Elizabeth Alexander's Inaugaration Poem: The Poetics of Declamation

I was very much impressed with Obama's speech--its style and eloquence and toughness and inclusiveness--(George Bush should have climbed under his chair during the new president's litanies of difficulties the country and world faces) but I'll let the talking heads do their thing. I do want to congratulate Elizabeth Alexander for her poem "Praise Song for the Day." It was the 4th occasion for a poem to be written for, and recited at, the inaugaration of a president. I didn't look forward to it at all. Sixteen years ago I had gritted my teeth when I heard Maya Angelou's poem (I like Maya Angelou, I just didn't like her poem), and I don't even remember Miller Williams' poem. All I remember about the Frost poem is that he didn't read the poem he wrote which, by all acounts, was a blessing. Angelou had overworked her poem, made it too sentimental, too (for lack of a better word) "poetic." It was praised at the time, I thought, because it filled the common and sentimental notion of what poetry is supposed to do. Elizabeth Alexander's poem was plain-spoken and local and ordinary (if I might use that word in a good sense), and as such, it fit in with the inclusive mood of the day and of Obama's speech (so much different from when Bush was inaugarated, sans even the hint of poetry). The poem felt very democratic, rooted in everyday experiences, and it made me feel good and it allowed me to feel American. And I like the understated way she read her poem. I was delighted and happy. Besides, how daunting a task to read a recently composed poem to millions of people and a humongous television audience, especially after such a speech from the new president celebrated for his eloquence. I thought she did very well. Bravo.

(Please note that I write this without reading the poem on the page. Somebody did send us a copy a person had written out quickly, listening to it over and over again, without appropriate line breaks, etcetera. I didn't pay any attention to that because I wanted to write something from having only heard the poem. I wanted my response to be to the spoken text.)

The poetics of public poetry is a different animal from our usual sense of poetry in this country. Public poetry, especially "declamation" (or, in Spanish, declamción) is a much more common form of poetic expression in Latin America. I remember a friend, who was in Nicaragua during the revolution, telling me that at dinners all sorts of people would stand up and declaim their feelings for the revolution, their land and country. Walt Whitman (Song of Myself) and Allen Ginsberg (Howl) were both wonderfully comfortable declaiming to us all, but of course neither of them would be allowed near a presidential podium. El chuco poet Ricardo Sanchez was also known for his declamatory poems, especially his improvisation riffs. Angelou tried, but fell short, but it certainly didn't hurt her in the marketplace. Meanwhile, Lee told me that teachers on a Young Adult literature listserv that she monitors were already sniping at Alexander's poem because of its plain-spokeness. They wanted something more "poetic." I'll be interested in reading what others say about Alexander's poem during the weeks that come. Ron Silliman's blog certainly will be jumping. I recommend all students of poetry to pay some attention to his blog, especially the comments, to follow the discussion.


At the Death House Door

"No man should die alone without a friend."
--Pastor Carroll Picket
Death House Chaplain (retired)
Walls Unit, Huntsville
State of Texas

(Note: If you happen to read this on my FACEBOOK page, you will not see the embedded video trailer. I compose my blogs for BLOGGER and the FACEBOOK page accepts the feed, but deletes the video. Why, I don't know.)

Wednesday night, at the urging of film-maker Caesar Alejandro, Lee and I went to see the documentary At the Death House Door. It's a remarkable documentary that focuses on the spiritual journey of Pastor Carroll Pickett, the chaplain (retired) at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, TX. Mr. Pickett had chosen prison ministry as his life's work, but he did not expect to be the presiding chaplain when the State of Texas began once again executing death row inmates in 1982. He presided over 95 deaths, and since his retirement he has become an advocate for abolishing the death penalty. It's a powerful movie. I can only hope that the movie will be viewed by the Supreme Court Justices and all persons in power, including our incoming president, who have the opportunity to change national policy. I would also hope that this movie, and movies like it, become a part of the on-going national and educational dialogue about capital punishment.

