Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Love Poem for a New Year

And now, as another year approaches, I offer a sonnet I wrote for my lovely wife Mary Ann Blue Gotera.

First Mango

Remember that June before our wedding we spent
in San Francisco? That first morning you woke
to my brother in silver sequins singing like
Diana Ross? What must have gone through your mind?
What kind of people were you marrying into?
My father who laughed a lot but was schizophrenic.
My stepmom who'd tried, they say, to stab him in the back
with scissors. Love may be blind, but not stone blind.

Then, one Sunday we bought at the corner market
one perfectly ripened red-gold mango.
How carefully I slit the skin with my penknife
. . . rivers of yellow juice, the furry seed . . .
then sliced the golden half-moons into quadrangles,
open petals. Your first bite of our sweet life.
for Mary Ann

— Vince Gotera, from Returning a Borrowed Tongue (1995).
Some of the family history behind this poem has been covered already in the blog. My half-brother Pepito's story: the whole Diana Ross and sequins thing really happened. My father's mental illness is touched on here and there in the blog, particularly in the write-up on the poem "Newly Released, Papa Tells What It's Like Inside." The story that Carolina, Papa's first wife, had tried to kill him was, it turned out, a fabrication he made up for his second wife, Candida . . . Mama. To justify in her eyes why he had left Carolina. I found that out when Papa remarried Carolina some years after Mama died. I said, "Why are you remarrying her? She tried to kill you!" And he said, "I made that up for your mom." When the events in this poem took place, during the summer of 1984, Papa and Carolina were married again.

The poem is a Petrarchan sonnet, rhymed abbaabba cdecde. Of course, in my customary manner, I mix half rhyme and full rhyme. For example, the a rhyme revolves around the consonant combination /n/+/t/ or the related /n/+/d/: spent, mind, into, blind. My favorite rhyme pair in the poem is mango / quadrangles, which illustrates what a polyglot language English is. The word "mango" comes from Malayam through Portuguese, and "quadrangles" from Latin through French. So on a superficial level, both words could be considered Latinate because they both come into English from a Romance language, but at a deeper level of analysis, they are as distantly unrelated as two etymologies can be.

With regard to meter, these lines are roughly pentameter with many varieties of poetic feet mixed in. Without scanning (we don't always have to scan) we can find "effective" spondees, i.e., pairs of syllables that behave like spondees (stress stress) even though scansion might reveal them to be actually stresses belonging to different feet. Well, maybe a little scanning will be helpful; look at the second half of line 2, after the caesura/question mark:
. . . that FIRST | MORN- ing | you WOKE
The phrase "first morn-" effectively forms a spondee even if it's not structurally so. I suppose there is also an effective pyrrhic foot (unstress unstress) in the adjacent syllables "-ing you" to match and offset the preceding effective spondee.

There are also "performative" spondees: maybe someone reading the poem out loud might choose to make a pair of syllables into a spondee. For example, "half-moons" is naturally a trochee but could be spoken as a spondee; the phrase "first bite" in everyday speech is probably an iamb but could be performed as a spondee for dramatic or rhetorical effect. And with the phrase "RED-GOLD MAN- go" we have potentially a performative molossus (stress stress stress), though I gotta tell ya: the molossus is a pretty rare creature in English poetics. Besides, I can't think of the molossus with a straight face; I start flashing to some clumsy dinosaur lumbering through a swamp with mangrove trees. Hmm, "mangrove" . . . "mango"? No, don't go there.

To end, I just want to point out there is a real spondee here of which I am proud: the closing phrase "sweet life." This sonnet is, after all, a love poem, a tribute to my wife Mary Ann and to our beautiful life together. Amen. (Say it like a spondee.) AMEN.

Monday, December 22, 2008

'Tis the Season

There are just two days left before Christmas Eve, so I better post my Christmas poem now, before I get crazy busy (still grading and then shopping yet to be done).

A Photo with Santa Claus

             — Naturalized American citizens living overseas
must return periodically to re-establish
residency by living one year in the States.

There were the usual screaming kids, tugging
on their Mom's and Dad's arms, whining
for a Davy Crockett coonskin cap or six-gun
with holster, a Shirley-Temple-curled doll

that really wets. His son's probably playing
in the toy department,
the other parents must
have thought about this lone man in line
at the San Francisco Emporium — in line to see

Santa. Between children jumping off
and on his lap, Santa looked off to his left
where a troupe of silvery Tinkerbells skated, the ice
cooling the air of this huge room, a cathedral

to free enterprise. I look now at this photo,
faded thirty years, of the man who livened up
Santa's workday: my father in a double-breasted
brown suit, his red tie spangled with fireworks.

In Santa's lap, Papa's holding a briefcase,
blonde leather fastened with buckle straps.
Papa beams at the camera with a mischievous twinkle
in his eye. Santa's smiling at this marvelous prank.

Everyone in line laughed to see a grown
man sitting on another grown man's knee.
A snapshot meant for a son, half the world
away in Manila. Your son who could hardly recall

your face. Papa, after you whisper your Christmas
wish into Santa's ear, shake his hand
man to man, then step back into the world
of business suits and residency rules, I want

the breeze from the skaters' ice to part your hair
— shiny and black — caress your lovely face
as you glide down the Big E slide, hugging
the briefcase to your chest like a lonesome child.

— Vince Gotera, from Premonitions: The Kaya
Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry

(1995). Also appeared in Fighting Kite (2007).

If you read the first installment of my online bio, you know that I spent part of my boyhood in the Philippines. Sometime after I was born in California, my parents moved to the Philippines, where my mother practiced medicine and my father studied law. This poem takes place during that period.

My father, as a naturalized American citizen (i.e., a citizen by law rather than by birth), had to re-establish residency in the US every so many years. He would spend that year living in San Francisco's International Hotel, among the manongs, male Filipino immigrants who had established this bachelor community on the edge of Chinatown.

During one of those residency trips, my father sent me a photo of him on Santa's lap at the Emporium department store, just as described in the poem. I no longer have this photo, but I remember it vividly as one of the defining images of my childhood. It's memorable not only because, as the poem says, it's a "marvelous prank," but because it shows Papa's love for me: Filipinos can be very shy, almost to the point of shame, a profound cultural emotion called hiya, and the very fact that Papa did this, despite his hiya, says volumes about what he would do for his absent son.

Papa and I never talked about the Santa event that I can remember. And so all the details are wholly imagined. The word "blonde" (female rather than the more accepted "blond") is intentional; the manongs had a slang term for their white girlfriends — "blondies" — and I don't doubt that Papa, himself a kind of honorary manong, had blondies.

The poem is also about manhood and the dignity of work. My father, as a Filipino immigrant citizen, was not always able to work in the US at a profession he felt he could respect. At the time the Santa photo was taken, however, he was working as a civil servant for the Navy and was quite happy during his residency year. By having Papa and Santa shake hands "man to man," I am symbolically lifting my father out of the daily experiences of racial prejudice he probably had during those times — the late 1950s. The poem is thus simultaneously familial and political.

As I said in my last post, I'll leave other fruits of this poem for others to pick. I'll just leave off now by saying, "Merry Christmas!" Go sit on Santa's lap. It'll make your day and his!
NOTE: the graphic above is from artist Charley Parker's website Lines and Colors, showing the work of four Santa illustrators. Starting at top left, clockwise, the images are by Thomas Nast, J. C. Leyendecker, Norman Rockwell, and Haddon Sundblom (for Coca-Cola).

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Dragonfly (pages 1-2)

Okay, now the first poem in the book. (Note: there's a navigation bar below each Dragonfly post that can help you move around in the book posts in the blog.)

