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One of Aji's past contributors, Colin Dodds, is proud to launch Forget This Good Thing I Just Said. It's a new experience, based on an old kind of book – the collection of short sayings, or aphorisms. By combining several hundred original aphorisms with the ring-oscillator software used in random-number-generating technology, Forget This Good Thing I Just Said offers up a completely unique experience every time you open it.
It’s free for your phone here.
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I have been visually impaired since early childhood, first with with glasses as thick as portholes. I was lucky to not be called ‘four-eyes,’ but just ‘owl, owl,’ as well as ostracized from the regular activities of childhood and adolescence. I then progressed to hard lenses which barely corrected my vision, but I learned to adjust and simply live with it.
Over the years, I learned to function independently in all senses of the word — even driving — to a point of superficial oblivion, because I was indeed living on borrowed time as it were. Then, in my mid-40s in the mid-1990s, I was abruptly and irremediably classified as “legally blind.” That term in itself is rather brutal, especially for those who are not fully blind. It means, in administrative parlance, anybody who has a visual impairment above a certain level of incapacity or impediment, and includes both fully blind folks and those still with a spectrum of visual capacity.
It was a punch in the stomach, petrified, a bad dream, a wrong assessment — I could not sort out my feelings. And when I came to my senses, I realized that there was no way to backtrack, nowhere to hide, and no way to deny it anymore.
The almost total freedom I had carved began to crumble from the very foundation. I was now confronted with what I had been evading all along, just yanked back by sporadic retinal hemorrhages that were now impeding my vision more at each stab. Each time I was simply sweeping the time bomb to oblivion and resuming my personal normality But this time, I felt like an escapee trapped in a dead end. So now what?! Where to turn? What to do? Even though I had been resourceful all of my life by necessity, this time I was lost — really on my own, in the middle of nowhere and suspended in a strange reality that had finally caught up with me.
For a while, I stumbled around, in and out of possibilities. At the time, I had access to very few resources by nature of being alone and brand new to my classification as “disabled.” I had to find my way in this new category of existence, and specific resources were scarce in those days due to lack of exposure and outreach. In my search, I eventually landed upon the Braille Institute.
At first, I thought this was a mistake. Again, I wasn’t blind, but it seemed this dedicated place was for the blind only, their title over the building entrance “Braille Institute For The Blind” confirming it. Clearly, I was on the wrong track. Wasn’t there anything for the non-blind, rather extremely poor vision folks? I was yet in another dead end and stranded back in bare land for my kind.
After some demystification from them that the Institute was for fully blind as well as visually impaired, they noted that I was not the first to point out this problem, beyond semantics, of reality and inclusion, and they assured me they were about to change the title. I was told in order to receive services, I had to register as a student and complete a core of mandatory courses, before moving on to optional offerings.
After a series of forms, documents and verifications, I became a Braille Institute student for one year and a half, and got a picture ID card that read: “Braille Institute — Student — Legally Blind”. At the end of this period, I was evaluated to return to mainstream life, the other category being either permanent Braille Institute pupil or returned home. When I completed my last class, “Rights and Resources,” I received an assessment of my capabilities and wishes for the future. I was led to Los Angeles City College (LACC), where I would further prepare to go back to independent life through vocational studies.
For that next step as an adult student, I found myself back in the spin of the unknowns, especially after being cocooned attending classes for over a year. I had to contact a social worker from some social agency. I forget her name but I will always remember her and her dog.
By this point, I had postponed the full realization of losing my sight even more to the point of no longer being able to work, and I was now boiling with a latent but growing pot of frustration and anger.
With phone number and name in hand, I called and had my first conversation with my social worker. Truly, she was the first person I could talk to about my smothering reality. And I did just that. During our first connection, I ventilated all of my awful, terrible, poor me, dead end situation feelings.
Finally, I had someone to talk to who was listening intently and carefully — so much so, I felt as though I was talking to myself. I was literally overflowing with emotions to the point of drowning, a pressure-cooker spewing suppressed, repressed, and compacted layers of current and decades old fears, anger, sadness and, for the first time, vulnerability and hopelessness. I repeated to her several times “I am between two worlds, still seeing but not enough to be safe and independent,” or so I thought. “And, I am not even fully blind, so I could go with the logic and systemic procedures of being blind.”
She listened to my outpouring of frustration for as long as I needed. Then, she responded with the casual and poised tone of voice of a true professional.
“I am blind — yes — since birth, and even if I don’t know the difference or your particular conflict, I can hear and understand your frustration.”
In my newfound world of visual impairment, I wished I could have disappeared in a small hole with my feelings of being awkward, stupid, and ashamed. In honest ignorance, from general assumption of the days, I thought I was talking to a fully sighted person. I stayed absolutely mute, unable to say any apology or even mumble the slightest syllable.
Toward the end of this long, 45-minute telephone consultation, she asked what I wanted to learn at LACC. I told her Microsoft Word and the internet. In the mid 90s, “Word” was the new upcoming word-processing software. I already knew the previous software, but Word was different and supplanting the first. The internet, of course, was the up-and-coming computerized communication system.
“I’m planning to work as a translator from home, using a personal computer,” which I did not yet have, along with any technical knowledge, but after a quick assessment of my options to sustain myself, at least partially, working from home with this an almost unknown technology was the only solution. And I would see what develops from there.
My social worker scheduled an in-person appointment to meet at the LACC disabled students’ office to register me for technology classes. By luck, the college was located on the same block as Braille. I later learned that it was one of the rare colleges — if not the only one at the time — to have a full-fledged “Disabled Students Office” and offering programs in social and disability graduate studies.
The day of the appointment, I found the Disabled Students Office. sequestered off in a corner by a secondary, remote entrance, it was in fact a trailer among an endless squad of dormant trailers, positioned precariously on uneven, decrepit ground in a sub-zone far from the center of the college’s campus.
There, in front of the office stood a small crowd of students, or would-be students, of all ages. Most were dressed in unremarkable sneakers and t-shirts, either alone or in the company of two or three other peers. Most were smoking, walking, or idly leaning against the shingle cabin, enveloped in clouds of swirling smoke, lost in other worlds.
The sheer weight of the whole scenery, punctuated by the overcast day, felt surreal to me. I had stopped smoking back in the mid-80s, and a decade later, I still could not stand the smell of a cigarette. Yet, I’m not a person to let my emotions plumb me. I quickly spotted and focused on the entrance door and lunged inside, catching in my mind the largest sign on the door showing a “No Smoking” logo.
Inside, the “Disabled Student’s Office” installed in this prefabricated small 2-room construction, was holding one large public room with a long counter, and a tiny kitchen. There was a packed crowd of sorts with chairs, wheelchairs, canes, dogs, walkers, crutches, etc. There was a single toilet for all concerned or interested. I detached myself from all possibilities of using it, grateful that I had — like always — taken the necessary precautions before leaving for an unknown destination and duration.
Fortunately, no smoking was allowed inside. Yet the heated interior was just as unbearable as a smoking parlor -- stuffy with next to no ventilation. I had the feeling of being on a makeshift rescue raft in the middle of nowhere.
I locked on to a long counter, and by some miracle, blazed my way to the front, was sent to another spot where, seated on the other side, I finally met my social worker. After a cordial greeting, she gently asked me:
“Please don’t get offended, but I’m asking this to everyone, especially my clients, so I can get a better feel for each person. May I touch your face, lightly with my fingers? It helps me to get better acquainted.” I agreed. The rest of my encounter with her is a large blank as I was still overwhelmed by my morning first part experience, and I just concentrated on going through the administrative motion as quickly as possible to simply-- leave.
When we finished our meeting, I assumed my social worker had other students appointments. I proceeded out of the office and was barely off the ramp and onto the college grounds, when the entrance door banged open. She was hurrying out, only a few seconds behind me.
She wore an elegant dress with an equally elegant coat, unbuttoned despite the cold day. She was medium in size and overweight, with small feet pressed into dressy pumps with low, stiletto heels.
I stood in silence, trying to figure out how she had managed to get her coat on, pick up her briefcase and umbrella, as well as bring her guide dog, maneuver around the corner, and slalom through the crowd in what seemed like all of an instant. She must have flown over, like Mary Poppins. And in that moment, I also realized she was younger than me.
“Oh, I thought you were there for the day for other students” I remarked when she stopped near me pausing to regroup. Using the sound of my voice as a guide, she positioned herself in front of me and engaged in a conversation.
“I had just another student before you today. Now, I need to get to a meeting across town, and I’m already running late.”
She gesticulated wildly; it seemed she was trying to organize herself. Before I could comment, she added, “A corporate meeting, with the brass. This is why I’m all dressed up today, you know…corporate outfit and all.” I caught the connection. She was referring to the long office experience from my resume.
“Ah, you have another job?” I asked. It seemed this was more of a private business position rather than public social work.
“Yes, but it’s only part-time”, she replied now fumbling with her briefcase. “Now, we have to run to catch our cab waiting for us on the other side of campus. I usually have the same driver, he knows me, but still… We’re running late and he might not wait too much longer,” Her tone still light and jovial, her face bright, a version of a happy-go-lucky.
