It’s Summertime! Time to look nice on the sandy beach.

The last thing he ever said to me was,
Just always be waiting
only the gay and innocent and heartless
who can fly. But the burst
of exulting certainty soon fled,
and was succeeded by again,
and we won’t talk about cats or dogs either
to prayer. There stood
the early settlers, those old illustrious ones,
she is such a nice soft thing to nurse
and she’s such a capital triumph
had hardened on them,
and made death so life-like
and so steeple of the meetinghouse
that gleamed upward to the sky.
This to devils
what love is to the blessed.
At times, the features of those hearers
mistook him for the visible presence of the
Fiend himself.
Poor Alice.
It was as much as she could do,
lying down
on one
like being that person.
I’ll come up, she said, if not, I’ll stay down

From time to time I open a piece of spam in the never-ending e-deluge, and I find language strung out by a randomizing word machine. The necklace of words always has a programmed syntax (if somebody knows how this is done, please send me news in the comment box). I get curious and start playing with the words and phrases, like this poem above which comes from a message trying to sell me cheap Viagra plus a guaranteed method to enlarge my 65 year old penis. The collection of words connected by the organism of syntax enchants me. So an hour passes, and I find myself still lost in the words, line breaks, phrasings, etcetera. And of course I think about Jackson Mac Low. I have his ghost to blame for this delicious aleatoric pleasure of mine.

Aleatoric? According to the online Merriam-Webster: Etymology: Latin aleatorius (Date: 1961): characterized by chance or indeterminate elements

Back in 1965 Paul Malanga and I started making a poetry magazine, From A Window. We were at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and Barney Childs was our teacher. Barney was a brilliant but peculiar guy. A curmudgeon, who most people avoided, even despised, but others like Paul and me admired ferociously, although we feared him. He taught us poetry with a musician’s ear. Barney had been to Oxford on a Rhoades Scholarship, he wrote semi-acceptable (he would approve of this statement) traditional poetry, he had been a student of Yvor Wintners at Stanford where he received a PhD in English Literature, but he bloomed as a composer of new music, which was his avocation. His day job, when we knew him, was being a professor of English Literature. He also taught Creative Writing, the only such course I ever took. Barney told Paul and me about Jackson Mac Low, among others (eg: Philip Whalen, Paul Blackburn, Carol Berge, Snyder, Frank O’Hara, etc). He knew Jackson through correspondence with John Cage. Barney lent us a staple-bound book of Jackson’s. The book had poem machines. Many of the words were already in place, but other words required a dictionary and a pair of dice. The reader had to complete the poems. We picked one of the poem machines, and each of us “wrote” our poem, following the rules. We threw the dice, we randomly selected pages in the dictionary, we counted down the appropriate number of words, and we insert the words we found.

The resulting two poems, I thought, were remarkable, not so much for their “poem-ness” but for what they said about poetics. If you knew Paul’s and my work at the time and you read our “productions” of the Mac Low pieces, then you would know whose poem was whose. This taught me an important lesson: it’s impossible to take the “self” out of the poem. So I asked myself other questions, like: What is this “self” anyway? Is there really a “self”? Very contemporary questions I was asking myself in 1965 because of Jackson Mac Low. Existential confrontation and confusion. Jackson understood. Indeed, he enjoyed this confrontation and confusion, and he made his poetry seriously and playfully.

By the way, somebody might also ask: Why were Paul’s poem and my poem so much like “ourselves”? Well, like all young men, we cheated. We found the words on the page that we wanted.

Here I wanted to insert images of the poems and the original Mac Low poetry machine, which we published in From A Window, but I’ve searched high and low but cannot find that issue (#2 out of 6 issues). Shit. Instead I found the Jackson Mac Low Issue of Gil Ott’s Paper Air (v2, #3, 1980). Besides the cover with Jackson’s portrait, I’m pasting below one-half of “A Vocabulary for Peter Innisfree Moore.” This is a chance-driven performance piece of voices and instrumentalists. A long time ago I brought Jackson to El Paso and performed in one of these pieces. It was an exhilarating experience. A bit of his instructions for performance of this piece are worth noting:

Procedure: Each performer “moves” freely from one word to another: Looks at the entire word field, any side up, & chooses a word or string of words to speak, sing or play as a sequences of instrumental tones (&/or chords); listens attentively; chooses another word or string from the field & realizes it…etcetera. Every so often each performer’s copy of the word field shd be rotated 90 degrees or more in order to change orientation & bring new words to attention…


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".