First Hand-Plant: Skating the Petaluma Ramp

for my son Marty

The front wheels kiss the edge and
my son pauses for a breath then drops in

and for once his Vans don't slip
on the skateboard's sandpaper grip tape,

a flawless slide down plywood,
the face of the ten-foot half pipe

thundering with the whine of tortured
ball bearings, and now like the Silver Surfer

slicing through angular air, he climbs
the opposite slope, as thrasher buddies

and posers hook their eyes on his goofy-footed
profile arcing against California sky, then down

he drops again, the reverse swing
of a chainless pendulum, love

affair with gravity and breakneck
speed, climbing now once more,

his board pointed toward the hard light
above the metal lip of the ramp, and

his right hand reaches down
between both shoes to grip the board

as his left snakes out to plant
the hand on the rim, then

lock wrist and elbow,
pausing upside down like a pole vaulter

Page 1

at the breathless apex of impossible
flight, the wheels madly singing free, free

for a long moment's crazy pivot on a rigid
shoulder, but like rock and roll, gravity

again takes hold, and as he angles
the board back to earth, swooping

down the steep face, he steals a glance
over right shoulder, scouting new country.

Page 2

This poem brings me back to grad school at Indiana University, 20-plus years ago, when Marty would come and visit, stay for the summer. Mary Ann and I were newly-weds, and Marty was 12, 13, etc. The first summer — I think Marty was probably 11 — Mary Ann called her mom and said, "What do I do? He's eating everything!" Mom said, "Remember when I used to feed you and your brothers spaghetti and really filling food like that?" Ah, teenagedom.

What I remember most about those summers was Marty's utter devotion to skateboarding. No, I should use the skateboarder's preferred term: skating. And not skateboarders, but skaters. Marty found other skaters at the local skatepark with its rails and small ramps; they called him "The California Kid." He would eat a little breakfast and then skate all morning. Back home for lunch. Skate all afternoon. Home for dinner. Then evenings poring over Thrasher and Skateboarding magazines — new issues as well as dog-eared, thumb-worn, precious back issues he'd lugged from California. Or else watch skating videos: Tony Hawk and Steve Caballero, Mike McGill and the Bones Brigade. Hours drawing intricate skull-and-skeleton-themed graphics, Powell-Peralta style.

Marty would skate so early in the morning, out in the parking lot of our high-rise married-student-housing apartment, that once we had an awkward moment in the elevator when another resident saw Marty's skateboard and blurted out, "Oh, so you're the one who's been waking us up every morning with that skateboard!" Ah yes, skateboard noises: click-clack, grrrrind, sh-clank! The soundtrack of Marty's world back then.

"First Hand-Plant: Skating the Petaluma Ramp" is my homage to Marty's obsession. Marty was always a street skater and so hardly ever did tricks on half-pipes (the double-walled large ramps), but I was just amazed by hand-plants, which I saw over and over in Marty's videos. Vert skating, as ramp work later came to be known, connected with my fantasies of flying, and in this poem, I tried to capture and dramatize how I imagined it would feel to pull off a hand-plant.

For you poets and scholars who are interested in poetics, this poem started off as an homage to and imitation of Edward Hirsch's poem Fast Break — hence the couplets, the words "drop" and "for once" early in the poem, the single sentence overall. "First Hand-Plant" really took off in its own singular direction, different from Hirsch's impetus, so I never published this as "after Edward Hirsch." But looking at it now, it seems quite faithful to "Fast Break," so let give props right here: thanks for the inspiration, Ed, and the tremendously useful form. In your case, couplets like two forwards fast-breaking down-court, in my case, couplets like skateboard wheels in tandem, whirring in air during the frozen moment at the top of the parabola.

In "First Hand-Plant" I use quite a lot of enjambment: "tortured / ball bearings," "plant / the hand" "swooping / down the steep face." In fact, there are only a few end-stops in the poem, and even those are somewhat enjambed. My hope is that the endjambments feel relentless, like the inexorable motion and speed of skateboarding. Sorry, skating.

There is also quite a bit of soundplay. For example, the consonance of /p/ sounds in the first two or three stanzas: pauses, drops, slip, sandpaper grip tape, plywood, pipe. That last word "pipe" is of course half of an important phrase in the poem, "half pipe," which also contains the related consonant /f/. Check out the occurrences of /f/ in those same three stanzas: front, for once, flawless, ten-foot, half. Even the title of the poem visibly features /f/ and /p/.

A Filipino critic and scholar might be tempted to point out here that in Philippine languages, /f/ does not exist and so Filipinos learning English and/or Spanish mix up /f/ and /p/, and that that is why the /f/ and /p/ conjunction is appearing in this poem. A claim like that might be reaching too far, but who knows? It's entirely possible that the /f/ vs. /p/ stuff could be there in some very deep, intimate layer of my "poetry machine."

The more expected consonants — /s/ and /r/ — appear throughout the poem but most conspicuously in the last three stanzas: moment's, takes, as, angles, swooping, steep, steals, scouting, then crazy, rigid, rock and roll, gravity, board, earth, right, country (and of course one sees both in shoulder, said twice).

There is plenty more that could be said here, but I'll leave some fruit for others to pick. Break out that old skateboard from the garage! Get out there and skate. Then come back and read some more right here. Peace out.
NOTE: The photo above is of Steve Caballero executing a hand-plant, from Skateboard-World, a site by sk8rnick.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Dragonfly (page ix) Introduction


          This short book dovetails the new with the old, the imagined with lived experiences, cementing this mosaic of possibilities. Some terrifying moments are encased in chrysalises of beatific clarity and certainty. Wisdom and bewilderment stare back at us from these pages. Janus-headed: historical and futuristic.
          These poems lead us readers to search for answers in ourselves. I am not talking about profundity (though there are numerous profound moments here); in essence I am speaking about how those simple, overlooked glimpses at our common lives tend to rise to the troubled surface of this poetry. The voices here seem to be saying that if we "dream on the edge of history" we won't escape by feigning ignorance or innocence. Gotera paints the score in brilliant, bold, and brave strokes across an encompassing canvas. Like those x-ray paintings by Australian Aboriginals, his journeys are inward. And we can see inside the "hollow bones of hummingbirds" alongside the desires within us. There are not easy or unearned directives here; however, there is prophecy — not mere imagistic probes among psychological landmines. Everyday motifs align with the fantastic and bizarre. Gotera dares to glance at "Pharaoh's scimitar" through a plexiglass facade, showing us our own bewildered faces in this imagistic mix. Through this poetry we can almost see what we are becoming.
          What is most striking about Dragonfly, considering the fact it is a tapestry of lived and imagined extrusions, is how the poems seem to defy any rote definition. They are flighty, majestic, simple, confident, and risk-taking.
          The voices here are having fun. They can be heavy as war, Elvis, blood, racism, and Tutankhamun's tomb; but also light and airy as mosquitoes, dragonflies, and notes from Carlos Santana's guitar on a sunny day in Berkeley. A tension through juxtaposition is what Vince Gotera's Dragonfly achieves in a miraculous light that sobers the mind. Characters ease into each other's dreams, taking us along with them, and we are better and more complete because we have humbled ourselves long enough to peer through the eyes of these sojourners.

— Yusef Komunyakaa

Page ix

I am ever grateful to Yusef Komunyakaa, then a professor of creative writing at Indiana University, for his mentorship during my MFA days there and also for his continuing mentorship throughout my career. Some of this story is told in my article "Mentor and Friend: Yusef Komunyakaa as Teacher," published in a special issue of the literary journal Callaloo devoted to Yusef (28.3, Summer 2005).

