Wednesday, March 29, 2006

HR 4437 is a disaster of a bill

In the last week the nation has begun to debate immigration. Currently, there are 12 million undocumented workers in the country. The House of Representatives has passed HR 4437. What HR 4437 does is scapegoat Mexican workers for the failures of the United States economy. HR 4437 makes it a felony to be an undocumented worker it this country, and also criminalizes the act of helping undocumented people. The bill also includes provision to build a 700-mile wall along the border.

I heard a pro-HR 4437 spokesman say that that illegal immigrants take away the jobs of Americans. It is untrue that illegal immigrants take away anyone's jobs. HR 4437 will never improve the number of jobs available nor will it increase the wages of jobs. HR 4437 will, in fact, do the opposite, helping to drive down wages. The results of HR 4437 will be more job insecurity and lower wages.

How will that happen? The quickest growing part of the trade union movement is immigrant workers. Attacking immigrant workers will only hurt trade unions which fight every day to improve wages. Hurting trade unions helps to drive down wages. If people want to raise wages, they should work for an amnesty for undocumented workers. An amnesty would help immigrant workers work with workers born in the United States to raise wages for all.

Undocumented workers do some of the worst paid, most dangerous jobs in this country. Currently undocumented workers make the bulk of the agricultural workforce, picking fruits and vegetables that the rest of the country eats for incredibly low wages, and much of their working conditions are extremely dangerous. Many live in the worst kind of housing--chicken shacks and shanties. If HR4437 passes, it makes the lives of workers even worse. Worse means slavery such as the Mexican Zapoteca Indians who were brought over the border in 1984 and enslaved in Somis, California, to a flower grower. When people allow some workers to be pushed down to below minimum wage, that starts a downward press on wages. Having a section of the labor force making incredibly low wages totally dependant on their employers will help increase the movement to push wages down for workers born here.

HR 4437 supposedly will make the border more secure through the 700-mile wall, but the 9/11 hijackers flew into the country on tourist visas rather than come across the Mexican border. Terrorists have never crossed from Mexico to the United States across the Mexican-U.S. border. One terrorist did get caught crossing into the U.S. from Canada. It makes more sense then to put a wall across the Canadian-U.S. border, but then terrorists could just fly into the country. It's simply absurd to put think by putting up a wall on the border it will protect the U.S. from terrorists.

HR 4437 also makes it a crime to help undocumented workers. Thus priests, nuns, doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers who help illegal immigrants could be arrested for giving mass or running a food bank or teaching a class. Also threatening people helping illegal immigrants with arrest would produce incredible social divisions in this country. Criminalizing being an undocumented worker would produce great social divisions. Already undocumented workers do the worse jobs, live in some of the worst housing, and have the worst medical care. Making the harsh lives even harder would produce great anger. Nobody will be any safer if this law is passed.

Another myth is that undocumented workers cause great increase in government spending. Most undocumented workers pay taxes just like documented workers, but never get tax refunds. Study after study has found that they put much more money into government through their taxes they pay than they take out. Scapegoating will never improve the United States economy but is a fantasy solution causing great harm.

Finally, what hasn't been discussed is how United States trade policy starting with NAFTA helps produce undocumented immigrants in this country. NAFTA not only allowed factories to move out of the U.S. to Mexico but also deluged Mexico with agricultural produce from U.S. agricultural corporations. Small Mexican farmers couldn't compete with US agro-corporations and were bankrupted. When our corporations bankrupt Mexican farmers, then farmers if they stay will starve, so instead they move north to the United States working at pitiful wages for these same agricultural corporations. NAFTA gave free movement to corporations but not to the workers whose livelihood was destroyed.

If people want to improve the economy in the United States, they can begin by modifying NAFTA until it is like the trade agreements of the European Union. Within the European Union (EU) both workers and companies can move across borders. If NAFTA were like the EU, then all those workers from Mexico would be legally in the United States. Further, the EU invested into poorer countries like Ireland helping to improve its transportation system which was crucial to producing the boom in the Irish economy in the United States. As the Irish economy improved, then Irish in exile returned to live in Ireland because they could finally make a living in their home. If the United States actually helped improve the Mexican economy rather than act to destroy whole parts of its rural economy, then Mexican workers would be more likely to stay in Mexico. The Irish example shows that such a strategy can work.

