A Celebration of Judy Doyle, aka Judy Curbstone

In my last blog I did my own riff of an obit on Sandy Taylor, the co-founder of Curbstone Press who died last Friday morning. As my wife noted, some of my statements are in fact misstatements, mostly because in my haste to celebrate my friend’s life, I did not fully recognize Judy Doyle his long-time partner, in all senses of that word. She was there at the beginning, plotting and planning into the night, smoking cigarettes, stapling books together, designing them, selling them.

My bad.

But a common error on all of our part. What is so often not said and recognized outside the Curbstone circle of close friends is that Judy was an equal partner in all that is Curbstone. Or to say it another way, Curbstone would not exist without Judy Doyle. Sandy was the loudmouth, the guy with the quick wit and the hilarious stories and the out-front leftwing politics. He was a vibrant guy and his noise overshadowed the role Judy played in the Curbstone story. Her job description at Curbstone, an operation of four people and a non-profit board, is “Do Everything.” She oversees all the daily operations of Curbstone—supported in her duties by longtime associate Robert Smith and now Jantje Tielken—from the editing to the production to the Public Relations and Sale to buying materials to managing the money. Etcetera. My wife Lee knows full well how a loudmouth can overshadow the person who is actually responsible to get the book out the door. Lee’s mantra is that the process of a book is COLLABORATION. Yes, Lee will grudgingly allow, the noise-maker needs to be there, but he shouldn’t hog all the attention. Sandy tried to make sure that the mantle didn’t rest solely on his shoulders, but we always didn’t pay attention.

Since Sandy’s death, Lee has been re-membering Judy Doyle, her role in Sandy’s life as a full-partner in the cornucopia of books that Curbstone has given us over the years. After reading my blog, Lee poured this out one night—

Well, hey, it’s a collaboration, the whole thing, isn’t it? Publishing—that joyful, terrible, dreadful, miraculous, business—is just that: a collaboration. The author writes the book, and of course the author thinks the book is “his” or “hers,” but all of us who are publishers know different. Especially small press, seat-of-the-pants-publishers like Curbstone.

There’s the acquiring of the book which takes a certain vision, a certain understanding, and it’s not always just one person acquiring, it’s not always a simple decision, sometimes you have to talk a lot and then you have to talk some more, and then maybe you have to cajole and convince the other people who are part of your business—this is important, don’t you get it?

And there’s the editing which is sometimes easy and sometimes not, and the editing makes all the difference, it gives the book a shape that may or may not have been there before. And then there’s the designer, the one you choose by instinct, or because they have more time, or because you owe them less, and that designer gives their own particular spin to the book. And there’s the printer and the distributor, and the guy or gal in the warehouse, and everyone is a collaborator in this incredible business of getting a book out into the world. And don’t forget the stream of other books by other authors, the publisher’s backlist, that provides the money to invest in a new book.

A new book! It’s like a boatload of mothers and fathers giving birth. Or if you’re small, like Curbstone and Cinco Puntos and so many of our colleagues, it’s maybe one, two, three, four people midwife-ing a book—such satisfaction in the delivery, so much angst—will anyone like it as much as we do? Or better, or worse, will anyone buy it?

Oh, godfrey, please buy it!

And so by the end, when the book finally comes from the printer, and you hold it in your hand, you can’t exactly be sure who did what or who said what or whose vision it was. Because it was a collaboration, the best of things. And that’s what Sandy and Judy Curbstone did, made publishing a true collaboration, so that, in the end, the book belonged to everyone.

And we smile (to ourselves) when the author says, “Look at my book.” Well, the author is right. It is her book, it is his book. But it is also our book. That’s what makes independent publishing such a miracle, so satisfying to both the intellect and the imagination.

Yes, celebrate Alexander Sandy Taylor, but also celebrate Judy Doyle—Sandy’s equal partner in business, spirit, imagination, intellect and, of course, the bedroom.

Note: Sandy was always making plans for books and adventures and jokes and fundraisers. Last year he told me, “My funeral will be the greatest fundraiser ever!”

And another note: For a fine interview with Sandy, I recommend Justice, Love, Death and Literature by our friend and former colleague Jessica Powers which appeared in the online alternative lit magazine New Pages.


Curbstone Sandy Taylor

Alexander "Sandy" Taylor died early this morning in Connecticut. Sandy was the visionary behind Curbstone Press,
a man of courage and jokes and cigarettes and wisdom and laughter and joy. He, in sweet and loving cahoots with Judy Doyle (his longtime partner and Co-Director of Curbstone) carved out an essential niche in the precarious industry of making books. Like so many independent publishers, he started Curbstone in his home, making the books himself and stapling them together. (See the photo of him and Judy below.) The important thing was the words, what they said and how they moved the world. Sandy was not happy with the direction of contemporary literature in the 70s when he birthed the press, and he especially didn’t like the direction of poetry— the academic scene, the New American Poetry, the School of Quietude, what have you. He figured the world had enough of what white, middle-class American men thought and wrote. Especially if they decided to sit on the side of the road and be witnesses to history as it whizzed by. He wanted to promote a literature that was out in the street and at the barricades, fighting for issues and igniting causes against the machine. Truly, he raged war against the machine. No wonder he was at home publishing so much Latin American literature, the literature of peoples of color, the literature of the disenfranchised—literatures that made political issues the rationale of their aesthetics.

Oddly enough, his own poetry is at home within the New American canon. Here’s a poem he dedicated to his friends Grace Paley and her husband Bob. It will serve as a fitting epitaph for Sandy.

Is Something Missing?

I must have lived my life all wrong,
never having had any grief counselors
or psychologists to comfort me on every move--
Imagine! - I endured the death of my friend
all by myself and for me every new town
was a great adventure. Maybe that's why
I seldom cry at movies and am always ready
to kiss death on the mouth...

Sandy was a great friend to Lee and me at Cinco Puntos as we struggled to learn how to make and sell books beyond our original scope. He was generous with his ideas and his lists of names and his honest and open friendship. He loved to tell jokes and to laugh and to punctuate each great burst of hilarity with a cigarette. When I explained to him once that it had become almost impossible for Cinco Puntos to publish poetry, he told me not to worry, “Publishing poetry is suicidal!” Then I looked at his list. It had three books of poems on it.

And another time he told me about how he and a friend of his, a big stout red-headed guy, drove a truckload of medical supplies down to Nicaragua during the revolution. It was a humanitarian expedition. The medical supplies were destined for the poor in the mountains that were suffering because of the on-going war. When inside the country, the army stopped them at every possible turn and searched the truck, sure they were smuggling arms or some sort of contraband. Finally, he delivered the medical supplies. And, of course, the truck—the truck was the contraband he smuggled to the FSLN!

