Saturday, December 31, 2011

Wound, Burn, Glacier ... Revisited

One of the things I love most about blogging is meeting excellent writers I didn't know before. Earlier this year, I met Catherine Pritchard Childress, who took on a teaching exercise I described in a blog post in May 2011.

Wait, let me back up a little. It might help if you read about this in-class exercise in that post — especially the ad hoc, impromptu, improvisational way it came about — but basically the exercise asked my students to write a 12-line poem based on the following paragraph from the story "VIVA!" by Erin McReynolds.

My boyfriend sleeps beside me, and his face is peaceful in
the blue light of my laptop. His lashes are long and I bend
down to kiss them. Because I'm used to telling him every-
thing, I whisper aloud the things I find on the Internet.
Things like, "A wound to the carotid artery results in a loss of
consciousness in under a minute," and, "They burn the organs
they remove during autopsy, unless the family wants them put
back in, for religious reasons." When he startles, his glacier
eyes wild with panic, I stroke his head. "Sssh," I whisper, "it’s
me," as if that should comfort him. He blinks at me and then
grabs me around the ribs and crushes his face to my chest. I
keep stroking his hair, whispering, "The human body contains
about five liters of blood."
                                            — North American Review (Winter 2011)

The tricky part was that you had to pick one word from each line of the paragraph and use it in the matching line in your poem. A word from McReynolds' first line would go in your first line, then a word from line 2 would appear in your line 2, and so on. Small changes in the words (remove to removing, say) allowed. I left line 13 from the paragraph out of the game because it had too few words in it, and I didn't want the word blood to unduly influence what the students might write. And me too, because I did the exercise along with them.

Well, I was impressed — flabbergasted, even — by the exercise poems my students dashed off in about ten minutes ... and the two poems I wrote weren't bad either. That experience was the inspiration for that blog post in which I shared the exercise, its backstory, and a couple of the students' exercise poems, as well as my own.

So, back to Catherine ... after reading about the exercise, she was inspired to try it and then shared what she'd written in a comment to the post. Here it is, with the "borrowed" words from the McReynolds paragraph in gray at the right.


Peace eludes her hard-earned sleep,
she lashes out incoherent words, flailing
limbs tell long-buried secrets of a past
he tries to whisper away with hush nows,
there theres, croon clear the blighted artery
of memory that burns clean to the surface —
a childhood. Family forgotten by light, encircles
her with startling clarity in the void of night
wild as the twisted vines heavy with grapes,
where she blinked tears drawn by mama's hand,
clinging to crushed remnants of whiskey-free days,
stroking the pale straw hair of a faceless doll.

—Exercise by Catherine Pritchard Childress     [do not copy or quote ... thanks]

peaceful / sleeps

This is quite an amazing poem, actually. Catherine wrote this in ten or fifteen minutes. And notice how she uses two words in her first line. (Catherine, I hope you won't mind too much that I edited this a little, adding a hyphen in lines 1 and 3 to match your hyphen in "whiskey-free.")

Even more amazing, Catherine then shared, a month later, another exercise poem that, as she put it, "resulted from working with this exercise and a little more time."


A real boyfriend would've cared I was only twelve,
that it would be a long time before I wasn't jailbait,
never had a slow, wet kiss full of wrestling tongues,
been able to find my G-spot or even know I had one,
that what he had planned for the backseat would wound
more than the pink crescent between baby-fat legs. Minutes
of his pleasure would remove the thin layer of dignity
I cleaved to with the zeal of backwoods religion,
sacrificed for a few quick, dry strokes of his manhood.
Would have offered a rag for the blood and comfort
in his arms, instead of flopping his chest on top of me
again and again pounding out his body of work.

—Exercise by Catherine Pritchard Childress     [do not copy or quote ... thanks]

find / I

My response to Catherine, in our conversation through blog comments, was this: "I really appreciate the seriousness of the poems, how they deal with such personal topics with dignity and elegance." Absolutely ... dignity and elegance.

Since she had written such fine exercise poems, I challenged Catherine to take even more time and try it again. Here's what she sent me two months later.


I parked beside a winding mountain road to gather my thoughts
before rounding the next bend, a sharp left onto my father’s farm
where I'd hide in the hayloft with Jason Martin so we could
take turns reading aloud, poems we were ridiculed for reading
in view of the real men. Those lost afternoons buried a secret
deeper in me than the paperbacks hidden under tawny bales,
the one I'd come to tell Dad now. He wants me to marry a nice girl
from a religious family, raise a couple kids, work at the mill,
Sssh crying babies while the woman gets supper on the table.
Wishing for his sake I wanted that too will provide little comfort
when I see his face in my rearview mirror, broken
after I've laid my future that began whispering in his barn.

—Exercise by Catherine Pritchard Childress     [do not copy or quote ... thanks]


Just a tremendous poem. The phrase "dignity and elegance" is again apropos, and perhaps even pales. In this persona poem, Catherine affords her character such dignity, such pathos, as he faces up to coming out as gay to his father who will, he knows, be broken by it. Hmm.

There's plenty more I could say about any of these lovely poems but I've been holding back. I'd really like to hear what you have to say. Please write me a comment below. And Catherine will be "listening" as well and I'm sure she would be happy to reply. As will I.

Incidentally, Catherine recently wrote me on facebook that "My poem 'Oeuvre,' which was inspired by your online writing exercise, was accepted in its revised form, along with another of my poems, for publication in a journal based in Hawaii, Kaimana. Thanks for the inspiration." Congratulations, Catherine! I'm glad and proud that my little exercise had such a grand result.

Again, friends, do leave a comment below, please. Thanks.

Happy New Year, everyone! Manigong bagong taon!

Added later on 2 Jan 2012: After I posted this, it occurred to me another lit mag editor might see the poem "Hush" and snap it up. All because of my hosting it online. Well, I had been thinking about publishing "Hush," so I contacted Catherine and asked if the NAR could have it. And this was on the three-day weekend, no less. (I very rarely do this kind of thing; the great majority of my selections are from work already submitted to the NAR.) Anyway, happy ending. I've made a couple of suggestions and Catherine is considering some revisions. Watch for "Hush" or whatever its eventual title will be in the NAR! Stay warm, everyone!


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Announcing ... The First NAR Literary Roundtable Podcast

Friends, my good friend and colleague Jeremy Schraffenberger (associate editor at the North American Review) just loaded onto our website the first "NAR Literary Roundtable Podcast." Hurray!

Listen to this conversation in which the editors of the magazine discuss the uses and abuses of the thesaurus, as prompted by poet Mark Doty; the essay "Village of Adams" by J. P. Vallieres from our recent Fall 2011 issue (cover pictured at left); and what we've all been reading lately.

Before you click on that link above to listen to the podcast, do check out the cool cover by NAR art editor Gary Kelley. If you click on the cover image at left, you'll see the cover "life-size." I think you'll enjoy Gary's comment on contemporary society here.

After you listen to the podcast or view the cover, please go to Facebook or follow us on Twitter and let us know what you think of either.

