My new chapbook, Café Schilling, is now out! Email me to order your copy!
yohejohn at the gmail!
15 pages. Poems about, and from, traveling in Europe.
Features poems which appeared in ColdNoon, Topology, and The Iconoclast!
Thursday, October 10, 2019
Sunday, October 6, 2019
This review-essay appeared in 2015 at Word Riot, which is now gone, alas.
I would be surprised if anyone reading this remembers The Day of the Triffids, or has even read it—it was out of print in American for many years. The copy I found in the late 70s was an old paperback already, in my parents' eclectic collection—probably my mother's, though maybe actually my father's, from back when he still read books and hadn't yet succumbed to the great god Television. The Day of the Triffids was the first 'adult' novel I ever read, which, I think, was what attracted me to it—certainly wasn't the Hardy Boys or Old Yeller, though, like a lot of science fiction, neither was it inaccessibly difficult for a ten or twelve-year-old—not one of my mom's eastern religion books, or The Brothers Karamazov. Maybe it's because you always remember your first, but in the deluge of sci-fi and fantasy books I read in the years after, I never quite forgot Day of the Triffids, and after reading a crop of recent dystopian novels, all now mostly classed at YA, like The Hunger Games, World War Z, Divergent, Feed, and others (there are a lot of dystopian YA novels nowadays), and having discussions about formative books with my friend Jen, I had to go back and see if 1) Day of the Triffids still held up, and 2) I could learn anything more about myself, and my younger self, from what I was reading back then.
The story begins with the main character and narrator, Bill, waking up in a deserted hospital, after being unconscious for a while, and learning that while he was out, most everyone in the world has gone blind, and that not only that, what everybody took for non-sentient genetically modified plants have pulled up their roots and begun to hunt. I know, I know, in these days of zombies and vampires, the idea of killer plants doesn't sound so killer, but if one is willing to suspend their disbelief about zombies, a killer plant dystopia is at least as plausible. I couldn't have told you then why Triffids imprinted itself on me—the immediate thrill was imagining what I would do if I were one of the lone survivors of the destruction of human civilization—which is still true with the current crop, but as anyone who has thought about science fiction (meaning, I guess, trying to justify it to myself) will tell you, those dystopian worlds are stand-ins (not quite metaphors) (maybe fables) for our own world. In fact, those worlds do not seem so different to us readers than our own world. I read Triffids maybe at age eleven or twelve, not entering a new world but no, feeling that the world had changed. With puberty, I felt like I was waking after being unconscious for a long time, into a mostly deserted world run by things I'd thought of as weird and harmless (adults, and humans in general) but who were in fact scary and dangerous. Also, the people like me, the left-over puberty survivors, were mostly blind and helpless and, if I wanted to survive, I very quickly needed to find others like me, who could see. Also, once I realized that I liked what was called 'science-fiction,' I had a place to go, that I belonged somewhere: in the science-fiction section of the bookstore. Once I started carrying science-fiction books around at school, I began to find the other survivors—kids, mostly boys (though girls, I sensed, weren't killer plants)(or mostly not—cue Newt from Aliens: “Mostly....”) who were reading similar books, and these texts gave us a 'secret language' that the triffids couldn't understand.
The Day of the Triffids was written by David Wyndham, real name John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris (!), a British science fiction writer who's other works I've never heard of. He was apparently quite well-known in the 50s and 60s, and though he died in 1969, some of his posthumous writing has been published as recently as 2009. Still popular and read in England, his books went out of print here in the States, until recently, when Triffids and his other most popular novel, The Chrysalids, were re-issued, by The Modern Library, both under the label of a “20th Century Rediscovery.”
What I didn't remember, and maybe just didn't consider back then, was how much the novel is less about the weird evil flesh-eating triffids, than about humans, and Wyndham's thoughts on how exactly humans in a post-disaster world would re-form and survive. Most dystopian books present one form, one way, that the author thinks humans will govern themselves, or, usually, be governed. Wyndham presents many, using the structure of the book, with Bill traveling around England to various groups of survivors, as a way to present different philosophies about the best way to survive: Some as anarachic/communal groups, some as smaller family-sized units, and some (the really bad guys) going back to a form of medieval feudalism, with sighted people ruling estates of blind serfs (who will be fed on ground up triffid gruel). What I like about the novel is that Wyndam's characters have some actual intelligent conversations about the pluses and minuses of each form of government, though, interestingly, the increasing number of triffids force Bill and his fellow survivors to opt for larger groups, with larger areas of protected land.
What the few sighted people do, or don't do, with the now blind rest of the population becomes the big question. Do they take the truly compassionate route, and try and help everyone? Seemingly impossible, and endangering everyone, especially, as if blindness and carnivore plants weren't bad enough, with some kind of sickness, which may or may not be typhoid, or the result of biological weapons, ravaging London and other larger cities. Or, cut their losses and regroup in smaller groups with other sighted people, knowing that the blind people left behind will suffer and die? Not easy decisions, and no decision any character makes in the novel is without some dialogue with another character about its feasibility and morality. Even the 'best' guys (there are no real good guys) that Bill and crew join up with are not without some disturbing new rules, and in any case, in any variation of post-disaster re-organization, the general lot of women seems to always end up as baby-makers, which is the one conversation Wyndham avoids, by having even the main female character, Josella, an independent and intelligent woman before the disaster, and a writer of a novel that seems to be the equivalent of Shades of Grey (ultimate male science-fiction nerd fantasy: to be trapped in a scary new world with a hot female porn writer), happy and willing, and even looking forward to, having babies.