NOTE: NON-PROFITS can arrange to view a computer download of the film here.

Below is the ad-copy from the producer:

At the Death House Door is a personal and intimate look at the death penalty in the State of Texas through the eyes of Pastor Carroll Pickett, who served 15 years as the death house chaplain to the infamous "Walls" prison unit in Huntsville. During Pickett's remarkable career journey, he presided over 95 executions, including the world’s first lethal injection. After each execution, Pickett recorded an audiotape account of his trip to the death chamber.

The film also focuses on the story of Carlos De Luna, a convict Pickett counseled and whose execution troubled Pickett more than any other. He firmly believed De Luna was innocent, and the film tracks the investigative efforts of a team of Chicago Tribune reporters who have turned up evidence that strongly suggests he was.
The film was presented by the Binational Independent Film Festival, 2009, here in the sister cities of El Paso and Juárez. Ceasar Alejandro is the Executive Director and the driving force of the festival, and as such, he demands that the films are all independently produced, that Mexico and the US are well represented, that all fils are shown on both sides of the border, and that actors and directors who come as invited guests speak in both cities. Director John Sayles, truly a hero of the independent film-making, is on the board, is a fan of our fronterizo ambiente, and as a featured speaker last year made his presentation in English on this side and Spanish on the other. Very cool, huh?

The presence of BIFF in our community is exciting and emblematic of our intellectual and artistic communities. The Rorschach response to El Paso and Juárez these days is drug wars and the incessant killings, all of which are true and need to be understood, but at the same time there's an incredibly vibrant intellectual and cultural life here that is reflected most readily in the arts. The Binational Independent Film Festival is an important element of what's going on here on the border half-way between the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.


Jack Spicer at the Elysium Hotel

What are you thinking now?

I’m thinking it’s 2009 and suddenly Jack Spicer is famous. I’m thinking (remembering) Creeley said (maybe it was 1963) in one of his enthralling non-stop riffs that Jack Spicer wanted to be the greatest unknown poet in America. Now he’s the Jack of Irony but I’m thinking it’s good that Jack (even if he is famous) is still transmitting poems to us from his own cozy little corner room on the second floor in the Elysium Hotel. He's quit drinking. The booze was a bad dream. He’s happy with the Martians and the spirits. Maybe Harvey Milk will come by and they can watch the movie together. They will like all the pretty boys dancing around, they will like the touching and kissing on the big American screen, but they will like the last part the best, the part where Dan White puts the gun to the back of Sean Penn’s head. Tosca is playing sadness in their hearts. Poor Dan White. The lawyers said he ate too many Twinkies. He went off to the Bardo Jail and when he came home he committed suicide. Jack and Harvey will weep big salty angel tears for poor Dan White. Jack will want to write a book of love poems for Dan White but he can't find his pencil. It got lost somehow in the translation.

My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer has received all sorts of attention, being regularly named in 2008 Top-10 lists and with reviews in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times (both, it seems, more curious in his life as a poet than his actual poetry). Ron Silliman, as always, is kind enough to list enough reviews to keep you busy for a while, and in his own commentary says, “So, yes, this is one of the most important volumes published in the past 50 years. It is hands down the best book published in 2008. And it is one of the most powerful collections of poetry you will ever read. Need I say more?”

I agree. And my copy hasn’t even arrived yet.

I know this because Jack is a hero of mine. I first ran into his work all the way back in the time of my growing up in poetry in 1960s. I first read his work in Donald Allen’s New American Poetry Anthology and soon afterward I was lucky enough to have access to the incredible poetry library at the Ruth Stephan Poetry Center at the University of Arizona (before the invasion of MFA-ism). At that time it was a one-room library stocked with all the little books that you couldn’t get anywhere else outside of San Francisco or New York City. In 1963, poet Drummond Hadley journeyed off to the Vancouver Poetry Conference and came back with tapes of all the readings and panel discussions that happened there. With my friend Paul Malanga, I spent hours listening to Spicer, Whalen, Creeley, Snyder, Olson and all the rest reading poems and talking about how to make a poem. They talked about typewriters and pencils and types of paper and projective verse and breathing and language and magic and history and anthropology and Williams and Pound. It was a paradise of words and language.

