Poetry for Southern California
NEW POETS OF THE AMERICAN WEST
Anthology edited by Lowell Jaeger
Many Voices Press (fvccbookstore.com)
How does one create a coherent anthology out of a subject as large as the American West? One option is not to bother aiming for coherence, to merely collect poets one considers to be the best, and put out a selection of their works. The result could a powerful book, but probably a rather disjointed one.
Lowell Jaeger, in New Poets of the American West, takes a different approach. He finds certain thematic threads which run through the work of many of the poets he has selected, and lets those threads unify the collection.
Having only the resultant book before me, I cannot tell how much this was a purposeful decision, and how much coincidental. Did Jaeger select poets or poems, or some combination of the two? Did he settle on the themes before he started collecting poems, or did they emerge as he went along? If he started with the poets he wanted to include, did he then search their works for poems which fit the themes? Or were those poems already obvious choices?
In the end, those questions are irrelevant. The anthology speaks for itself. The themes are there. They run through many of the poems, meeting up, playing off each other, sometimes uniting in a single poem, sometimes going their separate ways. Not every poem fits into these themes, but enough do that the anthology not only holds together, but throughout there is a conversation between the poems.
The themes are, loosely, landscape, heritage and work. Each of these speaks deeply to the character of the West, whatever individual state is involved. The theme of landscape should not be surprising. It is one of the first things we think of when we think of the American West, especially the mountain and desert states. But even in the urbanized areas, such as Los Angeles, the landscape still has a powerful pull on these poets. Mountains, desert, prairies, forests and the seashore all make repeated appearances here.
Heritage is another somewhat obvious theme. Of course, every section of the country has its own heritage, but the different strands somehow seem to run much deeper in the West. The assimilation of cultures doesn’t seem as thorough as in, say, the East Coast. Perhaps this is because of the variety of sources of long-time heritage in the West (white settlers, Native American, Mexican and other Hispanic cultures, and Asian), as opposed to the generally European and African American character of the East (of course the East, like all of the country, has numerous other cultures present, but most of those are recent immigrants). Or perhaps it’s because two of those cultures in the West (Native American and Mexican) were already well-established here before the white settlers arrived. In any event, all of the respective cultures I have listed are well represented in the book. While there are only a handful of African-American voices, that is mostly due to the actual demographics of the area (many of the states represented have far larger populations of Mexican and Native Americans than blacks). I am especially gratified that Jaeger includes poems written in Spanish and various Native American languages (with their English translations).
Many of the most powerful poems in the collection describe the borders between the cultures, and how they interact. “Names” by Teresa Chuc Dowell examines her mixed heritage through the various names she has been known by throughout her life. In “Crossing the Rez” William Pitt Root describes a journey he made hitchhiking across Montana, where the white driver who picks him up advises, “Never trust no Injun,/ bud, no matter how cold it gits,” while the Indians he rides with next tell him, “Cold as your ass gits/ don’t park it in no cowboy pickup.”
Work is where these themes often come together. Much of the work in the West (at least the traditional work) is performed outdoors, i.e., in interaction with the landscape. Ranching, logging, and fishing all get their turns here. Work is also often closely related to heritage. Poems such as Corrine Clegg Hales’ “Out of This Place” make that explicit. It tells the story of the poet, working as a maid, getting paid for allowing the students of a modeling school to give her a make-over:
After work, when Angie and I
Begin to wonder why Miss Julie has chosen me,
Angie’s sister stares at us as if we are idiots,
Pinches my cheeks hard between her dark fingers
And pulls me by my face to the bathroom mirror.
She says: why don’t you take a look
At your big blue eyes? ...
I say it was no big deal—I made
Five easy bucks and got a free haircut. That’s all.
` But the ground has already shifted
Between us—and all of us know by now
Exactly how this story goes—who’ll get a ticket
Out of this place—who’ll be left behind.
