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dirigible at sea

Q’s

How has your life affected your novels, poems, other writing shtuffs?

You seem to be rather deep among the literature crowds of Pasadena and most of the LA area, how has the works of such writers affected your life and your writing style?

Umm… From what I have read, you have a very unique writing style. Where has that come from?

Just one of those personal questions: How has being an American socialist during the Cold War affected your life?

A’s

1. Without life it’s hard to write. So life is good for writing novels, poems, anything. Life imbues the writing with ideas, vibrations, emotive thrill, desire, urge for fun, etc. Language comes from life; we don’t evolve or invent our own language, but English, the language of conquerors—with French spellings and French words like table and tableau, are part of our usage from when the French ruled England—and Aztec words like chocolate, tomato and avocado are part of our language because of conquered peoples and absorbed cultures—so, really, apart from “life” in general, the life that is specific to language and the history of the language affects the novels, poems and everything written more directly. Humans are not biologically solitary individuals, they live and do everything as part of cultural groups. There is little to no private self. The act of writing however, is some measure and gauge of self—because the writer records and edits the given language that flows thru our culture 24/7 like a great river.

2. I don’t have much to do with literary crowds in Pasadena, but other parts of Los Angeles, sure. Los Angeles writers who have been instructive, usually via inspiration and example, if never really as models, include:
a. Wanda Coleman, African American writer (poet, novelist) who demonstrates intellectual independence and fierce artistic toughness—necessary for surviving as a writer in Los Angeles, and she was a firm supporter of younger local writers in L.A., which is far from New York, capital of the publishing industry in the Western hemisphere
b. Charles Bukowski, late writer (poet, novelist) whose anti-literary anti-elitist independent writings paid for one of the best small presses in the U.S., Black Sparrow Press (which is now defunct), and demonstrated not only what could be done in writing independently about hard lives in Los Angeles—and perhaps more importantly, its essential existential problematic—but also what could be done through small press publishing in America (he was a best-seller only in Europe)
c. Luis Rodriguez, a writer (poet, novelist, nonfiction writer) who not only writes about social issues affecting Chicanos and working class youth in America, including his best-seller ALWAYS RUNNING: LA VIDA LOCA, about growing up as a gangbanger and getting out of it, he also runs a small press publishing good poetry books (Tia Chucha Press) and a community cultural center, bookstore, cafe and performance speace—Tia Chucha Centro Cultural. These writers all fiercely “represent” Los Angeles and tell its many stories, including some of the most overlooked stories of people never considered important (African American women, poor whites, and Chicano working class or gangsters) which would otherwise go totally unrecognized and unrecorded.

There’s other writers, some of whom are friends of mine, who influence me also, but these three local writers indicate the great possibilities of what a writer can do with, and for, the communities we’re a part of, the city where we live, and the literary dialogue that our books enter. And for those who think literature is pointless or doesn’t matter, they’re wrong—everything matters often—and literature is one tooth on the giant wheel that moves civilization.

3. My writing style comes from the modernist principles of adapting and developing language structures in poems, stories and novels that are capable of articulating and telling new stories, making the points and expressing the ideas that we must express in order to advance new ideas, express the unrecorded and unrecognized lives which are a part of us (“giving voice to the voiceless”), and engage in moving and developing the larger social and intellectual dialogue that is literature. On another level in my books, you can see that my vocabulary and diction, imagery and point(s) of view relate directly to personalities, lives and circumstances in Los Angeles.

4. The critical and oppositional ideology which was part of being a socialist was useful in any number of ways personally:
* it avails for you the whole mostly denied or unknown working class history of oppressed, which is, in great part, our own history
* it gives you concepts and ideas for evaluating the big lies and propaganda being spewed by world leaders at all times to hide their crimes and the reasons why the world is always at war and always in such a huge crisis (otherwise you’re likely to try to live full of illusions and believing things like “war and killing leads to peace”)
* it puts you in touch with people who are trying to change negative circumstances and make the world better, so you won’t feel like a solitary loser, which many people always feel like when they don’t try to take positive actions about their problems
* “better to die on your feet than live on your knees” —emiliano zapata

sesshu
alhambra

ume's vallejo room

Power Lines Are Buzzing in the Breeze and Touching me with Their Cold Humming

Power Lines Are Buzzing in the Breeze and Touching me with Their Cold Humming

Smith Corona Silent Portable Typewriter Tells me What to Think

Smith Corona Silent Portable Typewriter Tells me What to Think

Lettuce from Salinas Furls on the Palm of Your Hand with Leaf Tenderness

Lettuce from Salinas Furls on the Palm of Your Hand with Leaf Tenderness

Yucca Stalks Rattle in the Wind and Shake Black Seeds on Your Hair That Taste Like Wood