Best to listen to Spicer himself to see how I could be so enthralled by his ideas about poems as well as the poems themselves. Here, from an “Admonition” to Robin Blaser (I’m typing from Donald Allen’s introduction to One Night Stand and Other Poems). By the way, his derisive comment about converting emotion into poetry, as if it was a monetary exchange, is pretty close to the early comments (if I remember correctly) of the Language Poets about their frustration with their contemporaries. The explosion of Creative Writing Schools since he wrote the Admonition bears witness to his peculiar wisdom—

The trick naturally is what Duncan learned years ago and tried to teach us—not to search for the perfect poem but to let your way of writing of the moment go along its own paths, explore and retreat but never be fully realized (confined) within the boundaries of one poem. This is where we were wrong and he was right, but he complicated things for us by saying that there is no such thing as good or bad poetry. There is—but not in relation to the single poem. There is really no single poem.

This is why all my stuff from the past (except the Elegies and Troilus [a play]) looks foul to me. The poems belong nowhere. There are one night stands filled (the best of them) with their own emotions, but pointing now, as meaningless as sex in a Turkish bath. It was not my anger or my frustration that got in the way of my poetry but the fact that I viewed each anger and each frustration as unique—something to be converted into poetry as one would exchange foreign money. I learned this from the English Department (and from the English Department of the spirit—that great quagmire that lurks at the bottom of all of us) and it ruined ten years of my poetry. Look at those other poems. Admire them if you like. They are beautiful but dumb.

Poems should echo and reecho against each other. They should create resonances. They can't live alone anymore than we can.

So don’t send the box of old poetry to Don Allen. Burn it or rather open it with Don and cry over the possible books that were buried in it—the Songs Against Apollo, the Gallery of Gorgeous Gods, the Drinking Songs—all incomplete, all abortive because I thought, like all abortionists, that what is not perfect had no real right to live.

Things fit together. We knew that--it is the principle of magic. Two inconsequential things can combine together to become a consequence. This is true of poems too. A poem is never by itself alone.

What are you thinking now?

I am thinking that Spicer was our Lorca. Except nobody put him up against a wall and shot him. Booze killed him. Or he killed himself with booze. It's a disease of our clan. I've wondered myself how easy it would be to walk into that same elevator. But for me, a young poet in the 1960s, Jack Spicer was the great drunken faggot romantic poet who spoke about the mystery of poetry as an occult but very precise science while he listened to baseball games and considered the adventures of language as entangled in such mythos as the outlaw life of Billy the Kid. His poetry was exotic food for me wanting so much to be a poet but lost and bored with the regular academic fare. One night in Vancouver, must have been 1966, I got drunk with my friend the Canadian poet John Newlove. John, like me, was a huge fan of Spicer’s work and his vision of what it meant to be a poet. Unlike me, he had first-hand knowledge of the poet. He had heard Spicer give the “Vancouver Lectures” the year before and had made friends with him. Spicer had meant to move to Vancouver, but before he could he collapsed and slipped into a coma riding the elevator in his apartment building. Learning that Spicer was dying, John had traveled to California to say goodbye. That night in Vancouver, John and I read aloud “Psychoanalysis: An Elegy.” We might have been in a bus, we might have been in a pub. I don’t remember. I just remember the poem. I still read that poem sometimes to open my readings. I wonder if this is one of the poems that Spicer wanted to destroy.


What are you thinking about?

I am thinking of an early summer.
I am thinking of wet hills in the rain
Pouring water. Shedding it
Down empty acres of oak and manzanita
Down to the old green brush tangled in the sun,
Greasewood, sage, and spring mustard.
Or the hot wind coming down from Santa Ana
Driving the hills crazy,
A fast wind with a bit of dust in it
Bruising everything and making the seed sweet.
Or down in the city where the peach trees
Are awkward as young horses,
And there are kites caught on the wires
Up above the street lamps,
And the storm drains are all choked with dead branches.

