Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Governor Schwarzenegger Wants to Bring Back the 19th Century

Governor Schwarzenegger’s proposed cuts of $5.1 billion would wreck havoc on the lives of millions of Californians while President Obama told California to refuse to help California at all with its budget deficit of $21 billion. Schwarzenegger’s cuts could cause tens of thousands of Californians to go hungry, to be homeless, and to be without medical care—he’s bringing back the 19th century for the poor.

Schwarzenegger’s cuts will end the safety net for poor children. The cuts would end CalWORKS, the welfare program for 521,000 families who now get $526 average monthly grants. After eliminating CalWORKS, Schwarzenegger also plans to eliminate Healthy Families, the program that gives children from low-income families health insurance. The cuts also would reduce Medical insurance to the very poor. These cuts aren’t even cost effective as they would cause California to lose billions in matching funds. The Governor’s proposed cuts are both cruel and stupid.

The cuts would phase out Cal Grant tuition assistance for 200,000 college students: no new grants and existing grants reduced. UC and California State University systems would have further reduction in budgets of approximately $333 million apiece. Within the community college students the cuts would lead to 250,000 students forced out of the system and huge spikes in fees. The cuts would destroy programs including student services and end part-time faculty office hours, heath insurance, and pay equity. Also, new students including veterans and unemployed would be shut out of the community colleges.

The proposed cuts would severely reduce In Home Social Service aid to disabled and elderly people which subsidizes in-home health care workers. It costs $12,000 to keep a disabled person in the home but $60,000 to keep them in the nursing homes, so the cuts would drive disabled and elderly out of the homes into institutions, causing California either to spend more money or let the disabled suffer horrific 19th century conditions.

The cuts would severely reduce education, drug rehab and vocational programs within the prisons as well as let nonviolent, nonserious offenders go free a year early.
The cuts would close 70 of the state’s parks.

Governor Schwarzenegger and the Republicans have refused all tax increases including refusing to impose a tax on yachts.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Unemloyment Rises... A poem by Carol Tarlen

Inflation Achieves a Single Digit
Unemployment Rises to 8.9%
By Carol Tarlen

Our hands complain of protein deficiency as
David slices more than his ration of ham
5 ½ lbs of meat per person per month in Poland
Pass the navy beans, please
They are pink and slushy
Legumes are good for the soul
The free enterprise of a well-balanced amino acids
The dialectics of eating
Alicia denounces bland cabbage soup
History gets a C- at your fashionable
Bourgeois Butcher Block Table
When the grade drops to a D+
We steal a loaf of bread
Then we build barricades

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Poets Imagine Peace

The anthology Come Together: Imagine Peace edited by Phillip Metres, Ann Smith, and Larry Smith was published in 2008 is produced after United States has been in wars for six years. The anthology brilliantly shows U.S. poets in the past and present write compelling peace poetry. The anthology is a companion volume to Metres brilliant book of literary criticism Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront.

In Behind the Lines Metres has an excellent discussion of 20th century American peace poetry while in "Section one: Some Precedents" in Come Together the editors have a wonderful selection of poets whom Metres discussed in his criticism. The editors begin with a lovely Sappho lyric, share a short Whitman poem, have Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Conscientious Objector,” include Lowell on fear of nuclear war in 1961, and share Muriel Rukeyser’s wonderful “Poem” where she confessed “I lived in the first century of world wars/Most mornings I would be more or less insane.”

The editors have three eloquent but quiet poems by William Stafford as well as Denise Levertov’s poem “Making Peace” where she says “A voice from the dark called out, ‘the poets must give us imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar/imagination of disaster' … Grammar of justice,/syntax of mutual aid.” Levertov to me is central both to 20th century peace poetry and to 20th century poetry in English.

The editors include Ginsberg’s amazing poem ”Wichita Vortex Sutra,” which is one of the great anti-war poems of American literature. Ginsberg first calls on all the gods to help him and then says “I hereby declare the end of war.”The first section of the anthology then goes on to include important poems by Audre Lorde, June Jordan etc. The first section of great poems is absolutely wonderful and reason enough to buy this book.