I think Sandy would say right now, “Well, they wanted me to quit smoking, didn’t they?” And then he’d laugh and cackle and cough, give me a hug and walk off all bones and elbows toward the darkness, a cigarette stuck in his mouth. Of course, if he had his druthers, he’d go to hell. He would start a little press in some corner of that confusion. He would figure he could do some good in hell. It would be like being at home in Willimantic with George Bush in the White House.

Curbstone Press is a non-profit press. Please pay attention to their books, buy their books and, if you have a few dollars, give generously to their on-going journey. You will honor a great spirit.


A Christmas card from Harvey

This is a Christmas Card (dated Dec 12 1996) from the late poet Harvey Goldner to his two girls who were living with their mother. His awkward handwriting reads:

Solving the Mysteries of Christmas: (#3) If God is the Prince of Peace, Why Is There So Much War?
Dear Kids,
Last night I went to Jack-in-the-Box & ate 2 Jumbo JACKS. Shortly afterwards I got diarrhea real bad & began to hallucinate. I had a vision of God's face on the side of my bathtub. I asked Him the above questions. HE said: "Don't blame ME; it's Santa's fault. If only good little boys go what they want for Xmas, Santa would be Out of Business. Except for 1 or 2, all little boys are BAD, and some want bikes and some want AK-47s. I'll let you in a secret: Santa is really Satan. If you don't believe ME, ask Pat Robertson."

Cinco Puntos Press will publish his book of poems The Resurrection of Bert Ringold in late January 2008.


The Yankees & Me

A long time ago I read that Teddy Gold, one of the original members of the Weather Underground, had told friends that he would never be a good communist until Willie Mays retired. Maybe his love for Willie and baseball was a good thing. We will never know. In March 1970 Teddy Gold, along with Diana Oughton and Terry Robbins, died making bombs to shape the world anew.

But the Yankees and me? I don’t know. It’s a hate/love thing. Lots of confusion. I grew up in Memphis watching Saturday baseball and Series games on a little black & white TV or listening to them on the radio. I watched all those great Dodger-Yankees series with Darthula Baldwin. “Tula” was the black woman who was our live-in maid and surrogate mother--our "Mammy"--while our widowed mother worked 60 hours a week selling real estate. I figure I get my politics from being raised by women, Tula at home and my mother doing battle with 1950s white-male chauvinists out in the marketplace. With Tula sitting next to me sighing and groaning and dipping her snuff, it was easy to love Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays. They were heros carved into my imagination. But secretly I also loved Mickey Mantle because he was "the Mick," Billy Martin because he was crazy and Whitey Ford because he was steady. And finally Yogi Berra with large spoonfuls of grudging respect. (I always hated to see Yogi bat against the Dodgers. He was their curse.) Then Walter O’Malley moved the Dodgers to Los Angeles and my uncle and aunt got transferred out there the same year. I watched the Dodgers in the Coliseum. One Saturday afternoon, before Sandy Koufax learned to “pitch,” I sat on a bench seat high up in the Coliseum and saw him strikeout something like 13 batters and walk 10 or so others. Hell, he probably hit a couple of guys. From that vantage point it became much easier to allow my distaste for the Yankees to blossom. CBS bought them, Ralph Houk unceremoniously fired Yogi Berra, then George Steinbrenner for God’s sake bought them. Richard Nixon, the Boss’ buddy, was president. So from then rooting against the Yankees turned political. Tula, who had died, whispered in my ear: "Bobby, honey, I told you so." Time passed. Thurmond Munson died, like my dad, piloting a plane; Reggie Jackson came and went doing his swizzle-stick impersonation; Steinbrenner spent money and jerked players and managers around. The Boss was always up there in the voting for the annual Asshole Award.

And now comes my son-in-law Ed Holland. I love Ed. He’s great. Andrei Codrescu met him once and asked me under his breath in that goofy accent, “Bobby, did you find your son-in-law in a catalog?" But Ed grew up in Connecticut among a family of Yankees fans. He is definitely a Yankees’ fan. True Yankees fans don’t see the grey around the edges. They are rabid. Like you see on television. This is the guy who sleeps in the same bed with my only daughter. His son Johnny Hollandbyrd, who (ironically) plays “coach-pitch” Little League ball in a Dodgers uniform, is likewise infected. Being nine, he has no idea about his granddad’s confusion. And I try to be a Zen Buddhist. How can you be a Zen Buddhist and take sides? Or not forgive George Steinbrenner? Meanwhile, secretly, I'm a Joe Torre fan. And I admire Derrick Jeter the way I admired Yogi. He's just an incredible ballplayer. Oh well. Here’s a poem I wrote the morning after the Yankees lost to the Cleveland Indians. Read it now. Baseball poems are such emphemeral things.


This morning George Steinbrenner
Is putting on a fresh pair of cotton white boxer shorts.
He knows Joe Torre will lose his job.
And he knows now he will die.
No more “Boss.”
He sighs.
A-Rod doesn’t deserve to be in a poem.
Joba Chamberlain,
Like all of us when we were young,
Believes the world is flat

for my grandson Johnny Hollandbyrd

NOTE: In the the photograph above, black-eye Johnny had just gotten smacked in the nose by a pitch before a game. And the photo below is Ed pitching to Johnny during a game. Johnny's a good ballplayer. He can field and hit for power. That's Ed's doing. He been thowing balls to his son since Johnny was two. Andrei was right. It's like he came out of a catalog. Except he has this Yankee thing. Where did that come from, huh?


Harvey's Ghost

The ghost of Harvey Goldner has been on my mind a lot since his death on Independence Day, 2007. The death of growing-up friends (Harvey was born in the same year as me in Memphis (1942), and we were close friends from 1st through 12th grades) instantly startles us and reminds us of our own mortality. Especially if it was somebody that served as a mirror to who we are and to who we became. As I've said elsewhere, Harvey is the guy who turned me onto poetry. It's his fault.

My friendship with Harvey, while difficult, was full of deep memories, nuances and respect for his idiosyncratic and iconoclastic approach to poetry and poetics. It turns out that his death also left a void in the poetry and cultural scene of Seattle. I learned this through Daysha Eaton who works for KPLU, the Seattle NPR station. Daysha called me for an interview and later she produced a nice profile of Harvey. It ran on Monday, 9/10 but its available online here.

Chuk Baldac, who used to live in Seattle, did the portrait of Harvey that headlines this entry. Chuk’s illustrations appeared in Harvey’s New Millennium Business, published in a chapbook by James Newman. This illustration and others will appear in The Resurrection of Bert Ringold. The book will be out in January, our original pub date. After Harvey’s death on July 4th, I had been giving October as a pub date but that was too much wishful thinking. In January or February Elliot Bay Book Company will host a publication party for the book. Harvey's friends will read favorite poems and talk about Harvey. I will make the journey to Seattle. I haven't been there since I received my Masters in 1969 from the university. I'll miss Harvey. His ghost, I think, will show me around through the mist and the rain.

