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?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Craft and Technique (1.0)

A couple of weeks ago, I posted my poem "Guard Duty" here, but the politics-oriented context of that post didn't really allow for discussion of poetics. Now and again, I get inquiries from students who are writing a paper on some poem of mine, and generally their papers end up covering meaning more than craft. In the interest of informing such seekers about my technique, I'd like now to unpack "Guard Duty" some. Here's the poem again.

Guard Duty

A young soldier squints into thick black night
hoping no hostile sapper is cutting through
barbed wire, a bayonet and grenades tied
to his waist . . . invisible. This mute scenario

lies at the heart of three generations' bedtime
stories: my Lolo and my Papa in the US
Army, Philippine Scouts, death march in Bataan,
my brother Pepito in the 'Nam, nightmares

of Agent Orange. That young soldier could have been
any one of them . . . or me, on guard mount at Fort Ord
during Vietnam. Almost dreaming machine gun
recoil in our hands. Screaming, an oncoming horde.

Never again . . . young women and men should dream
of breezes in trees, soft rain, sunshine. Never again.

Vince Gotera, from Poets Against the War (2003).
Also appeared in my 2003 collection Ghost Wars.

To begin, I should say I subscribe to Seamus Heaney's distinction between craft and technique; craft has to do with building-block approaches, like alliteration or rhyme; technique is the cooperation of craft and personality, one's individual, idiosyncratic use of craft elements. Craft is mechanics; technique is stylistic. Below, I'll be talking about craft; my technique is ultimately for you to decide (it's invisible to me, of course).

SOUND and MUSIC. I am a huge fan of Gerard Manley Hopkins, with his over-the-top sound play. Of course, today you can't use sonic devices like Hopkins did . . . contemporary ears find such sound play fascinating but really just too much. Nonetheless, you can emulate Hopkins to a limited degree. For example, alliteration in stanza one: /th/ in "thick" and "through," "/b/ in "black," "barbed," and "bayonet"; assonance: the short /i/ in "squints," "into," "thick," "hoping," "cutting," "his" . . . and the three instances in the single word "invisible"; consonance: the beginning /s/ and ending /r/ in "soldier," "sapper," and scenario." And all this just in the first stanza.

One of my favorite sonic devices is rhyme. As a faithful student of Emily Dickinson and Wilfred Owen, I tend more towards slant rhyme than full rhyme, thus I rhyme "been" with "gun," "dream" with "again." A là Owen, I even have an instance in this poem of consonant rhyme — what critics call "pararhyme" and Owen called "jump-rhyme" (probably the most famous examples are in his poem "Strange Meeting," where in the first four lines he rhymes "escaped" and "scooped," "groaned" and "groined"). Here in this poem, I rhyme "bedtime" with "Bataan" . . . I'm particularly happy that I was able to involve three consonants: /b/, /t/, and /n/ or /m/, in that order.

An important way to think about rhyme, other than in terms of sound, is to look at what words are rhymed. As a poet, one can hint quite a bit about theme through judicious use of rhyme pairs. For example, I'm quite proud of the pairing of "US" and "nightmares," as a bit of social commentary. Also, not using periods in the abbreviation — like "U.S." — allows the additional meaning of "us" . . . i.e., the plural first person pronoun, as in "you and I," thus extending the social commentary even more.

RHYTHM and METER. In a couple of earlier . . . wait, before we get deep into this topic, let me warn you that it might get a little technical. Don't worry. If you don't know what I'm talking about, see the Wikipedia articles on poetic meter and prosodic feet. Okay, let's get to it.

In a couple of earlier posts, I referred to favoring "roughed-up" meter. In this poem, I use pentameter that is — you guessed it — "roughed up." What I mean by this is frequent substitution of feet; if my primary meter is iambic, I pepper the poem with trochees, anapests, dactyls, even some spondees and pyrrhics.

