My poets are sex symbols. Signs and Signifiers.
My poets were sex symbols. Signs and Signifiers.
How I want my poets to be noble.
Is that different from wanting “noble poets?”
Is this possible?
Rein in noble poets with a sexy hyphen?
Define noble act.
Martin Niemöller’s poem “First They Came…” defines the failure to act nobly. So many poets have rewritten it.
Although, I have had this conversation about the beauty of nobility with Keely Hyslop, I was at a lost for words to describe how truly beautiful these poets and friends of poets were Friday night at Ariel Goldberg’s Converted Storefront performance series. It wasn’t the noble that stirred.
Overheard, the trains entering and leaving the MacArthur BART station, was that lull I needed. How strangely I did not feel estranged here. Then, it was because I only knew 4 other attendees. More would come, but that was later. Sometimes poetic communities operate on the hush, and that is deadly. What side of the silence I belonged?
Can my poets be both noble and sexy?
Muddy Waters called my cell before the first performance. In his novel of Salinas gang violence, he will kill off my character. But this character needed a last name. We agreed on “de la Cruz.” This was how I killed time, a Pabst Blue Ribbon in hand, collaborating on my own obit, and waiting for that bright moment after our comic dirge. Muddy reminded me how I was beautiful in a pink t-shirt.
I was invited to the Converted Storefront, but seeing K. Knox’s name on the bill convinced me to come. A Mills College alum I have not seen perform. It was now or never. Not to say, I’m putting a time line to complete a wish list. Natalie Merchant please go on tour. Neurosis, return to the Great American. Tom Stoppard, swing Arcadia my way.
It was a good series. Why? I did not think, “Hey, there’s a war going on” until I realized later that I forgot to be cynical. I noticed the change earlier in the week at a Mark Nowak reading. Noble poets write Labor too. War wasn’t near my thoughts. Odd. Then again, a second Bonus Army is not farfetched.
Before Java Rama opened in late summer 1994, a toy store occupied 1333 Park Street. I was in Temporary Duty, Norfolk, Virginia waiting my discharge when my sister phoned to tell me of the new tenant. Allen Niro Sam was in middle school. Makes me feel old.
Smoking was allowed in the back. Make friends with cigarettes, those Lolitas in training. Met an 18-year old waiting for her 32-year old boyfriend. All the 22-year old “men” wanted to be him. I guess I am still that way—still 22-years old wanting to have 32-year old privileges. There was a payphone. PAYPHONE. The kind that works when coins were slipped into a slot. Receiver the size of a baby’s arm and tethered to a thick rectangular box with a keypad.
You got the coffee in the front and literally waited for the heroin and weed delivery in the back. Dealers were attracted to the corner. High School a block away—its rooftop was where you drank Natural Light with the buddies, of course pass midnight. The coffeehouse’s Lebanese owner was caught off guards. But he had a business plan: Catholic schoolgirl baristas hired to attract the firemen from the firehouse across the street? Seems like it. Thumbs up for short plaid skirts. A student march contesting the Chamber of Commerce’s attempt to close the coffeehouse was persuasive. No wonder many Midwesterners have told me the island has a Midwest feel. And I was done with Illinois.
You can say the Cold War was over. Clinton continued George Bush I’s dismantling of the military and its highly trained numerical superiority. Blame however is local. In the news today, Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums is in trouble for tax evasion. I’m not surprised. Look at Vallejo, bankrupt. Alameda, Oakland, Concord are in the red. Why do I blame him for Bay Area economic woes? Wasn’t he the Democrat chairing the House Armed Services Committee, and had as much muscle as anyone to prevent listing almost every Bay Area military base on the BRAC list? He was staking a Silicon windfall to shroud the entire Bay Area in a new economic bubble? Each closed Bay Area military base, a silicon outpost of prosperity? Pop. The cloud was dust. You got to applaud the Republicans who shielded many Southern California military bases from closure. What was touted to be Silicon Island (Alameda) is Silicon Bust. The population of the island was near 80,000. It is barely 60,000. Where are our leaders now who have closed the bases thinking the Tech Sector will fill the void, create jobs, and retrain? The First Gulf War set the tempo for the Second. But in relapse, there are fewer soldiers, and more and longer deployments. The communities hosting the Bay Area military bases reaped the economic benefits of the First War. No boon in the Second. We know this. It’s been in the papers.
