We’re in Los Angeles this weekend, visiting with Samantha’s oldest, Max, who is a freshman at UCLA, and looking at potential colleges with his sister, Erica. I’ve long had a love-hate relationship with L.A. (Truth be told, when it comes to California, I’ve always been more of a northern Cali-guy.)

pexels-photo-59305.pngThat said, I love the climate and many aspects of L.A.’s diverse cultures. But I have a hard time with the city’s drain on natural resources, especially its profligate use of fresh water and the ridiculous number of cars on the roads—did I say roads? I mean superhighways.

The city sprawl has devastated the natural environment here and, even though the air has gotten cleaner here over the years, with stricter regulations on auto emissions being a key factor in that progress, the smog has worsened for the past two years despite reduced emissions. The relentless expansion of residential communities into what’s called the urban-wild interface has led to increased fires, as well as worsening the impacts of drought and flooding when the rain finally comes.

Still, I learned a lot about LA while researching a biography of the Italian-American novelist John Fante back in the late 80s-early 90s, a project I never completed but which drew me closer to understanding the allure of this City. And coming out here frequently over the past six years, I’ve grown to appreciate it more and more.

With that in mind, I wanted to share a poem by an Angelino poet, and Luis J. Rodriguez, the former Los Angeles Poet Laureate, was the first who came to mind. Originally, I was going to share his poem, “The Concrete River,” with its Whitmanic-Beat Generation yawp, but then I found his “Love Poem to Los Angeles,” and it somehow seemed more appropriate this week.

For those of you who don’t know Rodriguez’s story, his is a classic American tale of son of immigrants struggling to get by in a country that has a love-hate relationship with its immigrants.

As a youth, Rodriguez fell in with gangs in East LA—his most famous work is an account of that experience, Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. Later, after an incident where he was arrested for trying to stop police from beating a young Mexican woman, Rodriguez quit drugs and the gang life, became a community organizer, went back to school, and started writing in earnest.

He founded the Tia Chucha Press and the cultural center-bookstore of the same name, received the Hispanic Heritage Award for Literature in 1998, and became Poet Laureate of L.A. in 2014, the year he also ran as the Green Party Candidate for Governor of California. Rodriguez ran on a platform of clean energy jobs, single-payer health care, a severance tax on oil companies, and reforming the California prison system. He did not advance to the November election, which was won by incumbent Governor Jerry Brown.

Here is Luis J. Rodriguez’s “Love Poem to Los Angeles”

 

Love Poem to Los Angeles

with a respectful nod to Jack Hirschman

 

1.

To say I love Los Angeles is to say

I love its shadows and nightlights,

its meandering streets,

the stretch of sunset-colored beaches.

It’s to say I love the squawking wild parrots,

the palm trees that fail to topple in robust winds,

that within a half hour of L.A.’s center

you can cavort in snow, deserts, mountains, beaches.

 

This is a multi-layered city,

unceremoniously built on hills,

valleys, ravines.

Flying into Burbank airport in the day,

you observe gradations of trees and earth.

A “city” seems to be an afterthought,

skyscrapers popping up from the greenery,

guarded by the mighty San Gabriels.

 

2.

Layers of history reach deep,

run red, scarring the soul of the city,

a land where Chinese were lynched,

Mexican resistance fighters hounded,

workers and immigrants exploited,

Japanese removed to concentration camps,

blacks forced from farmlands in the South,

then segregated, diminished.

 

Here also are blessed native lands,

where first peoples like the Tataviam and Tongva

bonded with nature’s gifts;

people of peace, deep stature, loving hands.

Yet for all my love

I also abhor the “poison” time,

starting with Spanish settlers, the Missions,

where 80 percent of natives

who lived and worked in them died,

to the ruthless murder of Indians

during and after the Gold Rush,

the worst slaughter of tribes in the country.

 

From all manner of uprisings,

a city of acceptance began to emerge.

This is “riot city” after all—

more civil disturbances in Los Angeles

in the past hundred years

than any other city.

 

3.

To truly love L.A. you have to see it

with different eyes,

askew perhaps,

beyond the fantasy-induced Hollywood spectacles.

“El Lay” is also known

for the most violent street gangs,

the largest Skid Row,

the greatest number of poor.

Yet I loved L.A.

even during heroin-induced nods

or running down rain-soaked alleys or getting shot at.

Even when I slept in abandoned cars,

alongside the “concrete” river,

and during all-night movie showings

in downtown Art Deco theaters.

The city beckoned as I tried to escape

the prison-like grip of its shallowness,

sun-soaked image, suburban quiet,

all disarming,

hiding the murderous heart

that can beat at its center.