In fact, I'm not even sure if my primary meter in the poem is iambic. Look at a scansion of the first line:
So . . . iamb trochee trochee iamb iamb. I suppose because the first foot is iambic and three out of five feet here are iambic, you could say we've got iambic pentameter. Well, maybe. I suppose that's as good an argument as any. But I gotta tell ya, I'm not sure myself, really. When I count feet while composing, I pay attention mainly — no, only — to how many stresses are in the line; I let the unstressed syllables sort themselves out. So when I wrote this poem, I bet I never once thought iambic or trochaic or whatever. I did know I wanted pentameter, but that's as much as I thought ahead, probably.

Let's look at another scansion, this time of line 3:
This is probably as close to true iambic pentameter as you'll find in this poem . . . and it isn't exactly that, either. We've got iamb iamb iamb pyrrhic spondee. And those last two feet are what's called a "double iamb," which count (say the experts) as two iambs . . . I like to think of this construct as a "super iamb" because there are two unstressed syllables followed by two stressed syllables, so you've got a fully unstressed foot heightened then by a fully stressed foot, to get the rising rhythm required by the iamb. In any case, although this line may seem to be straight-out iambic pentameter, it's still not your run-of-the-mill example, particularly because of the caesura (or break in the line, marked here by a comma) immediately after the first foot. And that first foot may not really be an iamb, it turns out; it could be scanned as a spondee: BARBED WIRE || a BAY- | o- NET . . . and so on.

And here's line 7, another interesting example. First off, note the two caesuras (caesurae?):
A noteworthy trick I use here is bringing together the unstressed syllables of two different feet, as in the second and third feet here. Perhaps more striking in tandem are the fourth and fifth feet, where we get four unstressed syllables together. A cool side effect is that you also get, in effect, a spondee where the third and fourth feet meet: SCOUTS, DEATH. It's very easy to do; you simply take two iambs and flip the second iamb into a trochee, or in the case of two dactyls, the second dactyl into an anapest. Though I'll admit that I don't do it that way, thinking about the feet per se; I simply try to get interesting texture into the rhythm by finding natural ways to bring a number of unstressed syllables together. Or, similarly, a number of stressed syllables next to each other.

And finally the ending line of the poem, which features three caesuras:
Same device here as in line 7, bringing unstressed syllables together, as in NEV- er | a- GAIN. And then there is also the spondee effect with the stressed syllables RAIN, SUN. In fact, the foot "soft rain" could be read as a spondee as well, which would bring four stressed syllables together: TREES, || SOFT RAIN, || SUN- shine. One could get a similar effect in line 1 with THICK, | BLACK NIGHT if "black night" were scanned as a spondee. Oh, and the last line, by the way, is hexameter . . . an alexandrine, used here to evoke "the sense of an ending."

Anyway, that's how I "rough up" the meter, by (1) frequent substitution of feet, in order to really mix up rising and falling stress patterns, and (2) bringing together stretches of unstressed syllables or, similarly, stretches of stressed syllables. All meant to destabilize the singsong flavor of regular meter.

LINEATION. Just as I lean towards slant rhyme, I tend to favor enjambed lines over end-stopped ones. In this poem, there are only three end-stops: lines 3, 12, and 14. That means that there are 11 enjambed lines. This makes a hurried poem, always teetering forward at the line break . . . consequently there is a lot of tension in the poem, unresolved energy. And I trust this goes along with the thematic tension of constant fear in war . . . being continually on guard.

FORM. Of course, this is a sonnet, a Shakespearean one. Syntactically, though, the quatrains don't match the sentence structure, unlike Shakespeare's frequent matching of individual sentences to quatrains. The first chunk of language, from "A young soldier" to "invisible" doesn't reach the end of the first quatrain. The second chunk, from "This mute scenario" (line 4) to "of Agent Orange" (line 9) is too much for the second quatrain, leaking out of both ends. The third chunk, comprised of three sentences, from "That young soldier" to "oncoming horde," is too small again but neatly finishes out the third quatrain. Thus leaving the final couplet to deliver quite conventionally and deliberately, with the customary volta, or turn, at the beginning of line 13. So the effect I wanted is of language and feeling that breaks through the sonnet form, or perhaps more accurately, out of it, but is then resolved by the closing couplet, the double occurrence of "never again," highlighting effectively (I hope) the overall antiwar theme of the poem.

