Wednesday, July 30, 2008

1998-2008 Ten Years Back in the USA

2008 marks ten years since I returned to the USA from living overseas. The anniversary of my return was in March but I have just been thinking about that time in my life now for some reason?

In 1990 I graduated from college and I floundered around a little and then decided to become a Lay Missionary with the Franciscan Mission Service in 1993. "missionary" is a charged word so I usually use volunteer which is really what I did. I worked in the men's prison of San Sebastian in Cochabamba and in every book of poetry I write that place is part of the story. The prison is still there the same I guess and it was formative for me. Men and their families living in wooden boxes in the worst conditions- but overcoming that to have some hope.
Bolivia is a great place. For a morning person like me Bolivia is the best the people get up early and go to bed early and the days are filled with activity and action. I learned to be poet in Bolivia working with the inmates for whom poetry was really important quotes from Vallejo and Neruda came off their lips like sports scores. I could see how poetry could transform a place and it has stayed with me. My entire life now hinges on Bolivia- before Bolivia I was one person and after I changed into the person I am now. After three years in Bolivia I went to Brazil to work- not as a volunteer but as as a business person.

Brazil is everything Bolivia is not. Bolivia is austerely beautiful and conservative, Brazil is sumptuous and outrageous, Bolivia is Indigenous, Brazil is Polyglot. But I fell in love with Brazil and of course I met Traudi there. I spent most of the time from 1994 when I arrived in Bolivia and 2003 working or living with Latin America. I have travelled or lived in over 22 nations and the truth is I feel more at home there than here. After I left Brazil in 1998 I continued to work with South America and to translate poetry and to engage with that world.

So now in 2008 ten years removed from my return in an election year I wonder about the reality of our lives? The truth is that I have allot less when I lived in Bolivia and Brazil and I was happier. Simplicity does often breed contentment and that was true for me. Waltraud my wife an I have committed to return to Brazil to live and when that days comes it will be returning home for me- as much as my return to the US in 1998 was a return home then...

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

calm before the storm

The Internet and the Blogs are filled with tumult and terror over the state 0f the world's economy. These fears do not bother many poets because they dont work in the economy but this terror is real. The truth is however that it has been many years since Americans have had to worry about the state of the economy but like a house that has been eaten by termites America is weaker and we are wondering.

One of my friends who also happens to be a poet Mark Tardi is leaving Chicago to work in Lodz, Poland for a year as a Fulbright Scholar. In Chicago we become immune to thinking of Poland as a foreign land since there are so many Poles here but Lodz has a history worth repeating. It was a great center of Yiddish learning and during World War 2 it was home to the Lodz Ghetto one of the worst Ghettoes in the Nazi system. Today Lodz is a cultural capital in the new Poland.

I think that this is what makes Chicago different than New York. In New York the predominant groups are Jews, Italians & Puerto Ricans. These are all outward looking groups with a history of commerce and expansiveness. In Chicago the predominant groups are Poles/Slavs, Irish, Germans, Blacks and Mexicans. What all the Chicago groups have in common is hard work and strong spirituality. It makes the two cities feel different. Chicago is a stay at home city, New York is a go out city. Chicago is a city of Home owners, New York a city of renters.

This also applies to our Presidential Election. Barack Obama is a Chicagoan. He chose to live here and Chicago for all its culture and dynamism is a really big small town this informs allot of what he believes in. John McCain is a hero but he is not REALLY from Arizona like Barry Goldwater was he is from the Navy.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Kay Ryan is Poet Laureate

Kay Ryan is the new Poet Laureate of the United States. To listen to the few critics left in poetry she is an innovator but can any poet who is a follower of Ted Kooser be an innovator? I realize that the post of Poet Laureate does not mean much but when you think about the many poets in the United States of her age that could be chosen as Poet Laureate you wonder if the goal of the Library of Congress's goal is to put us all asleep.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Is Obama a Soft Liberal? or is he Ronald Reagan on the Left?