Words can never express the extent and magnitude of my gratitude for your teaching, Yusef, for your taking me on as an apprentice. Salamat, as we say in Filipino, maraming salamat! Thanks, Yusef . . . many, many thanks.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Dragonfly (pages vii-viii) Contents

And now Dragonfly's Table of Contents. The page numbers given are the same as those in the book; click on the page number for the blog post that features the poem on that page in the book.

Since the book, at this point, is still being posted in the blog little by little, not all the page-number links will be live right away. I'll fill in links as stuff gets posted.


ix     Introduction by Yusef Komunyakaa

1     First Hand-Plant: Skating the Petaluma Ramp

3   Gallery of the Mind

4   Tutankhamun, September 1979

6     Miraculous Dragonfly

7     Mosquito / Manila Haiku

8     Crosses

10     Pacific Crossing

12     Shiites, 1985

14     Ferdinand Marcos, Shadow Boxing at His Mirror, on the Occasion of His Wife Imelda's Arraignment in New York City, November 1988, Where She Wore a Ballroom Gown

15     Imelda Marcos discusses with Ferdinand the Gala Party She Gave on September 11, 1990, to Celebrate His 73rd Birthday Posthumously

16     Gambling

18     Uncle Ray Shoots Craps with Elvis

20     Jive Talk

22     After the Gig: Saint Agnes Teen Club Dance

23   Carlos Santana in Concert: Berkeley, 1983

24     "Are You Experienced?"


Page vii

25     Janis, 1987

26     Hot Club de France Reprise on MTV

28     Gawain's Rap

29     At the Poetry Reading in Science B 135, A Snowstorm

30     Hunter: A Sculpture in Glass

32     Morgan Kali Murray

33     An Aviation Engineer's Tribute to Leonardo

35     Halloween 1963

37     Tunnel Rat

38     Veterans Day 1987

40     Vietnam Era Vet

42     Heirloom

44     A Note About the Author


Page viii

It's been an interesting experience posting Dragonfly so far, even though I'm still pretty much at the beginning of the project. Looking at the table of contents brings back memories about what was going on in my life as I was writing and workshopping these poems. I'll share those in due time as more pages are posted in the blog.

Incidentally, some of these poems are still very much "alive" out in the world; for example, the two Marcos poems above are due to be published soon in the Philippines in a literary anthology about the Marcoses, and I have written a third poem to accompany these two. The new poem deals with Ferdinand and Imelda's son Bongbong (actually Ferdinand Marcos Jr., but with a childhood nickname that has unfortunately followed him into adulthood and into public life). This kind of naming, inexplicable as it may be, is fairly common in the Philippines.


Sunday, December 14, 2008

Dragonfly (pages i-vi)

Here are facsimiles (sorta ... close enough, anyway) of the opening pages of Dragonfly. Not very exciting, I'm afraid. But here goes:


Page i

Page ii


Vince Gotera

Pecan Grove Press
St. Mary's University     San Antonio, Texas
Page iii

Copyright © 1994
by Vince Gotera

Cover design and art by
Mary Ann Blue Gotera

ISBN 1-877603-25-2

Pecan Grove Press
St. Mary's University
One Camino Santa Maria
San Antonio, Texas 78828-8608
Page iv

for Marty Gotera

Page v

My son Marty was 22 when Dragonfly came out. I remember when I gave him a copy of the book I said, "Marty, this one's for you." What I meant was that this entire book was dedicated to him, but I wonder if he thought I was merely saying that that particular copy was his. Just one of those perhaps awkward moments that lodge in one's memory, though probably Marty doesn't even remember that. And now, with this serial re-publication, I have the chance to make it right. In any case, I thought of Dragonfly as a kind of long letter to Marty about things I wanted him to know as he entered his adult years.

Grateful acknowledgement is made to the editors of the following
publications in which these poems appeared:

Amerasia • "Crosses" • "Gambling"
ART/LIFE • "Are You Experienced" • "Carlos Santana in
     Concert; Berkeley, 1983"
Asian America • "Ferdinand Marcos, Shadow Boxing at His
     Mirror, on the Occasion of His Wife Imelda's Arraignment in
     New York City, November 1988, Where She Wore a Ballroom
     Gown" • Imelda Marcos Discusses with Ferdinand the Gala
     Party She Gave on September 11, 1990, to Celebrate His 73rd
     Birthday Posthumously"
Indiana Review • "First Hand Plant: Skating the Petaluma Ramp"
The Jazz Poetry Anthology"Hot Club de France Reprise on
Journal of American Culture •"Vietnam Era Vet"
Kenyon Review • "Halloween 1963"
Licking River Review • "After the Gig: St. Agnes Teen Club
     Dance" • "Veterans Day 1987"
Mid-American Review • "Mosquito / Manila Haiku"
Northcoast View • "Janis, 1987" • "Jive Talk" • "Morgan Kali
Quarry West • "Miraculous Dragonfly"
River Styx • "Heirloom" • "Uncle Ray Shoots Craps with Elvis"
Wooster Review • "Gawain's Rap" • "Shiites, 1985"

The Quarry West double issue referenced above was marketed as a
book, Dissident Song: A Contemporary Asian American Anthology.

Page vi

Looking at this list now, I am amazed at the publishing record of these poems in my first collection. I had forgotten how hard I worked back then at getting these poems out and about in the literary magazine market while I was an assistant professor at Humboldt State University. I guess I was quite the hungry poet in those days. So different from my life these days as the editor of the North American Review, as a gatekeeper now for today's hungry young poets.


Friday, December 12, 2008

Glossolalia, Redecorated

Do you know John Barth's fiction collection Lost in the Funhouse? It contains a piece called "Glossolalia" that features several widely varying texts. When these are read aloud simultaneously, they sound like a well-known everyday text; I hesitate to say more than that, for fear of damaging your potential bliss of discovery if you don't already know Barth's "Glossolalia" — the word itself refers to speech in an unknown language that cannot be understood, perhaps even an imagined language. Go read Lost in the Funhouse. I've always admired Barth's little parlor trick of a story, or whatever it is — "Glossolia."

I also admire Robert Mezey's "Prose and Cons," which employs similar sounds to fabricate humorous "translations" or conversions of common texts we might all know. Here, for example, is s beginning whose model you will surely recognize immediately: "Our farther, whose art is heavy, / hollow bead I name. / Die, kingpin, come" and so on. The central engine of "Prose and Cons" (found in Mezey's poetry collection Evening Wind) is consonance.

These two sources confraternized in my "inner poetry machine" and the following prose poem came sliding out:

Chorus of Glories

— Instructions for performance: assign one person (or group) to
voice each speaker, then read the four “glories” aloud and in unison.
Note: readers may need to practice several times, letting go of
personal intonation in favor of group syllabics, to allow the
glossolalic effect to take hold. Marvelous for parties, choir rehearsals,
and university committee meetings.

— after Robert Mezey and John Barth

The Surfer

Chlorine be to the frother, and to the sand, and to the shoal we
coast. Acid wash in the beginner is gnarly, ever chill, babe.
Curl without land. We men.

The Dieter

Calories be in the fodder, and in the scent, and in the whole wheat
toast. As weight was in the beginning, is now and ever-so-Elvis,
whirl with Attends. Weigh ’em in.

The Avant-Garde Artiste

Galleries be to the Fad War, into the Scene, into the whole East
Coast. As we test ’em, the big ending is knowing if there shall be
pearls in our hand. Oh, man.