Re-reading Triffids now, I'm just struck at how seminal it was: its influence shows in all kinds of books and movies now, from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, to Stephen King's The Stand, to José Saramago's Blindness. One of my favorite zombie movies, 28 Days Later (screenplay by Alex Garland, another brit, who wrote The Beach) begins with the same premise of (and I take as an homage to) Triffids: a man waking up in a hospital after an overnight disaster, to find himself one of the few survivors). In fact, I think the whole zombie genre premise (ie zombies spread over the world, small groups of humans survive) comes from Wyndham's novel: just substitute killer plants for zombies. Or apes, say, in Planet of the Apes. Apes and especially zombies seem to make for a better metaphor (for example, racism/slavery, capitalism, AIDS, the invasion of Iraq) though who knows, with the now almost common, though still scary, genetically modified foods, care of the Monsanto cabal, maybe the triffids' time is close at hand! Maybe not even as metaphor!
And what did I learn about my younger self? Well, obviously, the world was full of metaphorically helpless blind people, and metaphorically evil triffids, and I was on my own, surviving the disaster called 'growing up.' And some of my fellow survivors might not be the nicest people either. Nor did compassion for the blind seem to be enough. In fact, it might have been too much: That, to have compassion and try to relieve the suffering of all the metaphorically blind people in the world would make me triffid food. No, best to withdraw, with a few like-minded souls, if I could find them (and especially with a woman who writes porn) and live on an island, where we could survive, and (maybe) figure out how to rid the world of triffids, and repopulate it with our metaphorically non-blind children.
Nothing has changed. I still feel this way.
Saturday, October 5, 2019
This review originally appeared in 2015 at Word Riot, which is now gone, alas.
The Palace of Illusions
by Kim Addonizio
Soft Skull Press 2014
Kim Addonizio's writing goes for the guts—punches of raw common american language, about raw common human relationships, that are also, at times, funny and sexy, with touches of all her street-level poet heroes, like Charles Bukowski, Frank O'Hara, Anne Waldman and (early Satan Says-era) Sharon Olds. I have up to this point mostly thought of Addonizio as a poet, though she has written some novels, and her first collection of short stories, in the box called pleasure, is as unapologetically in-your-face as, say, Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son, and I love it. It gives her room to work even more in the lower-class blue collar divey world that other underground writers like Bukowski and Hubert Selby Jr. make, if not beautiful, then interesting and sympathetic, and Addonizio, like them, may be showing her (unconscious or not) street Buddhism by showing how beauty can be found anywhere, that the lotus grows in mud.
But now I've shifted how I think of her, as not just a poet, but a writer in general, like Bukowski, because because of her new collection of stories, The Palace of Illusions, out through Soft Skull Press. Some of the stories, like “The Other Woman” and “Blown,” are similar to those in in the box called pleasure—short, fast, and powerful, from the POVs of trashy young women involved with trashy men (some not-so young) the results of which we readers know are doomed, and that they're bad choices. Actually, even the protagonists seem to know that they're making bad choices, and yet seem powerless to choose otherwise, which is how you might determine whether you'll like Addonizio or not: Is that how Real Life feels to you? Kinda out of control, at least temporarily pleasurable, and full of suffering?
Importantly though: even as bad choices are made, none of the young women protagonists refuses to accept responsibility for their actions, which they could in some cases very easily do, like in “Intuition,” when an older married man is breaking up with fifteen-year-old Faith, she briefly thinks about what would happen if she just went public with their affair, and how she could destroy him:
“I sit there, turned away from him on the swing, holding the knife I my lap. I cold turn, before he gets up, and stab him in the heart, and then he really would be dead. I could get away with it. I could say, He touched me between my legs. He forced me. He took me to the Tip Top Motel, and he said he would hurt me if I ever told. Everyone knows what men to to girls; people would believe is was self-defense. No one would know the truth.” (183-4)
But, she doesn't, which is why I like her—or, well, at least sympathize with her—and other Addonizio characters. It's not so much about ethics—Faith, obviously, doesn't like the man anymore, and has lost respect—but 'owning' your actions, realizing the inevitability of effect, from a cause that she, less than he, put in action. Which might horrify some readers, or make them go tsk tsk, but whatever Addonizio's characters are, they're not victims, or they don't think of themselves that way, and her stories are not about being politically correct.
“Intuition” is my favorite story in the collection. It's got the gutsy darkness of earlier Addonizio stories, but it's longer, and more in depth. If earlier stories (and, again, some in this collection) are more similar to her poems—capturing a short moment in time—this story has time to build, and has great passages like this:
“The thing is, you keep hoping. With each boy, you think maybe it will happen: he'll look at you a certain way, he'll get you, and your search will be over. I've been searching since I was thirteen, with one boy after another.” (163).
Hard to remember maybe (though funny too) that that's a fifteen-year-old-girl speaking, and yet Addonizio's talent (and this goes for her poetry too) is that she can write something in plain american speech that sounds easy to articulate/write/say, but isn't, and yet captures how anyone, fifteen to fifty, really feels, even when they're fucked-up messes: they still capture very human situations and feelings.
