Friday, May 30, 2008

"Write to the City" Showcases The Next Wave of Los Angeles Writing

Last night I attended an amazing event, Write to the City, Los Angele's first Slam on Gentrification, held at Gallery 727, 727 So. Spring St. PM Press, an exciting press out of Oakland, Ca, along with Strategic Action for a Just Economy (SAJE), which fights to improve housing in the Figueroa Corridor just south of downtown, sponsored the reading. The event was aptly held on Spring Street, once the Wall Street of the West then abandoned mostly to homeless now being gentrified. Gilda Haas, Executive Director of SAJE, welcomed us, then introducing mc Gary Phillips, crime novelist of the Ivan Monk series.

The readers spoke of how the city of Raymond Chandler is being gentrified out of existence. The crime writing children of Chandler are speaking out along with organizers recounting true stories from the streets. Who has the right to live in the city now? There were three sets of readers andin each set writers read first followed by organizers. The reading was electrifying before a rapt audience crowded into the space.

Set I started with Larry Foundation, organizer in Southcentral Los Angeles and author of fiction books Angry Nights, Common Criminals, and his latest, Fish, Soap and Bonds, about three homeless in Los Angeles. Foundation's piece talked about a homeless man who slept in a dumpster near a downtown apartment building until gentrification came when he came to a tragic end in a trash compactor. Next Jervey Tervalon, author of the brilliant novel Understand This, read a section from the latest novel he's writing about a single mother struggling to survive with her baby. Crime writer Denise Hamilton followed with her vignette about a reporter trying to interview transvestite homeless camping out near the Los Angeles River.

Next Davin Corona, Director of Organizing at SAJE, told of a black paraplegic living in a downtown slum building whose health is attacked by the worsening conditions in his building until he is forced out, finally dieing on the streets. Last in Set I, Lydia Avila from East L.A. Community Corporation, told of how the taco trucks are under attack in East Los Angeles with police giving citations and one taco truck owner, stressed by the attack on her business, died from a heart attack. In this first set both writers and organizers showed how gentrification actually kills people as well as how hard it is just to survive now in the city.

Between sets DJ's played music a little too loudly as the crowd got drinks, bought books and milled around out on Spring Streets.

In Set II the readers gave an excellent historical context to current gentrification. Crime novelist Gar Anthony Haywood read his essay how gentrification doesn't just pull down buildings and drive out people but also destroys communities going back to his grand father's time. Poet Luis Rodriguez wowed the audience with his powerful rant telling how for decades working people's communities have been destroyed in East L.A. to build a hospital, freeways, a jail and have also been destroyed in Chavez Ravine to build Dodger Stadium--Rodriquez come off as one angry almost Biblical prophet.

Next Sara Paretsky, famous author of V. I. Warshawski crime novels, read a section from a Warshawski novel where her heroine, evicted from one neighborhood in Chicago, moves to a second only to watch that neighborhood get gentrified showing how the housing problem is nationwide. After Paretsky, Aqulina Soriano from Philipino Worker's Center first shared how old Philipinotown near downtown Los Angeles had workers' hotels which were destroyed and then sang her song about recovering people's history. Lastly, Leonardo Vilchis from Union de Veccinos told how in Boyle Heights the neighbors themselves, mostly women, in the housing project organized successfully to stop gang violence, but then the city destroyed the housing project, evicting 800 families, but Boyle Heights neighbors are again having their walks to make their neighborhood safe.

During the intermission I said hello to Robert Ward, author of the novel Red Baker and scriptwriter for such TV shows Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice, who read in Set III, and also said hello to one of my Santa Monica College students Gabriela.

Unfortunately, like Cinderella I had to disappear after Set II, and missed set III, but the event did showcase a powerful new wave of writers in Los Angeles along with the organizers working heroically to get jobs and decent housing for people in this city. Write to the City gave us the next wave of Los Angeles writing showing us what's going on now in the city. Phillip Marlowe's descendants are alive on the streets fighting for justice; these organizers and writers told the stories how what's its like now to be on the streets of the city.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Read Gilgamesh

I finished reading Herbert Mason's 1972 version of Gilgamesh and thought it not just the very best epic poem I've ever read but one of the best pieces of literature I've read in a long long time--and the poem is 6000 years old from Iraq and is the origins of world literature! It is about great friendship of the tyrant Gilgamesh and Enkidu, the death of the best friend Enkidu, Gilgamesh's search for immortality, and the taming of the tyrant Gilgamesh.