Occasionally, all three themes meld, as in “Money to Burn,” by Jenny Root, which describes a white and a Mexican firefighter working together after a forest fire:
I want to know if he will ever
return to Mexico, start a family?
Pues si, he says, but not yet.
Your country has mucho dinero
fighting fires—money to burn.
Of course, not every poem deals with these themes. Nearly every topic a poem can speak to is touched upon here: love, growing up, religion, philosophy and war. And other distinctly Western themes, like horses and the railroad, Overall, the poems do combine to create a sense of place, a place far too large and varied to be captured in any single, or even handful, of visions.
New Poets of the American West is a very expansive anthology. The variety of poets presented is impressive. Equally impressive is the quality of the poetry. I can, to some degree, judge the California poets, and they seem to be a fair representation of the major names in California today. Of course, as in any anthology, there are omissions to quibble over, but I can raise no objections to those who are included.
In the end, New Poets of the American West accomplishes two major goals of any such anthology. It presents a comprehensive overview of who is producing quality poetry in the region today, and it gives a full description of the character of that region.
— G. Murray Thomas
SWIMMING THROUGH AMBER
Book by E. Amato
Zesty Pubs (www.zestyverse.com)
There is an ongoing debate today between performance and print poetry. While this debate is not as furious as it was a decade ago, there are still adherents on each side who will argue that their preferred form is the “true” form of poetry. I come down in the middle; I like poems which work equally well in both media. Some of you may feel this is a cop-out on my part, but I believe it ups the standards for both forms.
E. Amato’s poetry, with some exceptions, falls primarily in the performance camp. These are poems structured for sound, for live delivery. You can often feel the beat, even on the page:
Beat to start and end all cycles
real deal not just disciples
place to begin all departures
Replicating instant karma
(“Rhythm Revolution I”)
Just reading that, you can feel the power it must have in performance. This poem may be an extreme example, but throughout the book Amato uses beat and repetition drive her poems and their meaning.
But the key question is, does such a form serve the purpose of the poem? In this case, it definitely does; a poem about the power of the beat needs a powerful beat. In other poems, Amato does use other rhythms to equally powerful affect:
My lips wondering might they
accidentally brush yours
wondering do you have a girl
wondering is forever too long to stay here
getting to know
no words just feel
no words just beats
no words beats heartbeats beat drumbeats beat
beats just beats just melodious atmosphere of
bronze aura of full but empty bar in
full but empty world we no longer inhabit
because eyes closed we
are a sound/touch system
In the poem, the beat is still present, but slowed down to capture the rhythm of the slow dance, of the slow seduction. However, there are other times where the beat overwhelms the words of the poem, and it becomes all rhythm.
Amato does occasionally fall into some of the other traps performance poetry lays out, which may slide by a live audience, but which fall flat on the page. One of these is the overuse of pop culture references. I fully realize that this is not a problem unique to performance poetry. Pop culture references are to much of today’s poetry what classical allusions were to the Modernists.
Still, I do find a common problem with these references in much performance poetry, and it holds true here. Performance poetry has become closely allied with hip-hop culture these days, and therefore draws much of its references from that culture, which can limit the audience for the poetry. References like “so old school back in the day/ 3rd bass were still just 3 punks on skates” (“Remember Tito”) may bring a cheer from the hip-hop audience, but just leave this aging rock’n’roller scratching his head.
Another trap is the use of cliché. Although Amato usually avoids cliché, she does succumb at times, most notably and unfortunately in the opening poem, “Looking for Vegas,” which does recycle a number of images and ideas about that city; “I went to Vegas looking for America,” “Starlets dripping ice,” “in Vegas, baby/ the House always wins.”
I say this is unfortunate, because the opening poem sets the tone for the book. After that first barrage, I was looking for cliché everywhere. As I said, in the end I did not find much (probably no more than you will find in any but the absolutely best written poetry), but for a while every little one jumped out at me. Still, they were rare enough to eventually allow me to focus on what else is going on in this book.
