Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Embers of Smoldering Homes

Embers of Smoldering Homes

It is a major war from
a manufacturing plant
near Ciudad Juárez, a concrete
dust smell from the maquiladoras
cools. There is a pool
of liquid forming
on the stone floor.
When Érika Gándara, the only
cop in Guadalupe Distrito Bravos
was killed the buzzards
were fucking in the wind.
See the brown ribs poking
through the side
of the hound, behind
the broken refrigerator.
The dog is looking for a guaco
leaf, or Saint Teresa.
She has not been seen
since two days before
Christmas. A painting
of the black Mary is wrapped
in plastic wrap, next to the rifle.
Who else is wrapped
in plastic, like drug baggies
or a piece of flesh: Praxédis, Leticia,
Esperanza, Hermila, Felicitas,
Lourdes, Elvira, Gabriela, Elsa Luz…
The body has been in the desert
for at least nine days.
A wire chicken coop,
a plaster wall, she vests herself
and waits for you like a hand
stripped of a moving world.
A hand stripped of a moving
world waits for you.
It snaps its fingers
on 2 and 4, a “black snap”
or a sponginess encased
in desire. The fleshy leaves
of the agave bend a white
feather on a girl’s brow.
The goatskin deflates
by the opening where,
lashed to itself, she pulls
back her flat breath,
her brittle and meager
clavicle unscrew the pain.
A niña’s rose black edge
stumps the coroner
who says something is striking
me, my chrome raindrop,
my jacaranda, pouch of bone.
In Dublin, Ohio,
a sortie of jackals
split the scissors behind the mask
mouth and “cut loose”
for a long needle-devouring night
into the rawhide axis
of dawn, of dung and ashes.
If the word Mexico means
“Place at the Center of the Moon”
then these fabric fireflies
and jutting hips are perfumed
honeyed vibrato moans
and the manic cartels
slice their own heads,
cancer-eaten, like a faceless jaw
snapping the desert moon.
We didn’t meet in Mexico’s
dark carbon, stretching palpitations
in black armor but a wooden
column of the archangel
who witnesses casually
the teporochos who eat genitals
and fuck watermelons.
When you take the last bus
to Piedras Negras a bullet
has struck the remaining tissue
not of livestock or bodyguard
but the moon’s own leather aorta.

Monday, May 16, 2011



A brass tube in an S-shape is the matrimonial yoke.
And the numerology of a gold-sewn cloak.
Calfskin pendants and a pump’s quilted glaze,
Crimson and azure, some dumb hovering maze.

Sun Ra said: People are interested in everything
But true wisdom, like hoot owls, nails, ghouls,
Pyramids and triangles. A funky donkey tightens
And passes by as the girls sip ginger ales.

Hemphill said: People keep looking rearward
For the tradition. The tradition is forward! Not
What you did last week, but this week.
The blues is a loop we barrel through.

Bloom into each other beam to rough
Hewn-beam. Move your leg sweet darling.

Roundhouse Kick to the Solar Plexus

Roundhouse Kick to the Solar Plexus

Hand that gentleman the brass shears.
We gingerly wrap tape around our knuckles
And prepare to cut some heads.
The governor is fat as a dump truck

And plays free and loose with the facts.
The pundit is pink-faced half-wit
Determined to lower the denominator
While men twice his better rot

In a Newark jail for an ounce of Bambalacha.
I would like the Dallas businessman
To live for a week in the shoes of Eleanor Bumpurs.
If something disgusting looks in your eyes,

Flip your collar and wear your sunglasses.
If we don’t tell you, no one will know.

Sycamore Trees

Sycamore Trees

A cough surfaces through the mouth.
Immobile flight through a black enormous sky….

Daydreams, yellow and royal kiosks rotting
By the pier. The pigeons’ powder glow rose.

My room is a tollgate; swarms with distorted
Anatomy and flat, striped faces, air scented with cherry.

