Chad Sweeney and Kaya Oakes @ Pegasus Bookstore

I first got to hear Chad Sweeney’s work a few months back and was immediately impressed with the awe and genuine joy he exhibits in both the process and presentation of his poems. The line that stood out that night one where he spoke of cages and a place where all they grow is cages. It takes a WHOLE year to build a cage!

I am not sure if that is the exact line and I am very sure he didn’t capitalize it that way but that is my memory of this line filled with an enthusiasm that felt like it followed the poet from the original writing, to the making of the chapbook A Mirror to Shatter the Hammer, to the reading of the poem.

With all that said, I was very much looking forward to Chad’s reading from his debut collection An Architecture.

SIDENOTE: While waiting for the reading to start, I was looking through Pegasus’ awesome used poetry collection and was thrilled to find a first edition paperback of Victor Hernandez Cruz’s SNAPS. And the price of this fine piece of Nuyorican/Califas poetry? Less than $5. Score!

Kaya Oakes set off the reading and for a second I wasn’t feeling her poems. I thought she was being just a little too flippant with the work and then would gather it all up in the middle and then wind down towards the end. Turns out that what I was interpreting as flippant was a sincere look at life from a poet who wasn’t looking for solutions but instead finding pathways and intersections where real life and interesting language meet. A good reading of both newish work and (what she called) b-side poems from Oakes’s first book Telegraph.

Chad then went up and instead of just reading from his just-freshly-arrived-from-the-publishers-book he instead decided to talk about how he came to the project that would become the 56 section serial poem. The talk ranged from converting music into speech; to extending the range of the Objectivists; to entering a writing zone that “intended nothing;” to making leaps, jumps and parachute drops vis-à-vis various voices, to a conscious break from his previous writing into a new voice that was unafraid to leave a poem unresolved. Willing to go back and explore an idea again, not with the intent to write the same poem twice, but with the desire to chronicle the change in the voice from one experience to the next. A poetic experiment – forgive the much maligned and overused term – to (dis)prove Heraclitus’s quote:
“You cannot step twice into the same river; for other waters are continually flowing in.”

The poems in An Architecture live up to all of Chad’s non-intentions. Even as the “man hold tight to his own leash” change is the constant thread in these poems. Change in the form of fire, wind, government, war, transportation and wreckage to name but a few. But with the thread comes a tapestry and the bigger tapestry is in mountains, sky, minerals, city, night, faith, music, breath and color.

At least that is what I picked up from the reading and I am sure I will find this and more in the reading of An Architecture.

But the most important thing I got from this reading was inspiration, and the reminder that a poem is more than just words leaning against each other or fighting for white space on the page. Poems may begin as these things but then they have to become more.

During his introduction, Chad insists that, “A poem can’t be thought, it has to be dream.” I agree.

Amiri Baraka in Berkeley

A little over two years ago, I got to hear Amiri Baraka deliver a full poetry set (complete with a moderated Q&A) at Bar13. It was my first introduction to his work and I walked away affected by poetry that was the wave and the undertow, a response to a political situation that both sheds light to a past injustice and to an uncertain future.

The next time I hear Amiri read was at City Lights, a reading that focused on his short story collection and a Q&A that focused on global politics, politically appropriate language, upcoming elections and the intensely personal side of being Amiri Baraka. Notice none of these questions dealt with Amiri as an eminent literary figure in American letters. (Note: I was one of the people asking questions of American politics instead of taking the opportunity to learn what it means to be a respected author.)

Now I come back from hearing Amiri at a couple of readings and feel a greater appreciation for his contribution to not only American letters but to African-American lit, Jazz lit, Black Arts lit, Hip-Hop lit, Pan-African lit, Pan-American lit and Orality; to name just a few areas of study where Amiri’s work would be a key point of focus. Maybe this is coming from the fact that I’ve heard his work in UC Berkeley, surrounded by students and faculty deeply interested in learning something from Baraka. I am happy to say that the audiences here learned a lot about poetry history and revolutionary art. A nice broad range of topics Amiri was able to seamlessly bridge. I say Happy because it still gnaws at me how much the City Lights reading gravitated so much on Amiri the political figure (which is a big part of his art) and paid almost no attention to Amiri the writer (which is his art).

It was also good hearing him read at different times with different audiences around different settings and seeing if there would be any change in the choice of poems and the presentation. While the set-list may have changed, the delivery remained consistent. A blend of jazz and poetics that relied so heavily on each other as to be almost the inhale and exhale, the wave and the undertow. Out of all his poems, my favorites may have been the ones filled with the pop of a mad pianist hunting for the perfect melody. Poems like the Lo-Ku series set to the Bud Powell, Jungle Jim Flunks His Screen Test set to the rhythm of what I call Snaps and some other folks call the Dozens, Monk Poems set to (who else?) Thelonious, Readiness set to “Johnny Come Lately” by Billy Strayhorn and Eulogy for Pedro Pietri that I will guess was set to the rhythms of Tito Puente.

