Former U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera shares poems that consider the questions, what exactly is poetry? What does it do? Herrera crafts an expansive answer to these questions through Marvin Bell’s reflection on poetry as philosophy (“The Poem”), Denise Levertov’s engagement with truth in sacred spaces (“The Day the Audience Walked Out on Me, and Why”), and Lorna Dee Cervantes’s assertion that poetry is the force and form of resistance (“From the Bus to E.L. at Atascadero State Hospital”). To close, Herrera shares his poem “For George Floyd, Who Was a Great Man,” a work that encapsulates humanity, compassion, action, and protest.
You can listen to the full recordings of Bell, Levertov, and Cervantes reading for the Poetry Center on Voca:
Marvin Bell (1977)
Denise Levertov (1973)
Lorna Dee Cervantes (1991)
You can also enjoy two recordings of Juan Felipe Herrera on Voca, from 1993 and 2009.
Have you checked out the new Voca interface? It’s easier than ever to browse readings, and individual tracks can be shared. Many readings now include captions and transcripts, and we're working hard to make sure every reading will have these soon.
[00:00:00.00] [MUSIC PLAYING]
Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:00:03.30] Welcome to season six of Poetry Centered, the podcast that brings you the voices of poets from Voca, the online archive of recorded poetry readings housed at the University of Arizona Poetry Center. Each episode brings you a selection of recordings from between 1963 and today selected and introduced by contemporary poet. I'm Julie Somerset Johnson, here to welcome you on behalf of the Poetry Center.
[00:00:29.91] We are beyond excited to kick off this new season with an episode hosted by Juan Felipe Herrera, distinguished poet, performer, teacher, and activist, who served as his 21st US poet laureate from 2015 to 2017. He's the author of 30 books, including collections of poetry, prose, short stories, young adult novels, and children's books.
[00:00:53.26] His most recent poetry collection is Every Day We Get More Illegal, published in 2020. And fun fact, a poem of his is currently in space inscribed aboard NASA's Lucy spacecraft, which is headed to the Trojan asteroids. In this episode, Juan Felipe shares recordings that approach the question, what is poetry? What does it do? He crafts an expansive answer to this question through poems by Marvin Bell, Denise Levertov, and Lorna Dee Cervantes, asserting that poems carry the rhythms of life, the force and forms of resistance, and a vision of humanity and compassion coupled with action. Juan Felipe, thank you so much for being here with us today.
[00:01:36.64] [MUSIC PLAYING]
Juan Felipe Herrera:
[00:01:39.08] Hello, everyone. This is Juan Felipe Herrera recording from Fresno, California, here in my Sunny Studio. I want to introduce Marvin Bell's poem, called “The Poem,” again, written by Marvin Bell. And it's a title Marvin would write. He's very playful-- he was very playful and very quick and funny and very serious.
[00:02:15.27] I say this because I met him in 1988 when I was admitted and coming in to be part of the first workshop I ever took with Marvin Bell at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. So my family and I we went, my two children and my wife, Margarita, and there we were, and I love that thing, I loved his four seasons, and I loved the environment and the trees and the sun and the snow and the rain, the real rain, the big thick rain, and the friendliness, and going to into the MFA program and having Marvin Bell as my first professor, mentor teacher, and poet.
[00:03:08.90] So that's why I say he was very friendly and playful and fast thinking and could go through your poem almost like a shredding lettuce. But he didn't shred. He just talked about the rhythms as he read the poem out loud to you and he talked about the meter as he read it out loud to you, and he gave you a little bit of what it was about for him, which is nice to you.
[00:03:35.66] And I had a great group. Matthew Lipman was one of the students as-- I forget the rest of the names of-- Stacy Bush, I'm not sure. I had a good group. We all went to the mill, the tavern, but poets went and the fiction writers went to the Fox head. And if you were caught in either one not belonging there, then it wasn't going to be too social for you.
[00:04:07.85] The poem by Marvin Bell, it reads, it's something that I'd like you to look at and listen for. It reads very-- it's in a frame of simplicity. The poem perhaps is talking to the reader or perhaps it's talking to the poet. It could be seen as a conversation between the poem and the poet, but where the poem is doing the talk and is revealing itself.