I was thoroughly puzzled. “Run? You mean? —“
Before I could finish, knowing it sounded odd, she continued, “Yes, running. We’ve trained my dog and I and he knows what to do.” She paused. “The only thing is we trained in sneakers…never with dressy heels. This will be a first!” She laughed, reveling in experimenting with the unknown, a daredevil echo in her voice.
“You don’t have your sneakers in a bag or something?”
“On no, I’m already carrying enough, and this is not the kind of meeting where you can carry a bag with your shoes in it.”
My head was still churning through the eclectic and downright strange happenings of this half day when, after a rushed goodbye, she commanded her dog by name and ordered him: “RUN!”
And, off she went still wrestling with her flapping, open coat, arms in all directions, a closed umbrella in one hand, the briefcase and long dog leach in the other. She was half bent forward, not running but flying across the college concrete ground in a plump silhouette with small feet in unstable heeled shoes. I would not have dared even walking in those shoes alone, even with my residual vision.
I froze, body and gaze pointing forward, not daring to turn my head. I mentally closed my eyes but refrained from closing my ears as it would have looked weird.
I was waiting for a catastrophic sound. After a few seconds I threw a quick slant pick in her direction. She was already 30 yards away, and going. For few seconds I cringed with the thought she could step on a small stone, twist her ankle, fall--badly.
Again, I turned away from her, thinking if I kept watching her it might bring her bad luck. After a long silence (and no catastrophic sounds), I ventured a glance back in her direction and instead say the immense and empty gray ground. She had disappeared, absorbed into the horizon. Just like quicksilver, she — my Mary Poppins social worker — had vanished just as she had appeared in my life.
I never knew if she had wanted to show me that not everything was lost or impossible, or if her dramatic departure was simply circumstantial. Again, I was left utterly stunned and baffled. Yet, this time, I was impressed and somewhat amused as well. A whiff of lightness lifted my entire being.
Deliberately or not, she had given me an invaluable lesson: there is always a ‘beyond’ if you put your mind to it and focus on how you can change yourself, if you adjust your mental eyes. This had been a motto that had guided me for much of my life but had been sucker punched out of me two years prior.
I never saw her or spoke with her again. Yet, I often think of her, and she will forever be my Mary Poppins Social Worker. And, when I reminisce on that encounter, sometimes I crack open laughing, and sometimes tears are not too far. Don’t know why. Maybe one day.
Interview by Erin O’Neill Armendarez
From the start, Aji’s art reviewers were intrigued by the unique, compelling creations of Kaya Davis. How, they wondered, could she fashion anything so tiny? Thanks to staff from Ability Now and to Davis herself, their questions were answered.
It’s clear that Davis is deeply focused on her craft, and on reaching a wider audience that will appreciate her work. Her drive is an inspiration. She has followed her own imagination and intuition into a pursuit that can only grow as she devises her own miniature tools and aspires to learn animation one day. Are you wondering whether your own wild idea could ever become a reality? Ask Kaya Davis. She has an answer for you.
EOA: Please share some basic background information about yourself with our readers.
KD: My name is Kaya. I am 28 years old, have autism, and am an artist from California. I grew up in Berkeley with my parents, as an only child who was adopted at birth. My hobbies are drawing, knitting, and origami, and I do it on a very tiny scale. I am a cat lover and I collect my drawings of dolls, specifically Barbie and Blythe dolls.
EOA: How and when did you discover your artistic talent?
KD: I have always loved to draw. I’ve also always preferred smaller toys, such as Polly Pocket and Barbie, over bigger toys like American Girl dolls. There were often times that I found myself wanting clothes and accessories for my dolls that I couldn’t buy in the store. As many children do, I would use art to express myself, but as I got older, I discovered that I could make a career from my skill of drawing people and crocheting or knitting the doll clothes and accessories I had always wished I could buy. That was when I was about 14 years old and knitting and crocheting miniatures has been a passion of mine ever since. Throughout high school, I improved my knitting, crocheting, and doing origami skills, and when I turned 21 I found that I wanted to focus only on miniatures.
EOA: What first attracted you to miniature forms?
KD: I have always seen my dolls as real people, not as dolls at all. I’ve also always been interested in fairytales about fairies and other mythical creatures, as well as the spiritual world. I would sit and draw the fairies, their tiny houses, and the tiny worlds I was imagining in my head. Once I started drawing and painting on a small scale, I realized that was my preference because of the control it gave me over my fine motor skills. The more I drew, the more interest people showed in buying my work, so I figured, why not make money doing something that I love?
EOA: How did you find Ability Now, and how has the program supported your art and your business?
KD: I found the program through a referral from Regional Center of the East Bay, a non-profit agency under contract with California to coordinate supports and services for people with developmental disabilities like me. Because I have autism, I tend to have art ideas all over the place. Before attending Ability Now’s Small Business Development Center, I was struggling with how to turn my passion for tiny art into a business. I couldn’t have gotten to where I am today if it wasn’t for Ability Now’s Small Business Development Center. The staff at Ability Now have helped me focus on my goals and given me structure.
EOA: Who are your mentors?
KD: Andre Wilson, the Small Business Manager, and Alva Gardner, the Small Business Vocational Coordinator, and all the small business staff at Ability Now have been mentors and supported me along the way. However, my iconic role model as an artist is Walt Disney. I’m very fascinated by animation and making a drawing come to life with a series of images, and am interested in learning animation in the future.
EOA: Please describe your process as an artist, from idea to finished piece.
KD: This varies depending on what I’m making. I often take walks to get inspiration. Then I usually think about what I want to make and sometimes how. While I’m walking, I visualize how I want the finished piece to look. Then I will sit down and draw or paint. Because of the small scale of my work, I often also make some of my own art supplies including tiny watercolor pads, paint palettes, and knitting needles. When I sit down to draw or paint a miniature, I try to complete the whole thing in one sitting.
EOA: Of all of your accomplishments, of which are you most proud, and why?
KD: Learning how to work on a tiny scale. Mastering my skills, I would say, because without being able to do that, I wouldn’t have my business or passion.
EOA: What are your short-term and long-term goals?
KD: My short-term goal is to make more work in a shorter period of time. Long term, I would like to be well known for my art – to me, this would mean having lots of followers on my business Instagram and YouTube.
EOA: What advice do you have for novice artists and entrepreneurs hoping to attract interest in what they have to offer?
KD: Find your passion and what sets you apart from everyone else. It’s important to market yourself in a way that makes you stand out. I still struggle with this, I must say, so just remember that it’s a process and takes time. Don’t give up on your passions and dreams – if something isn’t working, get advice from family, a mentor, or someone you look up to. Follow your passion and remember to always do what you love.
Interview by Erin Schalk
Helen Fukuhara began her visual arts education at the Braille Institute in 1987. While being blind from birth, Fukuhara has pursued the fine arts in earnest, dedicating her university studies to music. Today, she remains a prolific and passionate artist who works in ceramic, mosaic, printmaking, and fiber arts. In addition, her print Dancing Fingers was recently awarded an honorable mention in the American Printing House for the Blind’s (APH) annual art competition InSights.
“I like the feel -- the tactile qualities -- of mixed media projects since I use my hands to see. I also like how multimedia allows me to work independently. When I’m in the process of making a piece, I can feel and experience the design fully as I create it section by section. In my work, I also am open to letting things happen rather than sticking to one specific plan. However, when I finish a piece, I feel somewhat sad because my entire surface is covered, and I cannot experience each part of the design as well. So, I create again. And again.” -Helen Fukuhara
Erin Schalk (ES): Please share with us how you came to be a visual artist:
Helen Fukuhara (HF): I started at Braille Institute in Los Angeles during the end of September of 1987, when I moved from New York to California. That’s when I started taking art classes because the art teachers at Braille made it comfortable for me to do art, since art is generally done with your hands. Basically, it involved the colors and materials being explained to me in more detail.
I also learned from Hailstones and Halibut Bones, which is a children’s book. It takes colors and puts them into poetry so I have something concrete to relate to, for example, black is the color of licorice. I like to associate art with music since I was a musician originally. For example, I might think of the bright colors as piccolos in an orchestra.
The lower notes would be the darker colors, and so on. I used to do sewing when I lived in New York, so naturally, I worked with fabrics in different colors and textures. I was aware of colors, and I wrote the color combinations on a braille sheet to remember the combinations that go together. Sometimes if I am in the mood, I’ll make something unusual, which you can do in art!
I love doing art. I love the making of it rather than the completion because once it’s done it’s finished and hurrah. But when you’re doing it, I think it’s more fun.
ES: You studied music during your college days. How did your practice evolve into visual art? Is there overlap?
HF: I studied music at Hofstra University in Long Island, New York. I didn’t have any idea that one day I would be moving to California and go to Braille Institute, nor did I know that Braille even had an art or music program.
In time, I realized art and music work together in certain ways. I read music history books, so I figured there must be art history books! I began reading art history, took art history courses, and received six credits from Cal State Northridge. In art history, I had opportunities to do some art projects related to the class such as a beehive tomb [from the Bronze Age Mycenaean civilization].