Other stories in The Palace of Illusions are more along this tone and strategy. Some would say they're more mature, but that would imply Addonizio's shorter pieces aren't as good. They're just different. Still, she is experimenting with a more formal, controlled, style. What these stories remind me of is City of Boys, a collection of short stories by Beth Nugent, which I thought was one of the best books of the 90s, though Nugent dropped away after that, and it's out of print, so I'm not sure many readers will get that comparison. But Nugent was coming from Hemingway's darker short works, and Marguerite Duras, and Joyce Carol Oats, as is Addonizio.
She's also experimenting with different ages, both younger—with the poor girl from “Beautiful Lady Of The Snow,” who you just want to hug and take far away from her mother and life—and the nameless woman in “In The Time of the Byzantine Empire,” the middle-aged academic that proves making bad choices is not just the domain of young people. And there's an older character, Ruth, in “Cancer Poems,”dying of cancer and taking a community college poetry class in order to maybe write a book she can leave behind for her granddaughter.
Addonizio is also, in a few stories, experimenting with fairy tales, and one vampire. These interest me less, though I acknowledge that other readers might find them preferable to the punch-in-the-guts stories. And even whe Addonizio writes about seven dwarves, say, her narrator still talks/sounds 'street smart'. The vampire is a teenager in college. Or, she's half-vampire, her dad is full vampire. The details are less important than the effect, of an insecure young woman with low self esteem, who can still, with (dark) comedic effect talk about stalking people to drink their blood.
Addonizio apparently being Addonizio, none of the characters in The Palace of Illusions (with the exception of Ruth, the cancer non-survivor) is what we'd call likeable. Relatable, yes: we've all done things in our lives that we regret or are not proud of (ie, we're fuck-ups just like everyone else)(or we feel that way)(or I do—if you don't maybe this collection isn't for you and you can just renew your subscription to The New Yorker). So, sympathy, yes. Pity, definitely. Interesting, for sure. And these types of characters can be harder to stay involved with beyond a short story. The one Addonizio novel I've read, My Dreams Out In The Street, I found difficult, not because of the style but because of the two main characters, and the awful choices they make in their lower-class lives. They're interesting, yes, but following them for two hundred pages and continuing to feel any kind of sympathy is a hard ask, though it apparently has a cult following.
Addonizio also written two fairly popular and well-received 'how-to' books on the craft of poetry, Ordinary Genius, and A Poet's Companion, co-authored with poet Dorianne Laux (another street-ish poet, though more interested in the erotic than the rough) both of which include short essay-chapters on writing as a process and way of life, as well as exercise-prompts that could be used on one's own, or in poetry workshops. What I would love is to read some critical essays from her, in maybe the style of Tony Hoagland, just to see how she thinks about other poets and poetry, though the truth is I'd just love to read anything by her.
Actually what I'd really love to do is jam with her sometime, since she also plays blues harp (harmonica) in a band and at open mics, and this seems perfectly fitting—she's not pop (too shocking and rough-edged for the prudish mainstream) and she's not jazz (though she has an improvisatory fun feels at times, her subject matter is too dark) and neither is she heady classical (no 'too many notes' texts here—stark versus ornamental). No, her writing is from the bars, from the blues that come from real human working class relationships—the sadness and sexiness and fucked-up-ed-ness of things never quite working out, as all relationships never really ever quite work out, even when they do (and they don't).
After reading the last installment Best American Short Stories, I feared that I was losing interest in short fiction, period. But Addonizio restores my faith and interest. Good edgy fiction is out there, with publishers like Soft Skull Press, we just may have to search a little harder. That said, I don't know why The Palace of Illusions wasn't picked up by a bigger publisher. For all that I love Addonizio's underground feel, that's me being like those music listeners who like their underground bands to stay underground, when really it feels like she's about to explode.
Thursday, October 3, 2019
Coming soon! My new poetry chapbook, Café Schilling: Poems from Europe.
Experiment: email or DM me with an address, I will send you a copy, and you pay what you think it's worth. yohejohn at gmail.com
Experiment: email or DM me with an address, I will send you a copy, and you pay what you think it's worth. yohejohn at gmail.com
Sunday, September 29, 2019
As Fiction Editor for Deep Wild: Writing from the Backcountry, I am proud to say we will soon be open for submission for essays, poetry and short fiction for issue #2!
To order/subscribe to Issue #1, here.
To order/subscribe to Issue #1, here.
Wednesday, September 18, 2019
Originally appeared at COLDNOON: International Journal of Travel Writing and Travelling Cultures, March 2017. It is now defunct, alas. Enjoy!
[update: it's back up! Here's the original link]
[update: it's back up! Here's the original link]
When you open yourself up to the Universe, the Universe provides! With a free summer ahead of me, I have decided to return to Spain after many years, Barcelona in particular, which I've always wanted to explore. No plan, no activities, just to stay awhile and see what the city has to offer. Sunny May, and although Barcelona has a super convenient metro, and an amazing bike path system, I am content to walk, especially down in the old section of town, where what would be back alleys in the US are a main streets, a whole maze of them, filled with people and small shops: Food, music, clothes. All the signs in Catalàn, a Romance language similar to Spanish, and French, so that I can understand most of them, but have no idea to how to pronounce the words. In fact, and I didn't know this before I came, Catalonia (or Catalunya as the natives call it) used to be its own country for a while, like Texas, and, also like Texas, they're fiercely proud of themselves their language and culture. I envy their bilingualness, like having a secret language only cool people know.
