Book Review

Paper Birds: Feather by Feather / Pájaros de papel: Pluma por pluma by Sonia Gutiérrez

by on June 11, 2024

Review by Frank Mundo:

When I received “Paper Birds: Feather by Feather / Pájaros de papel: Pluma por pluma,” the latest poetry collection by bilingual writer and poet Sonia Gutiérrez from El Martillo Press (April 2024), I was surprised by its unusual heft. 180 pages is quite a lot these days for a poetry collection by a single artist. Turns out, however, the high page count is a direct result of the book’s unique presentation – at least, it’s a format I’d never seen before. Not only bilingual, some of the poems are also described as “interlingual” in the book’s introduction by Mexican writer Susana Bautista Cruz. Interlingual is the relationship between two languages, which, in this case, refers to the natural, multicultural (and inevitable?) mashup of English and Spanish by Latinos and Chicano Americans into, essentially, a “new” language known as Spanglish.

Divided into three sections, the book presents 14, 12, and 14 bilingual poems, respectively, each one printed side-by-side, first in English and then in Spanish. A smaller selection of Spanglish versions of the poems, translated in this collection by bilingual poet and musician Francisco J. Bustos, are shared after that. Offering these poems in all three languages this way is interesting to me and, I would argue, an empowering poetic exercise and experience for fluent readers and speakers of any of these languages. In the third section, there’s also a single bilingual short story called, “Teresa and the Birds Inside,” which is Gutiérrez’ take on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s famous short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” except her version takes place at a DMV in San Diego with a broken A/C and which is possibly haunted by what seems to be a flock of horrible screeching birds. Finally, several illustrations and other bonus features help fill out the book’s 180 pages, including the bilingual versions of the introduction, acknowledgments, and a helpful discussion guide for book clubs and educators.

My favorite piece in the book is “The Giver of Poems,” a beautiful and vivid homage to the prolific Chicano poet and educator Francisco X. Alarcón, who, with insight and compassion, explored in his writing important themes in Latino and gay identity, mythology, the Nahuatl language, Mesoamerican history, and American culture. In “The Giver of Poems,” there’s a sense of peace and clarity, but also a playful tone that seems apropos. The speaker of the poem is experiencing an inspiring and lucid or “woken” dream, where the unnamed Giver of Poems, perhaps Alarcón himself, awakens “on white / sheets of paper” in a sky full of “luminous letters.” Using his hands, he “kneads words / forming clouds / made of poems.” Don’t sleep on the wordplay here with knead and need. This joyful little literary moment pays off later when The Giver takes a break, of all things, “and goes up the stairs / of a giant / uppercase A” until “laughing and smiling,” he “goes down its slide” with his arms “wide open.” I can’t help but smile picturing Alarcón, who Gutiérrez calls her Chicano role model and Literary Saint, on a break from making clouds into poems with his bare hands, only to slide down the slope of an upper-case letter A with his arms in the air.

Listen to Sonia Gutiérrez reading the “Poema Giver” para–Francisco X. Alarcón, the Spanglish version of “The Giver of Poems.”

 

I asked Gutiérrez about her homage to Alarcón and how he became such a major influence in her work and her life. “His poetry is medicina,” she told me. His work “allows us to look at the Mexican American (the Chicano) experience through a historical context.” Like so many of us do, Gutierrez got her poetry legs in an Intro to Poetry course in school, unearthing poetry gems from that giant Norton poetry anthology. These excavated poets would serve as her “professors and teachers” at that time, helping her recognize what poetry is, what it looks like, and what it could do and be. She told me that’s why she teaches Alarcón’s work sometimes in her own college classrooms, so her students can discover and experience his work, too. She also said she liked how Alarcón told fellow poets often that he didn’t write poems, “he wrote tattoos,” which was the title of his first poetry collection. She admired the way he composed poetry against convention without capitalizing words and using periods, and the meaning he shared behind this creative choice ‒ that the period, he said, would come at the end.  

In “Bones Speak,” another nod to Alarcón and his multicolumn poem, Gutiérrez offers a “tattoo” of her own. According to the book’s Notes section, Alarcón says the columns of poems are “like copal smoke signals.” And since “Bones Speak” is also one of the works selected for Spanglish translation by Bustos, we get to experience the full power of this triple-column collaborative composition, with all three versions, side-by-side on one page, one in each column – and wow! It’s a stunning example of poetic expression. 

But this collection is more than an homage to Alarcón or to bilingual or even interlingual poetry. Timely stories, histories, narratives, dreams, and testimonies explore subjects in themes of human, environmental, social, and cultural dignity. Before reading the book, I asked Gutiérrez about her writing and what readers might expect. “Ever since I was a child,” she told me, “my way of seeing the world has always been through a lens of social justice.” So, years later, when Gutiérrez discovered poetry and started writing her own poems, it made sense that she would write about the issues that, as a poet, needed to be addressed.

“I’m a poet concerned about humanity,” she said. “I’m a poet concerned

with the environment. A poet that would like for people to have dialogical communication about pressing issues. Anything that needs to be addressed

we should have the ability to discuss.”

In “Testimony of a Tree,” we get just that, a firsthand account of what it’s like to be the trees along Highway 805 in San Diego, who “had wished their lives / on the superhighway / would always be green.” Interestingly, the first three of the four stanzas of this scathing environmental poem are offered in first-person plural: “but nobody asked us / why one day we turned pale, / our bark fell and arms / went bare.” The final stanza, however, switches to first-person singular – a foreman, perhaps? A delegated representative? Maybe the star witness, who knows? Either way, in the final stanza of this testimony, we get our grass absolutely handed to us: “What I do know is we never / dreamed of living next to / burning black asphalt / breathing in the sulfuric waste / of humanity away from the birds / and bees…”

In “Neither Rooster, Nor Bird, Nor Human,” we learn what things are by what they are not – starting and ending with the rooster, the bird, and the human. A very short piece, it’s even shorter on forgiveness – and the last stanza will stay with me for a long time. Looking now in the book, I see that I circled this stanza because I knew I’d need to come back to it later: “A human is not a human; / he is an inhumane animal, / killing the Earth / with his utter will.”