If I’m working on an art piece, I’ve thought about how to make the piece connect to the sound of music. Some people can do that, but I find that’s difficult for me to do. When I try to make shapes, it’s never the same as what I’m visualizing in my mind. For example, when I saw the movie Chariots of Fire and they played the running music, I didn’t picture somebody running. I don’t know what that feels like or what that looks like visually. I can’t compare music with art that way. However, one thing I have done is take poems that people have written and put them to music.
ES: What artists, contemporary or classic, influence you most and why?
HF: It’s an interesting question. I mainly go by era more than individuals, since I cannot see or touch the work or have it in my hand. I prefer Renaissance and Baroque music, so I tend to like art of that nature as well. The difference is I do know I could write in the style of Beethoven, or I could change a song to fit a composer.
When it comes to art, things become a bit more complicated. If somebody says, “Do a piece like DaVinci or like Picasso,” it can happen sometimes. One time, I made a piece at my friend’s house, and she said, “That actually looks like a scene from Manzanar!” I said, “What do you know? It just happened!” Likewise, if someone says a piece of mine looks like a Monet or similar, I wouldn’t know, and I’m quite surprised because I don’t have anything touchable to compare.
I can do abstract art more than abstract music. With music, I’m used to rules. So, when I wrote music, I preferred writing music with rules, whereas music now can be more freeform, so you can do anything you want.
In regard to art, I like mosaics. I’d also be fascinated to try more paper mache sculpture sometime in the future.
ES: You grew up in an artistically rich environment in New York City, and your father was acclaimed watercolorist Henry Fukuhara. How have these influences shaped you as an artist?
HF: My family was supportive of me, and my parents and family came to my concerts. My dad was always fond of watching the conductor more than listening to the music!
My father really became influential to me as a visual artist once I started taking art classes. Before that, we would only talk about art once in a while, and I didn’t know I was going to be taking art at Braille Institute at all. For a long time, I didn’t ever think about doing art myself. Also, my father didn’t know how to teach me art then, so we didn’t discuss it much. However, I went to his art workshops and demonstrations, and I found it interesting to listen to the art demonstrations if they would talk. And some of the people at the workshops would ask questions. I always enjoyed the questions.
I began taking art classes at Braille Institute because I knew you could do art with your hands. Things opened up and my father and I would discuss. Sometimes my dad would be painting and have music playing. I would ask him, “What kind of orchestral piece did you do today?” and he would laugh. So I could understand, he would say, “Well, I have violins here, and I have trumpets there. This one is a mixed orchestra.”
As time went on, I really wanted to do an art show with my father. First, he arranged for me to have a solo show. Later on when he became totally blind and still painted, he finally agreed to have a show with me. That was exciting!
When we had our show together, I imagined a 50-50 setup. But, my dad suggested I submit more pieces to the show and he would enter just a few. He was a well-known artist by then, and he didn’t want to dominate, rather, he wanted my art to be the highlight of the show. That really surprised me!
Later on, my father became fully blind and still continued to paint. He confided in me that he was more sure of himself as an artist even when he lost his vision, because he knew all that I was capable of as an artist.
ES: What are some of your favorite artistic media and why?
HF: I like them all. I like doing mosaics because you can use different shapes and different textures of pieces, and you can make your own tiles if you want. You can also incorporate found pieces to create an image. I’ve done mosaics that are freeform and ones more like a realistic picture. For example, I once made a mosaic artwork of my neighbor’s birds. He had a picture taken from a magazine so we had something to work from. Someone helped me because I couldn’t cut out the feet since they were really tiny, but I was able to put them in place. That was a challenge!
I also like paper mache. You can mix materials into the paper mache to give it different textures. For example, I’ve experimented with adding in sand and sequins. Of course, you can put in a variety of paint colors as well. I like that paper mache is light, versus clay which is heavy. I also like basketry because you can add a range of materials like beads, whether they’re commercial or handmade. You can have different patterns and shapes of baskets, as well as wide or narrow reeds. Mosaic, paper mache, and basketry...I would say these art forms have been the most successful for me.
ES: You once said about your ceramic and mosaic combo works, “When I’m making a piece, I can experience the design as I create it section by section.” Tell us more.
HF: Some of the clay medallions or shapes were found or abandoned in the studio. With the ceramic and mosaic pieces, they’re not in my head originally. It’s a matter of what I have to work with, and then it’s placement and glazing. So, I just do them as they come. I may have nine ceramic circles of a certain size, and I begin to arrange them. Once I can say that it feels like a nice arrangement, I begin fitting ceramic or glass mosaic tiles in between and so on.
Sometimes I work in sections, and sometimes I don’t because I have the whole board to work with, unless it’s a particular section with a particular color of tiles. Then, I might try to do a border first, then fill the inside.
ES: What do you hope your audience will gain when they encounter your artwork?
HF: I leave it up to the eye of the beholder. That’s why a lot of my work is untitled. Viewers have to look for it. When people ask me about my art, I don’t have a list of all the textures I used, where I placed them, or what colors they are.
I think things change in people’s minds when they view my work. Why did I use a certain color in a certain place? Not seeing, I have no idea. I just hope that when I’m able to see them - if I get my sight back while on Earth - that I would enjoy seeing as much as I enjoy doing them.
My father used to say to me, “Seeing is believing.” And I would say in return, “Believing is seeing.”
Interview conducted by Erin O’Neill Armendarez
To think I almost missed him. I was reading through poetry submissions (I read all submissions several times on different days for exactly this reason) and I stumbled upon Simon Perchik’s poems for the third or fourth time. This time, as I slowly read the poems, something happened, some kind of, what? I felt a deep emotional connection, a pathos. I reread. What exactly was I feeling, and why? Based on the words, the syntax, the lines, the stanzas—I couldn’t figure it out.
Somehow, through the miracle of black shapes on a white page, words, Simon Perchik had compelled me to look, to think, and to feel more deeply, although I’d be hard pressed to explain what his poems are “about”. I knew we had to include his work in the spring 2021 issue. After I sent an acceptance message, he offered to send a review copy of The Weston Poems (2021), and before long I had received a hard copy of that wonderful collection but also a wealth of information on Perchik and his poetry from Rich Soos, Editor in Chief at Cholla Needles Arts and Literary Library in Los Angeles, from whom I was fortunate enough to receive a digital review copy of Perchik’s magnum opus The Family of Man Poems. Through Soos, I learned that Perchik had spent 8 years tirelessly working on this book, which was published April 1, 2021, by Cholla Needles Arts and Literary Library in honor of National Poetry Month.
Soos hails Perchik as a “national treasure whose work has appeared in over 700 magazines, including The New Yorker, Poetry, Partisan Review, The Nation, [and] North American Review. He is 97 years old (born December 24, 1923) and over 30 of his books have been published since his first book of poetry, Bomber’s Moon, in 1949.”
According to Library Journal (Nov. 2000), “Perchik is the most widely published unknown poet in America….” All these years, he has been relentlessly honing his craft, and his goal? From the poet himself, of The Family of Man Poems, to testify to humanity’s “overriding need to comfort one another.”
Maybe that’s what I was experiencing that day when I paused for a careful reading of Perchik’s submission, comfort in recognizing that these poems, while they refuse to speak of anyone in particular, spoke of us all, of things that, while almost inexpressible, are possibly more important than anything else. Interested? If so, I invite you to read on.
Erin O’Neill Armendarez (EOA): Your latest collection of poems, The Family of Man Poems, 1982-1990, represents eight years of intensive work, a true labor of love. Please share with our readers a brief overview of this book and what it means to you as a poet at this point in your career.
Simon Perchik (SP): You asked what, if any, meaning The Family of Man Poems has for me. I don’t know the answer to that. I never considered the book as a whole. Just wrote a poem prompted by the first photograph (in the collection published by MoMA) and kept on going. I never considered the photos as a whole, nor my poems as a whole. But I now think I was wrong. On reflection the 482 photos are really 1 photo. And maybe I too, have written just 1 poem (in 482 stanzas.)
EOA: Most poets reading this interview will be jealous to discover that Charles Olson, the famous Black Mountain poet, actually wrote a blurb for the cover of one of your books. You have known so many esteemed poets and artists over the years. Which would you say was the most influential on your career as a poet, and why?
SP: You mentioned the blurb Charles Olson gave me for my first collection. Have a great story to tell you. Though I wrote in college, after admission to the bar in 1950 I didn’t write for about 10 years while building a law practice. When I began to write I found a copy of Black Mountain Review in the house and sent them some poems. I got back a letter saying the magazine had folded some five years ago. It was signed by Olson who went on to ask, “Did Corman get in touch with you?” What a welcome back! That he remembered my name, that he ever knew it had a lasting impression. He was a very generous man. But don’t think I know many poets. I don’t.
EOA: You have described your process for writing poetry in previous interviews, first writing several pages on a selected photograph or image, and then writing several more pages on disparate topics drawn from your readings on subjects in philosophy, mythology, or science. The poem itself spontaneously emerges as you attempt to resolve contradictions, finding your “hook”, which signals the beginning of the budding poem. Do I have that right? And has this process evolved or changed over the decades, and if so, in what ways?
