"The river is life, the wall is death."

“I am going to stay here until they leave me alone or they arrest me because I believe that the consgtruction of this wall should stop completely." --Judy Ackerman as she is arrested by the Texas Rangers. This quote and the photograph is from an article from El Diario El Paso which ran a front page feature on the protest. (El Diario's website has more photographs and commentary in Spanish here). The El Paso Times stuck a small article on page six of the morning edition.

Yesterday (12/17/08) I got a call from my daughter Susie Byrd. The construction of the infamous border fence was approaching El Paso's Rio Bosque Wetlands Park, 372 acres of reclaimed natural habitat that sits downriver from El Paso in Soccorro. Judy Ackerman, a member of Friends of Rio Bosque and the Sierra Club, decided to put a stop to the construction. A 20-year veteran of the U.S. Army, Judy knew how to prepare for the occasion. She wore a hard hat and a reflecting jacket, she packed in food and water, she parked at the park's visitor center and walked through the bosque and crossed the irrigation ditch to find the construction site. She arrived at the site in the early morning darkness before the workers and she sat down in the path of the day's construction. She wasn't going to move. The workers scratched their heads and called the authorities. But who were the appropriate authorities? It didn't seem anybody knew for sure. The construction is following the Rio Grande along the levee, and that land belongs to the Water Commission. So the Texas Rangers came, the Border Patrol came, the Sheriff's Department came, the El Paso police came, the El Paso Fire Department came. But what were they going to do? Who was going to arrest her? Surely they called the mayor, surely they called the governor's office, surely they called somebody in DC.

My friend Ben Saenz and I arrived about noon. Judy had been in front of the equipment for five hours. She seemed to be enjoying herself, chatting with the suits and uniforms, sometimes laughing. But she was not budging. She was on the levee that runs between the Rio Grande and the irrigation ditch that borders the Rio Bosque Park. About 15 people were gathered there in on the park side of the ditch in support of Judy and her action. More were to come later, including City Council representative Eddie Holguin. El Diario El Paso had a photographer stationed there for the event, and the Associated Press had a writer. No other media. About an equal number of federal, state and city police officials were there. Likewise a group of hardhatted workers (KIWI Construction out of red-state Nebraska of all places) twiddling their thumbs and making jokes among themselves.

Among the people you'll see on the video are Maria Saldana, the woman in white and a good friend of Judy, who happily busied herself heckling the gaggle of uniforms. The first person interviewed in my video is Billy Addington of the Sierra Club. Billy is a veteran of local and regional environmental activism. He was one of the leaders of the successful effort to stop the creation of a nuclear waste dump in his hometown of Sierra Blanca, Texas. The second interviewee is John Sproul, the director of the Rio Bosque Park. John is an acclaimed environmentalist and naturalist for our region. Years ago I went to the bosque with the Audubon Association and John had us crawling on hands and knees in search of the yellow-breasted chat. Sure enough we found the chat! A great occasion.

Ben and I both had appointments to make. We waited as long as we could to see what would happen, but we left about 130. On our way out the gate into the park had been locked. Luckily Miguel, a young man who works with John Sproul, was right behind us with a key. It had to be KIWI Construction who had locked the gates (only them and park personnel have keys), denying entry or exit to a public park. Surely an arrogant, in not illegal, act. But our little bit of inconvenience was minor to what happened to others.

At 2pm the Texas Rangers handcuffed and arrested Judy Ackerman. She sat handcuffed in the back of a car for an hour while the uniforms tried to figure out what to do. Eventually they took her downtown where she was released at about 5pm. Her supporters were leaving in John Sproul's truck after her arrest. On the way back to the Visitor's Center they met the Texas Ranger (the man in the suit and cowboy hat in the photograph) in charge. They stopped to talk, but in the discussion he recognized Maria Saldana, the woman who had been heckling him. He handcuffed her for questioning, but she refused to be moved. Billy Addington has a cell phone video of this scene which I hope makes it to youtube soon.

Other places to refer to this ongoing saga is newspapertree.com and Jim Tolbert's blog. Jim, an El Paso environmental activist, is starting a new blog entitled "El Paso Naturally" which he describes as "Ecological, environmental, food, farm and community-building for a sustainable El Paso Southwest." In his first entry Jim talks about the ecological damage that the fence is doing to our way of life here, and he was wise enough to link to a flickr site which gives some wonderful archival photographs of the fauna and flora of the Rio Bosque Park.

Please note: I am not a journalist. If I've made mistakes in my narrative, please contact me.


Lee & me at Poetry Project at St Mark's in New York City

The Poetry Project has invited Lee and me to read at St Mark's at Wednesday night, 8pm. It'd be great to see anybody and everybody. Eileen Myles and Elinor Nauen will be there reading their favorite selections from Harvey Goldner's The Resurrection of Bert Ringold.
This whole thing started when Eileen and Elinor were driving cross-country back to New York City and they traveled through El Paso. We gave them a copy of Harvey's book and they loved, reading it aloud, pushing along the back-easter freeways with Eileen's cat grooving in one lap and then another. One thing led to another, they talked it up with Stacy Szymaszek and here we go. We're excited.

Cinco Puntos Press will also be exhibiting at the 21st Annual Indie and Small Press Book Fair, thanks to their generosity and support. The 2-day celebration takes place at the New York Center for Independent Presses at 20 West 44th Street. Artist and writer Youme Landowne, creator of the graphic memoir Pitch Black about life and art in the subway tunnels of NYC, will be at our booth both days, and on Sunday she'll be reading and talking about Pitch Black. Also coming by our booth will be Cuban artist Mauricio Trenard, illustrator of Joe Hayes' collection of Cuban stories, Dance, Nana, Dance / Baila, Nana, Dance; and Christopher Cardinale, illustrator for our upcoming graphic novel Mr. Mendoza's Paintbrush, a realization of Luis Alberto Urrea's story of the same name.

¡Viva Mr. Harvey!


POBIZ: Rosa Alcalá & Dos Press

John Byrd, the Cinco Puntos Press VP (actually, he does most of everything), went to our the CBSD national sales conference in Minneapolis earlier in the month. His report was not upbeat. There’s not a lot of joy and lots of uncertainty in the book business right now as the country’s economy tanks, especially if you are trying to sell some poetry books to a national audience. Square that “especially” if you’re trying to sell poetry books to Barnes & Noble which is being done to by Amazon much the same way that B&N did it to the independents. (A large number of CBSD publishers, rather non-profit or for-profit, centerpiece poetry books in their list. Important books of poems. It's a moral issue.) Rabid capitalism in the book business is a precarious and bloody affair. Anyway, the CBSD sales rep to B&N gave the following advice to publishers trying to sell some poetry:

Make sure the buyers have this information—where the poet went to school, who were his teachers, is there a big name poet who is championing this poet? Hometown is also very important. Connections to the Iowa writing school trump everything.
As a poet, I can do one of two things: I can kick the wall or I can laugh. I never went to a writing school, all the “big name” poets I know are dead or pack around “big names” like guns only among my relatively small circle of poetry friends, I evacuated my hometown of Memphis and I’m a perpetual mocker of the Iowa writing school which seems to clone poets for what Ron Silliman mockingly calls "the School of Quietude" (my friends Joe Somoza, JB Bryan and others are big time exceptions to my Iowa School rants.) Being 66 years old I figure all this stuff is foolishness--poetry is doomed not to make money--so I laugh. A friend told me once that the only time folks pay attention to poets is during a military coup and the winners line up the poets and shoot them.