Throughout the 19th century and 20th century in California through every economic recession people blamed the recession on immigrant groups, starting with the Chinese, the Japanese, the Mexicans etc. Blaming an immigrant group for a recession never helped 1 person get a job, never stopped any economic recession or depression, never did anything but scapegoat a completely innocent group. We shoud learn from our past mistakes and not blame Mexican and any other undocumented worker for the job problems in this country: that's scaepgoating. It's wrong.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Short History of California Poetry

This blog has dealt with 19th century California poets: Native American John Rollin Ridge who adapted 19th century British romanticism to demand racial equality in his poems about the frontier of California; Ambrose Bierce who uses traditional 18th century British poetics--wit, parody, epigrams--to satirize political corruption; and Edwin Markham, a late 19th century naturalist poet who wrote about suffering of farm workers.

I've also written about three modernist masters: Robinson Jeffers whose envirnomentalist defined 1920s California verse; Kenneth Rexroth who was California's leading poet in the 1930s and 1940s, and George Oppen whose best work was published in the 1960s. Jeffers and Rexroth were fierce environmentalists while Oppen and Rexroth were populists who brought a concern for the common person back again into California poetty. Rexroth led the way to the beats who dominated 1950s and 1960s poetry in the state and who brought innovations into American poetry. Snyder and Ferlinghetti continued in the tradition of writing of Jeffers and Rexroth in writing environmental poetry. Gary Snyder aso followed Rexroth in translating Japanese and Chinese poetry as well as exploring Asian cultures and relgions. Bob Kaufman contributed to the development of a jazz poetry. Lew Welch and Ginsberg contributed to a confessional poetry where poets described their mental breakdowns, suicidal impules, alchoholism, drug use etc.

During this same period American poetry was divided between rebels--Beats, New York school, and Black Mountain (North Carolina) poets--and the traditionalists who wrote a more polite, well-crafted poetry. A leading California traditionalist would be Ivor Winters at Stanford who left free verse for a tight neoclassical style in metered verse.

Ione Noguchi from Japan at the turn of the century came to California and published poetry books in Engish combining traditional Japanese poetry such as the haiku and American poetic influences such as Whitman. By the 1930s Japanese-American poets were writing modernist haiku in Japanese in haiku clubs in Fresno and Modesto. I also looked at such poets as Violet Kazu de Christoforo who developed the modernist haiku in Japanese to describe the internment experience in of Japanese-Americans in California.

In the early 1970s Lawson Inada also wrote brilliant poetry about the internment but in English free verse, and he joined with other Asian-American writers in the Bay Area to begin an Asian-American literary renaisance that continued for the next three decades. At the same time Ishamael Reed organized multi-cultural writers to produce Before Columbus Foundation, to give annual awards, and edit a number of mult-cultural antholgoies; he also wrote his brilliant poetry which had the translated black power into verse. Inada, Reed, and many others created the multi-cultural poetry of the last 35 years.

In the Bay Area women's poetry and gay poetry also flourished and intersected multi-cultural poetry, producing the most innovative poetry both in California and the United States. Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, and Thom Gunm all courageously created a gay male poetry in the 1950s and 1960s. The first important feminist poet, Judy Grahn, innovated a working class woman's voice in her splendid Common Woman poems as well as in lesbian poetry. The Bay Area produced brilliant multi-cultural poets: African-American Ntozake Shange, Filipino Jessica Hagedorn, and Japanese-American Janice Mirikatani. The working class feminists were also doing amazing work: the late Karen Brodine, Nelly Wong, and Carol Tarlen.

During the last 30 years the Bay Area, though still the leading poetry area in the state, was not the only one. Three other regions have developed distinctive poetries. In Los Angeles working class poet Charles Bukowski described the down-and-out of the flatlands of Los Angeles. His down home voice inspired Anglo vernacular poets such as Ron Koertge or Gerald Lockhlin. Wanda Coleman created a new gritty urban black feminist voice. Marisela Norte and Luis Rodriguez were the ambassadors from urban avant-garde in East Los Angeles while Aleida Rodriguez wrote elegantly of her exile from her home in Cuba. Asian-Americans Amy Uyematsu wrote a wonderful books 30 Miles from J-Town about growing up 3rd generation Japanese-American in the suburbs 30 miles from Japantown.