It's my second day here, rambling along La Rambla, main avenue in the touristy centro section, when I see a green poster outside of the Palau Virreina advertising the 2011 Barcelona Poetry Festival. A week of daily free readings and performances at the Palau and other nearby locations. And it started yesterday! I check the schedule of events, and, though I'm fine with just seeing what the poets in Spain are up to, some American poets are reading, including Jerome Rothenberg and...Gary Snyder!
The next night I return to the Palau Virreina, early, and though I didn't think a poetry reading would attract much people, I'm wrong. The place fills up, all chairs taken, people standing in back and even weaseling down the aisles. The building is old old, stone walls probably older than the United States, but it's been converted into an arts center, currently displaying some contemporary photography. Two huge wooden doors open into a high arched hall in the layout of a cross, though the 'top' of it is closed/walled off and the stage arranged right at the center, so chairs in the wings are viewing that performance sideways. I suppose this isn't even a 'hall', since parts of it are open to the sky. A courtyard I guess.
The opening act for Jerome Rothenberg is a South African “poet/musician” named Kgafela Oa Magogodi. During his reading/performance he sits with a guitar in his lap, tapping out the rhythm with his right foot on a tambourine, and occasionally picking up small percussion instruments like a drum stick or rattle, singing in English and what I take to be a tribal language from South Africa, but between 'songs' (which at times are him just talking over a simple vamp) reciting poems in the style of what some would call 'spoken word', meaning fast and passionate and occasionally rhyming and on the political side, criticizing both his government and the United States. I'm all for that, though he seems to be preaching to the choir, which is, in my humble opinion, the problem with that type of poetry: it's passionate, but not subtle, nor surprising, nor does it tell me anything new, or make me think differently about politics, or anything.
I have to say that I'm not that familiar with Rothenberg, never read his stuff except maybe in anthologies. Magogodi introduces him as “The Shaman” and he has that air, though all poets have that air, a little. He looks like an old Jewish Torah scholar, except with short white hair and beard, his head and neck curving over in the beginning of a question mark, from a life bent over books, and which is probably what I'll end up looking like. He's dressed all in black: black slacks, black t-shirt, black shoes, with a Native American-looking necklace of wood and turquoise. An assortment of props are already on the podium: a feather, a baton, and what looks like a long plastic tube.
He addresses us in english, and I wonder how much the audience understands, and even how much of the audience is spanish/catalan versus maybe american, and starts by saying he's going to sing a traditional native Seneca song, in the original language, then in English, then “for the first time ever, en Catalàn!”
That gets a huge roar, though when he actually starts singing, the song just consists of the line, “The animals are coming” repeated a few times while he shakes a rattle and waves a feather. Still, I think the Senecas would have been proud that one of their songs has been sung across the ocean in a language just a little bit less in danger of disappearing than theirs.
Impressing the crowd even more, Rothenberg reads one of his poems in English, then a Spanish translation of it. Unfortunately he can't keep that up, and after that reads just in English, and though interesting to me perhaps, he's losing some folks, they're getting restless, especially when us English-speakers (and there seem to be more than I would have thought) chuckle, or go 'huh' after an interesting line. Since Rothenberg does such a good job of reading his one poem in Spanish, I'd think he could have, or even should have, talked between poems en español, at least un poquito, to keep the crowd with him, since they loved how he started out. But, he also reads a 'tone poem' (as in, just made up of sounds) by a German dadaist, Hugo Ball, while whirling that plastic tube over his head the whole time, making a high pitched whine. Which seems to have the same effect on everyone, as in, Um, what the fuck was that?
He ends with a Navaho song, about how horses came to their land, which is interesting since the Spanish were the ones who actually introduced them, but I like the idea of the 'losers' re-writing history with poetry and song, taking the oppressors out of the story completely. I'm not sure people get it though. Maybe I'm thinking too much. It's happened before.
The description in the program says that Magogodi and Rothenberg will “show a way to listen to poetry that incorporates ritual and combat in every verse and every gesture” (my translation)(from Catalàn!) which only goes to show that the Spanish like their descriptions to be melodramatic, because there is no ritual or combat, nor have the two performers ever met before the show. What they do have in common is an interest in mixing/melding languages and cultures together.
The huge wooden doors of the 'palace' have been kept open for the poetry reading, which I think is meant as an invitation to any passers-by (and there are many) though throughout there has been a constant Rambla rumble of people out on a Friday night, and at one point a large group gathers in the back of the hall and have to be shushed, though they don't really. I'm not sure if they're people who have just wandered in, or who are waiting for the Sufis, because in fact they are the headliners tonight: three people performing Sufi poetry and music. A beautiful red-haired woman dressed all in white reads the poetry, translated into Catalàn, while the two men, one of whom also sings beautifully, accompany her, and/or play musical interludes between poems, with both stringed instruments (guitar, violin, and some kind of traditional lute or oud) and sometimes on handheld tambourine-looking drums. Since the poetry is in Catalàn, I tune it out sometimes and just enjoy the music, but other times I can understand some of the words. It's all about love. All you need is amor.
Halfway across the world and all I do with my free time is what I'd do back home: Hang out in a bookstore. The best one, LA Central, a block off La Rambla, has a huge collection. I seek out the poetry section, curious about which American poets are the most popular, and (this may make some people angry, but I love it)(meaning both that I love that it makes people angry, and love that it's true) it's Charles Bukowski, hands down. There are eight of his books of poetry, in translation, compared to Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, each with one book. John Ashbury nowhere to be found.