And, of course, do subscribe to the magazine at And also please leave me a comment below, won't you? Ingat.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Sea of Mending ... a film by Amanda Gotera

I'm very proud to present today a brand-new, short film made by my oldest daughter, Amanda Blue Gotera. Below are a couple of screencaps from it. The film was inspired by former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser's poem "A Jar of Buttons," from his poetry collection Delights and Shadows, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005.

Click image to see it larger.
Click here to view the film.


The young woman who appears in the film sewing a button onto her sweater is my next oldest daughter, Amelia Blue Gotera. As you might imagine, my buttons (forgive the pun) are fit to burst.

If you've got five minutes, please watch and enjoy "Sea of Mending." Then, won't you come back here and write a comment below? Both Amanda and I would love to know your thoughts about the film.

Thanks so much. Ingat . . . take good care.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Don't Judge ...

. . . a book by its cover. That's what we say, isn't it? Well, in reality most of us — if not all &mdash do that kind of judging all the time, not just with books but also with people, what they wear, what they carry, their cars (if they drive one), the cars they don't drive (if that's the case, right?), how they talk, what they tweet or even if they tweet, what their facebook or myspace or Google+ profile is like, yadda yadda whatever. You know how it goes.

In this virtual planet we call the blogosphere, as you know, that kind of judging is also operative; a blog title (or its subtitle or tag line) as well as the titles of individual posts can mean everything, can decide whether a reader's gonna dip into a blog and into a post or not. I like to think I'm good at this Madison Avenue–branding blah blah blah and that you're actually reading these words because the word judge and also the word don't in my title above snagged you. Or that images, like the picture to the right of the next paragraph, are performing like a "good hook" . . . especially in something like a tumblr(esque) blog.

Well, yesterday, at my local city library, I got snagged. Near the checkout robot whatchamacallits, there was one of those rollaway bookshelf/cart thingies that advertised withdrawn library books for sale. Fifty cents! And for hardbacks too. Since I also like to think I'm a savvy deal-finder I was immediately sucked in.

As a quote-unquote deal-finder, I often annoy my wife Mary Ann by consistently telling friends what a great low price I paid on eBay for some recent purchase or other, like for example these Beatle (or Beatle-ish) boots I'm wearing at this moment: Giorgio Brutini demi-boots with Cuban heels . . . $21. I'm guessing they would typically be priced at no less than $80, though I suspect they might be vintage, probably no longer available available new (?), and may cost even more. Such a deal, hey?

Anyway, the title of one particular nonfiction book on that sale rack yesterday snagged me: Science Friction by Michael Shermer. In case your brain's messing with your eyes &mdash and of course our brains are always (re)editing what we see, etc. — there's an R in that second word. What a clever title, I thought. Especially given the subtitle of Shermer's book: Where the Known Meets the Unknown. The vertical image of a recently snuffed, smoky match highlights the idea of friction, of the scientific known rubbing up against, irritating, the unknown, igniting them, one might suppose, into an intriguing intellectual flame. If you hold a match upside down, like it's shown here, you're gonna scorch your fingers, even more intriguing.

The book's cover art further embedded that 50-cent hook. As you can see, we've got a black cover against which the main title SCIENCE FRICTION floats in white. There's a subtle 3D effect in play. The subtitle in a shade of mustard, because of its warm color, feels slightly closer to the viewer than the cool white of the title and Shermer's by-line. The identical warmness of the match's color moves toward us as well while the smoke emanating from the match tip dips even further behind the white title. Fascinating visual effect (and marketing ploy). I hope the jacket designer, Lisa Fyfe, won't mind too much that I've tainted her cover a little by leaving that white 50-cent sticker stuck on ... that low price is crucial to my self-image as a dealer-wheeler, etc. etc.

Trying to locate a suitable image of the book cover online (before I finally decided to scan it myself because there weren't any good ones), I learned through googola woogola that the phrase "science friction" has been used quite a lot. Google it yourself, focusing especially on images . . . you'll find quite a fascinating array of images/uses. Here are a few of the more intriguing ones.

A comic book cover–style flyer for a Naked Girls Reading event in Boston. Click on the picture at right to expand this full-color image, trés cool. This Naked Girls Reading phenomenon &mdash something new to me — seems to be an performance-art movement that started in Chicago: nude women reading literature in public performance. The main NGR website features international "franchises" in cities across the US and the world. Check out the NGR blog as well. In this context, the word "friction" in Boston's "science friction" event is entertainingly bawdy and . . . well, you come up with your own adjective.

I wonder if Naked Girls Reading is related (if only in spirit) to a couple other onine "literary nudity" projects: novelist Tracy Williams, known as The Naked Blonde Writer, who has read her work naked online, and fiction writer Carol Muskoron who, according to Google, has (had?) a website called Naked Novelist. I couldn't get this site to load today, but here's an interview of Muskoron by Andrea Semple. (Semple's cool literary website also has other interviews of authors that are worth checking out. Also, as far as I can tell exists but seems to be at present just a blank page. Evidently, from articles written ten years ago, Muskoron was a webcam lifecaster who could be watched writing in the nude.)

At any rate, back to Naked Girls Reading, it seems fairly easy to open your own franchise if there isn't already one in your area . . . browse the NGR website. Obviously some people will find this art movement derogatory to women while others will see it as positive feminist activism. Whatever its artistic assets or liabilities, I appreciate the way it surely (re)enlivens literature for a variety of audiences, especially young 20-somethings. You be the judge.

Back to the phrase "science friction" . . .

There's an illustrated novella by that title written by furry fandom writer Kyell Gold . . . sold by publisher FurPlanet as "a work of anthropomorphic fiction for adult readers only."

Science Friction is also the name of a scoring, composition, and sound design company — duo George Martindell and Frank Sonsini — see

British folk/rock singer/songwriter Roy Harper founded his own record label named Science Friction to distribute all his music from a recording career of 40+ years, via cd or download.

Photo by wikipedia user Trharp, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

There is also a clothing line named Science Friction, based in California. About this company, owner and designer Fortino Cortez says, "Science Friction was formed with the intention of sharing my love for the vast universe, its contents, sci-fi of all types and the unknown." Go to to see Cortez's designs and clothing.

Well, that's probably enough, though there's more, plenty more: TV shows, cartoons — an episode of Huckleberry Hound, a Ben 10 intersection — bawdy storytelling, a Dr. Who tribute in the form of a Cyber(wo)man cosplay by fashion, costume, and footwear designer (and tumblr blogger) Rachael Gray (photo at left, Kinky Salon London party titled Science Friction). Pretty tenuous connection, really, but I'm an avid Dr. Who fan. And also a fan of Ms. Gray's artistry. Check out her blog and portfolio at and — she's definitely a cordwainer par excellence.

Well, I'm really not too sure any more how we got here, but clearly the phrase "science friction" is resonant and evocative indeed. And as a title it rocks!

I'll get back to you about the Shermer book Science Friction. I've started reading and it's definitely fascinating. Perhaps we can judge a book by its cover. At least, sometimes. Let's leave it there, shall we?

