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THE CITY AND MY WORK
Yeah, I have not been able to clarify the relationship between Los Angeles and my writing—poetry: Angry Days (1987), American Loneliness: Selected Poems (2005), mixed or hybrid genre works: World Ball Notebook (2008), City Terrace Field Manual (1996), anthology: Invocation L.A. Urban Multicultural Poetry (1989), translation: Akrilica, by Juan Felipe Herrera (1989), or the novel, Atomik Aztex (2005). A couple years ago an editor at the New York Times asked me to contribute an editorial on Los Angeles for that newspaper, without bashing George Bush (“we have enough of that kind of thing”), but not too discursively far out, not too surreal in slant, attitude or diction (“as you might imagine, most of our readership is pretty square”). Briefly summarized, my theme for the article I wrote was that as a city where Hollywood manufactures the dreams and illusions of the entire planet, the actual city of L.A. has millions of untold real stories, all overshadowed by what Allen Ginsberg called Hollywood’s “vast mills of illusion.” My thesis was that I might demonstrate the scope of this theme with some numbers, not the strongest suit in my skill set as a writer, it’s true, but I didn’t think the NYT would find numbers hard to understand.
I did my homework on Google and turned up these numbers for comparison:
• During 1979 to 1995, over 10,000 people were murdered in Los Angeles, according to a Harvard Medical School study.
• During 1969 to 1995, 3,181 homicides were recorded in Northern Ireland, according to the Irish Times website, I think it was.
• Israel has suffered 1,569 deaths due to terrorism in the past 25 years, according to the Israel’s Foreign Ministry website.
If 10,000 people can be killed in an American city, and it’s just accepted as business as usual, how many more people would have to die in L.A. for it to be major national—not to mention international news? How imaginative and surreal would the average, domestic, daily, ordinary forms of homicide need to be to surpass internecine conflicts like Northern Ireland and Israel in notice?
Or are these circumstances only symptoms of oppression and exploitation?
Besides statistics in the article, I noted that that the violence had an intensity both immediate and personal: I arrived in L.A. in 1965, the year of the Watts riots, where as a child I watched National Guard troops pour tracer fire into buildings at night in South Central on TV, as a sort of introduction to the character of the city I had moved to from Northern California. The next five years saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy (in the Ambassador Hotel, recently demolished on Wilshire Blvd.) and about a year later, my father was shot in Watts by a kid with a hunting rifle firing at everyone on the street. The high-powered bullet bore through both my father’s legs, blowing a one inch piece of femur from his right leg into his leg. He spent a year on his back with pins immobilizing both legs through his full-body cast; later, he learned to walk again with one leg shorter than the other. While my dad was hospitalized, students were indiscriminately shot to death by the National Guard on campus at Kent State and Jackson State universities, with clear approval of both government authority and elected leaders. The Vietnam war was on TV news every night, and I recall distinctly Life magazine’s spread devoted to My Lai, with full-color photos of 500 men, women, and children massacred by one company of the 20th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. army. I knew that not only would no U.S. soldier ever be imprisoned or executed for these massacres because they carried out the policies of the highest levels of power, but with the draft in place, my friends and I were to be sent to Vietnam to engage in the same slaughter, and I thought it highly likely—and not just some fit of self-conscious adolescent angst—that I really did not have long to live. I was surprised to survive, and decades later, a lifetime later, on the 4th of July, when everyone else in the family was out of town, as my mom and I ate dinner on the patio in the front yard of her house in East L.A. with neighbors barbecuing across the street and kids light fireworks in the intersection a bullet slammed through the table we were eating on. Piercing the plastic chair between my mother and me, it scattered white plastic chips underneath. This was nothing surprising of course, and the cops who took the report expected nothing to come of it—in fact, the families barbecuing in the street had not even noticed, and the kids had not stopped lighting off fireworks. We’d first thought the bullet striking the table and bouncing who knows where was a firecracker a kid had tossed over the fence.
