by Suzanne Lummis
In the American Heritage
dictionary close-up is defined as: 1. A photograph or a
film or television shot in which the subject is tightly
framed and shown at a relatively large scale. 2. An
intimate view or description.
"Escaping from Autopia"
I very much liked your "Close Up"s of Yost and Valdes. The
poems are fine and I doubt your disclosure will get you into
the club fed prisons where Martha could beheaded.
("Beheaded" is a nice King-Charles-the-First-like word.) I
can't obviously speak for Scottsbluff or Montpellier, but the
citizens of WW are completely waa waa on defining
themselves, their place, their raisin in the sun. I'll go
back and read some of the other close-ups. I think Jaffe
must be working over time. - Charles Potts of Walla
City: The New Literary Los Angeles (Red Hen Press)
I’m not sure if the residents of Montpelier,
Vermont, or Scottsbluff, Nebraska, converge from time to
time, in bookstores or like venues, to explore the
self-evident or implied significance of their cities, and
question what it means to be citizens of those realms. I
don’t doubt that many settlers in even the most humble
towns, the most unsung municipalities, feel civic pride and
perhaps some sense of the history of their regions, but
that’s not the same thing, quite. I want to know if
artists, writers and thinkers, both professional and
hobbyist thinkers, around the country believe their cities
exist as repositories of signs, stories and inchoate myth
fragments that reveal something about the larger culture and
the age – something that must be figured out, gotten to the
In other words, are they like us – here in
This question interests me. Perhaps
Montpelier or Scottsbluff will respond with the answer.
At Skylight Books the other night the panel
discussion revolved around a new collection of essays and
interviews edited by the influential poet/essayist Dana
Gioia with journalist Scott Timberg, and published by Red
Hen. Misread City, it’s called, The New Literary
Los Angeles. The editors have done us the favor of
drawing together many of the more piquant newspaper and
magazine pieces of recent years which survey aspects of Los
Angeles and a few of its representative authors and
personalities. These writings might otherwise have been
lost – or just scattered wide and far. Though every entry is
not, well, a Joan Didion, together they begin to form, like
mosaic tiles or puzzle bits, part of a picture. And it’s a
picture that now – with this tantalizing portion in view –
we more than ever desire to see the rest of.
But of course we won’t. The city that goes
down in history as the most expansive, geographically, in
the world, cannot ever be taken in at a glance or grasped in
one sitting. The cultural and civic anthropologist can only
approach it first from one end then another, which this
anthology does, sometimes assessing the noir and detective
genre (“A World Gone Wrong” by Paul Skenazy), sometimes the
film business (“Auteurism’s Great Snow Job,” David Kipen).
And it broaches poetry, too, quite generously in fact.
(Well, not always generously. If readers want to know what
pissed off virtually every poet from Malibu to East Downtown
L.A., back in 1999, read Brendan Bernhard’s piece – and
attune your ear to its underlying tone of ennui and
The middle of the book holds a rich filling,
a savvy, stylistically varied mini-anthology of eleven
poets, one poem apiece. Surprisingly two of these poets are
new to me, but their entries here make a fine first
impression. And so, Dana Gioia – whom I believe oversaw
this section – is not simply toeing the line. No, he’s out
in the field discovering and championing new people.
In the interest of full disclosure I should
reveal the eleven: Laurel Ann Bogen, Wanda Coleman, Jenny
Factor, Ron Koertge, Suzanne Lummis, David St. John, Timothy
Steele, Amy Uyematsu, Gina Valdes, Charles Harper Webb,
That is the case, then, I’ve written a
favorable (and I hope helpful, for those considering whether
to buy) account of a book that includes one of my own
poems. I wonder if this will result in a Federal
investigation into my practices, with a grand jury hearing
and so on. And Martha Stewart and I will pass each other at
the courthouse, coming and going.
Actually that might be all right. I might
meet a class of people far above my station.
The two poems following appear in the book.
I love their differences, and the distance between them –
perfect for the city of distances (and differences).
Chryss Yost’s takes on
the challenge of a traditional form, with fine success I
believe. A villanelle repeats two rhymed lines in a
prescribed pattern, and both lines must appear in the last
quatrain. For centuries this form, which emerged from
Medieval Italy, denoted lightness and a song-like quality.
In the anxiety prone and neurosis-steeped 20th Century,
however, certain poets discovered the repetitiveness of the
villanelle can suggest a state of obsession.
