, and the weather cooled quite a bit and was mostly pleasant and breezy the rest of the weekend. (Sixth floor balcony of the hotel, facing west, lightning sparking on the far mountain ridge at sundown. Deep green shadows in the park below. Whisper of traffic on Central Avenue -- the old legendary Route 66 -- and the gradual field of lights going on across the city as night came on.)

Friday evening at South Broadway Cultural Center, a poetry reading by a dozen or more poets: Simon Ortiz, Demetria Martínez, Glenna Luschei, Charles Potts, Hakim Bellamy, Lisa Gill, Maritza Perez, Levi Romero, Jason Yurcic, Margaret Randall, Danny Solis... I'm surely forgetting some. A large auditorium in a modern building. One remarkable poet after another.

Saturday morning walked to Harwood Arts Center, where the rest of the conference took place, an older building, most of the conference took place either in the cafeteria -- a large room with tables and many folding chairs, next to the kitchen -- or in two smaller rooms at the other end of the building. Same as last year, the bulk of the conference was made up of panel discussions, though hardly as stiff and formal as that suggests -- it wasn't in any way an academic conference. The weekend was a gathering of near- and far-flung community.

On Saturday I took part in sessions titled "Creating a Culture: Poets and Artists Face the World," "Culture at Work: Education and Community Service," -- both in the large cafeteria room, passing a hand mike around to each other, which a conference participant (whose name I never caught) kindly brought and set up for us. Calm and reasoned discussions, trading ideas, some people coming in, going out, sampling one event and then another. Much talk about the struggles and successes and frustrations of doing creative work, organizing creative work, in the present political and economic conditions.

Late afternoon, a session on Alternative Media, in one of the smaller rooms (with a large tank of water on a table, in which two turtles incessantly nosed the glass, looking for a way out). Most of the people in this session were journalists, talking about their experiences starting small radical community newspapers, a group of people in Albuquerque who had started up a radio station to offer news and community programming outside of the monotonous orbits of corporate media babble. I found it especially interesting listening to Aaron Glantz, a freelance journalist who had spent time reporting from Iraq during the first couple of years of the current war there.

After a great catered dinner (lime chicken, corn, salad, black beans, corn muffins), another poetry reading by seven or eight poets: Linda Hogan, Joy Harjo, Mary Oishi, Sara Ortiz, Gary Brouwer, myself, and again I'm forgetting people. Another evening of great poetry. Thanks once again to Mavel (whose last name I once again failed to learn) for offering a ride back to my hotel.

At an event of this kind, much of the real value for me is always in the incidental things, the random and vital conversations, fifteen minutes or a half hour, with whoever happens to be sitting at the same table. Hanging out Friday afternoon, having a late lunch, with John Crawford, Fred Whitehead, and Mike Henson. Good quiet conversation Friday evening with Charles Potts before the reading. Talking with journalist Aaron Glantz about his experiences in Iraq on Saturday morning. The constant irrepressible enthusiasm of Jeanetta Mish and Rachel Jackson from Norman, Oklahoma. (Check out Rachel's Red Flag Press, Jeanetta's Mongrel Empire Press, and their joint project the Oklahoma Revelator cultural journal.)

Sunday morning cool and cloudy, slightly more humid than the previous days, it sprinkled very lightly for a few minutes on the walk to Harwood Center. I got there a little early, while waiting for someone to show up and open the door I saw -- first time I've seen one in real life -- a hummingbird, flitting among the branches of a small tree, its tiny green shape almost completely hidden among the pale green leaves.

The Sunday events started a little more slowly than the previous days, people sifting in over the first hour. In the morning I took part in a discussion session titled "Cultural Memory and Survival," which was given over in large part to remembering the lives and work of poets Paula Gunn Allen, Raul Salinas, and Mahmoud Darwish, each of whom died with the past year. Bells rang bright from a church somewhere nearby a couple of times. As the day went on it rained some, for a while.

Lunch was good black bean soup that Pat Smith had stayed up all night preparing, along with leftovers from the Saturday dinner. In the afternoon I attended a session on "The Idea of People's Culture," another of the numerous discussions in the large cafeteria room, passing the hand mike back and forth to whoever was speaking.

Late afternoon were the workshops, classes in Poetry and Social Change (led by poet Mike Henson); The Founding of El Corno Emplumado, led by Margaret Randall, one of the literary magazine's founders and editors; and Resilience: Where the Personal is Political, led by John Crawford (publisher of West End Press, and one of the principal organizers of the conference) and writer Mandy Gardner. I attended this last session, which was small (one other participant besides myself and John and Mandy) though we had good talk, gathered informally at one of the tables in the cafeteria.

And then Sunday, early evening, a riveting (the word hardly says it) talk by Shigeko Sasamori, who described -- with obvious emotion and fearless accurate detail -- her experience of having survived, at the age of 13, the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.

She talked for an hour. She took questions from the people in the room. It moved me far beyond any thought or words. I'm still beyond thought or words, saying this. A little north of Albuquerque is Los Alamos, where the first atomic bomb was developed. In the desert of New Mexico the first bomb was tested. While she talked, two young children ran back and forth in the room, giggling and laughing, playing together, at first -- it felt to me -- almost bizarrely incongruous with the solemnity and tension of what Shigeko was saying, though at the same time absolutely in keeping with the moment, as she told of how her life was changed beyond all imagining on a random morning of her childhood. Toward the end of her talk she spoke gently to the children, invited them up front to stand with her a moment. As she talked about the unthinkable madness of continuing to make weapons that could bring an end to all life.

We took a short break. I could barely walk.

One more poetry reading then, Sunday evening, more great poets: Marianne Broyles, Mike Henson, Jeanetta Mish, Charles Potts, Fred Whitehead, and again I'm forgetting people, or maybe remembering some people from the wrong night. And some great music, a man and woman whose names I unfortunately didn't catch, playing and singing a corrida and a song set to words by poet Roque Dalton; and music by Dair Obenshain and Mike Henson. Someplace during the reading, fireworks began booming from somewhere in the city.

Walked back to the hotel, ten or twelve blocks, in the cooling night. I flew back on Monday, so missed the closing plenary session Monday morning.

Same as last year, if the festival happens again next year (and I hope so) I already want to go again.

There were also book tables set up at the conference. In another blogpost shortly, I'll talk about a few of the items I found and brought back with me.


During the weekend, news filtered through from Minneapolis and St. Paul about the pre-emptive police raids and arrests of protesters, and potential protesters, and whoever happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, in advance of the Republican convention in St. Paul. Arrests and clashes with police are continuing each day.

Some good sources for news of the most recent events are Twin Cities Indymedia, Twin Cities Daily Planet, and Democracy Now! I urge you to check out the sites, and search further, and find out what's happening here.

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