The NYT could not use this perspective on Los Angeles; “maybe if it was the 4th of July,” the editor said. That our citizens are killed in the tens of thousands, that over 28,000 died in the AIDS epidemic, that some of us survive these wars best we can, on our own (some do not), that’s not a story worth telling in the back pages of a newspaper. It doesn’t fit the way they frame the issues. But it occurs to me that as our survival is up to us because the authorities have always been interested in sacrificing us for their own gain, and as our moral and spiritual and common survival together are up to us, we must speak to each other about our survival, and listen and tell each other the stories of our lives. My work has been a dialogue about community, continuously read and performed in community venues. What does that mean, to survive? We make the meaning by living it out, we find the meaning as we write it. I can sit on my balcony in a white plastic chair with a bullet hole in it with friends and drink beer and talk about these issues. Anybody can sit in that chair.
1. Octavio Paz wrote in “Brotherhood: Homage to Claudius Ptolemy”:
I am a man: little do I last
and the night is enormous.
But I look up:
the stars write.
Unknowing I understand:
I too am written,
and at this very moment
someone spells me out.
Do our lives inscribe the visible text of incomprehensible history, the vast wheeling universe, great unseen forces making themselves manifest in the capillary work of our day to day actions, our words?
2. In The Little Prince, Antoine St. Exupery wrote the famous lines, “You can see clearly only with your heart/ what is essential is invisible to the eyes” and in some sense the American cultural fetish for the visible, such as sound bites like the “lead with video” TV news stories, the “vast windmills of illusion” of Hollywood film industry and its predominance over our time and our lives, overshadows writing. Doesn’t that precisely imply that literary writing is “essentialist” (in a culture that is thoroughly materialist and hung up on the visual?
3. At the risk of getting off the subject by introducing films as another topic and to put the previous question another way, a Hollywood studio head bragged about having William Faulkner on staff, saying he could hire the best writers in America for a few hundred dollars a week. My question is, doesn’t any effect of “invisibility” have to do with the overall glare of money? That no matter how cool we look in our literary sunglasses, the spotlight of money in our city and our nation puts all else in shadow?
4. Isn’t that why in the federal economic stimulus bill recently passed trillions go to banks and all the money that goes to the NEA is less than was given for AIG executive bonuses?
5. Isn’t this “invisibility” of what is essential in literature a fundamental problem in our national culture? As William Carlos Williams put it in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” (1955):
what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
Doesn’t this 1955 quote from a nationally influential poet and family practice physician imply since mid-20th century that there has been a national culture that is not only unhealthy, but often fatal—and that the antidote is literature generally, and poetry specifically? And that it’s no accident you can’t make money from poetry?
6. Is that which is practical and economic to that which is literary in the U.S. analogous to the wire and the electricity?
7. Is there already too much emphasis on the visible in our culture?
8. Is invisibility where it’s at? Is that margin of the invisible where the writer needs to be?
9. You notice how when physicists talk about relativity or quantum mechanics or string theory they do so through analogy and other figures of speech because their elements are all invisible?
10. Which writers were more invisible in the national culture and discourse of the 19th century than Whitman, Dickinson, Melville, Thoreau?
11. Where are they all now, in popularity and national affection, all those famous writers in the 19th century like Helen Hunt Jackson, with national bestsellers like Ramona?
12. When Percy B. Shelley said, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” isn’t that generally taken to mean that poets conspire with those vast unseen forces of the universe, the invisible hand that Paz suggests writes us? And that to speak of “visibility” is in some sense to speak in the marketing terms of the materialist culture which already overshadows all of our projects?
13. In his brief and ambiguous (of course) one paragraph metaphorical essay, “To Dress a Shadow,” Julio Cortazar begins by suggesting that while shaping and clothing the immaterial with the material, “The hardest thing is to surround it, to fix its limit where it fades into the penumbra along its edge.” What are the limits of the visible and invisible that we are addressing? Where is the penumbra along what edge?
14. Is “invisibility” the same as “insensitivity”? Is “invisibility” the same as “familiarity”?
15. Is the limit of invisibility and visibility determined by the writer’s use of defamiliarization (ostranenie, estrangement, distancing effect)?
16. Is the gaze visible or invisible? Whose gaze has been made visible?
17. Don’t the definitions of visibility and invisibility reside on the same page? Are we on that page or somewhere else?
18. Isn’t it the gaze that renders the invisible visible, and vice-versa?
19. Is there too much emphasis on the visual? Why does music get to be invisible?
20. Did the ancient mariners steer by the light of dead stars? Didn’t those stars die eons ago, and the light only arrive here now? Doesn’t L.A. writing have its own most immediate and necessary life apart from eternal constellations and national discourse? What is that?
