I Speak of the City: Pedro Pietri

Puerto Rican Obituary
Originally uploaded
by OBermeo

A few months back Barbara found a near-mint copy of Puerto Rican Obituary at the San Francisco Public Library’s used book bin for $3. To say I was shocked would be an understatement. I held on to the copy for quite a bit of time before bringing it to the counter as if I was waiting for someone to come by and snatch it away.  “Excuse me, sir, the book you’re holding in your hands is much more valuable than three dollars.”

Cuz if that did happen, I would have been forced to agree with them and give back the book. But once I actually paid for it? Different story, broski.

“Excuse me, sir.”

‘No, you excuse yourself, papa.  I know exactly what I got in my hands and you best believe it’s worth more than three bucks but I already paid for it and unless you’re willing to argue the merits of quid-pro-quo in an open market economy in civil court… step off!’

Or I would’ve run like the wind with the book under my arm yelling ‘Catch me if you can’ like a homeboy gingerbread man.

Either way, the book is now in the happy confines of the Sexy Loft Library alongside some other great used book bin finds.  And on days like today, Pietri’s birthday, I can flip through it (gently) and find a great gem of a poem like “Unemployment.”  A poem as true today as it was nearly forty years ago.  The colors, the scenery, the details; all so specific.  No ambiguity.  Nothing coy.  The thing, the idea, the person, the City, the sentiment; all at the forefront so the poem can continue speaking for the poet who saw it all.


he gets on the train
at 125th street
and st nickalaus avenue
white shirt black tie
gray suit shoes shine
new york times help
wanted ads under his arm
his hair is neatly
process his wristwatch
does not function
the diamondless ring
he wears costs five dollars
on the block after
all the stores
close down for the day
on the train he takes
out his wallet & counts
500 imaginary dollars
after 59th street
came 42nd street & 8th avenue
& he gets out the train
& walks to the nearest
vending machine
& deposits a nickel
for a pack of dentine
& stares into the broken mirror
of the vending machine
for the next fifteen minutes
assuring himself
that he is looking good
and then he proceeds
to the employment
agencies and five
hours and three
hot dogs and two
hamburgers one pack
of cigarettes and
one pint of wine later
he is still homeless

© Pedro Pietri
from Puerto RIcan Obituary (Monthly Review Press, 1973)

to Holy Bronx

Originally uploaded by Pro-Zak

I’m getting ready for my feature at Writers with Drinks tonight and I can’t remember the last time I was so nervous for a feature.

If you’ve been to a Writers with Drinks, then you know what I’m talking about. The energy is incredibly kinetic and the caliber of writers is always top notch so I’m feeling some serious pressure on what I should read. I can go with the set that I’ve been used to doing the last couple of readings or go with all new stuff. The way I’m talking about this, you’d think I was doing these same poems for five years or sumthin.

Segue: Watching the National Poetry Slam finals recently through live internet stream was a nice experience cuz even if I didn’t like the poems per se, I do appreciate the spirit of competition. What I didn’t appreciate was the asshattery in the chat room. Way too many internet jerks saying things you know they would never say in real life. But, one comment did crack me up, as a poet came up and did a poem they’ve been doing in competition for a long time, and one of the commentators types “This is their Stairway to Heaven!” And as someone who used to have his own Stairway to Heaven I cracked up. End segue.

Ok, time to really get ready and I do want to try to add at least one really new poem to the mix because I don’t ever want to be that poet that does all the same things at all the same places. Been there, when I was younger, and done with it. I know all the reasons poets do the “hits” all the time but I really don’t care if there is “at least one person” in the room who has never heard that poem before. You know, that poem guaranteed to change lives. What I most care about is that the only way I can write that poem—the one that if I’m extremely lucky might get remembered 100 years from now—is by writing new stuff.

Speaking of new stuff. Here’s the latest revision of a poem I started at Martín Espada’s CantoMundo workshop. There’s at least three good stories behind this poem but that’ll have to wait for latah. See ya at the Make Out Room!

