Monday, September 28, 2015

A man sits in a room from which he has erased himself.

He has erased himself from his own life or plans to erase life from himself
and he has reasons.

A man is in his mid-40s and is chubby. His face has grown more sullen and unremarkable.

He has removed himself from his own memories and he is in the process of removing himself from his young daughter's memories.

A man is sepia-toned and vulgar.

He tries to be cold-hearted as he breaks the small bones of the finch, inclining his brow slightly toward the lens.


We are called to this world by fierce longing and this is crass. A horrible muddle of "decisions"
traveling between parallel paint lines.

One side says "Yield" and the other, "Careful."

A man took care and takes care of his own needs, albeit sloppily.

He has been drunk for fifteen years, more or less.

A man's daughter has been alive for nearly seven years, more or less.

On mountains there are carvings of busts which mean more men and their heads and shoulders
that look out over things like skies and cumulus clouds and cirrus clouds and orange cats.

A man is inert. On notepads there are etchings etched by a man who, twice removed, can't open
a jar or open a portal or sleep at nights.

For the inert man, the night is a freight car with frequent stops.

A man sees children out the open door of the train and they look like paper doves hanging,
framed against a rain-streaked windowless sky.


A man arises at the same time every morning and takes his coffee with sugar and cream.

Six and a half years ago, a man, the same man, rose at the same time every morning and took
his coffee with extra sugar and extra half-and-half.

A man does this in memory of some mornings. The man's girl-child was an infant then.

A man types this 18 inches left of a small plastic rectangular tub of pill bottles.

In the bottles, the orange bottles approximately the color of the fake-wood grain
facade of the desk at which the man sits, are drugs.

The drugs are there to keep him normal.

He isn't normal due to glucose and bad brain synapse firings and an inability
with all things child-proof.


A man meditates on failure and self-actualization but doesn't really know what this means.

A man wears a grey hoodie emblazoned, upper chest, with the word "Oregon" in green.

He stole it years ago from his daughter's mother and he wore it in the photograph
his mother loves, the one in which he squats, smiling on the kitchen floor of his then-girlfriend's
tiny student house on a gravel-paved alley during one of the fiercest Oregon winters in recent
history which means "not very fierce" but it was nice to have a bit of snow, and there was a black dog, too.

A man tries to function outside of syntax and sometimes, as a result, he places things.

A man tries his hand at fiction from time to time but always remembers that it's all
been made up already, even the true stuff he's trying to unmake right now.

When the man's daughter was four years old, she said, "What's only useful when broken? An egg!"

A man has broken things; a man is a broken thing; a man is finally good at something but not useful.



I meant to watch the super blood red eclipse moon last night, and I meant to take inadequate photographs of the spectacular famous moon, but I got really sleepy after dinner, so I took a long nap instead.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

On Scandal

On Scandal or The Moral Logic of Assholism

To use mass transit is to engage
in anthropological fieldwork--

some version of a weapon I employ
can be transfigured here into

the body of someone with something
vital to say. No saviors on the bus

though no reminders in the tunnel
past the transom over which rats

drag slices of pizza & we die slow
happy interferences

crossing this book on a ferry bound
for hell & transference. Blurred

magicians are no more magic
than WEs and THOUs.

Would love to have a coffee but I can't
manage having anything

that doesn't take anything
away from you.

on S. Alexie's inclusion of that bad poem by that one guy

A journal I used to co-edit made a concerted effort to seek out and publish outstanding poetry by female poets--we sought to achieve or strive for gender parity in our editorial choices and we made no bones about it. Come to think of it, I don't recall any of us issuing any formal public statements about it, but it was a principle by which we operated.

Does this mean we gave perhaps more attention to work of female writers? Sure. Is this a good or bad thing? Was the editorial staff all female? No. Had it been, would someone have said of us that we were practicing "gender nepotism" or some nonsense? Of course not.
Some have expressed disappointment in Sherman Alexie's use of the term "racial nepotism" in the statement he issued yesterday concerning the process he used in determining which poems would end up in BAP 2015. I, for one, have no problem with the term, though I understand those who may claim that it gives ammunition to angry white males who can say "see! I told you so!" and so on.