L.A. is also lovers’ embraces,

the most magnificent lies,

the largest commercial ports,

graveyard shifts,

poetry readings,

murals,

lowriding culture,

skateboarding,

a sound that hybridized

black, Mexican, as well as Asian

and white migrant cultures.

 

You wouldn’t have musicians like

Ritchie Valens, The Doors, War,

Los Lobos, Charles Wright &

the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band,

Hiroshima, Motley Crue, NWA, or Quetzal

without Los Angeles.

 

Or John Fante, Chester Himes, Charles Bukowski,

Marisela Norte, and Wanda Coleman as its jester poets.

 

4.

I love L.A., I can’t forget its smells,

I love to make love in L.A.,

it’s a great city, a city without a handle,

the world’s most mixed metropolis,

of intolerance and divisions,

how I love it, how I hate it,

Zootsuit “riots,”

can’t stay away,

city of hungers, city of angers,

Ruben Salazar, Rodney King,

I’d like to kick its face in,

bone city, dried blood on walls,

wildfires, taunting dove wails,

car fumes and oil derricks,

water thievery,

with every industry possible

and still a “one-industry town,”

lined by those majestic palm trees

and like its people

with solid roots, supple trunks,

resilient.

 

Luis J. Rodriguez

from Rattle #52, Summer 2016
“Tribute to Angelenos”

Here is a wonderful video of Luis J. Rodriguez reading “Love Poem to Los Angeles”

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fig tree on christian st philly

The fig tree at Hutchinson and Christian, South Philadelphia. Photo by Daisy Fried.

Thinking about Philadelphia this past week—a city I lived in for 14 years—in the wake of the incident at Starbucks where two black men waiting on a friend were arrested for basically not ordering a drink—or more to the point, because they were two black men in a Starbucks in a tony, white Philly neighborhood.

“Philly is the City of Brotherly Love…unless you’re a brother,” a friend once said to me.

The incident took place around the same time a Facebook friend shared Ross Gay’s poem, “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian,” a poem set in Philadelphia, and which originally appeared in the American Poetry Review, a journal that has been published in Philadelphia since before the country’s bicentennial year.

And I kept coming back to Gay’s poem since I heard the news of Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson’s arrest.

The poem is set in South Philly, which has had its own share of racial incidents over the years, but describes a different mood in the city, a city, as Gay writes, “like most/ which has murdered its own/ people,” where “strangers maybe/ never again,” are picking figs and feeding figs to each other, sharing food, and rubbing sweaty forearms with sweaty shoulders in a mass of humanity.

This is such a contrast with the experience of the two young entrepreneurs waiting for a business meeting to begin in the overpriced confines of a Starbucks. Gay’s poem offers an aspirational image of a society we should all want to live in: one of cooperation, respect, and understanding rather than hate, fear, and intimidation.

The incident in the Starbucks is not an isolated one; it could be anywhere in the everyday life of black men and women in America these days and that must change.

I keep saying we’re living on the cusp of a great societal transformation, one that will find us—all people—able to share more moments like those in Gay’s poem. I believe the real change is coming and we—or at least our children—will look back on these times as a second American revolution, as revolutionary as what took place in Philadelphia in 1776.

After the arrest, Donte Robinson told the AP “he appreciates the public support the men received but anger and boycotting Starbucks are not the solution. ‘We need a different type of action…not words,’ he said. ‘It’s time to pay attention and understand what’s really going on. We do want a seat at the table.’”

Ross Gay is the author of five books of poetry, including most recently, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, which won the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Award and the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry. He teaches at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, and the low-residency MFA in poetry program at Drew University.

Here is Ross Gay’s “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian”

Tumbling through the
city in my
mind without once
looking up
the racket in
the lugwork probably
rehearsing some
stupid thing I
said or did
some crime or
other the city they
say is a lonely
place until yes
the sound of sweeping
and a woman
yes with a
broom beneath
which you are now
too the canopy
of a fig its
arms pulling the
September sun to it
and she
has a hose too
and so works hard
rinsing and scrubbing
the walk
lest some poor sod
slip on the silk
of a fig
and break his hip
and not probably
reach over to gobble up
the perpetrator
the light catches
the veins in her hands
when I ask about
the tree they
flutter in the air and
she says take
as much as
you can
help me