In “An American Landscape,” we visit that “chilly February night / under a star-spangled sky…” where Trayvon Martin “…stayed warm / fastened like a monk…” or what some called a thug, in his hoodie.

“The Indictment of Index Fingers and Thumbs,” is an indictment of our justice system in America. It opens with the poet, standing before “Judge Justice…” who is examining the six index fingers and six thumbs that facilitated the shooting deaths of Charles Smith, John Crawford III, Micheal Brown, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, and India Kager. “Who pulled the trigger?” the Judge asks, and the fingers and thumbs, “Dumbfounded and with white knees…” “…pointed at the firearms…”

In “Bakr Red Petals on a Beach,” Gutiérrez addresses the four children from the Bakr family, ages 9-12, who were killed by a missile from the Israeli naval force on the fishing beach west of Gaza City: “With bull’s-eye precision / on an open shore / Flower Killers came to Gaza…”

“The Colors of Death” personifies Fukushima and grills her about the nuclear accident that poisoned the ocean and displaced at least 164,000 people: “Ask Fukushima / if she drank clean water / this morning.”

Finally, in “Eulogy for Súper Pancho from the Land of Maiz,” one of the longest poems in the collection, the poet responds to Donald Trump’s painful and unfair statements about Mexicans during his presidential announcement speech in 2016. Súper Pancho, our brave hero, with his “corn-tortilla cape” and shovel, “his super weapon,” is paired against Mr. Liberty Mouth, who’s “snarling mouth” spews “torture words.” There’s a nice black-and-white illustration of Súper Pancho whose “tamale arms / and legs don’t hide / from the scorching sun / to sell diamond-faced / watches nor does he build / golden hotel skyscrapers, / reaching for the Green / Dollar God.”

There are so many standout and outstanding poems in this collection that it’s difficult to choose which ones to highlight and which ones to neglect. I had a similar reaction or experience a couple years ago when I read “Dreaming with Mariposas,” Gutiérrez’ debut novel from Flowersong Press. Made up of vignettes (mostly 1-3 pages), we follow the coming-of-age of two sisters, butterflies in a family of dreamers in So-Cal during the late 70s and 80s. For most of the book, I honestly thought I was reading her memoir because the details were so rich and real and accurate.

I asked Gutiérrez if she had a goal or objective when writing poetry. “When my poem is in front of someone and they’re reading it,” she said, “my goal is that they’re moved, that they’re looking at the world through a lens or a perspective they had never contemplated before.”

She also said there was a quote in the letters of Emily Dickinson that really summed up her objective when it comes to writing poetry:

“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me,
I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken
off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any
other way?”

In English, Spanish, or even Spanglish, I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Paper Birds: Feather by Feather / Pájaros de papel: Pluma por pluma is available now from El Martillo Press.  

Frank Mundo is a poet from Los Angeles. His latest chapbooks are Touched by an Anglo (Kattywompus Press) and Eleven Sundry Flowers (Antrim House).

Music Poetry

Violet isn’t Blue by Timothy Nolan

by on June 5, 2024

You told me it was your favorite Billie Holiday song. I was already hooked but silently swooned. Mine’s been You’ve Changed since the waitress I worked with at the Waldorf Astoria told me it was hers. She was a chanteuse who sang it at clubs I’d never heard of. WNEW’s Make-Believe Ballroom broadcast from the lobby by Peacock Alley once a month as she served tea and I bussed lilac teapots and cups to music from the 30s and 40s. She’d always ask them to play it but they were more of a Glenn Miller and Sinatra affair. One day they let her sing it after the show and I understood. Maybe I could feel a You’ve Changed moment coming for me. But then you came along with the Lady in Satin CD, Billie’s bare shoulder and pulled back hair in quarter-view before a smokey plum seamless. You hit track 6 and handed me the headphones. And all I wanted was your April in that December, the day you brought me Violets for Your Furs.

_

Timothy Nolan (he/him/his) is a writer and visual artist living in Palm Springs, California with his husband and their rescue dog, Scout. He has exhibited extensively for three decades and his work is in the collections of the DeYoung Museum of Art in San Francisco, and the Portland Art Museum in Oregon. He’s been a fellow at Yaddo, Ucross, and Djerassi. His poems appear in The Hudson Review, Fourteen Hills, Puerto del Sol, and Roanoke Review, among others.

Music Music Review

Cold Gawd, Day Aches, Drauve, and Salt+ at Midnight Hour

by on May 31, 2024
Cold Gawd photo by Jeremy Ruiz

The warm, overhead glow of tungsten string lights illuminates the black walls and white tile floor of a small backstage space. Flanked to the left by a wall with large holes and crumbs of plaster, a black wooden platform that is just shy of a foot tall serves as the stage. Colorful guitars and basses stand propped up in front of large amplifier cabinets and a gray Mapex drum set provided by the venue. This nondescript space serves as the secondary stage for a popular record store in the city of San Fernando called the Midnight Hour, and for one Friday night, it turned into one of the best places to experience some of the most exciting new shoegaze bands that the scene has to offer. With a lineup consisting of the bands Drauve, Day Aches, Salt+ and Cold Gawd, the set provided a powerful dynamic of extremely loud, distorted riffs and hazy, atmospheric melodies that the genre is best known for. There was something for every type of shoegaze fan: Drauve interspersing laidback and hopeful sounds with bursts of energy, Day Aches creating dense layers of reverberating sounds with the ferocity of grunge, Salt+ crafting an incredibly noisy and somewhat mysterious atmosphere using the awesome loudness of Sunn amplifiers, and Cold Gawd closing off with intimate, sparkling melodies serving as the backdrop for introspective lyrics that is reminiscent of Cocteau Twins’ best moments. The Midnight Hour typically hosts hardcore and heavy metal acts to partake in its unique DIY ethos, but with the growing presence and success of shoegaze, it may as well consider this excellent show as a contribution to the genre’s growth within the San Fernando Valley and beyond.

