Friday, January 18, 2008

Langston Hughes

I have been reading Langston Hughes' THE WEARY BLUES (Knopf 1939). At first, on the page, the poems seem simple, and yet when read aloud the rhythmical blues can be heard, the beat like a slow swaying dance. Weariness is the opposite of energy. He was raised in Harlem with 8 siblings and a father who struggled to feed them. He lived when lynching was popular in this country. Like so many poems, Hughes' poems are meant to be heard and recited, breathed forth from a living body. They are living things. He was exiled in a sense from the South he loved. Here is the beginning of the title poem:

The Weary Blues

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway . . .
He did a lazy sway . . .
To the tune o' those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
Sweet Blues!

This collection also contains a favorite poem of mine. Possibly the poem is one of my top 10 favorites. It is called THE NEGRO SPEAKS OF RIVERS. My new collection has a poem that echoes this (I can only hope), but the river I write about is the Rio Grande. Hughes' river was the vibrant culture of African-Americans, the beating swoon of the blues, the jazzy horns and glitzy renaissance of his era, the mystical and varied history of a people. Hughes had an ear for musicality of a line, and I think he offers young poets a great lesson in listening.


(To W.E.B. DuBois)

I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
Went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy
Bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

The poem takes the first person I, but applies it to his people. Here the political is artistic, subtle, yet strangely powerful, almost surreal, as if a dream. Such bold risk; here the first person "I" defies all criticisms of self-indulgence and shows what a poem can do with the first person "I" singing. And that's all I have to say about first person I, but Robert Vasquez has some interesting commentary on the "I" in contemporary times at his blog California Poet.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Always judge a book by its cover

I’m posting again because Ms. Luna is traveling from El Paso to Boulder to settle in for the school year. She’s a professor at University of Colorado. After she gets settled she’s headed to New York City for the AWP conference and some readings. If you’re in the Big Apple at the end of January you oughta check her out: 7 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 26 at the KGB Bar, 85 East 4th Street New York, NY (Cross Streets: between 2nd and Bowery) where she’ll be reading with Erika T. Wurth and Gabe Gomez. I wish, wish, I could be there to go to the U.S. Latino Writers speak out: A Literary Response to the Immigration Crisis panel, Luna’s readings and the Con Tinta partay, which are always fun, oh, I mean intellectually enlightening.

There’s this book I wanted to write about but haven’t really gotten to discuss with Sheryl so here’s my disclaimer: for those who love poetry please read Sheryl Luna’s blog, I am only riffing here about a poet whose work I enjoyed recently and I don’t know diddley about the form as you’ll soon learn. What’s the famous line? “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like.”

I picked up Shin Yu Pai’s chapbook because I liked the cover with its rectangular cut outs to read the words printed on the end pages. I liked it because immediately I was forced to really examine the book itself.

And there, just like that I bought my second chapbook ever, well, not ever but I don’t count those that were required reading for class. And why are books of poetry called chapbooks anyway? Why not just book? It’s not like poets are like them 19th century peddlers selling chapbooks for a penny to the working class at alehouses. Hey, wait a minute, that’s exactly how I came across “Sightings.” I was drinking with a friend in Dallas and saw a chap selling books and I picked it up.

The first poem I read out loud to my companion was in the Unnecessary Roughness section of the book:

since the gay
old days of
this country
the American pastime
of manhandling
the opponent
taking down
to the ground
the player
holding the ball

I can’t do it here but what is also so effective about her work is that she uses typeface to help convey meaning. In her book the word SMEARING is in some kind of Trade Gothic narrow font with an effect on it to give us a sense of the smearing. I had to touch the page to make sure my vision wasn’t blurred from too much drink.

The second piece I read aloud, again in the Unnecessary Roughness section, on a solitary page was merely this:

last one

This one got us onto the topic of the author herself. We looked at her picture inside and theorized, guessed that she was “picked on” in school. I argued that she had to have been because well, she’s different. The different-ness I spoke of got us to taking guesses at Shin Yu Pai’s ethnicity.

After that curiosity was played out, we scanned the pages of her book and talked about white space (all the stuff between the words). How effectively Shin Yu Pai uses it on the pages. Whether or not you can create a sense of white space in prose. I thought of a chapter in Moby-Dick, the one where Melville describes the whiteness of the whale. Told my friend, "You know how there is so much description that you just get tired of reading it and your mind blanks out, skips graphs." She laughed and mentioned that the entire book qualifies as white space then. We stopped our Dick talk because we were distracted by another one, who asked us “Did you want to buy the book? We’re closing up.” My friend and I agreed that what I’d just read was “some good shit” so I put down my drink, shut the beautiful book that I could palm with one hand, and dug through my purse for some cash.

I knew I was getting something unique before I even opened it. The cover gave me all the information I needed before I turned a page. It’s innovative, clever and yeah, a little pretentious too but not to the point of being obnoxious, the way some poetry can be.

In my opinion good poetry should be so smart and tight that it has layers of meaning, one for the quick reader or scanner (non-reader), another for the middle reader (who reads Best Sellers), and still another for the thoughtful reader with millions of books swimming around his head (scholars who dissect words until they’re gray mush). This book passes my silly litmus test.

I liked that Shin Yu Pai used everything available to her as a writer, bookbinding, cover design, typeface, white space and even art to give us a glimpse into her world. “Sightings” seems to me to be a book about her. And what I’ve surmised is that she’s the type of woman who is: visual, intellectual, funny, sarcastic, sympathetic, ironic, and perhaps, a bit pretentious at times but grounded in the arts. Here’s a book you can definitely judge by its cover.