I've been working on Harvey's book for a month or so now, re-reading the manuscript, cutting and adding and shaping. The manuscript that Harvey originally sent me would have been suited for a solid 96-page book, but after his death I decided that we should do a "selected." Chris Dusterhoff, a good friend of Harvey’s who published several of his chapbooks through his Spankstra Books imprint, has been nice enough to make sure we had all the poems to choose from and to offer me guidance in making selections. Now I think we have a book which will be somewhere between 160-192 pages in length. Harvey would have been proud. Thanks, Chris.

I'm excited. The Resurrection of Bert Ringold will be an important contribution to the poem world, although of course it won't sell well. Especially in academia. Harvey of course mocks creative writing departments, so I doubt if CW teachers will be ordering it up for classes. Not that he didn't like the work of poets who taught at universities. He says in one poem he liked to discuss poetics with Theordore Roethke's bartender.

Harvey had four children, two boys by his first wife and two daughters from his second wife. He’d split up with both his wives. He was not an easy man to live with, especially before he started hanging out at AA meetings in Seattle. He was estranged from his sons, but he kept in close contact with his daughters Emily and Amy. He’d create and write hilarious whacko-funked cards and letters for birthdays and Christmases. They’ve sent me a bunch of them which I will be adding to the blog from time to time. Below is a letter he wrote Emily, I’m guess from sometime probably in the mid-90s (he didn’t date his letters). The letter shows off his goofy sense of humor, but, because he’s writing to his daughter, it has a sweetness that he hides away in his poems. I hope Emily and Amy, and whoever else, will add comments here about Harvey, dates or memories, etcetera.

Dear Emily.

Let me tell you about a baseball game I went to last night. The last game I had attended was in 1955 when I was a lad in Memphis; if I remember correctly, the Memphis Chickasaw Indians beat the Birmingham Barons. The game of baseball has changed somewhat. It used to be played outside; now it is played inside a building. Perhaps to keep out of the rain. However, without rain the grass cant grow, so now instead of playing on grass, baseball is played on a green rug. However, most aspects of the game have remained the same, including the fact that the closer you get to Heaven, the cheaper the seats.

It was a good game. But you can’t smoke in the building. And everytime me and my pals went outside onto the ramp to have a smoke, someone would hit a home run. So we learned to smoke only when our team was at bat. We sports fans are very superstitious. Perhaps the best part of the game occurred when we were standing outside high up (remember: the closer you get to Heaven, the cheaper the seats) on the ramp: we saw the most beautiful sunset. Actually, there were 3 sunsets. There was one sunset in the west (naturally), there was one sunset in the east, and there was one in the middle, or, should I say, the north. Really, of course, there was only one sunset, but there appeared to be three. Something like the Holy Trinity, since you are going to Church.

One of the people who went to the game is a friend of mine called John John. It was kind of ironic that the game was played inside a building on a rug because for three days John John has been living in Volunteer Park. It seems that he got a little behind on his rent (3 months) and was evicted. Anyway I thought it was funny that someone who is living outside on the grass should be watching a ballgame being played inside on a rug. But John John didn’t think this was funny when I brought it to his attention. I suppose because he is so close to his situation, he lacks perspective and is unable to appreciate the humor.

The third person who went to the game with us is a new friend of mine called Tommy. Tommy has some kind of neurological disease and is three-fourths paralyzed. Both legs and one arm (partially). He rides in a motorized, battery-powered wheelchair. He is a careless driver and has a lot of fun making people get out of his way. He was unable to open his bag of peanuts, so I did it for him. He gave me some, not that I was expecting any. Don’t feel sorry for Tommy. First of all, out of the 18-thousand people at the game, Tommy was the only one who didn’t have to stand for the national anthem. And, John and I had to walk up an endless ramp to get to our seats, while Tommy got to take the elevator. Also, Tommy does not have to sleep outside in Volunteer Park, but has a nice apartment. Tommy had a great a great time at the game. So did John John and I.

To summerize (since it is finally summer): the Seattle Mariners (that’s US) beat the Oakland A’s (I won’t mention some of the nasty things that certain individual fans said that the “A’s” stands for) 9 to 8.

Soon after you get this letter, I will see you and that will make me very happy.


p.s. In case you are worried about John John living in Volunteer Park (the thing he hates most about it is that the park sprinkling system turns on quite early in the morning and he must rise quickly): an Indian friend of his has graciously offered to share his apartment with John John. This Indian is not a Chickasaw but is, I believe, a Tlingit. And that fact completes the circle of this letter…

Stuff in the Blogohood

I wrote some friends and colleagues last week asking if they'd like to receive an email announcement when I make additions to this blog. I got a lot of positive response. I also received notice from friends of interesting blogs which I think readers here would enjoy. I'm listing them below. In the meantime, if a reader would like to receive an email notice of additions to this blog, they may write me a note at bbyrd@cincopuntos.com

For a wild journey into mixed-media avant-post-avant poetics & poetry & fiction drop in on Vietnamese-American poet Linh Dinh . American Tatts is from Chax Press. I go read Linh Dinh when I need to be startled and needled back into my poetry. He'll write lines like this on his blog: "Communists sought to inspire, Capitalists seduce. Writers and artists who mimic their glamorizing strategies are whores. The body leaks and emits compromises. We all go down sometimes, but not all the time."

If you want to know what the border feels and looks like, go look at the rasquache photographs of border photographer Bruce Berman. Bruce is a transplanted Chicagoan who set up shop in El Paso decades ago. He came here a few years before Lee and me. He had a job at the university but that didn't last. But he stayed around. Don't ask him why. Sometimes he can't figure out if he belongs here or not. That makes him a fronterizo. Here he's found a chihuahua in Chihuahua (aka, Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico).

And finally if you want to know how form is improvisation and improvivsation is form, check out Mark Weber's anarchist-poet-housepainter musician riff on how to play the hubcaps.


Homage to James Brown and all the Rest

I grew up in the 1950s in Memphis, Tennessee, attending segregated schools. As far as I know, I never went to school (1st-12th) with any students of color. In 1954 I was 12 years old. My sister Peggy got a 45 rpm record player for her 15th birthday--one of those little boxes with the fat black one-inch diameter record changers. She stacked records on the stick, pressed a button and listened and danced to bunches of music. One day Peggy told me and my friend Harvey to come in to her room. She wanted to show us something. She pressed the button and Elvis Presley was rocking out with “That’s all right, Mama.” Peggy was jitterbugging like she was dancing with a boy, her left forearm firmly planted under her breast, lifting it. She asked us, “Does this look sexy?” The question startled me. I was the little brother. She grabbed my hand and began to teach me how to dance. My life, like so many millions of middle-class white kids throughout the South, was about to change every which-away. We could smell Mother Africa. She was close at hand.