Cold Gawd photo by Jeremy Ruiz
Day Aches photo by Jeremy Ruiz
Day Aches photo by Jeremy Ruiz
Drauve photo by Jeremy Ruiz
Drauve photo by Jeremy Ruiz
Salt+ photo by Jeremy Ruiz
Salt+ photo by Jeremy Ruiz

Jeremy Ruiz is an independent photographer based in the San Fernando Valley specializing in portraiture and live music photography. He spent three years training as a student photojournalist and photo editor for the Valley Star, the independent student newspaper of Los Angeles Valley College, and has gone on to win multiple awards from the Journalism Association of Community Colleges. In his spare time, he likes to brew coffee and practice bass. IG @itzalku_sfv

Book Review

I Wore This Dress Today for You, Mom

by on May 1, 2024

 

I Wore This Dress Today for You, Mom by Kim Dower

Review by Brian Sonia-Wallace

There are few things more classically Freudian than autobiographical poems about a poet’s relationship with their mother, and this new collection by prolific former West Hollywood City Poet Laureate Kim Dower takes up the challenge deftly: will she become her mother? Is she already her? What continues after death? (Mail, memories, junk). What is broken by death? (Rituals, memories — junk).

 

The poems in I Wore This Dress Today for You, Mom are casual and conversational in tone, laugh-out-loud funny or tearjerking at their best. A mix of new pieces and motherhood poems from Dower’s former collections, they paint a portrait of urban motherhood rarely seen in verse, a Southern California freeway pastoral blended with a 5th Avenue childhood in New York. Writes Dower:

 

…My mother

 

didn’t know about soil or earth worms.

City mothers, we know about bus routes, restaurants,

Broadway, the people on the eighth floor.

Mine taught me to accessorize…”

 

Tellingly, this poem is entitled, “Different Mothers,” and the whole collection is nuanced by a consistent self-awareness of other possibilities, the “might have beens,” from Dower’s reflections on an imagined daughter to her fear of following in her mother’s footsteps in suffering from dementia. Dower’s mother, a socialite in her day, succumbs to memory loss and helplessness, and many of these poems grapple with the slipperiness of memory, both in childhood and old age.

 

In her poem “Letter to My Son,” Dower imagines herself in her mother’s shoes, and writes instructively to her son: “Tell me everything’s okay / and I will believe you. Tell me there’s a bird on a branch outside my window, even if there is no window, and I will imagine he’s singing to me.” Dower’s poems inhabit a world self-conscious of its own aging and eventual, inevitable collapse, with the thin narrative of what’s passed down in a family holding the discordant pieces together. Through the examination of motherhood from both ends, as a daughter and as a mother, Dower raises questions about the legacy of learned values and behavior, asking the question: what happens when, with time and distance, the memories we inherit decay?

 

The physical world comes into play as a doorway into memory. The materiality of sweaters, jewelry, chairs, and the dress of the collection’s title act as an artifact of human presence (“we bought this together” or “these were your things”) and agency (“you liked this, you chose this”). Part of what is stripped away, alongside memory, with dementia is the ability to make choices, and in an odd and very American way, the ability of Dower’s mother to make conscious choices as a consumer become a stand-in for her wellness. The poetry of illness and of kitsch are intertwined here, as the mass-produced material world interacts with and enacts ensouled human existence. In “The Salvation Army Won’t Take the Futon,” what happens to our stuff as we make the move into nursing care echoes what happens to us. In the “I Lost My Mother at Bloomingdales,” we see shopping as a bond:

 

…what if she vanishes into a refurbished brownstone

stairwell her dress on backwards label showing lost forever after

her last outing shopping with me it’s what we did what we loved until

 

—the poem finishes, achingly, here, with no punctuation, no resolution. Just the terror of losing your mind.

 

The title of the collection becomes a reassurance, in this context. “I Wore This Dress Today for You, Mom” a reminder of who the “I” is, who the “you” is, what day we’re on, and the relationship between the speaker and subject (“Mom”), with the dress serving as an anchor to what was once important in that relationship, even if it has long since stopped mattering. The title poem drips with longing, and the speaker, who we get the sense resented the high society New York life her mother so prized, now mother-less and in Los Angeles, finds herself with “a closet filled / with dresses I need to show you.”

 

These themes of motherhood, framed in an urban pastoral and humanistic materialism, run through these poems, with their attendant anxiety which might also be interpreted as a longing or nostalgia. This is a collection of imagined nature and of the unreliability of memory, pretzels at baseball games and “boiled secrets.” A strong gender commentary pervades the work as well, a through line from women’s’ roles in the 1950’s balanced with writing and bringing up kids, to a visceral set of poems which inhabit and explore Dower’s C-section and her son’s birth as an older woman. Dower returns to earlier themes and motifs from her work as well, in particular the moon, which even here is fragmented, diminished, hanging on too long.

 

The theme of anxiety around memory extends to Dower’s son, who, as he grows up, becomes someone alienated from her memories of him. Even if memory doesn’t fail us, she seems to say, the world will come to fail our memories of it. But it works the other way too — in “After the Rain,” she says, “although the dead / are gone, the way we think of them / can change.” These everyday poems, with titles like “Scrambling Eggs” and “While Washing the Dinner Dishes,” are a testament to how that change occurs, unobtrusively, in everyday life, as our brains make sense of loss through the continual process of living.

 

Southern California is a major player in this collection, situating the poems in geographic and mental space, from a poem entitled “The Things I Do In My Car” to one about earthquakes, “Minor Tremors,” where the shifting, uncertain landscape of California mirrors the mental landscape of a child coping with the loss of a parent. Perhaps my favorite in the collection is the laugh-out-loud funny piece “Bottled Water,” which contains such lines as ‘If I drink smartwater / will I raise my IQ but be less authentic?”

 

Dower is on form in this collection — both smart and authentic, with enough snark and humor to keep things from getting too, well, dour. Don’t let the serious themes fool you, there’s plenty of irrelevance at play here, too. Dower ends the poem “My Mother Bakes Sugar Cookies” with the lines:

 

The people in charge of Heaven

sound so thoughtful, I tell her.

Well, they’re angels,

she says,

 

but not like you’d imagine.

Sure, they wear white,

have wings,

smile sweetly

 

but they all talk way too much

and their asses

are huge.

 

Dower is a master of tonal shifts and irony, and uses dialogue to great effect. In the next poem, “Why We Dream,” her mother tells her, “I’m not dead…/ I’m going to the Opera!” It’s the mark of a great poet that, in speaking about the dead, Dower gives us such a vivid sense of life.

 

I Wore This Dress Today for You, Mom is available now through Red Hen Press

 

Brian Sonia-Wallace is the author of The Poetry of Strangers (Harper Collins), winner of the 2020-23 West Hollywood City Poet Laureateship, and a national 2021 Laureate Fellow for the Academy of American Poets. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Poets.org, Rattle, and more. He teaches at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and Get Lit – Words Ignite. More at briansoniawallace.com and @rentpoet.

Music Poetry

Bizarre Love Triangle by Daniel Healy

by on April 25, 2024

Piano Photo by Steve Johnson

Block chords before block chords
after block chords, I could write about
the way the infrastructure
carries the light inside itself,
carries it
hands on its hips,        half-hidden polyphony.
I could write about Scarlatti dueling Handel.
Scarlatti by himself,    reaching
substituting forward,   upward,
pulling the dough of substance with
his
hooked hands. I could write about
Debussy on the dancefloor.    Hands hooked
around hips. It’s there half hidden inside.
But I write about this.
I write about falling.
And then? You don’t. I fall on my knees.
It’s not about me but it is.

Daniel John Healy is a PhD student at UConn. His academic work has appeared in Style. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in New Haven Review and Long River Review. He was a 2023 finalist for the Iowa Review Award in poetry.

Book Review

Parasocialite

by on April 18, 2024

Brittany Menjivar’s Parasocialite: Taking “It” Instead of “Making It”

Book Review by Emily K. Sipiora

Brittany Menjivar’s literary debut, Parasocialite, is a definitive portrait of a post alt-lit cultural landscape that challenge’s the genre’s effete self-interest. Parasocialite details the shrewdness of online womanhood, reinventing alt lit’s approach to interpersonal relationships through creating a female narrative of alienation in a world controlled by men. Menjivar’s first prose piece, “Boring Night”, is anchored in the early 2010s (alt lit’s Renaissance period) through its extensive references to deadmau5. It revolves around the novelty of first kisses, obtained through the then-new app Tinder. Like the characters in Tao Lin’s Richard Yates, Menjivar’s protagonist places herself in relationships with skewed dynamics of power. Unlike the male and young female dynamic perpetuated by alt lit, Menjivar’s character sets out with the goal of completing her first kiss at any cost. In her Tinder bio, the protagonist refers to herself as “a sexy alien [that] just dropped down to earth”, attracting the attention of many strange men on the app. These men use euphemisms such as “other things” to allude to the possibility of corrupting the protagonist, as it is evident that she is sexually inexperienced. Menjivar subverts this corruptive trajectory by rejecting the cat-and-mouse game initiated by the Tinder men. She asserts her utter disinterest in participating in foreplay revolving around her “pure” nature. “I don’t want to be a dirty girl,” she states: “I want to be myself” (8).

The protagonist’s matter-of-fact demeanor is akin to Tao Lin’s prose and its flat affect, but Menjivar challenges the characteristic chauvinism of alt lit through a distinctly apathetic female lens. When Menjivar’s protagonist asserts that she “wants to be [herself],” she is rejecting the hot young starlet persona perpetuated by vacuous Los Angeles Apparel billboards at 101 exits. The archetype of these young starlets was previously exploited by canonical alt lit figures such as Stephen Tully Dierks, but are now reviving the genre with their new perspective. Menjivar’s work plays in the sandbox of alt lit canon, potentially creating boring comparisons to the coquettish Marie Calloway because of Menjivar’s delineation of her various personal relationships. Menjivar’s prose lacks the autism of Lin and Calloway, instead leaning into the “sincerity” leveraged in alt lit’s connection to the larger new sincerity genre.

Menjivar is a key figure in Los Angeles’ alt lit revival, running the reading series Car Crash Collective with fellow starlet Erin Satterthwaite. Car Crash is in the same circle as Sammy Loren’s Casual Encountersz’, billed as “readings of rage and romance”. This reinvention of alt lit undoes the genre’s foundational connection to Brooklyn, instead creating new landmarks in the Echo Park bookstore Stories Books & Café and the Highland Park neighborhood. The Los Angeles movement is distinct from the evolution of alt lit in Brooklyn. On the west coast, alt lit changed from men writing about women and drugs to women writing about their dissatisfaction with and disconnection from the zeitgeist. Menjivar’s Parasocialite is hyperaware of its predecessors in the genre, intentionally subverting its chauvinism through its innately female prose. Menjivar’s protagonists move from terrible men to worse men with clout, all through the author’s characteristic factual narrative explaining that her characters do so in order to preserve their personal power.  