Mexico isn’t final. Mexico is not a passage
Through which I journey into green, secret sobbing.

When she curls in the corner, her hollow eyes
Mean everything is thinned by heat.

I want to ask her something, like a thread
I read through the pages of a book.

Horses ride the sky, their hooves touch the terrible air.
I will see you in the branches of the sycamore trees.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Open Letter on Race

I did not attend AWP this year; nonetheless, I feel compelled to respond to the debate opened by Hoagland’s poem and Rankine’s response to it, and the responses to those.

Poems are about celebrating and confronting their subject matter and their attitude toward the world. In my opinion, a writer should show affection for the universe in a piece of writing.

All societies have their psychopathic elements, and America is psychopathological about race. I think it is irresponsible to ignore race in a piece of writing either in terms of content, form, psychological space, point-of-view, theme, or historical perspective. In both my creative and academic work I write about race frequently, either as a triumphant view of jazz culture, or as a critique of, for example, the immense problems facing the black metropolis of Newark, New Jersey.

The advantages of writing about race are plentiful: you stake a claim against the national psychosis, you put your facility with language to work for social justice, and, if you’re white, you remove the cobwebs of white privilege from your eyes. I don’t think a writer should ignore the question.

Everyone has a right to his or her opinion, but those who are informed have more of a right. For Hoagland to claim that almost all poems about race come from a person of color’s point-of-view is patently absurd. If anything, the exact opposite is true. The default speaker of many poems from Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams to John Ashbery and Billy Collins is that of the egocentric, androcentric white male sitting in the living room and gazing out the window and marveling—all the while being subtly superior—at the world. To pretend that race is a force majeure and beyond the scope of such poems that on the surface have no racial element is historically inaccurate. Such poems are at best acts of bullying; that is trying to control the reader’s feelings without revealing his own. At worst they are part of the ludicrous racial psychopathology that responsible writers must try to overturn.

Besides being a poet, I am a scholar working in American Studies, and therefore am interested in historical facts. Hoagland is right that it is facile for Rankine to assume that the speaker in the poem is the same as the poet (if that is in fact what she assumed, which I doubt). But from the time we begin to read as children and continuing to the time beyond when we have our precious MFA degrees and are taking part in the ridiculous literary marketplace, we do not pause to question the vicious and relentless invisibility of race in what we read and write.

Hannah Arendt said that: “One can resist only in the terms of the identity that is under attack.” Our entire system of the literary marketplace is inequitable. If a student feels embarrassed or that she will be misunderstood in confronting race in her poems, then dishonesty and Socratic bullying will take place in the classroom rather than everyone learning how to be a better reader. In the modern university system, diversity and multiculturalism are often thought of as being interchangeable; but are they different? And, if so, what are the differences? Such tropes are usually only thought of in terms of something to celebrate, and never in terms of what race is really about, which is power.

Even the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement are traditionally ignored in most classrooms in America as an attempt to make them invisible. Just to offer one example, Rosa Parks is remembered for “accidentally” becoming a Civil Rights icon for not giving up her bus seat; that she did so not intentionally, but spontaneously. The historical record shows, in fact, that Parks was actively and militantly political for more than 20 years prior to the bus boycott. We festishize neatly calibrated stories to absolve our responsibility. We engage in acts of self-deception if we say that poems are merely about self-expression and have no role to play in our own political militancy.

I think that misreading or miswriting race is a failure of the imagination. To write about a subject using abstractions, vague language, or generalities is not a technical problem. It is an ethical problem. Writers must act ethically and empathically if they are to understand not only “where the other person is coming from”, but the psychological space of the reader. It is the responsibility of the writing teacher to teach students how to read empathically. The only purpose of a writing workshop is to create better and more sophisticated readers; creating better writers is only a by-product and should not be the main concern.