The editors have heeded Levertov’s advise to include poets who imagine peace which is a splendid way to organize an anthology. Section Two are Poems of “Witness and Elegy” including Karen Kovacik’s marvelous poem “Requiem for Buddhas of Bamiyan,” lamenting the great sculptures the Taliban blew up: ‘for fourteen centuries you stood fast/still as Siddhartha/on the night of his enlightenment/as much a part of this valley as the wind.”

Section three “Call and Answer: Poems of Exhortation & Action” include such wonderful works by Bly, Rich, Heyen, Espada and Ferlinghetti along with new poets. Other sections of the book dealing with “Poems of Reconciliation” in section four, “Poems of Shared Humanity” in section five, “Poems of ritual & Vigil” in Section Seven, and “Poems of Meditation & Prayer” in Section Eight. So the many poems included are imagining peace through elegy, witness, exhortation, ritual, vigil, meditation, and prayer.

Another excellent feature of this book is to include poems about Palestine/Israel including Palestinian, Israeli, and U.S poets in a rich dialogue. There are marvelous poems by Palestinian poets Mahmoud Darwish and Taha Muhammad Ali as well as Israeli poets Yehuda Amachai and Aharon Shabtai. The anthology also includes Arab-American poets such as Elmaz Abinader and Angele Ellis as well as Jewish-American like Karl Shapiro and Enid Shomer.

Further, the editors wonderfully include both U.S. poet Steve Wilson and Palestinian poet Deema Shehabi writing ghazals, a poetry form going back to 6th century Arabic verse using rhyming couplets. When a book of peace poetry includes both Whitman and ghazals, the poets at least are beginning to imagine a peaceful meeting in literature. Hopefully in future anthologies U.S. poets will continue to learn from the long tradition of Sumerian, Arabic and Persian poetry.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Guilty as Charged by Carol Tarlen

I'm going to put up a poem/week by my poet friend Carol Tarlen who died in 2004 leading up to the reading the S.F. poets are doing July 10 in her honor in S.F.
Today's poem is Tarlen's poem "Small Deaths."

"Small Deaths" by Carol Tarlen

I tear my hair like the
mad queen of hearts. "What? you
used a whole cube of butter
to fry one eggs?" Leah's eyes drop;
I refuse to see the lashes cast
shadow on her cheeks, too busy
thinking, I must wipe dust
from under the coffee table, and
I'm tired, my gaze sagging on the
electric wires splintering
the pale blue sky. Her voice
trembles, "I'll go to the store,
Mommy, and buy it with my allowance."
Another small death, this time caused
by the misappropriation of fifth
cents worth of cholesterol.

Last night my obscene "friend"
called to awake me with silence.
The telephone company will charge
eleven dollars for a new number.
Friday the boss will sign my
paycheck at three minutes past
five. The bank opens at ten a.m.
Monday morning. This weekend
marks our conversion to
vegetarianism, Sunday dinners
of brown rice, inexpensive
walks on the beach to quiet
our taste for blood.
And this evening, when the bus
winds up and down city hills,
pushing me closer to my 5/6ths
psychiatric hour, when I will discuss
the hostility inherent
in my passive aggressive
overdue bill, I will be grateful
for a seat by the window;
I will be grateful for the sun's
heat on my cheek, it's light
slipping through the yellow
and red strands of hair that
I stretch around my fingers
so that I may sing
there are rainbows in me yet.
I am pulling the cord, steeping
onto littered sidewalks, furtively
searching for two-way mirrors,
hidden microphones as I slouch
on the therapeutic chair, pleading:

Guilty of screaming at my child
Guilty of stealing the office stamps
Conspiracy to cheat Landlords of Cleaning Deposits
Writing Rhetorical Poems with no Metaphorical Content
Refusing to tend my garden, instead
Proclaiming the aesthetic purity of weeds
Guilty of even the inability to fantasize rape
The nonownership of a vibrator
Yes I am guilty of
Refraining from reading the NYSE Daily Quotations
Choosing instead to watch fog seep through the heavy
branches of cypress trees, dark green foiaage weted
darker green. Yes! Yes!
guilty of the desire to raise my fist to Montgomery Street's
Skyscraped glare, shouting "Next year in Madrid!"
and most of all
Guilty of keeping my mouth shut
Crossing my legs in public
Ignoring the wind's cry as it sweeps grease
from tankers mounting the ocean's dying waves.