Yucca Stalks Rattle in the Wind and Shake Black Seeds on Your Hair That Taste Like Wood

Barracuda Just Wants a Taste and Tastes so Good

Barracuda Just Wants a Taste and Yet Tastes so Good

Gas Station at Night could Supply Fuel if only you had a Vehicle

Gas Station at Night could Supply Gasoline if only you had Someplace to Be

Sam Woo Barbecue Duck are Hanging in There Offering Sweet Crispy Grease

Sam Woo Barbecue Duck are Hanging in There Offering Sweet Crispy Skin Grease

Clouds Swirl and Reform Quietly Overhead Knowing All About Everything

Clouds Swirl and Reform Quietly Overhead Knowing All About Everything

Finally Files Release The Old Information Abolut You But No One Sticks Around for Cleanup

Finally Files Release The Old Information About You But No One Sticks Around for Cleanup

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, {where’s rick?} 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53

Feldwebel Lübbing in observation basket

mesquite… brittle brush… creosote… sugarberry… agave… yucca… sotol… buckwheat… desert trumpet… devil’s spineflower… curly dock… fillaree… juniper… fan palm… chuparosa… honeysuckle… california poppy… grama grass… foxtail barley… joint-fir… milkweed… (where’s rick?}  alder… prickly pear… barrel cactus… pincushion cactus… california mustard… asian mustard… texas mulberry…

BORROWED LOVE POEMS by John Yau (2002 Penguin Books)

BORROWED LOVE POEMS by John Yau (2002 Penguin Books)

John Yau’s Borrowed Love Poems sway, stalk, excoriate, plop, filch, dog, comb, moil, doff. Rubber burnt to a grease patch on the roof edge. Someone’s Kronos Quartet CD on the front seat. Tony sensations produced continuous at the body’s whim, a gleam your parents once had in your own eye.

SIN PUERTAS VISIBLES: AN ANTHOLOGY OF CONTEMPORARY POETRY BY MEXICAN WOMEN edited by Jen Hofer (2003 University of Pittsburgh)

SIN PUERTAS VISIBLES: AN ANTHOLOGY OF CONTEMPORARY POETRY BY MEXICAN WOMEN edited by Jen Hofer (2003 University of Pittsburgh)

Poet Jen Hofer’s translations of younger Mexicana poetas is ineluctably sly as clockwork. Afixes topographies. Swells across great distance. Shines teeth. Uncaps bottled beer inside a canned mind. Emollient effect on surface uncertainties, barks landmark. Open open.

THE LITTLE DOOR SLIDES BACK by Jeff Clark (2004 Farrar Straus Giroux)

THE LITTLE DOOR SLIDES BACK by Jeff Clark (2004 Farrar Straus Giroux)

THE LITTLE DOOR SLIDES BACK by Jeff Clark susurrates like mounds and clumps of ladybug beetles hanging on logs and draped in trees along Deer Creek (N. Calif.), flashing shyness, sensual motes. Thigh bones, femur, another eye, pineal. Pig valves work on a human heart, chewy.

BODY CLOCK by Eleni Sikelianos (2008 Coffee House Press)

BODY CLOCK by Eleni Sikelianos (2008 Coffee House Press)

Eleni Sikelianos’s BODY CLOCK braids the swale of sexes, twines prodigal swains, candles gutter in the niche. Corruscations fissure tissues. Any afternoon good for documentary. Smoothen linen. Moils in smoky light. Glad grief

A TOAST IN THE HOUSE OF FRIENDS by Akilah Oliver (2009 Coffee House Press)

A TOAST IN THE HOUSE OF FRIENDS by Akilah Oliver (2009 Coffee House Press)

A TOAST IN THE HOUSE OF FRIENDS by Akilah Oliver wafts a chant intermittent with crackling buds and shoots, gravel strewn in clay, transparencies of froth and water washing over. Maybe thistles and tumbleweeds around abandoned vehicles. Thigh high in thrumming of cicadas.