I'm renting a room from a woman while staying here. Much cheaper than staying in a hostel, and much quieter. I'm going 'old school' traveler style, enjoying having no phone, no car, no computer, no iPod. Still, with not even a radio in my room, I do miss music, so that every little snippet I hear seems like a gift, like when I stop into a smoothie place down on Calle Ferrán for a slice of pizza, as a halfway cheap lunch (because Barcelona is expensive) and the Rolling Stones' “Beast of Burden,” is playing. One of my favorites, haven't heard it in a while. Tired from walking all day, gazing at all the beautiful Spanish women, the perfect words for what I'm feeling:
I've walked for miles, my feet are hurting
All I want is for you to make love to me
Poetry vs. Music. Two points on a continuum? Heidegger says all artists help in the creation of the world, but he reserves top place for the poets, because they create with language, but here on La Rambla, Saturday afternoon, a percussion troupe appears. Modern day punk rock Catalàn Kodo drummers, blocking traffic, yelling and pounding and dancing and lifting their drums in the air. A hundred people surrounding them, dancing with them down the street.
On Saturday night, when I arrive back at the hall of the Palau de Virreina. A group of people, volunteers, dressed in funny-looking, what I take to be traditional Catalunyan, red hats, wait at the front of the courtyard. One woman, guapa, approaches me and says hola. I try not to act nervous as she asks me if I'd like to hear a poem. Me encantaría, I say. I would love to.
She spreads out a set of ten (or so) cards, face down, and asks me to pick one. On the other side is the name of a poem, and who it is by, which, alas, I don't really catch, but at least it's in Spanish and not Catalàn—I may have a chance of understanding it.
She smiles, seemingly pleased by my choice, and recites it by memory. I understand most of it, I think—it seems to be in a simple accessible style, a poem about a woman's face. I try to be brave and look the beautiful woman in the eye, and she stares right back, and when she's done I want to tell her that she has a face like that, but what if I've misunderstood? What if the woman's face in the poem is old and wrinkly? Instead, I play it safe, as I always seem to do with women, and say simply, Gracias. That's all I can say to beautiful women who recite poetry to me. Gracias.
The problem with having events in the courtyard of the Palau de Veillreina becomes evident: Rain. I arrived early, just to get out of it, but with the open courtyard, half the seats are wet. Hardly above a drizzle, not unpleasant to walk through, but not to sit in. I grab a metal folding chair down front, under a second-floor walkway, in the second row. The first row is just a little out in the open, so the seats are half wet. All the video recording cables, and half the stage, are out in the rain. Steam rising from the stage lights. I start to worry about be electrocuted.
A trio of older people sit down next to me, and the woman right next to me smiles and nods. The hall is filling up, or at least the dry parts, with a small section of us under the crosswalk, then twenty feet of empty wet chairs, then a larger group standing in back. The whole time we're sitting there, through a glass wall to the left there is a room, a classroom maybe, with chairs and a couple desks up front. I finally ask one of the guys in charge why we can't all move in there. He claims we wouldn't all fit, though I'm not so sure. More likely, moving all the recording equipment, sound and video, would be impossible, so the recording/video of the poetry has become more important than the poetry itself.
My new neighbor spreads out her umbrella and puts it over the chair in front of us, because by now the rain has gotten stronger and raindrops are splattering off the seats and back onto us. I thank her and mention that things don't seem planned out very well. She nods and says that it's a matter of organization, and that if a corporation had organized this, everything would run smoothly. Anarchist that I am, I have to agree with her. “Sabes,” she says, “Los poetas son idealistas, pero no muy organizados.” Indeed.
Lining the back of the stage are four super-comfy-looking chairs about the size of love seats. All black, of course. And dry. The poets arrive, and man are they young. Two young men, two young women. I guess I'd expected people like Jerome Rothenberg, wise men, or wise people, but nope, these look like college kids. I tell this to my neighbor and she laughs. “We don't have many poets here in Catalunya!”
The four youths ascend and stand in a row at the front, in the drizzle. Like, for a while. Silent. I think this is a statement of some sort. My neighbor chuckles. Then, through some unspoken signal, three of them retreat to their chairs, of which I'm seriously jealous right now.
Two of them, María Cabrera and Jaume C. Pons, are from Catalunya. The other two, Pablo Fidalgo and María Salgado, from Madrid. So, half the poems will be in español, and half in catalàn. The guy from Madrid, and the seeming organizer, Fidalgo, reads first. He's cultivating his inner Pablo Neruda, both in body weight and poem content, where 'amor' appears every other line.
I understand most of the Spanish poems, though I actually prefer the Catalàn poets, they have better stage presence, speak more intensely. The young catalàn woman is serious, and intense, and I want to marry her and her sexy rolling r's. Pons, the catalàn guy is the best, even the other poets seems to acknowledge this. He's the only one who uses humor, which I like, as well as a couple 'shout outs' to both Keats and Jim Morrison. He even sings a verse from The Doors' “The End.”
All lusting after beautiful women who write poetry aside, I feel like I'm in a good tribe that night. A room full of people who like poetry, and surprisingly a lot of younger folks. I'm not sure what would happen in the States, though there are plenty of artsy-looking older folks, including a few other men with long hair, so I don't feel too much like a freak.