SP: Yes, you have it right. I confront a photograph with a contradictory, irreconcilable image or idea from myth or science and then reconcile the two. Exactly what a metaphor does for a living. And it never fails. A perfect cure for “writers’ block” I hope your readers will agree after reading “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities”.
EOA: You are on record as one who eschews narrative poetry, and also as one who is deeply moved by the abstract painting of artists like Mark Rothko, the sorts of paintings that sometimes leave skeptics standing in museums thinking, “This is art?” In your opinion, how are abstractions depicting the intangible able to inspire such deep power and pathos?
SP: You mentioned Mark Rothko. He’s my role model. He knows that when you stand in front of his painting there is nothing of the real world in it. To cope, the brain will shut down. And the viewer’s unconscious tries to make sense of it. What we have in this art form is the artist’s subconscious talking to the viewer’s subconscious. I try to do that.
EOA: The philosopher Wittgenstein is famous for having said, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” In an interview with Tim McLafferty (Forge Magazine), you defined poetry as “words that inform the reader of that which cannot be articulated.” Hence, your poetry seems to try to express the inexpressible. Why, in your opinion, is this preferable to telling a story?
SP: You ask why not telling a story to reach into the reader is preferred over telling a story. The answer is simple: one is prose, the other is poetry. And poetry has the power. If I say “Your mother died” and you start to cry, if I ask you why you’re crying, you say, “You just told me my mother died.” Makes sense. But if you are listening to Max Bruck and you start to cry, if I ask you why, you have to say, “I don’t know.” Music is the most abstract art form. Maybe poets should move a bit closer to the unconscious composers work with.
EOA: I am curious about one thing, so I have to ask to gain a better understanding, if only for myself, but possibly also for readers. I completely understand what you’re saying about why you have chosen to use abstraction in your poetry. Your poems operate much differently than do narrative poems, and you accomplish what you set out to accomplish with them, which is, to me, quite mysterious, given your process.
It seems to me that there is prose that could be considered abstract as well, i.e some of Virginia Woolf’s work, some of Gertrude Stein’s, maybe some metafiction or magical realism. Or think of that ambitious, perplexing work Ulysses, by James Joyce. As you said in your essay, there are varying degrees of abstraction, given the writer. Hence--surely you do not mean to say that the narrative poems of Robert Browning, Robert Frost, Keats, Yeats, or Tennyson are not poetry?
SP: I agree with you that prose can also be abstract. And you have listed 3 of the greatest. I guess, being a lawyer, I feel the literary world needs to more clearly define what words may be called poetry and what may be called prose. Thomas Wolf uses the paragraph form for some very moving poetry. So “prose-poem” could also use a more exact definition. Maybe it’s hopeless. Writers write and let others decide where to slot the work. Maybe definitions are OK for law but have no business in art. As you see, though, as I have opinions, I also have nothing but doubts. Wish I could be more sure of my ideas.
EOA: In the same interview, you mentioned the collective unconscious, saying, “If I’m dealing with my subconscious, I’m dealing with yours, so that would be the connection.” When I read the submission that inspired this interview, although I had not yet read about your process, I felt that connection as I read your poetry. So—is your process and purpose more intuitive? When you find your hook, is it something you feel, or something you know, or both?
SP: You ask about what happens once I get “the hook”. Though you need a “starter” to make yogurt and “the hook” to begin a poem the similarity ends there. The “hook” more often than not will disappear. It served its purpose and got the ball rolling, so to speak. Once the poem has a footing, I pretty much let it go where it wants. At the end I’m as surprised as anyone.
EOA: Your poems communicate powerful feeling, yet I noticed you seldom, if ever, use words like joy, anger, courage, fear, sadness—the nouns that represent inner states of being. Do you consciously edit those words out, and if so, how does this help to create the intended effect on readers?
SP: Yes, I edit out the words that tell the reader how they should feel. I try to use words that will suggest it in a round-about way.
EOA: You seldom read your poems aloud in public, so let me ask you this: should readers attempt to read your poems aloud? Is it important for them to experience them that way? Do you read aloud to yourself as you revise? Or is it better for readers to focus on careful exploration of the visual and mental images along with the careful punctuation (or lack thereof) and shifts in syntax to fully experience each poem?
SP: I don’t like to read my poetry in public because it’s too personal, comes with a lot of baggage. Once I read a poem and froze on stage at the 4th line. I couldn’t finish the poem or the reading. Who needs it! If others find pleasure in reading the poems out loud, I’m happy. Very happy. I do not read the poem aloud while working on it.
EOA: In another interview with McLafferty, you said, “There are so many reasons why a poem is rejected. And what makes you think that the editors know what they are doing anyhow?” I laughed when I read that, because I know that it is true. We editors may miss some of the most unique, most profound work looking for something in particular, reading when we’re tired, pushing deadlines, etc. We, too, are human. What other advice do you have for aspiring poets?
SP: You ask if I have any advice for aspiring poets. Yes, I do. Don’t take anyone’s advice. Just read the poems. Just get to know the territory, what’s out there.
EOA: Are you working on another project now, or are you resting for a bit after completion of The Family of Man Poems?
SP: Yes, I am working on a new collection of photographs. I’m about halfway finished. I better be careful. I’m pushing 98 and the one thing the gods don’t like is hubris. So I won’t say more.
Interview conducted by William Nesbitt
David Kirby’s collection The House on Boulevard St.: New and Selected Poems was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2007. Kirby is the author of almost forty books. A Johns Hopkins PhD, Kirby teaches at Florida State University, where he has taught for over fifty years, won five major university teaching awards, and is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English. Kirby has won fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Recently, the Florida Humanities Council presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Writing. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Barbara Hamby, a poet and fiction writer who also teaches at FSU.
In this interview we discuss his latest poetry collection, Help Me, Information, as well as his new book on writing poetry, The Knowledge: Where Poems Come From and How to Write Them, along with heaven, hell, loss, laughter, and the Waffle House.
William Nesbitt (WN): The Knowledge: Where Poems Come From and How to Write Them weighs in at almost 500 pages. I’m figuring you didn’t crank that all out on a rainy Tuesday morning. When did you start the project? What was the idea behind it? How was assembling the poems and writing the book different from writing poetry and what about the process of putting together The Knowledge is like writing poetry?
David Kirby (DK): Truth to tell, I wrote that book in a little over a month. Or I wrote it over 50 years, if you want to put it that way: I had a big data base of prompts and another big one of classrooms tips that I’d accumulated, and I shuffled those two files together like a deck of cards. Then came the fun part, which—oh, wait, I see that’s question #2.
WN: How did you go about selecting the poems to include in The Knowledge?
DK: This, too, was a process that had two parts. I just picked 50 or so poems that I adore without thinking too much of the lessons they taught, figuring that if my readers liked them as much as I did, they’d be self-starters and wouldn’t worry so much about having to learn or making mistakes. They’d just be enjoying themselves. After that, my publisher sent the manuscript to four readers, and those readers told me what else they’d like to see in The Knowledge, part of which was suggesting additional poems, so I added another 20 or so.
You asked earlier how writing The Knowledge was like writing poetry, and the answer is, it was exactly like that: you gather your materials, you sequence them, you do a draft, you get readers’ reactions, you revise accordingly. All writing’s like that, don’t you think?
WN: What poem would you most suggest when teaching and/or reading to a new-to-or-not-that-into-or-maybe-even-hates-poetry-audience-but-this-poem-will-get-deep-into-them?
DK: Uh-huh, yeah. Well, I think I’d send the students on a chase and tell them to go to two websites, the Rattle site and the one for The Writer’s Almanac. Those are two sites I consult every day, and half the time I end up copying and pasting poems from one or the other or both so I can use those poems in class. But this kind of thing works best if the student makes the discovery rather than getting an assignment from their stuffy old teacher.
Now if someone said, “Who should I read this weekend?” I’d tell them to read poems by George Bilgere. Tomorrow I might recommend another poet, but right now, I’m saying George. Take a look at his work and you’ll see why.
WN: You state, “if it works, a poem is more likely to be half understood rather than fully comprehended.” Is that true of all art, or is it unique to poetry?
DK: Well, all art is a game, isn’t it? And it invites the reader to play, promising to be not too difficult and not too easy but just right. Thing is, the game doesn’t have to ever end. And it probably shouldn’t. Don’t you go back from time to and look at a poem or a painting or a novel or movie and say “Dang, I never noticed that the first time”? I could read Keats forever and come up with new pleasures every time. Or listen to the Cowboy Junkies.
WN: You bring high art, philosophy, and European locales into your poetry, but you also mix in popular culture, especially music. You’ve kind of got one foot in the Louvre and one foot in the Hard Rock Cafe. Why do so many people view high art, say, Shakespeare or classical myth as something hard to understand and dull and why do so many academics think comic books, popular music, and television/movies are trash no educated adult should waste their time on?
DK: Most of us stay in our own little boxes, but man, you got to get out there and eat the world. It’s going to eat you one of these days, so don’t you want to get your chomps in first? There’s good and bad Shakespeare and good and bad pop music as well. Point is, there’s tons of both. Find the Shakespeare and the songs you love and forget about the rest. In the end, it doesn’t matter what you love as long as you love a lot of things. If you want to be a real person, that’s mandatory. Be an omnivore, damn it.