Unlike many on the Left I like to read Right Wing Blogposts- just so I can get mad at them. Michelle Malkin is one of my favorites because she is so ridiculous. She is a Philippine-American, whose parents are immigrants. Yet she had argued that the interning of Japanese Americans was justified during World War 2 and she has also argued for deportations of millions of illegals. I am just glad Michelle's parents got in before their daughter discovered native ism .

Right Wing pundits almost always avail themselves of all liberal society she went to Oberlin College- and married outside her Religion but her Right wing bonafides are perfect.. She makes money feeding the Right Wing hate machine and making those less 'educated' than her feel better about their odd ideas.

The latest diatribe from Ms. Malkin is posted above. She asserts that Barack Obama is some sort of Lefty Social Worker and that he believes that if we just talk to Osama Bin Laden or if the 'terrorists' can just come to America all would be well. She asserts that Obama is a Kumbaya singing dope who is wandering down the garden path and will be taken advantage of by the big bad terrorists.

The truth is that the dope is Mr Toughness in the White House who has kept us 'safe' for the past 7 years.

  • The worst Terror attacks occurred when Mr Toughness- George W Bush was President. These terror attacks continued in Spain and Bali all under the watchful eye of W. No Democrat or Leftist allowed these attacks to happen W did. If George Bush and Condoleeza Rice had just taken the Intelligence seriouslyit might not have happened.
  • When the attacks occurred the entire world was on our side. We had a moment when we could have rolled back the appeal of Militant Islamic Fundamentalism. But our government under Mr Toughness chose instead of trying to gather the nations together to oppose the real threat of Islamic Terrorism chose instead to Invade Iraq. Saddam Hussein was a bad man, but he was no worse than Robert Mugabe or Sudan's president Umar Hassan Ahmad al-BASHIR but we did not invade those nations. We chose to invade an Arab country, occupy that country, and then proceeded to run the most bumbling occupation of that country. This caused our reputation in the world to drop to new lows and to give Islamic Terrorists their best recruiting tool.
  • Along with the above failures, George W Bush continued to support his oil friends and oil magnates around the world. W did not prepare us for terrorist attacks by removing their funding source, which is predominantly Western capital buying oil. That money is used to finance terrorism. He in fact continued to support regimes that support terrorism like Saudi Arabia and that use our money to finance their groups. W's level of incompetence led us to the mess we are in now.
  • Finally, most in the Republicans power structure are not concerned with American interests. They are concerned with the interests of multi-national corporations. Tom Friedman in his book The World is Flat talks about the two classes of people one of those being the globalized class and the other those left behind. The Right in the USA is the Trojan horse for the globalized class. They use 'moral' issues and patriotism to create a great diversion for the middle class in America- so while we are worrying about the Flag or Gay Marriage- they are taking care of their friends and continuing to destroy American freedoms and American jobs. This great game of evasion and delusion is central to their project.

Barack Obama scares the Right in so many ways. Barack Obama is the Left's version of Ronald Reagan. Before 1980 no one would have ever thought that we would "de regulate" our economy it was too radical. We have now reaped what was sewn then with the Airline industry for example. Before 1980 Religion was a private matter in the USA and no one would have believed that one's 'relationship' with Jesus would be a campaign issue. The agenda of the Right was made palatable by Ronald Reagan.

The Right knows that Barack Obama can do this for Progressive Issues. A person with Obama's skills just might win the war of ideas with militant Islam and change the global debate. A person with Obama's skills just might convince Americans that we can solve social problems together as a people and deliver health care security to everyone thus taking away a major issue from the Right? A person like Obama just might be able to assert that we have more in common than we have that separates us and that the old wedge issues don't work anymore?

So it is not about Kumbaya-it is about Ronald Reagan and the fact that the Democrats in 2008 have found their Reagan the realignment has begun.

Obama? ignorant and soft? Or the True Realist?