Mason's version was about 77 pp all in modern English--no archaic language at all. Then I got fascinated by Gilgamesh to get Stephen Mitchell's new version also in modern English published in 2004--Mitchell's version is a little longer, with material that wasn't in Mason--137 pp. Mitchell's long introduction is fine. I would recommend both versions, and both are in the Los Angeles Public Library. Oh, the earliest Gilgamesh texts are found on clay tables from 2100 bce, but around 1200 a poet-scholar priest named Sin-leqi-unninni in Babylon revised the old stories into what's is now called the Standard Version, and scholars use this version for their translations.

So why is Gilgamesh wonderful? The poem is the beginning of both Arabic and Western literature. The poet pulls us back into an ancient world where the Gilgamesh poet deals with totally modern topics: how to how to be civilized, how to live in cities, how not to be a tyrant ruler. The poem gives us a startling view into ancient Iraq which knew all about tyrants ruling the city as Gilgamesh in the poem's beginning is a tyrant:

The city is his possession, he struts
through it, arrogant, his head raised high,
trampling its citizens like a wild bull.

The epic is non-macho and non-Puritanical with great erotic poetry. Since the people of Uruk are suffering under Gilgamesh's tyranny, they pray to the Gods who fashion a second hero Enkidu to balance Gilgamesh and to give the city peace, so this poem is about taming the tyrant. In the beginning Enkidu is the wild man of the forest living with his animal friends the gazelle, antelope and deer. He's naked with hair covering his body. He's a Mesopotamian eco-warrior, freeing his animal friends from the human hunter's traps, but he's causing the hunter ruin--this poem is on the side of humans, on the side of the city. The hunter goes to Uruk, asks Gilgamesh for help, who tells him to go to the Temple of Ishtar, the love goddess (like Venus), and ask for help of the priestess Shamhat. He does so.

Shamhat in her way is the heroine. She lies naked near Eniku, using her love arts in great erotic poetry to seduce him and teach him about love and women. She teaches him human language, cuts his hair, gives him human clothing, leads him to a shepherd's hut where he eats human food for the first time, eating bread and drinking beer. There she cuts his hair and when "he rubbed/sweet oil into his skin, and became/fully human." the part-animal Enkidu becomes fully human. For the Gilgamesh poet, eroticism is part of being human.

In other epics the hero goes off to battle dragons or conquer cities; yes, Gilgamesh and his best friend Enkidu do have great adventures where they vanquish Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven--the adventures passages are gripping, taking us into mysterious worlds. But this is not just a terrific adventure story because Gilgamesh is a tyrant forcing the adventure for the wrong reasons--because he wants to gain fame and because he thinks the young men of his city are Uruk are too soft. Gilgamesh manipulates the elders of Uruk into agreeing with the will--his actions calling up memories of all tyrants leading their cities into adventures and wars that end in ruin.

For the heroes winning battles only brings disaster. When Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the Humbaba who is the guardian spirit of the Cedar Forest, they do wrong because they kill the spirit appointed by the Gods to guard the Cedar Forest. Humbaba did not harm them but they invaded his territory. Like good imperialists everywhere, the two chopped down the huge trees of the Cedar Forest to bring home the cedar trees as booty. Back in Uruk the goddess Ishtar falls in love of Gilgamesh. She tries to seduce him with promises of all the blessings she will bring him, but now Gilgamesh is so arrogant he rejects, scorns and insults Ishtar, listing how she injured all her other lovers.