WN: Your most recent poetry collection is titled Help Me, Information, which makes me think of Pound’s oft-quoted definition that “Literature is news that stays news” and Mr. Aaker in “Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator Ode” from Help Me, Information who says, “Facts don’t work. People counterargue. They’re skeptical. But if you tell them a story, all that goes away.” News, facts, stories, information—they are not always the same thing, but they might overlap and intersect. What is the meaning of the title Help Me, Information?
DK; Shoot, I knew you’d ask me that.
Let’s see . . . okay, the first thing is that that title comes from “Memphis, Tennessee” by Chuck Berry, who, along with Little Richard and Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis and a hundred others whose names we barely remember, were the pioneers, the artists who invented the music that changed the world. Other than that, everything is information, isn’t it? The odor a dog smells on your pants leg is information to that dog, as is a radio signal or a note you find on the sidewalk or a childhood memory or a space rock that pings you on the head while you’re walking along thinking about your childhood.
Look back at question #5 and my answer to it. The world is made of information that’ll help you be your most three-dimensional, so get out your catcher’s mitt, because it’s all headed your way. By the way, I had to get permission from the Chuck Berry estate to use a couple of lines from his song. It took months, and they were going to charge me $300, but in the end, they said, “Wait, we’re talking about poetry here, right? Hey, those lines are yours—no charge.” Who says poetry doesn’t pay? Or at least it doesn’t cost you anything.
WN: What did we lose when we lost Aretha Franklin whom you mention in “My Girlfriend Killed James Brown” and “Hitchhike”? When I read the end of “My Girlfriend Killed James Brown,” I wonder: do we ever really, completely lose people?
DK: We didn’t lose a damned thing. Somebody asked Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead if he missed Jerry Garcia, and Weir said, “I see him in my dreams all the time. I hear him when I’m on stage. I would say I can’t talk to him, but I can. I don’t miss him. He’s here. He’s with me.”
Oh, and here’s another quote, this from Septimus Hodge in Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia, who tells a grieving character:
We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again.
Nice, huh? By the way, I hope you don’t mind the quotes. When I find that someone has said something better than I can say it, I let them have the floor.
WN: The way I read “My Girlfriend Killed James Brown” James Brown accompanies the girlfriend in heaven’s waiting room and then escorts her into her personal heaven where she finds her parents sitting at a table in the house where she grew up. Insert yourself into the end of that scenario. Who escorts you into the next room and who is seated at the table?
DK: Man, do I love these questions. In 1967, Otis Redding was touring Jamaica, and one night he walked unannounced into an after-hours club where Bob Marley was playing. Otis appeared “like a god,” as eyewitnesses say, and when Bob Marley looked up, he stopped what he was doing and went right into “These Arms of Mine.” Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if you’d been one of those in the club that night? The bartender points you to a seat and hands you a bottle of Red Stripe, and you think you’ll listen to a couple of songs and go home because you need to get to work early the next day, and the door opens, and in walks the Big O. Yeah, I’d know I was in heaven then.
WN: “Europeans Wrapping Knickknacks” suggests that there are physical ways we can give ourselves to others or carry others with us. What are the non-physical ways? Can the poem or the song be both a physical and a non-physical item or entity that endures?
DK: Well, any words can, can’t they? The words of a poem or song or just something someone says? Think about the dozens of snippets of language that you’ve read or overheard or dreamed up on your own over the years that recur to you constantly and that are almost forgettable, but not to you because you’ve charged them with meaning.
An editor took a poem of mine recently and said he and the other editors at the journal were wowed by the fact that the poem is so “straightforward,” by which I guess he means that most of the poems they get are not straightforward. So, yeah, a good way to work is find something around you that’s pretty trivial and make it the most important thing on this earth. If you can pull that off, your readers will start looking at the world differently. If you want to see what I mean, look at “Today,” that short poem by Frank O’Hara that turns the ordinary things of this world into sacraments.
WN: In “Having a Chat with You,” the narrator asks, “When you die and I still want to talk to you, / will you hear me?” What is the answer to that question? Can the dead hear us and vice versa?
DK: As far as I know, no one’s ever heard back from that “undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns” (Hamlet, act 3, scene 1), but we can keep in touch with the departed. When the poet Edward Field lost his partner, he put up the most extraordinary Facebook post, saying, “we were together for 58 years. it was so wonderful i don’t mind being by myself for a while and reflecting on our life together. i am so grateful.” May everyone who loves someone else feel this way when their time comes.
WN: “Hitchhike” explains that according to Simone Weil, “Hell isn’t endless suffering; it’s endless monotony.” In “Legion, for We Are Many,” the devil himself explains that “hell’s just boring.” We learn in “This Magic Moment” that “Bravery is doing / the same thing every day when you don’t want to. / Not the marvelous but the familiar, over and over again. / Do that, and the magic will come.” Is this the secret, then, to getting out of hell whether it is spiritual or physical, real or imagined? Is poetry a passport out of hell?
DK: It is, but it’s not the only way out. I never want to come across as one of those people who says there’s something wrong with you if you don’t read poetry or you’re not a poet. There are plenty of ways to add to the world’s beauty. Jack Gilbert has this wonderful poem called “The Abnormal Is Not Courage” in which he describes a Polish cavalry charge against German tanks in the early days of World War II. Fine, he says, but attacking armored troops on horseback is not courage. Courage consists not of single king-size dramas but of basic decency over the long haul: the whole marriage, Gilbert says, not just the rapture of the first month. Go for the beauty “of many days,” of “normal excellence, of long accomplishment.”
I read a piece recently by a man whose father’s last words were, “Take care of everybody.” That’s a way out of hell. That’s heaven right there. And you don’t have to write poetry to know this, but I will say that, given its concision and precise use of words, poetry is the best way to get the message across. And what’s the message? It’ll be different for different people, but one possibility is “don’t just be kind—be kinder than you have to be.” In other words, when you’re in the drive-thru line, always pay for the person behind you. Don’t look at their bumper stickers, and don’t dawdle when you’re done in hopes of getting a wave and a honk. Just pay.
WN: “The 1909 Air Show at Brescia” says that “the things you love can kill you.” The baby in “A Baby in the Piazza” says, “Nothing’s worth loving unless it can kill you.” Is that a contradiction or an explanation?
DK: I take it more as a definition of what’s important in this life. Nothing really counts unless it has power, and to have power, there needs to be power for good and evil, power that’ll make you dance with joy or knock your teeth out. Take the internet: now you can chat with Aunt Gracie in the comfort of your own home, but you can also convince your fellow dimwits that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. Yeah, I like to order crap online, but I was also able to walk into Sears and buy stuff back when Sears was a thing and not pay delivery fees. I could get along fine without the internet as long as I wasn’t the only one who didn’t have it.
WN: I see this sort of baseball diamond in Help Me, Information consisting of death, love, God, and sex. What’s that all about? Are those just topics that poets tend to write about, or do you think you focus on them more? If that baseball diamond metaphor is accurate, which one is home base for you?
DK: I’m thinking now that those four words just might be synonyms. In Howards End, one character says, “Death destroys a man, but the idea of death saves him.” If we lived forever, we’d probably think ourselves so excellent that we’d be, like, “God who?” And love and sex would just be things that drift in and out of our life. No, no: death makes you sit up and take notice. It makes you get busy, makes you think, “Okay, time to come up with some priorities here. No more reality TV and bong hits for this slacker: I’m going to make my time on earth count for something—I’m going to make my time on earth count for something, by God.”
WN: Blake, Whitman, and Ginsberg are recurring presences in your poetry. I also notice works by them form the top three of your list in The Knowledge of the ten books you regard as “essential reading for young poets” and you describe the trio as “dithyrambic.” Why do you dig them so much?
DK: Well, they’re exuberant, aren’t they? They celebrate. They make a lot of noise. In the EQ department (or “emotional quotient,” for those who don’t throw that term around as much as I do), they’re the most emotionally healthy poets out there. Every optimistic cliché applies: they see the glass as half full, they make lemonade out of lemons, they turn mountains back into molehills.
Frank O’Hara works the same way. Check out “Today.” I’m always dreaming up new classes, and I’m putting one together now called “The Daughters of Frank O’Hara,” because, for whatever reason, I notice that a lot more young women than young men are trying to match O’Hara for sheer exuberance these days. Hera Lindsay Bird and Chessy Normile are two who come to mind.
WN: I had a student who said of Ginsberg’s “Howl,” “When you read ‘Howl,’ you know where you are.” When you read “Howl,” where are you?
DK: I’m right there on the back of Big Al’s motorcycle. I have to admit, I’m a sucker for just about any kind of come-on. What a masterful poem, huh? The poet only has to utter those first few words of invitation. Who could resist?
By the way, he and the other poets I mention in my answer to the last question aren’t just exuberant about chocolate sundaes and back rubs. They’re boisterous and excessive about everything. Take Blake: he’s as political as all get-out, but he’s never sour or resentful. He lived in a day before two-stroke combustion engines, but he invites you to clamber aboard his cosmic Harley and head out on the highway, see what’s going on, celebrate it if it’s far out, kick its ass if it isn’t.