The “Pre-Owned Vehicle” Dealer

Glory be to the four-door, and to the shine, and to the full lease,
most. Mitsubishi, the beguiling, Nissan and ever Shelby,
hurled without end. Aim in.

— Vince Gotera, from Mirror Northwest (2006)

I am posting this poem now because I am just finishing teaching Craft of Poetry at the University of Northern Iowa — an upper-class and grad course in which we focused on poetry imitation. We read Denise Duhamel's Barbie-poem-collection Kinky and then wrote imitation Duhamel/Barbie (or Ken or Papa Smurf or King Kong) poems. Then Revolt of the Crash Test Dummies by Jim Daniels; Prairie Fever by Mary Biddinger; Against Which by Ross Gay; Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons by Marilyn Hacker; and finally Long for this World by Ronald Wallace — all the while writing and workshopping imitation poems for each poet we studied.

Now I want to show my students that there can be a larger life outside the classroom for imitation poems. In "Chorus of Glories," I am imitating John Barth and Robert Mezey, as explained above, as well as a Christian prayer. And also lampooning all sorts of people on the way, including myself and my profession.

Like a couple of other poems recently posted in the blog, "Chorus of Glories" appeared in the Contemporary Poetry anthology of the online journal Mirror Northwest — an anthology/cache of creative-writing models for students. Here is my pedagogical note about "Chorus of Glories" on that website:

This is a light-hearted experiment in poetic music, especially so-called "rich consonance." I am of course indebted to Hopkins and, more particularly, Robert Mezey's "Prose and Cons" in his book Evening Wind and also John Barth's "Glossolalia" in Lost in the Funhouse. Although my "Instructions for performance" are tongue-in-cheek, I hope you will try reading the different sections out loud chorally in unison groups.

The "rich consonance" here is easily shown by comparing the last sentence in each paragraph: "We men." "Weigh 'em in." "Oh, man." "Aim in." But, you know, I'm over-explaining. Just gather a group of people, assign different paragraphs, and try reading them all at the same time. Can you "feel" what my primary original model was? Have fun!

Graphic courtesy of

Friday, December 5, 2008


My first poetry collection, titled Dragonfly (1994), came about because I was a member of a creative writing listserv called CREWRT-L during the late 1980s and early 1990s. I made many friends in that close-knit writing community, some of whom I'm still in touch with today, mostly through the social network Facebook.

One of those stalwart friends was (and is) Dr. H. Palmer Hall, founder and editor of Pecan Grove Press (PGP), a publisher of fine literature (mainly poetry), based at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas. In late 1993, after we had gotten to know each other quite well online, Palmer asked me if I would be interested in publishing a poetry collection with PGP. I was indeed interested, and this publication would end up to be a boon for both of us because my book would be the first national publication by PGP. Since then, Pecan Grove Press has become one of the nation's premier poetry publishers.

At that time, I was quite aggressively sending a manuscript titled Pacific Crossing to various presses (mainly through prize competitions) and had a book in progress titled Heirloom. I thought of the PGP book as a kind of teaser, a longish trailer, for these two collections and so mined poems out of both of them. The PGP collection, Dragonfly, I planned then as a large chapbook that would be just a couple pages shy of the minimum book-length total page count of the time: 48 pages. As it turns out, Pacific Crossing has yet to find a publisher although it has been a finalist at various competitions over the years. Ditto with Heirloom. Any publishers out there seeking poetry books? Or do you, O gentle reader, know any publishers? (You just never know!)

Front Cover Image  Back Cover Image

Once I had assembled the manuscript of Dragonfly and Palmer and I had agreed on its final form, sequence, etc., I asked him if my wife Mary Ann could design the cover, and Palmer agreed. This was quite generous on his part because most publishers don't allow the writer to have any say about either design or art. So thanks for that, Palmer!

Mary Ann spent an entire summer studying dragonflies; fortunately, we lived in northern California on the coast near Oregon (Redwood country), and dragonflies were in great abundance. At one point, she needed to see one up close and I caught one for her in exactly the way I describe in the book's title poem "Miraculous Dragonfly" (she had always thought that the method of dragonfly-catching I described was imaginary!). Nonetheless, she had done sketch after sketch and none of them pleased her.

Because the pen-and-inks and pencil renderings were not working out, Mary Ann decided one day to tear a dragonfly out of white construction paper. The finished cut-out didn't feel right, so she laid it down on another piece of paper and painted it black. When Mary Ann picked up the dragonfly, she discovered that the black paint had seeped underneath and the black outline you see in the completed cover above was on the paper below. To finish the cover art, she simply added the turquoise highlights. The rest of the cover design followed in short order, resulting in just a marvelous cover, I think. Though it's possible I may be just a little biased!

While Mary Ann was working on the cover, I secured an introduction from Yusef Komunyakaa, who had been my poetry writing professor at Indiana University, as well as blurbs from two fine poets (and friends): Jessica Hagedorn and Walt MacDonald. Here are those two blurbs since they are impossible to read in the reproduction above of the back cover.

Dragonfly is a welcome collection of poems by Vince Gotera. In a simple, straightforward style, Gotera begins by writing about a father's tender love for his son. Poem by poem, and ever mindful of the big picture, Gotera goes on to explore the painful contradictions of cultural identity with dark humor, wisdom, and compassion.
— Jessica Hagedorn      

Vince Gotera’s Dragonfly has exciting images, like fine photography packed into a chapbook. These are spirited poems about legends exposed, or missed and forgiven — and about ordinary people accepted and honored for what they are. Gotera is amazed not so much by the gold of their bodies or fortunes but of their hearts. As if he wields a camera, Gotera captures the breathless moment, writes of the flesh made flesh, but often holy: the old woman who walked on her knees from Jerusalem to Calvary; the Chaplain who said Mass daily in a POW camp, who had for wine only "a raisin soaked in water, / then squeezed into a thimble." In a signature poem, a herald of more good books to come, Gotera catches the daring of his son skating a ramp — "A flawless slide down plywood," then "free, free" at the top of the ramp for a second, stealing a glance "over right shoulder, scouting new country."
— Walt McDonald          

The photograph on the back cover is of me and my infant daughter Melina (now 15 years old). I intended that particular shot to be a tribute of sorts to Jessica Hagedorn, whose photo in an anthology where we both appeared, Garrett Hongo's The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America, portrays her and one of her daughters. Thanks for all your help over the years, Jessica. And many thanks to you as well, Walt, for your help and for your fine body of poetic work that I was honored to study and interpret in my book of literary criticism Radical Visions: Poetry by Vietnam Veterans (1994).

Dragonfly is now out of print after going through three printings, though it is still occasionally available from rare and vintage book dealers. In fact, not long ago, a signed copy of Dragonfly was being sold in either Oregon or Washington State for something like $150.00; isn't that simply incredible? Who'd a-thunk it?

In any case, now that Dragonfly has become quite difficult to find, I am pleased to be able to present it here in the blog in serial form. I hope you enjoy it, O my faithful readers. Stay tuned to this poetry channel!


P.S. I should have said above that, while Pacific Crossing and Heirloom have not yet been published, two other poetry collections have come out since Dragonfly: Ghost Wars (2003) and Fighting Kite (2007). Ghost Wars won the 2004 Global Filipino Literary Award for Poetry.       — VG 12 Jan 2009

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Winter Wonderland, Yeah!

Today, Cedar Falls got its first real taste of winter. I spent more than a couple of minutes — a lot more — shoveling the driveway clear of snow today. And then in the early evening my daughter Amanda and I started to drive to Grinnell, Iowa, a little over an hour away. We saw several cars, abandoned, in ditches; a large wrecker winching up a car back onto the roadbed; everyone crawling along at 25-30 mph. After the second time we almost spun out ourselves, we turned back home, having gone in the space of an hour maybe 20 miles or so.