So the other night I went to hear Rosa Alcalá read from her new book Undocumentary. It was a fine reading. Rosa, and her partner Jeff Sirkin teach the making of poetry in the bilingual program at the University of Texas at El Paso. Rosa is a Spanish immigrant. Or at least her parents were. She was the first born in this country. Her mother had been a garment worker for 27 years (from the age of 14 to 37) when in 1968 she and Rosa’s father immigrated. They settled into Paterson, New Jersey, the mother worked on assembly lines there, so I could easily imagine the Alcalá family wandering around in Williams’ Paterson somewhere. And Rosa was born into that working class consciousness. Her poetry and poetics rise up out of that consciousness—a political sensibility, an immigrant sensibility, a feminist sensibility, also a feeling of the irony of her teaching now in a university on the U.S./Mexico border with a PhD in Creative Writing. Her poetics are interesting and complex with a wide range of influences, thanks in part to her studies at the SUNY-Buffalo writing program that emphasized poetics. I enjoyed the reading immensely. I’ll paste a poem of hers at the end of this blognote.

Another big plus for the evening was learning about the Dos Press Chapbook Series out of San Marcos, TX. Dos Press published UnDocumentary, which is really half of book. Dos Press is not the usual Texas endeavor. It published poem books that packs a poetics that doesn’t wander around the SoQ territory. The other half of the book has poems by Ash Smith and Sasha Steensen. The editors are C.J. Martin and Julia Drescher. The Dos Press chapbooks are unusual. They publish them in what is called a “dos-a-dos format”: 1 book, 2 spines, 3 authors. It’s a complicated and labor-intensive form. I won’t try to explain further. Best thing to do is buy one. Especially if you love books. The Álcala / Steensen / Smith (including b&w drawings Roberto Ontiveros and machine stitching—truly a cottage industry) by is 12 bucks which is cheap for such a lovely book (they do have collector’s editions). It was a real pleasure to hold this book (these books?) in my hand after hearing John’s report on B&N buying practices for poetry. For Dos Press, it's not about the money. It's about making a beautiful book, it's about collaboration between book-maker, poet and artist. Good for them.

So now I’ll paste here a Rosa Alcala prose poem from the ActionYes on-line magazine:

Allegory of a Girl with Aspirations

Everything here carved in mythological smut: babies with weapons, virgins yawning, satyrs licking their grapes. All the while the piano plays: plebeian, plebeian. The dining room stretches its wood into the village down below. Not all its doors are heavy and ornate, some hinge on a coming and going. Through these, the cook slips in and out of frame wearing a white, double-breasted jacket. First, only the buttons can be seen, then the hands. Only the hands, not the buttons. Then neither, but his back and elbows. There are several entrances/exits to the kitchen, each swing winks a metal, an edge. The cook makes the food appear, but never delivers. His uniform sets a different kind of progress, his failed hunches are casseroles. This is his selected work. We think some expressions palatable. The double cotton worn two ways is a religious order, it is a protectorate. I feel the fossil of some baron's mutton haunches in the claw-foot tub, and think of my cook. I want to carry myself across the threshold, to kiss him, to be him, to sharpen his knives, to wear his jacket, to button it up the left side, then the right, masking and unmasking a spill, a breast, a blunder, a chest. Feigning a work of art I enter, camera attached to an eye. Everything is perfectly framed in the viewfinder as it spans the room. I take note: from the outside, the inside becomes another angle; from the inside, the picture changes with each step. There is no way to piece it together. He shows me all the surfaces, but I can't locate a burner, an oven. He lifts me & my equipment onto a cutting board, and in his close-up, says, "work the butter and sugar before adding eggs." I sink. I sing:
The compote or the composed.
The cook or the dandy.
Who will glaze my ham?
Who will I marry?


These are the things Joe carries (to Cuba)

Finger nail clippers
Bars and bars of soap
Pepsodent toothpaste
Disposable razors
Women vitamins for over 50
Glucosamine for arthritis
Milk thistle for liver troubles
Diabetic blood glucose testing kit and strips
Baby clothes
A rain coat for a little boy named Carli
A couple pair of bifocals for a friend because the ones in Cuba are heavy metal frames
A laptop
Ink cartridges for certain printers
Sometimes paper but it’s so heavy
Ball point pens
Ben Gay
Cold medicine
And other stuff he couldn’t remember at the time.
I bet he leaves the suitcase too.

I love lists. I wrote this one down after talking to my my friend Joe Hayes. It's like a recipe for a Jasper Johns and William Carlos Williams collaboration. Joe had just come back from Cuba. This is the stuff he takes and leaves with friends and folks he runs into. Before every trip Joe goes to a local Big Lots store and fills up his large suitcase with all these things. This is a ritual for U.S. folks going to Cuba. Cubans need and want these things. These little bits and pieces of our lives here in the states.

Joe first went to Cuba in 2001. He fell in love with the Cuban people and their culture. Since then he’s gone back two or three times a year. At first he’d go “legally” using educational visas through a host of Cuba-friendly organizations in the U.S. Over the last few years the Bush administration has put more and more restrictions on travel to Cuba, so Joe doesn’t fool with the bureaucracies anymore. He goes “illegally” through Cancun. Joe’s a storyteller and he tells many of his stories in Spanish or English or bilingually. That’s how he makes his living. In Cuba he’s made good friends with the storytelling community on the island. This last trip in October Joe was part of a “Brigada Artistica” headquartered in the city of Holguín and which radiated out into various communities hammered by Hurricane Ike. (You can watch a short video of una Brigada Artistica here, although this is describing una brigada prior to Joe's visit.) Cuba is prepared for natural disasters and they have hurricane plans that puts FEMA, and especially George Bush, to shame.

By the way, checkout Joe’s new book of Cuban stories--Dance, Nana, Dance / Baila, Nana, Baila. It's full of stories from both the Afro-Cuban and Hispano-Cuban traditions. Cinco Puntos did it. We're proud of it. We think it's an important contribution to understanding the island. We expect that the Obama administration will work toward normalizing our relations to the Cuban people.


Melting Ice in Juárez

Here’s a short request to my friends in El Paso: Please walk across the El Paso Street Bridge and have dinner at Martino's. Not to worry. It’s a short walk of a few blocks. Afterwards you’ll be able to tell your friends, like I’m doing right now: “Yes, I’ve been to Juárez. It was good to be there again.” Besides, Martino’s is a wonderful institution, a place of much cultural ambiente, a true taste of Juárez the way it used to be. So few people cross over anymore simply to have a beer or a steak and a delicious martini. It’ll be okay. Enjoy yourself. Besides, you can’t get ballet parking in El Paso.

▲ ▼

When my friend storyteller Joe Hayes visits El Paso, he and I perform our fronterizo ritual--we go across the river "to melt some ice at Martino's" on Avenida Juárez. For 30 years we’ve been melting ice at Martino’s, but, alas, a few weeks ago we went across and there was no ice to melt. Sure, the restaurant is still open, but it seems to be hanging by the thinnest of threads. Very few folks are crossing over, very few are spending money on the other side. They read the paper, they worry. The night we were there, the tables--with their starched white table cloths, copper plates and shining silverware--were totally empty of customers and the place seemed dark, as if they were saving electricity or didn’t have money for extra light bulbs. Still, the two waiters on duty were delighted to see two patrons walk through the glass doors. I have known these same two waiters for most of those same 30 years. The primary waiter was José who must be 70 years old at least now. I don’t remember his assistant’s name now, but I remember him as a very young man. The two men gave us that incredible gracious and manly service that Martino’s is known around the world for. We ordered two Bohemia--our days of two magnificent Beefeater martinis are now past--and studied the cornucopia of dishes on the ragged menus. Sadly, they didn’t have black bass, they didn’t have the rib-eye or the filet mignon medallions but they did have a salmon filet for Joe and a New York steak for me. As always we had the French onion soup (delicious as ever) with the peculiar head lettuce salad. We ate and talked about our Martino’s memories and commiserated with the waiters over the emptiness of the restaurant. It was a bitter-sweet time. A very precious time. We had drunk two Bohemia each and we finished our night with a cup of coffee. Before we said goodbye, I went into the bathroom to melt some ice. You see, for all these many years at Martino’s the iceman brought a block of ice that he placed into the urinal in the men’s room. The ice kept the urinal clean, the smell sweet. After martinis and beer and water, it was always nice to go and melt some ice. Like it was a special gift that you could only find on the other side. But now at Martino’s the iceman no longer cometh.