FEAR, SOME by Douglas Kearney (2006 Red Hen Press)

FEAR, SOME by Douglas Kearney (2006 Red Hen Press)

Douglas Kearney’s FEAR, SOME purposes, tossing the Roman with the canine, silvery viscous, pulverizing a filigree tree in night shadows, box. Canyon rivulets. Parted currents. You can go; I read with Douglas twice this spring in Los Angeles, wow!

NEWCOMER CAN'T SWIM by Renee Gladman (2007 Kelsey Street Press)

NEWCOMER CAN'T SWIM by Renee Gladman (2007 Kelsey Street Press)

Renee Gladman’s NEWCOMER CAN’T SWIM tocks ticks, transitions hale, swells looming across great distances where sea meets sky, I wonder why, utterably for real as squishy fruit, ever walk thru great hillsides of flowering mustard above Malibu?

PEEPING TOM TOM GIRL by Marisela Norte (2008 Sunbelt Publications)

PEEPING TOM TOM GIRL by Marisela Norte (2008 Sunbelt Publications)

PEEPING TOM TOM GIRL by Marisela Norte in misty neon, juice machine in Grand Central Market squirts garlic and celery, tangerine and beet, eyeballs click cartoon numerals on the 110 freeway, voice of leather and perfume, vinyl and myth. Tumult sward.

SKIRT FULL OF BLACK by Sun Yung Shin (2007 Coffee House Press)

SKIRT FULL OF BLACK by Sun Yung Shin (2007 Coffee House Press)

Sun Yung Shin’s SKIRT FULL OF BLACK width of feckless blackness of fonts emit a personal radio, Midwestern signals, stickiness of edge and release, freedom and stillness, busting. Bleat of instruments. Brass vegetables smily teeth, my humming earth.

SHAPESHIFT by Sherwin Bitsui (2003 University of Arizona)

SHAPESHIFT by Sherwin Bitsui (2003 University of Arizona)

Sherwin Bitsui’s SHAPESHIFT congeals honeyed flies, mighty seconds tip, errant thunder in quake country (So. Cal. in its way), static rain onscreen, eddy and purl of languages talking, low, high, five. This highway dotted.

I will hold your entropy hand with Chittenden Locks Drawbridge freighting your Mean Mood.

I will hold your entropy hand with Chittenden Locks Drawbridge freighting your Mean Mood.

I will hold your entropy hand with Abandoned X-Ray Machine peeking into your Spirit of Weariness.
I will hold your entropy hand with Abandoned X-Ray Machine peeking into your Spirit of Weariness.
I will hold your entropy hand with Discarded Washing Machine left in Australia.

I will hold your entropy hand with Discarded Washing Machine left in Australia.

I will hold your entropy hand with 110 Rush Hour Freeway through your Golden Mind.

I will hold your entropy hand with 110 Rush Hour Freeway through your Golden Mind.

I will hold your entropy hand with Tukwila Cement Plant abandoned to your Night Soul.

I will hold your entropy hand with Tukwila Cement Plant abandoned to your Night Soul.

I will hold your entropy hand with Water Backhoe for Dividing your Tears.

I will hold your entropy hand with Water Backhoe for Dividing your Tears.

I will hold your entropy hand with Arizona Power Lines delivering a Certain Tingle.

I will hold your entropy hand with Arizona Power Lines delivering a Certain Tingle.

I will hold your entropy hand with Lost Hills Pump Jacks pumping up Some Feelings.

I will hold your entropy hand with Lost Hills Pump Jacks pumping up Some Feelings.

I will hold your entropy hand with the Hard Jolt Rural Transformer slapping your Faceless Face.

I will hold your entropy hand with the Hard Jolt Rural Transformer slapping your Faceless Face.