CODA. Well, that's it. That's all I know about this poem. Of course, there's more, much more, that I can't see. I hope you will share with me your insights about the poem and its poetics by writing a comment in response. Just click on the word "comments" immediately below this post. Then we can have a dialogue (or a multilogue) about poems and the writing of them.

One parting shot. While I was writing this poem, I knew none of what I'm sharing with you above (or, at least, precious little of it). I simply wrote the thing, trusting to my own inner "poetry machine" to produce the literary flair that might give this poem the apt tone and feeling to mark it as poetic language. I can't quite remember how much revision this poem went through . . . it feels to me now so much of a piece, so unified. But it seems to me that it didn't go through much revision; I think it pretty much wrote itself. Partly because of the occasion of writing it for the "Poets Against (the) War" movement, partly because it speaks so clearly to (and for) my family history, my sense of self, the overall feeling of being a Gotera, of being my father's son.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Scream On, Monkey, Scream On!

Okay, more poetry about my dad and his military service during and immediately after WWII. The following poem was written expressly for an anthology titled Screaming Monkeys: Critiques of Asian American Images, edited by M. Evelina Galang, et al.

There's a very interesting story behind this anthology. In April 1998, Milwaukee Magazine published a restaurant review that called the restaurant owner's young child a "rambunctious little monkey." This opens raw wounds in Filipino American historical memory because of American naming early in the 20th century: the "affirmative" racist naming for Filipinos was little brown brother and the negative one was monkey. Both names obviously galling and destructive.

Evelina Galang, who eventually edited Screaming Monkeys, brought the restaurant review to the attention of the members of the FLIPS listserv (an e-group that Nick Carbó and I founded for writers of Filipino ancestry and heritage). It's a long story that probably doesn't need to be told here — suffice it to say that lots of online pressure was brought to bear, etc. (Read Screaming Monkeys to get all the details.)

In any case, the literary result of this incident was this trailblazing anthology. The blurb on explains:
When a restaurant review referred to a Filipino child as a "rambunctious little monkey," Filipino Americans were outraged. Sparked by this racist incident, Screaming Monkeys sets fire to Asian American stereotypes as it illuminates the diverse and often neglected history and culture within the Asian American diaspora. Poems, essays, paintings, and stories break down and challenge "found" articles, photographs, and headlines to create this powerful anthology with all the immediacy of social protest. By closely critiquing a wealth of material, including the judge's statement of apology in the Wen Ho Lee case, the media treatment of serial killer Andrew Cunanan, and the image of Asian Americans in major U.S. marketing campaigns, Screaming Monkeys will inspire all its readers.
The poem itself relates a family story. When my father was stationed at the Presidio of San Francisco immediately after the war, a soldier on the street refused to salute my father (who had been recently promoted into the officer ranks of the US Army). It was quite clear to Papa that the refusal was racist — the soldier, a white man, was not about to salute an officer who wasn't white. So my father took off his uniform jacket and draped it on a nearby hedge, then ordered the soldier to salute the jacket, affixed with lieutenant bars, again and again. Which the soldier did. My father always told this story as a parable about "thinking out of the box," as we say these days.

Honor, 1946

In birdsong my father strolled the Presidio
of San Francisco, a Filipino in the U.S.

Army, sharp in parade dress, lieutenant's
bars riding his shoulders like sun cresting
clouds. A corporal in dingy fatigues walked

past my father, snickered, kept his right
hand by his hip. "Hold it right there, soldier!"

my father barked. "Where's that goddamn salute?"
The corporal smirked, looked him in the eye and said
nothing, but my father could read it in his face —

I'll be damned before I salute a little brown
monkey who ought to be climbing a fucking tree.