▲ ▼

Some notes: El Paso lawyer and civic activist Michael Wyatt took the photograph of the "Ballet Parking" sign that still sits out in front of el Restaurante de Martino. The photo of the waiter José (such a handsome man, so full of what Garcia Lorca would call "duende") is by photographer Dennis Daily who used to be an archivist at the NMSU Library. Dennis has done a number of photographs of the waiters at Martino's which I have in my archives and will publish as time passes. They are classics. The photo below is off the web. Don't get lost.


Dancing in the Streets: Thanks, Barack!

It's great to have so many friends and peers excited about a national election. My poetry buddies, my political buddies, my intellectual buddies, my children and grandchildren and all their friends. All day I've been getting emails and phone calls full of joy and sending links like Martha and the Vandellas singing "Dancing in the Streets" and the Soul Children of Chicago belting out the Hallelujah Chorus. Barack Obama's speech was beautiful. I remembered Tula, the woman who raised me while my widowed mother was out selling houses in Memphis. She, like the woman Obama spoke about, would be about 106 years old now. She had picked cotton as a young woman, and she probably got to vote maybe once before she died. I remembered my mother who never voted for anybody but democrats (she despised Reagan and the first Bush--she didn't have to endure the second). And I so much enjoyed listening to anything John Lewis had to say in his memories about those troubled but promising times in the 50s and 60s when MLK walked and talked. And there was Jesse Jackson crying big tears. He had stood over the bloodied body of MLK at the Lorraine Hotel. Watching and hearing those two men somehow gave a feeling of justification for my generation. We've seen some shit, baby.

And John McCain's speech was fine too, gracious and open-hearted and wise. (Remember Nixon swinging at the TV cables with his axe?) The remarkable thing about McCain's speech is how the raucous celebrating crowd in Grant Park settled down to seriously listen to the man who had just lost the last election of his life. That spoke volumes of what Obama has succeeded in doing.


Sherman Alexie on the Colbert Report

Poet and novelist Sherman Alexie (or here)was on the Colbert Report last night. He was great, giving tit for tat, or tat for tit, whichever way you think is best. I'm an unabashed Sherman Alexie fan. He's fun to read, novels and poetry, Smoke Signals (one of my grandchildren's favorite movies) is a good movie (especially if you in your growing up, like me, had to wrestle with father ghosts), and he's one of those writers who has the wit and desire to reach beyond the choir when he's singing his song. Besides, he's a good guy. Enjoy.

And thanks to son Andy Byrd for sending along the link.


Paul Blackburn in Memphis, 1967

Recently I drove up to Las Cruces to hear Roberto Tejada read his poetry. I knew Roberto from 1994 when I was in Mexico City as part of an exchange program funded jointly by the US/NEA and it’s counterpart in Mexico, INBA. His was a fine reading and and our brief conversations before and afterwards opened all sorts of doors in my head about poetry. One thing in particular came up that made me very happy. Roberto is a fan of Paul Blackburn’s poetry--his musicality, the way a line is scored and jumps to the next--and we commiserated about the lack of attention that Paul receives these days, especially in universities and in the on-going conversations about the evolution of our contemporary poetics. In the midst of our conversation I remembered the photo (1967) above--Lee and Paul in our first home on Somerville Street near Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee (as you can see on the left of the photo, Lee in some sort of frenzy had painted all the Kool-Aid characters on the wall).

I had first met Paul in the summer of 1964 at the Aspen Writers’ Workshop, the original one organized by poet Robert Vas Dias with a big hand from his good friend Toby Olson. I went back in 1965 and that’s when I met Lee. Paul befriended me and mentored me as I struggled to write poems. He inspired me with stories about visiting with Pound in Venice and readings in the Village and he carried with him a cassette recorder and a large archive of tapes that we listened to. He was like that. (I've written about this in a previous previous entry.) Paul was traveling through the South on some sort of government grant reading and doing workshops in black universities. He had been in Atlanta, he was to be at Lemoyne-Owen College in Memphis for a few days and then he was going to go to Nashville to visit Fisk University and Tennessee A&I (now Tennessee State University). Back then Lee and I had a BMW R-60 motorcycle, a glorious quiet machine, and one day I took Paul across the Mississippi River and we walked around the sandbar that stretches out on the Arkansas side, the river taking a big loop west, having bounced off the bluffs. We came home that day and in the mail were his two copies of The Cities (An Evergreen Original from Grove Press and only costing $2.95!). He gave me one of the two copies. I was honored.

Below is the Author's Note to The Cities. Paul didn't like to write about poetics or the acting of writing but when he did do it it was always incredibly thoughtful and imaginative and, yes, musical. And below that I'm including "A Short, Colorful Riot Poem for Lee Merrill Byrd" which Paul wrote sitting on a bench at the table in that same room where the picture was taken. He was looking around and writing in his thick notebook.

Well, here it is. And it turns out to be cities, or, I've held it to that. The Cities. Every man's stand be his own. Finally, it is a construct, out of my own isolations, eyes, ears, nose, and breath, my recognitions of those constructs not my own that I can live in. The Cities.

Of the poems, let me use Lorca's tern: duende is that faculty of making/ into which you subsume yourself, your nickel, your dime, your cruzeiro, your peso, your five-dollar gold piece, your talent, silver mark, or denier, a goddamn ha'penny, if that's all you're carrying around in your pocket that day, you lay it on the line, it's payment, to whatever devil or demon wishes (with that idea or feeling IT feels itself itself, it's owner, if you like) to take possession of the THING in you, giving that quality to the process. The secret of this book is
scissors, rock, and paper.


Bottles are blue, green
Glass is green .
The West tastes like the North
The South tastes like blood and shit
and magnolia .
I think I can stand it

It is the strength in the arms
you feel
if you lift it

Europe even worse than the States
the price of Kleenex, boucliersand tear gas
paving stores and fire
the same clubs

Cream no longer rises to the top, the
perfection of the centrifuge .
A brown unglazed jar.
The flowers are white
with centers green and yella
how you, fella . the stone
and broken fingernails, it
is the strength you feel
back and arms
when you lift it, mes coopains

IF you lift it .
The blottolub,
the cremaris.


Cesar Ivan: Dreaming Downtown El Paso, #2

My big brother told me once to live in the city or to live in the country. "Bobby," he said, "don’t go living in the in-between."

For several years Cesar Ivan’s series of three paintings--“El Carnaval Social,” “El Hombre Fuerte” and “Mujer de Dos Cebezas,” what he calls “sideshow banners”--hung on the walls of the Lumenbrite (now the Percolator) Café on Stanton Street in downtown El Paso. I loved those paintings from the first time I saw them. They were haunting in their wrinkled medieval ambiance with an odd sense of prophesy and cultural comment. Like allegory even. So un-20th Century. But still so peculiarly contemporary and hip. When art and poet friends from out of town came to visit us, I’d send them first to see Cesar’s paintings, then I’d tell them to walk by to see Luis Jimenez’ “Los Lagartos” in the Plazita and then go to the museum. They would always come back talking about Cesar’s work, especially El Carnaval Social. But for those of us who were involved in the downtown cultural life of the 90s and the first few years of this century, the paintings had an added dimension--the people in the paintings were people we know! I for one wanted to have the names of everybody in those paintings. So I started talking to Cesar.

I’ve known Cesar Ivan since the 1990s. He was a regular at the Bridge Center Café for Contemporary Arts on San Antonio Avenue. That was the heyday of that particular incarnation of the Bridge Center. Architect Fred Dalbin was President of the Board and he kept the thing afloat by practicing magic tricks; a romantic and even idealistic David Romo (before the shit hit his fan) was its improvisational and rarely-paid director; and sweetness herself, the red-headed and freckled Maggie Herrera was La Barrista of the espresso machine. Characters came in and out of the Bridge. Every one connected to the Bridge Center had visions of what Downtown El Paso could become and the Bridge Center was to be at least one of the seeds from which those visions sprouted. I happily watched and participated. It was a dreamy passionate time.