1954 I was beginning to get hairy in all sorts of new places. I was fatherless (my father, a pilot training WWII pilots in Clarksville, Mississippi, died in a plane crash in 1944 when I was 2 years old), and my mother, who worked a long week selling real estate to raise us four kids, worried about me in particular. I was sort of crazy and lost. My friend Jimmy Walker and I (both of us were terribly shy in front of girls) spent our summer between the 7th and 8th grades getting drunk every Friday night. It was our rite of passage into early manhood. We had no men to show us the way, no spiritual path, so we did it ourselves. Booze and black music. We wanted to dance, we wanted to talk to girls, we wanted to get laid (resolve somehow that incredible mystery) and we wanted to set a world record with our Friday night drunks. We’d go to a party where we could find an older kid with a driver’s license. Or at least with a car. We’d pay him to drive us to the nearest black ghetto where we would go to the first liquor store we saw. Around back a bunch of men would be gathered drinking and talking and laughing. A car radio would be blaring out radio rhythm and blues. We’d give them a handful of dollars and ask them to go get us beer or wine or whisky--whatever it was that we wanted and had money enough for. This happened most weekends until we had our own licenses to drive, and then we happily made the trip ourselves, charging younger kids for the same taxi service we had paid for.

The car radio was always alive with music--we listened to Daddy-O Dewey Phillips who was the first disc jockey ever to play Elvis on the radio. Dewey Phillips was crazy. He had a goofy hillbilly rap that wouldn’t stop. White disc jockeys weren’t supposed to be playing black music. White kids could tell that Elvis was white, but the adults couldn’t tell, so Dewey brought Elvis down to the station and asked him, “Son, where did you go to high school?” “Why, Mr. Phillips, I went to Humes High.” Humes High was a white school in the poorer section of white Memphis. But soon Dewey was playing black music too. Rhythm and blues stuff. He and Elvis pointed us to WDIA (the first 100% black programmed radio station in the U.S.), where the greats Rufus Thomas and Nat D. Williams were playing blues and black R&B like it would never end—James Brown, B.B. King, Johnny Ace, Ike and Tina Turner, Big Momma Thornton, Jackie Wilson, Jimmy Reed, and all the rest. On Sundays I played hooky from church and listened to WDIA gospel. When we got to the 9th grade, we started going to the Clearpool Lounge and the Plantation Inn in West Memphis across the river and other places where high school fraternities were bringing in black music to raise money and to raise hell.

These concerts were extraordinary and spectacular, although of course we didn’t know it at the time. Like most teenagers in the world, we thought everywhere else had to be better. We experienced bands like Bo Diddley, Clarence Frogman Henry, Chuck Berry, Ike Turner, Larry Wilson (“Short Fat Fanny to the Rescue,” “Boney Maroney”) and James Brown and the Famous Flames. We’d start drinking beer and cheap wine and before the night was over Jimmy Walker and I would crawl onto the stage with other teenage boys and start dancing with these guys. We’d go crazy. Nobody pulled us down. In fact, our foolishness was regarded by our friends in awe. We obtained a bit of magic by dancing up there with those black men. Dionysius had climbed down out of the southern humid skies and transformed all these white girls and boys--Presbyterians, Baptists, Episcopalians, all of us segregated from black folks all of our lily-white lives, likewise segregated from sexual metaphor and movement and touch--into wild nymphs and satyrs. We (the teenagers, the band members) all delighted in the metamorphosis. One night a singer--I think it was Larry Wilson--ripped off his white dress shirt and, bare breasted, glistening with sweat, and twirled the shirt around his head like a bullroarer while he chanted and swayed magically on the stage. I was up there right beside him. The girls went nuts. At the finale of the song he threw that stinking shirt into the crowd of teenagers, and ten or fifteen good white southern girls fought tooth and nail for it.

At midnight the band would play “When the Saints Go Marching In,” the anthem of our transformation, all of us snaking 1950s dirty boogie conga line prancing around the hall lost in the beat and the screaming of the music, the hysteria grabbing hold. Then the lights would go out, the hall would go silent and the band would disappear. Jimmy and I would scramble around the tables for a last drink, sometimes Jimmy would get lost in the bathroom, looking for a fight, and then we'd head for home, most of the time without a girl at our side. One night, during a rain storm, Jimmy slid his father's 1957 green Buick Century into a telephone pole as we cruised through a road that cut through the Audubon Park golf course. We had six guys in the car. We piled out and looked at the damage. The Buick had been mauled and scraped from bumper to bumper. "Shit," Jimmy said, "my dad will kick my ass." Then he laughed maniacally. Jimmy didn’t like his father. We drove to the Toddle House for hamburgers. Jimmy took the car home, parked it and disappeared for a few days.

At 65 now I can’t write this without pride but mixed with a large portion of shame--the shame from the pain and sorrow I caused my mother and the other woman who raised me, Tula (Darthula Baldwin), the black woman who was our live-in maid; the harm that I did to my body; and the tragedies that some of my friends and their families endured. Jimmy was my best friend during so much of that journey. The year before he graduated, he joined the carnival and vanished from Memphis. A year later he joined the army, ended up in Germany and fell from a tower, killing himself. The army told his mother it was an accident, but it was no accident. In junior high and the first couple years of high school, drunken Jimmy would to climb the tallest of pine trees in the dark nights. He would scream and holler at God. He didn’t like God much. None of us liked God. God somehow was tricking us all. Jimmy understood better than the rest of us. He would be up there high in the night skies screaming and dancing from limb to limb. His death was not an accident. The only way he wanted to come home was in a box.


The Poetics of Slow Skunks

Well, as sometimes with my poetry, I take blogging too seriously. The thing gets to be like a skunk crossing the road. A slow skunk. A distracted skunk. And therefore a dead skunk. So I will try to improvise more, riff blogs more spur of the moment. Get that skunk safely to the other side. So, in that spirit, one night I was reading the New York Times online and fell into the on-going Jack Kerouac nostalgia. First, I read the Gilbert Millstein’s review of On the Road which appeared in the September 5, 1957 edition of the Times, probably “The most famous book review in the history of this newspaper…” It ran in the daily Times on Sept. 5, 1957. (“Its publication is a historic occasion,” Millstein wrote, “in so far as the exposure of an authentic work of art is of any great moment.”)

I was 15 in Memphis, TN. Little Richard, that sweet man, was singing “Jenny, Jenny, Jenny,” but in Australia he had a vision. The vision revealed to him that he would be damned forever into the inferno for singing the devil’s music, so he quit the business and became a 7th Day Adventist preacher. At least for five years. But I think he misinterpreted his vision. Orville Faubus was getting ready to shut down Little Rock High just about the time. And then came Jack. Viking would publish On the Road: 310 pages for $3.95. I wouldn’t read the book until 1959, my senior year in high school.

Then the Times article sent me to youtube where, among a number of videos, Jack and Steve Allen were doing their legendary improvisation.