The doctor wipes his glasses on his
imported Italian shirt and suggest
redefining options,
acceptance of limitations,
a course in assertiveness training.
I shrink back on the cushions
and cop a please. "Nolo contendere."

I am thrusting the key in the
hole, turning its toothy blade.
Leah is linking her hands
around my belly. I flop
rag dolled on the couch as
she removes my shoes, her
fleshly padded fingers de-
manding, "Play with me."
It's no game, kid, this living,
no accident that profit
is mined from dirty phone calls.
OK, pumpkin, do I bury you
with the wasted butter
or do we buy guns? You're
right. It's too early
to go to bed. Even fifth
graders know the earth is not
a pyramid, but a porous,
shimmering egg dropped
monthly from between our legs,
giving and taking the pounding
of our feet and we dance
round and round, sweat
circling our throats, our faces
lifting to the moon dripping
juicy on our tongues flagging
cars that screech past
the window, yes, our wet, red,
throbbing anarchist tongues.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Dunya Mikhail, first contemporary Iraqi woman poet translated into English

Dunya Mikhail’s The War Works Hard (New Directions, 2005) is the first contemporary Iraqi woman poet translated from Arabic into English. Her poetry is brilliant.

She is an Iraqi Christian whose first two languages are Aramaic and Arabic, and she learned English during her long exile in the United States. Mikhail began publishing in the 1980s and has published five book of poetry. After Mikhail published her second book Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea (1995) in Baghdad, she suffered harassment from the dictatorship and fled into exile in the United States.

Mikhail writes in The War Works Hard about war, dictatorship, and exile of a forty-year war. In the Introduction Saadi Simawe, who edited in English Iraqi Poetry Today, said, “… [T]to many Iraqis, the American war against Iraq actually started in February 8, 1963 when the Baath junta, aided by U.S. intelligence from Kuwait, too over Baghdad. During the first two days of battle, more than 30,000 Iraqis who fiercely resisted the fascist coup were massacred.” Mikhail was born two years later after the coup in 1965 and attended college in Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq war. The poems from the two earlier books Psalms from Absence and Almost Music reprinted in this volume come out of Mikhail’s experiences during the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War of 1991, and the period of U.S. sanctions against Iraq.

The poems from Psalms from Absence, Mikhail’s earliest book, are highly metaphorical renderings of her experiences with war and dictatorship where the metaphors eluded the Iraqi censors. In these earliest poems the poet has a child’s voice describing “the red puddle/under a child’s feet” in “Transformation of the Child and the War,” the ruins of war in “The Chaldean’s Ruins,” a nun leaving her convent where the church bells are dead in “The Nun,” and the dictatorship where “He plays general. She plays people./They declare war” in “Pronouns.”

The child’s voice matures into a young woman’s voice in the next volume Almost Music whose world is even darker and claustrophobic. The poet says “I sit on top of death/like a pile of smoke/and cry” in “An Orange.” The poet is imprisoned with her sisters as pomegranate seeds” whose “losses increase each day.” The voice is afraid “we will rot before anyone thinks of us.” The titles tell the story of living inside the dictatorship: “A Tombstone” or “The Departure of Friends.”

In the poems written after the fall of Saddam Hussein in The War Works Hard Mikhail’s poet voice is less allusive and much more direct in confronting the wars. Her voice becomes powerful in the poem “Inanna” speaking as the ancient Sumerian Goddess claiming her city, searching on the Internet for the graves, ordering “you sons of the dead! Stop fighting/over my clothes and gold!” In “Urgent Call” she calls the American soldier Lynndie England ordering her to immediately go home.