My father growled an order. The soldier jerked
to attention. My father slipped off his jacket, draped it
on a hedge. The rainbow of ribbons reminded him

not of crossfire and the soldier he saved on patrol,
not of the forced retreat to Corregidor,

not of the weeks evading Japanese capture,
not even of the Bataan death march,
nor of the concentration camp. Instead

he recalled the American jeep that tried to run
him down in a rainstorm. Get out of the road, monkey!

My father said, "You might not want to salute me,
young man, but you will salute this jacket, these bars.
Do it!" Birds sang. "Again." Sun shone. "Again."

The corporal's arm swept the air, a wiper blade
trying to swipe brown mud from a windshield.

Vince Gotera, from Screaming Monkeys:
Critiques of Asian American Images

In terms of poetics, this poem (like "Looking for Double Victory," which appeared in yesterday's blog) employs pentameter that has been intentionally "roughed up" to avoid the singsonginess that led Ezra Pound to rail against traditional meter by sneeringly calling it "too rum-tum at a punch."

I've also used alternating couplets and tercets (all unrhymed). I have forgotten why I shaped the poem this way, but the pattern does allow me to produce some useful verse paragraphs, for example, stanzas 5, 9, 10, and 11. At the same time, I also get some nice stanza enjambments: "a Filipino in the US / Army," for example, in lines 2-3, highlighting the problems Filipinos encountered during that time, both in the US Army and in US society overall. I suppose a literary reader could suggest that there seems to be an opposition set up between the couplets and the tercets, which may represent Filipino Americans and the mainstream culture, respectively. But you know, making such an observation is the reader's and critic's job, not mine. I just write 'em — you read 'em and tell me (and whomever) what's going on in the poem(s).

Whatever, whatever. I am simply glad and honored to have had the opportunity to help with such an important project as the Screaming Monkeys anthology, an important step in deconstructing and, one hopes, deleting destructive stereotyping, not simply against Filipino Americans in particular and Asian Americans in general, but all stereotypes that oppress. Words can hurt and destroy, as we know, but more important, they can save and uplift. And that should be one of the most crucial aims of writing today.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

One Veteran's Day

Today, November 11, is my father's birthday. Martin Avila Gotera would have been 87 today, and he has been gone for almost twenty years.

Today is also Veterans' Day. It has always seemed fitting to me that Papa's birthday is the same day as Veterans' Day. Formerly called "Armistice Day" . . . in other words, a day of peace, of cessation of war.

From the day he was born, soldiering was Papa's life. His father, my Lolo Felix, a "lifer" in the US Army, Philippine Scouts. The beginning of a kind of dynasty . . . Felix, a brigade master sergeant; Martin, a second lieutenant; and then two out of Papa's three sons also in the US Army, Pepito and Vince, one a Vietnam vet, a combat grunt, and the other a Vietnam era vet.

When I was a child, my father worked in the Veterans Administration as an adviser and contact rep for vets. So just about each of his twenty-four hours was spent with former soldiers, sailors, and Marines, making sure they got their veteran's pensions by day, and then at night he would suffer through combat flashbacks and nightmares.

During that same time, my father also gave community service for vets; he started a grassroots organization, FAVADA . . . the Filipino American Veterans and Dependents Association. This organization, as far as I know, was the first to work on what is now called the Filipino Veterans Equity issue. My father and his organization worked on the first class-action suit against the US government to reclaim the rights and privileges stolen from Filipino vets in the 1946 Rescission Act.

I wrote the following poem as a response to the National WWII Memorial, in particular from hearing that Filipino American writer Bino Realuyo was condemning the memorial because of his father being denied burial at Arlington Cemetery . . . again because of that damned Rescission Act.

Looking for Double Victory

Written in response to the dedication of the
National World War II Memorial, 29 May 2004

“The V for victory sign is being displayed prominently in all so-called
democratic countries which are fighting for victory over aggression,
slavery, and tyranny. If the V sign means that to those now engaged
in this great conflict, then let we colored Americans adopt the
double VV for a double victory. The first V for victory over enemies
from without, the second V for victory over our enemies from within.”