Please post a comment below. I'd love to know what you're thinking. Ingat . . . take good care. Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Riding Bicycles in the Italian Countryside

Hello, everyone! The North American Review is about to launch our new podcast — watch for an announcement here.

Anyway, we needed some theme music, so I wrote a song I'm calling "Italian Bicycle" for flute, guitar, bass, and drums. We'll be recording this song soon with NAR editors Kim Groninga, Vince Gotera, Jeremy Schraffenberger, and Grant Tracey playing the instruments named above, respectively.

In the meantime, here's a sneak peek ... click on the image below and then, after the sheet music loads, click on the orange triangle at the bottom left.


I'll let you know when the podcast is available online. Then you can hear the song played by real musicians — or human ones, that is — not the teensy electronic ghosts living inside your machine, playing their little ghost flutes and whatnot.

Please leave me a comment below. I'd really like to know what you think. Thanks! And happy halloween tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Serial Killers, Profilers, and Poetry Imitation

At the University of Northern Iowa I teach a course titled "Craft of Poetry" and from time to time I employ poetry imitation as an instructional approach in that class. Students read several books of poems by well-known poets; analyze each poet's subject, sensibility, and style; then write poems in imitation of specific pieces they have chosen from each poet. (I "inherited" this course model from Maura Stanton, from whom I took the exact same class at Indiana University when I was a grad student.

In my poetry-writing courses, I sometimes "do" the assignments along with the students, and in "Craft of Poetry" in Fall 2002 I wrote this imitation of Louise Glück’s poem "Siren."

Sniper, 2002
after Louise Glück’s "Siren"

I become a god when I squeeze it off.
I was . . . before that, I was . . .

I don’t know what it was
I was. I wanted to marry.
I wanted to ride in a long black hearse.
I wanted my fifteen minutes . . . forever.

I wanted to be a child again, to squash lines of ants.
I am a 30-caliber flyswatter.
I am the clean-up hitter.

Does a good person think like
I do? I do. I don’t care what you think.
I am. I am. I am.

I have been a god before. In the Gulf War,
I was Superman with an M-16 and a sniperscope.
I could see miles and miles like a desert raptor.
I wore black smoke from oil fires like a cape.

I will tell you my dream. Last night
I dreamt I was in a jail cell. In the dream,
I am white light. Iron bars melt. Walls crumble.
I stand among ruins wearing a crown of spines. Though

I walk in the valley of shadows,
I shall fear no evil, for I am the Golden Calf.
I am gathering my twelve apostles. Join me.

I see you. I see you.

I squeeze off another round.

— Vince Gotera, from Ghost Wars (2003).

Louise Glück opens her poem "Siren" with this line: "I became a criminal when I fell in love." Well, the most notorious criminal of 2002 was the Beltway Sniper, aka the Washington, DC, Sniper. I'm not quite sure exactly when I started writing "Sniper, 2002" but there had probably been several deaths already; in the sniper's killing spree, carried out "during three weeks in October 2002 . . . [eventually] ten people were killed and three others critically injured" (Wikipedia). I'm pretty sure it was Glück's word "criminal" that bridged me to the "sniper" topic.

I have had a healthy interest in crime-solving, especially forensics and profiling, for a long time. I originally started the poem in the voice of a profiler — in fact an early title was "Profiler" — trying to get into the head of the Beltway sniper who had not yet been caught, take on his persona, so to speak. If the FBI could psych out his "moves," he could be apprehended by knowing ahead of time where he would be and what he would do.

Imitating poetry in the way we were doing it in class, we also spoke about "moves": what moves might Glück conceivably make in writing a poem on a sniper, based on the moves she had already made in "Siren," a poem spoken by "the other woman" in a love triangle. That speaker says, "I wanted to marry you, I wanted / Your wife to suffer." And "I sat in the dark on your front porch" — a deliciously stalkerish moment. Etc.

I imagined that, mirroring Glück's "other woman," my sniper would be similarly self-obsessed; he would speak in ultra-bold and aggressive, even outrageous, first-person declarations, always starting with the word "I." Before I got too far along with the poem, the authorities arrested a man named John Allen Muhammad, who turned out to be a US Army Iraq-war veteran. That bit of info led me to abandon my FBI approach: profiler as speaker morphed into sniper as speaker, and the poem pretty much wrote itself.

If you compare "Sniper, 2002" to "Siren," you'll see there's not much of Glück's influence left. The poem quickly became my own poem — or rather a poem in its own right — rather than simply an imitation of her poem. In an epigraph, however, I do give props to Glück because she and her marvelously rendered and imagined speaker got me going and showed me the way.

Leave me a comment below, okay? Let's talk. Ingat, friends . . . take good care.

One small footnote: if you're a regular reader of the blog, you know that I usually include photo or art images. In this case, I decided to use none. I just didn't know how to illustrate this post without potentially causing pain to someone or other. The victims, their families, the Muhammad and Malvo families have suffered enough (Muhammad had an underage apprentice, Lee Boyd Malvo).

Friday, September 30, 2011

Vince Gotera @ The Gypsy Art Show

I had the good fortune and distinct honor yesterday to be interviewed by poet and artist Belinda Subraman for her renowned radio program The Gypsy Art Show.

Rather than go on at length here, let me just say, "Thank you, Belinda!" Please listen to the podcast by clicking on the image above. Hope you enjoy our conversation! Do check out Belinda's other podcasts.

And please leave me a comment below. I'd love to hear what you thought of the interview. As always, thanks for reading the blog. Ingat. Take good care.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 Tribute in Light ... Not a War Memorial

In today's memorials of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I worry some Americans may again lean toward thinking of all Muslims as radical, would-be terrorists. Although well-intentioned Americans know this is a false image of Islam, the tarring of Muslims with a single brush could intensify again as a result of the tenth anniversary remembrances. With this in mind, I'd like to post this poem — a haiku — as a hopeful, more positive memorial.

Not a War Memorial

Like beacons or search
lights — ghostly towers glimmer
in star-riddled skies.

Inspired by the Tribute in Light memorial in which two beams of
light shone upward from near Ground Zero for a month after
3/11/02, the six-month anniversary of the tragic attack.

Dedicated to Saade Mustafa and other Arab Americans who worked
at Ground Zero. His picture is featured in the
Life photography
Faces of Ground Zero by Joe McNally. Mustafa said, "I ran
cable and set up movie lights for the search. My parents are
Palestinian. Islam is not terrorism. I was in the U.S. Navy in the
Gulf War." It seems fitting to dedicate a poem about light to this
lightbearer, a genuine American hero.

Photo credit below.
— Vince Gotera, from Ghost Wars (2003).

A little background. After 9/11, photographer Joe McNally documented the "faces of Ground Zero" with incredible lifesize photographs, shooting almost 300 full-figure images. These were collected in an exhibit and coffee-table-size book. Some of these images can also be seen in Joe McNally's online portfolios; a new website recaps some of the 2001 images and updates them with new tenth-anniversary 2011 portraits.