[00:04:39.41] There's a set of revelations in this poem. Or perhaps there is that of enlightenment. I find this poem almost like a zen poem. It presents the question of perception, the question of permanence, the question of emptiness, of that which cannot be grasped and yet can be acted upon, and it presents the question of life. And I want you to think about or not necessarily right now, but as you listen to the poem, you're going to be-- you're going to notice the word life that sign, the life sign appear, and one after the other-- one time after the other, almost a life rhythm is going to take place in this piece called The Poem.
[00:05:38.99] And that I think is where the poem really presents a case to you, a zen case, different kinds of what-- a different kinds of life less perhaps, or perhaps different tasks regarding life. And at one point, he mentions life as a form. And I think that's one of the key phrases here for us. You may find another phrase, that's the key phrase, is life of form or is it formless? Is it finite or is it infinite?
[00:06:19.34] He does talk about death, and he does talk about form. And he in his later years and last years, Marvin wrote quite a number of large, large set of poems called, I believe, the dead man's-- the dead man's poems where the dead man speaks, and where the dead man writes these poems. And this is a little prophetic, written much earlier in November 3, recorded on November 3, 1977, and he passed away last year.
[00:07:02.09] So he was already thinking about life as formless and as having a form and perhaps it's both. And he calls it The Poem. Maybe the poem is this thing called life. It has form, it has forms, and it is also as-- the poem seems to say formlessness. And so it's a very-- the lines are very short. And the discussion, the poem, the text, the page, is also short. And yet the thinking, the meanings, the movement of the thinking, the movement of thought, the notion of perception, the notion of life, he mentions bones and becoming.
[00:08:08.35] So just that line, bones and becoming, those are three words. Just those three words, which Marvin Bell was very adept at. He would say-- let me make a parenthesis. He would say-- at the end of the poem, it's really just about three words. He would say, you can boil down a poem into three words." And I thought that was funny and interesting. Three words, he said, yeah maybe it says I am hungry or where are you or I am lost or what is violence or what's going on? Three words. He says, you can boil a poem down into three words. So there's three words in this poem that stand out quite a bit two in addition to all the other words, and bones to becoming or bones and becoming.
[00:09:09.91] And you see what begins to appear here in this poem is the poem has a philosophical treatise or a philosophical case, as it would be said in Zen Buddhism, a case, a paradox that you and I are tasked to solve. And so Marvin Bell was that poet, a philosophical, playful poet. If you're a philosopher, you most likely will be playful, because you will think about life, you will think about death, you will think about being, you will think about becoming, you will think about time, you will think about timelessness, you will think about meaning and meaninglessness and existence, and you will most likely will have to play with those big spheres that we all have to contend with in our lives and in life itself are all beings.
[00:10:22.84] So play is most likely necessary. We don't think of philosophers that way or philosophy that way, but it is. It does have an element of playfulness. So you can actually unravel these big questions. And the directions that the poem gives us is tell them to stop looking-- there's a line in the poem, tell them to stop looking. It's almost like there's a foolishness. The poet-- it's been seen as being a bit foolish. Tell them to stop looking for work. Just stop looking. It's wasting time being foolish, being a poet.
[00:11:17.64] So these are all-- almost every line is a philosophical task for the reader, for the listener, for you and me. And I didn't know I enjoyed Marvin Bell's thinking so much as I do now reading this poem. He was always like this. He was playful and giggling, then he was super serious at the same time. And now that I see this poem, I can see what he was all about in a way, and he predicts many things as well.
[00:11:58.12] I guess one last note, or two last notes, he he disliked what he called chopped prose. You know how we write something and it's like a paragraph, we tell a story and we call it a poem and we talk about our toe or whatever yesterday and it's a long set of lines and phrases and sentences, and we describe something and then we say it's poem on my toes or a poem about yesterday, and we think it's a poem. Oh, no, no, no, no, and we divide it into four pieces, four little stanzas, let me call it a poem.
[00:12:36.37] And for Marvin, that's called chopped prose. He didn't like chopped prose, because it didn't have the philosophy. It didn't have movement, it didn't have thought, it didn't have contradictions of thought, it didn't have questions, it didn't have form and formlessness. And I agree with him-- I agree with him. Even though I'm leaning towards that chopped prose these days. But now that I read this poem, I may just keep on going with Marvin.
[00:13:10.92] He was very heated also, very hot blooded. He was a jogger and a runner, and he called me up one time and said, Juan, why don't you come to the workshop today? I said, oh, Marvin, Marvin, I just-- I lost my place. I thought it was time and it was late. He said, well, you better come to the workshop. I said, Yes. Yes, sir. And so he had a very close relationship with all of us. He wanted us to be there in his dojo.
