Monday, October 04, 2004

Latecomer to the Scene

For the past eight years I've worked almost non-stop for social justice organizations--even co-founded one myself, which is now a fairly successful, widely-known activist school--and during that time, I didn't read much poetry. Sure, I'd buy a friend's chapbook and read a few poems, or purchase a poetry anthology of Fil-Am or Asian-Am writers, get some autographs, and read a few poems. But poetry was always a bit intimidating to me during that time, and now I know why: it demands of you that which is hardest to give--your own truth.

I've been a blocked poet for years now. Not since I was in college and reading poems at open mics and spoken word events have I really written much poetry worth holding on to. I've never even really called myself a poet, and won't now, despite the fact that half the pages I write these days are full of verse and stanza. I even got one of my poems published in Krip Yuson and Gemino Abad's Father Poems anthology. No, the title 'poet' seems to out there for me, too loaded. Maybe I've been taking myself and this poetry thing too seriously.

Now that I've given myself more time and space to write and to read, I've found myself drawn to poetry more strongly than ever before. Now that I'm allowing myself to claim that I am a writer and an artist, that I refuse to let my writing ability be used only for begging private foundations for grants or for organizational profiles on web sites, poetry is calling to me, and I am actually enjoying it, wanting to read whole books full of it instead of putting them away after a few short pieces trigger my panic-freeze of writer's (and reader's) block.

I recently read two poetry books that have been out for a while, Luis Cabalquinto's "Bridgeable Shores" and Devorah Major's "Where River Meets Ocean." I started to read Cabalquinto's book when it first came out a few years ago. I'd gotten it as a gift for a friend, who already had it, so I kept it for myself--but the poems didn't speak to me then, I couldn't get into it. I just salvaged the book from my 'to sell' pile about a month ago on some weird hunch, opened it up and fell in love with the first poem, "Depths of Fields." I devoured the book like I hadn't read a poem in years (and really, I hadn't). I like the way Cabalquinto talks about sex--playfully, without ceremony, as an everyday fact, as in 'Angelus':

Unashamed / I felt the world and nature's downy hand / run its fingers on my nakedness. / Aroused, / and wanting the moment's celebration, / I reached down for the gesture / of a pleased participant.

For some reason, I always thought Devorah Major was white. This has nothing to do with her or her work, because I never read any of it until a couple weeks ago. I think it had more to do with the fact that she was written up in the SF Bay Guardian a lot and I don't often see cool POC artists profiled in the Guardian (as much as I love the paper, they've got some issues). And I generally don't read many white writers, mostly because there's so many cool people of color writers that I'd rather read and support out there that I don't have the time.

In any case, I picked up "Where River Meets Ocean" a few weeks ago at City Lights, and turned to her "fillmo'e street woman" poem, which she read as part of her inaugural speech when she was named San Francisco's poet laureate in 2002. Having lived in the City for about a year now, I'm drawn to poets and writers who tackle the vibrancy and weirdness of this contradictory place. Major's voice sounds real to me, and she has a history of life in Frisco that few of the many artists that live here can ever claim. I like that her language is spare and plain, without unnecessary ornamentation or obscure vocabulary. From 'fillmo'e street woman':

she wore her nails / sculpted in red / in those days / when that street / when this street / was ours

she sat on a barstool / snapped her fingers / and hunched her shoulders / as smoke rose between / the bandstand and counter / and the scene / got hot and sultry / and the music / pressed out the doors / and down the street.

further down / she slid in at jack's / had another cigarette lit, / flashed her teeth, laughed / as the club spun tight / shoulder to shoulder / thick smoke and blaring saxophone.

I can read these two poets without reaching for a dictionary every five minutes or feeling like an idiot because I just don't 'get it'. Maybe that means I'm not a real poet. I don't really care anymore. I'm just happy to be reading and enjoying and writing poems again. And that's kinda cool.


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