I wonder what writing in Catalàn is like. That is, everyone here seems to be basically fluent in both Catalàn and Spanish, therefore these poets seem to be choosing the language they want to write in. I wonder if they would say that? That it's a choice for them? Because Spanish is a world language, they could write in it and have people from Santiago to Los Angeles understand them. But to choose to write in a language spoken by maybe a million people? Two million? And yet, I would do that too, write in my own language versus the language of the oppressor. Except I have no choice, the language of the oppressor is the only one I know.
On Sunday I do get to see a couple of older Spanish wise men poets: Luis García Montero and Joan Margarit. I arrive at the Ateneu Barcelonès, where the reading is being held, a little late. In contrast to the Palau Virreina, this building is new, fancy, a little sterile feeling even. I walk in and a security guard points me through some doors, where I can already hear the sound of poetry being recited. I check my watch. Really? It's not that late. Who ever heard of a poetry reading starting on time?!
I enter the room, a small theatre with rows of seats, and with a large movie/tv screen, on which the two poets are seated on a stage somewhere. Not here though. Shit. I almost decide fuck it, that I didn't come to see a video of poets reading, but on the other hand I have nothing else planned, so I awkwardly crawl over some people's laps to a lone chair off to one side. I'm lucky to get that, the salon fills up with people coming in after me who have to stand in back.
At first I think the poets are reading somewhere else, Madrid maybe, and we are watching a simulcast of some sorts, but then on hearing them talk between poems I realize they're actually in the building, in a larger theatre, and that we're in an overflow room. Wow. How's that for a poetry crowd? Still, grrr, I want to be in the main hall.
The two poets have a weird dynamic. The younger one, Garcia, reads one poem seated in his chair. The second, older, poet, Margarit, stands up and walks to the front of the stage and reads while gesticulating like an Italian. Montero's poems have humor, and joy, like Charles Bukowski or Frank O'Hara, while Margarit's poems are harder for me to understand. I can't tell if it's because he's speaking in Catalàn, or if he just has a super-thick accent, or both, but they are, or seem, serious, though he also seems to impress the audience a bit more. Towards the end, Margarit tells Garcia that he happily sees him as the heir to his throne. Which sounds horribly arrogant. I know, right? Who would have thought a poet could be arrogant? But maybe Margarit has earned it.
And now for something completely different. Lee Ranaldo, guitarist for the band Sonic Youth, is giving a performance back at the Palau Virreina. I'm not sure what to expect, but since it involves the guitarist from Sonic Youth, I'm expecting noise. In fact, his performance, or show, is called “Noise Recitation: Against Refusing.”
This time there's a huge screen at the back of the courtyard, with a large square stage. A wire has been suspended down in the middle, with a small noose about head height. Two Fender amps flank the stage, one in each back corner tilted slightly up, with a small podium stage-right, where I sit a couple rows back. I show up early and still barely get a chair. Huge turnout, with a slightly different crowd. All the alternative music crowd, generally younger, and with more tattoos, has turned out, expecting perhaps more music than poetry, or a concert instead of a poetry reading. They're certainly rowdier, especially the women, who all seem wonderfully foul-mouthed, making me think of these lines:
In the streets the women come and go
laughing and yelling, “Coño!”
About ten minutes before the show, Ranaldo comes up on stage. No one in the audience seems to know if it's really him, or maybe just a roadie, since he's now like, an older guy. Maybe a little older than me, meaning late forties, with grey hair, though cut in kind of an old Beatles British invasion style. He hangs a Fender Jazzmaster electric guitar from the wire noose, wrapping it around the head and through some of the tuning pegs. With a wireless unit duct-taped to the body, he turns up the volume knob, leaving the guitar just hanging there, moving in the wind a little, and since it's on, and the amps are on, the strings vibrate slightly, creating a low moan and a really high-pitched, though faint, feedback sound.
The lights lower, and a weird collage movie projects on the screen: shots of some very skinny young people crawling around coastal rocks, très 70s. I'm not sure if they are the Sonic Youth folks from way back or not.
Ranaldo comes up on stage. Again, nobody knows it's him until he grabs the mic and begins to talk, so there hasn't been any applause. Or maybe everyone else knows what to expect? And I'm the dummy? It's happened before. Anyways, he gives a brief explanation of what he's about to do, in English. He'll be reciting some of his poetry (later I learn that it's from a new book of his, Against Refusing), but that “half of it won't make sense.” He doesn't even know what the words mean, so we shouldn't worry if there's no translation.
He grabs a drumstick, walks over to the guitar, and starts banging on it. He has some effects pedals on the floor by the podium that I can't see, but which must include distortion, and some kind of repeater, and some other weird stuff, because the hall fills with sound. Low notes and some high notes. Feedback. Clicks of the wood stick on the wood body. He even hits the strings, getting huge vibrating thick chords.
Holding the mic in one hand, he recites his first poem, something about traveling by car through California and the desert. I'm not sure the words would stand on their own. Seems like he could just be reading from a dictionary with just as much effect. But what an effect! The movie continues, with more bizarre scenes strung together, of mostly naked people wearing masks and spitting rubber spiders out of their mouths. Ranaldo takes a violin bow and strokes the guitar strings, sometimes one, sometimes all six, stepping on his various effects pedals. In fact, I'd argue he's 'playing' his pedals as much as his guitar.
Even more bizarrely, Ranaldo pushes the guitar away, sending it swinging in huge circles around the stage. The noose/wire stretches, it's black and mostly invisible with the stage lights and movie playing, creating the effect of the guitar as an animate being, floating around in space singing/screaming/moaning. A ghost.