[00:13:46.02] So I invite you to this poem. I invite you to consider and reflect as a philosopher on this poem, as philosophers and of each line as a teaching, and as a paradox, and as a task that Martin Bell presents to you and to the poem. And perhaps you want to look at Lu Chi, the third century Chinese literary scholar who had an essay called-- has an essay called The five delights of literature. And just the title itself is fabulous. The notion of delight and literature.
[00:14:36.85] And one of those delights is to task the void-- to task the void. And that in itself is a challenge. What does it mean to task the void? I think that's what this poem is doing, tasking that which is impossible to grasp, tasking what is called, in Buddhism, emptiness, asking that which is connected to everything, to everything, to everything, to everything, a very popular term all of a sudden these days.
[00:15:12.31] Atomically, it makes a lot of sense. In terms of quantum theory, it's true. Everything is subatomic particles. That's a good platform. For the moment, notice this poem. Listen to it as task in the void. Just to give you one more philosophical challenge, enjoy the poem as it's written, enjoy the very direct language, enjoy Marvin Bell's easy voice, his humor and voice, enjoy the development of the poem.
[00:15:56.98] Most of all, what I see as standing up are the tasks, the questions about different kinds of life forms and life thoughts and life perceptions. And the lines and phrases, the short lines and thin phrases that carry so much weight. Let us thank Marvin Bell, and let us enjoy his words, his thoughts and thinking in mind in this poem.
[00:16:29.60] [MUSIC PLAYING]
[00:16:36.00] The title of this is “The Poem.” Would you like me more if I were a woman? Would you treat me better or I a man. I'm just words now, not words even, just marks on a page, tokens of what? Oh, you know. Then tell them, will you? Tell them to stop looking for me. Tell them I never left home. Tell them, if you must, that I never left my body. Unlike so many others, I had no wings, just shoulders, I was like the snow bunting of stout bill but moderate size, better make that exceedingly moderate size.
[00:17:19.59] I neither blessed nor cursed. But that the good suffered, and evil closed the books and triumph. I cured no one. When I died, my bones turned to dust, not diamonds, at best at tooth or two became cold. How long it took. You would have liked me then had you been alive still. Had you survived the silliness of the self, you would have treated me better. I never lied to you once I had grown up.
[00:17:50.82] When X told you you were wonderful, I said only that you existed. When Y said that you were awful, I said only that life continues. I did not mean a life like yours, not life so proud to be life, not life so conscious of life, not life reduced to this life or that life, not life is something to see or own, not life as a form of life which wants wings it doesn't have and a skeleton of jewels, not this one of bones and becoming.
[00:18:25.32] How perfect are my words now in your absence? Ungainly yet mild perhaps taking the place of no field, offering neither to stand in the place of a tree nor where the water was, neither under your heel and there floating, just gradually appearing painless and insubstantial near you as always asking you to dance.
[00:18:51.12] [MUSIC PLAYING]
Juan Felipe Herrera:
[00:18:58.84] Well, let's get to Denise Levertov, an amazing poet, passed away in the late '90s. And her poem is “The Day the Audience Walked Out on Me and Why.” It's easy to see that title. And to just note that he's never to have passed away in the late '90s and yet she was a towering figure. People at times see her poetry as plain talk and easy writing. Or they have seen her as a protest poet or a political poet.
[00:19:40.07] This is something that she had to struggle against as a woman, as a writer, as a poet, and as a reader on stage, all those, and perhaps even more. The fact that she was white and wrote about massacres, but people of color were killed, and all those that appear to be contradictions or conflicts. We're not conflicts or contradictions for Denise Levertov.
[00:20:17.13] And this poem encapsulates so much of who she was of the stage she had reached in her life, the kind of freedom she finally felt being pulled back by her mentor for being a political poet, social engagement, and this wasn't the right thing for her to do, or from her earlier childhood where she was alone and had to mete out her life, carve it out step by step.
[00:20:58.91] And for us it's going to be a question and many questions in this poem actually. Perhaps it is a story of questions or perhaps it's a poem of questions or a memoir or an analysis or a statement, which one? Or perhaps it's a song. So all those are just shifting and rotating and almost tectonic in this piece. It seems like it's very basic, but what is it? Or maybe that's something we don't need to think about. Perhaps we just listen and see and drink what nectar and elixirs are in this text.