Ishtar goes screaming to her father God Anu, gets him to put the Bull of Heaven on earth in punishment for Gilgamesh.Two hundred warriors die fighting the Bull until Enkidu kills it. As punishment the Gods have Enkidu die from illness, leaving Gilgamesh heartbroken. He tears out his hair, destroying his royal robes, going from the city "into the wilderness/with matted hair, in lion skin." Gilgamesh's adventures have left him lost alone with the most terrible loss. Now that Iraq war has gone on for five years losses are mounting, and this poem is about losing one's closest friend--Gilgamesh's laments after loss of his best friend are of stunning beauty. Gilgamesh gets not fame not glory from his adventures but utmost ruin for him.

Gilgamesh's loss of Enkidu is just the beginning of his learning how not to be arrogant but to be human. He roams the wilderness looking for Utnapishtim, who survived the flood and is immortal so he can bring Enkidu back from the dead. In his travels he meets the woman tavern keeper Shiduri who tells him he will never find eternal life: "Humans are born, they live, then they die; that is the word that the gods have decreed." Gilgamesh can't hear her. He rejects her good advice to enjoy such human pleasures as savoring food, having music and dance fill his house, loving his child and his wife--"that is the best way for a man to live." The women in these poems always give good advice about being human.

Gilgamesh does make it across the Waters of Death to met Utnapishtim, who tells him how the Gods enabled him to survive the flood. Gilgamesh never learns any secret of eternal life, returning empty handed to Uruk. But as he looked at Uruk, he no longer mourns his lost friend, but stands in awe of the great city and in awe of the great works human hands have done. He walks on the great walls of Uruk:

observed the land it enclosed: the palm trees, the gardens,
the orchards, the glorious palaces and temples, the shops
and marketplaces, the houses, the public squares.

Gilgamesh is now content with his great city, accepting his human lot to be a responsible ruler there, and now fully human. The poem introduces us to the arts of civilization in ancient Sumer which was the world's first civilization. The poem shows how macho men are humanized, a concept that is totally relevant today. We still need to go to Gilgamesh, to ancient Sumer, to learn the arts of civilization.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

M. Daum wrote the stupidest op-ed in today's LA Times

A particularly stupid op-ed article appeared in 5-25-08 Los Angeles Times by one M. Daum who is tired of baby boomer reunions. Daum calls herself "a member of Generation X," a term which I always thought was a pop media cliche, and refers to Generation Y, yet another pop media cliche term. And do we have a pop media Generation Z yet? I hope not.

As a member of the '60s generation, I'm not what Daum calls "baby boomer," yet another pop media term used to sell goods. I haven't listened to classic rock for decades, and get rid of all those old albums about 15 years ago. To tell the truth, I never liked the Rolling Stones much anyway, thinking them hypocrites who could rock.

I did love roots American music featured at the Ash Grove in the 1960s, and missed the Ash Grove reunion a few months back at UCLA. But Daum is too much emeshed in pop media cliches to have bothered with the Ash Grove which showcased great American music--blues, bluegrass, Appalachian folk-- in the 1960s to a new generation. The only problem with the Ash Grove reunion is I missed it and it should have been better publicized. Ed Pearl, please have another reunion so I can go!

Daum kvetches about how her generation was "carving out its collective identity largely concerned with our role as the victims of any number of boomer-imposed crimes" like some right-wing Fox TV host. She lists "dwindling Social Security, fearsome divorce statistics, AIDS as the death rattle of the free-love party." Social security is not "dwindling" except in right-wing scare stories--it's a very successful program of the 1930s generation. She should put a lot of the blame for the soaring divorce tactics on her generation and stop sounding like the crybaby of the week.

As for AIDS, blaming that on "boomers" makes her sound like a right-wing revivalist. Her generation did its bit for spreading AIDS, so she should stop wringing her hands as if she were a virgin goody two shoes who came too late to the party. If she's serious about how she--or her ten friends--tried to make a collective identity as victims of non-existent boomer crimes, they are to be pitied as fools.

She doesn't like the movie "The Big Chill," but I didn't either. So what! She complains that most of her peers who have "crushing student debt and a prohibitively expensive housing market preclude solipsistic weekends in that kind of square footage" of a movie like "The Big Chill."