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Stopping you in your Tracks

One of the most valid critiques of Language Poetry and much of Post-Language poetry is that it is about nothing. Or more directly it is about a crazy Marxist theory that has become uninteresting, didactic and authoritarian.

While I do not concur with this critique always- I often find myself wanting more meat and less foam in my poetry and so much of the Avant Garde is foam. It is nice sometimes to see that a poetry has more to it then just irony and theory.

I wrote on this blog that the greatest poets of my generation are women. But this might also be said for the generation right before mine. Poets like Alice Notley and Barbara Guest are certainly as great as their male contemporaries and someone who I think ranks with the most important poets of current times is Harryette Mullen.

I have read poems here and there before but I bought Recyclopedia which is a collection of three books, Trimmings, S*Perm**K*T and Muse and Drudge and brought it with me on a recent retreat to New Mexico. I brought allot of poetry with me- Dante in Italian, St John of the Cross, Julianna Spahr, Jennifer Moxley, Simone Muench and some others but Mullen's book rose to the top like a Gnocchi in boiling water just asking to be read.

"two shapely legs stretch then run. Sheer magic, a box div
ided. One saw a woman cut in half, waving incredible feet"

P 10 Trimmings

lines like this just wait in the woods for you and then jump you leaving you injured and bleeding in the same way that one feels when they have been violated. The lines are lyrical but they are also innovative. There is something there but there is also-- not.

slandered and absurdly slurred
wife divorced has-been
last man on earth hauls ass to the ash can
his penis flightier than his word

come on! Could you emasculate and then challenge in any other way than poetry? The work is so clean and so challenging. Mullen does not wait for you to figure it out-- she draws you in slowly and then puts the ice pick right into your forehead.

I began to bring this book with me to prayers with the monks and after the psalms and the magnificats I read them- aloud in the monastery's chapel and they melded well with David and John' Gospel because they are also truth not facts.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

What is Wrong With AWP??

AWP the annual meeting of poets, writers and the writing programs seems to be off the rails in their panel decision making.
AWP benefits from the explosion of Creative Writing Programs. It is a good place to meet and network and occasionally to see friends. One of the areas that many attendees cannot understand is how they decide on panels?

Next year's AWP is here in Chicago and I was on two panel proposals. The first was co-sponsored by the Poetry Center of Chicago's director Francesco Levato and included John Tipton (Chicago Poetry Project), Paul Hoover (Long time Famous Chicago poet), Larry Sawyer, (Animates the Myopic Series, & Simone Muench a very well known Chicago area poet. I am frankly flumuxed at why this panel was rejected? AWP is happening in Chicago and this panel on Chicago poetry seemed perfect for the event.

What is wrong with AWP??

The second panel proposal I was on included poets Eileen Tabios, Sheila Murphy and Catherine Daly and it was focused on Poets and work. Our goal with this panel was to talk about what it means to be a poet and not to be an academic but rather to be working in other fields but still engaged with poetry. Again, I am flumuxed at this panel's rejection. Most MFA students will never get jobs in Academia so why not examine the world as it is??

I have to say that the rejection of these panels and the Chicago poets who were involved with them does not send a message of inclusion. I have to say that there are allot of Chicago poets who are dismayed at the rejection of the Chicago: The Intersection of Innovation panel that Francesco Levato proposed. It makes me wonder why they are coming to Chicago?

Another beef I have with AWP is there complete lack of outreach to the Chicago literary community. Who is on the organizing committee? I don't know one poet in Chicago who is involved in the planning and I know allot of Chicago poets. I know at least 25 or 30 Chicago area poets who would be good contacts for them. I for one work in Event Management and would be willing to help free of charge to help them with their efforts.

I also think that AWP'sof exclusion of poets and writers who are not academics is narrow minded. Most MFA graduates will work outside academia. I think that what is called for is an organization that is focused on poets and writers and not writing programs. Most writing programs are cash cows for Universities but they need to realize that writing is bigger than what they are doing.

I would be interested inhearing from people whose panels were accepted. I have been told about many other panels that have real merit that were also rejected.

Who makes these decisions?

Who is a man behind the curtain?

Monday, July 7, 2008

Chicago Anguish-Chicago Baseball

Forget about poetry and politics. Forget about other things it is mid July and Chicago matters in Baseball.

To be a Chicago baseball fan is to share a collective anguish.

Cubs fans are rich and tragic. They are kind of like a beautiful young woman who get cancer at 25 and dies unfulfilled.

Sox fans are less rich and more angry. They are kind of like a fine cabinetmaker who had had a hand chopped off and wonders what might have been?

Only once have our two tragedies met in the World Series, 1906 102 years ago. That is so long ago that Los Angeles had only 67,000 residents and Model T cars were the latest technology to be developed.

Having said all of this it is July 7th and our two anguished teams are in first place. Each day all of us- fans of the north and south open our papers and see that we are still on top.

Chicago our great city is the best in many things. You can keep New York or Los Angeles-- if you dont know the corner of Clark and Addison or 35th and Shields you do not know what anguish feels like. New Yorkers swagger, Los Angelinos coif Chicagoans are filled with dread that we are not good enough because of our two baseball tragedies.

Boston, New York--- maybe only Brooklynites could understand the way we both feel.
and we hate each other also by the way. The hatred between Cubs and Sox fans is old and deep but like an abusive couple we understand each other and when it is cold and dark in February we react the same way- yearning for sun and baseball.

We are the teams of Ron Santo and Minnie Minoso of Ernie Banks and Luke Appling.

We are the city of mud and muck and home made mountains of architecture. But we are still in first place. Could it be? Could we play each other in October. I have been graced with a World Series in my lifetime for my team in 2005. But it would be something to play THEM in a World Series. To have the whole thing to ourselves-- Cubs-Sox World Series, President Obama......

Nelson Algren is slapping Richard Daley somewhere and Ida B Wells is giving Marshall Field what for....

Could the Tragic Cubs win?
Will they Beat us?

Anguish will not allow such speculation.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Independence Day

The Fourth of July has always been a strange day for me. I have had some major things happen to me on that day.

In 1994 I was living in Cochabamba and July 4th was the first day I began work in the Prison of San Sebastian. This was a transformative place for me in life and it was my own declaration of independence.

But by the far the best 4ths I have ever had were spent in Pinzolo-val Genova the hometown of my Grandfather celebrating with the Grinders.
When Michelle Obama talks about being able to take care of a family on a working class income she is talking about a certain kind of person- someone like my Grandfather Rinaldo Vanzo.

He immigrated to New York in 1920 and worked on Houston Street as a Grinder- that is he sharpened knives. Most of the Molete in the USA came from one place, val Rendena in Trento. This valley was famous for two things Knife Grinders and Catholic Missionaries.

In the town of Pinzolo the entire tourist infrastructure was built by returning Molete who made their money in Detroit or New York or Chicago and today companies like Cozzini in Chicago are traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Pinzolo today has a monument to the grinders who returned to Italy after years away and introduced so much to that region of Italy. They also gave so much to their adopted nations.

These grinders went to the US, Australia, South America and Canada and they would return to Italy and gather on July 4th to eat Polenta of course. They all were from the same towns but they spoke english with accents from Boston, New York, Chicago, New Orleans and Australia.
As a child I was amazed by these men (they were all men). I was amazed by their optimism and their solidness. There was nothing weak or flaccid about them. For me they will always be America.

My grandfather spoke Italian, German, Yiddish and Hungarian and his clients were European, Asian and African American. the grinders did not care as long as they could sharpen your knives, and supply you with cutting tools. They also grew to understand that every person's culture was special and had value. I grew up eating Jewish Deli and Tub Butter, Hungarian pancakes and the best fried Chicken all gifts from my Grandfather's clients. All were treated with respect and were valued by him.

