I Speak of the City: Adelia Najarro

[One of my favorite poems from last week’s The Wind Shifts reading–full report can be found at my guest post at Letras Latinas–was Adelia Najarro’s exploration of San Francisco. SF is a gorgeous, complicated city that even after three years of living here still makes me gasp and pause at its beauty (a recent visit to a friend’s home in the Sunset District with a view of Golden Gate Park, Ocean Beach and the sun setting down over the Pacific had me feeling like a five year old looking at a ferris wheel for the first time) while still befuddling me over its contradictions (the number of homeless out in the streets still wigs me out and the Mission blends from hipster glory to ole skool fam real quicks). I’ve also been lucky enough to visit parts of the city that don’t make it to most tourist maps, the spaces in-between destinations that way too many folks gloss over. Najarro’s poem brings me into those places and takes the time to look around and enjoy the view. It’s a call to take pause in the hectic city that I’ll be thinking about more the next time I’m rushing around.]

San Francisco

My great-grandmother taught my mother to read using chalk
and a black slate in León where adobe brick
buildings are white-washed Spaniards

and history. We brought with us red and blue macaws, panthers,
and crocodiles. Tooling up and down
Dolores Street hills, my Papi rode

a bicycle delivering Lela’s nacatamales. Back and forth
from a clock tower at the end of Market Street,
a renovated 1919 streetcar,

transplanted from Milan, works tourist dollars. Advertisements
from the late sixties posted behind
True View Plexi-glass. I can’t read a word

of the European Italian glitz, deep blue of the Mediterranean
and a Coca-Cola, but there is a warm blanket
on a wooden bench and a leather

hand hook. Above a Cuban restaurant, where waiters serve
black bean hummus and chocolate croissants,
hangs the gay pride flag alongside

a Direct TV satellite dish. Gabby walks to school, Pokémon
cards in his pocket. Sanchez Street. I work
in the kitchen with my Lela. Mariposa Avenue,

Valencia Street, Camino Real, are added to masa. Homemade
tortillas puff into sweetness. I’m not
one third Irish, one half German

and two parts English with a little Cherokee thrown in,
but last night I couldn’t translate the word “hinge”
on every door that opens and closes

to clouds beyond four walls. An old lady, perhaps Cambodian,
Vietnamese, Korean, something of her own,
hurries off the 31 Stockton while

my Tía Teresa double parks in front of the mercados on 24th street
para los quesos y los chiles in the backroom. One
whiff and the world is not so small.

© Adelia Najarro

I Speak of the City: Peter Maravelis


Akashic Noir Books
Originally uploaded by geminipoet

Excellent fiction reading last night at Moe’s Books to celebrate the newest addition to the Akashic Noir Series: San Francisco Noir 2. All of the readers were excellent with distinct pieces that captured a slice of the City we don’t see (or straight up ignore) when the lights go down: Janet Dawson delivered a modern-day fairy tale with a re-imagining of Hansel and Gretel as “Hank & Gretta” living up on Geary Street; David Corbett’s story of a love/hate triangle gone wrong in Hunters Point moved with crisp dialogue and volatile emotions; and John Shirley came through with a slice of punk-noir details a heist so well-rehearsed, so meticulously planned that you just know everything is going to go wrong.

Editor Peter Maravelis framed each of these stories with a historical time line that examined the City by the Bay with a lens that went beyond the ordinary, highlighting the role of immigration, body trafficking, gentrification, class divisions, labor strife and topography in the noir that is San Francisco. The only thing he left out was the lust of city living, the way we can become so enamored with the beauty of city that we overlook all the ugly and nasty we know exists under the touristy veneer, but this mad love came through in the manner that Peter detailed those histories that lie beneath San Francisco and raised them up not as a mutli-faceted jewel but a cracked mirror to examine ourselves in.

For the first volume of San Francisco Noir, one of Akashic Books’ city-based mystery anthologies, editor Peter Maravelis brought together a team of writers to write original stories about the sinister side of the City. For this sequel he has unearthed classic tales by writers from the last two centuries such as Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, and Dashiell Hammett, as well as modern ones leading right up to 2009.

