Books I Read in October

[done in the steelo of javier huerta]

Leaves of Grass. Walt Whitman (Author) and Malcolm Cowley (Introduction)
Spider-Man: One More Day, J. Michael Straczynski (Author), Stan Lee (Afterword), Joe Quesada (Illustrator)
The Roots Of A Thousand Embraces, Juan Felipe Herrera
Blood Dazzler, Patricia Smith
Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems, Mahmoud Darwish
The All-Union Day of the Shock Worker, Edwin Torres

Nikki Giovanni: In the house of hip-hop there are many rooms

Beautiful, just beautiful, interview over at NPR with Nikki Giovanni, as she talks about the origins and intentions of her latest project: Hip Hop Speaks to Children.

This elevation of hip-hop out of its self-imposed trope ghetto of pimpin’ and signifyin’, nines and forty-fives, spinnin’ rims and whips, chains and bling, syrup and Grey Goose, bitches and hos, and the realization of its rightful place as modern folk culture for the citizens of the stoop and parks.

A question that’s been doggin me lately is this: If 60s Folk Music icons Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, and Joan Baez can be considered poets by the mainstream; if modern R&B and Rock artists Jewel, Alicia Keys, Jill Scott, Henry Rollins, and Billy Corrigan can get their poetry volumes published by the powerhouse publishing houses; then where is the consideration for hip-hop artists?

Outside of Tupac’s The Rose that Grew from Concrete and the very excellent teaching guide Hip-Hop Poetry and the Classics for the Classroom (Alan Sitomer and Michael Cirelli, Editors), there is very little academic consideration for the intricate wordplay, voracious metaphor, and authentic narratives of a KRS-One, Biggie, Rakim, or Nas. What up wit dat? Is American Letters fear of a rhyming couplet planet that deep?

The good news is that there are many writers working to correct that and writing in the tradition and from the experience of hip-hop. I look at the poetics of Patrick Rosal, Suheir Hammad, Willie Perdomo, and Kevin Coval and see a lot of doors that let me access the house of hip-hop. The theater work of Danny Hoch, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Sarah Jones, and the Chicano Messengers of Spoken Word pushing the possibility of the text, the break, and the stage. Educators like Paul S. Flores bringin’ the four elements into higher academic institutions. And my go to text for the history of hip-hop, Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop.

Now I can add another writer to that list of artists: hip-hop poet Nikki Giovanni. Her ties to hip-hop start with her ties to folk lit which is how she got to editing a book children’s literature.

“Children’s literature is folk literature and the folk had to have a way of conveying information and so they used a cadence. What we remember is if we have a preliterate people, whether it’s an enforced preliteracy or if we take it back to– for example–Biblical times, if we put it in a cadence then people will be able to remember and recall the story.”

Check the interview (with links to MP3s from Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah and Langston Hughes adding to the hip-hop/folk/kid lit connection) and also some great readings from Oscar Brown, Jr., and Ms Giovanni herself reciting “Ego Tripping.”

Full interview from NPR’s All Things Considered: Giovanni Finds Funky Beats To Teach Poetry To Kids

Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why)

I was born in the congo
I walked to the fertile crescent and built
  the sphinx
I designed a pyramid so tough that a star
  that only glows every one hundred years falls
  into the center giving divine perfect light
I am bad

I sat on the throne
  drinking nectar with allah
I got hot and sent an ice age to europe
  to cool my thirst
My oldest daughter is nefertiti
  the tears from my birth pains
  created the nile
I am a beautiful woman

I gazed on the forest and burned
  out the sahara desert
  with a packet of goat’s meat
  and a change of clothes
I crossed it in two hours
I am a gazelle so swift
  so swift you can’t catch me

  For a birthday present when he was three
I gave my son hannibal an elephant
  He gave me rome for mother’s day
My strength flows ever on

My son noah built new/ark and
I stood proudly at the helm
  as we sailed on a soft summer day
I turned myself into myself and was
  men intone my loving name
  All praises All praises
I am the one who would save

I sowed diamonds in my back yard
My bowels deliver uranium
  the filings from my fingernails are
  semi-precious jewels
  On a trip north
I caught a cold and blew
My nose giving oil to the arab world
I am so hip even my errors are correct
I sailed west to reach east and had to round off
  the earth as I went
  The hair from my head thinned and gold was laid
  across three continents

I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal
I cannot be comprehended except by my permission

I mean…I…can fly
  like a bird in the sky…

© Nikki Giovanni

Big Ups: Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler

Congrats to all the finalists for this year’s National Book Awards. An extra special shout out to Patricia Smith, for not just writing a fantastic book but for being a consistent role model for what open mic poetry can be.

I’ve seen Ms Smith come up to many an open mic reading, sign her name on the list, wait for her spot, come up with no bio rundown or long winded personal anecdotes, recite a brand new poem for everyone to enjoy, and then go back to her seat to enjoy the rest of the open mic. Even more than that, I’ve witnessed her be generous with her encouragement and advice to burgeoning poets: read more, write more, and recite more.

