Friday, November 25, 2022

Compare the Central Americans to the Irish?

I try to pay attention to what’s going on in Latin America, my major at Cal was Latin American Studies, after all. But Latin America doesn’t lead the news in the US, unless events there impinge on us, and even then the slant is often unsympathetic. The rage on the American right wing against immigrants from the south seems mostly racism — and, yeah, deeply antagonistic, way beyond unsympathetic. Sadly, even in news sources that aren’t pushing an anti-immigrant agenda, the lede is how US authorities are dealing with the immigrants rather than the root causes that force them to leave their homes. I could have delved deeper into what has caused such trauma recently --  in Central America in particular -- but I confess I really haven’t. I remember the civil wars of the 80s and 90s, but I hear that deaths and crime has spiked in the 2010s and 2020s beyond even those horrible times. Yet there are no rebel armies to negotiate with. 

So I’m reading a book on coffee, where it originated, how it spread throughout the world, and what its current situation is, and I come across this passage:

In 2013, coffee rust affected 74 percent of El Salvador’s crop, 70 percent of Guatemala’s, and 25 percent of Honduras’s, causing losses of nearly two hundred thousand jobs in the trio of countries. … Coffee was the livelihood for more than two million Central Americans. For many of those households, it was their sole source of income, money they used to cultivate staple foods. Jobless farmworkers poured into the cities looking for employment. Gang membership increased. Violence surged. El Salvador became the word’s murder capital, only to be overtaken by Honduras in 2016. Parents sent their children north, often unaccompanied and entrusted with coyote smugglers, passing through a series of way stations as they tried to reach extended family in the United States. … ‘To discuss the current Central American immigration crisis without talking about the coffee rust,’ one newspaper wrote, ‘is like talking about the 1845 Irish immigration without mentioning the “potato blight.”’

As my source was published in 2017, I looked at current news for an update. Says a December 2021 Reuters story: “[T]his year has been particularly ruinous, according to interviews with about a dozen farmers across the region, the heads of one regional and three national coffee institutes plus an executive at a U.S.-based international coffee association.” Damn. 


Where the Wild Coffee Grows: the untold story of coffee from the cloud forests of Ethiopia to your cup

by Jeff Koehler

2017. Bloomsbury, New York

Monday, November 14, 2022

shoes dangling from wires overhead

When I first saw shoes dangling from telephone lines, I thought them rather whimsical, an ad hoc celebration of ugly, as if a festive ornament could be anything, so long as it swayed in the breeze. The tableau was given a darker spin when I was told the shoes marked places for street drug dealing. Considering how randomly placed such shoes seem to be, the connection is likely a folk etiology, that is, somebody made the connection in their head — and it was an explanation that immediately made sense. Of course, there’s a nefarious reason for the shoes! Who knows, maybe that was the purpose at one time, but with shoes swinging here, there, and everywhere any connection must quickly have lost its usefulness. I’ve come back around to the notion that shoes dangle on overhead lines because it’s just fun to throw them up there, and it feels like a lasting accomplishment to see them swinging away every time you go by. How else are you going to get any satisfaction from throwing away worn out old shoes?

In his book on Mexico City Juan Villoro looks up from the ground level gridlock, the careless drivers, and the gaping holes in sidewalks to those seemingly footloose shoes:

Shoes hung on electric lines offer another parable of transit. Since the streets are dead ends, the final steps must be made aloft. The dead shoes reach that desired beyond, the paradise where the pedestrian strolls the sky.


Horizontal Vertigo: a city called Mexico

by Juan Villoro, translated by Alfred MacAdam

2021. Pantheon Books/Penguin Random House, NY

Monday, October 31, 2022

the dead poet gets paid

In her book about poets, remarkably few lines of poetry are quoted. Ada Calhoun explains by doing some accounting for us:

[F]or permission to share … six lines [by W. H. Auden] I had to sign two contracts and pay $285.37. … [Breaking it down further she says] to use these six lines in the audiobook and in print for countries excluding the US, Canada, and the Philippines, I paid Curtis Brown, Ltd., $195.37. For print rights in the U.S., Canada, and the Philippines I paid Penguin Random House $90.”

That’s pretty good scratch for six lines, no? Too bad Auden isn’t alive to enjoy it. Auden didn’t leave behind kids or a spouse, so I wonder what heir(s) get a cut?


Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, my father, and me

Ada Calhoun

2022. Grove Press, New York NY

Sunday, October 30, 2022

being a ghost

There are different kinds of writers. Ada Calhoun is one I’m not, that is, she’s a professional. She writes in order to pay the bills, so she writes to order. She is able to write to please people who will cut her a check. In her new memoir about failing to write a Frank O’Hara biography Calhoun describes some of her projects:

A few years ago, I got a call from my agent telling me that a celebrity needed someone to redo the twenty thousand words the first ghostwriter had done and then to finish the hundred-thousand-word manuscript in five weeks. The book came out and hit the New York Times bestseller list.

A couple of years after that, I sensed that a memoir on which I was the ghost might be in jeopardy. The celebrity was making sounds about the pages not sounding quite right, a red flag. I asked for a sample of writing that worked. Then I spent hours mapping the grammar of that sample, line by line, onto each story I’d been told. That book came out on time, and it, too, hit the New York Times bestseller list.

I wouldn’t be able to do this. I could probably mimic a preferred style for a page or two. Even then it would be torture. I remember back in the 90s when I was going to UC Berkeley, Fodor’s created a new travel guides imprint to compete with Lonely Planet. The Berkeley Guides were going to be hip and happening, man, and Fodor’s was going to take advantage of Berkeley’s rep for being counterculture, which Fodor’s definitely wasn’t. Fodor’s set up shop on or near campus — and began advertising for writers and editors. I took out an application, pored over it, and ultimately realized it was not for me, neither as editor nor as writer. I just can’t crank out copy. I can write, but I can’t write like that.


Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, my father, and me

Ada Calhoun

2022. Grove Press, New York NY 

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

tornado lucky

I don’t think there are any disaster-free zones on this planet. I live in earthquake country. Florida gets lashed by hurricanes. Tornadoes tear through the plains states. But then, being an Ozophile, twisters have that extra romance. In his short story “Monsters” David Franke writes about tornados from a kid’s perspective:

The weatherman came on again to say we were no longer having a tornado watch but that it had turned into a tornado warning. His voice became both flatter and more excited. … The weatherman named roads and landmarks, saying a funnel cloud had been spotted southwest of town and was moving northeast at about thirty miles an hour. We got information at school about this. You are supposed to make sure there are no yard tools lying around; they can cause injury in high winds. Do not sit near glass windows. Flying pieces of broken glass can blind you. If you are in car, park and crawl into the nearest ditch and lie down and wait, which sounded like fun. My dream was to crawl up under a bridge abutment when a tornado came so I could watch it come close, and all I’d have to do is hang on. It was supposed to roar like a train. Some people got sucked up in a tornado, as in The Wizard of Oz. You never know when you’re going to get lucky.


Colorado Review, v.48 n.1, Spring 2021

Monday, October 10, 2022

events to which no one came

I have scheduled events to which no one came. I have been scheduled for events to which no one came. 

One odd night at the San Francisco series I was co-hosting, Poetry & Pizza, the two featured poets did not show. Fortunately (?), no audience did either. 

For Clearly Meant, the reading series I host out of the Berkeley Public Library’s Claremont Branch, there was one reading with a total audience of one. Because he was intelligent and lively in the discussion and talked in an interesting fashion about his own poetry, I later scheduled that audience for his own reading. 

I have probably hidden memories of some of my own empty/singular audience readings. There was that one at a cafe in Cotati where the coordinator couldn’t make it. A friend filled in for her. But there was a table near the door that talked louder as I read, as though they weren’t going to let any dumb poetry reading interfere with their good time. No one shushed them. Why was I there? I asked myself. But I carried on like, I imagined, a professional. Besides my co-reader, a friend I’d brought along from Berkeley, and my husband and the host, there was maybe one person, or two?, that looked like they might be paying attention. 

I don’t know whether it’s reassuring to hear from others who have had similar experiences, or sad. 

Fanny Howe writes about reading for the St. Mark’s Poetry Project in New York City: 

I have read there a few times — always in atrocious weather (hailstorms, blizzards, and gales) — and have had a wonderful audience nevertheless. Once, however, when I was giving a talk, no one came. Ron Padgett recorded me as I read to him alone, and then a mad woman roamed in from the wet streets and tore my talk to shreds.


Out of This World: an anthology of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, 1966-1991

edited by Anne Waldman

1991. Crown Publishers, New York

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Godey’s Lady’s Book speaks up for herself

Shepherding Autobiography of a Book into the world I find myself checking out other books about books. I brought home from the Claremont Branch two books that (totally coincidentally?) have titles that riff on books by Raymond Carver, Where I’m Reading From by Tim Parks (Carver title: Where I’m Calling From) and What We Talk About When We Talk About Books by Leah Price (Carver title: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love). I enjoyed both. I wrote to Leah Price via her website, hitting her up for a blurb. No response. Ah well. Everybody’s busy. Plus it’s pretty weird, this writing to a stranger out of the blue to ask them to endorse your book. So I totally understand her ignoring me. One of the arguments for going for an MFA in creative writing is the networking — you’ll have professors who’ll provide blurbs! Maybe!