I Speak of the City: Pablo Neruda


pablo neruda
Originally uploaded by zannaza69

[It’s been good to finally catch up on text like Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and then to read Mario Vargas Llosa’s Letters to a Young Novelist. I don’t have any aspirations to write the Great American Novel but I am trying to be the best writer I can be and Llosa’s work not only works off of Rilke’s title–though Llosa’s approach to novel writing basics and the way he focuses on good and bad examples of time-tested prose formulas is much more hands on than Rilke’s advice about poetics–but also ends up in the same destination: Take this advice and forget it, find your own way to your writing home.

The same sentiment echoes in Neruda’s Towards the Splendid City but this time with a more naturalistic approach where every river is a mouth, every tree branch an arm, and every rock a monument you must conquer to reach the end of your writing road. It’s all very dangerous and ominous and well it should be, if the end of the road is to find rubble that you have to make sense out of. The idea that the end of any writing quest would end in a happy tale with a shining Camelot waiting is the stuff of privilege and entitlement. To think we can build a city in our letters and expect it to produce its own fresh water and police itself is more like building a cardboard cutout of a city and having it on display as a highway billboard for other tourists to admire from their speeding cars. Maybe I’m reacting from contests that actively seek to promote bad poetry, not the kind that is a marvelous leap that doesn’t quite reach to the other side, but the kind of bad poetry that we’re supposed to be writing against. Maybe I’m being a Romantic, feeling that poetry can be the road to a splendid city–not a perfect or even beautiful one–just one where at least people lived enough of a life that someone cared enough to write down a good poem.

Yes, I’ll say I am crazy and reactionary and romantic, but in reading the works of Rilke, Llosa and Neruda, at least I won’t feel alone.]

excerpt from Towards the Splendid City

Further on, just before we reached the frontier which was to divide me from my native land for many years, we came at night to the last pass between the mountains. Suddenly we saw the glow of a fire as a sure sign of a human presence, and when we came nearer we found some half-ruined buildings, poor hovels which seemed to have been abandoned. We went into one of them and saw the glow of fire from tree trunks burning in the middle of the floor, carcasses of huge trees, which burnt there day and night and from which came smoke that made its way up through the cracks in the roof and rose up like a deep-blue veil in the midst of the darkness. We saw mountains of stacked cheeses, which are made by the people in these high regions. Near the fire lay a number of men grouped like sacks. In the silence we could distinguish the notes of a guitar and words in a song which was born of the embers and the darkness, and which carried with it the first human voice we had encountered during our journey. It was a song of love and distance, a cry of love and longing for the distant spring, from the towns we were coming away from, for life in its limitless extent. These men did not know who we were, they knew nothing about our flight, they had never heard either my name or my poetry; or perhaps they did, perhaps they knew us? What actually happened was that at this fire we sang and we ate, and then in the darkness we went into some primitive rooms. Through them flowed a warm stream, volcanic water in which we bathed, warmth which welled out from the mountain chain and received us in its bosom.

Happily we splashed about, dug ourselves out, as it were, liberated ourselves from the weight of the long journey on horseback. We felt refreshed, reborn, baptised, when in the dawn we started on the journey of a few miles which was to eclipse me from my native land. We rode away on our horses singing, filled with a new air, with a force that cast us out on to the world’s broad highway which awaited me. This I remember well, that when we sought to give the mountain dwellers a few coins in gratitude for their songs, for the food, for the warm water, for giving us lodging and beds, I would rather say for the unexpected heavenly refuge that had met us on our journey, our offering was rejected out of hand. They had been at our service, nothing more. In this taciturn “nothing” there were hidden things that were understood, perhaps a recognition, perhaps the same kind of dreams.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I did not learn from books any recipe for writing a poem, and I, in my turn, will avoid giving any advice on mode or style which might give the new poets even a drop of supposed insight. When I am recounting in this speech something about past events, when reliving on this occasion a never-forgotten occurrence, in this place which is so different from what that was, it is because in the course of my life I have always found somewhere the necessary support, the formula which had been waiting for me not in order to be petrified in my words but in order to explain me to myself.

© Pablo Neruda

Full text can be found here/Texto completo se encuentra aquí.

Audio can be found here. (Requires RealPlayer)

I Speak of the City: Lorna Dee Cervantes


Everybody’s Hometown
Originally uploaded by hhsc/Greg

[The best thing I got from this last weekend’s RE:DEFinition Hip-Hop Conference was the feeling that I can come back to hip-hop, my own personal roots, without having to start listening to TI, Chris Brown and Soulja Boy. And so while this may make me tragically unhip to most of the yougins, I can still represent without having to sport saggy jeans cuz you know the saggy look doesn’t let me floss my Fluevogs to the fullest.