[00:21:56.33] I think Denise Levertov brings so much to us. And one simple poem, quote unquote, simple. Perhaps simplicity is better. I ran into Denise Levertov 1977, not personally, but into her many books on the bottom of a bookshelf at Stanford University's Bookstore. I had just walked in as a student 1977. There I was just looking at books and picking at books and there was a big giant poster up on the wall of you have to Schenkel, a great Russian poet. And here was Denise Levertov of also Russian ancestors. And she was also at Stanford. But I did not know that. I wish I would have known that. She was teaching in the English Department.
[00:22:52.25] So for us it's a question of what a poem can contain and how is it written? And for Denise, life itself, the world of society, the world of what we call the planet, it was primary. One of her quotes is, if you are what you eat, then once poems are what one does. And this takes us to the life we live.
[00:23:28.51] Experience. Experience, society, interaction, action, social response, human beings, war and peace, violence, all this these are major concerns. Of course, her concerns were also spiritual, especially in her later years. Her concerns were also regarding nature and life in all its forms. I guess that's what it was, life in all its forms. And guess what? Humanity, human beings.
[00:24:10.02] Isn't that a beautiful set of concerns? Isn't that what we're all about? And I find a lot of affinity with Denise Levertov, because I've come to that point. In a way, I began with that point back in the late '60s when we were talking about Chicano literature and Chicano poetry. I don't think we use. It was literature at that point. But we did use the word poetry and we used the word floaty canto flower and song, the celebration of life itself through this thing called poetry, flor and then canto song, flower song, which is two words to mean one thing, and many more.
[00:24:54.60] So life, poetry, experience, people, humanity, war and peace, and response. She saw the poem as perhaps for you to think about as you hear her poem, The day the audience walked out on me and why. Perhaps once you listen to that. As you listen to it, is it a response or is it just a poem? Or is it a response? What kind of response can a poem be? And you may find it. I think you are going to find this question. This question unfurled many times and there's one poem.
[00:25:41.86] Of course, this is during the civil rights moment, '60s, of course, and early '70s, and perhaps to this very day it's here again and being fought against and for again. Or is this poem a journal, or is this poem a song, like I said earlier? Or is it a testimonial? A testimony for us. And those are just the first questions, I think, to consider in this poem, because there's also the question of audience, the listener, and there's also a question of religion, it takes place in a chapel, and it's also a question of spirituality or of belief systems, because it takes place in a chapel. And there's an audience. And audiences in chapels and churches are not really audiences. They're disciples or followers or believers. So it has to be a question, has to do with some manner with religion and belief systems.
[00:26:49.72] And what kind of belief system or is there one in this poem? That's something for us to think about as well. So you can see already how weighty and how much is in this poem and yet have a title, so let's call it ordinary, so ordinary. And yet so deep and multilayered and I guess that's another issue, another ingredient, are the layers of this poem, how it begins, how it develops, and how it ends. And all those three are big in this poem, and some are very quick movements.
[00:27:29.16] Really, the very first one, the very first few lines, have to do with what she calls an antiphonal reading. It was just her presentation takes place after a song has been read, a song then that involves call and response, that involves response from the audience. So this poem is also perhaps as it deals with this phenomenon called social response. She's going to speak of social response in this poem, and she begins by speaking about perhaps social response within a religious arena, which is the chapel. And by the end of the poem, she makes another statement about social response within a religious structure, a chapel, and the notion of color is going to play in this poem as well.
[00:28:32.58] So you see there are so many ingredients, there are so many atomic structures, we can call them that, in this piece, and we were talking about the audience. And Denise Levertov has always also been a poet of music. She emphasizes music in the poem, the sound of the poem, the rhythm of the poem, all those items that make us appreciate the poem, feel the poem, and hear the poem, its tones and spectrum of sound and arenas and places and moments where there's little solos.
[00:29:17.16] And I think there's a solo in this poem. And I think it's a little bit after the middle of this poem where we begin to hear her voice and in a particular new rhythm rise up like a cadenza, like a solo. And it's almost, I think, iambic pentameter. You can hear the beat of the poem taking place a little bit after the middle of the poem. So there's an acceleration, and there is music, and it is public, and it involves response and is a conflict, when she mentions the whole idea of sitting and walking and walking out. And all those questions that poets have that we're always concerned with but we don't necessarily write about. And it's going to come out and snap at us and it's in this piece.