The poem that Amiri kept returning to was Race & Class, a poem that followed the form he kept returning to, this conversation with someone either ahead or behind him on the road to self-examination and ultimately self-preservation in the struggle for Pan-African unity. This technique lets the reader in on some public knowledge of the Black experience and then lets them in on the greater knowledge, that spoken in living rooms and bars, the things marginalized folk say about the oppressor or wish they could say to the oppressor’s face. A truth Amiri brings to his poetry focused on the public, the out in the open, a poet who has no time for people how only write for himself or herself.

In an effort to make up for my silly question at City Lights, I was able to ask him at one reading, “What is your proudest literary achievement?”

Answer: Staying alive. And then he said, he thinks his last work was his best work.

At the same reading I was able to get a book signed and I thanked him for being such a major influence.

A: Do you write?
O: Yeah.
A: Poet?
A: Where’s your book?
O: Right here!

And just like that I was able to give him a copy of Anywhere Avenue. Score!

At another reading I asked him about his memories about the Nuyorican movement which led to a long recollection of the work and words of Miguel Algarin. Praise for the writing of Miguel Piñero and a story involving Piñero’s last birthday party where the First Lady of Nicaragua was dancing up a storm and a group of local kids gathered to meet Mikey, not Mikey the Poet but Mikey’s TV character- Calderon the Drug Lord from Miami Vice. The highest praise (complete with voice, singing and strut imitation) went to the poems of Pedro Pietri, and that led into the Pietri tribute and Amiri covering one of Pietri’s Telephone Booth poems.

I could go on and on but instead I am going to recommend that you all read Conversations With Amiri Baraka, where you get to trace a piece Amiri’s growth, not only as a scholar and an activist but also as a writer which is where it should always begin and end when talking about Amiri Baraka.

More on the web:
Amiri Baraka’s homepage

List of Books by Amiri Baraka

Audio files of Amiri Baraka

Barb’s thought on Amiri’s work. Part 1

Francisco X. Alarcón and Francisco Aragón @ Copperfield Books

I always love a reading like this because it proves that there is no single theme/voice/identity that comprises Latino Poetry. Mind you, I don’t think that statement is any kind of news to anyone who reads this blog on the regular but I do think it is news to a lot of folks who casually attend readings.

At the reading last Friday, we were treated to a tag-team pairing as Alarcón led off with a few poems, passed the baton to Aragón, and then back and forth for the rest of the rounds. (Yes, I know I just blended four different sports terms into one.)

Alarcón started with a call to the four directions and then to the fifth direction: the reflection; which made me think of writing as a solitary singular act and that a public reading could be viewed as the reflection of that act. From there he went into poems about Hernando Alarcón, a Spanish ancestor responsible for a number of atrocities on Mexicanos for the express purpose of chronicling their spells and stories. Much props to Alarcón for examining that (often purposefully neglected) aspect of Hispanic heritage- the Conquistador, the Priest, the Chronicler, the Sailor, the Landowner, the Immigrant to the New World looking for a fresh start. Alarcón’s poems don’t decry or endorse this heritage but let the story of a man sent to destroy a culture and by preserving it in words ironically accomplishes and fails in his mission at the same time.

Aragón’s work reflected on a different set of literary ancestors. Infused with the spirit and words of Ernesto Cardenal, Rubén Darío and García Lorca, his work winds through place and perspective taking the time to observe, take note and reflect on shifting histories or waiting to see if any change will come at all. Aragón’s steady and confident cadence gives the listener plenty of opportunity to examine this space around them and come to their own conclusions.

Back to Alarcón, who is also a children’s book author (commenting durig the reading that he “has given up on adults”) and his poems for kids might just be too grown up for most people. In this respect his poem “From the Bellybutton of the Moon,” a playful take on the etymology of the word Mexico, might have been my favorite poem from the night.

A real close second would be Aragón’s “To The President” a re-mix of Darío’s “A Roosevelt.” Reminding us again of what’s changed and what hasn’t in the (Latino) World.

And I’ll close with a shout out to Katherine Hastings for putting on a stellar reading with a packed book buying house.

God Loves A Liar

“I think if you write poetry in different languages, then you are a liar.”
– Bei Dao

We drove into SF Chinatown’s Chinese Cultural Center to hear Bei Dao read in what was being billed as his last reading poetry reading “while in exile.”