The truth is, the truth that we ALL KNOW and IMPLICITLY (at least) accept is that the editorial process is rarely or ever completely blind, that is governed by taste and not some objective notion of what "good" or "best" is or should be. As tastes and personal aesthetics differ, so do criteria for determining what may land in a particular editor's "zone," that is to say, that which he or she finds more interesting or more valuable than other work on the basis, at least partway, of values and identifiers outside the work itself. Will a certain editor pay more attention to POC or a particular ethnic background based on his or her own personal experiences, preferences, and agenda? Sure. Will some editors strive for parity in gender representation? Of course. Will some editors find more to like in the poetry of their friends and former students than in the slushpile of unknown? Absolutely.

I've never found anything wrong with this. At all. These are all instances of an editorial preference being played out in actual editorial process.

I think what Alexie did was brave because I think many of us, though we know editing is subective, like to pretend that publishing is a meritocracy--ideally--and that admitting to what Alexie calls "racial nepotism" is to admit that maybe angry white literary America might feel chuffed about the "fact" that the non-white editor "admits" that he looks for and gives special consideration to poems he believes to be by non-white writers. This is not wrong to admit. This is how taste works. This is how editing works. To claim that we sit down at our editor's desk without prejudice, preference, or bias is disingenuous at best, and outright bullshit at worst.

I know nothing about the middle-aged white hoosier poet who pretended to be a fake, possibly female, possibly Chinese-American poet, other than what I've read in these comment boxes. I know nothing of his motivation, nor whether or to what degree there is truth to his story of 50 rejections, his "detailed records" or what-have-you. My gut feeling is that he's an entitled douche playing a game that he thinks is funny. I don't think he really believes that it's "hard out there for the white man." I think he's just a dick. (Will his parlor game give ammunition to other angry white men? I doubt it--they don't need ammunition, they're not losing. Yet.)

Here's what else--he wrote a poem that an editor, in this case, Alexie, liked well enough to include in a smallish anthology. Out of thousands he read, he liked this poem and decided to include it--he had the agency, the sound mind, the aesthetic acumen to make a decision. Now he is standing by that decision. I see nothing at all wrong with that. To those who believe Alexie should have pulled the poem, so be it.
In the long run, in the annals of recent poetic history, in our FB news cycle, this incident will probably not be remembered (if it's remembered at all past, oh, the end of this month) as the time a white guy committed a racist act and was handled inappropriately by an editor or editors. If remembered at all, it'll be, oh, yeah, that one time that that white guy did that one thing that pissed a lot of people off during a slow news weekend. Yi-Fen Chou is not Ern Malley is not Ossian is not Yasusada is not Alvaro de Campos is not I could go on. Not even close. And Sherman Alexie is doing just fine, as I imagine that White Hoosier Poet is as well.

more autobiographical nonsense

I began writing seriously (take "seriously" with a grain of salt here, depending on how you define it) rather later than most.
I didn't take a poetry class or start writing poems until I was 26 years old. Lots of millennial poets these days have a couple of books by then.
Anyway, I was quite naive and believed the writing and the poetry world in general was a safe place, free of petty politics and bickering and social climbing. Seriously. I seriously thought that. For real.

One of the thing that interests me about the most recent Po-Kerfuffle is what I will call "identity policing." In a post this week, Cathy Hong commented to the effect that even Asian poets "perform yellowface" because that's what's acceptable. This struck a nerve.

So here I am, sitting in my professor's office, going over a poem I've recently written. At this point in my baby poet development, nobody had ever sat me down to discuss "acceptable" and "unacceptable" subject matter or modes of writerly performance and how race, class, and various other identifiers affected what is and is not "acceptable." Anyway, I don't remember all that much about the poem but it was, for me, a longish piece about growing up as a Mexican-American in mostly white surroundings and the slow realization of difference, and the bewilderment this caused me. Something like that. As I said, this was many years ago and it wasn't a very good poem.