Cesar Ivan, never an artist who hung out with the university crowd, was at home downtown. He enjoyed mixing with the menagerie of artists, musicians, street performers, grassroots capitalists, everyday street people and the regular folk that make up the downtown scene. He had grown up in the Lower Valley of El Paso (he graduated from Ysleta High School) dreaming about the circus and about traveling carnivals. Like so many kids, especially kids who become artists, the different and the weird attracted him--the freaks and the clowns and the barkers and the high wire trapeze artists. Blinking pink neon lights. Tinny make-believe organ music. The merry-go-round and the Ferris wheel. In junior high school he and a friend decided school was not for them. They decided to run away to join the circus. They were going to catch the freight train going east or west, they didn’t care which way. Surely they’d be able to find a circus or a carnival. All their lives they had watched the hobos jumping the freight train as it slowed down lumbering through Ysleta. So Cesar and his buddy sat there in a park waiting for a train. They waited and waited until they fell asleep waiting, and the next morning the sun woke them up. They went back home. They were hungry. Cesar Ivan never joined the circus. He became an artist instead and moved into downtown El Paso.

Downtown he began cobbling together a living from his art, his music (he plays electric base—back then with Fronteras No Más and now with Sangre Gitana), making funky calaca puppets and cutouts of Frida, welding steel furniture and hiring out his multiple talents for a number of projects. Then the Bridge Center went belly-up when Dalbin got tired and packed up his magic show, leaving behind him a wired-together contraption with a board that soon became dysfunctional trying to reshape it into something it would never be. Downtown was not happening like we had all hoped. 9/11 had slapped the country up aside the head, the federal government began its ponderous Kafkian business of nailing the border shut forever and the great Art Lewis packed up his saxophone and went home to Houston to be close to his dying mother.

Shit, I said.

Ni modo, that’s life, Cesar Ivan mumbled. He always mumbles. You need to listen close.

He was now settled into the seventh floor of the Abdou Building on Mesa and Texas (a Trost Building, no parallel sides, almost a hundred years old), a perfect fit for Sr. Ivan, his studio and his home. He was wandering the streets with his camera and meeting the street people. He became their friend. He remembered the circus and the sideshow banners. He he started painting his Sideshow Banners. His style was puro Cesar Ivan. Old-fashioned painterly darkness. And he would make of the people wandering through downtown an allegory.

The sideshow banner was his model, his archetype. And he made three paintings. In the forefront of each are characters become allegory. In first two the primary characters are men off the streets, and in the third is a two-headed lady. But unlike sideshow banners the primary figures are surrounded by an audience of recognizable downtowners.

"We are all performers on the stage," Cesar Ivan says. That is his dictum.

The paintings are very reminiscent of Diego Rivera’s "Sueno de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central" (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park). In the center are the artist Posada arm and arm with La Calavera Catrina, the Great Mother of Death, Frida is there and likewise Diego himself as a little boy. And they are surrounded by with prominent figures from Mexican history.

The series of three paintings hung in the Lumenbrite for years. Nobody was buying them, and Cesar needed to make a living. He went on to other things. I’ll say it again: the El Paso Museum of Art should find an angel to buy these important paintings for their collection. Cesar needs the support, we need the paintings.


This, the first painting in the series, appears to be the core of Cesar’s dream. It documents and celebrates one of the unending drumming sessions that sprang up around downtown in those days, many times incited at the Bridge and then spilling out into the streets. At the center of the action, is “Ron the Dreamer” (sometimes called “Ron the Dancer”) and Natalie “the French Gypsy”—the Yang and the Yin of the street life in downtown El Paso.

“Quit your jobs and go live in the woods.” This was Ron the Dreamer's dictum.

Ron was a homeless citizen but in Cesar’s painting he is a prophet holding a flare to light the drummers and the dance. Around them all Cesar paints night thickly into the canvas. Cesar had met Ron on the streets and in his quiet way he would nod at him and say hello. After a while Ron would return the greeting and the two became friends even though Ron worried that Cesar was a communist spy. Ron was always worried about the communists infiltrating into his downtown space. And he was a street artist, a minimalist who would leave little paper constructions dangling from trees for people to find. Like messages to the hungry ghosts. Cesar, of course, went looking for the little pieces of sculpture. Rumor had it that Ron had once been a teacher but that he had lost a son in a fire and so he disappeared into the street life. Last time Cesar saw him he was in the Opportunity Center on Myrtle Street. He had gained weight and he looked well.

The yin to Ron’s yang was Natalie, aka “the French Gypsy” She was a French citizen who wandered into the Bridge somehow and somewhere in the 90s. She loved to dance and she would dance at the drop of a hat—dancing with men, with women or most often just alone, feeling the music. She had an aura about her, a charisma that inspired the young people around her. Cesar says you could always find Natalie dancing somewhere downtown, if not at the Bridge, then in the dives. Some people thought she was just crazy. She told Cesar that she was the daughter of Tristan Tzara, one of the founders of Dadaism. That made sense to him. Then one day she went over to Juárez and on the way home she was stopped by Customs. Her visa had expired and she was soon afterwards deported. Cesar said he heard that she was now in India.

Now I’m going to the list the others in the painting, and I will do the same for the other two. Forgive the scant information. Cesar told me bits and pieces about them, but he didn’t know last names and he’d forgotten relevant information. If you want to add anything, please send along comments for this blog. Importantly for Cesar Ivan they were all regulars at the drumming sessions. They are, from left to right:

(My thanks to Cesar for labeling all of the 20 characters. It was a mess trying to get them all straight.)

Most easily visible on the left (and in real life) is red-headed Maggie Herrera, already mentioned above. She was one of the cornerstones of the Bridge back in the day, popular not only for her upbeat presence but because she became the organizer of an open mike series and hip-hop shows. The rule was not to miss one of Maggie’s birthdays. They were wild with a bizarre assortment of people. Maggie now lives in LA. On either side of Maggie are los hermanos Saldivar. To the left is Mando, an aspiring musician and to her right is Juan, a surrealist painter.

Others between Maggie and Ron the Dreamer are Reggie (kneeling, with the knitted cap), another young painter who hung at the Bridge; Sergio in the horn-rimmed glasses, a downtown skater; Daniel in his baseball cap who has since moved to Austin; bearded Rick on the drums, a “Fewel Project” musician and live snake performer; and finally Mundo. Mundo is one of my favorite people downtown. A quiet man, he seems so steady and sure. He worked first at the Bridge, then at the Lumenbrite and now at the Percolator, all the time going to school. Although born in Mexico City, he's lived in Juarez for 20 years now with his mother. He's a musician, un puro fronterizo, one of those folks that make downtown so rich with soulfulness.

Between Ron the Dreamer and Natalie the French Gypsy are: Julio (standing), a young street musician who played on both sides of the border. He told Cesar once that he had better luck in Juaréz. Playing the bongos in the center of the painting is the the crowned drummer, the painter and Cesar’s good friend David Fleet. David is a very quiet and serious man, so quiet he almost cannot be googled. Cesar put the crown on his head because at the time he called him “the King of the Bongo” after a song made famous by Manu Chao. Above David to the right is Astrid who worked at the Bridge. Cesar says she always happily greeted him with cup of hot coffee during those mornings at the café.

Folks to the right of Natalie the French Gypsy are Jericho in the darkness, a musician who played in the Fewel Project; then below is the lady BB with her blue hair and her boyfriend Rafa (aka “Rafa Pistola”) who likewise played in the Fewel Project and is a founding member of Mexicans at Night; kneeling is Mike, aka “Miker,” an aerosol graffiti artist who was always changing the color of his hair; then, in the tradition of El Greco and others, a self-portrait of the artist Cesar Ivan stylized to look like an Egyptian prince and who, like Ron the Dreamer, is holding a light in his hand (an old-fashioned sense of the artist as prophet); next is the painter Tim Razo painter who used to live in the Abdou Building, left town and has returned, his art appearing in 12 different shows in the last two years; and finally Fran Santelli, a painter and a teller of fortune who from the look on her face must be reading the sad fortune of us all.