    James G. Thompson, letter to the Pittsburgh Courier,
31 January 1942 (quoted by Ronald Takaki in
Double Victory:
A Multicultural History of America in World War II)

Around and through these fifty-six pillars
of white stone hung with wreaths of bronze,
drift and dive four hundred thousand ghosts —
keening, unheard, indignant desert birds.

The war to uphold FDR’s Four Freedoms,
fought by Americans who never in their lives
tasted freedom of speech, freedom of worship,
freedom from want, freedom from fear. Never.

Dorie Miller, black Navy messman
at Pearl Harbor, firing an ack-ack gun,
a weapon he was forbidden to touch, downed
four Japanese bombers . . . strange fruit.

Ernest Childers, Muscogee infantryman
With the “Thunderbird,” single-handedly
cleared two German machine-gun nests . . .
first Indian to win the Medal of Honor.

Guy Louis Gabaldon, Chicano
Marine from East LA, fluent speaker
of Japanese, captured eight hundred
prisoners on his own without a shot.

Susan Ahn, daughter of Ahn Chang Ho,
renowned Korean freedom fighter . . . first
Asian American in the US Navy, first
woman gunnery officer in 1944.

My Papa, my Lolo — Martin and Felix Gotera —
trudge through a fog of kayumanggi dust
lit by sword blade’s sinister flash. Bataan!
Bloody but unbowed. Survive. Mabuhay.

My friend Bino curses these pillars, calls
them “horns.” His father, death-march survivor, denied
burial at Arlington. “No Filipinos Allowed.”
The Rescission Act. Give then take away.

Friends, although eight eagles lift here two
laurel wreaths for victory, the “Double VV”
has yet to be fully won. The demon vanquished
abroad still lives, here, at home. Flourishing.

We still recall with anguish Truman’s bombs,
two hundred thousand victims, mostly women
and children, black rain, skin burning. Legacy
of dishonor. Not a military necessity.

Today, let us remember these honored dead.
Let us remember the civilians — many women —
who riveted planes, who lived behind barbed wire.
Live up to the vision of all these heroes . . . all.

Let us win the second victory, at last.
Make the Four Freedoms real for each and all.
Then let these four hundred thousand ghosts, angels,
Rest their fiery wings in God’s breast, and sleep.

— Vince Gotera, from Mirror Northwest (2006)

Papa, with your interest in and passion for civil rights, you would be amazed to know that now we have an African American president-elect. So that in some measure, the "double VV" is becoming real. Rev. Jesse Jackson was interviewed on TV at Grant Park in Chicago, where Obama's election was being celebrated on the night of Election Day, and he talked about the double VV . . . the "enemies from within" not yet vanquished but certainly defeated that night.

As a birthday and veterans' day present to you, Papa, I want to highlight this stanza from the poem above, because it highlights the spirit in which you held your Bataan death march and prisoner-of-war camp experiences:
My Papa, my Lolo — Martin and Felix Gotera —
trudge through a fog of kayumanggi dust
lit by sword blade’s sinister flash. Bataan!
Bloody but unbowed. Survive. Mabuhay.
Happy birthday, Papa. I love you. And I miss you. Rest your fiery wings in God's breast and sleep. This is YOUR veteran's day . . . the celebration of one veteran.

NOTE: For those interested in Filipino veterans equity, check out this background info from the PBS
American Experience series.

For those of you whose main interests in reading my blog are poetry and poetics, this poem appeared in the Contemporary Poetry section of the Mirror Northwest online journal. This anthology is collected for students of poetry to use, especially the creative writing students of Wenatchee Valley College. With that pedagogical purpose in mind, I appended the following note to that publication:
To mimic the pillars of the National WWII Memorial, I end-stopped each of the quatrains so that they are all freestanding. Also, to retain the memorial’s spirit of honoring the combatants, I wrote the poem in pentameter — admittedly, loose and rough — to allude to the tradition of the iambic pentameter heroic couplet.
Go check out Contemporary Poetry / Mirror Northwest.

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Pause for the Cause (2.0)

Ever wonder what literary magazine editors are thinking while they are reading your submission? This podcast may interest you . . .