So, in celebration of the coming of winter — my favorite season, actually — I give you an appropriately seasonal poem:

Iowa Winter Haiku

Canada geese honk
                    in the lopsided trailing
           edge — a ragged V

                             new snowbank glistens
           with bright flecks of diamond,
                    crystalline sugar

                    starlings clustering
power lines, strung beads against white
                             sky, heads under wings

                             constellations drift
           in headlights . . . slick sidewinders
           scuffling in the road

                    snowflakes spiral like
                             tiny birds pirouetting
in crisp knifeblade air

— Vince Gotera, from Mirror Northwest (2006)

Like my poem "Looking for Double Victory" (which I posted in this blog on 11 November 2008), "Iowa Winter Haiku" appeared in the Contemporary Poetry section of the online journal Mirror Northwest, an anthology of models for creative writing students. Here is a note I appended to this poem in that educational venue:

Since Mirror Northwest's Contemporary Poetry pages are primarily a resource for students of poetry writing, it’s important to note that current haiku writers no longer feel constrained to write in the traditional 5-7-5 syllable pattern. I have done so because of my interest in lineation and the different emotional effects achieved through the modulation of end-stop and enjambment, especially in the context of a rigid syllabic scheme. For example, the extreme enjambment in "trailing / edge" or "white / sky" is meant to imply a hushed, pregnant starkness in the wintry landscape.

I had previously submitted this poem to an American haiku journal, and the editor very generously ("generous" because nowadays editors don't usually have time for substantive responses) generously suggested that I make each haiku more compact — in other words, stop with the 5-7-5 syllabics. I ended up not taking that advice, although that meant not fitting in finally with today's haiku standards and sensibilities, because I relish the challenge of writing in preset syllabic lines while still executing purposeful line breaks. A là the inestimable Marianne Moore, one of my favorite poets.

I am reminded in this context of Robert Frost's much quoted witticism: "Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down." He didn't mean, as some people think, that not having the net is a freedom to be wished for; he meant that if one doesn't have the net, there is no point to the game: without the net, one doesn't know if a shot is good or bad. Had the net been there, perhaps that shot would not have successfully made it crosscourt. I suppose that's how I feel about the 5-7-5 requirement. It keeps us honest.

One final note: the title of this poem is "Iowa Winter Haiku," not simply "Winter Haiku." As a San Franciscan, I am very happy now to live where there are four discrete seasons; one can often tell, even, when the season changes. It's summer and then one day, you walk outside, and all your senses tell you: it's turned into fall. I didn't always feel that way; San Franciscans (and probably many Californians) can be fiercely provincial, feeling that no place rocks quite as much as their own. Probably more so than New Yorkers, whose provincialism is proverbial. Having lived in Iowa since 1995, however, I find this state has really grown on me. It's a great place to raise kids, as they say, and the winters are nothing short of spectacular. Come to Iowa and see for yourself!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Tin of Tangerines

So far this blog has dealt with war quite a bit . . . the role of men in particular, in both WWII and the American war in Vietnam. In the poem "Hospital Thoughts, Last Year and Today" (see 24 November 2008), there is a fantasy sequence where a woman is shown in a war context, but that scene is only imaginary and depicts a romanticized war, a Hollywood war.

Here is a poem that deals with war from the woman's point of view; quite distinct from the war poems I've given you so far: the main character is a woman, she's Japanese, a survivor of the Hiroshima atom-bomb attack, a religious person, a woman of both faith and hope . . . as well as despair.

50 Years Later, A Woman Recalls
— based on a story in National
Geographic (August 1995).
"Mother, may we please open that tin?"
four-year-old Akiko asked before breakfast.
"No, dear, we must save the tangerines,"

Shima sighed. "Akiko, you know we're keeping
our canned food in case the bombers attack.
You've asked May we please open that tin?

every morning for a week." Akiko grinned
and slipped into Shima's open arms for a quick
embrace, "Yes, we must save the tangerines."

They turned to slice radish leaves, stir soybeans.
Above, Enola Gay, Little Boy. Rice cooking.
Some mother's son says, "Please open the bomb

bay doors." Their home implodes. Shima and
her three other daughters never find Akiko.
Since then, No, we must save the tangerines

has resounded each morning in Shima's mind.
Daily, she recalls Hiroshima, Nagasaki —
kneels at her bedroom altar, offers an open tin
of tangerines. To save lost Akiko. Save Japan.

— Vince Gotera, Crab Orchard Review (1998).
Also appeared in Ghost Wars (2003).

This poem, as you can no doubt intuit from the epigraph, is based on a true story. There is an actual woman named Shima, living in 1995, who tries symbolically each morning to fulfill her dead daughter's last wish. There is a quiet, sublimated horror here that matches, and perhaps overshadows, other true stories about horribly burned people making their way down to the river, seeking coolness and a quenching of their terrible thirst, only to find that haven choked with dead bodies. We can only imagine the throat-catching, existential anguish that Shima lives through in not finding Akiko — an anguish that is with her still today.

The focus, obviously, is on mothering, on traditionally woman-oriented topics, the opening kitchen scene, the preparing of breakfast, the sweet conversation between two females, mother and daughter. The mention of "Enola Gay" and "Little Boy" are meant to be thematic here. "Enola Gay" is the name of the bomber pilot's mother, ironically enough, and "Little Boy" is the name given to this specific bomb; together the two names imply a kind of distortion of the poem's mother/child theme. And, if we think in Freudian fashion here, the B-29 births the "little boy" through its bomb-bay birth canal. I try to clinch the askew thematics by calling the disembodied bombardier "some mother's son" and having him speak in such a polite way, as taught him by his mother.

In terms of poetic technique, this is a villanelle . . . though, of course, notice that I take liberties — or poetic license — with the returning refrain lines. (For those who don't know the villanelle form: the first and third lines of the opening triplet are cycled as alternating refrains at the ends of the four following stanzas, and then both refrains appear at the end of the closing quatrain; also there are two rhymes, the b rhyme sandwiched between the a rhymes in each stanza.) Actually I take immense liberties with the refrains, mainly re-using only the words "open" and "tin" in one line and only "save" and "tangerines" in the other line. I wish I could say something like "I meant the extreme changes in the refrains to represent the chaos of war"; but no, that wouldn't be true . . . I just wanted the refrains to be radically changed each time, just for the sake of change in form and in the reader's expectations.

The a and b rhymes are also radically altered. The a rhyming sound is basically the consonant /n/ . . . "tin," "tangerines," "grinned," and so on. The most distant a rhyme is the /m/ of "bomb," which I did mean to echo thematically, to underline the psychic distance between the male world inside the B-29 bomber and the female world in Shima and Akiko's kitchen. The b rhyme is primarily focused on /k/ . . . for example, the slant rhyme "attack" and "quick." Sometimes the /k/ is quite buried inside the rhyming words, as in "breakfast" and "cooking"; at other times the /k/ is only slightly buried: "Akiko" and "Nagasaki." This last rhyming pair is intended to be the most damning indictment in the poem: the death of a little girl yoked with the death of thousands of people in the second atom-bomb attack, as if one attack were not enough. (I hope it doesn't come as a surprise to you that there are people in Japan who see Harry S. Truman as a war criminal, a monster as awful as Hitler or Stalin.)

