Poetry for Southern California


Reviews 3/07


Poetry CD Reviews & Other Things!

Our Senior Editor G. Murray Thomas has put together the latest CD's in our craft for your ultimate listening pleasure (once you get the CD that is). We will provide listening selections when available.  And from time to time Murray may review books, or broadsides or god knows what... By G. Murray Thomas

Sleepyhead Assassins

Collected Poems of Mindy Nettifee
2006, Moontide Press
ISBN 1-4243-1692-8
60 pages,  $12

Review by E. Amato

writing is easy like carving a relief map in limestone
with your one good pinky.

            —“When the Gloves Come Off”

The thing that strikes me like a ladies’ Monday night bowling league every time I encounter the poetry of Mindy Nettifee is its amazing stillness.  When she reads, it is as if the words hang in the air.  They don’t float; they have a determinate weight.  They assemble there, in the air, until the meaning has been all but wrung out of them.  They don’t go racing by; they won’t vanish.  They have staying power. 

Nettifee knows this, too.  Her delivery is simple, but forceful.  She knows her subjects are timeless.  The dysfunctional family is here to stay.  Political foibles are not about to be eradicated by our uplifted consciousness.  And, no, women are nowhere close to equality or the end of sexual objectification.  She chooses powerful material and addresses it from a place of strength and stillness.  Nettifee’s alchemy lies in turning that strength and stillness into poems about vulnerability, love tinged with pain, disappointment, and fragile human need.

She has an eye for the succulent detail, the one that puts you right there with her, even if you’ve never been there. “When Cherries are $1.99/Lb.” could warm up the coldest winter with its imagery:

we spit pits for distance, the young boys
showing off and the old boys letting them.   we swear

with reckless abandon, building a naughty momentum,
bitching about the godless, blue-collar July sun,

still baking the asphalt into hell-cake after it has already
gone home to the other side of the world for the night.

 Her words show a severe understanding of life’s alternating current of harshness and sweetness.  The voice that writes Nettifee’s poetry is partially formed from her life experience and partially retrieved from the life experience of many brilliant but broken women before her.  “Brought Up” is both an elegy to discarded expectations and an anthem to shadowed dreams:

if you’d asked my mother in 1971
she would have borne witness to the timelessness of paisley,

 told you rock-and-roll was just a passing fad, sworn
loyalty to a life of chocolate chip cookies and PTA meetings.
she was a believer all the way to the welfare line,

tried to look graceful dragging three daughters
and a station wagon behind her.
20 years of broken air conditioning and hot laundry
and bad dates and she still remembers not to swear.

I know she’s brilliant, but Nettifee would have us believe she’s broken, too.  In “If You Are Trying to Size Me Up, Allow Me to Do It for You” she writes:

 i own philodendrons with ink black leaves.
i make potting soil from broken breakfast dishes.
i kill cactus with my bare hands.

 A riff on the boy poet pick up standard – look how messed up I am go away – calculated to have confused pussy flocking to them after the open mic, Nettifee still manages a sober invitation to anyone who doesn’t mind her boundaries and track record, which gives this poem the pallor of honest self-assessment.

 While she may be tough-childhood, post-adolescent, pre-accepting-adulthood broken, she’s nowhere near the broken of her idols, from Billie to Dorothy Parker.  If she were, she just couldn’t communicate the constant sense of love that pervades these poems.  Nettifee’s voice is that of a loving, nurturing teacher, or even mother.  She is generous with her insight; each poem is a gift to twirl around and look at, hold up to the light, consider and it will reveal itself to you.  

 Her anger is passionate when prodded, too passionate to come from a place of negativity.  She has tasted bitterness, but is never caustic.  The centerpiece poem of Sleepyhead Assassins is “An American Political Awakening, Set to Six Popular Stages of a Porn Scene.”  In six vignettes, from “Blow- Job – 1990” through “Cum Shot on the Face – 2006” Nettifee personalizes the anger and frustration of being on the wrong side of the political pendulum:

i re-read The Art of War.  i try to intellectualize an enemy
that will always unleash the pit bulls when you’re down,
that will always take you from behind.

i sign up for ju-jitsu at the local Y,
but they kick me out and refund my money
when i stop fighting back.