When my grandfather died in 1980 he was a wealthy man- not just in money but in friends and family. The attendees of his funeral were a United Nations of restaurant owners and people whose faces were as different as the colors of the world. He is buried in North Arlington, New Jersey his coffin faces New York and he has a great view of the city he loved and where he made his fortune.

His story is lost in today's America because there were no wedge issues for him. He did not hate anyone and he only wanted to partake in what everyone else was doing. He was without bigotries or elitism. When Michelle Obama talks about the solidness of her father I think of my grandfather Rinaldo Vanzo for whom I am named and look for the America where someone like him can be more while taking everyone with him. That is why we need a change in America- so the next wave of Rinaldo Vanzo's can build their lives and enjoy what America really is about.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Comfortable Poetics

Early this year I went to a play by Carla Harryman at the U of Chicago. The event was like most other poetic events- lots of piercings, tweed, and odd handbags and glasses.

I went with Garin Cycholl who is a fine poet and someone who writes and risks. One of the things I love about Garin's work- and our press Cracked Slab Books is doing his newest book Rafetown Georgics-is that the work is both opaque and subject driven. It has history and is concerned about big things.

The Harryman play itself was interesting except that one of the 'actors' gave his lines to an audience member to read creating a kind of farce that destroyed the tension of the play. The lack of seriousness on the part of this 'actor' has caused me to think for a long time about seriousness and comfort and our poetry. I kept thinking "how dare this child desecrate what is happening here" yet this is part now of our poetic landscape.

There are many great poets writing today who write innovative things and do it well. Having said that the depth of their risk and the degree of their comfort makes the work less compelling. I see it here in Chicago allot. You have poets who are living the poetic lifestyle and writing good work. But something is not right and then you find out- oh they have a trust fund or some other thing removes the real risk. Their writing of poetry is a fashion and later in life they will move onto something else they are not that invested in the work.

I think that there has been a profound division in poetry between risk and comfort. I think that this began in the 1960's and 1970's as a reaction to the Beats and other poets who took politics and injustice as themes. There has been allot of talk here in Chicago recently about Language Poetry because a few Chicagoans ventured to Maine to a conference on the 1970's. I have always thought that Language Poetry while aesthetically very interesting is a poetry of comfort. I mean by this that it is a kind of inside joke that subverts via language but in the end is so opaque that college professors and cognoscenti are the only ones engaged with its nuance.

This is not to dismiss innovative modes of poetry, collage and parataxis are really important to me as a poet- but I have always wondered if Language was a reaction to the 1960's when everything was political?

Pound wanted to write history. Duncan wrote a kind of poetic theology. I always wondered what was the 'big' thing that Language and by inference the entire Post Language poetic landscape wants to write?

Is it irony? Is that the big thing?

I know many readers of this blog have sat through sheer opaqueness in a poetry reading. Once I sat through an entire poem using Marxism and Buddhism as its base using innovative modes. After a while the poem became so much of an inside baseball exercise that I did not know what to make of it? I read it and read it again. and again... nothing. Just artifice and inside jokes and little snickers- on the whole not satisfying it was kind of like he wrote the poem for his friends and the rest of us were just out of luck.

Does anyone else wonder if all this poetry is just opaque to protect the poet from having to deal with society? I am often drawn back to Akhmatova's life thinking about what a poet is supposed to be. There is an image of Akhmatova writing to Stalin to achieve the release of her husband and son. Stalin- this is Stalin- is moved and releases them for a time. The power of who Akhmatova was for that society moved him to act. I also think about Celan and his work and its quiet- turbulent challenge to the world around him. The fact that Celan of all poets of the past century tore open the carcass of the world and laid bare the entrails.

I know that it is passe to want poetry to be heroic or have a big project. But, there is still something compelling about big ideas and big artistic desires. There is a reason that when I drive to work each day and pass Frank Lloyd Wright's home that the street is a better place for having that building rather than say a Popeye's Chicken or a gas station.