Cruising through the available videos I found Jack and Steve suddenly becoming the soundtrack for the fabulous beginning of Woody Allen’s Manhatten:




My friend Joe Somoza brought me a gift the other day--a copy of the Divers Press first (only) edition of Robert Creeley’s collection of short stories The Gold Diggers. Joe said he had found the copy in a used bookstore. I won’t say which one, and I won’t say how much he spent except to say it wasn’t very much. The book was printed in Palma de Mallorca in 1954. The free-hand cover, which is silk-screened, is by René Laubiès.

My gosh! The Gold Diggers! I trembled. 1954 was back in the day. I was 12 years old. Robert Creeley and Paul Blackburn were on the Spanish island of Mallorca in the Mediterranean Sea, each of them 28 years old. They were talking about poetry, bitching about the poetry establishment and wanting to change that world, but, most importantly, they were writing. Paul, like Creeley, had been in contact with Pound at St. Elizabeth's via his correspondence and by visiting him. The old man connected them. The Divers Press was essentially Creeley’s and his wife Ann’s invention, so this first edition is a self-published book, another fine example of that essential tradition in American letters.

The preface to The Gold Diggers is pure Creeley and is a remarkable bit of understanding about the art of writing in general, and short stories in particular, for a 28 year old man. Poetics (sad, there's no such word for fiction writers)--thinking and talking and writing about the making of a poem--was the essence of Creeley. The next to last paragraph is brilliant and a forecast of all that Creeley would do. Especially: “I begin where I can, and end where I can see the whole thing returning.” This is how I write my poetry, this is how I know how to edit my poetry. Reading this now, I realize that the writing of poets like Creeley and Blackburn, besides showing me the way, authenticated the way I know a poem and the way I go about putting words into a poem and then doing the lovely dance of editing.

Preface to The Gold Diggers

Had I lived some years ago, I think I would have been a moralist, i.e., one who lays down, so to speak, rules of behavior with no small amount of self-satisfaction. But the writer isn’t allowed that function anymore, or no man can take the job on very happily, being award (as he must be) of what precisely that will make him.

So there is left this other area, still the short story or really the tale, and all than can be made of it. Whereas the novel is a continuum, of necessity, chapter to chapter, the story can escape some of that obligation, and function exactly in terms of whatever emotion best can serve it.

The story has no time finally. Or it hasn’t here. Its shape, if form can be though of, is a sphere, an egg of obdurate kind. The only possible reason for its existence is that it has, in itself, the fact of reality and the pressure. There, in short, is its form--no matter how random and broken that will seem. The old assumptions of beginning and end--those very neat assertions --have fallen way completely in a place where the only actuality is life, the only end (never realized) death, and the only value, what love can manage.

It is impossible to think otherwise, or at least I have found it so. I begin where I can, and end where I can see the whole thing returning. Perhaps there is an obsession. These people, and what happens to them here, have never been completely my decision--because if you once say something, it will lead you to say more than you meant to.

As the man responsible, I wanted to say what I thought was true, and make that the fact. It has led me to impossible things at times. I was not obliged, certainly, to say anything, but that argument never made sense to me.

--December 14, 1953

I had read Scribner’s edition of The Gold Diggers in 1965. I was, painfully almost, an aficionado of anything Robert Creeley did. It was a difficult read for me at 21, but very invigorating and unique, especially when I read it out loud alone in my tiny room. Now, 40-plus years later, having this book in my hand brings back many memories of who I was back then and why I was so excited about making poems. Thank you, Joe.



What does this mean now? Think about this car for a minute. Noah Gapsis, a young poet who gets a kick out of tagging his own vehicle, plastered WCW’s dictum on his Japanese jalopy and the post-Objectivist pronouncement miraculously changed meaning. Especially in Santa Fe with its ostentatious faux-adobe version of our glob(al) capitalism. Wow. Public poem art sculpture. And what happens to what it means when he drives the car to Omaha or El Paso?

Whatever. WCW would be delighted.

Noah, the son of friends Sharon Franco and Joe Hayes, attends Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He wants to be a poet. I wish him well.

He tagged the butt of his car with this from Italo Calvino:


Gone, gone to the other side

My friend poet Harvey Goldner, like the Buddhists say, crossed to the other side this morning in Seattle, Washington. He was 65 years old, a few months older than me. In my May 14 blog I talked about the cancer in his mouth and tongue. He really never recuperated from his surgery. This last week must have been hell, and he simply and finally let go. His friend, poet and painter Crysta Casey wrote me a note. Crysta also did this portrait of Harvey.

I’ve known Harvey probably since first grade at East High School in Memphis, Tennessee. He lived on Reese Street, and I lived a block over on Prescott Street. We had secret trails through backyards to go from one house to another. We smoked our first cigarettes together, we got drunk together as kids, our sisters were best friends, he first showed me about poetry in the late 1950s, over the years we had our battles and our struggles, we got lost one to the other, but these last few years we touched base again, grasping for each other in an old man clumsy sort of way. An old deep friendship. Cinco Puntos is going to publish his book of poems The Resurrection of Bert Ringold in September. The project has been looming in my mind for a number of years, but I kept pushing it aside, one of those regrets that keep recurring the older I get. I hope to go to Seattle for the first celebration of the book and meet his daughters Emily and Amy and his friends in the underground poetry scene of Seattle. During the next week or so, I will write my own obituary for Harvey, but in the meantime, I simply make a simple wish: May my friend Harvey Goldner rest in peace. Here's the title poem from his collection.

The Resurrection of Bert Ringold

There is a time to dig, there is a time
to dig up the dead, a time to cut away
the surface—the sweet green grass
and the pink and white flowers
finicky in the fresh morning breeze.

There is a time to get down, to hack
at the clay with a pick, to lift the
backaching dirt with a rusty shovel,
to lift big rocks—barehanded, fingers
bleeding—a time to chop through the
roots of trees with a Boy Scout hatchet.

Salt sweat stings your eyes and
the air smells bad, dead.
At sunset your pick hits the casket.
The sound is final, dead.
It’s going to be a nightmare in there.
You imagine the worst: bones
smirking through rotten flesh, busy
phosphorescent maggots.

But you go on anyway
because you can’t turn back.
With a childish prayer and a crowbar
you pry open the lid of the casket.

Inside, a nice surprise: inside there is nothing
but a diamond, a crystal as big
as a Civil War cannonball.
It shines from within, it dazzles your eyes
like late afternoon sunshine blazing
on the Mississippi River, once upon a time
between Memphis and Natchez.
It must be worth millions.

You carry it home in a brown paper sack.
It sits somewhat dull on your desk
while you imagine the things that you’ll buy
as soon as you’ve sold it: a car, a condo,
the Caribbean, a big bunch of girls.