I will hold your entropy hand with Virginia & Truckee Railroad waiting your Swift Moves.

I will hold your entropy hand with Virginia & Truckee Railroad waiting your Swift Moves.

 

Gloria Enedina AlvarezGloria Enedina Alvarez, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles and left home at age 16, speaks for the feminine dark side of this city in language that shifts image and shadow, mixes Spanish and English, articulating the profound daily wonder of survival. Beyond the glare of Hollywood, this city on any given late afternoon remains a blur of shadows and taillights in traffic on Sunset, Alvarado, Vermont, Olympic. Behind a city of appearances, her tone vibrates in the very air itself like the gently struck tone of wonder, like a plumed trill on the codex.

 
Through a quarter century of poetic production, Gloria has crafted herself into a singular poet with a voice unmistakably her own, recognized as one of the pre-eminent Los Angeles poets of her generation—as University of California Berkeley professor Laura Perez delineates in the 2007 book, Chicana Art: The Politics of Spiritual and Aesthetic Altarities—“Gloria Enedina Alvarez is well known in the Chicana/o and avant-garde arts community… for her poetry, performed throughout the city since 1982, and more recently for her highly praised translations and Chicana/o cultural adaptations of Jean Genet’s The Screens, and C.F. Ramuz’s original text to Igor Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale, in collaboration with Peter Sellars… Her poetry has been incorporated into murals, paintings, prints and experimental videos, and her influence has been felt through the numerous writing workshops that she has conducted… Her poetry has been self-published in chapbooks, collected in anthologies, published in newspapers, and published as a compact disk, Centerground (2004/2005). But more than anything, Alvarez’s work, like [Marisela] Norte’s, has been heard in numerous group readings, performances, art exhibitions, and local college campuses. Her medium, the spoken word, is by definition ephemeral, but her published bilingual poetry is also marked by her concern for what escapes translation as excess or the culturally unfamiliar or unspeakable.”

 
Gloria says that her collaborations with artists flow organically from many friendships, but her participation in women’s collectives starts at the Women’s Building in the early 80s, when she initiated the first of many women’s writing workshops she would lead. “Outside of the first group I went to led by Mitsuye Yamada—she was really helpful—there weren’t really any models, and nobody really to talk to about what we were trying to do,” Gloria said at Philippe’s one evening in Chinatown, “There was really no support and no established groups for Chicanas. No one was really organized who could give helpful feedback in two languages. They were only in English, so I decided I had to start my own.” As a young poet literally making her own way in the world and a young mother at age 18, Gloria initiated Taller Espejo Voz, a collective that published chapbooks of Chicana poetry at the Women’s Building. The braided (Gloria’s term) bilingual poetics of Spanish and English that Gloria championed is that poetics Alfred Arteaga analyzes in Chicano Poetics: “an interlingual style that emphasizes the form of the form… double-voiced in its eclectic hybridization. Its style opposes standard English and opposes the canonical literary telos. It conflicts with the authoritative discourse; it is dialogic.”

 
Gloria Alvarez’s braided double-voice has been pronouncing the fact of Chicana survival for decades in a city utterly unconcerned with that fact, and more importantly, more impressively, her poetry has throughout the same years with gentle insistence articulated the survival of Chicana desire. Gloria’s voice, through its susurration of soft huskiness and mystic imagery offers us an essential poetry of our city, seemingly ephemeral against its walls and shadows, against the traffic of its business in appearances, but alive, sensuous, impassioned—that is to say “Woman ablaze ascends/ …Born from her own fire/ The maize maiden/ The color of hot summers/ Roja mujer.”