Blaming crushing student debt on baby boomers is incredibly ignorant. Actually, the military build-up in the 1980s Reagan presidency began a systematic defunding of higher education--both federal and state governments have defunded higher education--which has lasted for 27 years now! Blame Reagan Republicans! Blame all the Republicans and their ghastly military budgets and all the Democrats who go along with them! At least get your facts right.

As for Daum complaining about the housing market, she shows ignorance of why its so expensive: private developers dominate the market nationwide, wanting the highest profits. The federal government only briefly in the 1930s-early 1950s built public housing, but the Red Scare stopped public housing in Los Angeles. If you want more affordable housing in this country, we need to fight for decent government regulation of mortgage market, low cost federal mortgages like the World War II veterans got, and subsidized public housing.

What I'm tired of is decades of foolish commentators like Daum who mouth the most lifeless most ignorant pop media cliches and the most flawed right-wing analyses. Now that we know that the cute right-wing analyses lead to a bankrupt U.S. government, the Daums of the world aren't cute but really really boring.

LA Unified Abandons Locke High School Again

There's a particularly terrible editorial in Sunday, May 25, 2008, Los Angeles Times praising how Los Angeles Unified School District is abandoning Locke High School, a school with a lot of problems a poor area of Southcentral Los Angeles. The only thing the newspaper gets right is the school district has abandoned Locke High for decades, and does say that "several years ago, dedicated teaches drew up a plan to transform the school. Approved by the local district, it then disappeared within the central office."

While the central district neglects the school, some teachers show movies rather than teach while others "strive heroically to educate." Of course, given the district's horrific neglect, most students perform poorly on those really absurd mandated tests and many drop out before graduation.

Rather than do anything for Locke, the district has give it over to Green Dot, a private firm with exactly no experience in running a large high school of 2,600. After the school district signed the contract with Green Dot, the district worsened the situation at Locke by cutting the security force in half: "classroom fights became frequent, and teachers' calls for help went answered." I find that quite horrifying how the district in fact set up the conditions for increased fights by ignoring the needs of both students and teachers at Locke. Don't blame it on the students but the district. Don't blame it on the students but blame it on the Los Angeles Times, which ignored the situation for years. Don't blame it on the students but blame it on the people of Los Angeles who ignored the situation for years.

The editorial makes a long list of reforms that Green Dot wants to do, but the district if it had wanted could have done each and all of these reforms decades ago. What of the students bring big problems to the Dot-run school, they will be expelled. A public school system in a democracy should educated all the children not give life rafts to a few, abandoning the rest.

I started teaching for Los Angeles Delinquent and Abandoned kids program in the 1970s, tutoring teenager at Boys Republic Silverlake who had been arrested and put in a court placement, ran a small classroom for delinquent boys at Optimist Homes for Boys in Highland Park, and taught creative writing at Camp Scott, a country workcamp for teenager girls. My students were bright, willing to learn, did well in a small-class situation, never gave me any security problems. The girls in lock-up--Camp Scott was a jail--when given poems did excellent analysis, and wrote fine poems and stories. These kids had more problems 90% of those at Locke, and were teachable if the teacher really tried to teach. I also worked as a teaching assistant at Garfield High School teaching 16-years who read at the 1st grade level how to read better. For decades the central school district could have reached these teenagers and children but didn't.

The central school district by allowing charters to try to take care of its problems is increasing the abandonment of its students and teachers. The school district is admitting that they can't make any improvements in the abysmal performance of schools like Locke so is washing its hands of even trying. It's not, as the Times says, a "refreshing" development but a horrifying one.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

What I'm Reading: Gilgamesh

Right now I'm reading the epic Gilgamesh, verse narrative by Herbert Mason (1972). Gilgamesh is the world's first great epic hero from 3000 b.c. Iraq--before Homer, the Bible, Virgil.The beginning is wonderful:

Gilgamesh was king of Uruk
A city between the Tigris
and Euphrates rivers
in ancient Babylonia.
Enkidu was born in the Steppe
Where he grew up among animals.
Gilgamesh was called a god and a man;
Enkidu was an animal and man.
It is their story
of their becoming human together.