The Neighborhood and Tenant Association of Tremont Avenue, The Bronx, Gather to Erect a Statue for Robert Moses

[Poem was here. Can now be found at CrossBronx.]

I Speak of the City: Lawson Fusao Inada

Originally uploaded by Ric e Ette

Sometimes I forget why I write poems.  Sometimes I think it’s to be able to read out loud, for a little bit of spotlight.  Sometimes I think it’s to be a voice, to be heard in a room I was never supposed to enter.  Sometimes, I think it’s to become a place, to go back and forward in time–imagine the stories of my different homes or reimagine this house around me.

I forget that poetry is really about listening, about listening very intently so when you do reach the rooms you were told you weren’t able to access, you can actually bring back something very intimate and private.  I forget that a voice is nothing if there is no one to hear it and we can only be heard if we take time to listen.  I forget that the only reason I can tell the story of place is because I’ve listened to things like the metal click that goes off inside the base of an intersection light, the way it turns like the second-hand on a clock right before the light changes green.  How that click is much harder than the soft click from when the light turns to yellow.  And that when the lights goes red, everything stops: the clicks, the traffic, the sense of safety and something else takes over.

I’m only just remembering this after I read through this wonderful Inada poem.  If anyone can imagine and reimagine a place in the same line, then it’s Inada.  A true Fresno poet, he is able to inhabit the dust of Fresno’s air–equal parts land and industry–and sculpt that dust into its own place.  Maybe that’s why this particular City poem speaks so much to me because its not about his Fresno but Sacramento.  An entirely different city from Fresno but one that the poet can be see better for having known it from far away.  Maybe that’s why the poet sees things in it no one else can see.  Or it might just be easier to listen from a distance.

The Grand Silos of the Sacramento

From a distance, at night, they seem to be

industries–all lit up but not on the map;

or, in this scientific age, they could be

installations for launching rocket ships–

so solid, and with such security are they…

Ah, but up close, by the light of the day,

we see, not “pads” but actual paddies–

for these are simply silos in ricefields,

structures to hold the harvested grain.

Still, they’re the tallest thing around,

and, by night or day, you’d have to say

they’re ample for what they do: storage.

And, if you amble around from your car,

you can lean up against one in the sun,

feeling warmth on your cheek as you spread

out your arms, holding on to the whole world

around you, to the shores of other lands

where the laborers launched their lives

to arrive and plant and harvest this grain

of history–as you hold and look, look

up, up, up, and whisper: “Grandfather!”

©Lawson Fusao Indada from Drawing the Line: Poems

I Speak of the City: Ernesto Cardenal

Originally uploaded by geminipoet

It doesn’t take long to get from Grand Central Station to 125th on the Metro-North and the brisk elevated run from the heart of Midtown up to Harlem can be real pretty at times. But if you’ve ever hung around Park & E96, what in my recollection of Manhattan was the Mason-Dixon line between the Upper East Side and El Barrio, it goes from pretty to pretty-fucked-up real quick. Again, this is the NYC of the 80s and 90s, right before the ole dilapidated brownstones became fixer uppers and Harlem started getting carved up by the real estate speculators.

Still, I’m thinking the areas around the Metro-North tracks probable haven’t changed much. Walking trough the narrow granite pathways under the tunnels was always an adventure for me. If an unfriendly face popped up on the other side, do you quicken your pace or try to mug a mean face? And if you start hearing more footsteps behind ya, do you look back in fear or just get ready to bolt at the first sound of real trouble?

The closer ya got to 125, past the remnants of the Marqueta of better community times, the worse it would get as seedy motels would start poppin up and the few homes still left around looked like crack dens.

So I’m wondering if times have changed or is it still the way Ernesto Cardenal brilliantly portrays it in this poem? Does so much history happen and wash away in the same second? Do folks still prefer to walk past the scene of the crime and wait to read about it later? Do we let the lights of Midtown wash out what’s right in front of us? And if we stop and look, do we really want to see what’s around us?

It’s always tough asking these “we” questions when I know I won’t be returning to NYC anytime soon but I think about the BART and how its shadow hides so much. Those spots where it’s tunnels find their way back into the ground and how in my rush to get to where I need to be, I seem to be missing out on the real Bay Area.

Star Found Dead on Park Avenue

The bolts of lightning woke me up
like the noise of furniture being moved and rolled across a floor upstairs
and later like millions of radios
or subway trains
or bomber planes
and it seemed that all the thunderbolts in the world
were hitting the lightning rods of the skyscrapers in New York
and they stretched from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to the Times Building
                Speak not to us, Lord. Speak not to us lest we die
from the Woolworth Tower to the Chrysler Building
and the flashes were lighting up the skyscrapers like photographers
                Let Moses speak to us.
                Speak not to us, Lord, lest we die
“He probably died last night around 3 a.m.”
the New York Times later said.
I was awake then. The lightning woke me up.
The sky made starry by apartments and bathrooms
the lights of lawful and illicit love affairs
and of people praying, or robbing a safe right upstairs
or raping a girl as a radio plays full blast
or masturbating, or not being able to sleep
and people getting undressed (and drawing their curtains)
And the noise from the 3rd Avenue El
and the trains that come out of the ground at 125th Street
and go back down again,
a bus stopping and starting at a corner
(in the rain), the scream, perhaps, of a woman in the park,
and the wailing of ambulances in the empty streets
or the red fire engines for all we know speeding to our own address
“…His body was found by Max Hilton, the artist,
who told police he found him on the bathroom floor,
the floor’s pattern pressed into his wet cheek
and he was still clutching a vial of white pills in his hand,
and in the bathroom a radio was playing full blast
no station at all.”

© Ernesto Cardenal
from With Walker in Nicaragua and Other Early Poems, 1949-1954 translated by Jonathan Cohen

A Place of Many Places: The NY Times Looks at Poetic New Jersey

Welcome Sign
Originally uploaded by tom_hoboken

A quick Flickr search for Union City, NJ, pics has me finding more pictures of the Manhattan skyline than of Union City itself. This isn’t unique to Union City, a lot of communities in the Garden State are defined by their access to PATH, the Bridge, and the City (aka New York, NY) then they are by their own merits. The same thing happens out here as I look for pictures of Oaktown and find a lot of pics of what San Francisco (also known out here as the City) looks like from the East Bay.

So why is New Hersee, as the ole skool Latinos call it, in my head this morning? It’s all thanks to a nice article in the New York Times highlighting W.S. Merwin, the 4th poet from N.J. to win the Pulitzer in the last ten years.

The article postulates that population density may be behind Jersey’s poetics. I’d agree and also add that living in the shadow of a larger metropolis–the city behind The City–calls for literature that brings attention away from the center and to the margins. This isn’t a diss on the center because so much poetry can come from viewing the center, seeing the fog roll in on the SF piers or watching the Empire State Building light up in a new color formation, and giving the folks who are so caught up in living in the center a chance to appreciate what they may be taking for granted.

In my own poetics, I wasn’t able to write any Bronx poems while living in the Bx. The first few came when I was a resident of Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, and the majority have come from my home in Oakland. So I appreciate distance when it comes to writing of place.

Distance from the center plus a critical mass of communities, it feels like New Jersey does have the right formula for poetics.

Infinite Poetry, From a Finite Number
Published: May 15, 2009

It’s not much of a yard by the standards of most of America — just a postage stamp of grass behind the house at the corner of Fourth Street and New York Avenue, fenced by chain link and shaded by an unruly maple, here in this densest of cities in this densest of states. But like many things in New Jersey, it turns out to be larger than it looks at first glance.

The eminent poet W. S. Merwin lived at this corner until he was 9, a block away from the Presbyterian church his father pastored. Several years ago, long after he had won his first Pulitzer, his boyhood city honored him with a street sign here: “W. S. Merwin Way,” it reads. Last month, Mr. Merwin won a second Pulitzer prize for poetry — the fourth New Jersey poet to win in the last 10 years, a streak that is unmatched of late by any other state, and one that raises the question of whether it is more than just a happy coincidence.

Full article here.

Props to Author Scoop for pointing me this way.