Friday, May 29, 2009

e. e. cummings "l(a" deconstructed

Hello, faithful readers. Please check out the poetry animation I have posted on YouTube. It animates the poem "l(a" by e. e. cummings. This often-anthologized poem is notoriously one of cummings's most difficult. The animation shows how easy it is to decode, actually.

There's more that one can say about this poem, as well.





e. e. cummings
95 poems (1958)

The form of it, first of all, resembles the letter l or the number 1 because of its skinny vertical shape. (As you probably know, on older typewriters — like the ones cummings used — there is no key for the number one; instead typists would type the letter l to represent a number one.)

What cummings uncovers for us here is how many times the number one (as suggested by the letter l) appears in the word loneliness: four times. And of course there's also the letter l/number one in the word leaf. The lineation cummings uses, then, is not arbitrary. He is emphasizing all the instances of the number one along with the literal appearance of the word one itself within the word "loneliness."

The leaf, as an image, is of course a time-honored way of talking about life and its transitory nature. The leaf falling off the tree is both an image of death as well as aloneness. The movement of the leaf as it falls is suggested by cummings here in the movement of the poem downwards on the page, especially because of the line skips (stanza breaks?). As many have noted, the "af" followed by the "fa" implies through the letters changing position the twirling of a leaf in air. Some have even suggested that the first line, "l(a," represents a leaf on a branch; the poem before the last line portrays the movement of the leaf as it travels through the air; and the final line is a pile of leaves.

While that may be (cummings, after all, was a well-known painter and critics of his work have pointed out the pictorial aspects of his poetry), one can also read the last line, "iness," as "I-ness." In other words, loneliness and perhaps the knowledge of the inevitability of death are part of what it means to be an "I," to be a human being, to acknowledge one's own identity.

That's lot to pack into 22 letters, 6 syllables, 4 words. And cummings accomplishes it through enjambment, lineation, and stanza-making. Incredible.

Please leave me a comment below about the video or anything on this post. I'd really like to know what you're thinking. Also, do you have any suggestions for poetry animations? Thanks.

NOTE: For more about e. e. cummings and his artwork, see Milton Cohen's book Poet and Painter: The Aesthetics of E. E. Cummings's Early Works (1987). Cohen explores cummings's considerable body of writing on aesthetics and applies these theories to both the paintings and poems.

Do watch it on YouTube as well: . . . and please post a comment there. Okay to repeat because it's a different community. Thanks.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Just One Book: Save Salt Publishing

Salt Publishing, perhaps the UK's most important small-press publisher of contemporary literature, needs our help urgently. Here's Salt Publishing's YouTube plea, a commercial that spoofs the World Wildlife Foundation's "Adopt a Polar Bear" commercial and also dramatizes Salt's financial need now. Speaking below is Salt Director Chris Hamilton-Emery (YouTube handle: chamiltonemery).

Just One Book: Save Salt Publishing

Salt's spoof of the WWF Adopt a Polar Bear advert ( conceals a serious message:

As many of you will know, Jen and I have been struggling to keep Salt moving since June last year when the economic downturn began to affect our press. Our three year funding ends this year: we've £4,000 due from Arts Council England in a final payment, but cannot apply through Grants for the Arts for further funding for Salt's operations. Spring sales were down nearly 80% on the previous year, and despite April's much improved trading, the past twelve months has left us with a budget deficit of over £55,000. It's proving to be a very big hole and we're having to take some drastic measures to save our business.

Here's how you can help us to save Salt and all our work with hundreds of authors around the world.


1. Please buy just one book, right now. We don't mind from where, you can buy it from us or from Amazon, your local shop or megastore, online or offline. If you buy just one book now, you'll help to save Salt. Timing is absolutely everything here. We need cash now to stay afloat. If you love literature, help keep it alive. All it takes is just one book sale. Go to our online store and help us keep going.