[00:30:16.45] And when she mentions-- and as she goes through the poem, she's going to mention Orangeburg. She's going to mention that before and after she wrote this poem, certain protests took place. Even before the poem begins, she speaks about protests. And even after the poem ends, there is something else that's going to take place. So you see how the world that she's interested in that we're all involved in surrounds or perhaps is the environment or the ecology for Denise Levertov. And this is her garden, we're going to say ecology. The poem is that garden or is that text she talks about Orangeburg. But she's really talking about Orangeburg, the Orangeburg massacres, in South Carolina where the Highway Patrol officers shoot and kill Black South Carolina State University students.
[00:31:30.24] This is all about segregation and a bowling alley, can you believe it? But it's what's going on in this time, and she's concerned about this, and she mentions this. And she's also going to talk about Jackson, Mississippi and what takes place there. And there's more killing. So you can see that this very, quote unquote, day-to-day ordinary poem text with the very fine voice of Denise Levertov really has a deep and loud resonance beyond the page in time, in culture, in the world of culture and power and race.
[00:32:28.80] So I'm very pleased to have met her myself after Stanford in the late '90s. And she was just a few years from passing away, and I was so happy. I almost felt-- I almost felt like I was standing before an angelic figure, because of all the work she had done and all her concerns about humanity and her writing non-stop even though many around her and in her life circle had denied her and wanted to prevent her from writing political, quote unquote, poems or poems that required engagement in society. And she refused. She rather-- she chose to break away from those relationships.
[00:33:31.13] And there's also a moment in this poem whether the green of-- quote unquote, the green of May is going to appear. And that's most interesting. So this is something that you're going to have to think about-- we're going to have to think about that color green. And that which is undeveloped, that which is going to grow, and that's also here. And there is a man that stands up and there's women that walk out.
[00:34:09.58] And, like I said, the ending will say much to you. Questions of religion, questions of protest, questions of what is sacred, questions of what is profane, questions of what a poem can do, and she herself says if she's interested in militant action. Not just a memorial or flowery words, her words, period. And she's using words.
[00:34:42.31] So I present to you the most significant poet of the 20th century. At the end of the 20th century, perhaps forecasting our experience today 2022. But we find ourselves in issues of race, power, violence, and war. So I present to you Denise Levertov. Reading her poem, “The Day the Audience Walked Out on Me and Why.”
[00:35:19.50] [MUSIC PLAYING]
[00:35:24.59] And I like to feel that having been writing all my life, I have written a lot of different kinds of poems. I like to feel free to have a certain range. And I'm going to read next a rather different kind of poem. I don't feel that poems-- my poems anyway fall into really marked off categories.
[00:36:09.88] They don't feel to me as if they do. They seem to me to come out of the same sources and to be written initially because I need to write them and part of my need to write, because I have always been interested in the art of poetry, is the need to make things which can stand free of me when made. But the same needs to define my own-- to discover what I feel by saying it and to make things.
[00:37:02.50] I can produce, at different times, very different styles of poetry, and this one-- I think you'll agree is rather different from what I just read. It's one of a number of poems which have dates attached to them really as parts of their titles. This one is called The day the audience walked out on me and why. And it stated-- it's dated May 8, 1970, Goucher College, Maryland, which was the day before one of the big Washington demonstrations.
[00:37:46.12] Like this it happened. After the antiphonal reading from the Psalms and the dance of lamentation before the altar and the two poems, Life at war and What were they like, I began my rap and said, yes it is well that we have gathered in this chapel to remember the students shot at Kent State, but let us be sure we know our gathering is a mockery unless we remember also the Black students shot at Orangeburg two years ago and Fred Hampton murdered in his bed by the police only months ago.
[00:38:34.70] And while I spoke, the people, girls, older women, a few men began to rise and turn their backs to the altar and leave. And I went on and said, yes, it is well that we remember all of these, but let us be sure we know it is hypocrisy to think of them unless we make our actions their memorial, actions of militant resistance.
[00:39:12.60] By then the pews were almost empty, and I returned to my seat. And a man stood up in the back of the quiet chapel near the wide open doors through which the green of May showed and the long shadows of late afternoon and said my words desecrated a holy place. And a few days later, when some more students, Black, were shot at Jackson, Mississippi, no one desecrated the White folks chapel, because no memorial service was held.