The Faces of Ground Zero image that struck me the most was of TV electrician Saade Mustafa, a Palestinian American. In the photo, he is hefting one of the huge studio lights he set up at Ground Zero to help with the search for survivors and then bodies. Part of what Mustafa says in McNally's book, "Islam is not terrorism. I was in the U.S. Navy in the Gulf War," shows his realization and fear that American Muslims will be discriminated against in the aftermath of 9/11, perhaps even hurt or killed. And so his image and statement are both meant to help forestall as well as mend such ruptures.

I found (and still find) Mustafa tremendously heroic and inspiring. His job, to be a bringer of light, coalesced in my mind with the magnificent Tribute in Light displays, building twin towers of bright light at Ground Zero. The footnote that accompanied my poem in Ghost Wars (see above) referred only to the first Tribute in Light event. In fact, Tribute in Light has shone for the subsequent anniversaries, and shines at this very moment for the tenth time as I write this on the evening of 9/11/2011.

As light can bring us hope in darkness, both literally and metaphorically, let us keep in mind that all people are sources of the light. All people — Muslim, Jew, Christian, whatever. Notice how the double "towers" of the 9/11 Tribute in Light point us toward heaven. Whether you believe in heaven or not, I hope we can all agree to see the best in each other, each other's light, each other as light. Amen . . . a ritual word used by Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Amen.

Below, pictures of the Tribute in Light over the last ten years. I hope you find these as inspiring as I do.
Could you leave me a comment below? I'd love to hear what you think. Thanks.


Photo by Derek Jensen, Wikimedia user Tysto, released into public domain.


Photo by Mike Hvozda, U.S. Coast Guard official photo, in public domain.


Photo by Jackie, Flickr member "Sister72," licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


Photo by Denise Gould, U.S. Air Force official photo, in public domain.


Photo by Denise Gould, U.S. Air Force official photo, in public domain.
A smaller version of this photo appears above next to the poem.


Photo by Flickr member Scott Hudson, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


Photo by Kenn Mann, U.S. Air Force official photo, in public domain.


Photo by Kenn Mann, U.S. Air Force official photo, in public domain.


Photo by Flickr member Francisco Diez, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


Photo by Flickr member Dan Nguyen, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


Photo by Randall A. Clinton, U.S. Marines official photo, in public domain.


Photo by Flickr member Bob Jagendorf, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


Photo by D L, Flickr member "dennoit," licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


Photo by Flickr member Bob Jagendorf, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Kids in "the City" ... Don't Call It "Frisco"!

On facebook recently there has been a lot of excitement and discussion in a group called "You know you grew up in San Francisco when ..." The group members — 11,629 at this precise moment — talk about shared experiences and memories, such as visiting Playland at the Beach, San Francisco's long-gone amusement park that has been extinct exactly 39 years this weekend, Labor Day weekend, but is still fondly remembered by many of the facebook reminiscers. Interestingly, quite a few recall being scared by the six-foot-tall, mechanical Laffing Sal that beckoned kids — of all ages, as they say — into Playland's Fun House. Like other native San Franciscans in the group, I too distinctly remember being petrified of Laffing Sal and her maniacal cackle that could be heard all across Playland. Jeez. Shiver.

Other San Francisco memories: Surfing homemade coasters — planks with cannibalized roller-skate wheels — down steep concrete hills. The one and only Mitchell's Ice Cream shop with its trademark Filipino flavors: ube, macapuno, langka, halo-halo. The San Francisco restaurant chain Doggie Diner with the huge sign: a 3D dog's head wearing a chef's hat and a bowtie. The Mission District's Tik Tok drive-in, where Carlos Santana as a teenager washed dishes for his after-school job. Golden Gate Park's Music Concourse where the rock band I was in played the summer after the Summer of Love; two of us went to high school at SI &mdash St. Ignatius &mdash another to Riordan High School, the fourth to the gifted-and-talented magnet Lowell High School. Oh yeah, then there were those two guys who sang and played guitar on the sidewalk below Ghirardelli Square with a handwritten sign, "Help us get to Europe" . . . they used that sign for several summers and probably never went to see the Eiffel Tower or the Tower of London. Illegal bonfires at Ocean Beach to go with Boone's Farm wine and Colt 45 beer. Parking with your honey along the "lovers' lane" on top of Twin Peaks.

My short story "Manny's Climb" draws from such specifically San Francisco memories, focusing especially on boyhood in "the City," as all San Franciscans call their home. Need I say it? Don't call it "Frisco." There was even once a tourist-trap restaurant called that: Don't Call it Frisco. We mean it. Really.

"Manny's Climb" was first published in Tilting the Continent: Southeast Asian American Writing, edited by Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Cheng Lok Chua and published by New Rivers Press in 2000. This book was a landmark publication, the first literary anthology by Southeast Asian Americans . . . in other words, not just plain old Asian American (which, to many, may have meant only Chinese American or Japanese American).

Later, I had the good fortune to have the story reprinted in Growing Up Filipino: Stories for Young Adults, edited by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard and published in 2003 by PALH (Philippine American Literary House). Since this anthology explores the topic of Filipino childhood across the globe, editor Cecilia Brainard asked the contributors for short introductions to our story, which appeared as headnotes in front of each piece. Here's my brief intro.

Growing Up in America in the 1960s     [a preface to the story]

"Manny's Climb" mines its emotional power from the experience of young Filipino Americans in the 1960s, a time when the racial sensitivities of the U.S. were attuned to only two colors: black and white. It was difficult then to be teenage and brown, yellow, or red. I recall distinctly how I and my Filipino American friends and peers slipped on whiteness (Derby jackets and Ben Davis baggy pants) as well as blackness (pimp socks, dashikis, knit shirt-jackets) but not so much "flip-ness" — Barong Tagalog, the terno — even though we would wear these to the many "Fil-Am" social events our parents would drag us to. I was probably nineteen or older before I began to really accept being Filipino, and older yet when I could see those experiences more lucidly, as I hope they are depicted in this story.

Before we get to "Manny's Climb," let me clarify a couple of things.

First, the transmitter tower on top of Mt. Sutro in the story is NOT the gigantic three-pronged transmitter that now looms above Clarendon Heights, even though that's called the Sutro Tower. An inaccurate name, I've always thought, because it's not on Mt. Sutro itself but rather between Sutro proper and Twin Peaks. Before that humongous tower was built, there was a much smaller transmitter atop Mt. Sutro that is no longer there now. That smaller older tower is where my story takes place.

Second, to my grade school classmates at St. Agnes ("grammar school," as we called it) . . . I've based the kids at St. Alfred's in the story on us. You'll recognize some first names though not family names. Please rest assured these kids in the story are NOT meant to represent us. I've mixed and merged and altered. As the author, I am not talking about any of us in particular, so please don't try to read into the characters that way. The narrator of the story, although Filipino, is not me. None of the events in this story really happened. Okay? Here we go.