About Literary Magazines (and Submitting Work to Them)
An interview with Vince Gotera, editor of the North American Review,
by Paula Berinstein of The Writing Show: Information and Inspiration for Writers
10 August 2008 · 50 minutes · MP3 (24 MB) · Click here to get to the podcast.

We talked about literary magazines in general, and the North American Review in particular; what editors look for and what turns them off (or, at least, what turns one editor off); common mistakes people make when they submit to a literary magazine; and so on. Give it a listen!

If you're a writer, Paula Berinstein's Writing Show is a truly indispensable international resource. Some recent highlights . . . the current podcast is "What Do Publishers Want from Query Letters and Proposals?" — an interview with Jennifer Silva Redmond, Editor-in-Chief of Sunbelt Publications (there are two podcasts each week). Current article on the website: Jeff Rivera on "Being Picked Up by a Major Publisher." For Halloween (two weeks ago): readings and interviews with five Australian horror writers: Rick Kennett, David Conyers, Chuck McKenzie, Alison Pearce, and Marty Young (president of the Australian Horror Writers Association). Every month, tips for screenwriters from screenwriting guru Blake Snyder. There are frequent writing contests. And mentoring services for fiction and nonfiction writers. And more . . . much more. Check out The Writing Show, friends!

And, Paula, many thanks for all the wonderful work you do for writers around the world.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

War Stories

Refusal to Write an Elegy

Papa, lately at night when the phone rings
raveling midnight into tatters, I freeze.
Just two days ago, once more your wife's
voice described the extension cord

tied to a joist in the basement, the round
loop hanging: "I'm making a rope." And there
were other times. The razor blade.
The ritalins, sixty-four white pills,

each a period for every year-long
sentence of your life. Your screams
punctuated my childhood nights;
your nightmares melded into fairy tales,

mga kuwento ng duwende. For others: the Grimm
Brothers. For me: Bataan, Corregidor, jungles
and nipa huts, a handsome soldier named Martin.
No dragons, no cinder-faced damsels,

only the night, pulsing with tracer fire.
Or maybe a samurai blade's insistent sheen.
One night, nearly stepping on an enemy soldier,
you poised on that teeter-totter, oblivion,

then all of you softly backed into still virgin
tracks and ran. Jungle gloom raveled by carbine
fire before and behind. You never knew if American
or Japanese bullets ripped your friend Pabling

apart, a sucking chest wound in his side.
And once, hemmed in by tanks, rifles, a ravine,
and a blazing cane brake, each of you slid
beneath the flames. Most escaped. But one

or two, were left behind, screaming.
Another time, a corporal hit by a shell
ran from you — headless and faltering.
His arms flailed like a windmill.

Papa, when you watch TV,
you hammer your fist into your thigh.
Nailing yourself to the morning. To the yellow
heart of an egg, sunny side up.

I see you. Your back is jammed up against
the bole of a tree. Brown skin, your brown
uniform chameleoning the rough bark.
The Japanese plane, a hot red sun,

spits chunks of metal strung
on wires. Beads of spouting earth
converge. At the focus,
you've clawed bark under your fingernails.

Papa. Papa. Remember, they missed you that time.

— Vince Gotera, first appeared in Zone 3 (1989).

My father, Martin Avila Gotera, served in the US Army's Philippine Scouts during WWII; he was a corporal in the 14th Engineers and he specialized in blowing up bridges. He was given a battlefield promotion to 2nd lieutenant for meritorious service. At the right is the young soldier in his US Army officer's uniform, taken in downtown San Francisco, probably in 1946.

When I was growing up, my father often told me war stories . . . I remember him doing that when I was no older than five or six, I'm guessing. These stories were very vivid to me; as I write this I can bring back visual memories that were either dreams I had from his stories or perhaps what I saw in my mind's eye as Papa would tell me those stories, again and again. Perhaps I asked to hear them as bedtime stories . . . who knows?

My father suffered from schizophrenia, surely brought on by such horrific combat experiences as those he told me about and which appear in this poem. Though he also describes schizophrenic incidents that he remembered from his earlier teenage years, so the disease had probably already manifested before his US Army service.