[00:39:59.04] [MUSIC PLAYING]
Juan Felipe Herrera:
[00:40:08.16] Let's talk about one of our incredible and great Latino poets Lorna Dee Cervantes. I met Lorna Dee, I think, in 1974. I was in Mexico City with around 30 to 50 political street theater groups all the way from New York to the tip of the hemisphere, Chile, and we all gathered in Mexico City. We wanted to have a national, international conference, and also performance platform to see each other and learn from each other, have workshops for each other.
[00:40:48.79] And in that field, I-- in that arena, I met Lorna, which wasn't in a theater troupe or a performance group, but she was a poet. And we just magnetized toward each other and said hello. And we must have known a little bit about each other and said hello. So that was my first contact with Lorna Dee. And from there on, since I lived-- sooner or later, I lived and took a place to live in San Jose, California, which is where she lived. And I also live in San Francisco, and we would both go to each other's hometown and talk about poetry, read poetry, and share the poems.
[00:41:40.17] When I would visit Lorna in San Jose, I noticed that she had her own, what she called a multi-lith offset printer. And though it was the kind of printer that prints in color and prints in little newsletters, and with Lorna, she worked it so she could actually create a very beautiful journal called Mango, and her press was called Mango Press. And it created really great journals, groundbreaking journals with groundbreaking poets and artists. And so she also was a publisher and, of course, a poet.
[00:42:18.39] And I would have to say that Lorna disadvantage is a very bold poet, a very daring poet, a poet that goes at subjects, materials, experiences, events, a universe that's almost untouched. In this case, she speaks this poem titled “From the Bus to E.L. at Atascadero State Hospital.” That in itself is alarming, being in a Greyhound bus or a passenger bus going to one of the major state hospitals for the mentally troubled or, in those days, mentally insane, those were the words as you know in the '50s and '60s and into the '70s. There had been a re-evaluation of those terms and of treating people with mental disabilities who had committed sex crimes.
[00:43:28.85] So the portraits tweets various levels. One is the actual hospital, locked up closed tight environment, a nightmarish arena. And the other one is at the beginning of the poem where she speaks of the battle local, the dude or the crazy dude or the street dude or the gang dude, all those seem to be connected to the term battle loco, which really is also a friendly term. Hey battle, it is some battle loco. You're a crazy dude. But there's no friendship in that phrase as well. So it touches on that at the beginning.
[00:44:15.22] And as we move through the poem, we begin to feel what is it? Danger? We begin to feel perhaps a sense of the non-exi-- of non-existence or the falling boundaries, the zones we are accustomed to feeling safe seem to be non-existence. Lorna mentions-- the poem mentions nowhere, this zone or place or arena or consciousness of being nowhere and nothing less and nothing and nowhere and nothing and nowhere. I mean, it comes up a number of times. So just thinking about nowhere and thinking about nothing as a repetitive experience or place where we exist is quite a challenge to begin to describe.
[00:45:20.55] And then she continues to talk about the actual hospital. And in that hospital, there's a comatose woman, and it gets-- we begin to enter that psyche of the irrational of the locked up mad person, or of madness. So this is what we get to examine or maybe that word is too strong. Maybe this poem itself is an examination of madness, or examination of that side of humanity that we never talk about or of society or of culture and power that we don't talk about. Who is in those hospitals? Who is in that state hospital right now as we speak? Or do we have a diverse representation?
[00:46:21.31] She also talks about the institution of these hospitals. She mentions this, I think once, one time the institution of our lives. And is it the hospital that she's mentioning? This is a good question for you. Is it our society that she's pointing to? That's another question. Is it-- what else could it be? Is that who we are?
[00:47:00.42] And this is where Lorna, her poetry and her way of writing, excels. So we're faced with the question of structure, which society we believe provides, and we're also facing the notion of anti structure, zones in arenas and places in society that break apart all order and for the moment insanity, chaos, rage, hate, murder, killing, death, and in its shapeless forms, dwells. And of being locked up that breathing had been able to go anywhere and be nowhere.
[00:47:55.83] And we're also faced with perhaps the third possibility of being in the middle zone. Not in a zone of structure, not in this zone of total anti structure, but perhaps in a middle arena or a middle passage where we can resist, or we actually can resist to the rage and the chaos and the madness and those tight spaces of hospitals and lockups whether they're real or whether they're social and cultural and made by power, relationships.
[00:48:39.30] And I think where she gives us a hint, and this is something to look for is when she mentions the resistance. She mentions the term resistance. And what is being resisted? Perhaps it's death. But it seems is it a weak resistance or is it a strong triumphant resistance? That's up to us.