In some of the poems Mikhail sounds like one of the Trojan women from Euripides great play The Trojan Women: the mother in “the Prisoner” waiting at the prison’s entrance to see her son and who doesn’t understand why he’s imprisoned; the women in “Bag of Bones” at the mass grave site having the good luck to find “his bones./The skull is also in the bag/the bag in the hand/like all other bags/in all other hands. His bones, like thousands of bones/in the mass graveyard …”

Mikhail is great and sorrowful like Eurpides so get her book and read her book.

Monday, May 11, 2009

John Leech and the Onyx Cafe in Los Angeles

Memorial for John Leech, co-founder of the Onyx Café

Sunday I went to the wake for John Leech, co-founder of the Onyx Café, which was the best artists café in Los Angeles for the past forty years. John, beloved by hundreds of hundreds of artists, died March 17. The Onyx itself lasted from 1982-1998—it transformed both the Los Angeles artists’ scene and the Los Feliz neighborhood.

The first time I wandered into the original Onyx next door to the Vista Theater must have been around the mid-1980s when the Reagan right-wing firmly dominated the culture. The Onyx was a small space with about 5-6 tables and could seat maybe 30 people. It had a black-and-white checkerboard floor, lovely color mismatched Fiesta ceramics on the tables, and a jewel of a desert case. Later I learned that Fumiko, who had studied ceramics with internationally known artist Peter Shire had hand-made the dishes. There was art hanging on the walls, of course. John and Fumiko taught me who Peter Shire was and had a show of his tea cups.

John and Fumiko wanted to have a café like that cafes John had known in San Francisco and Fumiko admired the Onyx jazz club in New York. John and Fumiko were a contrast. John was a tall, balding, bulky expatriate Englishman always wearing a fatigue jacket. Fumiko was petite, gorgeous, late twenties, and always the most beautifully dressed in the room in outfits! They created an art gallery supported by coffee—the café name was a disguise. While Los Angeles galleries charged 60% for the artists to show, the Onyx never charged the artists anything for its 16 years. They intended us all to mingle and we did.

After a while coming to the café, I would know ½ of the 20 people there. Since there were so few tables, you were forced to sit next to a new person and usually started talking to them. The people I met! First, the visual artists: Gronk, Linda Gamboa, Jeffery, Daniel Martinez, Fumiko Robinson. I was free-lancing for art, literary, and weekly newspapers, and was meeting the people I was reading about. Then, I met musicians. I always enjoyed talking to Bill Roper, the tuba player for the avant-garde group Fat and Fucked Up. I met other musicians: Vinsula, Michael Whitmore, Guy the piano player etc. There were film people: Jim Balsam was a special effects cameraman was well as bass player while Lucas Reiner was a painter and filmmaker. Some of us were showing in the galleries, putting out our first books, or performing in the clubs. The Onyx was my Paris—I was a poet among the artists! The Onyx was our living room.

My writer friends Lionel Rolfe and Nigey Lennon organized an event in the upstairs annex—for 12 hours people read and performed music. When Lionel and Nigey wanted to start the event, they asked me to be the first reader, and I read my poetry. Los Angeles Times architect critic John Pastier was haranguing against some ugly establishment building to a rapt audience. Cartoonist Matt Groening had his art work up on the wall before he went on to fame and fortune. KPFK was talking about the event as it went on so people kept coming the whole 12 hours. Downstairs Fumiko and Mary McAndrews, an Otis art student, were making coffee. Spoken word and music had taken off at the Onyx and would go on with new curators and many new musicians and many new spoken word organizers.

Fumiko moved to New York but John carried on. The original Onyx was evicted. I was writing regularly for the weekly newspaper LA Reader, and my editor let me write an article about the Onyx where I interviewed the owners and participants of a friendly demo outside of the Onyx with Chicano artist Gonk making up the slogan, “Coffee united will never be defeated. “ John lost the Onyx but then opened up months later on Vermont.