At which point I understood the reasons for choosing “Looking for Vegas” to open the book. Much of Swimming Through Amber is concerned with trying to sort the real from the superficial, especially when it comes to love. This theme is further expanded in “Bar Marmont” (quoted above), the second poem. Throughout the book there is a tension between the allure of seduction and the desire for honest love, honest communication.
The pop culture references play into this theme, too. Much of pop culture is superficial (as emphasized in “Looking for Vegas”); again there is a search for the real. One place Amato finds it in jazz, especially live jazz, as described in “Richard Tee” and “Untitled (Ancient Skins)”.
I should also point out that not every poem here is designed for performance. There are several short, punchy poems which probably work best on the page, being too brief for most audiences to fully appreciate (it often takes time to draw an audience into a poem). For example, the poem “Echo Park” (quoted in its entirety):
$1 is all you need
for a generic strawberry shortcake
rent not paid
Also, while in performance these poems are built on their rhythmic base, on the page their great strength is extended metaphor. “Full English” compares the satisfactions of an English breakfast to love, “Dry Clean Only” explains the ideal man through a laundry metaphor, and “The Saddest Story I Ever Wrote” compares an unhappy relationship to being stuck in the driveway, arguing forever about where to go, while never going anywhere.
At times, Amato piles metaphor on top of metaphor, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. “Canyons” combines eyes, canyons and driving metaphors all to describe the start of an affair, and manages to pull it off. On the other hand, “Artichoke” attempts to describe her man through a combination of an artichoke and an angel; the two images end up fighting with each other, not blending into the portrait she is trying to compose.
In the end, despite my reservations, Swimming Through Amber does demonstrate how poetry written for one form of delivery can successfully make the transition to the other form. Good poetry will stand up in the end. But I do wish there was a CD to accompany it, in order to fully appreciate these poems.
—G. Murray Thomas
Follow the Sun
Book by Paul Kareem Tayyar
Aortic Books (www.aoritcbooks.com)
Paul Kareem Tayyar’s latest collection of poetry and prose, entitled Follow the Sun, is a venture into nostalgia. Published by Aortic Books, it is pop culture meditation of an America seen through the eyes of a Gen X-er looking back on his childhood and adolescence. Through his poems, stories, and essays, Tayyar celebrates sports heroes, film icons, and music of the early 80’s, as a means to demonstrate how our perception of the world as it is today is directly influenced by how we saw the world in our youth. Tayyar also explores this theme with poems wherein he tries to relate to generations younger than him—usually to some comedic effect.
Humor is something that Tayyar does well in this collection. He has a knack for writing a funny thought or moment with honesty and ease; it makes his more humorous poems standouts in the collection and ones we’re eager to share—like any good joke—with friends. An example of this is his poem, “She Has A Point,” where he is asking a friend of his daughter's if she’d ever consider majoring in English. Her response:
They’re so miserable,
With their cigarettes and their instant coffee,
And all that misery.
Obviously being a writer himself, he protests and she offers him this painful gem of a response: “You’re a poet. I was talking about people who are real writers.” What works so well in this and other poems like it is Tayyar’s strong sense of word economy and dialogue. The poem is graceful in its execution and is no longer or shorter than it needs to be, and just reads effortlessly.
That said, language is another of Tayyar’s strong suits. He writes with Billy Collins-esque clarity that is both welcoming to reluctant readers of poetry, and refreshing to those of us who read poems every day. As well, his use of nostalgia—his wistfulness for Springsteen on the radio, Magic Johnson on an NBA court, and Paul Newman on the big screen—helps capture a reader’s interest with references not often appearing in poetry, and this too is refreshing.
However, Tayyar’s nostalgic undertaking had me asking if perhaps he romanticizes the America of his adolescence a little too much, with so many poems championing sports and film stars and how good life was "back then." But Tayyar answers this with his poem, “Double Exposure,” where he confesses growing up “watching two Americas,” the first being one
That sanctioned illegal wars in countries whose names we could not
That gave criminals multi-million dollar book deals.