[00:49:04.93] So I think there's around three-- something to look at or look for are these three arenas in this poem of structure itself, anti structure itself, and then resisting anti structure, resisting madness. Is it the latter local who is resisting? Is it the person in lock up at the state hospital resisting? Or is the poem the resistance, the force in the poem are resistance? So I leave you with those thoughts and I invite you to listen to Lorna's incredible poem “From the Bus to E.L. at Atascadero State Hospital.”
[00:49:53.43] [MUSIC PLAYING]
Lorna Dee Cervantes:
[00:49:58.90] Now I guess I want to move to this other poem. It's part of a new manuscript I've been working on for a number of years since Emplumada called Bird Avenue or Bird Ave. I'll be telling you more about that title later on. But I did take about five years off of poetry. And part of the reason was a trauma that happened in my family. My mother was murdered. She was murdered in a traumatic way while I was away at a poetry reading in Minneapolis.
[00:50:43.19] And it's like one night or one day, these farm corn fed kids with straight teeth would be telling me, well, what is it like to live in the barrio? Aren't you afraid? Well, and then coming home and finding out that next morning my mother had been murdered in the barrio in one of those random acts of violence that you face every day coming from a lower economic class. I mean, that's the first thing you do when you get money. You go and move to a safer neighborhood.
[00:51:21.53] But anyway, so because this happened when I was off on a reading tour and because of poems like that first one, for example, it affected me, and I stopped writing poetry for a number of years. And this was one of the first poems I wrote after that. And I promise the mood is going to change. So let me just warn you. I figured maybe I'll just get rid of my bleak stuff right away. This is one of the bleakest poems I think I've ever written.
[00:51:52.64] And also I wanted to read it, because it came out of a Greyhound bus trip I'm getting ready to go back from Flagstaff up to Denver. But I wrote this on the Greyhound bus passing the Atascadero State Hospital, which is where he was at Edward Long. This is another Edward Long poem. Atascadero State Hospital in California used to be called the Atascadero State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. And other than very, very poor people such as Edward Long, also in there are your hard core repeat sexual offenders. That's still what it's known as your hardcore sexual offenders in California get sent to Atascadero State Hospital.
[00:52:34.88] So this poem is a combination of things. It's called “From the Bus to E.L., Edward Long, at Atascadero State Hospital.” So it's to him. It's written to him. And at the same time, it was on the occasion of the death of a very close friend of mine from a heroin overdose. This was a guy, a vato loco from the barrio who was a poet, a Chicano poet, who was just an incredible intelligent poet and had stayed off of heroin for 20 years. He was much older. Had stayed off of heroin for 20 years and then went back and died of an overdose.
[00:53:13.47] So all of these things are working on my mind and this is the poem. “From the Bus to E.L. at Atascadero State Hospital.” Fall, peppercorns rouge into salmon roe. The finished hills blonde in Calífas get crew cuts as cattle which the hip grass into flat tops. Five o’clock shadows singe and vanquish without felling the scrub oaks and manzanita snarls.
[00:53:53.95] Dusted summer squash lays on the gone lawns. Ready pumpkins in the fields bright is plastic and faceless. Their time up evident is flaring matches in the hole. There's a town coming on. It shows in the gray hound windows. The mooned mounds instantly green fence and civilize. They sat you here where you stuck like a poison dart between the idler bar and the mud hole mini mart small wonder vato. You envisioned your Jupiterscapes here and these Martian landings.
[00:54:52.78] What messages they blew to this world, the seeds of something generative. Some day you said they would blow us both away. There was a code to be read in the nothing of an empty page. There was a plan to the shambles of sage on the rocks or the bumbling kooks on the blocked streets. The nothing of a stranger who refuses to give. The nothing of a television mouthing nothing to a nothing house full of nothing like on the morning they locked you up for good.
[00:55:44.02] You were here Ed, and there's nothing here. Moonscapes, desert wastes. As it is in this light, the eyes read but register nothing. Cables and telephone trees, white fences, the immovable air vanishing on the nude, hips of comatose women. Is this what you saw? Nothing in the hedges, the chopped ends, the panicking roads where nothing is distanced between ourselves and an abundance of nowhere.