In “Hollywood Baby”, Menjivar writes that “better men want to exploit [her] now” (109). This concept of a higher caliber man is seen in “A Trick for Sophie”, in which the protagonist enters a relationship with a Las Vegas magician. As the relationship continues, she slowly begins to realize the magician has an all-consuming fear of death. This fear is conceptualized in his relationship with a young cancer patient that attracts the protagonist’s dry ire. She becomes bored, attempting to recapture the magician’s interest through increasingly rough sex. In turn, the magician’s fear surfaces in coitus, and he admits that he cannot bear to engage in pain play because it reminded him of mortality:

“I rammed myself into him again and again, fearing the death that was stasis. “Stop,” he told me. I obeyed. Then I asked him if I had hurt him… my roughness had reminded him of his capacity to be hurt… this was the same man who had broken chains and lifted cars” (121).

At the end of the piece, Menjivar’s character apathetically loiters in a church. She prays to God and admits that there’s no point in concealing her growing disgust towards the magician as her contempt is already deific record. The story ends with her relief at the Make-A-Wish child’s death, to which she opines: “I always got what I wanted, one way or another” (122). Parasocialite asks if it is possible to “make it” when everyone else has already “made it”. The old scions of alt lit – Tao Lin, Marie Calloway, Meghan Boyle, et. al – have already “made it”, but Menjivar eschews their authority over the genre and completely reinvents alt lit in her own image. Her protagonists and poetry embody a fierce individuality and power that does not change itself to attain “it”. Instead, Menjivar takes “it” with a transgressive force.

Parasocialite is now available through Dream Boy Book Club

Book Review

The Language of Fractions

by on October 18, 2023

Poetry Collection by Nicelle Davis
Review by John Venegas

“Deconstruction” is a word that gets thrown around a lot, both inside and outside academic settings. At the risk of being reductive, it is the practice of taking something apart conceptually. This can be done with anything and its purpose is to understand how that anything functions. Breaking something down into its constituent parts, seeing how those parts fit together and/or function on their own, can be an enlightening and rewarding experience. There is argument to be made that such a process is how we learn in the first place. Unfortunately, the term and the process are all too often co-opted by disingenuous pseudo-intellectuals who try to reframe the concept as an intentionally constructed threat to “traditional values”, or use it to legitimize conspiratorial bigotry. But even setting aside that kind of cruel misuse, I think those of us with “good intentions” have a very consistent habit of missing the forest for the trees. Deconstruction is not done in a vacuum, and those who do it are neither dispassionate nor objective. We cannot observe or describe without affecting, and being affected. I think Nicelle Davis understands this on a fundamental, intimate level. In fact, I think The Language of Fractions is one of the purest examples and examinations of deconstruction that I have read. It is a collection of poetry that speaks to the necessity of the practice while also exposing the cost of such an endeavor, if you pursue it to any depth of significance.

He realized most makeup is designed to look like blood and bruises.

To get it out of the way, allow me to state my general thoughts on this collection in a single sentence: Davis uses an intoxicating combination of sublime intimacy and Cronenberg-ian body horror to rebuild the Tower of Babel as a beacon of community and a direct, open challenge to any power that would deny our inherent divinity.

What became of the heel? / What becomes of the toes? / What do you see in the red / Rorschach test of severed women’s parts?

It is no great observation to state that intimacy requires vulnerability, or that vulnerability can be frightening. But there is more beneath that surface, and Davis is not content to see us wet only our toes. Her poetry here forces us to acknowledge that to be deconstructed is to be taken apart, to have your pieces examined by eyes that you can only hope do not mean you harm. Many, many people have the lived experience of being taken apart (conceptually or physically) by the cruel and the unjust, who often have “altruistic” justifications. Those experiences, of being valued only for your cuts of meat or your bone structure or your fatty tissue or your capacity to breed more livestock, can sear themselves into the mind, onto the soul, assuming they don’t kill you outright. Their lingering legacy is forced disassociation, an effort to torture dissonant mental voices into screaming over your natural one and leave you confused and in a state of self-loathing.

You too can be a house, just make a list of who lives inside you – you haunted house – you open door – you a slowly closing uterus, you casket.

This is why I think Davis speaks to the clavicle and the humerus and the navel and all sorts of other body parts. She is trying to work backward, piece together a shared history and ancestral language. She can see the outline of the identity that was and, while she knows it can never be reconstructed as it had been, the potential for something new and greater awaits. This is a beautiful purpose, to be sure, but it is also the source of the horrifying constructs along the way. Understanding and repurposing require experimentation, require putting things together in ways that were not originally intended, no matter how much it might upset a tradition-laden mind. Moreover, there is no small amount of frustration, as pieces who have long since had individualism forced on them must come together, communicate, and co-exist.

Where do thousands of people go when real / estate agents put on a pub crawl?

Maybe the most telling aspect of the poetry is the consistent underlying tone. There is no shortage of grief, of fear, of regret, but through and beneath it all there is an essence of fascination. There is a relentless need to understand, a joy in the power of unorthodox creation, and a determination to connect with others through shared experience. Each section of the text is framed by a “Belly Poem”, literal navel gazing as if the speaker is repeatedly reaching into some kind of genetic memory to experience umbilical attachment. Is there anything more intimate than the sharing of blood? Than the blurring of the lines between what distinguishes two organisms from one another? Davis is a mad scientist, a mother, and trying to become her own beautiful emergent monster. She writes and rewrites rules and maps, creates games and writes to children to harness naiveté’s objectivity, and build collages out of images, advertisements, and pictures. There is an impulse, as a reader, to beg her to stop, to slow down, to dismiss her words and actions as feverish. But those are the efforts of a complacent mind trying to shield itself from realizing that it can begin to see what she sees.