My prof did the usual prof thing--praised some things she liked, helped me wrangle the meter and form (it was for a class on forms), but saved her most serious point for the end of our session.
"Tony," she asked, "What this poem is missing, what it needs, is *anger*. Why don't I see the anger here?" I was seriously confounded, nonplussed. "Come again?"
She went on to explain that a poem about race, about ethnicity, about marginalized identity (whatever that was--I didn't fully understand at the time) must have, as a vital component, anger. Because, you know, black and brown and Asian and Native peoples should be angry. The poem, without anger, no matter how complex the emotions are are, basically, lacks authenticity.

By the way, for those keeping track, this wasn't a white woman telling me this.

I tried my hand at a few more poems of ethnic introspection, and in fact won a prize with one of them (though, really, the only ethnic bits of that poem were the occasional Spanish words and phrases peppered throughout). I soon gave up, though. To quote another poetry friend, Amish Trivedi, I didn't write poems that dealt with race or ethnicity for a simple reason: I didn't feel like it. I mostly still don't.
A couple years later, a dubiously endowed "Distinguished Professor" (yeah, the one whose name I will withhold but who looks like a walrus) told me that my problem was that I was "white identified" and that's (among other things) was keeping me from writing good poems. By this, he meant "Chicano poems" and handed me a book to underscore his point. He passed this book to me, the first and only book of a recently deceased Chicano poet, and said, making prolonged eye contact--"you know what you have to do."

Later that week, I sent in my letter of intent to leave the program

on a couple of VM records

Of Van Morrison's great early records, aside from Veedon Fleece, the one least-mentioned, least-lauded by those in the know (critics, super-fans) is "His Band and the Street Choir." I imagine that's because this record has little-to-none of his "mystical" bent but is mostly straight R&B and bluesy stuff, up until the album closer, "Street Choir," which actually aspires to a different kind of height, a semi-veiled paean to immigrant experience and disillusionment, wrapped in the well-worn tropes of lost love. But I wonder how many casual listeners make it to the final track.

Tupelo Honey is similarly rootsy, this time with a feel the kids these days would call "Americana." I jokingly refer to it as Van's Country Album, and if His Band and the Street Choir was a celebration of American music, of urban life, Tupelo Honey is the other side of that American dream, a rough pastoral, an ode to country living, not an ounce of Irish Mysticism present. But there's the soaring beauty of the lengthy title track that lifts it out of the backwoods, and elevates the lowly magic of the rest of the music here.

one from the ether, OR sometime in the late 1990s

Willamette Valley, 1979

In a shed out back:
putty-colored cherries
lined in Mason jars:
dusty from this wait.
This weight:
graphite leavings:
precise parabola--
lime-green engineer's pad.

poem for the season by Joseph Ceravolo


A dog disappears
across a small lake.
It waits for me.
It goes where I want to go.
Beings to wake up the lowers.
So leave us alone.
Because no freedom can choose
between faces and
hours as destroyed as moving,
or cold water in the
sun. I can go out
now and measure
the flies that swing around trees
like doctors around a woman
full of bars and beauties
you could never make free;
Not even if the
flowers turn to moss and
lose sensations for their stems.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Favorite Spanish Dishes

New po-biz controversy on the book of faces this weekend. It's a rather mild affair so far, I'm guessing, because of the holiday. By Monday, maybe this small story, that had it broke mid-week would cause a flurry of righteous indignation, will be more of a footnote than a headline. We'll see.

In any case, my take on it is that it's complicated. When I posted on FB that I find it "interesting" (inadequate word, I know) I had two responses--the first simply asked a question that I took as rhetorical, implying that it is not at all interesting. The second response asked if its potential for interest outweighed its offensiveness.

I haven't made further comment on FB because that forum is too easily given over to petty fighting that is less about the issue at hand and more about "winning" and garnering "likes." At least that's been my experience. And if it doesn't start that way, that's how it usually ends.

So, I'd say that it is obviously interesting for a LOT of reasons, not all of which I'll unpack here. The fact that it's interesting is attested to by the FB posts I've been seeing in my feed, almost all of which express what is, at this point, mild outrage that a white man would dare publish a poem using a pseudonym that implies he is of Chinese heritage. This is offensive, they say. How could he? WTF!? That is NOT okay. And so on.