That’s about it for me right now. I’ll add the other two paintings in the Sideshow Series in the next few days.


How come Mexicans don't like negative space?

I was thinking about this important question looking into a huge bowl of menudo at Delicious Mexican Foods to Go on Fort Boulevard. It was my Saturday morning pilgrimage. I go there in the firm belief that I will be the only güero in the place and I will be listening to Mexican music and will be hearing only Spanish spoken. As usual, I was right.

The menudo was stuffed with pozole and tripe submerged in soupy red sauce and then I threw in chopped onions and cilantro and dried chili pepper and salsa verde and whatever that green dried herb is (oregano?) and then I squeezed a half of lemon on top of the concoction. The nice lady also gave me chopped ajo crudo (raw garlic for what ails me), two buttered bolillo buns hot from the oven and a glass of water and a cup of coffee. There was no space left on the table for anything except hunger. I began to eat. The menudo was glorious. But in the midst of my reverie, my little table crowded with menudo and its supplements got me to thinking about Diego Rivera and the Aztec Calendar and Frida Kahlo and even Pancho Villa for God’s sake. If any of them saw even a little bit of negative space, they would fill it up with paint or blood or prophecy about the end of the world. It was like they wanted to answer every question there is to ask. Then Japan popped into my head. The Japanese love negative space fertilized with unanswerable questions--like miso soup and strange little sushi on a big platter and Zen and haiku and inked scrolls showing some monk sitting on a stone dwarfed by the totally empty void.

The wild cornucopia of Mexico’s visionaries and the subtle emptiness of Japan with its Zen Buddhism and gardens of rocks and sand.

Suddenly inside my head I found the beginnings of a world championship lucha libre bout. I ate my menudo and wondered who was going to be the techno? And who was going to be the rudo? Or maybe they would be a tagteam struggling together against the Beasts of Gringolandia, George Bush and Sarah Palin? They would be the two-headed avenging angel of my imagination, the ying and the yang, doing battle against the globalization of greed in the 21st Century. Together they would put an end ot the murderous war in Iraq, together they would rip out the wall between the U.S. and Mexico. At least in my own heart.

No wonder I can like Mexico and Japan so much at the same time?

So this was my little Saturday morning epiphany at the Delicious Mexican Food to Go.

Am I crazy or what?

I sent a version of this as a question to Gustavo Arrellano of Ask a Mexican fame. He says he's going to answer the question. Stay tuned.


Cesar Ivan: Dreaming Downtown El Paso

Artist Cesar Ivan has been living on the top floor of that goofy but wonderful pie-shaped building on the southwest corner of Mesa and Texas for eight or nine years now, cobbling together a living from his art, his hand-made puppets, steel furniture and other bits and pieces of imaginative capitalism. For a number of years, he had three paintings hanging in now-disappeared Lumenbrite (reborn now as el Percolator)--"El Carnaval Social," "El Hombre Fuerte" and "La Mujer de Dos Cabezas." Those paintings, for many of us, have become an emblem of Downtown El Paso of the last 15 years. They are fine art and important cultural artefacts. Cesar has been dreaming downtown El Paso much like Diego Rivera dreamed La Alameda in DF around 80 years ago.

I'd like to say this loudly: I cannot understand why the art museum hasn't strong-armed some angel to buy those pieces to help us document the cultural and imaginative ferment of El Paso here at the cusp between centuries.

In the near future I'll be writing a blog entry or two about those works, but in the meantime I wanted to put this short video up on youtube and on my blog. It documents a recent visit to Cesar's home and studio. I carried along my little FLIP video camera which has lousy sound but sure makes for a quick and dirty way to get something up on the internet. Enjoy Cesar Ivan. He's becoming an important element of our collective imagination in El Paso.

Here's "El Carnaval Social"--


Rules for Burying Your Mother

Darl Bundren, the one who they sent off to the insane asylum in Jackson, said this:

In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I dont know what I am. I dont know if I am or not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not. He cannot empty himself for sleep because he is not what he is and he is what he is not. Beyond the unlamped wall I can hear the rain shaping the wagon that is ours, the load that is no longer theirs that felled and sawed it nor yet theirs that brought it and which is not ours either, lie on our wagon though it does, since only the wind and the rain shape it only to Jewel and me, that are not asleep. And since sleep is is-not and rain and wind are was, it is not. Yet the wagon is, because the wagon is was, and Addie Bundren will not be. And Jewel is, so Addie Bundren must be. And then I must be, or I could not empty myself for sleep in a strange room. And so if I am not emptied yet, I am is.

How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home.

Darl’s brother Cash, the carpenter who crafted his mother’s coffin, said this:

I made it on the bevel.

1. There is more surface for the nails to
2. There is twice the gripping-surface to each seam.
3. The water will have to seep into it on a slant. Water moves easiest up and down or straight across.
4. In a house people are upright two thirds of the time. So the seams and joints are made up-and-down. Because the stress is up and down.
5. In a bed where people lie down all the time, the joints and seams are made sideways, because the stress is sideways.
6. Except.
7. A body is not square like a crosstie.
8. Animal magnetism.
9. The animal magnetism of a dead body makes the stress comes slanting, so the seams and joints of a coffin are made on the bevel.
10. You can see by an old grave that the earth sinks down on the bevel.
11. While in a natural hole it sinks by the center, the stress being up-and-down.
12. So I made it on the bevel.
13. It makes a neater job.

And Vardaman, the half-wit little brother of Darl and Cash, said this:

My mother is a fish.

▲ ▲

All this of course is from Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. I listened to it recently on a superb recording that I bought from audible.com. The production by Random House Audio included four actors (two men, two women) performing the fifteen different characters. The recording is superb. All of the performers really had a taste for Faulkner’s dialects as well as his understanding. I was blown away. This section I have quoted is just before (I believe, I took my library copy back) Addie Bundren dies and the Bundren family puts her in the box to carry her off to Jefferson. Darl, sort of a white trash savant who will be carted off to an insane asylum at the end of the novel for trying to burn up his mother’s coffin by setting fire to a barn, has been watching his brother make the coffin; Cash is the carpenter who methodically has put the coffin together; and Vardaman is the youngest brother who caught an enormous fish in the creek and with the audacity of a wise idiocy announces that his mother is that fish and not the shrunken woman about to become a corpse. I was driving down Texas Avenue on the way to work when I heard it. It was truly like listening to a wonderful poem. The language is so surprising and sure, so improvisational and true. I had to stop and make a note to myself to go get the book from the library and type it up for my journal. I just wanted to feel and see how it sounded in my own voice. And since I did that I felt I should put it on my blog.

Many times in the last ten years I have gone back and read or listened to novels that were important to me as a young man and found them wanting. Not Faulkner, not As I Lay Dying. The language is masterful. Earlier in the year I had listened to Cormac MacCarthy’s Blood Meridian, an author who is many times mentioned as the spiritual (if that is the right word) successor to Faulkner. That may or may not be true. But really, where MacCarthy seems so much about landscape and two or three characters in his dark books, Faulkner really gives the reader full-blooded characters where you get to know them all the way down to the hair on their toes. And so much comes from the character’s own mouth as he or she speaks about others. No one has done this so well in the English language since Shakespeare. And none have done it like that since.

By the way, since I am a publisher, two things to note--Faulkner said he wrote this novel in six weeks (eight weeks by some accounts) while he worked night shift stoking coal at a power plant. It was his fifth novel, and he thought of it as his “tour de force.” It arrived at the publishers with very minor changes required. I read somewhere that the first edition didn’t even sell 3,000 copies, the size of the first printing—the engine for selling books (still is, in fact, but in a much lesser degree) at the time a good reception from the Eastern establishment.


Lost in the pain of Juarez

This 6-foot square mural decorates the wall of a tattoo shop on Avenida Juárez across the river from where we live (photo from June 2008). Certainly created by a man, this idealized depiction of a beautiful Disney-esque young woman with nails piercing her head, face and neck is tragically unreal. There’s no blood, no tears, no one counting the dead. On this side of the river we don’t see the blood or the tears or the dead up close, but certainly on the other side the people see the blood every day. There’s a war going on, but it’s lost in the white noise of our national and regional media.