Manny's Climb
— a story by Vince Gotera

"He looks just like a damn spider in a web!" It must have been Piggy Figone who said that. "A Flip spider!" We had all laughed — me, the Three Rons, Crazy Greg, and a couple other kids — as we watched Manny climb the transmitter tower. Hanging by the tips of his fingers. Even now, more than twenty-five years later, I can still imagine what he must have felt like; just the week before Manny's climb, the Three Rons had made me scale that tower. I can still remember how it felt: the wind parting your hair like a cold hand, the tower creaking as it swayed, like the rivets were gonna pop off one by one as if you were Wile E. Coyote in a Roadrunner cartoon, and the sky all around you a deep blue fishbowl. Manny just kept inching, shinnying up. Filipino spider, indeed.

I'll never forget the day Manny — Emmanuel was his full given name — transferred to St. Alfred's in the sixth grade. Third week of school, a bright Indian-summer morning with just a hint of crispness in the air. A new kid was in the schoolyard, where we were all waiting for Sister Mary Michael, the principal, to come out and ring that huge handbell of hers, telling us to line up. "My name is Manny Mendoza," he was saying to one kid after another, "D'ya want me to eat this paper?" He would then hold up a piece of paper, shredded on one end, where it had been torn from one of those pocket-size spiral-bound notebooks. Of course, each one of us, when asked that question, said "Yeah!" What else could a self-respecting, red-blooded, American eleven-year-old say? Boy, did he gather a crowd of kids as he chewed up and swallowed paper after paper. Kids were beginning to cheer, to egg him on, "Manny! Manny! Manny!" In fact, just as Sister Michael came out on the school steps with her bell, Manny's pad ran out, and he tore a chunk out of his brown lunch bag with his teeth.

Well, I didn't know what to think about this new kid. For five years, I had been the only Filipino kid in the class, and now Manny made two. But, jeez, what a clown! Did I want to be associated with this guy? One thing about Manny, though, he knew how to dress. His St. Alfred School uniform — white shirt, brown "salt-and-pepper" corduroy pants, brown cardigan — was always impeccably cut. The rest of us always seemed rumpled and baggy in our uniforms next to Manny. His pants had been altered, form-fitted to a sixteenth of an inch outside what the nuns might deem too tight. And his pants — I tell you, this is hard to do with cords — his pants were always starch-ironed with folds like razor blades. His sweaters always had a blousy look, kind of like "poet shirts" in lingerie catalogs, billowing out slightly in the sleeves before the gather of the cuff, a whisper of fullness at the waist before the cummerbund-like tightness hugging the hips. His white short-sleeve shirts, too, were always professionally starched. By 3:30 in the afternoon, we would be limp as wilted cabbage, but Manny's collars would still be crisp as cardboard. And he wore imported Italian half-boots! The rest of us wore Kinney's wingtips, but his boots were what we could call, in a year or so, "Beatle boots" — coming to a chic, sleek, and trendy point at the toe. Man, that Manny was sharp!

Don't get me wrong, now, Manny was no sissy. He may have dressed like a dandy, but he was no slouch on the basketball court. Every day at lunch, the Three Rons would rule. That was Ron Johnson, a tall black kid who played center on our fourth-grade team; Ron Morse, a freckled and carrot-topped Irish boy with a short-man complex, who would fight anybody that looked at him the wrong way; and Geronimo Lee Wong, a sullen half-Chinese, half-Apache kid who had beaten up white Ron the second week of school in second grade to earn his slot. It occurs to me now that the Three Rons were like some kind of demographic slice of early 1960s San Francisco. Anyway, the Three Rons were the apex of the boys' social pyramid, and some of the girls rather liked the Rons' dashing ways, at least until Manny showed up with his Italian half-boots. So Manny had to prove himself that first day. Well, no, it couldn't have been the first day, because Manny was sent home right after lunch with a stomach-ache. In fact, he had thrown his lunch away (what there was left of the paper bag), 'cause he just couldn't bring himself to eat anything. But anyway, Manny showed himself over the next few days to be a pretty decent point guard. He could dribble real fancy — between scissoring legs, pizzicato behind the back — and he could sink two out of three jump shots from the top of the key. Until now, though, I can't figure out how he kept those Italian half-boots shined throughout the day, but he always did.

Back at the tower, all I could see of Manny's boots were his soles, and they were just as worn as the bottoms of anybody else's shoes. In fact, it seemed like there was the beginning of a hole in the left sole, but he must have been thirty feet above us, so who knows? In any case, the pointed toes were coming in real handy as Manny slipped them into one acutely angled foothold after another, as diagonal braces criss-crossed in front of and around him. As I looked at him against the backdrop of drifting clouds, the tower seemed to ripple and shimmer, sway slightly like the tower of Pisa must, I imagined. Jeez, that was one climb I would never want to do again.

When white Ron, in the sixth grade, noticed that the rest of us were growing taller around him, and that he was fading back in the growth curve, becoming a runt, one might say though still no one dared to say it to his face, he and black Ron devised a series of tests by which the rest of us boys could prove our manhood. One was to jump off the top of Chinese Ron's stoop to the sidewalk. Now this wasn't a straight-down drop, some ten feet or so. That wouldn't have been sporting enough. No, you had to sail at a forty-five degree angle across the gravitational pull of the earth, about fifteen feet over the steps. And there wasn't much room at the top of the steps for a running start. You just had to stand there and take off, hoping your knees could take the shock when — and if — you hit the sidewalk and not the last step. I guess it was fortunate no one got more than a skinned knee or torn pants. There were twenty-one steps, I remember distinctly, and that split second while you were in the air seemed like forever. Then you would hit rock bottom. Piggy was the best at that free fall. Piggy wasn't fat; he just had a little upturned nose and with a name like Figone, well, his nickname was a natural. Manny survived that test too, though he did scuff his right boot.

Another stunt black Ron devised was walking around and over the N Judah tunnel entrance. The N Judah was a streetcar line that went underground for a mile and a half, or thereabouts, and then surfaced to continue its way downtown. For a while, we had been jumping on the back of the streetcars, riding on the outside and making funny faces at the backs of passengers' heads. One time, Chinese Ron and Crazy Greg even rode the N Judah — again, on the outside, hanging on to the back window ledge — all the way through the tunnel. After they rode back, Crazy Greg — his full name was Gregory Romanoff, a good Russian boy — Greg was jumping around like Daffy Duck, he was so jazzed. Now that tunnel ride's something I just could not do. Black Ron couldn't do it either, so he proposed the tunnel walk.

The tunnel entrance was flanked by two sidewalks which climbed the hill above the tunnel; at the top, the sidewalks met and continued up. Next to the sidewalks was a four-foot-high concrete bannister, maybe a foot or so wide with a fairly gentle incline, while at the top, where the sidewalks converged, a level segment, about forty feet across, formed the upper rim of the concrete wall that edged the tunnel archway. Black Ron's idea was to walk on the banister, an uphill climb of maybe a hundred feet, then across the straight edge above — a real tightrope act, since you'd look down past your feet at the rails glinting below, with an occasional rumbling streetcar to shake you up, literally as well as figuratively — and finally downhill on the other side. White Ron and I, both small and fleet of foot, were the best at this stunt. Manny passed this test too; in fact, he stood on one leg in the middle of the level crossing, and mimicked a statue of Mercury perched on one winged foot. "Look at me, you guys! No hands!"

