Poetry for Southern California


Reviews 1/08


Poetry CD Reviews & Other Things!

January 2008

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...

Book by Brenda Petrakos
Sybartic Press

Reviewed by G. Murray Thomas

Brenda Petrakos' great strength is the delineation of character. Each of these 40 stories presents a sharp, and sharply drawn, character. She consistently finds the perfect details to describe the people she writes about, whether it's the Cher song Martin plays in "Love Story," the filthy hands in "Bad Ass," or the unattractive, yet happily married women the protagonist watches in "Mack Donald's.

Petrakos does more than describe her characters. She inhabits them. Her stories are all written from the inside. The speech and thought patterns of her characters are as distinct, and as sharply created, as their external details. You don't watch these people as you read, you feel them. You are truly inside, experiencing the story as the characters do. Petrakos' primary concern is how we cope with the challenges of life. Whether abusive lovers, the petty cruelties of others, the inequities of our economic system, or the simple boredom of life, Petrakos presents her characters with a problem, and shows how they eventually rise to the occasion.

Which they consistently do. A common theme is the discovery of a previously missing self-esteem. In some of the stories, such as "Dragon Lady," "The Switch" and "Too Tall Diane," this discovery comes around naturally, through an actual process of action and discovery. But in others ("Affirmations," "Her Mantra," "Speak") it just seems to occur, one moment the character is confused and unsure of herself, the next she has it all figured out.

This is one flaw of this collection. Too often there is a gap in the action. We see where the characters start out, and where they end up, but we don't fully  see how they got from point A to point B. One common technique is show a character in childhood, and then as the adult they became. The stories "Lock Down," "Bad Ass" and "Old Man" all follow this pattern. Although she presents, or at least hints at, the connections between past and present, we rarely see the actual steps, the actual development of the character. What happened in the missing years?

This is a direct result of Petrakos' emphasis on character. In these stories, even action is subordinate to character. Overall, there isn't a lot of action, and what there is is primarily there to provide further insight into the characters. I realize this is a fine distinction, but I found Petrakos uses action to explain her characters, rather than providing a sense of character to explain the action.

To put it another way, she is more interested in who these people are than in what they do.This is the primary weakness of this collection. In the end, it is more a series of character sketches than fully fleshed out stories. Some of the pieces are quite powerful as such, but others feel thin. Many feel more like outlines for longer pieces than fully formed stories.

This is especially true of those I mentioned, which leap from childhood to adulthood. Any of these stories could be developed into a much longer story, even into a novel. She has the characters all drawn, she just needs to give them an entire life rather than a couple of snapshots.

This is not to say there are not fully fleshed stories in Stories From the Inside Edge. There certainly are. "Indiscretions," "Dragon Lady," "Night," "Gibberish Song," "Too Tall Diane" and "Park Bench" are all fully realized stories. By this I mean they show a complete episode in the lives of the main characters; the character is balanced with action, and the action moves from start to finish. The strength of these stories makes me wish Petrakos took the time to further develop her other stories.

Brenda Petrakos is a very talented writer. As I said, he ability to capture and express character is astounding. If she took a little more time to create full stories around her characters, she could write some really powerful stories.

Movie Directed by E. Paul Edwards
Indican Pictures

Reviewed by Jaimes Palacio

If the director and writer of Fighting Words E. Paul Edwards actually went to a slam it certainly doesn't show from his efforts here. Slam is treated like a  fad too unimportant to carry it's own story. Just like CB radios, rollerblading, pinball, Disco, etc., etc. Slam is relegated to the back of the room while a tacky cardboard cutout of a story takes center stage. It could possibly be the worst example of this kind of filmmaking. (Hey, at least CB radios had the interesting Jonathan Demme directing one movie and the interesting Kris Kristofferson acting in another!)

As a movie it's bad enough. You know that really awkward moment in Gremlins where they try to stuff a PSA about child molestation (!) into the mouth of the otherwise excellent Phoebe Cates, and the movie, up to that point good, nasty fun, stops dead in its tracks (though quickly recovers, thankfully).

This movie is that awkward PSA moment prolonged to 98 minutes. It is clumsy, lazily directed and written, and contains howlers that are probably meant to be profound like "You are afraid of your own heart." and "He has a heart as big as the ocean!" In truth, for a movie that throws around the word "heart" all over its shaky sleeves, it has very little of it: The characters are one-dimensional archetypes not allowed any complexities or layers. It is one of those movies where you can't tell if the actors can actually act because they are just not given enough to work with.