UK and International


2. Share this note on your Facebook or MySpace profile. Tell your friends. If we can spread the word about our cash crisis, we can hopefully find more sales and save our literary publishing. Remember it's just one book, that's all it takes to save us. Please do it now.

If you are a blogger, consider putting up a "Just One Book" post to help save Salt Publishing. Your readers would love one of Salt's books, I'm sure.

I'm going to go buy Annie Finch's poetry book The Encyclopedia of Scotland just as soon as I get this blog post up. Won't you join me by buying Annie's book or another title from Salt's marvelous booklist?

Among Salt's books, I highly recommend Shaindel Beers's poetry collection A Brief History of Time. Faithful readers of my blog will remember my interview with Shaindel, part of her virtual book tour across the blogosphere. This is one of Salt's innovative practices: using the contemporary culture of the internet to spread first-rate poetry and fiction across the world.

Salt Publishing's geographical scope is by no means limited to the UK. For example, one of their important imprints is Earthworks: Native American Writing, edited by the poet Janet McAdams. It is quite a marvelous service to world literature that Salt Publishing has undertaken this crucial project, one among their many important series.

I hope you can help. To keep Salt Publishing in business, you only need to buy one book right now. Won't you go to Salt Publishing's website (or to the shopping websites listed in their YouTube plea above) to find a book that suits your fancy? Then buy that one book today. Just one book. (Or many books, if you would like.) Thanks for your help . . . and enjoy that one book. Or, better yet, books.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Amelia's Graduation

On Sunday, May 24, Amelia graduated from Cedar Falls High School. Hurray! It was a wonderful Memorial Day weekend: Mary Ann's parents, Nanny and Papa, came out from Indiana along with Mary Ann's brother David with his wife Karen and daughter Madison. The ceremony itself was very cool . . . pretty decent speeches plus a lot of joy and good spirits in the McLeod Center, the University of Northern Iowa's basketball and volleyball stadium. Amelia sang for the last time with the Concert Choir: "He Ain't Heavy, He's my Brother." A fitting song for a class of good friends with caring feelings about one another.

The two photos above that were actually taken at the commencement are a little grainy. Quite a distance away in not very bright light, I'm afraid. I tweaked them as much as I could in good old Photoshop. Click to see any of the pics larger. In any case, you can clearly see how happy Amelia was at the ceremony. Whoopee!

After the ceremony, with sibs
Amanda, Gabe, and Melina.

With Nanny and Papa
(Jerry and Mary Blue).

With friends Chelsea and Joey.

Many, many congratulations from your family and friends, Amelia — O Lovable One (as your name means). We wish you the best of luck in your college endeavors starting August. In the meantime, we hope you have a marvelous, red-letter summer! Mom and I — your sibs Marty, Amanda, Melina, and Gabe — we all love you, love you, love you. Again, brava!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Amanda's Graduation

Last time, I mentioned that my daughter Amanda was a "senior in college" . . . well, that's no longer the case. Because she now has a BA in Anthropology from Grinnell College. Congratulations, Amanda!

The moment of truth . . .


With Brian and Isaac, old friends.

With Marci, Marisa, and Allison . . . "we did it!"

Amanda, we are so very proud of you and your scintillating achievements. It has been a wonderful four years for you, full of adventure and good friends. Mary Ann and I — as well as your sibs Marty, Amelia, Melina, and Gabe — wish you the very best in all that you'll do and are already doing to make the world a better place to live, where love will connect and inspire everyone you encounter.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Pink Tree

My daughter Amanda, a senior in college and no stranger to the blogosphere, told me last week, "You should put up your own pictures on your blog, Dad." I replied that I don't really snap photographs much, and she said, "Well, you still should. People would be interested in that." I didn't give it much thought until yesterday when a vision slugged me between the eyes.