If Los Angeles poets were a multi-cultural stew reflecting that region, in San Diego an Chicano/Tijuana avant-garde led by poets Alurista and Ginza Valdez inhabited the same space with an Anglo avant-garde of such poets as Steve Kowit and Maggie Jaffee. The border was a dominating force in San Diego as well as the more repressive atmosphere of militarization along that border.

The fourth area of California poetry is the central valley literature collected in the anthology Highway 99: A Literary Jouranal through California's Great Central Valley. Detroit poet Phillip Levine taught at California State University at Fresno from the 1960s through the 1990s inspiring a generation of poets. One of the earliest Fresno poet was Anglo poet Larry Leavis whose family owned a ranch and who developed a social conscience like Steinbeck's. Valley poets include self-taught Okie farmworker Wilma Elizabeth McDaniels who became The poet of Okie culture.

Multi-cultural poets grew up in or were educated Fresno including Lawson Inada; AfroAmerican Sherely Anne Williams; and Chicano Gary Soto and Omar Salinas. Nearby Jose Montoya taught for many years at Sacramento State University while Alan Chong Lau grew up in Oroville not far away. Of course, many of these poets left the Central Valley as their careers developed, but whether they stayed or left they created a disinctive poetry describing this area. California poetry in the last three decades of the 20th century grew in these four distinct regional centers--Bay Area, Central Valley, Los Angeles, and San Diego/Tiajuana.

In California there were also distinct divisions and quarrels among poetry schools in California reflecting national quarrels. In the 1970s besides having multi-cultural poetry, Bay Area poets also developed post-modernist poetry called Language School. Language poets were influenced by French post-modernist philosophy as well as were in rebellion against political repression in the United States. These poets rebeled against meaning as coercive, so they produce a poetry of non-meaning. During the 1980s Language poets enganged in sharp polemics against other poets in the Bay Area Poets and Writers newsletter. Leading California language school poets are Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian, Michael Palmer etc.

Another quarrel devloped in the East Coast. Every year a volume called Best American Poetry is published showcasing the well-behaved poets who follow early 20th century modernists. In 1996 Adrienne Rich, the country's leading feminist poet, was appointed editor and instead of chosing the usual suspects instead including many black, Hispanic, Asian, women--straight and gay etc. In 1997 Yale professor Harold Bloom wrote an essay introduction to The Best of the Best American Poetry 1988-1997 attacking Rich's selection of poets of color, women, gays etc as a betrayal of the Western tradition and as unfit to be included in these volumes. Bloom, who adhered to European-American classics from Ancient Greeks through early 20th century modernism modernism, rejected multi-cultural/women's poetry as well as Language School.
In spring 1998 poets responded with lively letters in the Boston Review.

In California there have been many academic modernists including Robert Haas, a fine poet, elegant translator, and former poet laureate of the United States. Haas himself has sidestepped the whole debate but Steve Kowit responded from California with a polemical essay against Bloom criticizng difficulty in poetry and asking for an engaged poetry that enlarges the spirit of its readers.

A fourth poetry school in California was the development of a New Formalism. In Los Angeles, California State University professor Timothy Steele published in 1989 his Sapphics Against Anger and Other Poems written in traditional poetic forms and meters. Steele argued that form helps one live with one's emotions, and he also argued for a return to 18th British poets use of wit and reason. In Steele's critical work Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter (1990) Steele argued for a return to using meter in poetry. New Formalists have produced anthlogies of their verse and more critical work. Steele has taught and encouraged the work of Leslie Monsour, anotherfine Los Angeles New Formalist.

While most poets--multi-cultural modernists, post-modernism, academic modernists--together refused to follow New Formalism's return to pre-modernist poetry, a more rhymed verse did occur in the streets of big cities of California: rap/hip-hop/slam poetry. Rap poets like Tupac Shakur combined the tradition of African-American boasting street talk with a creative use of rhymed couplets they developed. Rap poetry, issued on CDs through record companies, was the only truly popular American poetry in this period, having international influence. Rap poetry also give voice to those locked into big city poor neighborhods like Compton in Los Angeles. By 2005 academic critics at both the Western American Literature conference in Los Angeles and the MLA in Washington D.C. had panels on the poetry of Tupac Shakur, the first sign of mainstream literary recognition of rap poetry.