Sesshu Foster

Gloria Enedina Alvarez

ocotillosyesterday evening i took flowers to a house in east l.a.—in her early seventies i believe—she’s been housebound for most of the past five to ten years because of her 87 year old husband, debilitated so that his thinking, hearing, sight, balance, walking, everything is very impaired, very limited. he needs 24 hour care which she has provided, but she noted, “it’s really like he died ten years ago, for me. if he died now, it would be liberating. how much longer am i going to live? i would still like to travel while i can.” she introduced me to her new dog, “Coco.” we caught up on her various children who were friends of mine in high school. she told me she’s going to have to put her husband in a facility because she can no longer lift him to change his diaper and clean him. her husband had a mental breakdown while her children were still young, and though the guy was super intelligent and highly articulate even afterwards (in a particular chinese fashion), he became another person she had to take of early on in her marriage. she was once very social, cooking and throwing big chinese dinners attended by extended family and friends, but now her brothers and sisters have died, including her younger sister who lived nearby, who died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack fifteen, twenty years ago. her children are prosperous, making money in the medical field one way or another and are busy and live out of the area. she got the dog to accompany her on her 6 AM walk around the neighborhood. she said i should visit her more often, and i said i would, but i am trying to change my fate of too much paperwork, too little exercise and fresh air.

SESSHU FOSTER
WORLD BALL NOTEBOOK
CITY LIGHTS PUBLISHERS / 2009
Review by DIANA HAMILTON

 

a shot of the Jesusita fire, from Marina

a shot of the Jesusita fire, from Marina

with this unique experience you should be able to defibrillate the dead
with this fishbone you ought to be able to fix your car
with this terrific amigo you should be able to buy some shoes
with this chilly reception you should be able to get wild

(from “game 53”)

The poem excerpted above from Sesshu Foster’s World Ball
Notebook
implicates the book in hand as the “with this” in question:
with this book of poems, it asks, each one titled “game 1” through
“game 118” (inclusive), what should you be able to do? The list
given sets a pretty high standard for what to accomplish with small
tools, but the utilitarian mantra stands in contrast to the book’s
more looming repeated item: this is all a game. In a game, you
should be able to win, or lose, but not much else. And if the book
itself fails, we’re to get wild with the chilly reception instead.

The use of the word “game” as every poem’s title has many
implications, but after its first allusion (soccer), it highlights
Foster’s decision to use many different forms—including the letter,
the list, fill-in-the-blank, prose, linebreaks, instructions, and
multiple choice—without attaching much meaning to form’s
choice, allowing “game” to remain playful, even when it begins
to reference writing rather than sport. If he’s just playing, it’s
enough to try things out.

WBN

Which gets to the bulk of World Ball Notebook, a book very much
about trying. First, you have one main speaker trying, through
various forms, voices, and poems, to pin down a set of contexts
that make up the larger game implicated in the claim to worldliness
the book’s title makes—trying too to navigate literal roads, less
literal identities, and shifts between time that get in the way of narrowing
scope—trying finally to make room for other characters
within all this—all the while not trying much for resolution. There
is also the constant trying that is parenting, that is wanting to say,
and most of all, wanting to record. At its most serious moments,
World Ball Notebook is trying to witness. In “game 4,” which reads
much like a spell or a prophecy, we learn,

The person without ideas or imagination is to pour one
teaspoon of ashes on the back of a running pronghorn
antelope, or try to; pour one teaspoon on the back of a
buffalo, or try to; pour another teaspoon on the first new
snow anywhere;

The poem details how various people ought to get rid of their
ashes, getting at some need to bury the dead, but it also reassures
the instructions’ target that it’s enough to try these things out.
Throughout, the types specified are referred to as “the one” or “the
person”; Foster uses vagueness as a way to get towards a less confining
specificity. He exploits the ambiguity of pronouns to conflate
the people and experiences of those he occasionally names,
making use of some sort of memory (or ashes) without reducing
the poems to history. Sometimes, this seems to happen to “protect
the innocent,” so to speak, but often, it does just the opposite,
implicating others (especially the narrator himself) in circumstances
in which they would not play a direct role without the
accusation of grammar, of sentences’ proximity. In a poem midway
through the book (game 49), a list of sentences involving a
hesitance to speak produces a pair of lines that gets closest at how
nearness can imply guilt:

I never told her I was standing on the balcony and saw them through the window.
She had not said she’d been raped nor did she ever mention it.