Blogging for Harvey

I have not done any blogging in weeks, and I’m realizing that I’m taking blogging too seriously. Like when I get stuck sometimes in my poetry, I want all the words to be “seriously” perfect. I want to be a real “Poet,” and now I’m finding I’m wanting to be a real “Blogger.” So, hell, it’s now a month since my last blog. What kind of blogging is that, huh? Since that last blog entry Lee and I went to Bologna, Italy, for the children’s books rights fair that’s held there every year, I’ve diddled around with Cinco Puntos business, read three or four books and I’ve scribbled in my notebook. This last week I learned that my growing up friend Harvey Goldner is in the hospital. He had a tumor removed from his tongue, and in removing it the doctors removed most of his tongue. This is what his daughter Emily (her e-letters are so clear and straightforward, a satisfaction to read good writing even as the sadness surrounds her and her dad) wrote me in a letter:

He will get radiation in his mouth but no chemo right now. Apparently it takes time to see if cancer has spread to other part of the body…His tongue was reconstructed [they used muscle from the abdomen] but it won't feel or act like a tongue. He will get speech therapy and they are hoping he'll be able to eat food and speak again.

Hard stuff for a poet who fiddles with language by speaking words out loud. Hard stuff for anybody. I talked to Harvey the Sunday night before his Tuesday morning operation. He said he wasn’t afraid of death, but it’s the getting there, especially if the journey is going to be like this, that’s freaky. And afterwards he has to lie there in his bed without his cigarettes. Emily said they’ll stick a nicotine patch on him.

Harvey was born in January 1942, me in April of the same year. Our big sisters were best friends, so I’ve bet we’ve known each other from at least since the 3rd grade. He lived on Reese Street one block over from Prescott where I lived. We had a secret path that went through the backyards my house to his house. He gave me my first cigarette, a Camel. We smoked it in my bedroom. I got green sick but I loved the smoke.

Here’s a poem that Harvey sent me in announcing his operation. It’ll be in his book The Resurrection of Bert Ringold that Cinco Puntos will publish in October. I think I’ll go up to Seattle to deliver it to him. I’ve not seen Harvey in over 30 years. Shit. So get well, Harvey.

We Went Speeding, Memphis 1972

At first light, wild albino pigs in a pack
emerge from the forest and enter a field
(here and there, patches of mist) to feed
on ripening cantaloupes that they have

crushed with their feet. Full, they snooze,
and then the crows arrive, caw and feast.
Meanwhile the farmer, having fallen asleep
in the gentle rocking of an ancient book,

emerges from his dreams—a dark tangle of
fears—and he smokes a corncob pipe on his
dewy porch. His dewy bride, brain pregnant
with twin stuffies, Charlie Manson and Elvis

Presley, remains in the bed and masturbates,
hot twat rocking. Her vision: she rides on the
rippling back of a white stallion, Roy Orbison.
We cut classes and hotwire our History professor's

Maserati, cherry-red & topless, and we go speeding
through the Mississippi honeysuckle countryside,
the starlit kudzu night, drinking beers, tossing the
empty cans straight up—Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

1. If somebody reads this post to Harvey, tell him when he’s well enough I need to find out what the reference to “Emerson, Lake & Palmer” means. Are these names or places or what?
2. I doubt if Harvey ever got stuck in his poetry writing by wanting to be “a serious Poet.”
3. Many thanks to Seattle photographer Abbi Rodes who took Harvey’s portrait for the draft cover of Resurrection. We hope that this will be the final cover but the original image has been misplaced and we scanned this off a broadside. Our designer doesn’t think it will reduce down for the book cover.