Since the beginning of the year in Juárez, Chihuahua (a 15 minute walk from my desk here on Texas Avenue in downtown El Paso) men with guns have murdered over 800 people as part of an never-ending drug war between rival gangs of narco-traficantes—the remnants of the Juárez Cartel founded by the Amado Carrillo Fuentes, who supposedly died on a plastic surgeon’s operating table getting himself a new face, and Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel. Their bloody struggle is for control of the Juárez “plaza” (or “franchise,” perhaps a better term for American ears). Whoever wins controls the smuggling of drugs and human beings and any other illegal product that is valued north of the Rio Grande. This business, worth billions of dollars, dwarfs any other enterprise on the border.

Below is the body count between Monday 4th thru Friday the 8th, August 2008 (El Paso Times / Chihuahua State Police):

Monday: Two separate quadruple-homicides. Plus, seven other homicides.
Tuesday: A man is fatally shot in a boot shop in the village of Guadalupe Distrito Bravos. Plus, three other deaths.
Wednesday: Eight men are killed and five wounded in a Juárez drug rehab center. Plus, five other deaths.
Thursday: Three men are gunned down and another man wounded at a junkyard. Plus, nine other deaths.
Friday: The bodies of two men are found wrapped in blankets. Their hands were cut off and left next to the bodies, which showed signs of torture. Six others were slain, including Cristian Alcantar, 16, and Jesus Villanueva Dominguez, 19, who were shot and killed while riding in a Saturn Ion with Texas plates.
This sadness seems to have no end.

To begin to grasp what’s going on Juárez and here on the border, I strongly suggest you read the following articles that have recently appeared in newspapertree.com, an online magazine that covers El Paso and the region.

In the first--My Brother's Body, A True Story--Rachel Showery documents how drugs and incredible piles of money seduced first her brother and then her husband. The über-text is about her journey to retrieve her brother’s body from the morgue in Juárez in 2002. Ms. Showery decided to write this tragic and terrible family tale after reading day after day about the murderous violence that has gripped Juárez. She wrote it somehow to exorcise her own ghosts and as an offering for peace. Here, like in so many articles about the violence in Juárez and Mexico, the line between the men in uniforms (police or army) and the narco-traficantes seems very nebulous.

The second--15 Minutes of Hell in an Juarez Prayer Meeting--is by Molly Molloy, a librarian by trade and a long-time observer of the border and the issues that affect it. Since January the violence across river has exacerbated everyday and Molly, because she can’t find sufficient news in U.S. regional or national papers, spends her mornings reading the Juárez dailies. She counts the dead. It’s her obsession. Like all of us, she has good friends across the river, and she loves the city. The constant news of the murders has overwhelmed her. She has felt powerless and angry. Then she read about the massacre of eight people on August 13, 2008, at the CIAD (Center for Drug and Alcohol Integration) Rehabilitation Center #8 in the Colonia First of September in the foothills of the Sierra Juárez in the southwest part of the city was just too much. People had come together to offer themselves to God. It reminded her of her own upbringing in Louisiana, the little church where she learned the tenets of Christianity. She had no choice but to go went to investigate for herself. This is her report, and it’s frightening. It appears that the narco-traficantes even consider drug rehabilitation centers as competitors and therefore enemies. They must believe, like Amado Carillo Fuentes before them, that “Only the dead are innocent.”

For further news on this continuing tragedy, I suggest you sign up for the newspapertree.com newsletter on their home page. Their news will be personal and local and so, like the Showery and Molloy pieces, will give you a true taste of what’s going on.


The man has done enough harm to the planet.

To quote Jon Stewart almost correctly (he's a comedian and I'm a poet), I am looking forward to the end of the Bush administration “as a poet, as a person, as a citizen, as a mammal.”

I loved Jon Stewart's statement so I googled up this image via "george bush absurd" on the Celibrity Hijinx blog--his Valentine to the American People, February 2007. Click on the image for the large view to read the valentine. It's a cornucopia of george's quotes. It's quite miraculous all the good stuff on the web.


Rice, by Joan Logghe

Joan Logghe said that men and women inhabit each other like undergarments. "He wears me and I wear him."
Rice, page 72

I’ve been going through my 2007 journal, collecting bits and pieces of scribbling that might be a poem, and I found this note re: Joan Logghe’s Rice (Tres Chicas, 2004). The book is a collection of 74 regular-looking and untitled sonnets broken into 8 and 6 stanzas. JB Bryan sent me the book as a gift (he with Renée Gregorio designed it) several years ago. It's truly a handsome book, but I’m not a fan of sonnets, Joan is a student of Robert Bly and that whole root of the poetry tree doesn’t turn me on, so it must have sat around my house for a year before I even bothered to thumb through it. When I did I immediately enjoyed random poems and then over the next week or so read the book from cover to cover. This is not a usual habit of mine. I have poetry books that I’m reading scattered all around my house and office. But I loved Rice. It documents a rough patch in her long marriage. Her husband of many years (they have three grown children together) is attracted to another woman, they are on the fulcrum of their lives, the rest of which, as we all know, is downhill making its way toward the sea. So, in part, the sonnets read like a narrative, but they also carry with them of histories of old friends (Jim Sagel dies in one of the poems) in the post-Hippie life of northern New Mexico, ruminations on geology and poetics and food and poems and her Jewish heritage and Buddhist practice and all the stuff that goes into a life of making poems and a family and dinner and a history of one’s own. The poems ring in concert with many of my own feeling about living a life out here. Lee Byrd, who doesn’t read a lot of poetry, grabbed the book when I was done and likewise read it from cover to cover. We both heartily recommend it.

Below I will add the sonnet which is on page 54. Probably not the best in the book (whatever that means, and for who), but it discusses her writing of sonnets and she populates the poem with her dead men friends. One of them was a friend of mine, the late artist and sculptor and poet Bill Gersh. Hell, I probably only spent 8 hours with Bill during the time I knew him, but he was one of those guys, if he knew you, spilled his life into yours with enormous pleasure. In the early 1990s I had a DH Lawrence Fellowship and so was blessed with spending the summer at the DH Lawrence Ranch at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains just north of Taos. Bill invited my son John (he must have been 14 at the time) and I over for dinner in the adobe home he had built himself. The poet Renée Gregorio was there. And, with delicious food and good wine in our bellies, Bill told us the almost epic journey on how he rode his Harley from California to Taos, a beautiful blonde woman wrapping her thighs around him and hugging him close. When he got to Taos, the Harley went kaput, the woman left him, Max Feinstein and the tribe were building New Buffalo and Gersh knew he was home among the longhairs and the Indians and the rural Hispanics and the mountains. The story was beautifully told, funny and sad and righteous, a true insight into the life of an artist in the 1960s. Bill pulled no punches in the telling, and I was delighted Johnny Byrd got to hear the story. 14 years old is a good time to hear such stories. Bill died in 1994 at the age of 51. He was a year younger than me.

By the way, you don’t need to know all these peculiar histories and endnotes to thoroughly enjoy Rice. And Tres Chicas is a collaborative effort of Joan, Renée and Miriam Sagan. The painting above is Gersh's "The Trailblazer" which I found on the artnet website.

■ ■

Gersh gave me permission to write any kind
of sonnet I want, “Just write a fuckin’ sonnet.”
And Grolnick says in a riff from death, “Go, chick,
go.” And Robert says you’ll never meditate, stop
kidding yourself. And Rick inquires after my health.
Just write a sonnet, forget abba abba cd cd cd.
They all assemble in these fourteen lines,
give me thumbs up. Go ahead, the dead said.

My living love lost his job, cut off all his hair,
drank love in a beer. Wanted to trade romance
in for a new model. Rode off, over there.
I flipped. I did the Change of Life dance, sang
“Growing Old in America” blues. I cried myself down
ten pounds. Weight returns, but the dead cheer me on.