If this was tarot, we would call it / divination, / but since it’s just a game, we call it the News. Think about how / the dinosaurs died – now make a wish upon a shooting –

And what she sees, among many things, is the inversion; the scar-pattern from how our perspectives were abused into something that someone else approved of. Seeing the rest of the world in horror is the first step, necessary to lance the infectious deception, but never the end goal. The goal is to have the capacity to see beauty for ourselves, in ourselves, and in each other. To this end, the poetry is serenely beautiful, elegantly crafted, and effortlessly witty. It is as if the dissonant and natural voices have stumbled upon a mutual train of thought and are beginning to realize how wondrous it can be when they sing together. To be clear, that beauty is thoroughly painted with loss, in memory of and gratitude for those who came before, and in regret for those who will not see. But without those colors, would the beauty even be real? The power of this collection lies in its visceral biological colors, in its appreciation of what was and what could be, and in a brilliant gaze that has forgotten how to flinch.

The Language of Fractions is available through Moon Tide Press.

Issues

Issue 11

by on July 24, 2023

Featuring the work of:

  • Jasmine Kapadia
  • Shana Mirambeau
  • Landon Smith
  • Samuel Miller
  • Von Torres
  • Nijla Mu’min
  • Nicole Bird
  • Nick Kunze
  • Elana Kloss
  • Lynne T. Pickett
  • Connie Woodring

Art by Christine Bianco

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Issues

Issue Ten

by on March 29, 2023

Featuring the work of:

  • Christian Saldana Sands
  • Pia Simone Garber
  • Emily Joy Oomen
  • Samuel Miller
  • Corey J. Boren
  • Vivian Ia
  • Ruth Thompson
  • Sage Tyrtle
  • Anna Sandy-Elrod
  • Sophia Amanda Morales
  • Angela Gaito-Lagnese
  • A.J. Huffman
  • Dorothy Cantwell
  • Yessika Maria Rengifo Castillo
  • Chris Bullard
  • Julia Kooi Talen
  • James Miller
  • Anu Pohani
  • Callie Rowland
  • Heather Iverson
  • Kira Houston
  • Nandini Bhattacharya
  • Rachael Biggs
  • Robin Rosenthal
  • Kate Swisher

Art by Julio Rodriguez, Bridget Klappert, and Anthony Grant

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Book Review

Some Girls Walk Into The Country They Are From

by on April 14, 2022

Collection by Sawako Nakayasu
Review by John Venegas

There are times where it feels strange that we consider “raising more questions than it answers” as a mark against something. Granted, that phrase is often meant to convey a lack of closure or satisfaction or evidence, but it is the phrasing that bothers me. Are we not supposed to ask questions? Are we not supposed to seek questions? Can’t a lack of questions come dangerously close to willful ignorance? I am aware that I am probably overcomplicating the idea (perish the thought), but I have been reading Some Girls Walk Into The Country They Are From, by Sawako Nakayasu, and I find myself awash in questions, immersed in questions, and I could not be happier as a result. This is the kind of poetry collection that engages on every level and radically reorganizes one’s thought processes. It is a book that I can only recommend to those who are interested in having their presumptions and perspectives interrogated, not by anything as unsubtle as direct question from the text, but by the readers themselves as they immerse in the text.

As good and conscientious visitors they dutifully abide by the laws of the new land. It would only be polite.

I admit with no shame that I still don’t entirely “get” this book. I am a straight, cis male who has lived in the same country his entire life, and this collection primarily engages with displacement and motion within themes of gender, sexuality, political and generational borders, and much more. On a very basic level, this collection contains lines and entire poems written in several different languages, some of which I cannot read and some which I am only partially familiar. But I suspect that is largely the point. First and foremost, as I have said before, literature in translation is an unmatched vehicle for bridging perspectives. Furthermore, the way the poems weave in and out of different languages and styles and identities beautifully reinforces the overarching themes. Even if you could read every character, the text does not permit you complacency. It will not allow you to pin it down beneath a few convenient categories. And it will cause you to look at everything else you have neatly collated and now take for granted and see your handiwork for what it is – insufficient.

She can hold her own in a hot dog eating contest. She has guts of steel, buns of steel, pink enamel nails of steel.

As a more concrete example of what I am talking about, the collection has a running motif (or perhaps reoccurring subject) of a group of girls, their identifications starting at Girl A and ending at Girl J. These girls seem to be in a state of constant flux. Everything from their ages to their clothing to their physical existence to their moods changes regularly. I’m not even sure they are separate entities during some of their appearances. Girl A seems to fantasize about a train sliding along her back. Girl J has sweet and innocent eyes and also manages to give “a swift kick under the table to her asshole editor”. Girl B is “on the brink of overcooking that idea out of the realm of tenability”. Girl F identifies her real name as “Fuck You For Asking”. The fluidity of meaning here is, I think, as its most direct. The motion of who they are, on individual and collective levels, is perpetual. It is a reflection of how many societies and cultures simultaneously attempt to isolate women from each other and other genders and attempt to herd them into vast pens of categorical subservience. It is a reflection of reactions to that external pressure, both in the fight for solidarity and the demand for recognition of the self. It is a reflection of the struggle between our need for understanding and our tendency to oversimplify. Are the Girls ten individuals, ten shifting perspectives within the same individual, or both? Is there a solid answer to that question, even at an entirely hypothetical moment in time?

