by Suzanne Lummis
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
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.)
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
Those people out there who ignored this poem
because they think it's so damn easy, all this -- just let
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
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
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.
DOIN' THE LOUVRE
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.