Patricia looks onAll without forgetting or dissing her poetry slam roots–with four individual titles, Patricia is considered by many to be the greatest slam poet the movement has ever witnessed. Check the snippets from a recent interview with the Daily Page:

The Daily Page: Where were you and what were you doing when you conceived the title, Blood Dazzler? What was your reaction when those two words came to you?

Smith: I wish I could say that it came to me like a boltv out of the blue (although that would be a horrible cliché, and I would never say that). I’m actually awful with titles — naming my poems, or a book of poems, is always the very last thing I do, and I’m never truly satisfied with the result.

I didn’t set out to write an entire book, so I wasn’t bothered by the task of choosing a title for quite some time. As it turns out, the phrase “blood dazzler” was in one of the final lines in one of the final poems in the book. It’s a poem called “Siblings,” a piece that personifies the other hurricanes that occurred in 2005 and thinks of them as members of Katrina’s family. The concluding lines are “None of them talked about Katrina/ She was their odd sister/ the blood dazzler.” I have no idea what those two words mean, but I loved their feel in my mouth and I loved the feeling left in the air once the words were uttered. No insistent inspiration, no intricate story, just a sweet sound at just the right time.

As you travel the country to read from Blood Dazzler, to what degree do you discern continued sympathy for Katrina’s victims, and to what extent has this been muted by the onset of sympathy fatigue? And do these reactions differ by region or the demographic makeup of your audiences?

Sympathy fatigue. Good phrase. That’s exactly what I was encountering.

The story that touched me most — the one I couldn’t, refused to, file among the litany of what my husband and I began to call the “awful anecdotes,” was the story of the 34 nursing home residents left to die in St. Bernard’s Parish. I write often in persona, and I became obsessed with resurrecting the voices of those lost men and women. I decided to write a poem in 34 stanzas, intending each stanza to say, very simply, “I was. I still am.”

“34” was the manuscript’s very first breath, although I didn’t know it at the time. I fully intended it to be a single poem, a tribute I felt was necessary if I was to remain fully invested in the possibilities of my work. “34” would probably have become an important part of my next manuscript, but I certainly didn’t see it as the heartbeat of a work revolving solely around Katrina. I folded it into my readings and watched closely to gauge audience reaction.

Then I was scheduled for a reading at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival in the winter of 2007. “34” was a relatively new poem, but I’d gotten some very interesting responses whenever I included it in a reading. Since I feel that every poetry reading is essentially a conversation, I would often approach audience members afterward to discuss their thoughts about and reactions to particular poems.

During the Palm Beach reading, I had reached the tenth or eleventh stanza of “34” when I noticed a distinct restlessness in the crowd. A few people were averting their eyes, staring off into the distance and shifting uncomfortably in their seats. I’ve always been starkly aware of my audience, and invested in presenting work that is — at the very least — engaging, so I was troubled by what I saw. One woman, decked out in the Palm Beach uniform of pink silk tracksuit and glaringly white sneakers, seemed particularly uneasy. In fact, as I approached her to chat, I got the distinct impression that she was considering making a run for it.

In the hierarchy of gratification, how do the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award, Paterson and Pushcart poetry prizes compare to winning the National Poetry Slam for the fourth time?

They’re not even in the same realm. The poetry slam championship is a recognition of the way a poem is projected, the others are rewards for the way a poem is written. When I won the slam championships, the performance of poetry was a new and burgeoning craft, and the time was right. But I soon needed to learn more about the bone and muscle in poems, and I began to concentrate more on my writing. Once I began to be recognized for the craft of my work, as well as the performance, I felt I’d opened all the doors I could as a writer.

Is it fair to conclude you are more or less fearless? If so, who or what accounts for your courage? And if not, what most frightens you?

I am fearless. There is nothing I won’t write about, and nothing I won’t say out loud. The first time I read and someone approached me to say “I have felt that way, I just didn’t know there was a way to say it,” I realized a huge responsibility; and I’ve since come to the conclusion that I’m alive to in order fulfill that responsibility. I can’t do that by placing limits on my voice. Fright leads to inaction, inaction to complacency, complacency to a stunning malaise. We do only have one life, and silence is not the way to live it.

Full interview: Wisconsin Book Festival 2008: Patricia Smith speaks

All this attention to the voice in poetry, concern for audience, detail to personal growth in her chosen craft, and (again) attention to the (responsibility) of the voice in poetry spills on to the page and makes Blood Dazzler a stand out in poetry.

My Good Reads review:

Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler writes in the moment of Hurricane Katrina, from the formation of Katrina all the way to its monstrous after effects on the citizens on New Orleans, from every internal view point possible. Persona poems written in the voice of Katrina, New Orleans (before and during the storm), former FEMA Director Michael Brown, Ethel Freeman and family, the 34 victims of St Rita’s, and even a local dog left out to weather the storm.

Utilizing a variety of poetic forms (sestina, ghazal, tanka, abecedarian) and shifts in language that relay power, dread, scorn, and (ultimately) survival, this collection moves past the trend of poetics emerging from large scope tragedies–where the poet writes in simple response to the tragedy but rarely places the poetic speaker in the complexities of the tragedy itself–and sets a new benchmark for the poetics of witness.