Girls A through J cut their tongues on the distant approaching sunlight.

These questions are by no means limited to women, whether inside or outside the text. Cultural and ethnic minorities, immigrants, and people from across the spectrum of gender can attest to these experiences. They are questions that should be asked of themselves by everyone, especially instead of external questions like “Yeah, no, but where are you really from?” or “Are you sure you’re in the right bathroom?” or “You get that it’s just a joke, right?”. Where many texts invite you to engage with such ideas, Some Girls Walk Into The Country They Are From firmly points out that this process is already happening, with or without your participation or permission. It reminds you that you have a choice to make: do you have the humility for regular and meaningful introspection, or will you be eroded like the rest of the stagnant detritus as the perpetual movement flows around and over you?

Like this. Luminous continuity of seeing.

And for all this earnestly high-minded contemplation, the collection never fails to be entertaining. Whether decoding linguistic constraints or mulling over a sequence like “Out of a failure to materialize clothing mid-jump on my way to the tuba player,”, the text is just plain fun to read. It runs the gamut of emotions, almost as a byproduct of its refusal/inability to cease in its journey. If anything, it demands more of itself than it does of its reader, perhaps understanding that in order to do justice to the concepts it addresses, it must wield language with both utter precision and kaleidoscopic creativity. I wholeheartedly recommend Some Girls Walk Into The Country They Are From in the same way that I might recommend getting a friend who is willing to stimulate and challenge you.

Some Girls Walk Into The Country They Are From is available now through Wave Books.

Book Review

City on the Second Floor

by on March 29, 2022

Poetry by Matt Sedillo
Review by Frank Mundo

I was watching Disney’s “Encanto” with the kids when the mail arrived with Matt Sedillo’s new book of poetry, “City on the Second Floor” from FlowerSong Press, and I thought, how perfect is that? Here’s Matt Sedillo, extremely popular Chicano political poet, essayist, activist (the hardest working poet I know) – and yet somehow he’s become like the Bruno of certain parts of the Los Angeles poetry scene. His poetry superpower is so electric and engaging that most are absolutely dazzled and inspired by his voice, while the rest are left frightened (even triggered) and dismissive of his ostensibly dark and angry premonitions. Plus, he’s a troll, they say. He’s a communist with Das Kapital C. He’s (God forbid) a renegade. Self-taught? He didn’t even go to college.

Maybe that’s why, despite all he’s done for the poetry community in Los Angeles for a dozen years or so, we haven’t seen even a mention of Sedillo (or his three books) in the LA Times since he won the L.A. Grand Slam championship in 2011. Perhaps that’s why, no matter how hard he works and finds success, he’s never been the poet in conversation at Rattle. And, maybe it’s why, like his second book, “Mowing Leaves of Grass,” his newest book will likely never be reviewed or discussed by the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Maybe it’s just me, but, in certain parts of Los Angeles, it seems we don’t talk about Matt Sedillo – at least, not nearly as much as we should. And I just don’t understand why. Many compare him to Amiri Baraka, Jose Montoya, and so many other fiery or political poets. To me, his work is a cross between Allen Ginsberg and Wanda Coleman. So why isn’t everyone in LA talking about his new book, “City on the Second Floor,” which is flying off the shelves, by the way.

One criticism you’ll hear way too often is that Sedillo’s poetry is too angry. This is a lazy and shallow reading (or listening) of his work. Yes, there is anger in his poetry, and a lot of it, but it’s almost always tempered with humor, which can never be done effectively without empathy and compassion. Sedillo’s speaker addresses this idea in “Post,” the very first poem of the 32 poems and one play collected in “City on the Second Floor.” And I can almost guarantee that Sedillo or his publisher placed this piece first in the collection intentionally. There’s no way this was a coincidence.

“Post” begins looking back (even reminiscing, you might say) to a time of the service economy (when what? America was great?) – “…just like yesterday/ Municipalities raised cities/ Built nuclear families/ Associations of sturdy pockets/ A two-car garage, chicken in every pot.” What follows is their broken promise of tomorrow, “…which doesn’t show up all at once,” the speaker tells us, “But when it does…” it’s with liquidated pensions and automated factories – and the resulting gig economy left in a shambles to a generation who “…cannot afford to live in…” the very cities where they must hustle only to get part-time, freelance, contract, and “adjunct” employment. “Promise me the world, then show me the door,” Sedillo’s speaker concludes. “I was not/ Born/ Angry/ I was abandoned.”

Yet, even with that last line, as justifiable as the “anger” might be for this speaker (and Sedillo’s generation), I think a lot of critics who only want to see anger will miss the fabulous punchline at the end of the poem – “Tell me the one/ Where I killed the economy.”

I love this line, not only because it’s hilarious, but because it’s so accurate. Often accused of being whiners and lazy, Millennials are also blamed somehow for ruining the very broken economy they inherited. But I would argue that there’s nothing overly angry in this line. This is not an “OK, Boomer” sarcastic snowflake moment. This is more of a mic-drop moment – a humorous wink and a nod to the “us” in the us-versus-them structure that makes up so much of Sedillo’s poetry.

Even the title “Post” is a funny play on words of old versus new. Is this the postindustrial standard? Is this a letter? A social media post? Is this a signpost? Or is it a warning, like so many other poems in the collection about how consumerism, credit, and debt will ruin us all? Maybe it’s all these things and a hint of what to expect in the following pages of an angry and funny and compassionate collection.
Sedillo reworks this poem later in the book (sort of in reverse) in a poem called, “Hammurabi,” which is laugh-out-loud funny. This one ends with a deadly serious punchline, “Since they from on high/ Convinced us down below/ That we/ Ever/ Needed/ Their/ Code/ Of law/ To tell us/ We were free.” What’s funny is that the lies about the future in this remix of “Post” come from the TV characters we so loved and trusted: Lucy Ricardo, Mr. Belvedere, Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin, and especially Al Bundy (all comedies, mind you) who convinced us that we “…could raise a family/ In a two story/ On the single income/ Of a shoe salesman.” LOL.