so I load my
pockets and mouth
and she points
to the step-ladder against
the wall to
mean more but
I was without a
sack so my meager
plunder would have to
suffice and an old woman
whom gravity
was pulling into
the earth loosed one
from a low slung
branch and its eye
wept like hers
which she dabbed
with a kerchief as she
cleaved the fig with
what remained of her
teeth and soon there were
eight or nine
people gathered beneath
the tree looking into
it like a constellation pointing
do you see it
and I am tall and so
good for these things
and a bald man even
told me so
when I grabbed three
or four for
him reaching into the
giddy throngs of
wasps sugar
stoned which he only
pointed to smiling and
rubbing his stomach
I mean he was really rubbing his stomach
it was hot his
head shone while he
offered recipes to the
group using words which
I couldn’t understand and besides
I was a little
tipsy on the dance
of the velvety heart rolling
in my mouth
pulling me down and
down into the
oldest countries of my
body where I ate my first fig
from the hand of a man who escaped his country
by swimming through the night
and maybe
never said more than
five words to me
at once but gave me
figs and a man on his way
to work hops twice
to reach at last his
fig which he smiles at and calls
baby, c’mere baby,
he says and blows a kiss
to the tree which everyone knows
cannot grow this far north
being Mediterranean
and favoring the rocky, sun-baked soils
of Jordan and Sicily
but no one told the fig tree
or the immigrants
there is a way
the fig tree grows
in groves it wants,
it seems, to hold us,
yes I am anthropomorphizing
goddammit I have twice
in the last thirty seconds
rubbed my sweaty
forearm into someone else’s
sweaty shoulder
gleeful eating out of each other’s hands
on Christian St.
in Philadelphia a city like most
which has murdered its own
people
this is true
we are feeding each other
from a tree
at the corner of Christian and 9th
strangers maybe
never again.


(On another note: poet Daisy Fried identified the fig tree in question, reporting that it “is actually at Hutchinson and Christian, but that would not roll off the tongue nearly as well.” She also says that the scene is “very authentic. Summertimes people do stop randomly, and harvest figs to take with them. The owners are always happy because it means less dropped and rotting fruit.”)

Here is a wonderful reading of the poem by Ross Gay on #OWNSHOW from Oprah Online: Fig on Oprah.

“To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian” © 2013 by Ross Gay. Originally published in the May-June 2013 issue of American Poetry Review, Volume 42, No, 3. Reprinted from Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database. 

pack_20131125093514_500

Wolf pack, Yellowstone. (NPS Photo)

In the title poem to her latest book of poems, Trophic Cascade, Camille T. Dungy catalogues the reemergence of species in the wake of the reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park.

In ecology, “trophic” refers to the relationships between species in a food chain or web. While in some respects this is both a list poem and a nature poem, it builds (or cascades) with such a “degree of motion and momentum” (to quote the poet in an essay) that it becomes something more.

Dungy mimics the kind of rhythmic swells leading to a break at the end of her line that one sees or hears in an ocean tide, and it’s the kind of rhythm and cadence the poet says she wants to achieve in her poems. But what I love most about this poem is how Dungy pivots at the end—in a way representative of how so much of her poetry works—with what she calls, in the same essay to which I refer above, an “inevitable surprise.”

“We know the line will break, and we might even have an idea of where and how the physical boundary might present itself on the page, and that is part of the beauty,” Dungy writes. “But for that beauty to work to its full potential there must also be much that comes as a surprise.” That surprise, in this case, puts a whole new perspective on our most basic trophic relationship.

Camille Dungy is the author of three other books of poetry, including Smith BlueSuck on the Marrow, and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison, as well as a fabulous memoir-in-essays, Guidebook to Relative Strangers. She also edited the important anthology, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, and has received an American Book Award, two Northern California Book Awards, and an NEA Fellowship.

Here is Camille T. Dungy’s poem, “Trophic Cascade”

After the reintroduction of gray wolves
to Yellowstone and, as anticipated, their culling
of deer, trees grew beyond the deer stunt
of the midcentury. In their up reach
songbirds nested, who scattered
seed for underbrush, and in that cover
warrened snowshoe hare. Weasel and water shrew
returned, also vole, and came soon hawk
and falcon, bald eagle, kestrel, and with them
hawk shadow, falcon shadow. Eagle shade
and kestrel shade haunted newly-berried
runnels where mule deer no longer rummaged, cautious
as they were, now, of being surprised by wolves. Berries
brought bear, while undergrowth and willows, growing now
right down to the river, brought beavers,
who dam. Muskrats came to the dams, and tadpoles.
Came, too, the night song of the fathers
of tadpoles. With water striders, the dark
gray American dipper bobbed in fresh pools
of the river, and fish stayed, and the bear, who
fished, also culled deer fawns and to their kill scraps
came vulture and coyote, long gone in the region
until now, and their scat scattered seed, and more
trees, brush, and berries grew up along the river
that had run straight and so flooded but thus dammed,
compelled to meander, is less prone to overrun. Don’t
you tell me this is not the same as my story. All this
life born from one hungry animal, this whole,
new landscape, the course of the river changed,
I know this. I reintroduced myself to myself, this time
a mother. After which, nothing was ever the same.

c) 2015 Camille T. Dungy, from Trophic Cascade, Wesleyan University Press, 2017

Used by permission of the author.

