Ready For Their Close-Up: Two Poems

Curated by Suzanne Lummis

 

"Doin' the Louvre" by Patricia Smith

"Autobiography" by Willie Sims


I offer here, for the emergence of '03, two delightful takes on, or responses to, what some term "high culture".  Beyond this, the January entries are as different in their focus and way of working as any two contemporary poems I could lay down side by side.

 

No, actually, there is another commonality; both Patricia Smith and Willie Sims have roots in the spoken word and performance scene. And both incorporate slang and the language of youth culture but with savvy control of their poems' shape and purpose, and with sensibilities that suggest they are plenty familiar with those poetries sanctioned by literary quarterlies and journals.

 

Oh, and then there's the humor . . .

 

All right then, they are not quite as odd a pair as if I'd joined William Logan and Sharon Olds. (And I'm not quite that mad a scientist.)


On Patricia Smith

My nomination -- one of them anyway -- for the Hall of Great Under-Appreciated Poems of the past twenty-five years or so follows here.  I haven't come across "Doin' the Louvre" in any anthology so far, and perhaps some readers regard it as a fairly conventional autobiographical or memory based narrative poem.  I don't; I can hardly find another example of a contemporary poem that so beautifully interweaves street slang with the sort of attention to detail and inventiveness of language usually learned through long apprenticeship in writing workshops.

 

And I can hardly find -- really can't find -- another poem of our times that embodies joy.  Oh there are amateur poems I'm sure, but those don't really contain joy; they simply announce in the most literal terms that the writer feels joyful.  To which the reader has every right to respond 'yeah? so what?'

 

And when I say 'no other poem like it' I don't mean there aren't many fine ones that venture a feeling of satisfaction, or rich contentment, or momentary optimism.  I'm talking about bounding unabashed almost scary joy.

 

Those people out there who ignored this poem because they think it's so damn easy, all this -- just let them try.

 

On Willie Sims

We poets of our times carry a couple monkeys on our backs, tiny bugbears really: bios and  blurbs.  We must provide the first; we both must write and request the second.  Of these last we have . . . mixed feelings.  We doubt -- no, totally disbelieve, scoff and jeer at -- any back cover blurb that crowns the poet 'one of the best new poets of his/her generation'. Unless it's our book and we are that 'one of the best new poets...'   In that case, oh, the perceptiveness of the blurb writer, and, really, isn't then the word "blurb" too crude a term for this gem of concentrated brilliance?

 

And magazine bios, they're tiresome things even when they're our own. But we must provide editors with some account of our successes lest they conclude we're failures, which we very well might be but we've learned it's advisable to try to conceal this fact.  Only young poets starting out, or poets so acclaimed they can assume no elaboration is necessary, can get away with a simple " . . . lives in Newport." (Editor's note: for Suzanne's bio click here.)

 

I think from here on I'll use the minimalist "lives in" line and hope the modestly informed will suppose I'm hugely successful.  In any case, it exudes a vapor of sophisticated world-weary ennui -- Do you really expect me to remember all the awards I've won? -- I like that.

 

In an affectionate way, Willie Sim's bio-poem spoofs both the literary realm and the pop/hip-hop culture, suggesting ambition of one kind or another drives the aspirants of both worlds. But he doesn't hold himself apart; some of the humor must come at his own expense.  Look, he's even obliged to provide a bio for his bio.

 

   - Suzanne Lummis


Patricia Smith

DOIN' THE LOUVRE

 

Paris, December 1991

for Patricia Zamora

 

 

You're a junkie just like I am.

 

After we dump your husband in the Louvre's cafe

to sip the steaming tea and chew on his poetry,

we're off like schoolgirls, screeching in duet,

dazzled by the bright eternal gasp of ancient things.

 

We've got no business here, homegirl and companera,

we've got no business

working our mouths around his sharp, exquisite language

or savoring the sweet tongue squeeze of pastries,

shining cakes and shaved chocolate.

 

We're of simpler stock -- city and country dust,

collard greens, salsa picante, hopscotch,

moonpies, bullet holes and basement slow dances.

We are shamelessly American,

rough street girls with rusty knees,

the flip side of cocky Parisian wisps

in slim cashmere coats the color of tobacco.

 

Girlfriend, you and I are too much scream for this place,

but you're a junkie just like I am.

Too long denied access to official beauty,

we walk these streets

with our mouths open and faces tilted up

swallowing everything, swallowing it all,

much too much scenery and sound

for our thin American throats.

We gawk at cathedrals with their gargoyles

bleached to an eerie snarl

by bright slashes of moon,

say goodbye when we mean yes,

good morning when we mean how much,

ask for bread when we need the toilet.

We are amazed that no one is asking for all this back,

that we are allowed to bask in this city's light.

 

I can still hear my mother,

as plain and practical as a cast iron skillet:

"You need to stop all that foolishness

over there in some France

where you don't know nothing or nobody.

Ain't no black folks over there no way."

 

But I know you, old friend,

with your burnished tangle of hair

and deep laugh,

and right now these halls belong to us.

There are

bad

girls

loose

in the Louvre,

girls soft as gunshots,

girls nourished and fueled by silvers, silks,

and the stone glare of Napoleon.

 

We laugh at the smashed noses of Egyptian rulers,

stare at the tiny mummified feet of a young girls,

mistake Goya for Gauguin

and rub what surfaces we can,

including the marble cocks of towering deities.

When we say things like,

"Hey, I think I saw this one on a postcard once,"

or, "Do you know how old this thing is?"

how can the world help but love us?

We would give Venus our arms.

 

After seven hours

clicking our hungry heels

and snapping illicit flash photos

in dark halls brimming with whispered music,

we find the Mona Lisa alone,

caged and antiseptic,

behind the glass every woman wears,

and we wonder how best to free her,

knowing she's a junkie just like we are.

 

She longs for our wild voices,

our naive, accidental beauty.

She's achin' to ditch that frame

and skip these hallowed halls with the homegirls,

mistake the obscene for the exquisite,

and gaze at unsolved mysteries

that just for once

are not her own.


 

"Doin' the Lourve" appears in Patricia Smith's Big Towns, Big Talk from Zoland Books, which won the Carl Sandburg Literary Award. 

 

Patricia Smith is a four-time individual Poetry Slam champion on the national level, a playwright, journalist and performer.  Her collection of poetry "Big Towns, Big Talk," which includes the poem above, won the Carl Sandburg Award.  Zoland Books also published "Close to Death," and Wordsmith Press produced her CD "Always in the Head".  She is a vocalist with Paradigm Shift, whose members have worked with Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.

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Willie Sims

AUTOBIOGRAPHY 

Willie Sims is an unemployed bill collector who has been published in pulp fiction magazines of minuscule circulation. He won the Who Cares Literary Prize awarded by the So What Arts Foundation, and is currently awaiting a callback on nis 1987 audition for KUNG FU MASTERS OF DISNEYLAND.  He has performed at colleges, prisons, family festivals, flophouses, saloons, and churches. His house is two blocks from where the Rodney King beating occurred. Willie lives alone with his shiny automatic weapons and leather-bound books on non-violence. He has had twenty-four girlfriends and three best friends, but he is childless and has never owned a pet, so the children and furry animals on his street have formed a Neighborhood Watch Group to keep an eye on his treehouse when he is away.  Willie repays their kindness by being extra careful when backing his Soap Box Derby pimp mobile out of his driveway, and is extremely generous giving out treats on Halloween, which is when kids gather around a campfire in Willie's backyard, and he scares them with the horror stories about the financial rewards of writing poetry. Willie is managed by the Forked Tongue Talent Agency, a division of The Snake Oil Arts Group, which is a subsidiary of Crocodile Tears Productions.  For a free copy of his book BLANK PAGES, fax twenty dollars in small unmarked coins to Invisible Ink Press care of Fly By Night Publishers.  Willie is the founder of Buffalo Chips, a think tank funded by CRAP (Committee to Recall Amoral Politicians).  He is a passionately committed tie-dyed counter-culture conservative right-wing liberal.  For a non-refundable fee paid in advance, Willie will perform at brown bag Peace & Freedom Party protest marches, or $10,000 per plate John Birch Society fund raisers.  His new film SHOW ME DA MONEY CUZ I BE IN YO FACE TONGUE-IN-CHEEK will be released April 1st by Foul Mouth Flicks, a division of Family Entertainment, Inc.


Willie Sims won first prize in the Storytelling and Performance Poetry Contest at the Fullerton Museum, and was also a prizewinner in the annual poetry competition sponsored by the Pacificus Foundation.  He has appeared on local TV and radio, and has released two audio recordings, "GOOD TALK" and "HOT STUFF". A third recording, "StoryYeller", was issued by New Alliance Records.  "Autobiography" appeared in the annual anthology "Beyond the Valley of the Contemporary Poets," a publication from the Valley Contemporary Poetry Series in Los Angeles.  Willie has served on the Coordinating Committee of the L.A. Poetry Festival, and was on the artistic staff at L.A. Theatre Works, where he conducted writing workshops for incarcerated juveniles.

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Ready for Their Close-Up Archive


Speechless Spring 2007
Copyright 2007 Published by
Tebot Bach