What are you thinking?

I think that I would like to write a poem that is slow as a summer
As slow getting started
As 4th of July somewhere around the middle of the second stanza
After a lot of unusual rain.
California seems long in the summer.
I would like to write a poem as long as California
And as slow as a summer.
Do you get me, Doctor? It would have to be as slow
As the very tip of summer.
As slow as the summer seems
On a hot day drinking beer outside Riverside
Or standing in the middle of a white-hot road
Between Bakersfield and Hell
Waiting for Santa Claus.

What are you thinking now?

I’m thinking she is very much like California.
When she is still her dress is like a roadmap. Highways
Traveling up and down her skin
Long empty highways
With the moon chasing jackrabbits across them
On hot summer nights.
I am thinking that her body could be California
And I a rich Eastern tourist
Lost somewhere between Hell and Texas
Looking at a map of a long, wet, dancing California
That I have never seen.
Send me some penny picture-postcards, lady,
send them.
One of each breast photographed looking
Like curious national monuments,
One of your body sweeping like a three-lane highway
Twenty-seven miles from a night’s lodging
In the world’s oldest hotel.

What are you thinking?

I am thinking of how many times this poem
Will be repeated. How many summers
Will torture California
Until the damned maps burn
Until the mad cartographer
Falls to the ground and possesses
The sweet thick earth from which he has been hiding.

What are you thinking now?

I am thinking a poem could go on forever.


Luis Villegas: Let Us Now Praise Famous Artists

“In hindsight, it’s good that I was never successful selling my art. I’d be tied down to a lot of stuff that I don’t care about. Now, I rely on all the information I’ve ever gathered, and whether it’s mine or not, I make at least a little bit of art everyday, and making art is being an artist. My art is made in the spirit of adventure and discovery, and my life is lived in that same spirit. My art and my life are the same.”--Luis Villegas from an article Profile: Luis Villegas by Richard Baron.

El Paso artist Luis Villegas is truly a remarkable man and a good friend. He earns his living as a “fine arts handyman”—his own description of his professional status. For the last eight years or so, Luis has been doing a number of jobs for Lee and me, from painting the inside and outside of the storefront of Cinco Puntos Press to painting a mural on the floor of our front porch. So when the old elm tree in our backyard died, we knew we didn’t want to rip the tree out of the yard. Nope, we wanted Luis to make something special of that tree. And his creation is incredible--two large fishes (a gar and a catfish) that will be hanging on the front porch and in the house and the tree itself, a cornucopia of fishes diving into the heart of our earth. He calls that piece “Fish Swimming Downtree.” Luis, I believe, is a wonderful example of a strong tradition of American art, men and women who work art-making into their working life. They may not become famous or rich but by the insistence on the making of art as an honored and essential profession--indeed, as a celebration of themselves and their vision--they leave an indelible mark on the psyche in the locale of their work.

On November 9th Lee and I had a party to celebrate and honor Luis and his work (our home and our office are truly molded by his imagination and work) and hopefully to get him more creative work like the sculptures and the murals. Below are pictures from the party and also photos of Luis working on a number of other projects at Cinco Puntos and at our home. Some of the photos I have lifted, with her permission, from the blog of Carolyn Drapes. She’s a wonderful photographer. Please visit her blog for more photos of the party at her Flickr site plus other images that reflect the quirky ambiente of the city of El Paso. And of course read Richard Baron’s profile of Luis as well as other profiles of the artistic folks that roam the streets here.

Other photos below are of two of the "float alone" fishes, the garfish with grandson Eddie hung from the front porch and the catfish that swims in our bedroom (our granddaughter, via a contest at the party, named them Garfunkle and Simon) and Luis with his two primos, Henry and Joe.

When asked what one word best describes that life, he matter-of-factly replies, "Oh, I’m still a musician. Everything is music."--from the Baron profile of Luis