The heavens aligned yesterday in a marvelous twofer of guests in my classes, English 353 (History of Poetic Form) and English 273 (Documentary Writing). The early class--it's an 8:30 class in a city with too much traffic in an engineering building classroom with no windows, dingy white paint, and aged plastic coated desks--found themselves confronted by Bob Holman, slam poet, poetry enthusiast, defender of endangered languages. I'd suggested he was welcome simply to talk story, and that my students lit up most when we did a unit on signifyin, rap and performance poetry. And perform he did. The opening act was Holman as Benjamin Bratt (6' 2" white guy) as Mikey Pinero (5' 2" Puerto Rican guy). Holman played both roles, Pinero as himself, Bratt as Pinero. Then he played himself--older hipster, slam poet, charismatic teacher--to a group of students wearied by a long semester and still smarting from a recent unit on the elegy. (I just got off Facebook where Kathy Lou Schultz was lamenting that her students may never come back to her class after reading elegies.)
Holman recounted his ur-moment as an oral poet, when he found himself dancing to a poem by Kurtis Blow, "These are the breaks." One student in class helped him chant the poem. He then riffed into the following topics: the sound of Lower East Side in Nuyorican English (Loeesida); how he started memorizing poems after his first attempt to read a poem beneath lights that flashed too much for him to see his own text; how what you do if you are a poet is what a poet is; his work with PBS's United States of Poetry, which included videotaping Lois-Ann Yamanaka's "Boss of the Food"; his experiences with a blues poet; signifyin' two levels of a single story, one X-rated, one not; orality not as poetic form but as consciousness; Homer; how he was left out of the second edition of the Ron Padgett book of forms we're using in the class; the question of how many languages there are, and the fact that we're losing one language every two weeks, and are slated to lose 1/2 of all languages in the next 60 years; corporate global capitalism; his study with a griot; how poets are paid in West Africa; the difference between an epic that is "long long long" (oral) and "very long" (written); how a poem shifts from day to day because each day is different, according to his griot mentor; Hawaiian orality and literacy; digital consciousness; how literature comes through the body; multi-linguality as a natural tradition; kids as sponges; the sadness of being the last speaker of a language; talk story vs. talk stink; how he was left out of edition #2 of Padgett; rainforests and cancer treatments, both of them being life forms out of control; Welsh; definitions of poet; verb tenses in the Amazon; ecology of consciousness; his courses on "exploding texts" (Columbia) and "poetry census" (NYU)
and then he was gone.
Zack (aka R. Zamora) Linmark came to my early afternoon class, where we've been reading his new novel, LECHE. The course is on documentary writing, so the mix of history, postcards, tourist tips, and other documents, real and imagined, made the book fit the syllabus nicely. Many of the students are local Filipino, and most of them are from Hawai`i, so the book is close to home for them. (Its central character, Vince, comes to Hawai`i from the Philippines as a child, and is now returning for a visit, only to realize no one in the Philippines considers him anything other than American.)
After my students had finished taunting me over my Cardinals' pummeling at the hands of the Giants, Zack began talking about homecoming narratives, starting with those by Homer; about how the motherland often rejects the traveler; how he detests linear narratives; how digressions and plot are related; how it took him 12 fucking years to write the book, which he started as a UH student; how it only took him one year to write Rolling the Rs (a book he says he detests); how LECHE is a prequel and a sequel to that book; how this novel relates to Gulliver's Travels, which the students have not read; how Vince is Gulliver; how he also uses elements of Dante's Inferno; how he used Swift's model in the long long scene of Vince trying to take a shit but finding no toilet paper; about how Vince's story is developed through nightmares, tourist tips, and postcards sent home; how he uses 3rd person, 2nd person, 1st person and dialogues in the book (this fit in well with the fiction-writing tips Donovan Colleps had offered the class period before); how difficult it was to divorce himself from the main character; how much research he did on history, popular culture, the US military, superstitions; how he has no audience when he writes, but means for more than Filipinos to enjoy the book; how place is not setting but character; Kalihi, Manila; how he had to become a sociologist/anthropologist to write the book; the signage he saw in Manila ("Elizabeth Tailoring"); on how his next novel will be set in Tokyo, a city he only lived in for six months; how you need eight pairs of eyes in Manila; how the energy of his prose is intended to echo the frenzy of Manila; how to develop character through dreams; a dream he had about shitting in his pants while naked; the reading his friend, Justin Chin, gave of this dream; procrastination; satire; how to spell "da kine" or "da kind"; how people don't speak in italics; how texting is unfixed, like language
My books include Aleatory Allegories (Salt), And Then Something Happened (Salt), Memory Cards & Adoption Papers (Potes & Poets), Dementia Blog (Singing Horse), Memory Cards: 2010-2011 Series (Singing Horse), A Poetics of Impasse in Modern and Contemporary American Poetry and edited collections on John Ashbery (Alabama) and on multiformalisms (Textos), the latter with Annie Finch. Tinfish Press recently published Jack London is Dead: Euro-American Poetry of Hawai`i (and some stories), which I edited (2013). My forthcoming book is volume two of Dementia Blog, "She's Welcome to Her Disease,"(Singing Horse Press, 2013). Tinfish Press can be found at tinfishpress.com