California poetry of the last part of the 20th century has diversified, both geographically across the state and also in terms of ethnicity, race and gender. Competing schools of poets have argued with each other: multi-cultural and women's/gay poetry, Language School, New Formalists, hip-hop, and traditional academics. The latter part of the 20th century has seen great growth and diversification in California poetry. In the later part of the 20th century California has become a hotbed of innovation in American poetry.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Lawson Inada Starts a Renaissance

Lawson Inada, born in Fresno, California, spent part of his childhood in concentration camps for Japanese-American during World War II in Arizona and Colorado. After the war, he finished high school in Fresno, living in the poor neighborhood of Japanese-Americans, blacks, Chinese, Armenians Filipinos, Okies, where he grew to love black music and became friends with Chicanos and blacks. He enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley where he spent much time listening to jazz greats in San Francisco. Jazz is a major subject of his poetry and inspiration for his style. Returing to Fresno, he studied with poet Phillip Levine at California State University at Fresno and published in an early anthology of Fresno poets.

Inada's first book of poetry Before the War: Poems as They Happened (1971) was a pioneering book of poetry in the United States published by an Asian American. In 1974 he as well as three other Asian-American writers--playright Frank Chin, novelist Shawn Wong, and Jeffrey Chan--published Aiieee: An Anthology of Asian American Writers., this first anthology edited by Asian Amerians including a reconstruction of their own literary history.

Inada continued to produced pioneering work when he published in 2000 Only What We Could Carry: The Japaense American Internment Experience. His second book of poetry is Legends from Camp, which won an American Book Award. Literary critic and novelist Shawn Wong says that "if there were such a position as Poet Laureate of Asian America, Inada would be unanimously elected to the post." After teaching at a college many years in Southern Oregon, he was elected Poet Laureate of Oregon, but California claims him also.

Inada has redefined America as neighborhood he grew up in Fresno, with its mix of blacks, many different Asians, Chicanos, Middle Eastern and poor white. He defines jazz as America's greatest contribution to the world. He uses the repetitions and rhythms of jazz in his poetry, and often reads accompanied by jazz musicians. He's a poet close to Whitman in his musiciality and his seeing America as many up of different voices singing varied songs. Inada has defined Asian-American poetry as directly within the most vital current of American poetry.

Inada like many other Japanese-American writers has found internment an major inspriation of literature. This literature is similar in some ways similar to huge outpouring of Jewish writing about Holocaust. In Lawson's poem "IV. Legend of Lost Boy" from his book Legends from Camp he begins discussed how the boy "had another name, a given name--/at another, given time and place--but those were taken away." In these repetitions Inada describes how the boy in losing his home in internment lost his name.

Those loss of identity occurs in the 2nd stanza when all marks of identity--the boy's dog, the road he lived by, the food, his house--were taken away. Repetitions continue of of the all these things taken away in stanza two and then the "The boy was taken away" in stanza three. In the boy's new home in the fairgrounds, the counters of identity--houses, trees, streets--are missing in stanza 6. Inada recates the confusions of the initial stage of intenment where the boy in following a big water truck finally losings his way completly.

What helps the boy finally is Old Man Ikeda founds him and "bawled him out." One other interned person connects with the boy, gives him a name "Lost boy," walks him through the camp to his mother. Then his mother "called him/"Lost Boy." Finally, with this reconnection to the community of other people--Old Man Ikeda, his mother--Lost Boy "thought he was found." Inada teaches that the community of others helped those lost or despairing, reintegrating them back into the human family. The larger Japanese community began caring for its members, helping them deal with the hardships of camp. The repetitions throughout the poem give it a musicality, as if Inada played a sad song ending in a touch of hope.

Inada's work is similar to Tadeusz Rozewicz, the Polish poet who stunned the literary world with his stunning poetry about World War II in Poland published in English translation in "The Survivor" and Other Poems. Inada like Rozewicz in dealing with brutality during World War II avoid the "traditional" resources of poetry--metaphor, simile, irony, symbolism--instead turning to repetitions and facts in what Polish critics have called "the naked poem." While critics have hailed Rozewicz as creating a special genre of Polish poetry, American critics have only begun to see how Inada uses jazz poetics to create a new American poetry of Asian America.