Take Jake, played by Jeff Stearns, the "angry poet" suffering from fashionable stubble. Jake lives in a garage (how Bohemian!) and mumbles some angry verse at a slam run by Gabriel (action-star Fred Williamson) and frequented by Benny The Heckler (Michael Parks), a once-upon-a-time great poet who missed his chance at the spotlight. Enter the publicist, Marni (Tara D'Agostino), who harbors a dark secret ailment (hint: It's not Bird Flu), and who almost instantly falls in love with Jake's fashionable stubble, even though she has a boyfriend, the famous poet David Settles as played by C. Thomas Howell. Settles is a hack, (judging by what I heard) who sports a pretentious goatee and who (like Rod McKuen or Bruce Sievers), has somehow convinced a stupid public that he's actually decent. Women strategically cross their legs for his approval and illogically swoon in his godlike shadow.

Jake, also illogically, makes women swoon with his poetry, and before you can say "Shakespeare didn't write this!" Marni is in bed with the guy and spilling her dark secret. He reacts like a typical jerk, but it is supposed to be OK because he is so tortured and look! he's getting drunk on Jägermeister and walking through the city alone because he's so tortured! Oh the drama!

Actually, not so much. Even the obligatory topless scene is ho-hum and saddled with a score so banal it can make even beautiful semi-naked people boring. Add to this the contrived moments where the writer attempts to give Jake some character by attempting to sway his angry landlord with a poem, or the moment where Jake gets fired by the stereotypical hothead, proto-Neanderthal (who's been watching Taxi lately I wonder?) and violently hits back with...a poem (!), and you have an ill-fitting mess, like the cool kid forced to wear a Mariachi uniform to the prom.

But where the movie really goes wrong is in its handling and disrespect of the guest spoken word artists it peppers throughout the movie, and the actual atmosphere of a Slam Competition. What do you say about a movie that is purporting to be about performance but buries the vocals of the great Jerry Quickley and Bridget Gray in a montage and gives only a minor non-performance role to the wonderful storyteller Tucker Smallwood? Only Mona Jean Cedar, who, as is her custom, signs for the deaf while performing, seems to escape with any relevance whatsoever.

Then there is the finale, struggling hard to be exciting but generally just being tedious and ignorant. Tedious because any sort of excitement is drained by sloppy direction and writing. When the wonderful Fred Willard, brought in at the last minute in an apparent attempt to give the proceedings some humor, can't make a line amusing, than there is a problem.

As to the slam itself, conveniently held at Gabriels' venue, it was fairly unrecognizable from any slam I've ever been involved with. Starting with the judges (which includes Settles' new publicist!) and continuing with a never-ending series of head shakers: Correct me if I'm wrong, but when someone is proven to be a plagiarist, aren't they immediately disqualified? Of course, there was no mention of score creep, and the scores throughout were fairly even; this in itself highly suspect. And with a $25,000 jackpot! Where? Just point me!

The final bout between Settles and Jake was odd and included the famous poem "The Plagiarist." Ironic for a movie that seemed to be attempting to steal the best parts from every underdog movie ever made, but sadly not finding the right tone or voice to make it its own.

Written and directed by E. Paul Edwards
Starring Jeff Stearns, C. Thomas Howell, Tara D'agostino, Fred Williamson, and Michael Parks. Cameos by Fred Willard and uncredited performers Bridget Gray, Jerry Quickley, Mona Jean Cedar, Rives, and Susan Han (among others).
DVD extras: Cast & crew interviews (but no interviews or performances by any of the uncredited spoken word artists), image gallery, sneak previews and a theatrical trailer.

And a Song For the Air
Book by Chris Vannoy and Gabriela Anaya Valdepena
Darkness Visible Books

Reviewed by G. Murray Thomas

Twenty Poems Against Love is a collaboration between two San Diego poets, Chris Vannoy and Gabriela Anaya Valdepena, although Vannoy functions primarily as photographer (he supplies two of the twenty poems). The results are startling, beautiful and, most important, thought-provoking. The book raises many questions about the role of interpretation in art.

Both the photos and the poems, for the most part, are fairly abstract. Most of Vannoy's photos are manipulated into hyper-reality—distorted edges, supersaturated colors, blurred images, recognizable objects in unfamiliar contexts. Even the few untreated photos, such as one of a naked mannequin in a cactus garden, are deliciously surreal. Many are stunningly gorgeous; the photos themselves are worth the price of this book.

But they are just the beginning. These photos are made for interpretation. Some of them have hints of a back story, others barely have recognizable objects in them. They all could be about many things.

Valdepena responds to them with some very abstract poetry of her own. (Vannoy's two poems "Neruda" and "Road Traveled" are the most straightforward in the book.) Certain lines in the poem obviously refer to items in the photos, but the poems themselves have their own concerns. They are not an attempt to explain the photos, but to take off from them. Valdepena brings her own background, her own feelings to the photos.