Leah Price may not have seen Autobiography of a Book yet, but she did find another literary object speaking up for itself:

In 1855, the American magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book ran a story titled ‘The life and Adventures of a Number of Godey’s Lady’s Book Addressed Particularly to Borrowers, Having Been Taken Down in Shorthand from a Narration Made by Itself.’ The ‘number’ (what we would call an issue) complains bitterly of the wear and tear it suffered when lent by subscribers to all their friends. Each girl should buy their own copy, the long-suffering magazine declared, the same way she bought her own bonnet: ‘How would you like that passing from head to head?’

Price also brings back to light a fun list. It's a list of coinages meant to blacken the reputations of those skinflints who borrow — but don’t buy — books:

book weevil






culture vulture






book buzzard


Price’s source is dated 1931. I don’t think any of these pejoratives caught on. Considering the love of the bookish for public libraries, I’m guessing there isn’t a critical mass for shunning the infamous borrower. 


What We Talk About When We Talk About Books

by Leah Price

2019. Basic Books, New York 

Tuesday, July 05, 2022

word of the day: fonds

word of the day: fonds


“We cannot save the whole world, so we save that part of it we assess as essential. The process of appraisal usually encompasses multiple fonds or subfonds, so we are always creating a collection of records, even if that collection consists of records from the same central fonds. In a manuscripts environment, this is even more so the case, yet the collection we create out of various manuscript collections functions best when the records have conceptual connections between them.”

definition (Dictionary of Archives Terminology): the entire body of records of an organization, family, or individual that have been created and accumulated as the result of an organic process reflecting the functions of the creator

I knew Geof Huth as a poet, but he is also a professional archivist for New York City courts. Having now read The Anarchivist, Huth’s essays on archival theory, I have a better idea of what he does in his day job. Archives are storage facilities for records, but archivists like Huth want their mess of data to be useful, so they do their best to clean them up and keep them organized so researchers, writers, journalists aren’t just faced with dusty boxes and catawampus piles and mouse-chewed bundles. 

This was the first time I encountered an archivist term of art: fonds. When seeking a definition you have to make sure you include the “s” at the end, otherwise you wander down trails wholly unrelated. An archivist could be fond of his fonds, I suppose, but fondness and fondsness do not seem to be related. 

One of the examples given for a fonds at Wikipedia: “the writings of a poet that were never published”

I have serious fonds, it seems. 


The Anarchivist: history, memory, and archives

by Geof Huth 

2020. AC Books, New York

Monday, June 20, 2022

word of the day: meed

word of the day: meed

This passage in Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance has narrator Miles Coverdale congratulating himself on his skills as an observer, a passionate, yet disinterested observer. 

context: “Of all possible observers, methought a woman like Zenobia and a man like Hollingsworth should have selected me. And, now, when the event has long been past, I retain the same opinion of my fitness for the office. True, I might have condemned them. Had I been judge, as well as witness, my sentence might have been stern as that of destiny itself. But, still, no trait of original nobility of character, no struggle against temptation, — no iron necessity of will, on the one hand, nor extenuating circumstance to be derived from passion and despair, on the other, — no remorse that might coexist with error, even if powerless to prevent it, — no proud repentance that should claim retribution as a meed, — would go unappreciated. True, again, I might give my full assent to the punishment which was sure to follow. But it would be given mournfully , and with undiminished love. And, after all was finished, I would come, as if to gather up the white ashes of those who had perished at the stake, and to tell the world — the wrong being now atoned for — how much had perished there which it had never yet known how to praise.”

definition (Collins): a merited recompense or reward

Quite a performance, that passage. Perhaps, in a sense, it is an apology. I did your story justice, he seems to be telling his protagonists, even if you didn’t come out looking very good. 