She sums up her sixteen years of awakening with going to sleep:

hopelessness does strange things to you.
i don’t read the newspapers anymore.
at night, i lie flat on my back,
listen to the fan, stare at the ceiling,
imagine that tomorrow will be the day
i begin my training as an assassin.

I believe that she will wake up ready to fight again once the day is new. 

Nettifee seems determined to write, or, if necessary, rewrite happy endings even if they are only in the form of compassionate acceptance of circumstance for all her subjects, including herself.  She would not short-change her students, her mother or sisters, her father, Dorothy Parker, or even an unpopular president on the truth, but neither would she hurt them anymore than they’ve already been hurt. 

As Sleepyhead Assassins morphs itself into the 3 section titles of the book – “Listless Gunmen”, “Yawning Cutthroats”, and ”Lazy Killers” – it would seem Nettifee wants us to believe that we are all out to get each other, or ourselves, albeit with a lack of passionate commitment.  In a way, she does believe it – we are all out to get each other, to try to compassionately understand each other’s experience, to comprehend and accept our own shortcomings, and assimilate the differences between our childhood dreams and our adult realities.

Nettifee’s poetry is of the heartbreakingly beautiful kind – a concept she is doused in, having learned early the sad secret that “beauty hurts”.  When the universe comes collecting the gift tax on poetic wisdom, you can bet Mindy Nettifee will be up front, like a one-pin waiting for the ball to barrel down the lane straight at her.  She will be decked out in a suicide bomber vest of highly explosive words clutching the detonator tightly with both hands, thumb hovering expectantly atop the trigger.

— E. Amato

GV6 The Odyssey

DVD Directed by Bob Bryan
Graffiti Vérité (graffitiverite.com)

The Odyssey is a powerful and varied introduction to modern poetry. Through a combination of interviews and poetry excerpts from 31 SoCal poets, it presents a complex and relatively complete picture of what poetry is. The poets include provide a diverse overview of the poetic talent in SoCal. Among them are Elena Karina Byrne, Jeanette Clough, Wanda Coleman, Kamau Daaood, francEyE, Thea Iberall, Suzanne Lummis and Richard Weekly.

Thank heaven the DVD isn’t as breathless as the press release. “These Poetic Artifacts are likely the Magical by-products of countless hours of disciplined rewriting and soul-searching. This complicated and fastidious process has evolved to a point where each and every passionately inspired word is contemplated, weighed and juxtaposed. Every published ‘word bubble thought’ threatens to be a near-perfect embodiment of that sublime aha birth-marked moment of sublime revelation.” Whew!

Luckily the poets in the video are much more down to earth in their discussions of poetry. They treat poetry as something both magical and everyday. If the video shows anything, it is that poets are eminently qualified to discuss their craft, because they do so poetically. That is, obliquely, rather than trying to hit it squarely.

The Odyssey attempts to answer the great unanswerable question: What is poetry? One of the best definitions I have heard (from one of my college professors) is “the art of saying It [whatever It may be] in other words.” The poets in The Odyssey define poetry by talking about it, without ever actually trying to define it. By circling around the core of what poetry is, they give a fuller picture of poetry and its power than any flat, direct statements could. Perhaps Brendan Constantine say it best: “Life cannot be described as effectively as it can be embodied.”

The movie is shot and edited both creatively and effectively. The structure works well, interspersing the poets’ comments with excerpts from their poetry which illustrate their points. Critically, the complete poems are included as a bonus feature.

The poets are artfully shot in their “natural environments”—offices, classrooms, living rooms and bedrooms—in such a way that the backgrounds offer further glimpses into their character. Also included are images of their respective book covers, which works aesthetically and as an aid to finding their works, if your curiosity is piqued.

Among the bonus features, in addition to the complete poems, are little featurettes on Contextual Poetry, by Thea Iberall, and What is a Chapbook, by Brendan Constantine. Both are informative sidebars, although perhaps the video medium could have been used more effectively had Constantine actually demonstrated the construction of a chapbook. There are also little words of advice from the poets. These are all good supplements to the issues raised in the movie itself.

The question arises, who is this movie’s intended audience? One obvious answer is teachers and students. Much of the discussion concerns, directly or indirectly, the teaching of poetry. It would make a great video both for teachers to watch, to get ideas on their teaching, and to show in the classroom. (I assume that possible classroom use is the reason for the rather arbitrary censorship in the movie: “Shit” but not “shat”, “fuck” spoken but not printed.) This video would make a very powerful teaching tool, both for stimulating discussions of poetry, and for providing some strong examples of modern poetry.