The epic is about the great friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu who go on adventures together where Enkidu dies, so it is about loss of one you love. Then Gilgamesh searches the world for immortality which he never finds, so he returns to his home city of Uruk, which really was in ancient Sumer, to be human. I love the last line: "of their becoming human together"--not half God, not part animal but human.

By the way, I've been researching the history of ancient Sumer, the world's first civilization which is between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Sumerians discovered agriculture irrigation, had the first agricultural surpluses, built the first cities, had the first writing which they inscribed on clay tablets, invented the first schools, invented mathematics, astronomy, medicine, had the first medical textbooks. So, of course, ancient Iraq would also have the world's first epic in Gilgamesh.

The world came to Sumer to learn the arts of civilization including epic poetry. Scholars from the British Society of Biblical Archeology rediscovered the epic on clay tables in the ruins of ancient Ninevah in Iraq. Gilgamesh Tablets inscribed with Gilgamesh have within the last 100 years been discovered not just in Nineveh (Iraq) but also in Megiddo (Palestine), Ugarit (Syria), and Boghazkoy (Turkey)--all over the Middle East.

As I get more into the epic, I'll post more about it.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Our Organic Garden

My brother and I have started an
organic garden in my mother's backyard. He has some gardening experience as he did the digging for two large vegetable gardens in the past while I had exactly none. To the left is our beginning herb garden- thyme on the very left, then sage, shallots--two different kinds--then basel on the far right. To the north of the basel is radishes. To the north west of the radishes is strawberries. In other parts of the garden in the box we have cilantro, cucumbers, and parsley which had been planted by the gardener Heriberto--he started it and then my brother and I expanded it.

Since I was totally inexperienced I got a lot of books out of the library to read. Two were most helpful: Pat Welch's Southern California Gardening and Ann Whitman's Organic Gardening for Dummies. I'd recommend these two for the total beginner. A lot of the gardening books said it was important to test your soil, but Whitman gave easy
instructions to test soil drainage which we did.

My brother dug a 1 foot hole which we filled with water. Then we watched how quickly the water evaporated from the hole: less than ten minutes the soil drains to quickly and greater than four hours the soil drains too slowly. Our water drained in a
half water so the soil was fine for drainage. Doing this small
experiment reminded me of junior high school science class.

We got organic potting soil from Home Depot; my brother had dug up the soil twice, so then he mixed in the potting soil into the soil from the ground. We mostly got seedlings from local nurseries but carrots, radishes and zuchinis we planted from seeds. Once the seedlings were up, we added some organic fertilizer around the new plants. My brother is watering.

By the way I made a big mistake by throwing all the radish seeds into the ground and not spacing them out like the instructions on the back of the seed packet said. I will never do that again! So radish plants grew up in a thick mass--very pretty but the book said they would die if they weren't thined about 2-4 inches apart.

So I got down and started weeding raddish plants. I'm learning best by my stupid mistakes like with raddishes. Next time I'll follow the instructions exactly. Later we want to add compost, and I'm going to a workshop run by the city of Los Angeles on how to compost May 18th.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Small Press Book Fair in Santa Monica

I'll be reading at 2:10 this Saturday at the Third Annual Small Press Book Fair at the Church in Ocean Park along with about 25 small presses and writers. It's a rare chance here in Los Angeles to see what all these presses are doing, hear a lot of new work, and check out new and upcoming writers

The Church in Ocean Park hosts an expansive day of
 writers, poets, and publishers, and finding out about
new releases from over 25small presses.

Saturday, May 10, 2008 10:30-5:00 pm

Publishers will be selling books throughout the
whole day. Every hour will begin with a short period
of poetry and spoken word readings hosted by Peggy Dobreer.

Presses and writers taking part in the Book Fair

Julia Stein 2:10

Video: Alexis Krasilovsly, Poetry Flash
More presses and writers to be announced.

Admission by donation at the door.

Church in Ocean Park
235 Hill Street on the northeast corner of Hill &
2nd in Santa Monica

The Church is wheelchair accessible.
Bus accessible by the MTA #33 & Big Blue Bus #s 1, 2, & 8.
The church has a small parking lot on the north side of the street between 2nd & 3rd Sts.
Meter parking, 1/4 block west of Main St., $.75/hr
to 10 hours & free parking from 4th St. east

Contact Fred Whitlock at 310-828-3951 for more information.