Yesterday was a "May showers" kind of day here in "tree city" Cedar Falls. That may sound romantic, but it wasn't. The shower was a freezing one, and I was hurrying down a path at UNI — the University of Northern Iowa, that is — intent on getting to my car, shoulders hunched inside my windbreaker, hood up. It was at that moment that this tree swam into my peripheral vision: a spritz of pink blossoms spraying from an unruly rig of black branches pinned to metal-gray sky.

So I rushed back to my office, rain virtually unnoticed now, picked up a camera, and voilà. There you go, Amanda! Thanks for the suggestion.

Hey, does anyone know what kind of tree this is? I am not at all tree-savvy, people. If you know, could you tell me in a comment, please? Click below. Actually, do write a comment even if you don't know what this tree is.

As my friend Mark says, stay strong.

Friday, May 8, 2009

In Memoriam Al Robles ... Manong Chito Speaks Again

For the last few days, thoughts of Al Robles keep rising into my consciousness, like bangus — milkfish — surfacing out of dark water. So here's another manong poem, dedicated once more to Manong Al's memory. The speaker of this poem is again Manong Chito, who spoke the poem "Madarika" from the last blog post. I offer this second poem in celebration of Al's pioneering oral-history work to preserve the life stories and talk-stories of our manongs and manangs.

Manong Chito Tells Manong Ben
About his Dream over Breakfast
at the Manilatown Cafe

Ah, good morning, 'Pare. Care to join me?
Have you eaten yet? Hoy, Johnny!
Bring my friend Ben some coffee, OK?
Putang ina! The service in here gets worse
every day, ha? Ayan, here he comes.

You know, Ben, when you walked in the door,
this dream I had last night just jump — like that —
into my head. I was back home, a kid
again, maybe fifteen or sixteen, two years
before I come here. I was with this girl —
I didn't see her for forty-five years
until last night. I ever tell you about her?
'Pare, we was supposed to get married
but then I come stateside and that — goddamn —
was the end of it. I don't know . . . the letters
stopped and I just got too busy with blondies.
You know how it was, Ben. Those blondies.

Anyway, Maria Clara — yeah, that
was her name, no kidding — Maria Clara and I
were down by the river. Saturday morning, I think,
she wasn't the kind to play hooky, you know?
What's that? Chaperone? I remember wondering
about that, too, in my dream. Her papa
used to send her little brother Pabling
all over with us — what a pain in the ass
that little kid was. But, no, not this time.
Just Maria Clara and me. Now listen,
Ben, what I'm gonna tell you now
happen only in my dream, OK?
It's not a real memory, nothing like that.

Maria Clara was teasing me, asking
if I could swim, and I say, sure I could.
And she say, well prove it, there's the water.
And so I take off my shirt and then my pants . . .
I hesitate a second, look around,
and pull off my underwear too. She puts
her hand on my shoulder, and I turn to look at her.
Our eyes meet — susmariosep, Ben,
she got beautiful eyes, real dark,
like when you look into a well at night
and see stars down there. You know that painting
by Juan Luna, the really famous one
in Malacañang Palace, La Bulaqueña?
Maria Clara was beautiful like that.
Anyway, she looks in my eyes, she never looks down,
and then she reaches over and holds my titi.
I was getting hard by then, anyway.
It was like it really happened, 'Pare.
I can still feel her hand, her fingers
were cold, I feel each one as she closes her hand.
Then I turn back to the water and I dive in.

That wakes me up. I'm sitting there, sweating
and cold. Jesus, I left the window open,
you know, so I get up, close the window,
walk down the hall to the bathroom, and piss
it all away. It all just goes away.
I forget all about that dream until
I see you walk in here. Jesus Christ,
that's the problem with you and me, Ben.
That's the problem with all of us Pinoys.
We piss it all away. We come here thinking
America — yeah, gold grows on the trees
like mangoes — and it breaks our hearts, 'Pare.
Yeah, that's it — we piss it all away.
Here, have another cup, Ben.
Hoy, Johnny! Bring us more coffee, OK?
Putang ina, the service here is terrible.