Otto Campbell: La Brigada por la Paz

Painter Otto Campbell, and a group of cholos he recruited from the streets (la Sociedad de la Esquina), of downtown Juárez, Chichuahua, painted this mural La brigada por la Paz. I figure they did the job in 1996. The photograph is by Virgil Hancock and it appears on the cover and in his remarkable collection of photographs, Chihuahua: Pictures from the Edge (University of New Mexico Press, 1996, with a companion essay by Charles Bowden). The reason I'm putting it up on the blog (it's a copyrighted image and I've lost contact with Virgil) is that I was googling Otto Campbell the other day and I found absolutely nothing about the man. No text, no images. He was an important artist and cultural activist in Juárez (he died in 1997) and there should be some trace of him and his work available on the web. My friend the Mexican novelist Willivaldo Delgadillo says of Campbell, "He had a man-size wisdom and was one of those rare human beings who appeared to be reconciled with himself." The mural was painted on the corner of a major intersection in Juárez--Avenida Diez y Seis of Septiembre and Avenida Francisco Villa--which is right across the street from the downtown el Restaurante Villa del Mar, one of my favorite restaurants across the river. I saw the mural only once when poet Joe Somoza and I were over there walking and talking about poetry and eating fish soup. It was not finished yet--it was only in its preliminary black and white stage, and it was truly remarkable, ghostlike. I never got to see the finished mural. Soon after it was completed it was obliterated. Again, Willivaldo: "The local Coca-Cola honcho ordered it removed because he didn't like the fact that the bishop had a $-sign on his hat. The mural was replaced by a small notice on the repainted wall that read: Please Do Not Adverise. Coca Cola."

Willivaldo has told me that a young artist is now doing research on Campbell and that more work may be made available. I hope so. He's one of those mysterious fronterizos that make an important mark on our lives here on the border and then disappears somehow into the white noise. I would have liked to have known him.

The reason I have the image in the first place is that Virgil was kind enough to let Cinco Puntos Press use the photograph for the cover of my book of poems, The Price of Doing Business in Mexico. Virgil, if you're out there, I'll be happy to remove the photograph from the blog if you so wish. But I have a hunch that you, like me, will understand that Otto Campbell should certainly be googlable.

Which reminds me: There's a a small story that tell the reason I was googling Otto Campbell. My son John Byrd wrote an article about the band Radio La Chusma and a Sunday night concert they did at the Chamizal Park down by the river. John titled his piece "Dreaming of a Sunday Evening at the Chamizal" which is an allusion to Diego Rivera's great mural in Mexico City "Dreaming of a Sunday Afternoon in La Alameda." John didn't feel using an image of the Rivera mural was appropriate to his piece, so I suggested Campbell's La Brigada por la Paz. Especially since "chusma" can be translated into something like "street people." And, instead of searching through my own files for Virgil's photograph, I googled Otto Campell and found absolutely nothing.


Keith Wilson, Again

In October last year the poetry community in Las Cruces, under the umbrella of the Sin Fronteras organization (a loosely knit collective of writers in the area) celebrated the life’s work of poet Keith Wilson and his enormous contribution to the area’s poetry scene. I documented a like event held in Placitas in June, but I want to include the equally enjoyable Las Cruces event in this discussion, especially because I wanted to add Joe Somoza’s introduction. Joe’s introduction (this is an abbreviated version, what Joe could put together after a month, but it's the melody line on which he riffed for a longer time) is much different from mine that I posted last month. It speaks more to Keith’s biography and poetics, how the two intertwined and evolved. Joe and Jill were in Chicago and so missed the Placitas event, but they were central to the Sin Fronteras celebration. Readers at the Las Cruces event included Joe Somoza, Denise Chavez, Dick Thomas, Connie Voisine, Grant Price, David Slagle, Tim Cleveland, Roger Saxton, Michael Mandel, Todd Dickson, Wayne Crawford, Kevin McIlvoy, Kevin Wilson, Nancy Hastings, Heloise Wilson and myself.

One brief note: most readers think of Keith as a “Southwest poet,” which sometimes equates, however wrongly, to a number of sentimental concerns. At both readings poet Wayne Crawford reminded us that Keith was one of the foremost anti-war poets of the last 60 years. On both occasions, he gave passionate readings of “The Poem Politic X: A Note for Future Historians” from Keith’s 1972 book Midwatch from Sumac. As Wayne said, he can think of no decade in American history when the poem was not relevant, and today even more so, after five years of this senseless war on-going war in Iraq. I am pasting "The Poem Politic below Joe's introduction, Wayne having been nice enough to forward me his perfectly typed file. Joe’s introduction speaks briefly about the importance of Keith’s Annapolis education and his naval service aboard ship in Korea to the body of his work, but it would be hoped that in the future somebody would write a nice long piece about Keith's contribution to the poetry of yearning for peace.

■ ■ ■

A Celebration of Keith Wilson's Poetry
Introduction by Joseph Somoza
October 1, 2007
Branigan Library, Las Cruces, NM

This is a reading to celebrate Keith Wilson’s poetry. As most of you know, Keith has developed aphasia, a condition that makes it very difficult for him to speak, so we will be speaking for him (though, of course, using the words of his own poems).

Todd Dickson came up with the idea, and Michael Mandel brought it to our writers group, Sin Fronteras. We all agreed it was a great idea, and after asking Keith if he approved, we organized this reading. The readers are all friends, fellow writers, and/or former students of Keith’s.

I’ll start things off, but first want to say a few words about Keith’s life to set the context for the poems you will be hearing.

First of all, Keith is a native New Mexican, born in 1927, who grew up in various small rural towns such as Fort Sumner, Deming, and Alamogordo (his father being a road surveyor for the state, they moved around a lot). As a result, he came to be exposed to the various parts and cultures of the state, learning to speak Spanish, for example, and learning about the rituals of the Penitentes and of some of the Native American tribes of the state, not to mention Anglo rancher culture.

Even though Keith always had an interest in writing, his mother wanted him to follow in the footsteps of her great uncle who had been a rear-admiral in the navy, and he wound up attending Annapolis (where he studied Engineering) and serving as a naval officer in the Korean War. But he soon became disenchanted with the military and resigned his commission early in the 50’s. Not knowing what he wanted to do next, he returned to New Mexico for a visit, and as he got closer he realized how much he loved his home state and decided he wanted to write about it—to give voice to the places and people he had grown up around and that had not received sufficient voice up until then.

He had his subject but needed to develop a poetic language that would treat it seriously and in a modern way. Much of the literature of the southwest at that time treated the place in a traditional, stereotypical and sentimental manner. Keith wanted to write modern, convincing poems about New Mexico but didn’t know exactly how to go about it, not knowing much about the contemporary poetry of that time. He enrolled as a graduate student in English at the University of New Mexico but although he learned about the tradition of poetry, this didn’t help him to write a contemporary poem.

In the 1950’s, though, the various experimental post-W.W.2 poetic movements were coming to the fore in this country, and Keith soon began to get wind of the Beats, the Black Mountain School Poets, and others. He was particularly helped in learning about contemporary poetry through the poetry anthology The New American Poetry (1960), edited by Donald Allen, which included Charles Olson’s essay on poetics, “Projective Verse,” as well as a good sampling of poetry by some of the leading experimental American poets of that time. Keith was particularly struck by such writers as Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Spicer and Denise Levertov. Soon after ending his studies, he accepted a teaching job at the University of Arizona and, serving on the board of the new Ruth Stephan Poetry Center, he got to invite some of these same writers to campus and got to know them firsthand.

Now he had a subject matter and was developing a writing style that was clipped, vivid, unsentimental, and modern. Thus began his writing career. In 1965, he was offered a teaching job at New Mexico State University and, soon after, his first book of poems, Sketches for a New Mexico Hill Town, was published. Many more books would follow.