The second America—the one the collection spends a good deal of time idealizing—was the one he “watched on the weekends,”
Where Lakers seemed to go years in between losses at home,
Where Robert Redford always got the girl in the end.
The poem finishes with a couplet that is as somber as it is hopeful:
I am older now,
But I still believe in both of them.
Tayyar addresses this complex theme of nostalgia’s "double exposure" effect again quite directly, in his essay, “Cinematic Apple Pie: Reflections on Superman.” He writes, “America was never as innocent as this film would have it, but nostalgia is only a crime in the real world…and to be swept up by this film for a couple hours is to remember that goodness is its own form of authenticity.” It is moments like this in Follow the Sun that reward, exhibiting how Tayyar is breaking down the idea of nostalgia with his collection.
Though I do feel the collection is successful on many levels, I cannot say the book is without some letdowns. My major critique is that some of Tayyar’s poems read as formulaic—I could often tell how a poem was going play out and eventually on what note it was going end, solely based on previous poems in the collection that seemed to follow suit. Take for instance the two poems, “1985” and “Childhood.” In the first, Tayyar lists all the reasons it “may have been [his] favorite year:” the Lakers finally beating the Celtics, his favorite musical icons on the radio, and Rocky Balboa knocking out Ivan Drago on the big screen. By poem’s end, Tayyar sums it all up with a rather sentimental close:
It was the kind of year that only comes once or twice in a life,
And you enjoy it while you can.
In “Childhood” Tayyar implements the same strategy in that he lists all the things that made his childhood an “era full of endless dreams”, juices from 7/11 that promised flight, Star Wars being a documentary, and sunsets likened to crystal balls. The poem also ends with a wistful couplet:
It was an era,
And it was ours.
Even Tayyar’s humorous poems fall into this same trap; the reader becomes well aware that the last line of the poem will most certainly double as a punch line. This sort of predictability can become distracting and sabotage even the best poem—if one too similar to it appeared earlier in the collection.
Another—more minor—critique I have is that I wish there were more instances of Tayyar stretching his poetic muscle with staggering imagery or use of smile and metaphor. Tayyar writes in a very literal and straightforward manner, and is rather conservative with his use of metaphor. But in the moments where he does use a surprising image it is so effective I want more from him. The lines from his poem, “To The Son I Will Someday Have:” “I want to tell you about the poems of loss,/Dead verses with coins on their eyelids,” are ones that will stay with me long after I have written this review. And I cannot get out of my head the line from the story, “Magic Somewhere,” where the main character describes an elevator ride and his relationship with his father all with the seemingly simple words, “floors fell like dominos beneath me.” This simile is effective in both its vividness and emotional punch, perfectly reflecting the theme of the story. I would have liked to see how Tayyar could have used perfect-fitting, more figurative language like this to strengthen a number of the book’s already good poems.
Overall, my criticisms did not stop me from enjoying this book. Tayyar has succeeded in creating a collection of poems that I feel offers great appeal to a diverse audience of readers. His clear writing style, strong hand at humor, and explorative nature into the theme of nostalgia all serve him well in creating a collection of poetry and prose that deserves to be on the bookshelves of many. Follow the Sun is a reminder of what it is like to view the world through the same magical eyes we possessed in our youth, and urges us all to return to that “place where miracles occur every hour on the hour.”
For the latest news about G. Murray Thomas, visit www.myspace.com/gmurraythomas. Now available: Paper Shredders, an anthology of surf writing. Order it from your favorite bookseller.
Eric Morago is the author of What We Ache For, published by Moon Tide Press. He teaches poetry workshops to at-risk youth and is the California Workforce Association’s Poet in Residence. Eric holds an MFA in Creative Writing from California State University, Long Beach.