I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t the only one who believed Matt Sedillo’s poetry is as funny as it is angry. Maybe I just have a dark sense of humor. So, I called up Mike “the Poet” Sonksen, a poet, scholar, journalist, critic, mentor, and author with an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of poetry in Los Angeles. I respect Mike’s opinion so much because he focuses on poetry of merit, not simply the styles and genres he prefers. If anyone anywhere in LA is writing or “spitting” quality verse, he knows about it, writes about it, talks about – because he’s all about it and has been for 25 years.

“Matt Sedillo is relentless,” Mike told me. “He’s a student of history and skilled at spinning his astute understanding into engaging poetry,” and I couldn’t agree more. He also said, “Sedillo can also be quite funny, satirizing the powers that be with poetic one-liners. His social commentary balances truth and wit to produce a poetic velocity faster than Starsky & Hutch.”

Another poem I loved from the book, “Pope of Broadway,” literally starts as a classic joke: “An Arab, an Italian, a Jew, a Puerto Rican, an Inuit, an American Indian, a Mongolian/ And a Mexican/ Walk into a bar…” and “Anthony Quinn orders a drink.” This is a wonderful and complex poem about the “ethnically ambiguous” actors (the “every” Brown-man) in Hollywood, from Quinn (who was the best) to today’s other “two first-name” actors who continue this unusual tradition today, including Cliff Curtis and Oscar Isaac.

I like this poem also because I spoke about this concept (and the larger and darker meaning behind it) with Matt Sedillo a couple years ago, before he had written the piece. And reading the final product in his new book was a real treat for me.

That day, I also asked Matt what his goal was when writing a poem. “First,” he said, “it’s to satisfy the demands of structure.” Matt often uses a three-act structure that he has developed and refined over the years and made his own. It’s one of the major topics he discusses and often teaches as a highly in-demand speaker/performer at the top colleges and universities in America and at several other major venues in Canada, England, and Cuba. “Second,” Matt continued, “no matter what the theme is, I want to write poems (not every time, but I try) that are calls to action.” It’s not surprising to me that his answer is all about craft. Matt sees craft everywhere. He studies it and looks for patterns and anomalies in everything. He’ll read texts or study videos of fiery speakers, like Hugo Chavez and Michael Parenti, and spend hours breaking down their prose, examining what they say and how they say it. He’ll study the timing of stand-up comics, books, films, commercials, anything that tells stories in an engaging way that gets people to act.

In “Mowing Leaves of Grass,” Sedillo’s first book with FlowerSong Press from 2019, his craft, especially his three-act structure is in full effect. It’s the work that put him on the map as a unique and powerful voice in Los Angeles and beyond. The poems in his latest book, “City on the Second Floor,” however, offer a glimpse, I believe, of where his poetry is headed: even more powerful, political, angry, funny, timely, smart, carefully crafted, and compassionate calls to action.

I also asked Matt Sedillo who influences him and his writing, and I was a little surprised by his answer. An avid student of history, Matt listed artists who are still alive and very active in the community. He said Luis J. Rodriguez, the 2014 Los Angeles Poet Laureate. He also mentioned other poets whose work inspired him: spoken word artist David A. Romero, author of “My Name is Romero,” and Viva Padilla, Publisher/ Editor-in-Chief of Dryland, a literary journal.

Finally, I wanted to know about Matt Sedillo’s publisher, so I contacted Edward Vidaurre, Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of FlowerSong Press, and I asked him straight out why he chose to publish such an outspoken and, perhaps, controversial poet as Matt Sedillo. Without hesitation, Vidaurre answered, “Because, like me, he is fearless about his work. He’s a necessary voice in a world where being an activist is sometimes looked on as trouble.” Finally, he added – and it all made perfect sense to me – “I wanted his collection to make noise and open eyes.”

I suppose the gatekeepers and kingmakers of the Los Angeles literary scene will do what they want to do – and they still might not talk about Matt Sedillo after my little plea here. But, with Sedillo’s incredible work ethic, his determination and dedication to craft, and his fearless and supportive publisher’s commitment to sharing “necessary” voices and books, I know we will definitely be hearing much more “noise” from him.



City on the Second Floor is available now from FlowerSong Press.

Frank Mundo is a poet from Los Angeles. His latest chapbooks are Touched by an Anglo (Kattywompus Press) and Eleven Sundry Flowers (Antrim House).

Issues

Issue Nine

by on August 14, 2021

Featuring the work of:

  • Soleil David
  • Mud Howard
  • Marie Targonski-O’Brien
  • Manuela Williams
  • Mei Mei Sun
  • Chelsea Bayouth
  • Sean Carrero
  • Paul Ilechko
  • Sarah Marquez
  • Stephanie Valente
  • Lorraine Whelan
  • Michael Carter
  • Zoe Canner
  • Eugene Stevenson
  • Carol Hamilton
  • Rachel Warshaw
  • January Pearson
  • Chris Abbate
  • Kevin Ridgeway
  • Don Raymond
  • Anne Marie Wells
  • Jean Prokott
  • Raul Ruiz
  • Matilda Young
  • Alison Minami
  • Sylvan Lebrun
  • Bruno Figueroa
  • L Scully
  • Mehreen Ahmed
  • Oguma Hideo
  • Amber Foster
  • Dayna Gross
  • Liz Rose
  • Shaista Vaishnav

Art by jen stract, Monica Valdez, and Brea Weinreb

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