WN: “Three’s Company” lists, explores, and documents the power of three in subjects such as politics, history, and America. There’s one heart, two eyes, and four seasons, but three appears an awful lot. Morning, afternoon, evening. Youth, adulthood, old age. Heaven, purgatory, hell. Past, present, future. Id, ego, superego. Lower class, middle class, upper class. The three Star Wars trilogies. The three Fates. The Three Stooges. Blake, Whitman, Ginsberg. Small, medium, large. Why is three such a powerful number and why does it show up so much?
DK: Gee, I don’t know. I guess it’s a Goldilocks number, isn’t it? Just enough and not too much? You always want choices, but don’t you hate those BuzzFeed article with titles like “23 Ways to Cook a Chicken Breast”?
My last two big decisions were to buy a car and get a new roof put on the house. I looked at two cars, a Toyota and a Honda. And I called four roofing contractors to get estimates. In other words, I had a little less or a little more than three options in each category. I was thinking three-ishly. Works for me, and if there’s anything to the poem, that way of thinking works for the general run of mankind as well.
Besides, three ingredients are just about all you can remember anyway. And a three-part list is punchy: you can nutshell life aboard a British naval frigate with just “rum, sodomy, and the lash.” So why would you say, “rum, sodomy, the lash, scurvy, body odor, lousy rations, bad teeth, sadistic officers, and surly bunkmates, not to mention that I haven’t heard from Molly in the two years I’ve been at sea”? Too many details can rob a punch line of its power.
WN: Now that we’ve gotten The Knowledge and some Information, let’s talk Wisdom. With all of the instant and constant access the internet and other connective technologies have gifted/unleashed on us, it’s also become proportionately difficult—for me, at least—to unplug or know when I am done working for the day or week. How do you figure out the work/life balance and allow yourself to take a break?
DK: A break to me is an event. It’s just as important as a bike ride or a meeting with your lawyer. It’s not that I get up and write
I’ll add two codicils to this pronouncement. The first is that you should throw in a worthless activity from time to time, though by doing so, that activity automatically becomes worthwhile. The second thing is that I’m talking the talk here, but I don’t always walk the walk. There are days when I write nothing, days on which I skip one or both naps, and other days still when I throw my head back and yowl like a cat with its tail caught in the door. I try, though.
WN: I was glad to see you giving Waffle House some love in “Waffle House Index.” Over the years, Waffle House has been sanctuary, retreat, social club, entertainment venue, shelter, headquarters, make-out station, hideout, and study space for me. I probably wrote half of my undergraduate papers after midnight in the Waffle Houses of Georgia. I don’t know that I have a question in here so much as a thank-you, but please riff on Waffle House anyway. Oh, and I saw what you did there at the end with the take on section 52 of “Song of Myself.” I think Walt Whitman would have enjoyed the diversity, the American-ness, of Waffle House.
DK: Jeez, Waffle House is like the Vatican, isn’t it? Or Buckingham Palace. Or Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It’s the center of the universe. But whereas those other places are ground zero for particular populations, Waffle House is like that Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty, saying come one, come all.
Waffle House is to greasy spoons what Shakespeare is to the rest of us. Man’ll tell you a great story, but he never stops there; he always throws in lots of useless beauty as well. Therefore, to fully activate the potential of your local Waffle House and have it radiate its magic throughout your entire region, remember the one thing you must always do, which is to get a waffle. They serve other stuff there, but even if you just want a cup of soup or a salad, order a waffle as well.
WN: If I went into a bar and ordered a “David Kirby,” what ingredients would the bartender put in the drink?
DK: Again, I’ve loved every one of these questions. I do a lot of interviews, and I’d rather drink a glass of gasoline than be asked “where do you get your ideas?” again. But this one stumped me, so I called in a consultant, my most mentally adventurous grad student, Brett Cortelletti. Just as I knew he would, Brett gave me the formula you’re looking for, complete with hand gestures. I’m thinking we should make an instructional video.
Anyway, what you do is tell your barkeep you’d like a David Kirby, please, whereupon this mixologist of many years’ experience makes you a martini but neither shakes nor stirs it. Instead, he hands you the drink and a couple of quarters. You take everything over to the jukebox, put the drink on top, slip the coins into the slot, select “Long Tall Sally,” and let the machine’s vibrations marry the gin to the vermouth in a gentle and nuanced way. In just two minutes and ten seconds, your icy beverage is finished to perfection. Enjoy!
Selected works from David Kirby are available in Aji Magazine's Fall 2021 Issue (#15).
Aji readers, it is my pleasure to introduce you to Ty’Sean Judd, poet, educator, and agent for positive change through his platform Solid Initiative at solidinitiative.org.
On June 8th, Ty lost his cousin Najee to the senseless violence that seems to be gripping our nation at the current moment. Najee was only twenty years old, and was much loved by family and friends, who are grieving their terrible and unexpected loss.
This posting is meant as a tribute to Najee, to his talent, to his energy, to his life, and to everything he was and might have become. He will not be forgotten.
The poem and foreword were written by Ty’Sean Judd; the audio file is of Judd reading one of his poems. I hope you will take a few moments to read Judd’s poem and foreword and to listen to his poem.
Let me say here, it has been a true pleasure and an honor to work with Ty this year. I have so much faith in his talent, in his integrity, and in his efforts to support disenfranchised kids in his community. I have learned so much from my collaboration with him. My life has been enriched. I only wish I could have met his cousin, too.
If Freedom Was Free
by Ty’Sean Judd
Power wouldn’t be abused
or misconstrued as holiness and
we wouldn’t allow ourselves
to be controlled by the more
It’s torture for a lion
watching measly scraps
of food dangle from the
hands of a man he’s more
while wishing to hunt.
Just to limit his tenacity,
the zookeeper savagely
files down the sharpness
of his teeth in order to
further ensure the cat is
In reality the lion’s coordinates
lock him into inferiority.
If freedom was free,
the 1 percent’s superiority
wouldn’t be locked in
Truly, if Freedom
was free, there would be
no limits and everything
wouldn’t come with a fee.
I’ve observed freedom.
Life’s matrix helped me see
it’s something we won’t
ever achieve unless we
create more, while having
patience with the ones
who have not yet
Foreword from Golden Handcuffs
We are all incarcerated by vices and they are all connected.
How can we help our brothers and sisters in oppression while suppressing
our own effectiveness?
There is no respect for the neglectful, seeing
As the blind make for the best targets.
It’s expected of us to never break free.
As we move along the sea of confinement
We must decide between being caged
Fools, rebels, or revolutionaries
While confiding in one another,
Which is the hardest.
Listen to the audio recording of Ty reading his poem “Unarmed.”
Erin O’Neill Armendarez (EOA): Please share a bit of background information about yourself.
Anthony Seidman (AS): With pleasure. I was born in Los Angeles in 1973 to a 16-year-old biological mother of Polish Catholic background and a biological father, slightly older, who was of Irish background on his mother’s side but whose father was full-blooded Ute. (These are the bare facts, among a few others, I gleaned from the adoption papers that my father showed me when I was an adolescent.) I was adopted and raised in the San Fernando Valley by a New York-born Jewish Ashkenazi father and a mother whose family hailed from Morocco, all Sephardic Jews… a weird type of cultural stew, with British passports, as my grandfather was born in Gibraltar, and yet with roots in Cuenca, Spain. Hence, my maternal last-name, Conquy, a francophone reinvention of the original place. I was informed that I was adopted early on—a healthy choice on the part of my parents—and I believe that that helped nourish my sense of reaching out to different languages and, thereby, different cultures, as I grew up hearing French, Ladino, English, and Yiddish as a boy, and then went on to become a Bar Mitzvah and read or pronounce Hebrew. As my family was middle class, there were no aspirations to enroll me in prep schools. I am a product of the Los Angeles Unified School District, and during the 1980s and early ’90s, the campuses were lively dens of heteroglossia. I remember being in 4th grade and a friend gifting me a crisp bill of 5 Córdobas while we waited in the cafeteria line for square slices of Wednesday pizza; I now realize that he was a refugee from civil war in Nicaragua. In my classrooms, the majority of the students were of color, and if they were white, that may have meant Armenian and Iranian, or they were Jewish, and many of those Jewish students were Levantine, with families originally from Iraq, Syria, etc. That was my linguistic and cultural reality. How could one not end up being a translator in such a mix? And who knows how the dice tumble and settle….Many of my high school friends were second-generation Mexican, Central American, or South American. I was eating meals at friends’ homes where the parents would simply address me in Spanish. (And with these friends, I was sharing poems, and we were reading not only Pound, Whitman, Williams, Eliot, and Shelley, but also García Lorca, Nicolás Guillén, and Paz.) Some particularly fond memories involve a friend’s father and mother suggesting I be the chambelán for their daughter’s quinceañera. There I was, giving confession in broken Spanish, taking communion, and dancing the waltz, followed by a beautiful party in the patio of bungalows that once dotted the hills outside downtown, now all razed in the cause of gentrification. Upon graduating high school, I attended Syracuse University, from which I graduated with a BA in Spanish and English. I was lucky enough to take classes from and experience a friendship with Pedro Cuperman, an Argentine-Jewish professor of Poetics and Semiotics, and also to have as a roommate a Dominican by the name of Amaury Terrero, proudly from Las Matas de Farfán. And that taught me how vast the Latin American experience is…. the differences between Mexican culture, Argentine culture, the Afro-Caribbean realities. From there, I went on to do an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Texas at El Paso. It was a bilingual program, in the desert, on the border. I opted to live on the Mexican side of the border.