I do not believe race can be constructed separately from history. Our attitudes about race have been designed, foisted upon us from above, and made us sick. Even assuming that the speaker of “The Change” is not the writer, there is a categorical difference between that poem and James Baldwin’s “Going To Meet The Man,” a 1965 short story told from the point-of-view of a white, racist sheriff who overcomes erectile dysfunction while remembering a lynching. In Baldwin’s story, though the reader hates Jesse, Baldwin has infused him with some pathos. In Hoagland’s poem the speaker is scornful, reactionary, and can barely hide his contempt not only for the black tennis player, but also for the reader who exists only as a thoughtless vessel in which contain the misinformation the speaker says and thinks. The speaker in “The Change” is more like someone in a Raymond Carver story, uneducated and wondering why the universe has passed him by.

An argument can be made that Hoagland is demonstrating empathy for the racist tennis fan in the poem by coming around to his point-of-view, but if that is the case, why the unmitigated scorn, the easy humor, and the prose-like lines? To claim, at the end of the poem, that the twentieth century was a sepia-toned space that we pine for and long for, is historically ignorant. Like the McCain-Palin supporter who uses coded words to cover their racism, the speaker here shows off his ignorance and culpability like a badge of honor. The speaker in the poem is acting cruelly to suppress his guilt.

For Hoagland to claim to Rankine that “the poem is for white people” is a way of obviating the writer’s responsibility. It is analogous to a murderer saying to the jury: “Well, I killed her for all the other murderers out there.” I’m white and I don’t want to read something that preordains a narrow, self-aggrandizing view of what I am as a reader. “The Change” is written in the first person plural, “we”. In my view, this is a way of subtly controlling the reader. I advise all writers to eliminate “we” and “everybody.” The writer should instead name the guilty parties rather than lump the guilty and innocent together in the same rubber bag. This flaw in a piece of writing is a misreading of Freudian projection, or attributing one’s faults and desires onto others.

There have been books successful at inventing the language of racial identity. I suggest books by Nathaniel Mackey, bell hooks, Jay Wright, Melvin Dixon, Bob Kaufman, and Angela Y. Davis. The African American sculptor Elizabeth Catlett said: “We all live in a given moment in history and what we do reflects what level we are on in that moment.” In my view, we can take the shortsighted, scornful, cynical view of a poem like “The Change” or we can use our art form to work for social justice. Paying attention is a form of generosity. To me, if you are not writing and reading about race, then you are not paying attention; you do a disservice to the reader to treat her like a vestibule for casual jokes about a black tennis player. It does not create an interesting poem or create an interest in the reader to do so.

The obvious thing to do in a situation like this is to read some of these successful books. Let’s all do that now.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

16 Questions

  1. Can I create a poem that appears simultaneously spontaneous, yet inevitable?
  2. Repudiating is hating, yet why does it motivate writers?
  3. Can I think a thought whole?
  4. Can I write from impulse and not rules?
  5. Do I care more about what a line is than what a poem is?
  6. Why does rhythmical energy equal psychic energy?
  7. How can I make the line itself syntactically interesting?
  8. How can I make the language move; create a sense of doubleness; celebration & confrontation; rhythm of expecting?
  9. Why is writing abstractions frequently taught as a technical problem when it's really an ethical problem?
  10. Why is psychoanalysis, like poetry, is not only impossible, but also extremely difficult?
  11. Can I write with lyricism but also truthfulness?—lyricism alone is not what makes literature valuable.
  12. Why do many teachers use the Socratic method, which is about being a bully, instead of empathic questioning?
  13. Why is it that half the skills of a creative writer are psychological sturdiness, yet the culture demands that we specialize in pain instead?
  14. Can I write without fear of ghosts (parents, authority figures)?
  15. Can poems be written that people need, not that they praise?
  16. Am I courageous enough to put anything clear and unevasive down on paper or not?

Find My Books Here


Two chapbooks, Passport, and Keep Right On Playing Through the Mirror Over the Water.

Download these free PDF books.


Find Discography from your favorite store or directly from Yale University Press.