You can also hear Patricia read from her book launch party at the Bowery Poetry Club:

“Five Pieces: August 23 – 28, 2005”
“What to Tweak”
“Ethel Sestina’s”
All MP3s courtesy of IndieFeed: Performance Poetry.

This is the kind of energy that inspires the possibility in poetry, a possibility that is not determined by computer algorithms or search engine indexes, but by the engine of orature and the vehicle of literature combining to tell a vital story.

Media Monster

I have officially blown my full media budget for the month but have scored some real gems for the Loft Library.

I’ve been anxiously waiting for the finale of Brian Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s maxi-series for a while but have held off on buying the last two installments until I could purchase them collectively at Berkeley’s Comic Relief–our favorite comic book stop. All my poetry reading is going on pause until I find out how this great story of a world with only one man left on it ends. I am crossing my fingers that Vaughan and Guerra can deliver the goods.

Thanks to a 20% sale, we made out like bandits at Half-Price books and picked up a nice combo of hard-to-find and very necessary titles at a (relative) bargain.
Lotera Cards and Fortune Poems: A Book of Lives by Juan Felipe Herrera with illustrations by Artemio Rodriguez
Can’t have enough Juan Felipe in the library.

Legends from Camp by Lawson Fusao Inada
I’ve been diggin Inada’s contribution to How Much Earth: An Anthology of Fresno Poets and his great feel for music and words. Barb’s been reading Drawing the Line and telling me great things about it so I am completely sold.

My Father Was a Toltec by Ana Castillo
Recommended long ago to me by Patricia Smith. ’nuff said.

Against Forgetting. Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (Carolyn Forché, Editor)
A must have anthology. I’ve referred to the “Repression and Revolution in Latin America” countless times. Now, without having read the Editor’s Introduction, and only leafing through the Table of Contents (like most casual reader would) I have one serious question: Why are there no Vietnamese or Korean poets in the “War in Korea and Vietnam” section?

The Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader by Amiri Baraka (William J. Harris, Editor)
Baraka’s growth and development from Beat Poet to Black Arts Movement to His-Own-Damn-Category continues to be one of my persistent poetic obsessions.

Cosmic Canticle (a poetic work translated by John Lyons) by Ernesto Cardenal
Hardcover! What?!
I swear I wasn’t gonna buy any new poetry but the second I was this on the shelf and that promise went out the window.

The Mummy Collector’s Set DVD
Picked up at Rasputin’s for $7.99. What can I say– I love me a good popcorn movie and these three are just good old fashion action fun. Word.

It’s a good thing I didn’t hit Rasputin’s Salsa section (Sunny told me there was a ton of Fania CDs going for cheap) cuz this post would have twice as long and my pocket that much emptier.

So anybody else picked up some good media lately?

Pay For What You Get

SPD Shelves
Originally uploaded by geminipoet

Small Press Distribution’s Open House & Book Sale is the devil. You would think I could drop in, look around for a minute, make a mental note of some titles I can order later, and then be out. Yeah, right.

Ok, first stop is the Poetry Trading Post where you can get a free book for a poem. In exchange for my humble offering, SPD reciprocated with a copy of Cantos Al Sexto Sol: An Anthology of Aztlanahuac Writing. Score!

Off to the SPD shelves were I help New York Poeta and good friend Eliel Lucero navigate through the rows and rows of literary goodness.

So what did I find? Glad you asked.

Primera Causa/First Cause by Tino Villanueva, translations by Lisa Horowitz
This will be my first introduction to Villanueva’s obra poética, Horowitz’s translations, and what looks like a fine chapbook production from Cross-Cultural Communications.

Luna: Volume 4
Found in the 1/2 off section. My first Luna purchase with a list of contributors is off the chain and an equally impressive but sencillo layout.

In the South Bronx of America by Mel Rosenthal with essays by Grace Paley, Martha Rosler, and Barry Phillips
When I saw this on the 1/2 off shelf, I almost jumped out of my skin. I’ve been scouring used bookstores for months looking for this book and to see it just waiting for me to pick it up. Word, palabra, and everything in between, yo.

Backstory: When I first started my writing project on the Bronx, I was searching the Web like a madman looking for images that did proper justice to the Bx. Specifically, I was searching for images of the cardboard images placed in the windows of abandoned tenements to cover up the urban decay as opposed to actually bringing in proper services. The only images I found that didn’t treat my childhood home like a leper colony or cruel social joke were the South Bronx photos of Mel Rosenthal. Since then, I’ve come back to Rosenthal’s online gallery over and over again to help me find a way to turn the story in those pictures into poetry.

So I took a break from reading my copy of In the Grove and plunged right into Rosenthal’s book and was happily impressed. Some few quick thoughts over at Good Reads but I hope to have a more detailed breakdown soon.

Speaking of impressed—I went back to finish In the Grove and am just floored by this collection. It is all kinds of beautiful in all kinds of ways. If you have a chance, get yourself a copy.

Palabra, word, and everything in between.