Ranaldo recites more poetry, going from more narrative-ish stories to listing off weird sound-words, reminding me of the Dada poem Rothenberg read the other night. At one point Ranaldo even takes the guitar off it's noose and carries it to one of the amplifiers, creating a weird feedback loop that, combined with the repeat effect, sounds like, and is as loud as, a helicopter hovering overhead.
I'm actually surprised Ranaldo has a guitar strap, not sure why, but he does, which he puts on the guitar. Slinging it over his shoulder, he fingers some chords and single notes. Not a lot, never many notes at once. Instead, he just seems interested in 'layering' notes and sounds over each other, in different rhythms (or indifferent rhythms).
He hangs the guitar back up and sends it swinging around in more huge loops. I, and the guy next to me, keep expecting, maybe in some way hoping, it will hit the podium, but it never does. Would make a cool noise though if it did. I love though that at one point the guitar tags Ranaldo on the back, but I seem to be the only one who laughs out loud. At another point, he pulls it to the back of the stage, then sends it swooping out over the heads of the people in the first few rows, again like a live creature.
I started the show (? Or, what do I call this?) thinking it was either the most pretentious thing I was ever going to see, or the coolest, and by now I'm thinking it's the coolest. His weirder poetry seems to fit the mood more, and he uses repetition effectively, especially at one point when he chants the last line of a poem over and over, “Open all the boxes! Open all the boxes!” While bringing the noise to it's loudest peak of the night.
I expect Ranaldo to just leave the guitar screaming and walk off the stage as his ending, but as the movie ends, he gets the guitar under control and plays it some more with a violin bow, calming things down, leaving it hanging with just a low hum. He walks over to the microphone, smiling, and quietly says, “Thanks.”
Huge applause. The house lights comes on, and though I can't necessarily hear or understand the exact worlds people around me are saying to each other, the expressions on their faces say what I'm feeling: Holy shit. That was the craziest fucking shit I've ever seen or heard.
Gary Snyder has been one of my favorite poets for years, though I had despaired of ever getting to hear him read, since I've moved back to Michigan and, well, he's getting old now and I figured he'd want to retire quietly to his house up in the Northern California mountains. But, apparently, he has come all the way to Spain for this reading, which takes place in a small auditorium in the Caja Madrid (a big Spanish bank) building on the Plaça de Catalunya, a large plaza and park, with a huge fountain and trees and benches and metro stop, and where the Rambla starts, heading south to the port. And the spot where, a week later, protesters will set up camp, as part of a nationwide manifestations against government austerity measures, due to the crumbling economy, caused, in part, in my opinion, to government deregulation of banking practices, including those of Caja Madrid.
The arts wing of the building, the Espai Cultural, houses some contemporary photography exhibits on the ground and basement floors. In fact, since I arrive super early, I wander downstairs to look and stumble on Snyder getting interviewed in front of a camera crew. I can't help it: I smile when I see him. One of my heroes, in person. Someone whose writing changed my life, really. I try not to gawk though, not wanting to seem like a dork-stalker-groupie.
The auditorium is on the second floor. I slip in early, while the techies are still checking the mics. The room is set up weird, in a large 'V', with the stage at the base, so that the two 'wings' of seats are separated and not visible to each other, though both can see the stage. I'm glad I got a good seat right up front, because ten minutes before the reading is supposed to start, a flood of people come pouring in, scrambling for seats like jackals.
The first hour of the 'reading' is actually a showing of the short documentary The Practice of the Wild in which the writer Jim Harrison, a friend of Snyder's, interviews him in different settings, including while walking in the woods, interspersed with Snyder reading some of his poems. I've actually seen this before and, though I'm a fan of Harrison, he's not the most photogenic person (Snyder later describes him as looking “like Genghis Khan”) and talks in kind of a mumble-growl. In fact, since many people in the audience don't seem to know who he is, or maybe they do, they kind of end up laughing at him. I'm also left feeling that Harrison doesn't 'dig' as deep as he can with his questions. But I think the audience is won over by Snyder, the wise man of the woods, talking about Buddhism, and writing, and his past.
After the movie, the host and interpreter for the night, Nacho Fernández (love that name!), a writer and translator from Madrid, gets up and introduces Snyder, though I get the impression that he needs no introduction to anyone there, Spanish or otherwise. In contrast to Jerome Rothenberg (they must be around the same age) Snyder is straight-backed, thin, and wiry, dressed in blue jeans and boots and a shirt right out of an L.L. Bean catalogue, looking twenty years younger than he actually is, and like he's about to go for a hike in the mountains. When he first walks up on stage, he seems tired after his trip of three or so days, but as soon as he starts reading, he gets more energy.
He and Fernández sit at a long table. Snyder reads from a small collection of poems, mostly earlier work, that Fernández has assembled and translated, and which has been handed out for free to all the attendees, with the English and Spanish versions on facing pages. Since I know Snyder knows Chinese and Japanese and probably Sanskrit and some Native American, and has lived in California most of his life, I half expect him to read some of his poems in Spanish, but he doesn't. Fernández translates everything Snyder says in between poems, which is a lot, since Snyder likes to basically tell a story for every poem, and I see some of the Spanish people next to me kind of following along with the Spanish versions of the poems. I like following along too, to see how the poems 'work' in Spanish. And they seem to work well. Though Bukowski would have a heart attack for me saying this, he and Snyder both have a plain, simple language, no big words or complex phrases. Snyder tends to let the things he's describing stand for themselves, just listing objects, letting us readers visualize them. Not a lot of adjectives or adverbs like I tend to see in Spanish poetry. I wonder if Spanish readers tend to think of poets like Snyder and Bukowski as too stripped down, too minimalist. But no, here's Snyder in a packed auditorium. Though, based on the crowd reaction to some of the funny lines in the movie, and in certain of the poems, I start to think that maybe 2/3s are American, which makes the size of the crowd even more surprising. Of the Americans actually in Barcelona right now, how many would actually come to a poetry reading?