Now, when you consider the former concentration of military bases in the Bay Area: NAS Alameda, Oakland Army Base, Oakland Naval Supply Base, Coast Guard Island, Treasure Island NB, NAS Moffet Field, San Francisco NB, The Presidio of San Francisco, Novato Naval Communications Base, Mare Island Naval Ship Yard, Point Molate Naval Depot, Concord Naval Weapons Base, Stockton Naval Communications Base, Camp Parks in Dublin—very few poets find it necessary to resuscitate the impact they have had shaping human relations, or leaving a toxic legacy. Okay I can think of one so far: David Buuck for Buried Treasure Island. So what am I saying? Noble poets need not always join the war. Some are physically unfit. Noble poets need not memorialize the sacrifice of servicemen and servicewomen. Noble poets need not lament the political machinations and economic expediency that propels the war. Nobility can be turning the soil of abandoned infrastructure. Or just turning the soil. Poets getting their hands dirty in a noble way. Beyond what is toxic, there’s a labor history underfoot. Why are politicians fearful of the U.S. military? Certainly not the run-a-way spending. Blame that on the lobbyist-industrial complex’s billing and accounting practices. The answer: is the unexpected. The U.S. military is the most successful and powerful Socialist institution the world has ever seen. It’s not just cradle to grave.
Allen Niro Sam asked why I chose writing. It wasn’t automatic. I didn’t recognize this immediately. But when everyone in California (so it seemed to me at ten-years-old) thought you were a fucking FOB immigrant with an “inferior” grammar—despite the fact five generations of family served—what else can someone like me do—but resist with language. Linguistic Racism is still Racism. Being told, “to return to the jungle” led to my first 6th grade fight. My jungle color. My jungle speech acts. My jungle eating ways. My challenger was not aware of a Pilipino phenomenon in the American military. We were virtually all related, coming from specific towns. Before I could even enter the “ring,” members of four related families landed hits. I won a fight without swinging.
Wait. That was not my style. I was a language guy. And to think I was going to talk my way out of the fight. I was often up against larger white or black boys. A fist does not convince them that I have more right to being an American as any white or black boy. I knew, that eventually, I would have to be convincing with words. My tormentors were not always going to be thugs. It happened, they were going to be poets. Sorry fellas, Oriental is for rugs. By the time I reached college, I was ready for Linguistic Racism. Funny how the military values strategic languages. College-educated Orientalists can learn something from a tour of duty. But then weren’t anthropologists weaponized for their fluency. They insisted, a visit to the front improved tenure.
I want my poets to be noble.
Months after I was discharged from the Navy, and I found my niche at the café, I met my first lyric subject/object in the form of a Vietnam Vet. 11 pm closing time. Woodland BDU. What I’d expect. Chin length hair. Dirty brown. This was my stepfather had he let himself go onto the street.
He was reading the newspapers locked in their racks. Catching the light from the lamppost across the street.
“Hey Vietnam.” He hesitated.
I did not think he was referring to me. I walked on seamlessly.
I was the only Asian on Alameda Avenue. I turned around.
“Yeah. That’s me.” It was automatic. I played the role.
Nod. I continued to my car. I’m sure he’d found relief that night. But where?
I first attempted to describe him in a Kim Addonizio poetry workshop. A year later, he reappeared, in a Lucinda Mooney workshop. Then a few years later at CAL, he reappeared in a Chris Nealon workshop.
I want my poets to be noble.