Then the diamond as big as a Civil War cannonball
lights up and sings; it lights up and sings
English folk songs from the Southern Appalachians.
It sings them as sweetly as starlight
and you know in your heart that you’ll keep it
for as long as you possibly can.



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.


The Border Pilgrimage

On Thursday, March 29th, Claude AnShin Thomas and five companions walked into El Paso. I mean that literally. They had walked from Brownsville, Texas, more than 1,000 miles along the U.S./Mexico Border. They had averaged 20 miles a day, walking between seven in the morning to 1pm. That’s about a 3½ mph clip. Every day. But walking is AnShin Thomas’ his job description. He’s a Zen Buddhist mendicant monk, meaning that he wanders and he begs for his food and lodging. He and his fellow walkers were on a border pilgrimage to learn about the border. The other pilgrims at his side— Wiebke KenShin Anderson (Germany) who is AnShin’s assistant, Gabriella Mura (Italy), Bill Butler (California), John West (Fredericksburg, TX) and Mike from Portland, Oregon—are Zen students, and the four men are all Vietnam veterans. They without money. They beg for food and lodging from the people they encounter, explaining who they are and their purpose. (See Endnote 1) If their request is refused, they bow, their hands together in gassho, and offer thanks to the person. This is the ancient Buddhist practice of “takuhatsu.” The pilgrims are on their way to California.

They stay away from the freeways, preferring instead the state roads which hug the Rio Grande. Every day they get stopped by some form of armed authority, men with their hands on their guns, some even with their guns unholstered and ready—the Border Patrol, the sheriff, the local police and the National Guard. A ritual is repeated each time:

“Do you people have ID?”
They give them their papers, but first they ask permission to reach into their pockets. The men, remember, are Vietnam vets. They’ve carried guns before, they’ve pointed guns at others, they’ve pulled the trigger. The authorities look through the papers—four men from the United States, two women from Europe. AnShin Thomas explains that he and his fellow pilgrims are on a pilgrimage.
“Where did you cross?”
“Cross? We didn’t cross.”
“What are you doing out here?”
“Where are you coming from?”
“Where are you going?”
“No way?”
“Yes. Way.”

The very presence of these pilgrims on the border, especially presenting themselves to the law enforcement and explaining who they are, changes the complexion of the border. People ask them, why are you doing this? There’s no good answer. They’ve read about the border—the illegal immigration, the Minute Men, the smugglers of drugs and humans, the militarization, the violence and the exacerbated separation of countries and peoples and families and culture by bad laws—and they wanted to see for themselves. There’s no good answer for why. Perhaps it’s as simple as this: AnShin Thomas is a mendicant, a wanderer, an advocate for non-violence. That’s what he does. Sort of like a poet writes a poem, not for the result but for the experience of the language. If something good comes of the journey, then, that is of course well and good.

One thing they have learned for sure—the people along the border are very generous people. They welcome the pilgrims, they feed them, they lodge them. And they have found here and elsewhere that the people who have the less are the more generous and open-hearted. Much more accepting of people who are walking and going really nowhere for no reason in particular.

(For an article by Ramón Rentería and photo essay by Mark Lambie
from which the above photo is taken,

Claude AnShin Thomas wrote one of the best books I’ve ever read about the practice and power of non-violence, At Hell's Gate, A Soldier's Journey from War to Peace (Shambala). It documents Thomas’ personal journey from his youth as an abused child, his service in the killing fields of Vietnam, his return to the United States where he was spat upon for being a veteran, his turmoil of heart and mind as he struggled with anger, paranoia, extreme post-traumatic stress disorder, drugs and alcohol, his search for peace within himself and finally to his ordination as a Zen mendicant monk, becoming in this last few years an internationally recognized advocate of non-violence.

In 1991 Thomas showed up at a veterans retreat on a motorcycle and dressed in black leather. The teacher was the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn. Claude Thomas carried some serious hatred and fear for the Vietnamese. In the service he had been taught to hate them, he had seen the Vietnamese kill his friends and fellow soldiers, and he had killed Vietnamese. He sat on the cushion with his hatred and he listened. He was invited to Plum Village in Europe to continue his studies. He spent several years there, and they asked him to accept ordination as a monk. He didn’t want to be a cloistered monk, he wanted to be out in the world and so he returned to the U.S. He almost immediately met Roshi Bernie Glassman, and Glassman ordained him as a mendicant monk.

He requested that his ordination be at Auschwitz. He sat and meditated for three days at the cross in the roads where the Nazis made the final decisions about death and life—this person can be a worker, this person should die. Like the children’s game, pulling petals off a daisy, “I love you, I love you not.” A children’s game gone completely insane.

AnShin Thomas said: “An important moment for me was seeing the execution wall at Auschwitz. I walked up to this wall and faced it, and then I turned my back to it. I spent some time standing there, seeing myself as one of those who faced execution. Then I walked forward, turned and stood where the executioners stood, to see myself as one of them. Because in reality I am both. In war there is no separation. It is true that the Nazis and the Jews were different, but I must also see how they are not different, how each of us has the potential to become both the persecutor and the victim.”

He began his first pilgrimage after his ordination, walking from Auschwitz to Vietnam. Since then he has walked in Bosnia, Afghanistan and the Middle East, among other places. When he and his comrades finish their Border Pilgrimage, he would have walked almost 20,000.

The pilgrims spent four days in El Paso. Our city is a little bit more than halfway on their journey. On Friday they went to City Hall to give a copy of At Hell’s Gate to John Cook, the mayor, who is also a veteran of the Vietnam War. The mayor was out of town, so AnShin Thomas made his presentation to Susie Byrd, Council Woman from District 2. Susie is my daughter. As a practicing Zen Buddhist, I was proud and honored to be there with them. After City Hall they went to the weekly Peace Vigil sponsored by the El Paso for Peace Coalition at the corner of San Antonio and Campbell. Then on Saturday night AnShin Thomas spoke at the Unitarian Universalist Center in El Paso. About 50 or 60 people showed up, a good crowd for El Paso, especially at such short notice. He’s an intense and inspiring speaker. Using his Border Pilgrimage as a place of beginning, he spoke of realizing the seeds of violence within oneself and working mindfully to resolve them. This is his path to practicing non-violence in the world; and his own journey, as documented in his book, has been witness to this practice.

Sunday my wife Lee and I hosted the pilgrims and a few others at our home. One of the guests was Roshi Harvey SoDaiho Hilbert from the Las Cruces Zen Center in El Paso where I have been sitting and attending services for the last five years or so. SoDaiho is likewise a veteran of the Vietnam War (See Endnote 2). He and AnShin had very much in common, and they bonded immediately. It was good to see.