Obviously (at least I hope it's obvious) this poem is an antiwar poem, one that highlights the horrors of war in the twentieth century: wholesale death dispensed antiseptically and distantly by people who only push a button and don't come face to face with the havoc and terror they have wrought. I hope it's equally obvious that I mean for this poem to be a symbol as well of the possibility that words, especially when used as/with art, can stop wars. Let's cling to that hope, friends.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Autobiography (1.0)

From time to time, I am contacted by students or researchers who are studying my poetry or fiction, and they often ask questions about my life. So I am going to give a brief bio here for those students and others who may be interested.

On June 20, 1952, I was born Vicente Ferrer Gotera in the NCO Club at the Presidio of San Francisco. Well, that's not exactly true. That date is right but the building was the Obstetrics Clinic of Letterman Army Hospital . . . only years later would it become the NCO club, a bar and restaurant for non-commissioned officers, sergeants and so on.

My parents were both Filipino American immigrants to the US: Martin Avila Gotera and Candida Fajardo Gotera. My father would eventually become a lawyer and my mother was already an MD when I was born (I believe).

I was born in a US Army hospital because my father was a retired Army officer, a second lieutenant who received a battlefield commission, meaning he had performed some feat of extraordinary leadership while in combat . . . what that feat was, I don't know. Martin was a naturalized American citizen because of his service in the US Army during WWII, a member of the elite Philippine Scouts, survivor of the Bataan Death March and a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.

After receiving medical care in the US for combat fatigue in 1946, Martin went back to the Philippines but had to return periodically to the US to re-establish residency in order not to forfeit his naturalized US citzenship. When he met Candida he was in San Francisco on one of those residency trips.

My mother was in the US because she had gone to Stanford University for her medical training (all or part, I’m not certain about). Dr. Fajardo's specialty was pediatrics, and she practiced medicine in the Philippines some time later . . . more on that below.

In 1951, Martin met Candida Fajardo in the basement of a downtown San Francisco bank. He had heard women's voices speaking Tagalog and followed their refreshing lilts until he saw Candida (nicknamed Dading) with her sister Clara. They were immediately attracted to one another, though Clara said, "Watch out for that one — he’s trouble."

Well, I guess he was trouble . . . Martin was already married. His wife Carolina Matsumura Gotera had stayed behind in Manila with their two sons Gabriel (nicknamed Angel) and Jose (nicknamed Pepito). Martin obtained a Mexican divorce from Carolina in order to court and marry Candida. After their marriage in October 1951, Martin and Candida lived in San Francisco, where I spent my early life.

I'm not sure what year my parents moved to the Philippines, I think for my father to study for his law degree, which he earned from the University of the Philippines, I believe. My mother practiced medicine during this period. And to some degree, they had to "lay low" because divorce was not legal in the Philippines and so my father was technically in violation of the law for having married my mom. In the eyes of the law, he would have been considered a bigamist.

In Manila, I went to St. Theresa's School for kindergarten and then to San Sebastian College for first through third grade. It was during first (or maybe second) grade that I wrote my first poem. My father and I were on a ferry boat crossing Manila Bay (I believe); it was early morning, and I distinctly remember noticing the sun, how bright it was and round. The poem was written in quatrains, I recall, rhyming abcb . . . it might have been 12 lines, or 16. I don't have a copy of this poem, alas, but I do recall that it was published in some kind of school newsletter. If anyone reading this is willing to do the detective work to find the appropriate San Sebastian newsletter from probably 1959 or 1960, I would be forever beholden.

In the meantime, my father was having professional trouble; the Philippines had enacted a law preventing American citizens from practicing law there, presumably because American lawyers who had trouble passing the bar in the US would go to the Philippines to practice. This left my father in a lurch because he didn't want to give up his American citizenship.

We moved to San Francisco in May 1962. I was nine years old. And I went to St. Agnes School for fourth through eighth grade. It was during this time that I started to go by the name "Vince"; I found that so many people had trouble with my given name "Vicente," wanting to put an "n" between the "i" and the "c." I later went to St. Ignatius High School, which became St. Ignatius College Preparatory while I was a student there.

My mother did not practice medicine after we moved back to the US. And neither did my father practice law . . . he didn’t want to go back to law school to study American law. He would say, "I'm already a lawyer!" And he didn’t allow my mother to practice as a doctor either, because he couldn't practice his profession. I remember my mother occasionally suggesting, because of our ongoing financial difficulties, "Well, then, I'll work as a medical technician." And my father would say, "You can’t do that; you're a doctor!" Several catch-22's there.

In late 1970 or early 1971, I had some early literary successes. I won a city-wide essay contest for high-school students, though I can't recall now what that prize was called. That essay was published in the Philippine News, an expatriate (anti-Marcos) newspaper based in San Francisco, along with four or five poems. I was fortunate to have really excellent English teachers at Saint Ignatius . . . "S. I." we called the school, for example, in the football stadium: "WE ARE  . . .  S. I.  . . .  WE ARE  . . .  S. I."

I particularly thank Mr. Bob Grady (now Fr. Grady) for his creative writing assignments in junior and senior English. Write a story like Sherwood Anderson in Winesburg, Ohio. Imitate an e. e. cummings poem. And just straight-out creative writing prompts. I remember in particular one classmate who turned in the lyrics to "Cloud Nine" by the Temptations and got an A. For the most part, though, most of us wrote those poems and stories and plays in serious fashion for Mr. Grady, and I learned a tremendous amount in his classes.

During my high school years, also, I played lead guitar in several rock bands that gigged at teen club and high school dances across San Francisco. I remember a couple of band names: Doomsday Refreshment Committee, Change of Heart, and Peace of Mind come immediately to mind. My guitar god was Carlos Santana, and I remember playing the solos on his records over and over, working them out note by note, riff by riff, chord by chord.

When I became of draft age, my number in the draft lottery was 30. This meant that we men born on June 20 would be drafted 30th during the year to come. Really, 30 was a terrible number if you didn’t want to be drafted; consider that there were 336 birthdays that got lower priority.

I entered Stanford University in 1971 with that 30 hanging over my head. And that was also the year that student deferments were abolished. So . . . double whammy.

And there was another factor involved. My girlfriend, Ivania Velez, was pregnant. We married in January 1972. I needed a job to support the two of us and the baby that was on the way. I left college in March 1972 and enlisted in the Army in April 1972.

In June 1972, just a few days before I turned 20, my first child was born: Martin Adan Gotera. I was in Basic Training at the time at Fort Ord, not far away from San Francisco, and so fortunately I was able to be present for Ivon’s labor and Marty’s birth. I remember that was a gala occasion. My father, who wrote a column titled "Of This and Such" for the Philippine News, really outdid himself with a very joyful and enthusiastic announcement of Marty’s birth.

My Army service was fairly uneventful. It was wartime . . . the Vietnam war was still going on, but I was luckily never sent to Vietnam. My job in the service was Military Pay Clerk, and I was stationed at Fort Ord again. After Basic Training, I was sent to Indiana for advanced training and then assigned back to Fort Ord. For the second half of my three-year hitch, I was stationed at the Presidio of San Francisco; my mother had developed cancer of the bone marrow, and the Army gave me a compassionate reassignment to the Presidio. I eventually achieved a rank of Specialist Fifth Class, equivalent to a buck sergeant.

When I was discharged from the service in April 1975, I took a job as a civilian employee at the Presidio’s Finance and Accounting Office, where I had worked as a soldier. After a couple of years, I became the Supervisor of the Reserve and National Guard pay division; I remember my own incredulity as I, not even 25, would authorize and sign payrolls worth millions of dollars. It still seems surreal to me now.

In the meantime, on the family front, my mother had grown steadily more ill. Ivon and Marty and I lived with my parents at that time so that Mama could spend as much time as possible with us (especially Marty). In 1976, Mama passed away, having outlived the doctors' estimates of how long she had left to live.