It is also interesting that the vast majority of FB commenters and posters find that the ONLY interesting thing about the whole situation is that it's supposedly offensive. I'd offer here that what is most interesting about something is almost never whether or how offensive something is. It's very popular these days to dismiss potentially valuable sites of discussion, of entry points into intellectually valuable discourse by saying that one finds it offensive. What does offensive mean, really? It means "I don't like this." It is not a neutral term, not a subjective term--it carries a tinge of the tarnished, of the shameful, shades of meaning that intimate one who does not find offense at this or that is not only not one of the in group, but is somehow an enemy of all that is right and proper, and as such, is also an offensive person, an oppressive person.

This sort of logic is employed by Scientologists too.

The fact is, though, that something may be offensive without being oppressive. I am offended by a few things, but none of them (that I can think of at the moment) are particularly oppressive. The conflation of these terms can cause a lot of confusion. Not liking something is not the same as something causing you harm.


In the BAP case currently being discussed, what I find offensive, at least slightly, is the poet's slightly crass, slightly smug, self-congratulatory and accompanied with a little wink and smile contributor's note. It's as if he is saying "Haha, politically correct literary gatekeepers, I got one over on you!" This is, I believe more childish than patently offensive, but I see how it may offend some. The guy's kind of an asshole. I get that.

But is doing what he did--writing a poem under an ethnically-identified pseudonym and submitting said poem and having poem published in a literary journal--is THAT offensive? If so, I'm not seeing exactly how so. Pseudonyms and heteronyms and the like are nothing new. The "crime" here is that he is donning "yellow face" or masquerading as something he is not. I'm not sure that's what's going on here, though.

I was educated in a fairly enlightened liberal environment that encouraged claiming one's identity. Your identity is what you decide it is and to question that is at best crass, and at worst, unacceptable. The recent Rachel Dolezal controversy has given the lie to that notion, however. It apparently IS important to claim an identity--up to a point. I don't believe that this poet, this white male poet, was trying to "authentically" (whatever that means) claim a Chinese or Chinese-American identity. I think he was playing a parlor game. Is that crass? Perhaps. Is it offensive? To some. Does it do any real damage, cause any harm to anybody anywhere? I'm not inclined to believe so. If anything, it's cast a harsh spotlight on this kind of maneuver and engendered some discussion. On social media, however, the discussion so far (now only a day or so old) is almost entirely one-sided. This isn't the kind of discussion I want to have.

It should be a suprise (or no suprise) that most of this outrage is coming from career academics or people somehow engaged in academic pursuits or who have been so at some point in their lives, and who are, apparently, concerned about poetry. Most of these people have taught rhetoric or freshman composition or have at least taken these classes which are supposed to encourage critical thinking, careful examination of issues, and thoughtful discourse. So far, and it's still early, I'm not seeing much of that here.


Of course there are several attendant issues I haven't even touched here. If the poet under fire is guilty of something--being offensive, being oppressive, or simply being a douchebag--are series editor David Lehman, and this year's editor Sherman Alexie, equally culpable? If the contributor's note mentioned nothing of the pseudonymous nature of the work would this be an issue at all? If not, then isn't the real offense here the claiming responsibility for the "scam"?

One could also discuss our current culture's obsessiveness about "keeping it real." First we're told that we can claim an identity. The other side of this is we should "keep it real." This is especially true in popular music and poetry. Why, in this late age, is this such an important concern?


Finally, I know several poets, all POC, who have changed their given anglo names to publish under more "ethnic" names which more accurately portray their personal cultural heritage. How should this be viewed? Is it an offense at all? If so, is it a lesser offense?

This "incident" raises a lot of questions, many of which I think, if discussed by a group of open-minded and respectful individuals, could result in some greater understanding about how we think about literature and identity, among other things. I am not hopeful, though, that this will happen. A lot of poets will continue to take offense. Some will be militant, others merely dismissive or disgusted. A very few folks will call for a more nuanced discussion and they will undoubtedly be shouted down. Those who do call for this discussion will undoubtedly be middle-aged white folks. And the people on the other side will be, largely, middle-aged white folks.

Business as usual.