Manny was getting close to the top of the tower, now. He had been climbing for a solid seven minutes. With a couple of shaky transitions, I must say. I particularly remember that loose strut he encountered some ten feet earlier. Well, not exactly loose, since the rivets on either end were still holding. The strut would nevertheless quiver and rattle if you touched it, and you sure didn't dare put your weight on it. When I had climbed the tower the week before, I had looked down as I passed that strut, wanting to make sure I didn't put a foot on it. The view was magnificent. The Three Rons and the other kids were distant as ants. Crazy Greg's mouth gaped open. With sheer bravado born of adrenaline, I had leaned out over the abyss and yelled, "Hey, Crazy! You catching flies?" Boy, what a rush! The sun shining, reflections glinting off the occasional shiny surfaces on the tower. Down below, on the other side of the tower from the kids, was Sutro Lake, also flashing reflections like you wouldn't believe. Well, not exactly a lake, more like a pond, really. It was beautiful.

Piggy and I went over to Manny's house one afternoon, after school. He had invited us to have cookies or something. His parents weren't home, but that was pretty common among us kids, all latchkey types. Manny lived in a typical San Francisco flat, a little dingy and dark, with most of the shades pulled down. All sorts of Filipino bric-a-brac all around: on the dining room wall hung a giant wooden fork and spoon, carved fancifully on the handles; also a black shield like an interstate sign, with miniature Moro swords and knives arrayed on it like inlaid stripes; in the corner of the living room, a hanging lamp festooned with a mobile of circular capiz-shell slices; and other touristy knick-knacks.

"Jesus H. Christ," Piggy laughed, "we're in the Philippines now."

"I can't help what family I was born into," Manny muttered, his eyes glowering as he turned on the tube. So anyway, Piggy and Manny and I were sitting in the living room munching down on ginger snaps and watching Rocky and Bullwinkle, when Piggy's hand darted up into the air in front of his face. He had caught a fly. Not much to brag about, 'cause that fly had clearly been in the house for a couple of days, and it was starting to slow down. Not yet at that stage where the fly becomes delirious and begins bumping into your face, but certainly not at the peak of condition either. After Piggy let the fly go, I reached out and grabbed it too.

"Hey, watch this," I said, leading the way into the kitchen. Still holding the fly buzzing around inside my right fist, I asked Manny for a glass of water. He set it down on the counter, and I lowered my right hand into the water and let the fly go. "What do you think? Will he drown?"

"Sure," Piggy snorted, "he's a Flip, that fly!"

Manny's lips were pressed into a firm straight line. The fly lay at the bottom of the glass, motionless, for quite a long time, maybe a minute, as we watched intently. And then I poured the water slowly into the sink.

"Now watch," I whispered. In the empty glass, the fly lay there for a moment and then seemed to shrug feebly. After a few seconds, he was on his feet, though a little shaky. In another half-minute, he had recovered enough to sail into the air, buzzing as well as ever before.

"That's nothing," Manny said. He then snagged the fly in his palm, got it between finger and thumb. I remember how mad it was, buzzing and wriggling its legs. Then Manny popped it into his mouth and swallowed noisily. "There you go, Piggy," he said. "So much for your Filipino fly. I hate everything about the goddamn Philippines." It was only at that moment that I realized how much Manny and I were in competition.

Manny was almost at the top of the tower now. He just had to reach his left arm upward and he would touch the base of the transmitter itself. That's as far as any one of us had ever gone. Just a momentary touch, to say you too had been there, had planted your flag in the North Pole, then back down to terra firma. Of course Manny went further. Pretty soon he was standing on the transmitter base, swinging from the antenna itself like King Kong on top of the Empire State Building. "I'll be damned," black Ron said. "I thought that antenna would give you one hell of a shock." We all stood there with our mouths hanging open, like lightning was going to strike Manny any moment.

And then Manny turned to face the lake. He was just a silhouette up there, a figure cut sharply from the blue background of sky. Manny dove, kicking his legs to clear the chain-link fence around the bottom of the tower. In the air, Manny spread his arms like bird's wings. "Holy Mary," white Ron whispered, "Mother of God." In my head going on thirty years, in all our heads, I'm sure, though we never talked about it, Manny was dazzling as an eagle flashing in the heavens. None of us could tell at that moment if he was going to make it into the lake. I turned away, the image of Manny spread out against the sky indelibly burning in my brain.

Vince Gotera, from Tilting the Continent (2000).
Reprinted in Growing Up Filipino (2003).
Usually when I post one of my own poems in the blog, I say something about its craft or its history. I think all I will say here is that all of the stunts from the story are drawn from real life. Kids did ride the outside of streetcars through tunnels. We did walk in tightrope fashion the wall around the N Judah tunnel entrance. There's now a fence on that wall to keep daredevils off. Sometimes I marvel that any of us survived. Bob Boynton, the drummer in my band that played in the Music Concourse, was the person who showed me how a fly could survive long immersion; neither of us ate the fly, though. And so on.

I hadn't thought about this before, but I'm teaching a Beginning Fiction Writing class at the University of Northern Iowa this semester, and perhaps my students who might happen to read this could take away a lesson about how to use "real" facts: when to be journalistic (of a sort), when to fictionalize. As I said above, when you base your characters on people you actually know, "mix and merge and alter."

Okay, 'nuff said. Check out these pictures (click to see them larger).

Laffing Sal, the 6-foot-tall clown that laughed maniacally above the Fun House door in Playland. She frightened many little kids, including me.

One of the huge trademark signs that stood above Doggie Diner restaurants, in several locations around San Francisco. I think this one was from the Doggie Diner on Sloat Boulevard, near the zoo.

The Sutro Tower. NOT the transmitter in the story. This much larger tower dates from 1972, a decade after the story's time period.

Ghirardelli Square, home of the famous Ghirardelli chocolates. At the bottom of the zigzag stair near the lower center of this photo is where, as I described above, two college-age guys played guitars and sang for tourist tips with a sign "Help us get to Europe." They plied their "art" for several summers, using the same sign, and I bet those buskers never actually travelled overseas.


The east end of the N Judah tunnel. This is where the kids in the story would balance on the wall, walking up one side, then cross at the top (still on the wall, directly above the tunnel entrance), and finally back down the other side. Kids did this in real life — me too. As seen in the picture, a chain-link fence now prevents such potentially deadly stunts.

Our band PEACE OF MIND playing a show in the Golden Gate Park bandshell in the Music Concourse, summer 1968. Left to right: Pat Martin (rhythm guitar, lead vocals), Vince Gotera (lead guitar, vocals), Bob Boynton (drums), Steve Hazlewood (bass). We were high school sophomores.

Pat Martin is now principal of a middle school. Bob Boynton I've lost touch with ... are you looking at this, Bob? Leave me a message below! Steve Hazlewood is the only one of us who became a professional musician. He has played bass with various rock bands and toured the world several times. I play in church bands here in Cedar Falls, Iowa — bass, lead, a bit of drums. Also playing lead axe in a start-up classic-rock band.

Please write me a comment below. I'd love to hear what you think. Especially if you were raised in San Francisco.