In any case, during the war (or immediately afterwards), Papa was diagnosed with combat fatigue (WWII lingo for what we now call posttraumatic stress disorder, PTSD). All my life, Papa suffered from those symptoms now so familiar to us from Hollywood Vietnam-vet movies: frequent nightmares of war, flashbacks, paranoia, extreme depression, thoughts of suicide, etc., etc.

The poem itself goes back to my first MFA poetry workshop with David Wojahn at Indiana University in the fall of 1986. I remember that it was the second poem I submitted to the class. And it didn't fare well in workshop. But I worked on it and worked on it . . . really as a gift to Papa. In a similar vein to Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night," my entreaty to my father not to succumb to death, to awful memory, to the demons of schizophrenia.

And I'm happy to say that now, almost twenty years after Papa died of illness, not of suicide, the poem still holds up. I put it in my 2003 chapbook Ghost Wars as well as in Fighting Kite (2007). This recent title is my elegy for Papa, for Martin Avila Gotera . . . a book-length elegy that completes the cycle begun by my earlier "Refusal to Write an Elegy." Good night, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest! Amen.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Can War Be Just?

Okay, back to poetry. And back to my "Filipinos at War" theme from a couple of days ago.

In early 2003, while I was putting together my poetry collection Ghost Wars, originally intended as an anti-war protest specifically against the Iraq war that was about to launched, I thought long and hard about the question of whether or not war can ever be just . . . you know, St. Augustine and all that.

As an answer to that question, I wrote the following poem about the killing of Ferdinand Magellan by Lapu-Lapu, first hero of the Philippines, who struck the first blow against colonialism. Granted, the poem is quite romanticized (like pretty much all the lore about Lapu-Lapu), but it does make, I think, a credible case for the justness of war through dramatic means.

Just War

Pale blonde sand glaring white into his eyes,
Lapu-Lapu stood on the beach with his tribesmen.

His wooden shield — a vertical rectangle rounded
at top and bottom, scalloped inward on the sides —

rested on a sinewy left arm, his lean legs slightly
spread, brown muscled chest rising, falling, softly.

Clenched in his right hand, his sharp kampilan,
a hefty metal sword with ornately carved hilt.

Tramping up the sand from rowboats beached
on a reef, los conquistadores labored in helmets

and breastplates, cutlasses drawn. In the lead,
Ferdinand Magellan, a dandy’s pointed beard,

sweat stinging his eyes in harsh tropical sun.
With a crash of wood and metal, like trees

falling under the typhoon’s wind and thunder,
the two met, swords arcing like lightning bolts.

Thrusts, parries . . . then Ferdinand’s eyes
opened wide a moment as Lapu-Lapu’s blade

swooped over his, an eagle diving from the sun.
The Spaniards turned, fled as Lapu-Lapu thrust

the severed head into the blue dome of sky.
Magellan’s vaunted circumnavigation: a lie.

Lapu-Lapu, brave brown defender, circumcised
that vainglorious invader’s ultimate round trip.

— Vince Gotera, first appeared in Pinoy Poetics (2004).

Similarly romanticized is this statue commemorating Lapu-Lapu, located near the actual site where he and Magellan crossed swords . . . in the Battle of Mactan on the island of Cebu. Note particularly the oversized sword the sculpted Lapu-Lapu is holding, his kampilan . . . quite the phallic symbol there.

This poem happened when I was copyediting Cecilia Manguerra Brainard's fiction anthology Growing Up Filipino. The title pages for the sections of that book featured photographs accompanied by excerpts from poems. One of these photos was a chiaroscuro image of this Lapu-Lapu statue.

That silhouette of a Filipino warrior, sword and shield limned starkly against sky, was so incredibly moving for me that I went straight to the computer and wrote "Just War" in one sitting. The question I was posing with regard to the oncoming American war in Iraq was this: Who would be Magellan, and who would be Lapu-Lapu? I trust it would be clear to anyone, of whatever political stripe, that we would definitely not be Lapu-Lapu. To bring it closer to home, we would be the Redcoats this time.