The Poem Politic X: A Note for Future Historians
(from Midwatch, pages 55-57, Sumac Press, © 1972 by Keith Wilson)

When writing of us, state
as your first premise
You will never understand us
otherwise, say that we

cherished war

over peace and comfort
over feeding the poor
over our own health
over love, even the act of it
over religion, all of them, except
perhaps certain forms of Buddhism

that we never failed to pass bills of war
through our legislatures, using the pressures
of imminent invasion or disaster (potential)
abroad as absolution for not spending moneys
on projects which might make us happy or even
save us from clear and evident crises at home

Write of us that we spent millions educating
the best of our youth and then slaughtered them
capturing some hill or swamp of no value and
bragged for several months about how well they died
following orders that were admittedly stupid, ill-conceived

Explain how the military virtues, best practiced
by robots, are most valued by us. You will never come
to understand us unless you realize, from the first,
that we love killing and kill our own youth, our own great
men FIRST. Enemies can be forgiven, their broken bodies
mourned over, but our own are rarely spoken of except
in political speeches when we “honor” the dead and encourage
the living young to follow their example and be gloriously
dead also

NOTE: Almost all religious training, in all our countries,
dedicates itself to preparing the people for war.
Catholic chaplains rage against “peaceniks,” forgetting
Christ's title in the Church is Prince of Peace;
Baptists shout of the ungodly and the necessity of
ritual holy wars while preaching of the Ten Commandments
each Sunday; Mohammedans, Shintoists look forward
to days of bloody retribution while Jews march
across the sands of Palestine deserts, Rabbis
urging them on....


Will expose our children, our homes to murder and
devastation on the chance that we can murder or devastate
FIRST and thus gain honor. No scientist is respected whose
inventions help mankind, for its own sake, but only when
those discoveries help to destroy, or to heal people,
that they may help destroy other men and living things

Be aware that
Destiny has caught us up, our choices made
subtly over the ages have spun a web about us:
It is unlikely we will escape, having geared
everything in our societies toward war and combat.
It is probably too late for us to survive
in anything like our present form.


If you build us monuments let them all
say that, as warning, as a poison label
on a bottle, that you may not ever
repeat our follies, feel our grief.


Larry Goodell reads "A DANCE AGAIN for Lee Connor and the Danzantes"

for Lee Connor and the Danzantes

We danced we did
we danced the did did dance
the dance we did dance in the did
we did the dance indeed we did
the did & done & dead with dance
the dance done in, we did it in
we did it in the dance we did
the did did dance and done we did
the dance again & did the whole thing in
we did it in we did the dance
and did it in we danced it dead
until it twisted
danced and did it back again
we danced it in and did it in
and brot it back to dance again
we brot it in and danced a sin until it sings
we danced it in and out again
and did we dance? did we dance?
did we dance it in again?
until it sings? until it sung?
until the song sang again
we danced a din and danced a sing
song again we did a dance
and danced we did
we did a dance a dance we did
again we did a dance again
again we didn’t dance again
we stopped and didn’t dance the dance
was done we did it dance and all
the ball was over dance & hall
we did a dance once and for all
we did a did and done dance and did
the dance we did again.
And did we dance again
and did we dance again.


I videoed Larry Goodell reading “And Dance Again” at his and Lenore’s (photographer and painter) home in Placitas, New Mexico, cupped in the Sandia Mountains above Albuquerque. It was the morning after the tribute for Keith Wilson. I was tired, but Larry still had that flaco-man exuberance that he should bottle and sell. I did two videos, the first of a recent poem which I will post at a later date. For that one he put on an exotic yellow Hawaiian shirt. When I asked him to do a performance of “And Dance Again” he changed into the equally exotic red Hawaiian shirt. He had to do the poem a couple of times before he was satisfied with the performance. He was discombobulated at first because he wants to look at his audience when he reads, but the dance poem--with all of its repetition and rhyme--demands full attention to the page.

I asked him to read the dance poem for a number of reasons. I had seen him perform it in the 1980s at the Kimo Theatre in downtown Albuquerque with Lee Connor dancing along gracefully beside him. It was a wonderful collaborative performance, something which took both of them a long time to rehearse, especially considering the entire performance was probably 2 or 3 minutes long at the most. Lee Connor had told Larry that he had to read the poem exactly as rehearsed—the rhythms and beats, the length of the lines, the intonation of the words. Nothing could deviate because the way the dance was choreographed depended precisely on Larry’s reading. If Larry’s reading deviated from the rehearsal even the tiniest bit, then it fractured the dance. But also I asked Larry to let me record the piece because we were staying in the home and studio that Lee Connor and his partner Lorn MacDougal had built for themselves in the 1980s. They were both very well known dancers in Manhattan but had tentatively moved to New Mexico for peace and space. They only lived there a few years. In September 1987 Lee Connor died in that house of AIDS. Poet and painter JB Bryan, who owns the house now, says you can feel Lee Connor’s presence in the house. I agree. And in the downstairs bedroom there’s a broadside of Larry’s poem and a photograph Lee Connor dancing. It’s an image of ecstasy.

The great thing about Larry (I’ve known him since the mid-1960s) is that he’s always been Larry and over all these years he’s evolved into Larry-squared. His poetics is a mixture of wild-eyed 1960s-New Mexico gringo shamanism, improvisational rhyming and punning, political and cultural cynicism and ribald wit. Larry is a cornerstone of what Ron Silliman likes to call “the New Western poetics.” Larry certainly does his own thing and he’s all about “local,” the very present, and he dismisses the academy and writing programs like flu bugs. If he could, he’d invent a vaccination against the disease. He believes in the goodness of the earth, he’s a misanthrope, especially when it comes to the American experience, and as a gardener he’ll sit on his back porch with Lenore and commiserate about the weather and the locusts and the rain or the lack of rain and the rich people moving into his “fervent valley” driving up the goddamn prices of everything from tomatoes to the blessed land. He loves to perform his poetry (that's how he thinks as he writes: as performance) but ironically does not perform that much. Used to be back in the day he’d spend days creating elaborate costumes of wings and masks and dildos and robes. He’s put those aside now for the most part but he’s still a fun and remarkable performer. He and Lenore have become expert gardeners and householders and raisers of chickens. Every year they host a Summer Solstice Party so today they will be celebrating the longest day of the year, welcoming the turning of the year their in the village of Placitas.

Lee Byrd (excuse me but too many “Lee’s” in this blog, so I need to differentiate) and I and our good friends Jane and Steve Sprague went to one of Summer Solstice parties in Placitas back in the 70s. Or maybe it was Larry’s birthday party. I can’t remember. What I do remember is when finally the night came, Larry dressed himself up in a wild shaman costume and he stood outside in the darkness and whirred a bullroarer around his head. He had built some kind of maze of stone and he was dancing. Dancing and chanting and invoking the goddess. We were all drunk probably. Or stoned. Or some kind of combination. At least Steve and I. Like always, the stars in Placitas were extravagant and the night was making animal sound and insect sound and wind sound. Surely the goddess had to listen to Larry. I certainly listened. And when we said goodbye Larry kissed me full on the lips. He was the first man ever to kiss me on the lips. He gave the same favor to Steve and Jane and Lee. It was some kind of initiation I guess. It was okay.

So this is sort of a Happy Summer Solstice card for Lenore and Larry.


The Sandoval Signpost did a nice piece about Larry and Lenore with several of Lenore’s photographs and a photograph of them together in their garden. But a better place to see both of their work is at The Santa Fe Poetry Broadside—for Larry’s poems and for Lenore’s photographs. Don’t miss Lenore’s wonderful portrait of Larry as shadow. Also, you can buy two of Larry’s books--Firecracker Soup at Cinco Puntos Press and Here on Earth from La Alameda Press. Below is a photograph of Larry, replete with rat tails and ears and goggle-eyed glasses and moustache, performing “White Rat Generation” from Firecracker Soup.


Thinking about Placitas and the poetry of what Ron Silliman calls "the New Western poetics," I realize I need to write something about that too. Hopefully soon. One thing to the next. It's fun for me. Stay tuned.