But I believe this video would work well with a larger audience, namely anyone with a passing interest in poetry. To be honest, I don’t see it capturing the attention of someone who’s already resistant to poetry. It starts with an assumption that poetry is interesting, and doesn’t struggle to grab its audience’s attention. But someone who is already curious would find its revelations fascinating.

In the end, director Bob Bryan has created a thorough and intelligent introduction to the workings of poetry today.

 —G. Murray Thomas

A Chaos of Angels

Anthology edited by Lois P. Jones and Alice Pero
Word Walker Press (wordwalkerpress.com)

A Chaos of Angels is an anthology of poems about the use of psychotropic drugs. It has a clearly stated slant against their use in psychotherapy. Such a collection could easily slip from the poetic to the polemical. At times, this book comes dangerously close to doing just that. As a rule, the more specific the anti-drug message of the poems here, the more predictable and polemic the poem.

There are exceptions to this rule. Zan Bockes’ “Wishing I Were Anyone Else” (p. 92) manages a poetic take on the feeling of being drugged up. And “Off and On Medicine,” by Lisa Rosen (p. 13), presents both sides of the drug issue, how neither on or off is a totally satisfactory experience. But in general, few of these anti-pill poems stand up to a second reading.

Luckily, the editors opted for a more expansive theme than just anti-drug poems. As Dean Blehert states in the introduction, “What these poems have in common is a shared notion spiritual potential.” He further says, “It’s the sense that there are beings here who are unlimited in potential to be and create and love, who are not brains or chemistry.”

By far the best poems in the book examine the larger issues. Among these are Miriam Axel-Lute’s “Wade in the Water” (which I would have to quote in its entirety to give its full power) and Peter Ludwin’s “Walking to Watmough Bay”:

   All points now
to a great shutting down of things,
   a flutter
of wings above a thing white candle
where the world unveils a minor key.

The result is a mixed bag of poems. I must say that even though I found a number of good poems in the book, perhaps because of the thematic demands, only a small handful really grabbed me as great. In the end, this book almost works better as a philosophical treatise, as an examination of the issues surrounding its theme, than it does as a collection of poetry.

A Chaos of Angels certainly raised a number of questions in my mind, although I’m not sure if they are the questions the editors intended.

The first is, Why do so many poets have poems about psychotropic drugs? Is this a reflection of American society at large, or are poets more likely to have experience with such drugs?

This is actually a serious question. There is certainly a popular conception that there is a correlation between creativity and madness. So it certainly seems possible that creative people are prescribed psychotropic drugs more than the general population.

But a more important question is whether creative people react to these drugs differently. One recurring theme in the book is that the drugs stifle one's ability to “feel”, and that this “feeling” is vital to the creative process. Among the poems expressing this idea are “Cezanne the Builder”, by Leslie Silton (p. 107) and Dean Blehert’s “Poor Beethoven—He Wasn’t Nuts After All” (p. 76): “...remember,/ in the absence of appropriate medication,/ one in very 6 billion of us/ may be afflicted with Late String Quartets/ or Seventh Symphonies.”

Such poems raise the possibility that “feeling too strongly”, seen as a psychological problem, and “creativity”, generally considered a positive trait, are almost the same thing. A creative person is obviously going to be bothered by the idea of giving up their creativity, even for such a goal as “mental health.” My question is, is a non-creative person also going to be bothered by this? Or would they, perhaps, happily give up that hypersensitivity?

Another consideration is whether creative people are better able to deal with mental problems. Creativity can well serve as an outlet for thoughts, emotions, feelings they might otherwise be unable to handle. So poets may not be the best judges of the usefulness of psychotropics, as they both value the very things the drugs cure, and have a way of handling those conditions without the drugs.

But this raises yet another question: is there such a thing as a non-creative person, or are they just people who have not learned to tap into their creativity? Put another way, are some people happy to give up their hypersensitivity only because they haven’t learned its value?

Using creativity as a form of psychotherapy is not a new idea, but I believe it is an under-explored one. If I am correct that creativity provides not just an outlet for emotional trauma, but a way to find it valuable and meaningful, then perhaps creativity could be used in place of some of these drugs.

