Joe Somoza's Backyard Poems

In 1985, when Lee and I started Cinco Puntos Press, we had very little idea what we were doing. We just started with a little help from friends. We did three books. Each of the books said something about who we were and about what Cinco Puntos Press would become. The first (1985) was Dagoberto Gilb’s Winners on the Pass Line, the second (1985) was Joe Hayes’ La Llorona, the Weeping Woman, and the third (1986) was a 32-page saddle-stitched chapbook of poetry, Backyard Poems by Joseph Somoza. The former two books have always received more attention when people talk about Cinco Puntos. It’s a bad habit to ignore poetry, especially Backyard Poems and the poet Joe Somoza.

Backyard Poems gets its name from Joe’s practice of writing. In the mornings he goes outside with his notebook and a pencil and maybe a book or two of poems. He sits there and waits to write. It’s a meditation, not unlike the practice of his wife Jill as she creates her art (see Note below). If some kindling for a poem doesn’t light up his mind—a riff off a word or a phrase, the neighbors kids screaming next door, the dewy fresh air, a dead bird left as offering by his cat—then maybe he’ll pick up and book and start reading. Maybe somebody else’s words will create a place to start. And he gets lost in that activity. It’s his daily practice. In the winters, as the cold approaches, he builds a fire in a chimenea, puts on a coat and hat and huddles up close to the warmth.

Blanco and I

“When I feel like being depressed
I’ll call you.
Send your rejections.
Thanks.” Blanco and I
sit in umbrella shade
of the old locust. He’s
an eleven-year old tom cat
without ears. He won’t
listen. He grips
life’s slipping away
tightly. A few claws
and teeth left, he eats
tiny amounts of soft food
ten times a day. Squirts
each flower in the backyard
one drop apiece. Walks stiffly
like old men. That’s why
old Chinese turn contemplative:
no eyes left, they focus
in, like inside one
sweet alyssum.
I should’ve been born old!
Then I wouldn’t have to
stomach mid-life.
Ascetic and independent,
these old men
disconnect from every
interruptions. That’s not rude.
It’s, with the end
in sight, a pure

Blanco the cat is dead now, “poor thing,” as Joe would say, and Joe is becoming (like me) one of these old men that he writes about so wisely in this delicate poem, focusing in, “like inside / one sweet alyssum.” For me his poems and his poetics have always been about integrity and honesty, a yearning after some bit of wisdom and understanding. Still, if you read the poems carefully, the energy comes from playfulness in the syntax and a real love for individual words, so many times using puns to jump from one place to the next. He says a poem needs to be “playful” as it leaps and evolves from one word to the next. Otherwise, the poem becomes preachy and pedagogical. This is to say, he follows the poem, the poem doesn’t follow him. This poetics, along with his integrity and honesty, has been the hallmark of Joe’s writing.

Joe was born in the Asturias region of Spain but emigrated with his family at an early age. His father was a doctor and had served on both sides during the Civil War (armies do not kill doctors). Joe was thrown into New Jersey elementary public school life not being able to speak English or to play the right games. From New Jersey, they moved to Cincinnati and then Chicago. In Chicago, going to college, he met his wife Jill, an immigrant from post-war Germany. Their sense of being European immigrants, outsiders, in the American 50s and beyond is one of the elements of their remarkable marriage, and this feeling of being an immigrant, an outsider listening to the language of others, has always seeped into Joe’s poetry. It sharpened his ears. In his poem “Bower” from his book Out of this World which Cinco Puntos did in 1990, he delights in the word “higo,” Spanish for fig, which shares the exact pronunciation with our “ego” with all its heavy Freudian-American baggage. That delicious cross-current gives the poem its vital energy.

Joe says he first started writing poetry seriously at his first teaching job, teaching English literature and composition at Texas Western College in El Paso (before it became UTEP). That’s when he started hanging out with poets and writers—Keith Wilson, Bob Burlingame, Halvard Johnson and Phil Garrison, long before Lee and I moved here. After a few years teaching freshman English, he and his wife Jill moved to Puerto Rico where he taught a couple more years before deciding, Yes, he would be a poet. He took a traditional route. He went to the Iowa writing school and then, through his friend Keith Wilson, landed a job at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, where he’s been ever since (he took early retirement a long while back).

I think early on Joe’s primary influences were poets like Richard Wright and Robert Bly. He knew Galway Kinell and admired his work, but sometime in the 80s Joe got turned onto the New York School, especially Frank O’Hara, and his poems. The swinging razzmatazz of that poetics loosened up Joe’s ear and mind. I’m glad. He’s become over the years one of those important poets that people don’t know too much about outside New Mexico and West Texas, what Ron Silliman calls “the Siberia” of the American poetry scene.

To Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems

Reading you
I’m in an empty
lot of tumbleweeds. Small
gleaming objects everywhere.
Or the overgrown edge of that
yard behind Ranchway #2.
Like someone’s hair
Being truly stubborn the whole day.
But let’s not investigate,
o.k? Because, anyway,
what’s in a brain?
The car rolls
easily down the alley
splashed with sun and
variegated garbage.
Here, no one owns any
thing or body. God
must’ve been an Abstract
Expressionist he made
the world so free.
Like you do.

On a quick glance, this may seem a slight poem, almost off the cuff, a quick thank-you note to a dead poet… “Because, anyway, what’s in a brain?” Read it carefully, however, and you find complexity and deep resounding echoes. And, in typing it out, I can feel again how careful Joe is with his language. Cool. Whoever knew that garbage could be variegated or that Jackson Pollock was simply following the whims of God?

Lee and I have been close friends with Joe and Jill now for close to 30 years. Besides our respective disciplines of art, we have our families in common—they have three kids (girl, boy and boy), and we have the same configuration. Their kids are a few years older than ours, and so we’ve always been able to compare notes. And Joe and I have always been able to talk about poetry. All these years in El Paso (Las Cruces, NM is 40 miles up I-10 from us), Joe’s been the only poetry friend I’ve had that knows and cares about where my poetics come from. As a poet, he’s an insistent and true democrat (small “d”). He dismisses, angrily sometimes, the ambitious and aggressive poetry politics of the creative writing industry. He is an organizer of a decades long “open mic” poetry scene in Las Cruces, and he’s has worked with an ever-evolving workshop of poets for over 34 years now. He likes, he says, the discipline of having to work on a poem. To have a poem gestating in his head.

NOTE: Jill Somoza is a wonderful artist, probably best niched as an Abstract Expressionist, in the tradition of Jackson Pollock and God. She sits in her large white studio with the canvas (these days, stretched vinyl, over various-designed geometric frames) and waits, like Joe, for a riff of understanding to move her to add color to the canvas. “It needed something there,” she will say, reminiscent of Mike Greenberg in the O’Hara poem. She will tell her story about becoming a painter something like this: “Well, I always wanted to be a painter, but I couldn’t really draw. Then I had my first baby, Lisa. I had been really worried that I couldn’t be a mother. And then I had the baby. Such a beautiful baby. I didn’t mess that up, so I thought, well, I can be a painter too.”

Joe’s had two books from Jeff Bryan’s La Alameda Press in Albuquerque: Sojourner and Cityzen. Also, you can read poems and see some of Jill’s paintings at Santa Fe Poetry Broadside, #38, "Clear Winter Days".


Halvard Johnson said...

Lovely piece on Joe and Jill, Bobby, and well-


edward field said...

Nice to discover this oh so human poet. Thanks joe. Ed field