Early on Tuesday morning the pilgrims began again, walking down NM State Road 9 toward Columbus. Wiebke KenShin Anderson called me a few days later from Columbus. All was well. People, she said, are so generous along the border. She was happy to be walking again.
Endnote 1. They do have a truck. It’s purpose is to carry only water. John West and Bill Butler took turns driving, but the other pilgrims were to walk the whole way. Also, in El Paso Mike left the pilgrimage, his time was up. A few days later Bill left off in Columbus, his wife picking him up. Cameron, a young man and a veteran of the Iraq War, had joined them in El Paso.
Endnote 2. As a soldier in Vietnam Harvey SoDaiho Hilbert was shot in the head and almost died. He lay there in the jungle muck wishing for help. No help came. The stars and the universe swirled around him. It was that night, he has said, that he became a Buddhist, although he knew nothing at the time about Buddhism. He only had his experience of letting go and accepting the world as it is. Only much later he would find the "painted cakes" of Zen Buddhism and begin his study.


Linh Dinh does the U.S./Mexico Border

Sometime around last Thanksgiving the Vietnamese-American poet and fictioneer Linh Dinh showed up in El Paso. A friend in Marfa had told him to go visit Bobby Byrd in El Paso. So there was Linh Dinh walking in the Cinco Puntos Press office in downtown El Paso. He immediately liked El Paso, he said, and he wanted to know more about our city and her bedraggled sister on the other side. He had been reading books about the border and the more he read the more interested he became. I took him on my downtown walking tour. Linh Dinh didn’t want the art museum or the pretty stuff. He wanted the meat, the bleeding but sacred heart.
It was Saturday a month before Christmas and the shoppers from Mexico jammed El Paso Street. It was hard to walk down the El Paso Street, the shoppers buying dolls and hats and t-shirts and tennis shoes and blue jeans and dainty neon-colored bras and panties. Linh Dinh was happy among the Mexican throngs. My downtown walk naturally ends up at the El Paso Street Bridge, so we started up the bridge toward Juárez. A mile long caravan of cars stretching down Avenida de Juárez idled and groaned waiting for the blessing of Customs to let them into the 1st World. Mexican photographer Julian Cardona was sitting in that line of semi-parked cars in his little pickup. He honked at us. It’s hard to miss the gringo with the goofy hat, especially if he’s jabbering at a Vietnamese poet. Julian had chores to do on the U.S. side. He smiled and said he’d only been waiting an hour so far. Fronterizos get used to the wait. We all know the laws are stupid, but if you have business or family on the other side, then you go to the other side. Linh told Julian that he admired his photographs in Mike Davis’ No One is Illegal. Linh was happy to meet Julian, and Julian was happy to meet a Vietnamese poet who admires his photographs. I left Linh with a map scribbled out on a 3x5 card and crossed back over the bridge.

That evening Linh came back to the office delighted about his walkabout into Juárez. We traded books. I gave him poems and he gave me poems (Borderless Bodies and American Tatts). Later on he sent me his collection of short stories Blood and Soap. I became a rabid Linh Dinh fan, sharing his books with anybody who asked. His writing is like a big random Vietnamese-American stew boiling forever on the stove with the bloodied body parts of Vietnamese writers, Kafka, Borges, Frank O’Hara and a multitude of other nameless beings. Sometimes Linh writes in English. Other times he writes in Vietnamese. His poems and stories mock the human body. Shit happens just like the bumper sticker says. Likewise fornication. Unseemly breasts and sweat and anuses and death. Fat people and mean people. No meaningless people. But horny people. Football coaches. Lost Viet Cong heroes tunneling to America. It’s a strange place inside his poems. Linh Dinh thinks it’s a funny place although I can smell his tears. He puts the glass of milk inside his poems. It’s half empty. He empties the glass on the floor. Then he breaks the damn glass that was only half empty anyway. Please don’t lie down on the floor. The floor is milky wet and very dangerous. Not a funny place at all. God never makes an appearance. At least not yet. And even if she did I don’t think she’d be welcome. These are some of the many reasons why America should mistrust Linh Dinh.


The Mind’s G Spot

We’re not miserable, just looking.
You treat me like a piece of media.

Before webcams, our poor mothers
Had to place sushi on Xerox machines,

Then snail mail the blotchy results
To our sad fathers, dribbling in prison.

Now we can upload our nuts instantly.
My silicone tits get a million hits a day.

A million scabbards whack against my face.
It’s more hygienic and serial this way.

Those we couldn’t pin decades ago
Keep coming back, spreading.

The gutter punks, surfers, cheerleaders,
Our first or second cousins, our mothers.

--from Borderless Bodies
A Factory School Book


Would You Mind?

It’s OK that my wife
Likes to suck my titties.
I wish in turn that her hands
Were several sizes larger.
It’d be good to latch on to
Such substantial thumbs.

Years ago, in the parked car,
After much drinking in Winter,
The sad girl said: “Thank you!
It’s been so long. I’m going to cry.”

The Trojan stayed secreted inside
The imitation leather wallet
For several years, forever,
Until it finally fell apart.

We ate blue fish, she and I,
When the evening was pasted against the sky
Like two mental patients, naked on the gray carpet.

Lit by a candle, uneaten, the skinny girl
Watched the boy undress, then said,
“I’ll lie down next to you, if you don’t mind.”

If we’re still unclaimed a decade from now,
With no one to fondle or pester us,
Would you mind having a baby with me?

American Tatts
--from Chax Press

Since we met Linh Dinh wrote about his journey to El Paso and Juárez, including meeting up with Julian on the bridge, on this Vietnamese website Talawas Chu Nhat concerning literature, culture and ideas. Later he was kind enough to write about Cinco Puntos and my poetry on The Poetic Invention Blogspot. I was just there, trying how to find the article and I see where Linh and other Vietnamese writers have launched Wikivietlit. There I found this:
The Vietnamese do not say, "I burst out laughing," but, "I was angered into laughing,"or, "I was saddened into laughing." The individuals in Wikivietlit were apparently angered and saddened into writing.
Most certainly: Linh Dinh.


The Resurrection of Bert Ringold

In the fall Cinco Puntos Press will publish a book of poems by Harvey Goldner. This is not a smart capitalistic move. Like Sandy Taylor, a long time publishing mentor of Lee’s and mine and a co-publisher at the Curbstone Press says, “Publishing poetry is suicidal.” Still we do it because I am a poet and from time to time we feel the urge. It’s almost a biological and emotional necessity, like making love. Sandy would totally agree. It just feels good.

The book of poems is Harvey’s The Resurrection of Bert Ringold. I grew up alongside Harvey Goldner in Memphis. He’s probably the one guy most responsible for me becoming a poet. Once during the craziness of our adolescence Harvey took me down to the public library. Forgive me if I have my dates wrong but I think we were 15 or 16. If we were 15, then we rode the bus, the front of the bus. We were white boys and this was 1958-down-South-post-Boss-Crump Memphis 10 long years before James Earle Ray unsheathed his rifle and shot Martin Luther King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Harvey checked out two 78rpm vinyl records—one was called The San Francisco Renaissance and the other was Lawrence Ferlinghetti reading Coney Island of the Mind. My gosh, my idea about poetry changed immediately and forever. I remember Allen Ginsberg reading Howl like it was a Declaration of our Independence, wise drunken gay Jack Spicer murmuring into the microphone and of course Ferlinghetti’s hypnotic sing-song voice telling us that “the dog walks freely in the street and the things he sees are bigger than himself.”