Much props to the Chinese Cultural Center for turning this reading into a truly historic event with at least eight media photographers taking various pictures, a digital recorder capturing everything for posterity and effortless translation for Mandarin and English speakers. Mind you, none of this ever detracted from the fact that it was a literary event and that poetics was the main focus of Mr Dao’s work.

Speaking of which, Dao’s work was delivered with a pointed grace as he highlighted the temporal past for reasons of historic importance (as opposed to simple nostalgia) and returned to markers of permanence (the changing of season, the cycle of the sky) as true landmarks in his poetic cartography. I remember hearing his work two years ago at St Mark’s Church and left impressed by his ability to blend the natural world with the human experience (a task this city boy still struggles with) but I walked out of yesterday’s reading with a different appreciation for how these poems speak on a different political level, one that is often tossed to the side as tree poems that don’t talk about anything real. Dao’s poems have me thinking about Neruda’s “Ode to Common Things” and how this group of poems worked on one level as political survival and on another level as a touchstone for overlooked humanistic elements our society (read: current political power) may be trying to strip from us. Barb also brought to my attention the Misty Poets and their work.

I was most touched by Dao’s new poems (new shit!) and how he spoke of the death of his father (To My Father), losing the way home (Black Map) and his ghazal like poem (The Rose of Time). This is a good time to also speak of Lillian Howan and how well she read the English translations (Dao made note as to the writers who translated his work for the page, as well) especially the newer poems that she was not as familiar with.

Now where the Amiri Baraka reading went south a few months ago, with a Q&A that spoke of all things but the literary, this Q&A was a real high point with various community members asking Dao
about his poetics and how they affect his politics. Some people said they couldn’t see the political in his poems, bemoaned his attention to suffering and even asked for a happy poem. Dao answered all the questions with direct, polite responses and even went as far as to answer back questions in the language they were initially presented and then we get to the question as to whether he writes poems in Chinese or English and his response.

Personally, I agree whole-heartedly with his statement and look at my pure Spanish work as a deception and even my pure English work isn’t 100% honest. Spanish is my birth language but the truth is I grew up in a very code-switching environment that is a balance of school grade academic English, street slang and at least three distinct Spanish dialects (Ecuadorian, Puerto Rican and Dominican) which when all blended together is the actual language I speak (you can add a bit of Chicano, a West Coast ‘Hella’ & an ever growing poetic verbiage in there now for good measure) and this mixto is my one real language.

Many thanks to Mr Dao for highlighting this fact and stating it as directly as possible. Word.

More good reading-
Barb’s take on Bei Dao’s reading
Marianne Villanueva talks about the reading
The Misty Poets on Wikipedia
Bei Dao on poets.org


Somebody Blew Up Bar13

Same message, different styles. Last week, Acentos circled around Martín Espada in the tradition of el griot, the sage, el curandero, the shaman, the keeper of stories; tales that are not just myths and retellings but the actual embodiment of who we are as a people. I’ve often talked about familia Acentos or the tribe and you would know what I am talking about when you see us roll deep. We come through as a force but not in any kind of lemming Xerox style but as a straight up maelstrom of poetics and passion. And it was only proper that these rebel child(s) can look up to an elder and be chill for a sec. Hear how it was done, how it still must be done and will continue to go down. “always weaving…”

Last night was a different style vibe. It was a straight up political rally. Mondays brings a different crowd, a bit more on the touristy side. “Outer borough? You must be mad if you think I’m going to a cultural event in one of the outer boroughs.”* And we have more space in 13 to pack people in and we did. 150+. Which annoys me a bit cuz I’m a snob like that. “Where were you fuckers for upperCASE? For louderEDGE? Huh?”
And so it goes.

Amiri Baraka delivered a stream of (political) conscious poetic operetta that was akin to being hit by both the wave and being pulled by the undertow at the same time. Amiri comes straight from the soul, a very cliché term that is damn appropriate for this situation. I have heard a few select poets (ironically enough Miguel Algarín & Bob Hollman stand out in this group) that deliver poetry that is so finely honed to almost appear to come directly from the subconscious to the outside world. Even their bodies react instinctually to the poem and one begins to formulate theories and forms to something that at its base is more primal than intellectual.

Baraka’s poems were not only a barrage of political points coming from a variety of directions but they also felt like they had one distinct target. Not to say that the man didn’t go out there. He dropped some lines and went on some tangents that had me thinking he forgot he was on a mic for a second but then, right on the precipice, he would bring it back. He also dropped some very politically left statements. It felt like he was fucking with us and making sure that we were actually listening versus just being there.

Between the two styles, I would still lean more to Espada. I am a story teller at heart and it takes a lot for me to get worked up over one particular thing. For me its always about the constant fire over the burning flame but there is always room to add some styles to one’s repertoire and i sure as hell picked up something last night.