The Blithedale Romance

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

1852. 1960, Dell Publishing, New York

Saturday, June 18, 2022

word of the day: sillabub

word of the day: sillabub

Miles Coverdale, the poet narrator of Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, has moved away from Blithedale, a utopian rural community of which Coverdale was a founder. He was only taking a break, he thought, to check out civilization again. Once back in town, though, he feels more in tune with it than he ever was with the farm. 

context: “I had never before experienced a mood that so robbed the actual world of its solidity. It nevertheless involved a charm, on which — a devoted epicure of my own emotion — I resolved to pause, and enjoy the moral sillabub until quite dissolved away. Whatever had been my taste for solitude and natural scenery, yet the thick, foggy, stifled element of cities, the entangled life of many men together, sordid as it was, and empty of the beautiful, took quite as strenuous a hold upon my mind. I felt as if there could never be enough of it.”

definition ( 1. a drink of milk or cream sweetened, flavored, and mixed with wine or cider. 2. a dessert of beaten cream that is thickened with gelatin, sweetened, and flavored with wine or liquor. [also spelled syllabub]


The Blithedale Romance

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

1852. 1960, Dell Publishing, New York

Friday, June 17, 2022

word of the day: ebullition

word of the day: ebullition

Hawthorne’s first person narrator in The Blithedale Romance is Miles Coverdale, a poet. He never shares a line of poetry with us. In this passage Coverdale reveals a hint of insight into the situation of women, a proto-feminism as it were. His (soon-to-be-former) friend, the pontificating Hollingsworth, has just declared that the role of women is to be subservient to men. 

“I looked at Zenobia, however, fully expecting her to resent — as I felt, by the indignant ebullition of my own blood, that she ought — this outrageous affirmation of what struck me as the intensity of masculine egotism. It centred everything in itself, and deprived woman of her very soul, her inexpressible and unfathomable all, to make it a mere incident in the great sum of man.”

defintion (Merriam-Webster): the act, process, or state of boiling or bubbling up

Zenobia is an assertive and intelligent woman. Wouldn’t she readily challenge Hollingsworth’s pronouncements? Coverdale is disgusted when, instead, Zenobia acquiesces. He grumbles to himself about this surrender. “‘Is it in their [women’s] nature? Or is it, at last, the result of ages of compelled degradation?’”


The Blithedale Romance

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

1852. 1960, Dell Publishing, New York

Wednesday, March 23, 2022


It’s the early 90s in Los Angeles. Jeremy Atherton Lin is just coming out, trying to figure out himself and what “gay” is, what kind of community he might be finding himself in. The following description is of a powerful type, one I recognize, more or less. Lin seems attracted and repelled.

The guys at the table seemed so confident — jaded already. They sat with impudent elbows and ankles. I’d heard it said that gays were perpetually adolescent, but I was convinced this particular sampling had never been boys in the first place. They assessed instead of greeted. They laughed like they’d already been butt-fucked. They looked down long noses with the pride of a man with an ass made only for fucking, as if there never was shit. They used phrases like fresh meat as they recrossed their legs. They spoke as if words were handed to them to disgrace. They were swishy — not mincing, but like a sword slicing air. They were satisfied with cliche. They dismissed whole populations with one sting. Bottoms and tops were fixed positions. To have a clear racial preference was a highly amusing character trait. If someone liked black men, for instance, He goes to Catch One was all that needed to be said.

Lin’s memoir/history of gay bars has some poetry in it. 


Gay Bar: why we went out

by Jeremy Atherton Lin

2021. Little, Brown and Co., New York

Sunday, January 23, 2022

pile of reading

As I described in my last pile of reading post, I have piles going in different places. 

Windowseat pile:

How to Kill a City: gentrification, inequality, and the fight for the neighborhood

by Peter Moskowitz

2017. Nation Books, New York

I’ve heard much angst over gentrification, which seems to be the transformation of funky city neighborhoods into YUPPY-favored high-rent zones. Long-time residents bemoan the destruction of community, being priced out, and the disappearance of what made the neighborhood livable. The blame for gentrification tends to fall on gays (who renovate historic houses) and artists (who favor warehouse work/live spaces) and speculators (who flip properties for profit). Peter Moskowitz sees the real culprits as big money interests (developers, mainly) and government policies (which subsidize the big money interests). Yes, socialism works — for the people who don’t need it. I’m not far enough into the book to have a full sense of Moskowitz’s argument, but it certainly rings true that government caters to the powerful and prefers to ignore (or chase away) the poor. 