Hope you're having a great weekend. Take care. Ingat. Don't go tightrope-walking on any tunnel-portal curtain walls.

PHOTO CREDITS: (1) The Laffing Sal photo above was taken by Wikipedia user Schmiteye, who has released it into public domain. (2) The Doggie Diner photo was taken by Wikipedia user Atlant; it is used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license. (3) The Sutro Tower photo was taken by Justin Beck; it is used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. (4) The Ghirardelli Square photo was taken by Wikipedia user Infratec, who has released it into public domain. (5) The tunnel-entrance photo was taken by Wikipedia user Senor_k [Kneiphof], who has released it into public domain. (6) The band photo was taken by my late father Martin Gotera; I own the rights.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Dragonfly (pages 16-17)

I can't believe it's been over two years since I posted a Dragonfly page. Two years! Okay, I'll have to confess.

All this time, I've had a kind of writer's block . . . blogger's block, I guess. From my perspective now as a poet and artist, this poem is the weakest one in the book. It was indeed a strong poem, an important poem, for me when I wrote it during my grad-school days, working on my MFA, but now . . . meh. So I've been stuck, frozen, paralyzed, unsure how to move the blogging of Dragonfly beyond this point, this poem.

Today, though, I decided I should be loyal to the book as it was published then. Or, better yet, to the emerging poet I was during those times, the late '80s. Besides, whenever someone picks up a copy of Dragonfly today, they'll still be able to read this poem, right? So why not post it here. At least this way, I'll be able to comment on the poem in a way that may guide others' reading of it. And I do have a responsibility to my loyal readers — to you — to finish the serialization of the book in this blog. Okay, so here goes.


In the 50s, we drove each month to my uncle's house.
Springing from the car, Papa would joke with him,
"The American Dream, ha, Kumpadre? No sleep
till Monday." Then they'd play mah jong non-stop
and we cousins, sleeping under whispering
gauze, dreamed of Arabian nights, Sinbad,

genies with palaces nestled in their palms.
Those Saturday and Sunday mornings, the kids would build
castles with mah-jong tiles piled up in walls
of many colors, which my cousin Levy
would demolish with a sweep of his hand.
We were mystified by cries of "Kang!

Mah jong! Pong!"
We didn't yet have dreams
of horses named Flip Side or Pearl of the Orient.
Jai-alai and cockfights—just games.
Not yet insomniac rounds of Keno, dollar
slots or poker. We hadn't yet entered
that airy mansion Long Shot built from clouds.

How could we have predicted the chill of adrenalin
from snake-eyes? Up against the wall, crapped out.
Papa's weekend trips to Reno were
a calculus of chance. Any day now,
Lady Luck would wave her Ninang's wand
in our direction. You never know. What's that?

Romantic, you say? I want to tell you mah jong
is real. Hard and cruel as the Napa asylum
where my childhood friend stares into
oblivion. My kumpadre, Jose Manalo.
He can't escape it, lives it over and over.
How he had scrimped on lunches to join the "Empress

Page 16

of China Tour" bound for Reno. From the bus,
he and his partners flipped off the old-timers
hanging out on Kearny. Yeah, they were going
big time, no more tonk for 10 and 20.
Jose saw Chinese ideographs in Harrah's
Oriental Room and copied them off the walls

onto Keno cards. In his mind, they said
long life, wealth, or dreams come true.
On his last try, 10 minutes before
the bus was scheduled to leave, he matched 9
spots—50 grand. Manalo: a winner.
He knew he had to claim the prize before

the next game, 5 minutes at most. But balato,
the Filipino custom of spreading your luck,
meant at least a hundred bucks in each
of his buddies' pockets. So he strolled
with his friends to the bus, then said
he'd forgotten his coat. As the bus revved up,

he sprinted back into Harrah's
where the Keno boss waved him away.
"I'm sorry, buddy, you know you've got to collect
before a new game begins," and he pointed
to the Keno screen on the wall, newly blank.
Now, Jose spends his days building mah-jong castles.

Page 17

I'm going to backpedal a bit here and say that, nevertheless, there are still elements I like in this poem.

For example, lines 5-6, "sleeping under whispering / gauze" — an evocation of mosquito nets — exhibits a sussurus-ish atmosphere (perhaps from the use of s and z) that still suggests magical dreamscapes for me. Also, lines 13 through line 24, from "We didn't yet have dreams" to "Ninang's wand / in our direction" . . . those lines still rock. They dramatize well the common Filipino interest in (for some, obsession with) gambling. My parents routinely traveled to Reno and Lake Tahoe . . . for them this was a way to banish and vanish our family's financial woes, and they were very methodical, even technical, about their gambling so they wouldn't bankrupt the household. The influence of Keno, its numbered ping-pong balls and marked-up tickets (as pictured at left), was indeed large in my family's lifestyle and livelihood. While the game's odds are astronomical against the player, the payoff was much larger than with other casino games and so my parents played Keno quite a lot and often. "You just never know," they would say. "You could win any time."

The poem also retells an apocryphal story you would often hear when I was a kid in San Francisco in the '60s: some poor schmuck wins a big jackpot in Keno, but through his own selfishness in trying to sidestep the Filipino practice of sharing gambling winnings with friends and relatives, doesn't collect in time. And so he goes insane, the legend goes. Hence the mention of "the Napa asylum," the California state mental institution where the indigent would be committed.

I crank up the legend by naming our hero "Jose Manalo" . . . "manalo" is the Tagalog verb "to win." I just now googled "Jose" and found it means "he will enlarge" or "the Lord will increase." When I was writing this poem some 25 years ago, I had a keen interest in names and what they denote so I'm sure that, although the first name was probably originally inspired by a childhood friend's given name, I surely did know about the "enlarge/increase" connotation. And of course the name turns out to be ironic because Jose Manalo does win but eventually loses it all.

It's also important that the speaker calls Jose Manalo his kumpadre. This word calls into play one of the strongest relationship systems in Filipino culture. A kumpadre is the godfather of one's child, or one may be the godfather of the kumpadre's child . . . ditto with kumadre, a connection through godmotherhood. Such a godparent relationship is one of the most crucial social affiliations and alliances in Filipino society, equal to family bonds, in some cases even surpassing them. The reference to a "Ninang" in the poem is closely related, also; a ninang is a godmother, and evoking the word is how a child interacts with the kumadre/kumpadre social system.

Okay, given all these factors why do I say then that this poem "is the weakest one in the book"? My largest misgivings lie in the poem's strange (and uneven) lineation. Look at line 8 . . . why is it so long? A somewhat more graceful line break might be after the word "would," to bring "build" and "castles" closer together. In other places, there are lines that are overly enjambed: why break "dollar" from "slots" in stanza 3; or "Empress" away from "of China" at the end of stanza 5; or, worst yet, "9" separated from "spots" in stanza 7. At times, the line breaks seem almost capricious.

At some locations, lines are so enjambed they become melodramatic, using structure to up the ante rather than character action or significant detail. For example, the aforementioned "sleeping under whispering / gauze" in the opening stanza: notice how "whispering" unmoored from "gauze" may suggest that something maleficent nears the sleeper . . . and then we are told "gauze." Anticlimax. Stanza 5: "into / [line break] oblivion" . . . really? And again, at the end of stanza 7: Jose must "claim the prize before // the next game," the stanza enjambment in this case suggesting some dramatic turn or revelation only to be deflated by something routine. Ditto in stanza 9 when "the Keno boss" says, "'you've got to collect / before a new game begins,' and he pointed /" — here, because of the line break we think there will be a momentous climax, but he is pointing only "to the Keno screen on the wall."

Having been a magazine editor now for over a decade, it's immediately (and painfully) obvious to me how many small errors there are in the poem. For example, "the 50s" in the first line should have an apostrophe before the 5: "the '50s." The word "nonstop" doesn't have a hyphen in it; I was tempted to change that above but finally left it alone. Or "mah jong" (no hyphen) as a noun, and then "mah-jong" (hyphenated) as an adjective . . . hypercorrect, don't you think? In stanza 3, the sport name "Jai alai" has no hyphen, at least in this universe. Maybe just one more: "adrenaline" is spelled wrong; the closing e is MIA. Sans closing e, the word is a Parke-Davis trademarked medication, Adrenalin, a compounded epinephrine.

That's probably enough. I've flayed the poor young poet too relentlessly. Oh, wait, one more thing: entirely too much italicization of non-English words; just italicize the first occurrence. Okay, now enough flaying.

Listen, perhaps this isn't that bad a poem, after all. I don't know. You be the judge. Write me a comment below . . . I've got a thick skin, so tell all. Peace out. Ingat.

NOTE: The photo at the top is by Immanuel Giel, Wikimedia commons, used
under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

It's Mondo Marcos, Yo!

Do you remember the literary anthologies titled Mondo Elvis and Mondo Barbie (stories and poems)? Snarky, arch, but also a bit nostalgic.

Well, now we've got a Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos equivalent: Mondo Marcos: Writings on Martial Law and the Marcos Babies (in English) and Mondo Marcos: Mga Panulat sa Batas Militar at ng Marcos Babies (in Filipino), both published in late 2010. These books are essentially a two-volume anthology because their contents are different — not merely translations of each other, that is — adding up to almost 400 pages! Like Mondo Barbie and Mondo Elvis, the Mondo Marcos books' takes on the subject(s) are multidimensional and complex in their emotional and intellectual approaches.

A couple of days ago — huzzah, huzzah! — my contributor's copy of the volume in English finally arrived via snailmail. Evidently administrative mishaps had held up my copy. I have three poems in the Mondo Marcos anthology, focusing on Ferdinand Marcos, Imelda Marcos, and their son "Bongbong" Marcos (as announced in this blog on 26 June two years ago). Immediately below this announcement in that post, read my description of my own family's strange, opposed connections to the Marcos mondo bizarro.

Here's what the book looks like; the volume in Filipino has a contrasting red cover. It's fascinating how the book designer's choice of bright blue next to bright red for both volumes causes visual vibrations that mirror the frenzied lives and reps of the Marcos family. (It just occurred to me that some readers may not know much or, in fact, may know nothing about the Marcos saga . . . for some background, read my three blog posts on Ferdinand, Imelda, and Bongbong in full. At the very least, you'll enjoy the pictures.)

           From the back cover . . .

For the first time ever, some of the best Filipino writers
recall, cry, decry, metamorphosize, giant robotize, love
and Skylab, imagine, re-imagine, televise, sport dance,
odify, audify, analyze, saint patronize, assassinate,
colorize (orange), underwear commercialize, monsterize,
pornify, necrophilize, shadowbox and guava jam with
themselves, their friends, their generation and THE
LIFE under President Ferdinand Marcos. Mondo Marcos
features the fiction, essays, and poems of:

Paula Angeles
Alma S. Anonas-Carpio
Cesar Ruiz Aquino
Genevieve Mae Aquino
Oscar Atadero
Robert J.A. Basilio Jr.
Shubert L. Ciencia
Frank Cimatu
Johanns Fernandez
Vince Gotera
David Peter Jose J. Hontiveros
Luisa A. Igloria
Cyan Abad-Jugo
R. Zamora Linmark
Martin Masadao
Apol Lejano-Massebieau
Gabe Mercado
Wilfredo O. Pascual Jr.
BJ Patiño
Padmapani L. Perez
Pete Rajon
Ige Ramos
Sandra Nicole Roldan
Grace Celeste T. Subido
Eileen Tabios

A couple of names were left off because they were not writers: Rolando B. Tolentino (co-editor) and Andy Zapata (photographer). A writer, however, who was left off the back-cover listing is a poet "named" Anonymous . . . I'm not sure why this writer is published as anonymous; perhaps this poem was originally published sans name during the martial law period. Marcos summarily jailed writers and artists, most notably the poet Mila Aguilar, among many others.

The introduction to Mondo Marcos is cagey about whether or not the poem had been originally submitted to the editors without a name; the editors had some computer-virus problems during their collection of manuscripts and this poem's by-line could have been lost that way. In any case, this anonymous appearance is fitting because of the way Marcos hog-tied free speech during his rule, causing many to protest against him in secret. The Marcos regime is said to have kept a notorious "black list" of opponents and dissenters &mdash quite probably this was more than rumor.

Here is the poem published nameless in Mondo Marcos:

Memory is a mosaic of tongues licking dirt, of lies embroidered to protect the King of Martial Law.

He was born. He is risen. He will kill again. And his Kingdom will have no end.

Memory is a 1972 machine gun fired on Sunday morning. Four bodies on the edge of a dirt road. An act of suspended drowning.

This is a cup of his blood, the new and everlasting covenant.

Memory is a woman who howls past curfew. Late night dinner parties and spilled champagne.

She drinks it so that their sins may be forgiven.

Memory is a spinning bottle, a top with no base, a mad pack of white dogs eating brown tails, brown dogs, eating spotted tails.

She breaks the bread, gives it to their disciples, and says, Eat this in memory of us.

Memory is an archipelago of closed-view coffins, eaten calmly like sugared fingers of bread.

Such a marvelous poem that gets to the heart of the Marcos dynamic. Mondo Marcos editor Frank Cimatu had tried to locate and identify its author via the blogosphere some time back, without success. I hope the poet will come forward and announce her or his identity . . . are you out there reading this? Perhaps you could reveal yourself in a comment below?

I'm very glad to have my three Marcos poems appear finally in Mondo Marcos. One concern: the poems were edited into 14-line blocks rather than my intended three quatrains and a couplet. Nonetheless, I recommend Mondo Marcos highly. These books and the works they contain are crucial historical and personal comments to the ongoing Marcos story and legacy, from writers who were born during martial law or grew up during that time.

I'd love to hear your thoughts about and responses to the larger Mondo Marcos project overall or the specific poem Requiem. Would you please comment below? It's Mondo Marcos, yo! Let's talk.

Photo from Daily Mail online article "Back from the dead: Imelda Marcos plants ghoulish kiss on glass coffin of embalmed husband as she resurrects political career" (29 March 2010).

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