On a side note, take another look at the statue Lapu-Lapu's sword. (Click on the picture to see a larger version.) The sword is shaped like a mix between a Bowie knife and a 1900s military bolo rather than a kampilan: a curved blade with a one-handed hilt (like a saber) vs. a straight blade with a two-handed hilt (like a single-edged broadsword). If you compare earlier plans for the statue with the finished product, you'll see that a different sword was originally planned, a straight-bladed one.

To the right is a painting of Lapu-Lapu's fight with Magellan (from a website about "Pre-Spanish Tacloban"). Note Lapu-Lapu's weapon in the painting: a two-handed sword with a straight blade and two points. In other words, the stock kampilan.

It may be that the statue's designers were trying to be true to Spanish written accounts of the Battle of Mactan, in which Lapu-Lapu's sword is described as a "cutlass" and a "scimitar." It may also be that the kampilan of 500 years ago was shaped differently from the kampilan of more recent times.

What I do hope is that, whatever reasons there may have been for altering Lapu-Lapu's sword, the change did not arise from some misguided motive to make the weapon appear more familiar to Western eyes. More like a harem guard's exaggerated sword in a Hollywood movie. That would be truly unfortunate. Lapu-Lapu's sword would make him look like Captain Hook in loincloth. Ay naku.

In any case, Lapu-Lapu's war was indeed just. And Ferdinand Magellan, whom many people think circumnavigated the globe, did not complete the trip. Lapu-Lapu saw to that. The End.

NOTE: The poem "Just War" ended up not being a part of Ghost Wars because that collection evolved into a a more specialized focus only on American wars. I am now considering writing a book of poems on Filipino myth, legend, and folklore; that would be a good home for this poem.

Also, there is more background info on "Just War" (the poem) and just wars (as an intellectual question) in my essay "Love and War, Contrapuntal: A Self-Interview" from
Pinoy Poetics: A Collection of Autobiographical and Critical Essays on Filipino and Filipino-American Poetics, edited by Nick Carbó (Meritage Press, 2004).

Finally, here's a 2006 YouTube video featuring Filipino martial artist Yuli Romo demonstrating the use of a kampilan.

Friday, November 7, 2008

A Pause for the Cause (1.0)

I first heard that phrase — pause for the cause — listening to KSOL and KDIA, the San Francisco Bay Area's soul stations, back in the late 60s and early 70s. Johnny Quick, or some other DJ, would lay down that phrase just before cutting to a commercial . . . in that respect, the "cause" was selling something, keeping the station's and the music's body and soul together.

In a more general sense, "pause for the cause" can mean to take a break in order to take stock, to get back in touch with what's really important. For example, Run-D.M.C. used "pause for the cause" as the motif phrase in their anti-violence, anti-crime, anti-drug ditty "Pause." (For what it's worth, there are currently three definitions in that have yet to get much play.)

Today, I'm pausing for the cause (that is, no poems here today) to let you know about a couple of things you may find interesting.

-----(ONE) ----My "Craft of Poetry" website . . . lots of people have used this website to help them learn to write formal, rhymed and metered poems. They send me e-mail thank-you's from time to time. I must tell you, this is somewhat of a "cobweb" site, meaning I haven't updated it for some time. In fact, there's a note on the main page that says to watch out for changes that will come in Summer 2003. Oh well. Nonetheless, it's a good resource to learn about the elements of poetry and how to write in poetic forms.

(TWO)I will be the resident editor for Writing Away Retreats during June 12-16, 2009, in Vail, Colorado. Get away from the daily grind . . . carve out some unfettered time for your poems up high in Rocky Mountain air. Consultations about your work with two poets and a poetry editor (me). Should be loads of fun.

Okay . . . first, a PSA, a public service announcement, and then, second, a commercial. Check 'em both out.

That's today's pause for the cause, good friends. And now let's jump on back to the music: here's the inimitable Godfather of Soul, the one-and-only James Brown, with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag"!

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