I'm going to stop there for now, and continue the bio in a later post. At this moment I want to share the elegy I wrote for my mother about a decade or more after she died.

Hospital Thoughts, Last Year and Today

Last Christmas Eve, I woke to see Mama, dead
twelve years, bending over me in that strange bed,

but no, it was just those pale hospital green
walls, the yellow daze of fever. I'm seeing

things, I thought. But it must have been like that
for my father, a woman with blue-black hair in whites

bending over him during morning rounds,
like the Tenente and Cathy in A Farewell to Arms.

Around them—like a 1940s black-
and-white flick—the war. Sirens and ack-ack

guns, Manila covered with a shroud of smoke
again. General MacArthur returning like

an iron bloodhound, the Japanese kneeling by the sea.
When I was nine, that's how I'd wanted it to be.

I didn't want my parents to meet in a bank
in San Francisco, Tagalog words like magnets

drawing them together. But that Florence
Nightingale bedside scene never took place.

Those knotted hospital sheets tight around my chest,
I recalled Mama's cancer. How doctors christened

her a "model" patient. Once a pediatrician,
she had already fingered all their talismans:

chemotherapy, radiation treatment,
her hair falling out, her body shucking off weight.

At Carew and English, Papa and I found
she'd already ordered a shiny cedar coffin.

Now my father lies in a VA ward in
California—when I visit, he is skinny

as a nine-year-old boy, legs like useless sticks.
He speaks of the war, the Bataan death march,

how thin he'd gotten in the concentration camp.
He tells me how he misses Mama sometimes.

More desperately than his hand on my hair, I want
to see my mother in white, next to the window,

the stethoscope gleaming round her neck.
The sun glints in her hair, full and black.

Vince Gotera, first appeared in the Seattle Review.
Reprinted in Men of Our Time: Male Poetry in
Contemporary America

With regard to my poetics, I would probably highlight my employment of slant rhyme here. First, clearly there are full rhymes: "dead" and "bed," "black" and "ack." There is one instance of pararhyme (or consonantal rhyme, a là Wilfred Owen): "want" and "window." There are also quite acceptable slant rhymes, such as "that" and "whites," or "neck" and "black." But then I also use some very distant rhymes: "rounds" and "arms," "bank" and "magnets," for example. I really wanted quite a bit of diversity in the rhyming. And also my trademark "roughed-up" pentameter.

Basically, I wanted couplets that any formalist could recognize as rhymed couplets but which proponents of free verse would think was free verse. I wanted the best of both worlds in what was at that time, in the 1980s, an armed-camp atmosphere between the free-verse poets and the so-called neoformalists. As in so many contexts, I played at being the joker, the wild card.

Friday, November 21, 2008

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

My father was a laconic man. I don't mean to say that he didn't talk much . . . he didn't give off an air of rudeness or mystery, as Webster's defines "laconic." He talked plenty; he held his own in conversations. What I mean to say is that my father didn't tell something unless he saw a need for it to be told.

Here's a classic example: one time when I was a teenager, a young man knocked on our door and asked to see my dad. I showed him into the living room and went to get Papa. Who then peeked into the living room and hustled me into the dining room, where he whispered in my ear, "That's your brother." I had no inkling that I had a brother.

It turns out my father had been married to another woman before Mama and had two sons from that marriage . . . our visitor was the younger of these two, Pepito. The older was Angel, a name that requires a story I'll tell another time. Hmmm. I guess I can be a little laconic too.

Here's a poem about my brother Pepito, another Gotera who was a soldier in the US Army.

A Soldier’s Letter

To my brother: 
 When I was fifteen, you surfaced
out of the San Francisco night, a stranger
knocking on our door. Your family
a mystery kept from me, a wife and kids
from another face in my father's secret mirror.

You stayed with us for two or three nights, a dark
and glum presence, brooding at the dinner table.
Mama didn't seem shocked at all. Those nights
we lay in my room, listening to the Sopwith Camel
and the Stones on KFRC, and you softly crooned

the melody. Once you asked who Jesus
was — why did we light candles to him?
At the end of the week, Papa drove you to
the Army Recruiting Station. And Vietnam
swallowed you whole. No news for six months, and then

your letter came. The one in which you threatened
 to disembowel Papa with your bayonet,
 to blow him away with steel shot from a Claymore,
 to lock and load your M-16, then shoot him
 Dead for leaving you and your Mom

alone in Manila. Where she took you and your brother
down to the bay and hugged you tearfully
until she saw St. Jude floating over
the water. A miracle. Your lives saved.
And now, in the 'Nam, your life had again been spared

by the vision in air of a woman in a white ao dai.
You jerked your head back in surprise, and the sniper's
bullet lopped off a leaf where your face had been.
And so you believed your hophead's life was sacred.
No rocket, no mortar round could pierce the armor

of revenge, the righteous shield of vengeance.
I vowed to make myself strong, to take
taekwon-do lessons, to save my father's life
when you rotated home. But moments pass
like buckshot, and when you finally landed at Oakland,

you went on back to LA, without stopping again
at our door. The letter — a reefer fantasy.
Today, the letter forgotten, you live in our father's
house, alternating between gay bars
on Castro and the VA hospital psych ward.

Rather than bullets or a C-4 explosion,
you pay our father rent from your disability
check — the proceeds of your post-traumatic
stress disorder syndrome. The last time
we saw each other, you showed Mary Ann your saints,

like a pack of cards. "This picture is St. Blaise &mdash
he saves you from choking on chicken bones. And here's
St. Anthony. I use him to find lost things."
You called the pictures your "directory to heaven."
Nights, I see you in my mind, bowing

before a small Buddhist altar, lighting
sticks of incense, chanting with your eyes closed.
You're thinking back to velvet times in Manila,
when you were a teenage singer on TV,
crooning love songs under a blue spot.

— Vince Gotera, from Premonitions: The Kaya
Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry

(1995). Also appeared in Ghost Wars (2003).

I don't know what to add to this story. Pepito had indeed been a teenage singer in Manila . . . and I don't know much more than that. He was quite a colorful fellow, very eccentric in weird ways. A gay man who sometimes pretended not to be though he made it eminently clear at other times. One day he would be a drag queen, a Diana Ross knock-off, and the next day he would say, "You should find me a wife, a nice Midwestern girl." He was sometimes a recovering drug addict, and at other times just a straight-out drug addict. I think he was a small-time drug pusher as well. He is no longer with us . . . he died violently, stabbed on some San Francisco street. The police never uncovered who done it.

About the poem as a poem: I worked pretty hard on lineation. A mix of end-stops and enjambment . . . creating (I hope) a meld of both hurry as well as suspense at different points. In the fourth stanza, I use indentation and a reverse drop line to set off and emphasize the word "dead." Which is then repeated immediately after. I'm giving you precious little here . . . basically I guess I just don't know much about this poem. Sorry.

I would appreciate some feedback about what you think is going on here. If you feel like it, leave me a comment, please. Not a remark for potential revision, because as far as I'm concerned the poem is done and I'm not interested in reworking it. I'm just curious about how people read it &mdash how you read it. And how you make sense of the poetics of this particular poem.

When I wrote "A Soldier's Letter," probably almost two decades ago, Pepito was still alive though we were hardly ever in touch. And now, after he has died, I realize that this poem was, in many ways, already my elegy for him. Rest in peace, Jose Pater Gotera. Rest in peace, my brother.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


On Facebook, there is a group titled "Converting the whole canon of English Literature into Limericks" where people contribute limericks that summarize and lampoon great works of literature. For example, one might write a limerick to "replace" Dostoevsky's War and Peace or Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or, for that matter, the Bible.