— Vince Gotera, from Returning a Borrowed
Tongue: An Anthology of Filipino and
Filipino American Poetry

Vince Gotera performing the poem.

<bgsound src="" loop="1">

Juan Luna, La Bulaqueña
(1895, oil on canvas)
Malacañang Palace

A manong with his trusty guitar
(from Al Robles's own photo

Manongs at a restaurant
(from Al Robles's own photo

Al Robles (at right) with a manong
In terms of craft, this poem is written in pentameter, as was "Madarika," the poem in the last blog post, spoken as well by Manong Chito. In the previous poem, Manong Chito is speaking in the 1970s to young Filipino Americans about the lives of the manongs and manangs, young people probably of Al's own generation. In this poem, he is speaking to one of his own peers, someone of his own generation. In both poems, I envision (or channel) Manong Chito as a kind of seer, a person who observes deeply and far.

I based Manong Chito's voice on manongs I have known: primarily my Uncle Primo Arellano, but also my father's friends as well as my father himself — he was a younger manong who in fact had lived at the I-Hotel for a brief time. (The International Hotel, as described in the first epigraph of "Madarika," was a residential hotel where many manongs lived in San Francisco until the late 1970s.) Because I feel that the actual spoken voice, with the requisite Filipino accent, is important to the poem, I have included above a spoken-word performance of it. Please listen to that recording, along with reading the poem.

The reference to the Maria Clara mythos is important. In the Juan Luna painting La Bulaqueña, the woman portrayed is wearing a Maria Clara outfit, called the "national costume" for Philippine women. The original Maria Clara was a character in Jose Rizal's revolutionary novel Noli Me Tangere; Filipinos were inspired by Maria Clara and she became a national symbol for the traditional virtues and nobility of the Filipina woman. That Manong Chito's dream woman and former fiancee is named Maria Clara indicates she is not only an actual person in his life but also a symbolic figure, in the largest national, international, and literary senses.

I guess that's all I've got to say about this poem . . . I want Manong Chito to reclaim center stage. And you too, Manong Al, rest in peace.

NOTE: The picture above of Al Robles with a manong is an eloquent emblem of Al's work as an advocate for seniors and the poor, seen most strongly in his founding of the Manilatown Senior Center in the 1980s. This photo is the cover image for the website "Manongs of Manilatown: The Inspiration of Al Robles" where you can find out more about the work and legacy of Manong Al Robles.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Al Robles ... RIP

It was with a heavy, heavy heart that I typed the title of this post. Al Robles is gone. Al Robles — the quintessential talk-story poet of Filipino America, the pioneer champion and everyday helper of the old manongs, those immigrant Filipinos who started coming to the US in the early twentieth century. For all of us Filipino American poets, Al Robles was our manong. Our shaman, our preacher, our Moses climbing Ifugao Mountain to seek the commandments and then finding them in the old manongs' daily fishhead soup, in their bagoong and rice. Amen to that, brother.

I dedicate the poem below to Manong Al Robles, who was there, at the center of the maelstrom, when the whole I-Hotel thing was going down.


— Since the 1920s, the International Hotel, on the
edge of San Francisco's Chinatown, had housed
the manongs — the pioneer Filipino immigrants
to America. In 1977, young Filipino Americans
fought the eviction of these "old-timers" and the
demolition of the "I-Hotel" by linking arms
against the wrecking ball — for many of them,
the event was an emblem of their awakening into
Filipino American history, culture, and activism.

— Madarika, in Tagalog, means "homeless wanderer."

You ask me my name? They got lotsa names
for me — Frankie, Manong Chito, Old-Timer —
you walk into a Chinese restaurant with me,
you see they call me "Amigo." Lotsa names.
But I'm just a Pinoy, you know? Pinoy,
that's a password. You see a stranger across
the street, his hair shiny with Brilliantine,
just like a rooster's dark-blue feathers after
the owner spits down the neck and head at a cockfight.
So you yell out, "Hey, Pinoy?" If the answer
come back, "Hoy, Kababayan," then you know that stranger's
a friend: he'll stand at your back in a knife fight.