This idea of coming back to your old ‘hood has me thinking to a poem from Lorna Dee Cervantes. When you read through this poem, you never do get a sense of arrival. The speaker is really caught between staying and going, as if this place that she once called home is more like a motel room on a business trip with a focus on objects and a memory of warmth where others have stayed and left there mark. In the end, the speaker leaves to where they’re from, an ouroborous like return to the first line of the poem with the caveat that there’s still one last (more?) chance to connect with the past.]

On Touring Her Hometown

I’m going away to where I’m from.
I’m fleeing from visions, fences
grinning from the post. Give me
a hole with a past to it. Fill up
this mess with your wicked engines.
Give me the gun of holidays, calendar
shards, disarray on the avenues
unending as the streets of my vast
memory. There are marigolds six feet
under. They eat the names of the dead.
There are hovels under these caverns
where liquids marry and paint themselves
a mauve display. There’s a place
in the mists of the city where a silence,
lean as ghosts, beckons, is archaic
in the workclothes of my otherness.
There is cedar, ash sage, an owl
on the grave of this town the width
of sin. And crying’s like hating,
it won’t ever pay. I’m going away
to where I’m from. I’m leaving,
last condor, last chance.

© Lorna Dee Cervantes from From the Cables of Genocide: Poems on Love and Hunger

I Speak of the City: Judith Ortiz Cofer

[It took me a long time to accept being a Nuyorican writer; it felt like I hadn’t lived a gritty enough city life, thought the poetry I was writing wasn’t political enough, and (the biggest sin) not actually being able to claim coming from la isla. After a while, I started hanging with some other writers who could claim la isla, were writing poetry they felt was deeply political but felt they didn’t have enough of a city experience to feel down since they had grown up in the burbs. Yes, even in community grass roots poetry there are gate keepers who aren’t just measuring your poem when you’re on the mic, but also making sure you hit all the valid culture points and if you don’t… you’re ass out from the club.

One of the first books that clued me in on the fact that any kind of gate keeping, especially coming from inside an ethno group, was completely wrong was The Latin Deli. A mix of poetry and short story that was as Rican as you can get but no so Nuyo with most of the stories going down in Paterson, New Jersey. The irony being that most Latino families I knew in the Bx were plotting day and night to get enough change to be able to buy a house in, you guessed it, New Hersee. So I knew that the Boricua suburb transplant that Judith Ortiz Cofer was writing about was a true Nuyorican voice.

The other burb reality is that you can take the Boricua out of the City but the City always is sure to follow and so the Bodega began to pop up alongside the Italian, Russian and Jewish Delis in the burbs. It’s all so very familiar to me, not just the recognizable food items but the cast of characters that hang by the front counter, some work there, some shop there and others just know that’s the best place to tell a story.]

The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica

Presiding over a formica counter,
plastic Mother and Child magnetized
to the top of an ancient register,
the heady mix of smells from the open bins
of dried codfish, the green plantains
hanging in stalks like votive offerings,
she is the Patroness of Exiles,
a woman of no-age who was never pretty,
who spends her days selling canned memories
while listening to the Puerto Ricans complain
that it would be cheaper to fly to San Juan
than to buy a pound of Bustelo coffee here,
and to Cubans perfecting their speech
of a “glorious return” to Havana–where no one
has been allowed to die and nothing to change until then;
to Mexicans who pass through, talking lyrically
of dólares to be made in El Norte–
                                                                all wanting the comfort
of spoken Spanish, to gaze upon the family portrait
of her plain wide face, her ample bosom
resting on her plump arms, her look of maternal interest
as they speak to her and each other
of their dreams and their disillusions–
how she smiles understanding,
when they walk down the narrow aisles of her store
reading the labels of packages aloud, as if
they were the names of lost lovers; Suspiros,
Merengues, the stale candy of everyone’s childhood.
                                                                She spends her days
slicing jamón y queso and wrapping it in wax paper
tied with string: plain ham and cheese
that would cost less at the A&P, but it would not satisfy
the hunger of the fragile old man lost in the folds
of his winter coat, who brings her lists of items
that he reads to her like poetry, or the others,
whose needs she must divine, conjuring up products
from places that now exist only in their hearts–
closed ports she must trade with.

© Judith Ortiz Cofer