Not that we could ever replace medication entirely. Creativity is not easy, and many people prefer the easy way. We can keep Prozac, Zoloft and the rest for those who would prefer to go through life as Zombies.

On other hand, A Chaos of Angels makes it clear that there are many others who prefer the challenges of creativity. And that our world is better for their presence in it.

— G. Murray Thomas

Voices from Leimert Park: An Anthology

Edited by Shonda Buchanan
Published by Teshai Publishers
ISBN 1-59907-015-4

Spring Readings:
Feb. 21 -  World Stage - all poets/taping, 6:30-10pm
Feb. 23 -  Beyond Baroque, 7-9
Feb. 24 -  Book signing by three poets at a Larchmont bookstore
Feb. 25 -  PEN/Antioch, 2-4, Antioch Univ., 400 Corporate Pointe, Culver City
Feb. 17 -  Five poets are reading at the Black Journalists Assoc. of Southern California
April 1   -  Poets at the Leimert Park Book Fair
April 17 -  Poets at Vroman's Book Store in South Pasadena
April 28 -  Poets reading at LA Times Book Fest

Lifting Voices in Leimert Park 

By E. Amato

 When community comes together, great things can be achieved.  VOICES FROM LEIMERT PARK, a poetry anthology, is an achievement based on community.  A labour of love for editor Shonda Buchanan and publisher Elias Wondimu, this book solidifies the contributions of a group of Los Angeles writers who have lived, loved, and lost, writing their way through life in solidarity.

To commemorate the publication, Buchanan and Wondimu put together a series of readings in Leimert Park.  These events have brought more people out to poetry than Leimert Park has seen in years, with the exception of the Brave New Voices in 2004, and has made a strong statement as to why Leimert Park has garnered the literary reputation it has, and why this community and the wider Los Angeles poetry community must continue to support these venues and voices.

The three readings took place at the end of December.  The first one was at “old” 5th Street Dick's, the second at the Stage, and the third at “new” Eso Won Books.  It wouldn’t be Leimert if businesses didn’t move and change and re-move, all while the World Stage remains a fixed point of culture and gathering. There is a “new” 5th Street Dick's (some might even call it the new new 5th Street Dick's, which used to be Lucy Florence, which has moved again) and an “old” Eso Won. 

The first reading was magical.  Poets poured in from the 7pm start time up until the real (poetry) start time of oh, just shy of 9pm.  Shonda Buchanan opened the evening.  Her journey with this book has taken five years and many miles—she now lives in Hampton, Virginia, but her commitment to finish the project pushed her through all the miles, phone lines, emails, lost poets, late poets to completion.  Elias also shared some thoughts on his first time listening to Leimert Park poets, and his strong need and desire to continue the tradition with a book.  In the roomful of writers, only a handful of black publishers could be brought to mind by name—across the country.  The feeling was that these publishers must be supported by a strong flow of writers to stay solvent and to support the artistic community. 

Kamau Daáood took the stage.  As one of the founders of the World Stage, with Billy Higgins, his normally great presence was even more luminous at this event.  Having Kamau, Michael Datcher and Jawanza Dumisani (who have both led the Anansi Writers Workshop) in the same room gave form to the lineage of this writers’ tradition.

The poets took the stage alphabetically to read the pieces they have in the book.  So many wonderful voices graced the mic—Riua A.Ruth Forman, Goldie the Poet, Kim Benjamin—not every poet was represented, but many made their way back to Leimert, some from far away, and some who never left, for the event.  Jennifer Bowens was sorely missed, as she has been away from the local poetry scene for so long, but her husband read, and was quickly dubbed “Mr. Bowens” for the evening.  Some poets didn’t know they were supposed to read and some showed up to support and found themselves on stage.

From the first poet to the last—Jerry Quickley, who closed the night with his piece “Smoke and Mirrors”—I was swept up into the old Leimert, the one I had just missed, having started doing poetry only four years ago.  Now I knew why people spoke of the World Stage in whispers of awe and now I knew why people referred to themselves as Leimert Park poets.  Cohesiveness was represented on the mic that night, one which you would be hard-pressed to locate if you were hearing only two or three of these voices.  The richness of tone, the depth and breadth of life experience, and the willingness to fully sift and process life into literary events is something that has been languishing in local poetry for some time.