Anyway, my name is Francisco X. Velarde.
X for Xavier. So you see I got a powerful
patron saint. I was born in Ilocos Norte
in 1906. I still remember the sunrise
back home. I was the youngest of seven boys
and it was my job to take our kalabaw
to the field in the morning. I remember lying
on his broad back, gray like an elephant. The sun
climbing between his horns as he walked, first
the pink spreading across the sky like flowers.

Only another place I see something
like that was Alaska where I ended up
at a cannery in '24. It never got dark,
you know, but when the sun would sink below
the horizon, the sky would light up in purple
and pink just before sunrise. All day we slave
on the line. My job is cutting off fish heads.
One time, my kumpadre Paulino cuts his finger
right off but we never find it. You young Pinoys,
you never know how hard we worked at that cannery,
and it was dangerous, too. But every night
we were our own boss, and we played baseball —
fast-pitch, slow-pitch — in the midnight sun.

I worked lotsa jobs. Barber, farm
worker, dishwasher, houseboy, janitor: you name it,
I done it. Every place I been — in Alaska,
in Seattle, in Stockton cutting asparagus —
they got these dance halls. A dime for a dance.
These days, a dime don't seem like much to you,
but you know it was a lot in the 30s.
Very dear. Mahal. But we didn't mind.
Blondies. Susmariosep! We were crazy
for those blondies. Ay, naku! "No money,
no honey," they used to say. After the war,
one time, I was going out with a blondie. She had
a white fur coat down to her feet: maganda.
Turned out she was some kinda Russian spy,
no kidding. The FBI haul me away
and this puti — blond hair, blue eyes — he comes
into the room and says, "Kumusta kayo?"
Just like he's from Manila, and his accent's better
than mine! That time, I was working the Presidio,
folding whites in the Army hospital.
They let me go 'cause I got no top
secret to give away, you see? Believe it
or not — FBI agent talking Tagalog!

Well, I been here at the International since
long time before that blondie. I have this room
over twenty years. This same bed,
squeak squeak every night till I think
the mice are talking back. That same desk
where I used to sit and write letters back home
but I got no one there now. Same old view —
Kearny Street still the same, twenty,
thirty years. This room's all the home
I got. They kick us out, I have just one
regret: all the lotsa names I got,
no one ever called me Lolo. Those years
playing with blondies, I never had no kids.
And so now I can't have no grandson.
All I got is you — you college boys
ask these questions like you're doing homework.
Look around you. This is all there is.
Remember everything about this room: the smell
of old linoleum, the faded curtains,
the bugs. And when your grandkids ask about
the O.T.'s, the original manongs,
you tell them how we talked today. Tell them
Francisco Velarde was here. Lolo Panchito was here.

— Vince Gotera, first appeared in Dissident Song:
A Contemporary Asian American Anthology

(1991). Reprinted in The Open Boat: Poems
from Asian America

In deference to the memory of Al Robles, no discussion of poetics today. That's exactly how Al would have wanted it. He didn't worry about rhyme and meter, etc. Al just wrote things out, breaking his lines when it felt right. When it fit the cadences of his soul, that consummate storyteller that lived in his heart.

When I was a young Filipino American poet — young in poet years, not person years — I made a pilgrimage, of sorts, to San Francisco to meet with the master. I really treasure that memory: having dim sum with Al on a lazy Sunday morning in some Chinese restaurant on Clement Street. Then he wandered outside at just the right time, watching the people walking by, thereby leaving me with the check. That was Al, right there. Teaching the young apprentice a lesson about props, about who was to pay for what. But Al's sage wisdom, the song of the ten thousand carabaos in his soul, that was all for free. That was to be shared not just with a young poet but with everyone and anyone around him. That song was emblematic of Al's generosity of heart, mind, and soul. The generosity of his work: the poems on the page, the talk-stories in our memories, and Al's community-based caretaking of the manongs. That work will live forever in all our hearts.