Since Aiii, many other anthologies of Asian-American literature have been published. By the 1990s antholgies focused just on poetry: Garrett Hongo's The Open Boat: Poems From Asian America (New York, Anchor Books, 1993); Walter Lew's Premonitions: The Kaya Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry (New York: Kaya Production, 1995); and Eileen Tabios' interviews with Asian American poets in her Black Lightening: Poetry in Progress (New York: Asian American Writers Workshop, 1998). Lawson and his colleagues who published Aiieeee have indeed begun a renaissance in Asian-American literature. Inada's poetry breaks paths in creating a new American literature.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Ishmael Reed's black Gods

Ishmael Reed is a major American poet, novelist, editor and publisher. He grew up in Buffalo, New York, worked as a reporter for a black newspaper, and since 1967 has lived in Berkeley/Oakland. For the last three decades he has worked tirelessly for a rainbow-colored American literature.

He and poet Al Young founded the influential magazine Yardbird, and then in 1976 he founded the Before Columbus Foundation, "a mutli-ethnic organizing dedicated to promoting a pan-cultural view of America." The Before Columbus Foundation gives annual American Book Awards to promote multi-ethnic American literature. He also served as general editor for HarperCollins's four-volume "Literary Mosaic Series" which further promoted multi-cultural American literature. Reed along with Gundar Strads and Shawn Wong also were editors of Before Columbus Poetry Anthology, an anthology of poets who received awards from the annual Americal Book Awards.

In his poem "I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra" Reed creates a black hero who fights through the centuries against opressors of blacks. The poet uses Egyptian mthology about the black God Ra/Horus who fights Set, the god of foreign opressors. In Eyptian myth the Sun God passes through the waters of the underworld in a boat each night so he can emerge in the morning without being extingished by the waters. Also, the Egyptians had to drive out the foreign opressors and their God Set in order to resture their true black Sun God. Reed combines Egyptian mythology with American Western outlaw stories and with African-American culture including boxing, jazz greats such as tenor saxaphonists Sonny Rollins etc. Reed also contests in his poem the "untrustworthiness of [white] Egyptologists" views about African dieties.

In the open stanza Reed uses one of of us puns in the "saloon of fools," play on "ship of fools" and "saloon" of the old west. The hero, the cowboy in the boat of Ra, is in the saloon of fools, and gets bit by a sidewinder, a rattlesnake, and rides out of town, but isn't recognized by ignorant Egyptologists who are, of course, fools and school marms with bad breath. The black hero moves back and forth between many centuries in the whole poem, from bedding down with the great Egyptian mother Goddess Isis to sticking up Wells-Fargo stagecoaches in the 19th century West, to becoming a great black boxer as well as jazz great in the 1950s America in stanzas 3 and 4.

Reed's poem has a plot: the Set, evil god of foreign opressors, has driven the black god hero out of town (both Egyptian temple and Western town), and the cowboy's face is one a wanted poster. He spends his time in exile "[b]oning-up in the ol West i bide my time" by shooting at tin cans and "write the motown long plays for the comeback of/Osiris." Motown was the black music company in the 1960s which produced some of the most wonderful black popular music. The black god hero is plotting the return of the true god of Egypt Osires.

This voice is exile tells us he is half-breed son of the stars but "I hold the souls of men in my pot/I do the dirty boogie with scorpions" as he dances with scorpions. He asks for his magic elements he needs before returning to combat evil Set who drove him out:

bring me my Buffalo horn of black powder
bring me my headdress of black feathers
bring me my bones of Ju-Ju snake
go get my eyelids of red paint
Had me my shadow
I'm going tonto town after Set.

Here Reed has the black God prepare himself with the Buffalo horn of gun powder from the West, the Ju-Ju snake from black folklore, the red paint of Native Americans before going into battle with Set. The poem ends with a war cry against Set as the cowboy promises "to Set down Set" in another wonderful pun. The poet calls Set the "usurper of the Royal couch/imposter RAdio of Moses' bush ... vampire outlaw of the milkway." The poem ends with a war cry against Set, calling him usurper God of Egypt, imposter taking over Moses' prophet's burning bush to vampire outlaw of the whole galaxy. The whole poem is a battle dance/song before the cowboy goes back into town to get the bad guy and right wrongs.

Reed in his poetry, his editing and his publishing has tried to replace the old opressive Gods with new more accurate vision of American life and literature.