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.

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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.

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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.