* some origins, manu chao & the friday influence

In regards to the question “When did you start writing?” I give several answers depending on context.

If it’s a professional context, I say seventeen, that being the year that I first typed up, printed, and sent off poems to a real lit mag.  I call it the year I began to take my writing seriously, the act of sending my poems out into the world for consideration an act of considering them worth, uhm, considering.  (Two got published on that first try – bless those forgiving editors!)

If it’s more of the “When did you know you were a writer?” kind of question, then I go a little farther back.  I talk about how as a kid I used to rewrite lyrics to songs I heard on the radio, how I filled up notebooks with various takes on other people’s melodies.

I look back and realize that putting my words into other people’s songs probably taught me something about form, about structure and rhyme.  What exactly I learned, I don’t know.  (I’m a terrible rhymer in poems!)

The core of the experience, though, cultivated an obsession with words – sounds, meaning, phrasing – of saying something and saying it concisely, aptly.  Inevitably.

I threw away those notebooks sometime in middle school – a friend found me scribbling in one of them and asked what I wrote.  I said homework, tucked it away, and later that night tossed them all into the garbage.  Not a scrap remains.

words, yo
words, yo

What has stayed with me through the years is a distinct respect and fascination with song lyrics.

In this spirit, let me share some of the lyrics of French singer Manu Chao!

I have been listening to his first album “Clandestino” non-stop this week.  Manu Chao, after being in a few other bands, took to travelling and picking up different influences from the various street music he encountered to create a hybrid sound that is as much diverse as it is simple.  His songs remind me of Garcia Lorca being influenced by the folk culture of Andalusia.  His travelling manifests itself in his writing songs in French, Spanish,Italian Galician, Arabic, and Portuguese.

Here’s a line that I keep turning over my head:

El hambre viene, el hombre se va –

(Hunger comes, man leaves)

This is a fine line – more than that, you see in the words themselves how one letter changing (hambre = hombre) evokes so much of the meaning of the line.  Now, take the line within its context in the song “El Viento (The Wind)”:

El viento viene
El viento se va
Por la frontera

El viento viene
El viento se va

El hambre viene
El hombre se va
Sin mas razon…

(The wind comes
The wind goes
Across the frontier

The wind comes
The wind goes

Hunger comes
Man leaves
Without a reason…)
***

Suddenly the words take on a whole other meaning.  That change from ‘a’ to ‘o’ in the words (hambre/hombre) seem almost a trick of the wind itself, the same wind that is being sung about.

Part of my general fascination with song lyrics is how you can do certain things in a song that you can’t do in a poem.  I say this not to discredit one side or the other but to show them both as the formidable modes of expression that they are.

In his lyrics, the wordplay of hambre/hombre play out concisely the theme of vagabond that Manu Chao explores throughout his whole first album.  Taken solely as words, the line is simply a proverb.  But put to music, put within the larger context of musing on wind and then the even larger context of an album about transiency and the line becomes downright mythic.

Cool.  You can listen to the song here.

And a fun one can be found here.

Happy bongoing!!!

jose

* photo found here.

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* quick update

Hey y’all!

Just a quick post to announce an upcoming reading:

Tuesday, February 19th

5:30pm

@ the Eugene Public Library

I will be reading alongside fellow Eugene writer Eliot Treichel.

It will be my first official reading for my chapbook, The Wall.  I look forward to putting some of these poems in the air.

For more info on the reading, please check out the Lane Literary Guild’s website here.

I’ll post more updates on prep for the reading as it gets closer to the date.

***

In other news,  I cut my hair.  Check it out:

nothing's wrong - I'm shorn...
nothing’s wrong – I’m shorn…

You can’t really see it well cuz I’m scared to take a photo.  I haven’t rocked a goatee in a minute either.  We’ll see how long this lasts.

Please note: that IS my writing blanket on my shoulders there.

Ani knit it last summer as a sort of lap blanket.

I, being twelve, wear it across my shoulders like a cape.

So I guess I have a writing cape.

This way I feel like I’m fighting crime when I submit poems.

I am the goddamn poet!!!

Peace,

jose

* Phil Levine & the friday influence

This week on the Influence: Philip Levine.

When I read the following poem to Ani she picked up on something I did not when I first read it four years earlier: that it takes place in Spain.  This makes sense seeing as Phil Levine has spent much time in Spain and written often on the poets who suffered and survived in the Spanish Civil War.