Friday, May 02, 2008

A Poet's Seder

Last Saturday, April 26th, I participated in a Poet's Seder, a retelling of the exodus of Jewish slaves from ancient Egypt using poetry, at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center in Venice, California. In Beyond Baroque’s lobby, we saw Rick Lupert, the organizer of the seder, and his colleagues set up a feast including wine, juice, Passover matzah, macaroons, gefilte fish. I dove in and sampled the excellent gefilte fish as well as received my copy of the Passover Haggadah, the book Rick had published which had poems by 36 poets from around the world interlaced with elements of the Passover seder.

In the auditorium Rick, the organizer of the excellent website Poetry Superhighway, poured either wine or juice in our paper cups to start our poetry seder and then we individually made the blessing over the wine. Then he and his colleague handed out hand wipes so we could wash our hands and say the blessing over hand washing.

In the seder tradition the youngest person present asks four questions starting with, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” The first poet to read was Ellen Maybe reading “The Four questions” a lovely poem with Whitmanesque long lines about a family moving from anxiety to serenity as the “family sits shivering for a week, trying to make forgiveness a verb.” Lynne Bronstein in her poem about the four questions “Kasha’s,” gives warm memories of family Seders including a friend observing “that he never saw my mother/so happy as when she sang at Passover.”

Next Pam Ward read “Passover Blues” about her “runaway slave roots/roof jumpin’ fools/ who’d rather rot/ than be tied” mixing up the blues, runaway slaves, and the Passover exodus. For the plagues that Moses rained down on pharaoh in order to convince him to let the Jews go, Claudia Handler gave us her scary poem “Upon Your House” telling us what terrible plagues she will send at us. I read my poem “Miriam’s Song’ which tells when Moses was sending the plagues how his sister was busy sweeping up the mess. Rachel Kahn gave her personal retelling of “dayeinu,” a traditional song that tells what would be enough to free us from Egypt.

Then Rick handed out matzah so the whole audience could read the traditional unleavened bread. For the festive meal we eat on Passover, Elizabeth Iannuci read “At Dinner" about the trials and joys of a festive meal with “yam-fisted toddler’s sticky-lipped whispers” followed by Laurel Ann Bogen reading David Gershator’s from “Seder.” Then Larry Colker’s read ‘Visitation," his poem whichis a lovely evocation about the opening of the door and offering of a cup of wine for the prophet Elijah: “opening the door/is such a steadfast gesture; / a silver cup of sweet, purple wine/is such a heartfelt offering.” For the giving praise of the 4th cup of wine Scott Sonders in his poem “Enosh Introduces Idolatry” praised God.

We found the hidden matzah and then repaired to the lobby for more drink and food. Only a small number of poets from the anthology A Poet’s Haggadah read as the anthology has 36 poets in this marvelous poetic response to the seder and Passover.

You can order the book A Poet’s Haggadah from

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Janet Fitch at Santa Monica College

Next Tuesday, May 6, 11:15-12:35 acclaimed novelist Janet Fitch will read at Santa Monica College
Arts Complex 214. Free.

I will do the introduction!

Fitch has written two wonderful novels, White Oleander, and Paint It Black. White Oleander deals with a mother, an dedicated poet who winds up killing her ex-boyfriend, and her daughter who is forced to survive in the foster care system of Los Angeles. Ophrah picked the novel for her book club which helped make it a bestseller. Later the novel was made into a Hollywood movie. Paint It Black is about two young artists who find themselves and each other in the Los Angeles punk scene of the 1980s. A generation of young artists included myself performed at these clubs, spaces, etc..

Fitch is a third-generation Angeleno who went to Fairfax High School. She's one of the leaders of a new generation of novelists and poets born and raised in California who treat the state as basis for their writing. She writes stories that only natives can write. One of my students who also survived L.A.'s awful foster care system said Fitch got it exactly right. She brilliantly tells how young people struggle to survive in hostile environments of post-Reagan California.