EOA: How did you become interested in translating poetry from Spanish into English?
AS: By necessity. When I found myself living in Ciudad Juárez during the latter half of the 1990s, I wished to read the best of contemporary Mexican poetry. I had an intuitive sense that Paz’s style and tone were very much of the past, and that there was a true struggle by poets, especially from the northern border regions, to capture a different image of their country in their verse.
EOA: How do you discover the poets whose works you wish to translate?
AS: I like visiting thrift shops. You hold up a coffee cup and say to yourself, this meant a lot to someone. As did that complete set of plates. That piano, well, someone may have gracefully played Satie on it, or plodded though the finger exercises that Bach composed for his daughter. Maybe some kid pounded out the opening bars to Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” The stacks at universities and great public libraries are somewhat akin to that… you discover voices from the past in footnotes, asides, letters, allusions that no longer click with many contemporary readers. Yet these voices are gasping to be resuscitated. The role of the translator is like that of the archeologist who finds hidden statues, inscriptions. I have found—and translated—so many wonderful poets from anthologies considered outdated. The coteries change, the general taste, but often some gold gets swept away with the dross. I have some very specific poets and poems in mind… It was a pleasure to do a full volume by Salvador Novo (Mexico, 1904-1974) titled Confetti-Ash, co-translated with David Shook, for The Bitter Oleander Press in 2015. Although not exactly forgotten in his country, Novo is rarely included in contemporary anthologies of Latin American poetry, especially bilingual ones for English readers. It’s criminal, as far as I’m concerned. His poetry brims with a sense of play, irony, candid homoeroticism, and a tone more like that of the US poets of his time than the highly refined sonnets of a Jorge Cuesta, or the elegance in the earliest poems by José Gorostiza. I happened to discover him in a water-damaged volume published by Mexico’s Secretary of Education, a rather unattractive edition from the 1980s. I picked up the volume from a street-vendor in Juárez who was quite happy to get a 10 Peso coin and rid himself of the book.
EOA: How and when did you meet Alejandro Meter? How do his photographs and your translations work together?
AS: Great question… But to be clear, we don’t exactly collaborate—we work in the same spheres. Alejandro is a professor of Latin American literature at the University of San Diego, as well as an immensely talented photographer. For the past decade, he has dedicated his work to documenting the writers who write on both sides of the border and in close proximity to (now) Trump’s wall. It has been a delight and an honor to see that in various publications my translations of poets and narrators also showcase his photos. Alejandro has tapped into the energy of these border-region creators, and he is a regular on the scene at festivals and readings. His project is immense, and it highlights writers that are often overlooked by the “establishment” in Mexico City. Some Mexicans intellectuals still believe that the official or major culture comes from the capital, and they dismiss everything else as provincial. The far-flung cities on the border fare the worst. The Mexican writer and politician José Vasconcelos even claimed that culture in Mexico ceases where the inhabitants grill meat. (And indeed, carne asada is very much a northern thing in Mexico.) But thanks to the efforts of those like Alejandro Meter,and of such poets as Jorge Ortega—and, I hope, to some of my efforts—there is a new vision of the literature from the border.
EOA: How do you manage the difficulty of translating different dialects of Spanish? Have you worked with dialects for which there are no complete dictionaries?
AS: Although I have recently translated Dominican and Peruvian poetry, and I am well familiar with Mexican poetry from Sor Juana to Díaz Mirón to the Contemporáneos to the poets of the ’80s, like Alberto Blanco, and younger poets, I have felt that I can best render into English the poetry from the northern border of Mexico. The reasons for this are simple…. Roughly from 1995 to 1999, and with extensive stays during the early 2000s, I lived in Ciudad Juárez. Many of those from the United States don’t grasp how multicultural Mexico is, and how the south differs from the nation’s capital, which also differs from other parts in the center, and how the desert’s northern expanse is vastly different. Different as far as attitude, social interaction, language, and manners of addressing others… even dress, gastronomy, not to mention music, or what one drinks at parties. By living in Juárez, becoming a father while living there, working at the city’s main public university, paying bills, going to the bank, etc., I was immersed in the border region’s Spanish… and although there are some differences between the Spanish spoken in Tijuana, Mexicali, and Cd. Juárez, the differences are minor. Actually, the bickering that sometimes exists between citizens from Tijuana and Mexicali strikes this individual as a textbook case of Freud’s “narcissism of minor differences.” Prior to a literary festival in Cd. Juárez to which my wife—the noir fiction author, Nylsa Martínez—and I had been invited, she had never visited that border city. After a day or two, she surmised that it was like Mexicali… yet not as hellishly hot. I heard a nearly identical comment from the great Juárez writer Willivaldo Delgadillo when I asked him for his opinions of Mexicali. Tone is so important when it comes to translation... tone and register, and discerning from which social point-of-view the turn of phrase, the judgment, the gaze surfaces. I must admit to feeling lost, sometimes, in the deep south of Mexico when it comes to irony, understatement, or the endless “albures,” all of which are far more easy for me to decipher up north. Thus, when I read a poet like Roberto Castillo Udiarte, and his lines: “Damas y caballeros/ welcome tu Tijuana,/ el lugar más mítico del mundo,/ onde las lenguas se aman y se unen/ en el aló, el oquei, el babai y el verbo tu bi.” Well, I easily pour that into: “Ladies and Gentlemen,/ bienvenidos a Tijuana/ the most mythical place on the face of earth,/ where two tongues make-out and meld,/ and the local speak in Hel-oh, oh-kaye, and the verb tu bi.” It’s a Spanish, Caló, and general zest in which I was immersed on the border. That being said, when I translated J.M. Servin’s new-journalism-like account of his time living in the States, For Love of the Dollar: A Portrait of the Artist as an Undocumented Immigrant, for Unnamed Press, I also tapped into the energy he derived from his love of The Ramones, James Brown, the Beats, and Bukowski, and I remembered that landscape he conveys—New York right before it underwent “deep cleansing”—from my visits to my grandfather during the early ’80s. And Servín is very much a Chilango, a proud lifelong resident of Mexico City. We got along swimmingly when we met for our presentation of the book in Los Angeles. The first words he said to me were, in Spanish, “But why do you speak like you’re from the north of Mexico?” That made me laugh heartily.
EOA: Some claim poetry is too difficult to translate because idioms and symbols are so culturally specific. How do you handle these challenges?
AS: I wouldn’t have ever translated if I believed that. There is always some bridge, some connection. Poetry and narration are so embedded in the human DNA, it’s so natural. We tend to overlook that some of the canonical poems of the 20th century in English are translations… just think of Pound’s Cathay or his version of “The Seafarer.” Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier is just as much Castiglione’s creation as it became Thomas Hoby’s, whose translation is considered a classic of English literature. I get dizzy when thinking of the centuries of translations, new versions poured into different tongues, from the languages of India, from Arabic, which gave us the Thousand and One Nights. Hardly anyone seems to pause when quoting from the Old Testament or the New. Interesting to note that our most sacred texts are translations, and these versions have their unique twists and takes. “Vanity of vanities” is uttered with great feeling and meaning, when the original Hebrew is more like “vapor of vapor.” But those idiosyncratic or sometimes flat-out wrong choices don’t perturb me. We’re dealing with language, sound, basically air. Things are going to get lost, and then again recaptured, and perhaps—dare I say it?—transmogrified into something equally luminescent. Still, clearly, one hopes to be able to read Dante, Camões, the Popol Vuh in the original. Alfonso Reyes—that most cultured and wise essayist and poet—proposed a simple triad when it comes to the challenges of translation: “A. If it’s possible, read the texts in their original language. B. Read translations that respect the distance although they may sacrifice the beauty. C. Read translations that help us better grasp the original, even if they may contain certain errors.” I believe that option C will end up producing more poetry and literature in the translated version. Ever wonder why The Cantos open with a translation of a translation?
EOA: What do you love most about your work as a translator?
AS: García Márquez quipped that he wrote (and published!) so his friends would love him more. I think that was an honest and fine statement to make. I have benefited in a very human way—making contact, knowing other realities—from translation. I have made friends, and I have gained from their visions and realities. Recently, some of my most interesting conversations have been with Pergentino José, a Zapotec writer who employs his nation’s language from the Sierra, not the Isthmus, and I have been stunned, enraptured when he discusses the intricacies of his mother tongue, its syntax, idiomatic expressions, etc. (To be clear, I have not translated Pergentino, yet we met among our circle of poets and translators.) An example, if I remember correctly, the word for “innocent” in his variant of the Zapotec language means literally “to be flower and dew.” For a legal or moralistic concept, we get a tangible image… which is what metaphor should always be.
EOA: What is most difficult about your work as a translator?