The Hamline University English Department recently conducted an in-depth Q&A with me about two of my poems, “Naming” and “Villanesca.”

Here is a link to their blog, Hamline Lit Link, where it was posted: Read more

magpie-1987710_1920

 

Anderson_APR poems January 2017

Two Poems by Scott Edward Anderson in The American Poetry Review

Ben Franklin was wrong. Only death is certain; taxes fluctuate — and some even get away without disclosing or paying them.

Last April, my friend the poet A.V. Christie died. It was not entirely a shock, she’d been battling stage 4 cancer for several years, but the fact that she was my age and we’d shared a stage together reading our poems meant it hit close to home.

Four and half months before that, another poet friend, David Simpson, died. I last saw David reading his poems in New York, his book had just come out. He was seriously ill, but celebrating. That was a lesson for me to choose abundance.

Add to that the myriad of more well-known and lesser known poets who die in any given year and it starts to add up: Heaney, Angelou, Kinnell, Waring, Batin, Knott, Strand, Levine, Ritvo, Harrison, Williams, Lux, Tolan, Walcott…the list goes on.

All this death — certain, inevitable death — and a growing number of memorial services and poetry reading “remembrances” over the past few years prompted me do two things: 1.) I started celebrating living poets by acknowledging their birthdays and sharing one of their poems on Facebook; and, 2.) I wrote a poem that tried to shed a little humor on this dark subject.

The poem is called “Deaths of the Poets,” turning on its head the famous Samuel Johnson title, “Lives of the Poets.” I see it as a tribute to the poets who have passed and a kind of companion piece to my poem, “The Poet Gene.”

This poem borrows a few lines from the Lynyrd Skynyrd song, “Free Bird,” which I’ve always wished someone would shout out at one of my readings, as was done at concerts back in the 70s and 80s. (Imagine the lines read in “poet voice,” if you will.)

I threatened to shout for “Free Bird” if my friend the poet Alison Hawthorne Deming didn’t open a recent reading by singing a few bars of “Stairway to Heaven,” which is the title of her new book of poems. She did it brilliantly and I have photo evidence. Alas, no recording.

Here is my poem, “Deaths of the Poets,” which appeared in The American Poetry Review earlier this year:

Deaths of the Poets

Sweet sorrow then, when poets die,
as so many of them have this year.
Goodbye to them, as we linger
over their works, forgiving their deeds,
maleficent or magnanimous.
We remember their kind gestures,
wholesome smiles, constructive criticism,
and witty remarks over drinks or dinner.

We seldom recall what a bore they were at readings,
droning on about their poems or rushing through them,
or how they showed up ill-prepared,
rifling through papers trying to find
the exact poem they wanted to read next
or constantly looking at their watch
and asking the host or hostess,
“How much time do I have?”

Sometimes when I hear poets read in their “poet voice,”
I want to shout out “Free Bird,” like hecklers at old
rock concerts. “Play ‘Free Bird’!” ‘til they recite,
“If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?

For I must be traveling on, now
‘Cause there’s too many places
I’ve got to see.”

Sweet sorrow in their passing then,
poets gone this year and last and yet to come.
And in our mourning let us not forget
Seamus Heaney’s story about two Scottish poets
at a reading, one on the podium struggling
to find his poems and the other, seated in the front row,
saying, “When they said he was going to read,
I thought they meant read out loud…”

–Scott Edward Anderson

c) 2017 Scott Edward Anderson

First published in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 46, No. 01, January/February 2017

Dark Harbour Sunset, August 2016

For several years our friend, the poet Alison Hawthorne Deming, told us about Grand Manan Island off the coast of New Brunswick, Canada. Alison is a long-time summer resident on Grand Manan.

We finally made it up there last summer – and were we glad we did.

To say the island is a special place is a bit of a cliché and certainly doesn’t do the island justice. But then, when is a cliché not mostly true?

Remote and fairly difficult to get to from New York – you drive to the edge of Maine and keep going — Grand Manan sits on the western end of the mouth of the Bay of Fundy and was formed by colliding plates. You can see the fault line where Triassic and Cambrian rock meets.