Having herself spent time there, Ani spoke of the place in the poem as if she had been there, the way one does in the light of experience.

This is the world…  Indeed!

What moves me still about the poem is the scope of human understanding, how much gets put into the poem, and yet it is only one man’s glimpse, as fleeting and unknowable even now.

the *photo* of time
the *photo* of time

The Music of Time – Philip Levine *

The young woman sewing

by the window hums a song

I don’t know; I hear only

a few bars, and when the trucks

barrel down the broken street

the music is lost.  Before the darkness

leaks from the shadows of

the great Cathedral, I see her

once more at work and later

hear in the sudden silence

of nightfall wordless music rising

from her room.  I put aside

my papers, wash, and dress

to eat at one of the seafood

places along the great avenues

near the port where later

the homeless will sleep.  Then I

walk for hours in the Barrio

Chino passing the open

doors of tiny bars and caves

from which the voices of old men

bark out the stale anthems

of love’s defeat.  “This is the world,”

I think, “this is what I came

in search of year’s ago.”  Now I

can go back to my single room,

I can lie awake in the dark

rehearsing all the trivial events

of the day ahead, a day that begins

when the sun clears the dark spires

of someone’s God, and I waken

in a flood of dust rising from

nowhere and from nowhere comes

the actual voice of someone else.

***

Happy nowhereing!

jose

* from Phil Levine’s News of the World.

* William Meredith on the friday influence

This week’s poem is The Illiterate by William Meredith.

This one is a favorite.  I memorized it years ago and come back to it often.

The simplicity of both the subject matter and form is deceptive.  It is a sonnet but note how the rhymes work, how they envelope around the last syllables – man, hand, hand, man – playing out the story of the poem in the word choice itself.

The extended metaphor takes over after the first line and comes back in the turning over of words at the end of the poem.

I won’t say too much  more, seeing as this is a poem about what is left unsaid.

Enjoy.

letter-proud *
letter-proud *

The Illiterate – William Meredith

Touching your goodness, I am like a man

Who turns a letter over in his hand

And you might think this was because the hand

was unfamiliar but, truth is, the man

Has never had a letter from anyone;

And now he is both afraid of what it means

And ashamed because he has no other means

To find out what it says than to ask someone.

 

His uncle could have left the farm to him,

Or his parents died before he sent them word,

Or the dark girl changed and want him for beloved.

Afraid and letter-proud, he keeps it with him.

What would you call his feeling for the words

That keep him rich and orphaned and beloved?

***

Happy keeping!

jose

* image found here.

* Rilke, winter & the friday influence

I am almost done with The Complete French Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke.  Fascinating stuff.  Rilke wrote something like 400 poems in French towards the end of his life.  Basically a whole Collected Works in another language.  He approached his poems in French in the spirit of starting over in a way that he couldn’t in his native German.

What does it mean to start over?  Focusing on details.

Case in point, here’s one poem from his series The Roses:

II. *

I see you, rose, half-open book

filled with so many pages

of that detailed happiness

we will never read.  Magus-book,

opened by the wind and read

with our eyes closed…,

butterflies fly out of you, stunned

for having had the same ideas.

***

Those last four lines contain within them so much sensation – so much surprise – you read them and go back into yourself, recognizing an experience there in the words.

Rilke’s French poems are where he goes for it and basically becomes a modern version of Rumi – he sings within his praise for the world.

winter, yo
winter, yo

Continuing with last week’s theme of winter, here is Rilke’s take on it.

In the same spirit of starting over, Rilke also left some of his French poems imperfect.  The poem below is such an example.

The last line almost takes me out of the poem.  It is an unfinished thought.  But, read after so many lines of yearning and remembering, the line leaves us lost in as much thought as the speaker.

***

Winter – Rainer Maria Rilke *

I love those former winters that still weren’t meant for sports.

We feared them a little, they were so hard and sharp;

we confronted them with a bit of courage,

to return into our house, white, sparkling wise-men.

And the fire, that great fire consoling us against them,

was a strong and living fire, a real fire.

We wrote badly, our fingers were all stiff,

but what joy to dream and entertain whatever

helps escaping memories delay a while…

They came so close, we saw them better

than in summer…, we proposed colors to them.

Inside, all was painting,

while outside all became engraving.

And the trees, who worked at home, in lamplight…

***

Happy working!

jose

* as translated by A. Poulin in The Complete French Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke.