I Speak of the City: David Henderson

David Henderson Reading
Originally uploaded by theiaasdotorg

[Only De Mayor of Harlem could craft a poem that starts in the rain forest of the Congo and bring it back to the Lower East Side. This was the first poem I read when I found a used copy of The Low East at Moe’s Books. The praise that Henderson lavishes on the block is tremendous but only because the poet knows that even a song this powerful is not enough to get the City up on its feet and return love to the people. It takes some deep song to learn to love our alleys and fire escapes as much as we love our skyscrapers and bridges and Henderson delivers that kind of song.]

Song of Devotion to the Forest

                                 after the pygmies
                                  of the ituri forest

this land is my block and my people
we spring from you and we return
and it is to you i sing devotion
you are the source of my life
without you i could not exist
when things go wrong
(and sometimes like now it seems so many
go wrong) is is not because i believe in an evil
an evil that could match the power of you
it is simply because at this moment you are asleep
you would never allow this to happen
sometimes i sing to awaken you
sometimes i sing because i am glad you are awake
sometimes i sing to make sure you stay awake
we people this part of your domain
we love to sing
especially when you sing with us

© David Henderson from The Low East

I Speak of the City: Jai Chakrabarti

Photo courtesy of Peter Dressel

[I’ll be looking out for more blog posts from poet, novelist and good friend Jai Chakrabarti as he details his experiences in Jerusalem at his new blog: www.jaichakrabarti.blogspot.com.

Even in this excerpt from his first blog post, you can see how the City lives in the details. How the Wall not only wails but spreads out and finds new places to spring up throughout the City. How these walls can dissolve to doors if we can find the right key. How a storyteller can provide that key and keep the door open long enough to forget there were ever walls to begin with.]

excerpt from What a Gatekeeper Wants

Since it’s Shabbat, there’s few cars. Even then, Shaadi takes the long quiet road. He carries the heaviness of peace-workers who’ve suffered setbacks, who refuse to quit.

Along the way to Jerusalem / Yerushalayim / Al Quds he points out settlements and Arab villages. Many of the settlements are newly built. Walls spring up on both sides of the road. From one vantage point, the walls are without character, the same peach-white as the stones of the mountains around us. As we rise into the steppes: an occasional glimpse of a soldier at a checkpoint, a powerline, two children in kipas jumping on an old well.

In a few places, Shaadi mentions, the Wall is enlivened. In Ramallah graffiti speaks between stones. At one crossroads, a sliver of Tibetan prayer flags lull. Call.

Even Jerusalem, as we drive through the Old City, recognizes us first through its ramparts, towering fortress walls throughout history destroyed, re-imagined again.

As we come upon Damascus Gate, where a boy is waving a tee shirt for sale—Visit Palestine, Free Palestine it says—I can appreciate what the Gatekeeper whispers in my ear. He wants what I want. He knows I’d rather have my brew hot, but not scalding.

Sutra Dos:
The City will ask you to forget the graves under your house.

In exchange, the Gatekeeper will offer beauty, and why should you not take it, and why should you refuse such human gold as what the City’s memory wills to forget?

© Jai Chakrabarti from A Junkyard in Babylon

I Speak of the City: Ezra Pound

[I’m coming to this poem not as a fan of Ezra Pound or necessarily of Modernism but as a someone who hates the subway.

As a true Citizen, I know the City won’t function without mass transit; you might as well place a tourniquet on the City’s main artery and walk away. But with most things we can’t live without, it’s hard as hell to live with it. The overcrowding, delays, loud conversations, bad music, foul body odor, and that’s just the waiting platform. Once inside the car, you can amp up all the previous annoyance factors and add in claustrophobia and motion sickness to the list.

No wonder Pound remains to stay in the station, focusing her energies not on the train but the people around him. Not static faces, since that would indicate staring–a strict no-no in any City, but the “apparitions” around him. He’s trapped with bodies he will see again and never know, a Modernist’s dream. And where does he take all this, as far as he can away from there back to nature. Depending on the station you frequent, it could be miles up past bedrock or just within reach on an el by a park but distance doesn’t matter in poems. Or in the City if you have a fast enough train, you just have to put all the ugliness and people to the side.]

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

© Ezra Pound

I Speak of the City: Fay Chiang

Fay Chiang
Originally uploaded by geminipoet

[Fay Chiang’s reading at Eth-Noh-Tec last week was some serious city poem goodness. Reading sections from her first book, In the City of Contradictions, Chiang gave some great first-hand account of New York’s Chinatown in the 70s. However, my favorite piece from the book and the reading is not a poem but a journal entry describing the formation of the Basement Writers’ space at 199 Lafayette Street. Chiang was able to secure the space for $800 a month, a hefty chunk of change even by today’s standards, but still had to shell out more monies to make the space usable. A meeting with a handyman by the name of Bimbo Rivas helps Chiang work out a lot more than just the electricity to the place. The story below will tell you the rest in more detail but I love that Bimbo and the father of Nuyorican Poetry, Jorge Brandon, make appearances in this journal entry. Bimbo and Brandon are some key figures in the Nuyorican Movement but it’s hard as hell to find anything written about them especially for a psuedo-historian like myself. So it’s good to find a story that speaks on how crucial they were not just to Nuyo Poetry and the Basement Workshop Writers but also to the history and art of their entire ‘hood.]


getting the electricity hooked up in the loft has been one experience; it
all started by calling chino who told me to get bimbo who hooked me up
with angelo who ook days to reach and days to get up to the loft.

went down to 6th street the other night where bimbo was working with
rabbit, chino, louie and elsie, mixing cement to put cinderblocks into the
building windows Teatro was in the process of buying from the city,
fireproofing it from vandals. back and forth I walked from 6th street to
the stoop on 3rd street where angelo was waiting for the babysitter to
come and watch his two kids. finally by 2:30 a.m., bimbo came instead
to 199 to test out the electrical lines by flashlight, promising to come back
the next day with charlie, his licensed electrician friend to design new
electrical lines.

when we were in the loft, i said: bimbo, it scares me, this space and I told
him what other people had been telling me, that the space was too big,
that I needed people, not space. it was people that moved.

bimbo said: it’s all in the Dream. you’ve got to keep the Dream, honest
and pure and that if that was the focus, then it would work. that it was
going to take sacrifices and a lot of hard work. if you were afraid of
work, then you had nothing to fear and there will be people who will
tell you you are crazy and all kinds of ugly things for all kinds of reasons,
but if you feel that it’s time, then put everything into the Dream,
there’s no holding back. he says: fay, look here you can start some small
industry to pay the rent or have parties. that’s it, we’ll come help you
raise the rent money. what is $800?1 many things will happen.

then i asked him how he had come to be a poet. he said he had gone to
CCNY, got his M.A. working under a fellowship, with 11 years at the
Transit Authority at night and making 20,000, raising a family. But it
was time to put all that aside and to work on his dream for Teatro. he
has heard about jorge brandon, a sign painter who kept a storefront
on pike street and read poetry in the streets, this old man. the two
challenged the other to a duel and tried to outread the other on 6th
street while people threw things at them from windows above to try to
shut them up and they went on for hours till finally it was a draw.

jorge started training bimbo by sitting in a bathtub through two
months of summer while bimbo was working on his and margie’s
apartment. talking about writing, about a vision of theater for the
people, all through the summer he talked and bimbo wrote. then
jorge officially named bimbo a poet and they got a storefront on
6th street. el coco que habla, a prophet, a poet, el teatro ambulante.

bimbo said he came to a decision to quit his job, the security. he sat
down with his family and his older daughters said. yeah, daddy, we’re
behind you. so he says, you know, fay, it comes to 14¢ an hour, but
we have to do it. we have to give it a try. go for broke. and if we make
mistakes, at least we would have tried, learned from it.

walking back to 6th street with bimbo, carrying a pailful of tools for
chino and the work on the building, I told bimbo I felt much better
having talked with him, and he said, you know the way, “they” had it,
we were never meant to meet and here we are!

on 6th street at 4 in the morning, people from teatro ambulante, charas,
4th street i were frying slated fish, pancakes on cinderblocks, warming
hands, bodies from the flames, continuing the work.

I left waling down first avenue beading back to the loft, thinking and
thinking about the Dream of Basement Workshop: an asian american
cultural center with music, dance, pictures, the words to be written,
oral histories and stories to be told and made by little children, youth,
old people, men and women my parents age. working, learning, and
laughing with all kinds of people from many parts of the city, the
country, the world in this part of the universe, this lifetime. there are
too many people too broken down to have dreams and risking dreams
and visions, yet if we don not have the visions, then what is the use of all this,

we must feed the Dream.

© Fay Chiang from In the City of Contradictions

I Speak of the City: Garrett Hongo

under Highway 99
Originally uploaded by
According to O’Brien

[Most of my City memories involve roadtrippin’ with some homies and after hours of repetitive music (think back to the days of casette decks, y’all), bad radio (sometimes all you can pick up is the Gospel station), and getting on each other’s nerves (sometime Mom jaokes go just a little bit too far) finally seeing the highway marker that tells us we’re close. From there it’s a countdown of miles and minutes till the lights of the City come into focus and, at that point, every city is pure possibility.

This Garrett Hongo poem captures all that and more. It’s about bromance and Americana and claiming what you know is yours. And like the long stretch of road that just seems to get longer the closer you approach it, this poem extends the experience, turns arrival into ritual, and does it with such lyricism that you feel that you hit the best part of the mixtape, tuned into the good Soul station, and all you hear is the infectious laughter of jokes amongst boys.]

Cruising 99
for Lawson Fusao Inada and Alan Chong Lau


A Porphyry of Elements

Starting in a long swale between the Sierras
    and the Coast Range,
Starting from ancient tidepools of a Pleistocene sea,
Starting from exposed granite bedrock,
From sandstone and shale, glaciated, river-worn,
    and scuffed by wind,
Tired of the extremes of temperature,
    the weather’s wantonness,
Starting from the survey of a condor’s eye
Cutting circles in the sky over Tehachapi and Tejon,
Starting from lava flow and snow on Shasta,
    a head of white hair,
    a garland of tongue-shaped obsidian,
Starting from the death of the last grizzly,
The final conversion of Tulare County
    to the internal-combustion engine,
Staring from California oak and acorn,
    scrubgrass, rivermist,
    and lupine in the foothills,
From days driving through the outfield clover
    of Modesto in a borrowed Buick,
From nights drinking pitchers of dark
    in the Neon Moon Bar & Grill,
From mornings grabbing a lunchpail, work gloves,
    and a pisspot hat,
From Digger pine and Douglas fir and aspen around Placerville,
From snowmelt streams slithering into the San Joaquin,
From the deltas and levees and floods of the Sacramento,
From fall runs of shad, steelhead, and salmon,
From a gathering of sand, rock, gypsum, clay,
    limestone, water, and tar,
From a need or desire to throw your money away
    in The Big City,
From a melting of history and space in the crucible
    of an oil-stained hand—
Starting from all these, this porphyry of elements,
    this aggregate of experiences
Fused like feldspar and quartz to the azure stone
    of memory and vision,
Starting from all of these and an affectionate eye
    for straight, unending lines,
We hit this old road of Highway Ninety-Nine!


A Samba for Inada

Let’s go camping
Let’s go chanting
Let’s go cruising
Let’s go boozing

Let’s go smoke
Let’s go folk
Let’s go rock
Let’s go bop

Let’s go jazz
Let’s go fast
Let’s go slow
Let’s go blow

Let’s go Latin
Let’s go cattin
Let’s go jiving
Let’s go hiding

Let’s go disco
Let’s go Frisco
Let’s go blues
Let’s go cruise

Let’s go far
Let’s go near
Let’s go camping
Let’s go chanting

Let’s go lazy
Let’s go boozing
Let’s go crazy
Let’s go cruising


Cruising in the Greater Vehicle/A Jam Session

“Well, goddamnit, Lawson! Whyn’t you play in key and keep to the
rhythm? First you say you wanna go back to Fresno, back to the fish store
and Kamaboko Gardens on the West Side, and then you say, forget it, I
take it back, let’s go to the Sacto Bon-Odori instead.”

“Yeah. And this ain’t even shoyu season yet, chump!”

“Awww, hell. What’s wrong with you two? Can’t you improvise? You
know, I’m just laying down a bass, man. Just a rhythm, a scale,
something to jam on, something to change, find our range, something to
get us going. Once we get started, we can work our way around to Weed,
put on some tire chains, or break down in Selma, refuse to buy grapes,
raisins, or Gallo, do a pit-stop at a Sacto sporting goods, pick up some air
mattresses shaped like pearl-diving women, and float all day downriver to
the deltas, sipping Cokes and saké in the summer heat.”

“Shit. Whyn’t you just solo and forget the rest of us? You start chanting
and pretty soon we’re hearing the entire Lotus Sutra.”

“You two Buddhaheads just a pair of one-eyed Japs with dishpan hands
and deadpan minds, man. This is the Champ Chonk talking, and we’re
playing Chinese anaconda. Eight-card, no-peek pak-kai, roll your own,
hi-lo, three for sweep, four for hot-sour soup stud, and neither of you’s
put down your ante yet. So shit or get off the shu-mai, fellas.”

“Calm down and watch the road, Alan.”

“Who’s driving this heap, anyway?”

“I thought you were.”

“I thought Lawson was.”

“Don’t worry. This is a dodo-driven, autopiloted, cruise-controlled, Triple-
A-mapped, Flying-A-gassed, dual-overhead-cam, Super-Sofistifunktified,
Frijole Guacamole, Gardena Guahuanco, Chonk Chalupa Cruiser with
Buddha Bandit Bumpers, Jack!”

“Where we going, Alan?”

“Where do you think? We’re going to Paradise.”

© Garrett Hongo
Complete poem can be found at the Poetry Foundation.