The Onyx on Vermont was much larger: two store fronts. One was a café and the second was a gallery. John nurtured a whole generation as artists, giving jobs so people could get through college and art school. At the memorial one person said he was an angel with bad manner. He could be gruff and rude, but then he would have free bar-b-ques where he would feed all of us. So what if cafe was scruffy a bit. People from the Westside looked at the scruffiness but rarely looked at the art, and the art was a whole new generation speaking out. Manuel Ocampo, a Filipino artist, had a painting show which was an utter knockout: his powerful paintings combed surrealism with a political edge. Ocampo was soon having a big exhibit in Spain and then all around the world.

Gronk was in the big Los Angeles Country Museum Chicano show, and held court from the table in front of the café. Onyx regulars came up to congratulate him. One of us! At the biggest museum in town. John gave us all a space when we all needed it most and helped launch hundreds of people. No wonder he is still so loved. No other café in Los Angeles even came close to the Onyx. John’s shows were multi-ethnic before the major museums did that. They had cartoonists like Matt Groening and often a pop sensibility in the paintings. They were a populist visual arts show off the streets heading toward the major museums.

By the mid-1990s Westsiders were coming more and more to hang out on that block in Vermont, with the Onyx, the great Skylight bookstore, Skylight Theater, the Los Felix movie theater, and the Dresden Room down the block. More people were moving into the neighborhood and rents were rising as gentrification was setting in. Of course, it’s an old story. First, the scruffy bohemian arts and then the bourgeoisie. John had a few crazies who hang out. He would throw out anyone who criticized them. He never made much money.

Of course, he was evicted again. The Onyx had made that neighborhood and now the rent was going too high. I remember a closing music performance listening to Jim Balsam and his musician friends play rock ‘n roll. It was mournful and sad and the end of the era.

Here is John’s own words about the Onyx:

Sunday, May 10, 2009

My poet friend Carol Tarlen came from a Quaker background and took me once in San Francisco to a Quaker meeting house where we sat as traditional with the Quakers in a circle of silence waiting for someone to speak. The Quakers have been pacifists for two hundred years. Many were also abolitionists and suffragettes. Below is her poem about her family's background

In Circled Silence by Carol Tarlen

In circled silence
My people came
Quiet colors, Quaker hats
In peaceful witness
They plowed their light and
Built a freedom train that
Stretched in secret from
Basement to hayloft to
A slaveless border
Gently lawless
My people came
In circled wagons
My people came
Quilting a pattern across
Yellowed plains and greensprung valleys
Gentle gypsies who peddled
Pots and plows and peace
These children of the Light
Friendly seekers
My people came
In circle chains
My people came
Suffragettes and pacifists
Scorned, beaten, forcefed in prison darkness
Drenching a blinded nation with their
Inward Light
Gentle Warriors
My people came
In silenced circles
My people came
Centuries ago
From a Europe I do not claim
These Children of the Light
They came
In peaceful witness to a
Dark skinned earth
And I am rooted to their light
I am their witness to this
America I cannot deny
I am the sound of their
Circled silence

Friday, May 01, 2009

Today, on this day, when I took, with pay, the day off

Today in honor of May Day a poem by Carol Tarlen


today I slept until the sun eased
under my eyelashes. The office phone
ran and rang. No one answered. ..
I sat in the bistro and sipped absinthe
while Cesar Vallejo strolled past,
his dignity betrayed by the hole
in his pants, and I waved, today

and the dictaphone did not dictate
and the files remained empty
and the boss's coffee cup remained empty
while the ghosts of my ancestors
occupied by chair and threatened all
who disturbed their slumber

today, when I sat in bed, nibbling
croissants and reading the New Yorker
in San Francisco, and I did not make
my daughter's lunch, I did not pay
the PG&E bill, I did not empty the garbage
on my way out the door to catch the bus to
ride the elevator to sat at my desk on time
because today I took the day off

And rain drenched the skins of lepers
and they were healed.
Red flags decorated the doorways
of senior centers, and everyone
received their social
security checks on time.
and I walked the streets at 10
in the morning, praised the sun
in its holiness, led a revolution,
painted my toenails purple,
mediated in solitude,
today, on this day, when I took,
with pay, the day off.