I'm familiar with all the poems, and like I said, I've seen (and heard) videos of him reading, but hearing the poems in person has a certain magic. Plus seeing his expression, his wrinkly smile, or even the moments when some sadness appears, like in poems about his sister, and Lew Welch.
Interesting note: He reads one of my favorites, “As for Poets,” but with a revision. Instead of all the described poets being male, he's changed at least the Water Poet to a female, so that the stanza now goes:
Stayed down six years.
She was covered with seaweed.
The life of her poem
left millions of tiny
Criss-crossing through the mud.
I'm not sure about anybody else in the room, but his words bring back memories of California and the southwest United States, making me miss the woods and desert. What am I doing in this big city? But where else but in a big city could I see a performance like Ranaldo's? Or even attend a poetry reading by Gary Snyder?
There's a funny poem by Bukowski describing doing a reading with Snyder, where the Snyder groupies (hey, I'm one, I can say this) keep asking for an encore, one more poem, and it happens tonight too. “Otra! Otra! One more!” And I'm like, yeah, ok, let's hear one more. So first he reads a letter a twelve year old girl wrote to him after going with her mom to see him read in California, a rhyming poem thanking him. To thank her, he wrote a rhyming letter back. Cute. Clever. Very unlike what I associate with Snyder and his poetry, ie humor, but it's a nice light way to end the evening.
After the reading, I consider going up to the stage to just shake Snyder's hand and tell him thank you, but the jackals are already descending, and Snyder looks tired again, though still smiling. I just mentally bow and head out the door.
One lone man sitting in a café, scribbling in a notebook. A young woman waiting on the corner across from the café. Evening. She's waiting for poetry. Or for a boyfriend to pick her up on his motorcycle. Or, no, for another young woman. They wait together for poetry. They type poetry into their phones. The man would write poetry on their bodies. They would whisper poetry to him, one in each ear. And then rain. And then two more young women, all of them now huddling under an umbrella reciting poetry to each other, and he looks away and they are gone.
Tuesday, September 17, 2019
With COLDNOON now defunct, I'm moving my published work there, here. This appeared February 2018. Enjoy!
[update: it's back up! Here is the link]
[update: it's back up! Here is the link]
Cool southern breeze off the ocean bringing grey clouds
meaning time to heal our burnt skin
and put on jackets and go drink green tea
in Café Schilling reading La Vanguardia and El País
about the protests against government austerity measures
which are really the government's way of paying
for the mistakes it made with the taxpayers' dinero
or not even mistakes really—the deregulation
it handed the rich and the corporations and the banks
and yet no one seems to care but this handful
of people camping out in the Plaça de Catalunya
while everyone else prefers to watch Barcelona
beat Manchester United on the tele
and celebrate the victory at a Shakira concert
since she's dating one of the players now
and still hasn't committed to marrying me
but even I am bored with protestors and manifesting
because it just doesn't seem to matter
the government doesn't care and the bankers certainly don't
and I fear our lack of fear and anger
but still want to enjoy my life
and what was the word you used to describe your confession
that day months ago when it also rained and we ducked
into Café Schilling and the camarera was sexy
with her tattoos and black tights and attitude
and we had decided that we liked Joan Miró more than Picasso
even though in reality it was not either/or but and/both
and both of us were tired from staying up the night before
listening to jazz and walking home through the medieval streets
because the metro had shut down for the evening
which was fine and everything was quiet
and I was quiet too thinking of that song in 5/4
with the latin bass line and the Sex Shoppe in Madrid
where the girl with the knife scar straight up her chest
danced an extra ten minutes for us because
you told her to go back to college and get the philology degree
and even though you encouraged me to jerk off
I wanted to save it for you for later
and now it's much later in our travels
and I can say I love you en español
and you can tease and deny en catalàn
and I wish we didn't have to go back
to our old lives where we're comfortably normal
and does the Universe take care of us I asked
because that's what a woman tells Javier Bardem in the movie Biutiful
and you said yes but I'm not sure
maybe the Universe only takes care of middle-class rich people
and doesn't give a fuck about the poor
especially but not limited to those in Africa who
just want to survive in the postcolonial system
unless the Universe is in fact doing the best it can
given the circumstances
and that things could be even worse
which seems hard to believe sometimes
but when I think about quitting my job and moving to Barcelona I think ok
at least I wouldn't be selling cheap chinese-made purses on the street
trying to support my family
and in fact I could even envision a spanish woman maybe liking me
and me even talking to her somehow
and us touching our naked bodies to each other
though I'm not sure I'm not sure
maybe the Universe is a little busy right now with more important things
maybe I would just end up in a cheap noisy apartment by myself
with my money running out
and I'd have to return to the states
even more poor than now but dude—you said—
[image: Javier Bardem from Biutiful]