World Ball Notebook
by Sesshu Foster. City Lights Books, 2008.
Foster divides World Ball Notebook into 118 “Games” and begins with special thanks to his daughters’ soccer coach. But his prose poems, letter-poems, checklists, shopping lists, and overheard conversations are not about soccer, exactly. Rather, they emulate soccer: they are global, tachycardic, and filled with lightning-swift exchanges. Standout poems like Game 101 combine road-trip fog with political statement: “when the officer of the state patrol asks you to step out of the vehicle you translate this to mean, I feel it, I too feel I must vomit…” A little queasy and uneasy, but in a good way, World Ball Notebook travels widely in space and time, offering bursts of adrenaline and, afterwards, weary clarity.
MAJOR LITERARY CONFERENCE AT LMU FOCUSES ON “WRITING LOS ANGELES”
What: LAy of the LAnd: Writing Los Angeles
When: March 25, 2009 1:30-8:00 PM
Where: Loyola Marymount University
How do contemporary L.A. writers render the city they call home? What new directions are there in L.A. writing—is there a “school” of L.A. writing? What role should L.A. writers play during these crisis times in our city and country? Can L.A. authors give the city back the sense of history and identity that “development” so often erases?
Two of LMU’s own writer-professors, Gail Wronsky (director, Creative Writing) and Rubén Martínez (Fletcher Jones Chair in Literature & Writing) have curated a day-long conference dedicated specifically to writers in Los Angeles and writing on Los Angeles—not as a one-off occasion, but as an annual celebration of the literary arts in the City of Angels.
The conference will gather about a dozen writers, both established and upcoming who both live here and represent the city in their work. The presenters will range across the genres—poetry, fiction, non-fiction and criticism. There will be panels, readings and opportunities to break bread, time for the LMU community to rub elbows with the best of the city’s literary talent.
Among the distinguished company will be the grande dame of L.A. lit, Carolyn See (There Will Never Be Another You), poet and 2008 Whiting Award recipient Douglas Kearney, Los Angeles Times Book Review editor David Ulin, performance poet and MTA diva Marisela Norte (Peeping Tom Tom Girl), historical fiction/noir-with-a-twist novelist Nina Revoyr (The Age of Dreaming), Terry “the Insurgent Muse” Wolverton, a veteran of the poetry scene (Embers), the politicized cyber-punk phenom of East L.A., Sesshu Foster (Atomik Aztex)Los Angeles Poetry Festival organizer and “unofficial Poet Laureate of Los Angeles” Suzanne Lummis, former Los Angeles Times staffer and elegant prose stylist Lynell George, “Witness L.A.” social justice blogger and author Celeste Fremon, novelist and UCLA professor David Wong Louie, Eastside performance writer Raquel Gutierrez. (MORE)
LAy of the LAnd is sponsored by Creative Writing and Syntext, Fletcher Jones Chair in Literature & Writing, Graduate Program in English, Marymount Institute, Denise Scott Fund and the Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts.
The event is free and open to the public.
12:00 Opening Reception/Lunch (Marymount Institute)
1:30 Panel I: “Visibility” (McIntosh Center)
Moderator: Alicia Partnoy, poet and LMU professor
Panelists: David Wong Louie (fiction)
Celeste Fremon (non-fiction, blogging)
Lynell George (non-fiction)
Terry Wolverton (poetry)
3:00 Break/Tea (English Department Village)
4:00 Panel II: “Invisibility” (McIntosh Center)
Moderator: Chuck Rosenthal, novelist and LMU professor
Panelists: Sesshu Foster (fiction, poetry)
Raquel Gutierrez (performance, theater)
Nina Revoyr (fiction)
Suzanne Lummis (poetry)
5:30 Wine & Cheese Reception (Ahmanson Foyer)
6:00 Featured Reading & Discussion (Ahmanson)
Moderator: David Ulin, editor, Los Angeles Times Book Review
Readers: Douglas Kearney (poetry)
Marisela Norte (poetry)
Carolyn See (fiction)
|David Lloyd & The Poetic Research Bureau present…A Benefit Reading for the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund
Sunday, March 29, 2009
Event starts at 4pm
The Poetic Research Bureau
Their website is http://www.pcrf.net/