Before I paste in a Harvey Goldner poem, I want to give praise and thanks to that long-ago librarian who purchased those records. Also, I worry if I have my dates correct on when we listened to those records. I googled but couldn’t find the exact record or a date, Harvey remembers listening to something but he is clueless about further details, so Harvey and I could have made our magical journey to The New American Poetry sometime before I left Memphis in late 1962. I don’t think so (I like the way I tell my story), but maybe.

So here’s the first poem of The Resurrection of Bert Ringold.

Apocalypse September 1994

Mid-September, late afternoon, the world
came to an end, just like Harold
Camping had been predicting it would

on Bible Radio. Who’d have believed
that loony grouch? But there was no Hollywood
Armageddon: blond Madonna thrashing in mud,

cities on fire, armies clashing, rivers of blood,
ground quaking and cracking up, booming rap
music—none of that loud and dramatic crap:

God simply and quietly turned off, or turned
way down, Earth’s gravity. My old dad
and I were in the park, walking Manfred,

Dad’s dog, a German shepherd, when Dad
tossed a red rubber ball for Manfred
to catch. Manfred jumped and missed the red

ball, as usual (the dog was old and half-blind),
but—lo and behold—both the ball and Manfred
kept on going up and up, with Manfred

barking after the ball like a mad
cracker preacher after a sexy sinner. I rubbed
my eyes, thinking I might be having an acid

flashback, but when I turned to face Dad,
his shoes were up where his face had
been, and he hovered above me. I grabbed

his ankles to tug him down, but I too left the ground.
Luckily we were under a tree, and we wedged
ourselves between branches. We watched Manfred

rise through the sky toward a big red cloud.
Park debris ascended, as well as a crowd which included
cats and dogs, mothers with babies in strollers, and

two softball teams with their gear. Then Dad
smiled at me and said, “Fuck it, son,” and we scrambled
out of the tree. I held Dad’s hand as we rose toward

the cloud. Dad soon died. I cried. Blood trickled
out of Dad’s nose. I’m still slowly rising. It’s cold
and dark now, the air is terribly thin, a dead

horse just floated past. Using Dad’s back
as a sort of a desk, I’m writing this poem
by the light of the half-moon, with a pencil,

on my current bank statement. For once I’m not
depressed that my balance is under a dollar.
And I’ll soon be dead, so there just isn’t time

to fuss too much anymore with meter and rhyme.
I’m going to put this poem in the half-pint
bourbon bottle (empty now) that I filched

from Dad’s hip pocket. I’ll fling it toward the
stars, which, thank God, are still in their places.
Hopefully, some weird being from a distant galaxy

will find it, and hopefully he, she or it
will like 20th century American poetry.


On Monday morning, January 1st of this year, I decided that I would begin a blog. I’ve been reading Ron Silliman’s blog for a long time now and I enjoy it, and I appreciate his industry in his continual writing. I need that, so the primary reason I begin this blog is to give me a habit for my work. What follows is the piece I wrote on that Monday morning, the first day of 2007. A woodpecker—my first bird of the New Year—hammered at a telephone pole in the chilly bright morning. Later that morning I happened upon this poem, # 47 of “The poems of Pickup (Shin-te)” in The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, the revised and expanded bilingual edition from Copper Canyon that was wonderfully translated and annotated by Red Pine.

The world had its know-it-alls
fools for empty prose
indifferent to the
they sow seeds of hate
seeing buddhas they don’t bow
monks makes them mad
Sin and Evil are their colleagues
the Poisons live
next door
when they die they go to hell
and see the sun no more

This collection has been my morning toilet reading on and off for the last several years or so. Two or three poems a day, sometimes more, sometimes less—for several months I put it aside, having come bored with Han Shan’s sometime preachy ways. That’s the way my poetry-reading life is.

Shin-te (Pickup) was the youngest of those three poet hermits—the most famous of course is Han Shan (Cold Mountain) and then his tall hairy friend Feng Kan (Big Stick). None of them had much truck with the monkish ways of the Kuoching Temple at the foot of Tientai Mountain which was their primary hangout when they were not happily lost in the woods. In his preface, Red Pine gives us this story about Pickup:

One day Big Stick was walking along the trail that led between Kuoching and the
nearby county seat of Tientai. Upon reaching the cinnabar-colored outcrop of
rock known as Redwall, he heard someone crying. Searching in the bushes, he
found a ten-year-old boy. The boy head had been left there by his parents, so
Big Stick picked him up and brought him back to Kuoching.
This is sort of a Moses-in-the-rushes story, huh? Much later Cold Mountain met Pickup at the temple and “the two became such close friends, their images are still used by Chinese in their homes to represent marital harmony.”

I first read Cold Mountain via the Gary Snyder translations that were in his Rip Rap book. I have a beat up and much used copy of that around here somewhere. This probably was in 1963 at the Ruth Stefan Poetry Center at the University of Arizona. I had the “beginner’s mind” about poetry. I read the New American poets over and over, especially the poets from Black Mountain Poets and the San Francisco Renaissance. For sure these three hermits—Cold Mountain, Big Stick and Pickup—were the poets Philip Whalen was thinking about when he scribbled down “Hymnus Ad Patrem Sinensis” which I first read in his wonderfully titled book Memoirs of an Interglacial Age:

I praise those ancient Chinamen
Who left me a few words,
Usually a
pointless joke or silly question
A line of poetry drunkenly scrawled on the
margin of a quick splashed picture -
bug, leaf, caricature of Teacher
paper held together now by little more than ink
& their own strength
brushed momentarily over it
Their world and several since
Gone to hell
in a handbasket, they knew it -
Cheered as it whizzed by -
& conked
out among the busted spring rain
cherryblossom winejars
Happy to have
saved us all.

If you know Red Pine's Cold Mountain book, then you know I’m done with this reading of it now. Pickup’s 49 poems is the book’s caboose. But this morning—New Year’s Day, 2007—was a good day to finish it, especially to find this poem by Pickup which so easily can be changed here and there to make it so completely contemporary. It doesn’t appear that much has changed in the psyche for us humans in the last 1200 years except our technologies and some of the metaphors we use (“hell” for instance) that offer us so many opportunities for violence and self-obliteration. So I wish and will work for peace in the New Year but I don’t hold out any hope. And I will continue to write my poems. It’s a good time to be a poet, I think, although the pay is very shitty.