It is clear that the World Stage, 5th Street Dick's and other readings in Leimert inculcated these qualities.  As the poets represented in the anthology have moved on to live their lives and have left the fabric of the daily community, the mantle has not been fully picked up—not in Leimert and not in Los Angeles as a whole.  There is much to be learned from the clear dedication to craft, meaning and, yes, to spirit that these poets embody.  There is more to be admired in their staunch connection to each other and each other’s work.

On the night of the Stage reading, the block was eerily empty—many of the usual businesses were closed.  Maybe it was due to the holidays, and partially it was due to the fumigation of the complex containing new 5th Street Dick's and the wonderful Jamaican restaurant Ackee Bamboo, but for the first time in recent memory, the Stage poured out its content all the way onto the sidewalk.  The street also found its way into the Stage, but that is one of the things that makes the Stage what it is.  It is a community’s home and place to express itself. 

So many poets shone that, again, it is hard to do them justice.  However, Rhonda Mitchell did stop the room completely with her poem “Borrego—A Love Poem for the Desert”.  She caused such a stir with the first few grown-up sexy lines that she was forced to start over once the ruckus died down.  Lynn Manning’s piece “Electric Midnight Emergency Call” was another highlight of the evening, and a reminder that stories from the deepest places in our lives always have the strongest impact. 

True, detailed, well-written and heart-felt stories always take the audience right into the poet’s world, whether or not the audience's life experience is parallel to the poets.  Listening to V. Kali Nurigan read her poem “Raising Children” on that stage on that night was one of the most moving moments of the events.  Having heard her read it three times before, I was amazed at the light and love one woman can radiate through words.  Raaki Solomon came in from the street to listen —no idea he was meant to get up and read his piece.  Hannibal Tabu ended the night with two of his three pieces in the book.  As he wanted to thank many in attendance, he was apologizing for taking so much time, but everyone insisted he speak.  No one really wanted to leave, and there was still so much to be said.

The evening devolved into a free-for-all book signing, and cries of “Whose book is this?” begun at the previous reading, continued to be heard.  Like second-graders, people dutifully put their names in their precious books.  The energy and grace behind this anthology is not lost on anyone, and the feeling of preserving it and giving it a living presence in the form of readings and autographs and inscriptions is palpable and justified.  History made—by these poets coming together—is being recorded, while history in the making—bringing the poets back together for new audiences to inspire a new cycle—is unfolding.

The Eso Won reading was well-lit and spacious by comparison.  In some ways, it felt less intimate, but in others, it was a fitting closing to the series.  Each reader brought something wonderful to the stage—E. J. Priestley his detailed reminiscences, S. Pearl Sharp her serene wisdom, Pam Ward her feisty compassion, Jervey Tervalon his poignant landscapes, and Imani Tolliver her particular forceful grace.  A.K. Toney, who appears all too rarely, was assisted by a drummer from the World Stage on his poem “O’ Great Negus” a poem for Richard Fulton, of the revered 5th Street Dick's.  A.K.’s work is truly original— each poem mixed and remixed on the spot to pop the meaning into context.

The good fun highlight of the evening was when Shonda Buchanan began reading Romus Simpson’s poem in his absence.  About halfway through the poem, he walked in.  People began pointing and noticing, but not Shonda, who continued to read.  He watched and listened, but finally too many people were aware of his presence, so Shonda looked over and realized he’d been watching her performance.  It was a great moment, filled with a lot of laughter and it took the crowd a while to settle down so Romus could read his own poems.  There is something authoritative and organic about a poet reading their own work, and that was such a good example.  Shonda’s a wonderful reader, but the true ownership of the words comes through when they are read by their author.  One thing to take away from these readings is that giving voice to poetry is as important as writing it.

Conney Williams was the final poet of the evening, bringing down the house with his two poems “Serena” and “House Party”.  Conney has represented the Stage and Leimert all over Los Angeles, and was a fitting closer to the series.

More readings will be coming up in February at Beyond Baroque, The World Stage and Antioch. While they may lack the tremendous ebullience of these reunion celebrations of Leimert Park poets in Leimert Park, they should not be missed. The voices of a generation are speaking and it is our profound pleasure to be afforded to listen.

For the latest news about me visit www.myspace.com/gmurraythomas. Now available: Paper Shredders, an anthology of surf writing. Order it from you favorite bookseller.G. Murray Thomas