"Escaping from Autopia"
points to Los Angeles car culture and its assorted psychic
and material consequences. In a terrain crisscrossed by
freeways we spend much of our lives in motion, pushing
feverishly away from one thing towards another. Here the
use of the villanelle creates a double irony; the "I" of the
poem sails along at the pace of traffic, but the self -- or
psyche -- strains in the opposite direction. And,
overlaying all that, the repetitive form conveys a feeling
of entrapment, a kind of stasis.
Gina Valdez, meanwhile, has come upon a
delightful, ingenious way to mingle the flavors and
sensibilities of two languages, cultures, two peoples, in
one poem without getting it all confused and mucked up.
That is to say, it’s blended but not murky.
In Los Angeles most everyone will know the
Spanish words. (For one exception I consulted a
dictionary. Chapulin: 1. Am Zool – locust
2. In Central America: kid, child.) Also, the poet placed
the words in a context that will make clear their
approximate meanings even to those who have no Spanish.
This also requires skill and attention; I like a mingling of
languages in poetry but it’s not always carried off as
successfully as here.
Finally, I chose these two poems to accompany
one another because the first addresses ways in which the
physical terrain of a city affects the collective psyche of
its people, and the other how a people affects the city.
leaving, longing to be back,
to do again
what I did yesterday –
Highway, I couldn’t drive off track
or crash. I
joined the candy-coated pack
yellow lines and concrete, gray
but even .
Leaving. Longing to be back
lines, in other lines. Like smack
flashback rides, E-ticket crack: You pay
you have to
stay. I couldn’t drive off track,
or spin to
face my enemies’ attack.
signs told me “NOW LEAVING L.A.”
leaving, longing to be back
to go again.
I knew I had a knack
there and going. Child’s play,
and anyway, I
couldn’t drive off track,
safety-strapped onto that strip of black.
lose or get lost on the way,
leaving, longing to be back
and be okay.
I couldn’t drive off track.
100, English Surely Latinized
chile y cilantro, English as American
Juarez. Welcome, muchachos from Xochicalco,
language of dolares and Dolores, of kings
of Donald Duck and Batman. Holy Toluca!
months you’ll be speaking like George Washington,
in four weeks
you can ask, More coffee? In two months
you can say,
May I take your order? In one year you
can ask for a
raise, cool as the Tuxpan River.
muchachas from Teocaltiche, in this class
English refrito, English con sal y limon,
as mango juice, English poured from
a clay jub,
English tuned like a requinto from Uruapan,
lighted by Oaxacan dawns, English spiked
from Mitla, English with a red cactus
blooming in its heart.
welcome, amigos del sur, bring your Zapotec
Nahuatl tones, your patience of pyramids,
your red suns
and golden moons your guardian angels,
your patron saints, Santa Tristeza,
Alegria, Santo Todolopuede. We will sprinkle
holy water on
pronouns, make the sign of the cross
participles, jump like fish from Lake Patzcuaro
pour tequila from Jalisco on future perfects,
say shoes and
shit, grab a cool verb and a pollo loco
and dance on
the walls like chapulines.
teacher from La Jolla or a cowboy from Swantee
asks you, Do
you speak English? You’ll answer, Si, yes
course, I love English!
chant that touches la tierra and the heavens.
After working as a cook, veterinary assistant, office
manager and pet store employee -- and making several visits
to the beach -- Chryss Yost enrolled at the University of
California Santa Barbara where she received her B.A. in
English, graduating with distinction. Her poems have
appeared in Quarterly West, The Hudson Review, Solo
and The Louisiana Review. She serves as a book editor
for The Santa Barbara Independent, and recently
finished editing, with Dana Gioia, California Legacy:
Poetry from the Gold Rush to the Present (Heyday Books).
Gina Valdes was born in Los Angeles and
grew up on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. This early
migration greatly influenced her life and her writing;
crossing borders and identity are recurring themes. Two
languages and two cultures weave through her life. Valdes
received degrees from the English and Spanish departments at
UCSD, and for many years has taught literature in both
languages at various universities, most recently at UCSD and
SDSU. Valdes is the author of two bilingual poetry
collections, Comiendo lumbre/Eating Fire, and Puentes y
fronteras/Borders and Bridges (Bilingual Press). She is
presently working on another book of poems, Between Worlds.