Manong Al Robles . . . may you rest in peace. Amen.

Many thanks to Barbara Jane Reyes, who took the picture of Al Robles above. To read a longer account of my "pilgrimage" to meet with Al, check out my article "Moments in the Wilderness: Becoming a Filipino American Writer" in the journal MELUS (2004).

Added 5 May 2009:     Al Robles Tribute     (a video by xpo147)

Friday, May 1, 2009

Guest Blogger (1.0) ... Pat Bertram

A couple or three days ago, I had the honor of being a guest blogger at Bertram's Blog, a writers' how-to and advice blog renowned across the Internet.

Today, I have the even greater honor of hosting Pat Bertram as a guest blogger here.
Pat Bertram is a native of Colorado, where she is a lifelong resident. When traditional publishers stopped publishing her favorite type of book — character- and story-driven novels that can't easily be slotted into a genre — she decided to write her own. More Deaths Than One and A Spark of Heavenly Fire, available from Second Wind Publishing, are Bertram's recent novels.
Puzzling Out Promotion

by Pat Bertram

Writing means many things to many people. It is like a mythic journey into self, other lands, other minds. It is like archaeology, like exorcising demons, like channeling, like performance, like a faucet. It is like having an adventure. It is uniquely human, and it brings out the divine in us. It is breathing, a compulsion, a necessity, a reason for living, an obsession, a fun pastime. It is exhilarating and frustrating. It is liberating. And it is like comfort food, chocolate, and cherries. It is like magic.

Because of this mystic connection to their words, other writers don't seem to understand why I can stop writing to promote my newly published books. For me, writing is like the world's longest crossword puzzle, one that takes a year to complete. I like playing with words, finding their rhythm, and getting them to behave the way I want. I like being able to take those words and create ideas, characters, and emotions. Amazing when you think about it, how we can juggle twenty-six symbols in different ways to create words, sentences, paragraphs, worlds. And what one person writes, another can read.

The puzzle of promotion is every bit as intriguing to me as the puzzle of putting a novel together. We are told that to promote ourselves we need to blog, to "social network," to participate in discussion forums, to create a presence on the Internet. But these things don't work. At least not by themselves. How do I know this? If they worked, most authors would be successful enough to quit their day jobs, yet very few writers ever reach that pinnacle. Sure, some authors don't promote because they prefer to spend their time writing, some are satisfied with what they have achieved, a few are lazy, but most authors are out there promoting themselves every single day with varying results.

I am successful enough at creating my online persona that, moving from site to site, I meet people who recognize my name. I am not subtle about promoting myself, nor am I annoying (at least I hope not). I don't force my books down people's throats — I want readers to feel as if they discovered my books, because that will give them a stake in their success.

Despite all my efforts, I feel as if I am missing an important piece of the puzzle, the key piece that makes sense of the whole. What should I/could I be doing that will translate name familiarity (meager though it might be) into sales? How can I go from where I am to where I need to be?

All things take time to come to fruition, so perhaps time is the missing key to the puzzle. Unfortunately, time is one puzzle no one has ever figured out. Which brings me back to that missing piece.

I do know that promotion is as personal as writing. We need to write the book that only we can write. We need to promote in a way that only we can promote. So, how do we find that? I don't know. Some people are lucky enough to find the key at the beginning. Others are smart enough or knowledgeable enough to figure it out. Me? I will have to find the missing piece the same way I fill holes in my stories: experimentation. Try everything I can and hope I can puzzle out the solution.

Please leave comments on Pat's article below. She'll be responding to your comments here. Thanks for a very useful meditation, Pat! Book promotion is, personally, something I don't think enough about. But, with you, I'll be puzzling it out. Brava!

Happy Mayday, everyone!

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