[00:56:33.28] The institutions of our lives embed themselves in the shallows like the clumped rowhouses of Camp Roberts. The wooden graves of the suicidal dead or the wars where they laid you to rest resisting. And you, you could have gone on to King City or the temple of angels. Instead, you were here. Were the wounded blackbirds warble jazz to a crazed wind? Were the dusk is this pure and inimical as law, devious as treaties? A substance fills the night. The absence of light with whatever we imagine think of it. Space trips, vato, local of the stars, this is what you get in this life, the lockdown of nothing.
[00:57:48.80] [MUSIC PLAYING]
Juan Felipe Herrera:
[00:57:56.64] I'm really excited to read you a recent poem, and now that I think about it, it's connected to my love for Denise Levertov's work and also my friendship with Lorna Dee Cervantes and the kind of work she does. It's the whole notion of being a writer and what it is that we do and what is our vision. And as you know, Denise Levertov, her vision was one of humanity, one of compassion, one of action, protest, which I value very much. I grew up in that generation, and I think all of us agree with Denise Levertov in many ways. And Lorna Dee being so concerned about her role as writer and, of course, the women in her family, and being in an urban world.
[00:58:55.11] And in this poem, which is titled for George Floyd was a great man. I want to honor to life on George Floyd. I want to talk about violence, I want to talk about humanity, I want to talk about life and death and war and peace, especially today, with what's happening in Ukraine and what Russia is doing to the people of Ukraine, very concerned about that. I know you are too.
[00:59:25.93] And I came to this poem through of an interesting channel through the work of Christopher Smart in the 1700s with the poem that he wrote talking about his cat Jeffrey. Of course he was talking about something much larger while he was incarcerated or in a mental asylum, I guess that's what they call them then or an asylum for the insane. And strangely enough, it's a beautiful poem as well.
[01:00:01.38] I'm not going to judge that. Let's accept our poetry. And it was written in the 1700s. And it was written in a biblical song voice, when you're reading the Psalms. And the title of this poem was relating to the Lamb of God. And Jubilate Agno, it's in Latin. Let's try to remember it, grasp it. And in this case, I'm focusing on humanity. Like I said, let's be human beings. Let's be part of every human being. Let's be that human being too. The separation, segregation, racism, sexism, transphobia, on and on, every day we get more separated. Let's get more united, let's be more harmonious, and let's be makers of peace, not racism or war or death or killing. And that's the spirit in which he wrote this poem.
[01:01:22.65] For George Floyd was a great man, for he was a wandering lamb trapped and lowered toward the flames, for the flames were cast upon him, for they would seal his story. For he was taken down, face down, body down to account. For his soul stood up and hearkened the chariot song descending. For he pleaded as a fiery metal coiled upon his ebony skin. For he was our renaissance, our thirst, our vessel for freedom.
[01:02:04.48] For it is said he was our father, our son, our symbol, our body, for a choir assembled on the streets in every furnace of witness. For he called upon his mother as he called upon the source. For he was not your negro, he was not your Black cut down. For he was the ancestral ship burning through maps and chains. For he was the future. No one had prophesied. For now the is for he was taken in the evening as we noticed the power remain.
[01:03:03.96] Thank you, everyone. And I think the Poetry Center so much and you. Thank you.
[01:03:14.48] [MUSIC PLAYING]
Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[01:03:19.22] Thank you so much Juan Felipe for sharing your insight and experience with us. Listeners, whether this is the first episode you've heard or the dozenth, thank you so much for sharing your time with us. We are so excited to say that Voca has recently received a fabulous new interface. Thanks to the hard work of our colleagues at U of A's College of Humanities. We invite you to check it out and share it with a friend. Individual tracks can now be easily shared, and there are new ways to browse the readings such as year by year.
[01:03:49.49] We also offer our heartfelt congratulations to Ada Limón, who just became the new US poet laureate. She hosted an episode for us in season 1 that's fantastic, and you can also find two recordings by her on Voca. Two weeks from today, we hope you will join us for an episode hosted by JD Pluecker. Thanks again for listening, and see you next time.
[01:04:11.85] Poetry Centered is a project of the University of Arizona Poetry Center, home to a world-class library collection of more than 80,000 items related to contemporary poetry in English and English translation. Located on the campus of the University of Arizona in Tucson, the Poetry Centered library and buildings are housed on the Indigenous homelands of the Tohono O'odham and Pascua Yaqui people. Poetry Centered is the work of Sarah Gzemski, that's me, and Julie Swarstad Johnson. Explore VOCA, the Poetry Center's audio visual archive online at the voca.arizona.edu.