The Blithedale Romance

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

1852/1960. Dell Publishing, New York

I read Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in grade school. And was surprised that I liked it. Is it a little weird that they teach a novel about adultery to kids? Since I liked Scarlet Letter I’ve always had Hawthorne on my radar. But this is the first time I’ve tackled one of his other novels. Blithedale seems to be a utopian community, and the narrator one of its founders — a poet, too, so no doubt impractical and a dreamer. We’ll see. Hawthorne likes long and complex sentences, so you have to be ready to give the reading your full attention. Says our narrator: “let us acknowledge it wiser, if not more sagacious, to follow out one’s day-dream to its natural consummation, although, if the vision have been worth the having, it is certain never to be consummated otherwise than by a failure. And what of that?”


by Britta Austin

2009. Watchword Press, Berkeley, California

This handsome paperback was published by a Berkeley-based press. I bought issues of their Watchword magazine; if I recall aright I invited one of the contributors to read as part of the Poetry & Pizza series. I don’t remember whether I ever sent anything to Watchword or if I’ve just banished the memory of rejection. Artifacts is a collection of flash fiction; stories or fragments often no longer than a paragraph, occasionally as long as two pages. This genre requires constant inventiveness — and it helps to have a unique style. “People are hard,” goes #67 (the pieces are numbered, not titled). “People are odd and beautiful and strange and people touch each other & kiss each other & pinch each other & give each other gifts …”

Harper’s Magazine

August 2020, v. 341, whole no. 2043

This issue has been sitting on the windowseat for more than a year. Yes, I was always reading something else. But once I got started it was easy to keep going. I’m in the midst of a poet’s covid diary. “I beg her not to go out; she says she’s protected — mask, gloves, hat, glasses. But no one else at the laundromat or grocery store does the same. They cough, and don’t care who inhales it."

Bedside pile:

The Ticket That Exploded: the restored text

by William S. Burroughs; edited and with an introduction by Oliver Harris

1962/2014. Grove Press, New York

Burroughs has obsessions that I don’t relate to. But reading him is actually rather fun — gross, often, but surprisingly absurd.

Usagi Yojimbo, v.28: Red Scorpion

by Stan Sakai

2014. Dark Horse, Milwaukie, Oregon

I am working my way through collections of Usagi Yojimbo, the ronin rabbit. I last did an Usagi binge almost twenty years ago. I have always enjoyed Stan Sakai’s art, but the stories get repetitive. It’s been long enough that the stories seem fresher — and, like I said, the art’s great. 

Modern Poetry of Pakistan

edited by Iftikhar Arif; translations edited by Waqas Khwaja

2010. Dalkey Archive Press, Champaign, Illinois

I briefly had input into what the Berkeley Public Library bought for its poetry collection. This was one that looked good to me. I’m finally reading it. Waqas Khwaja has stringent notions of what constitutes acceptable translation, according to his introduction. I don’t know whether that improved the poetry for me. Middle Eastern poetry tends not to be to my taste, yet this is quite readable. 

Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time: my life doing dumb stuff with animals

by Richard Conniff

2009. W. W. Norton & Co., New York

I like reading about animals. This book is a collection of essays mostly written for magazines. They are breezy and fun on the whole (you’d get that idea from the title), with the caveat that, as with all naturalist writings these days, doom is hovering — climate change, exploitation, pollution, indifference, war.

Sky Island: a Trot & Cap’n Bill adventure

by Amy Chu and Janet K. Lee

2020. Viking/Penguin/Random House, New York

Sky Island is a sequel to Chu & Lee’s Sea Sirens. Both are graphic novels and loose adaptations of L. Frank Baum novels. I was charmed by Sea Sirens. This one’s fun, too. Love the art.

Pile at work:

Mississippi in Africa: the saga of the slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation and their legacy in Liberia today

by Alan Huffman

2005. Gotham, New York

I read this one on breaks. It’s a bit of a muddle. I get that historical resources for telling the story of the “return” to Africa of freed American slaves are difficult to find — so much has been destroyed, or not recorded in the first place, both in America and in Liberia — but the story would have been helped by a clearer chronological through-line. A lot of the text describes Huffman’s troubles with the research. I’m fine with that, except I would be happier if Huffman himself were more colorful. Still, the story of the (reverse?) colonizing of Africa by African Americans is a story rarely told, and it’s certainly a fascinating chapter of history. 

Sunday, January 02, 2022

Best Poems of 2021

Maw Shein Win …. Water Space (one)

Owl Woman …. How shall I begin my song?

Roberta Hill …. Dream of Rebirth

Richard Littlebear …. We Are the Spirits of These Bones

Natalie Diaz …. When My Brother Was an Aztec

James Cagney …. my dr says

Dan O. …. Half Moon

Robert Hass …. John Muir, a Dream, a Waterfall …

Bruce Bond …. Bells


Only nine poems. That is fewer than usual. Yesterday I posted the titles of books and magazines I read in 2021, so you can scan down it if you want to get an idea of where I encountered the poems. I do read poems online, but none ended up in my personal anthology.