The first word in the group description is "Limeritrature!" And, I tell ya, limeritrature can be a whole lot of fun. Here's a limerick I wrote for the group on Beowulf . . . or, more specifically, the 2007 performance-capture movie that starred several A-list actors, including Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie.

As revised by Neil Gaiman
and Robert Zemeckis

Hróthgar’s mead háll was all héll-y,
So Béowulf ripped árm off Grendélly,
Then swéetly did dálly
With Jólie (Angélly),
And Drágon from ský went pell-méll-y.

— Vince Gotera

Okay, it's cheesy. And the accent marks might be cheating, though remember how Gerard Manley Hopkins used accent marks. Evidently, writing humor isn't my strong suit, except for slapstick, maybe, and that would still be a stretch.

In any case, check out the Facebook group. There are many much smarter and funnier limericks there that I couldn't quote without having to go to a lot of trouble securing permission, etc. Sorry. Do browse the group. You'll be amazed at how much wit and amusement can be crammed into five lines of verse. And write a limerick yourself!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Shh, Shh, Shh

Went to a reading last night: a book-launch event for J. D. Schraffenberger's new (and first) book Saint Joe's Passion (Etruscan Press, 2008). The reading was part of the University of Northern Iowa's "Writers Talk" Reading Series . . . and a welcome to Jeremy, who is a new faculty member at UNI.

Jeremy made a sweet gesture at the reading: along with his own poems, he read a poem by James Hearst as well as one by me. That poem was "Newly Released, Papa Tells Me What It's Like Inside," from my third poetry collection, Fighting Kite (2007). (By reading poems besides his own, Jeremy was also furthering the cause of making poetry relevant to our everyday lives, a là Dana Gioia's "Can Poetry Matter?" — a now-iconic essay from 1991.)

Jeremy's reading was simply marvelous, a hint at the scintillating career that lies ahead of my new young colleague. Congratulations on the new book, Jeremy. And thanks again for performing my poem. For those in the audience who might like to see that poem after hearing it last night:

Newly Released, Papa Tells Me What It's Like Inside

Vin, that psych ward is Dante's Inferno — circles
within circles, you climb and climb. The sons
of bitches in white, they're monsters and devils.

You see, son, you're paying for your sins
while you're there. Each circle a privilege
you purchase with blood and bile. It starts with seclusion,

the innermost circle. Almost a jail, but your bed's
made up with wet sheets and you become Satan
on ice &mdash the teeth chattering inside your head,

stones rattling round and round in a can.
Then once a week, they take you down for shock,
the mouse killed again with an elephant gun.

First time was '46: the bed just like
an electric chair &mdash electrodes, colored wires &mdash
That's all I can remember. Except for that shock,

vibration, a lightning flash dead in the eyes.
And on your tongue a taste like bitter almonds
or wet pennies. A buzz in your ears like flies.

Closest to outside is the circle called grounds
they let you walk all the way out
to the high, black, wrought-iron fence surrounding

the whole hospital. Air, trees, grass, flowers,
the sky. Only the fence, your blue pajamas,
saying you're different from real people. But how

do you get there? Between is a tortured drama:
wide, sloping stairs of kowtow and kiss-ass
&mdash mixing with real lunatics, the gamut

running from rapists to certified pigstickers,
manic depressives to schizos. And always the devils
in white, those sadists and macho bitches. But, Vin, it's

always the walk I'll remember. The Thorazine shuffle.
We're all diviners doomed to Dante's Eighth
Circle: our heads on backwards for time eternal.

We shuffle like mules rounding a millstone, wish
it would end . . . we shuffle in line for lunch, we shuffle
in line for meds, in line to piss, we shuffle
in line . . . our slippers whispering shh, shh, shh.

Vince Gotera, first appeared in The Kenyon Review (1991).
Also published in the collection Fighting Kite (2007).
My father was a schizophrenic. This doesn't mean he had multiple personalities — the layperson's usual (mis)understanding of schizophrenia. It meant, among other things, that my father sometimes heard voices, saw visions. In the Philippines, this meant Martin Avila Gotera was considered a visionary man. In the US, it just meant he was crazy.

During my childhood, my father was often in and out of psych wards. In "Newly Released . . ." I imagine Papa telling me what life is like inside the psych ward at the VA hospital. Some of the material in the poem comes from things my father did tell me, for example, about his being given shock therapy at Letterman Army Hospital, though the details about that in the poem are wholly imagined. The wet-sheet treatment is also something Papa endured.

I suppose some readers of the poem may think of the Dante connection as arising out of my literary background. Well, first, my father was himself a fiction writer who studied literature avidly and so quite likely could connect with Dante. In fact, he was quite an aficionado of The Divine Comedy. Second, my grandfather, Papa's father, Tatay, had in his sala (the formal living room), a copy of The Divine Comedy, an edition with the Doré engravings; as a small child, I used to sneak into the sala (I think now that maybe that room was off limits to the grandkids, because I remember sneaking) and pore over that huge volume. Not for the text so much — I didn't really read Dante until I was in college &mdash but for those illustrations. I remember vividly the one that showed people walking with their heads facing backward, a punishment for the sin of foretelling the future. There was also another showing sinners rending their chests open . . . for what infraction I have no clue.

This poem is also the result of a one-sided competition with my former teacher David Wojahn at Indiana University, where I earned my MFA in poetry. "One-sided" because I don't think David knows about "our" competition. I remember one day in an MFA workshop, 20+ years ago, David had us read and discuss Craig Raine's poem "In the Kalahari Desert" which ends with this striking line: "Shhh, shhh, the shovel said. Shhh . . ." At a poetry reading some months later, David read a poem that also featured the word "Shhh" in the last line, and he may have even mentioned his own competition-of-sorts with Raine. Not to be outdone, I eventually produced my own poem with "Shhh" as an ending, however petty and unpoetic that might sound.

In terms of craft, the poem is written in terza rima, Dante's rhyme scheme: aba bcb cdc, etc. Of course, as I suggested was my frequent mode in the previous post, I use slant rhyme, very slant rhyme. For example, "sons" / "sins" / "seclusion" or "kiss-ass" / "——stickers" / "Vin, it's." Quite distant rhyme in some places, then . . . in the case of those last three words given in that example, the two similar vowels, the trochee stress pattern, and the ending /s/. With regard to meter, perhaps predictably, a "roughed-up" pentameter (again, see the last post).

When I was in the Army, my MOS ("military occupational specialty" or job) was Military Pay Clerk. For a time, I worked at Letterman Army Medical Center, where I helped mentally ill patients (all military service members) with their pay problems. This was where I learned about the system of privileges (that we see also in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). In the poem, I have my father use as a metaphor for that system the concentric circles of Dante's Inferno. (Ironically, my father was also a mental patient at Letterman Army Hospital three decades before I worked there.) It was also at this job that I witnessed what everyone called "the Thorazine shuffle," the way the drug Thorazine made patients essentially catatonic.

As far as larger thematics are concerned . . . that's your call. I didn't have any axe to grind, I don't think, when I wrote the poem. At some level, I guess, I hope you are getting some idea about how the mentally ill have been treated, historically, by American medicine. Though I'm not on a crusade or whatever. I do wish my father had had available, during his lifetime, medicines like Prozac and other contemporary anti-depressants. They would have made his life easier. Nevertheless, he held down a job; he toughed it out, as men in his generation were supposed to do; and he held on to his dignity. What more could one ask for?

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