Like the photos, the poems are often open-ended. There are hints of a story, but it is rarely laid out clearly. Many of the poems concern themselves with various types of desire, including regret, which is it own variety of longing. Longing for what's not here now, what was in the past, even for what was never there. She often touches on the blindness of longing, how it prevents us from seeing what's right in front of us.

Sunday I rode out without my hat, with the weight
of your broken violin on my heart. But I tread on,
as the doomed often do. I vow to smoke

one cigarette in memory of ashes, and cloud
my plans with smoke and streetlights. The box cars
are full, and everyone sings... I could cry.
("I Could Cry")

Or at least that's my interpretation. As I said, the poems are very open-ended. There is plenty of room to bring your own interpretations to them. Which is fitting; this book is about discovering meaning. Valdepena discovers poems in the pictures, but she leaves it to the reader to discover the ultimate meaning, of both pictures and poems.

It is my opinion that true art only exists through interpretation. That the reader, or viewer, brings their own perspective to the art, and that perspective interacts with what the artist has presented to create meaning. Twenty Poems Against Love manages to illustrate that notion beautifully. It both shows us interpretation in action, and challenges us to complete the task.

CD by Marc Smith
EM Press

Reviewed by G. Murray Thomas

Marc Smith's CD Quarters in the Jukebox unites a number of disparate elements into a surprisingly coherent whole. The CD mixes live tracks and studio recordings, both with and without musical backing. It includes original poetry by Smith and his interpretations of classic poems, including Carl Sandburg, Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Baudelaire. There are tracks recorded at the Green Mill Tavern in Chicago, an unidentified radio studio, and the National Poetry Slam 14 years ago.

The first thing which unites the CD is Smith's voice, gravelly, distinctive and, most important, authoritative. His voice alone says, "This is important. Listen closely." The structure of the CD also helps; there is a definite flow to it, each poem building on what came before.

But most important is the fact that Smith has a vision for poetry, has had one for over 20 years now. That vision is what really brings, and holds, the various elements together. Smith's vision is that poetry was once and should again be an art form for the general public.

Smith is the father of the Poetry Slam. He held the first slams at the Green Mill in the late 1980's. His intention was to pry poetry away from the academic elites who dominated poetry at that time, and return it to the people. Slams attempted to accomplish this in two ways—by providing an entertaining format (a contest) in which to listen to poetry, and by giving the people (through randomly selected judges) the power to determine which poetry they liked.

Smith's intention was never to turn poetry into mindless entertainment, but to allow average people to (re)discover its power and meaning. He looks back to a time when people read, appreciated, knew poetry.

All of this comes through on Quarters in the Jukebox. It's all there—the populism, the past, the present, the entertainment, the meaning.

This is poetry for the common man. It is straightforward, without being simplistic. It deals with the concerns of real people—the struggle to find meaning, comfort, life itself in a world seemingly stacked against us. From the empty bar of the opener, "Nobody's Here," to the epic closing track, "Bicycle Jockey" (which expands from a tale of working class ennui to the much larger question of communication and connection), these poems speak to, and about, the average working man.

Smith's choice of Carl Sandburg poems to recite reflects this concern. Sandburg, was a poet people knew and recited, and Smith honors that tradition. The two Sandburg poems here ("Prairie" and "Mamie") present the strengths and dreams of common Midwesterners. Smith also recites Baudelaire's "Be Drunken," an exhortation to live life to its fullest, as well as poems by Marvin Bell and Paul Lawrence Dunbar. All of these "cover" poems are carefully chosen and placed to aid the flow of development of the CD overall.

But don't think Smith is bound up in traditionalism. He understands the role poetry plays today, and he works with that. In the years since Sandburg wrote, poetry lost its ability to entertain. Smith helps recapture, or even recreate, that.

As I said, Smith has an authoritative voice, which commands attention. But he's not afraid to add to that voice. About half the cuts here have musical backing. Many poets could learn from how he utilizes musicians. He works with them. The poems and the music blend into a seamless whole. Smith's voice becomes another instrument in the band. The lead instrument for sure, but one that's unified with the others, not competing with them.

But, as with the slams, the entertainment is just the hook to get you to listen. It's not the main point. Smith has something to say, this is poetry with meaning. While not an overtly political poet, he does have a politically relevant message, one of individual action, individual choice, individual responsibility.

Poems such as "My Father's Coat" and "Bold New Americans" make this clear. "For the Little Guy" speaks directly to it, discussing how difficult, even fruitless, yet ultimately important it is to try to do the right thing.

Which brings us back, essentially, to the beginning—the importance of the people. Smith doesn't see "the people" as a monolithic entity. He sees them, clearly, as individuals. Individuals who can make their own decisions, whether it be a big decision, to do the right thing, or a a relatively minor one—to listen to a poem.