Here time is marked by arriving and departing ferries, dramatic in-coming and out-going tides, and when the herring is running. The landscape is rugged basalt and a dense forest of birch and conifers, with pockets of wetlands, marshes, and rocky cliffs all formed and deformed by the sea, salt spray, and wind.

One evening before sunset, Alison took us over the top of the island to the other side, to Dark Harbour, a place that seemed somewhat stuck in time. I felt a bit like an intruder, although the place was oddly familiar as well, surrounded by encroaching darkness. There are rumors of pirates or a pirate curse in Dark Harbour.

Dark Harbour is also the dulse capital of the world. Dulse is an edible seaweed harvested by hand at low tide and dried in the sun outside during the summer months. Grand Mananers love their dulse, which seems a healthy substitute for chewing tobacco or potato chips. Dulsers are a special breed, as this video from Great Big Story attests: http://www.greatbigstory.com/stories/dulser-dark-harbor

Several poems in Alison’s new book of poems, STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN, feature the people and landscape of Grand Manan. There are echoes in these poems of another Canadian Maritime setting by another poet from New England with Maritime ties, something about the cold and crystal clear water, a quiet observation and an older way of life, the dark forest and the sea.

We’re going back this summer.

Here is Alison Hawthorne Deming’s poem, “Dark Harbour”:

 

“Dark Harbour”

 

Dulse camps teeter on cobbled basalt

where storms have heaped a seawall

topped with tumult of silvered

wharf timbers and weir stakes

enough driftwood scrap to salvage for a shack

paint the battered door dusty blue.

 

A rusty slatted bed kerosene pooled

in a glass-chimney lamp waiting for a match

dirty teapot on the camp stove

it’s home for a night or two

when tides are right for gathering.

Stone slips wait gray and smooth from wear

 

where yellow dories are winched and

skidded to motor offshore headed

for the dulsing ground. A man

who works the intertidal shore

says I can smell the tide coming in.

I raise my face to the wind to try to catch

 

what he knows. Cold and crystal clear

the water laps the rocks and rattles them

as it recedes. The man pulls fistful

of purple weed off tide-bare rocks

a gentle rip sounding with each pull

the ribbons gathered in his basket

 

dark as iodine deep as hay scythed

and piled in ricks harvest picked by hand

gathered from the transmutation of light

that sways at high tide like hair in the wind

and lies still for combing when the tide recedes

cropland where sea and rock do the tillage.

 

–Alison Hawthorne Deming

c) 2016 Alison Hawthorne Deming. Used by permission of the author.

 

gran_sd4For the fifth and final week of National Poetry Month this year, I’m featuring one of my own poem, “Villanesca.”

This poem was published last summer in Cimarron Review, thanks to poet Alfred Corn, who chose the poem in his role as a contributing editor.

Alfred also provided some critical guidance to help me finish this poem, which I’d been working on for several years. The poem sprang from a conversation overheard between my friend and colleague, Jan Almquist, and his daughter on the train to DC a decade ago.

We were traveling down to pitch the design of The Nature Conservancy’s Annual Report when Jan got a call from his then teenage daughter about leaving her score for Enrique Granados’s “Spanish Dances,” at home and asking him to bring it to her. That was all I needed to prompt the poem, although it obviously went in a different direction.

Sometime later, after boarding a plane, I found a program of Granados on the audio channel featuring the fabulous interpretations of De Larrocha. Obviously, I had to get that into the poem somehow and it helped build another layer.

As mentioned in last week’s post, I shared this poem with poet A.V. Christie a few months before her death. I was very touched by her response to the poem. She wrote, “I love the tone of this poem & the subtle/textured types of communication it’s built up out of…I experience it…it’s so active & in motion…”

Here is my poem, “Villanesca,”

 

Before the cabin door shuts, I check messages.
You forgot your score for “Spanish Dances” on the piano,
left open at the “Villanesca,” a piece with pastoral repetitions
you found hard to reproduce. Your rough interpretation
reminds me of your voice and its effect (or its affect).

Headphones on, I listen to Alicia de Larrocha
performing Granados. The program host has a soothing lisp,
enunciating every syl – la – ble, like a reporter on NPR.
Quoting from a review, she says De Larrocha’s playing speaks
to “a glorious inevitability achieved through immense discipline.”

“Can you bring the score to my rehearsal?” you ask
via voice mail, forgetting my flight this afternoon.
Unlike De Larrocha you always forget the score,
ignore signals, struggle to find the right notes, refuse
to face the music of our own inglorious inevitability.

I press delete, choosing not to repeat past mistakes;
at least, for the duration of my flight.

–Scott Edward Anderson