(from “game 49”)

Comparing this to the other lines from the same poem, the accusation
is just a result of the latter sentence taking on so much weight;
these two events are only simultaneous in the experience of reading.
But somehow, throughout World Ball Notebook, the nearness
gets to be too much to claim innocence, and part of the game is
becoming aware of the games happening nearby. That is how a
scene describing helping his daughter’s soccer team set up the nets
in the morning is changed, later in the book, by Foster’s description
of a different game entirely, “game 66,” in which,

The black boys attach a chain to the big chainlink gate of
fence running along a field, the playing field at night; the
chain attached at the other end to the bumper of a car
whose driver cannot hear them scream when the chain,
becoming taut as the car drives off down the street into the
dark, loops around several boys yoking them together…

while back in “game 43,” when “the girls would roll out languid,
cold and sleepy,” a premonition of danger comes: the poem/game
ends abruptly with the sentence, “Something might break.”

 

foto by Arturo Romo-Santillano

foto by Arturo Romo-Santillano

In an interview with Eileen Tabios from Black Lightening: Poetry-in-
Progress
, Foster said, “I have a background that I often have had to
simplify for people…who come from outside that experience.”
World Ball Notebook works through that tendency to oversimplify,
offering explanation of heritage mostly through the contexts and
experiences to which the speaker is or has been submitted, while
at the same time allowing identity to remain in its simplest, most
dangerous form: the implied unity of the persistent, emphatic I/me
that rolls throughout the book, or the ball that many games have
in common. In the middle of all this, the book invites in what
might not belong—a shopping list creeps into one of the poems, or
Che shirts appear across a scene—but also makes some acknowledged
omissions, substituting blanks for words, or beginning lists
with numbers that don’t seem to begin where prior pages left off.
Because so much of the book is based around a single actor’s perspective,
such choices can be seen to mirror the act of perception
itself, where some things simply flicker in and out of view, and
where meetings between previously unconnected characters or
events are forged within one person’s ability to notice. World Ball
Notebook
is at its strongest in those moments where the notebook
itself takes on that role. The ruled lines of a notebook take control
in a book where the logic of the list becomes the backbone of
urban collectivity, and where the game becomes written instruction
as much as an invitation to play.

Diana Hamilton is a co-coordinator of the Friday Night Series at the Poetry Project.

* You are Moby Dick’s pituitary gland still ticking after all these years, rolling milky on the sea bottom amongst nudibranch sea slugs and crabs scuttling away, radiating vexation.

Your pituitary

Your pituitary

* You are Jane Austen’s unsleeping pineal gland (also called the pineal body, epiphysis cerebri, epiphysis or the “third eye”), whose neuronal-like peptidergic cells fling hair-like fibers yearning at once for both self and other.

Your pineal

Your pineal

* You are Mack the Knife’s inflamed adrenal medullas and adrenal cortexes, freed from crowning the kidneys, floating through the dark streets of the city at night like locomoting eyes, rarely equidistant from the ground nor hurtling forward at the same rate.

Your ferret adrenal glands

Your ferret adrenal glands

* You are the fatty tissues of my own thymus, protecting me from disaster all these years with your prodding, your urgency, your sneering doubts and hectoring over-concern.

Your enlarged thymus

Your enlarged thymus

* You are the erect and triumphal pancreas of Janis Joplin, whose million cell clusters called islets of Langerhans continues to murmer in our ear, “Ain’t no one gonna love you any better, baby.” Slimed with digestive juices.

Left pancreas iris

Left pancreas iris

* You are that guy on the corner’s ghost ovary; he’s wincing as he rubs his side not because of romantic memories he cannot forget—no, he really has no clue about the existence of this ghost ovary or where it originated, but he’s about to get the sudden nosebleed of his life.

Your right ovary

Your right ovary

* You are one of the testes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, kalamata in form, downed unseen in mezcal like the gusano it was not, as the raccous party went full force the drinker began to get feel funny, wild slick phrasing telegraphing strange new hopes unbidden.

Your crawdad testes

Your crawdad testes

Horny Toad

Horny Toad

Old Bedsprings

Old Bedsprings

Utah Agave

Utah Agave

Blue Tongue Skink

Blue Tongue Skink

Bristle Cone Pine

Bristle Cone Pine

Helicopter in Trouble

Helicopter in Trouble

Jesusita Fire

Jesusita Fire

May 2009
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