Ready For Their Close-Up: Two Poems

Curated 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"

by Chryss Yost

"English Con Salsa"

by Gina Valdes

Dear Suzanne,
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 Walla


Misread 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 bottom of.


In other words, are they like us – here in L.A.?


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 distain.).


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, Chryss Yost. 


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. 

- Suzanne Lummis


Chryss Yost

Escaping from Autopia


but even leaving, longing to be back,

to do again what I did yesterday –

I, Miss Highway, I couldn’t drive off track


or crash. I joined the candy-coated pack

to follow yellow lines and concrete, gray

but even . Leaving. Longing to be back


beyond those lines, in other lines. Like smack

these flashback rides, E-ticket crack: You pay

you have to stay. I couldn’t drive off track,


or spin to face my enemies’ attack.

The road signs told me “NOW LEAVING L.A.”

but even leaving, longing to be back


to go again. I knew I had a knack

for getting there and going. Child’s play,

and anyway, I couldn’t drive off track,


once safety-strapped onto that strip of black.

I couldn’t lose or get lost on the way,

but even leaving, longing to be back

and be okay. I couldn’t drive off track.


Gina Valdes

English Con Salsa


Welcome ESL 100, English Surely Latinized

ingles con chile y cilantro, English as American

as Benito Juarez. Welcome, muchachos from Xochicalco,

learn the language of dolares and Dolores, of kings

and queens, of Donald Duck and Batman.  Holy Toluca!

In four 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.


Welcome, muchachas from Teocaltiche, in this class

we speak English refrito, English con sal y limon,

English thick as mango juice, English poured from

a clay jub, English tuned like a requinto from Uruapan,

English lighted by Oaxacan dawns, English spiked

with mescal from Mitla, English with a red cactus

flower blooming in its heart.


Welcome, welcome, amigos del sur, bring your Zapotec

tongues, your Nahuatl tones, your patience of pyramids,

your red suns and golden moons your guardian angels,

your duendes, your patron saints, Santa Tristeza,

Santa Alegria, Santo Todolopuede. We will sprinkle

holy water on pronouns, make the sign of the cross

on past participles, jump like fish from Lake Patzcuaro

on gerunds, 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.


When a teacher from La Jolla or a cowboy from Swantee

asks you, Do you speak English? You’ll answer, Si, yes

simon, of course, I love English!


                                                       And you’ll hum

 A Mixtec chant that touches la tierra and the heavens.



Chryss Yost

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

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.


Ready for Their Close-Up Archive

Speechless Spring 2007
Copyright © 2007 Published by
Tebot Bach