AS: You’re working with very slippery material. But I nodded in approval when I read how the great 20th-century Hebrew poet David Avidan dismissed the Frostian mantra that poetry is what gets lost in translation. (Avidan translated many of his own poems into English.) Avidan insisted “poetry is whatever is gained while moving from one language to another, and what’s lost in translation should better have been disposed of in the original.” As I consider myself quite functional in Spanish and French, and read in those languages, socialize in them, ponder poetry in them, I find that comment by Avidan to be comforting, a true guide. So. The difficulty is there, but it’s also not a terminal roadblock. A new bifurcation opens. I have always been indifferent to the translation of “moreno / morena” as simply dark or dark-skinned. Looking though old books on my shelves the other day I (re)discovered Rexroth’s Twenty Spanish Poems of Longing and Exile, and relived the jolt I had experienced when I was sixteen—having just bought the book at the now defunct Dutton’s in North Hollywood—and read his version of “Niña morena y ágil” by Neruda. (I had already read Merwin’s version.) And it was simply that employment of the adjective of “tawny” that made my skull split open with delight. Not exactly “morena”… not this, nor that… but a “gain” for the poem in English.
EOA: Why is it important to provide the poems and images of authors who write in Spanish to Americans and to other audiences globally who read and speak primarily in English?
AS: My answer to this is very simple. We lose so much by not reading poetry and literature in other languages. We lose a lot, as well, by not regarding the poets’ faces, our shared humanity. How many times have I had wonderful evenings discussing Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Corso, Rich, with poets from Latin American countries who have experienced the dagger and poison of American imperialism? It’s about touching the real nerve, bone, and marrow of other cultures and countries… and bypassing the political slogans, the rapacious leaders and con artists.
EOA: Are there additional poets you’d like to work with in the future? What is it about their poetry that intrigues you?
AS: Oh, yes! Without a doubt. Two come to mind. After meeting David Huerta at a poetry festival in Tijuana where we both participated, I mentioned that we had in common a dear friend and a superb poet-translator: David Shook. I reminded him of our desire to translate his father Efrain’s legendary verse, specifically the volume Los Hombres del Alba (1944), which injected an urban landscape into Mexican poetry, a sense of class divisions, the mire of daily life, the tender skeletons of poets, the lack of birds, and the poet’s voice drenched in the saliva of oblivion, like a fish amid a shipwreck’s waters. Well, we received his blessings. We hope to carry over his father’s poetry into a worthy English version. And soon.
The other poet who comes to mind (among many now rushing up in my memory) is the Peruvian Jorge Pimentel (1944). Rather late in his career, he published a collection entitled Tromba de Agosto (1992), a violent and righteous whirlwind howl from the poor and marginalized in his country, in a vigorous and idiosyncratic Spanish that reminds one of Vallejo in Trilce.
Then there are the usual, canonical subjects whose poems in English version can always be furthered honed. Two examples: José Gorostiza is considered by Mexicans to be one of their greatest poets, especially for his long meditation, in Baroque register, Muerte sin fin. His earliest volume of verse was entitled Canciones para cantar en las barcas, and I have yet to find a translation of the lovely lyric “Quién me compra una naranja” that reflects the tone and meaning of the title: the speaker is not saying, “Who will buy me an orange?” but, “Who will buy an orange from me?” I would love to translate that poem’s lilting quatrains.
A final case: perhaps the most famous poem by Vallejo, ”Los heraldos negros.” The opening verses exclaim: “!Hay golpes en la vida… yo no sé!” English versions vary little from this: “There are some blows in life… I don’t know!” Yet for the Spanish speaker, it’s clear that the exclamation “Yo no sé!” should not be conveyed in such a literal manner.
EOA: What advice would you give to future translators?
AS: Read. Research. Collaborate. Do the saturation-job… read all you can of a certain poet whose work is deeply important to you. All you can about that poet as well… as in reviews, essays, letters to and from, even stiff, peer-reviewed academic studies. Know that you’re not alone. And some of the kindest and most helpful folks I know have been fellow poet-translators… among them Boris Dralyuk, who translates from Russian, Kent Johnson who translates from Spanish, Martín Camps for his translation of the Brazilian masterpiece Parque Industrial: Novela Proletaria by Patrícia Galvão, David Shook, who translates from Spanish, Nahuatl, and Zoque, Michael Casper, who works with Yiddish, Gaspar Orozco who translates from Chinese poetry, Roberto Castillo Udiarte who was the first to translate Bukowski, Lamantia, Robert Jones, and Bill Knott into Spanish, Blandine Longres, who translates into French from English… so many! I ache that I will remember others, but too late! And know that we always need new translations. Borges felt that he hadn’t suffered too much from not learning Ancient Greek—instead of resorting to only one Homer, he had Chapman’s and Pope’s. And now we have Lattimore’s, Fitzgerald’s, Wilson’s… It’s a beautiful process, awe-inspiring, as if we were watching tectonic plates shifting at a heightened velocity, with mountains rising in months rather than over eons.
-by Erin O'Neill Armendarez
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-by Erin O'Neill Armendarez
When Michael McNamara approached Aji press with a draft of Loose Canon, our conversations on prosody deepened. His rare ear and deep intuition allow Mike to express the “objective correlative” in ways many with MFA’s from elite institutions will never achieve. He has unique gifts, and his faith in those gifts, his honesty, his generosity of spirit, and his exceptional intelligence are a boon to the world of poetry.
I advised Mike to cull Loose Canon and to consider more carefully the accessibility of some of his poems. Sometimes, he sacrifices sense for sound play. Sometimes, he gives in to cliché. But McNamara is not the first poet to shun the rigorous scrutiny of academy-trained poets. At worst, some of his poems may seem like rants (and he probably intended them to read that way). At best, his lyric poems are as good as any I’ve read today.
Maybe I was wrong to take my hatchet to Mike’s lines. In retrospect, I admit I was. He seems to find the inscape of his own poems, the energy, the length of line, just the right words in the right order, as well as anyone else. I’d argue he could cull and edit more carefully, as some words and lines don’t keep the tension or mood of some poems as well as others.
With a title like Loose Canon, McNamara trusts we’ll accept his unwillingness to explicate and analyze as so many of us have learned in our writing practices. He is bubbling over with experience, image, expression; he hopes to be taken seriously as a poet. He wants to be read. I recommend you give him a try and join the conversation: which of his poems ring true to you, and why? Can you recognize the logic of his syntax, his line breaks, the sound play of his poems? Which of his poems do you find most compelling, and why?
Mike, you don’t have to rent a tuxedo to get into the places where the serious writers offer their work for consideration. Kerouac didn’t. Whitman didn’t. Keep singing your songs in the darkness out on the edge of that ocean off the coast of Wales. Keep looking up at the stars. I will always consider myself fortunate to read anything you write.
Here are some of McNamara’s poems, and a link below to where you might purchase Loose Canon.
Old tree, old tree,
what can you tell me?
Have you relations in Montmartre
who shelter the broad and busy boulevards?
There is a some time
in everyone’s life,
maybe just for one moment,
a some time to look beautiful.
There is only ever really one thing
that is important. One thing.
It’s late. Restore me.
What is it?
There are many deaths on our way to dying,
while in our words we live.
Empty lines of famished words
to fill a hungry written world.
I come to you as a stranger
but you may refuse to hear me
because of the colour of my eye,
the woman at my side,
the coarseness of my tongue,
or what is current to deride.
I’ve made no secret
of the secrets I cannot share;
I stand before the mirror
and see no tabernacle there.
But, unlike you, perhaps,
I walk around the borderland
or sleep on the immigrant’s settee,
drink coffee with the ex-con
but still cry out to the poets of death, decadence
and beauty: Celan, Rimbaud, Whitman.
I pause on the towpath,
polishing shoes on the back of trouser legs
endeavouring not to thrive but to survive,
to look without tears upon things we cannot bear to see;
to bathe in the luminant light of St. Ives
and remember fields of children’s voices,
frisson, fires on the beach;
everything we have ever known or seen.
Dives where X marks the window,
some streaked white powder traces
where a fat man plays the bass;
members only. No meth heads at the boating club.
Positive discrimination: it’s the uncredited star
of all the soaps but there’s always a twist at the end.
So idealists will daub esoteric signs up on the wall,
join The Moonies, The Masons, The Rosicrucians,
while realists who win awards soak their liver in champagne
and losers with White Lightning.
Creators all. Artists. It’s your call - but remember;
in reality, Dear Editor, it is you, not I,
who is the stranger.
LAME GODS THAT HAUNT THE HALFLIGHT
Lame gods that haunt the halflight,
the king's thorn, the winter's cross,
no breath shrouds the moonlight
the letters cast in stone.
Oh, there's a place beyond the needing
where the colours run as one.
Lost gods stir in the twilight,
seven rays, the rosy cross,
sleep counted by dark midnights
in cold beds long alone.
Oh, there's a place beyond believing
where the colours run as one.
The voiceless dead come to greet us
in softened shoes that fold like kidskin,
faces sculpted by time’s microbic caresses
to a blind and mirthless grin.
‘Ah’ they don’t say; ‘Oh’ they don’t cry,
deaf and blind to hear or see those things
like the summer’s swallow wings
that flock and flutter through a cloudless sky.
For these the crafted poem holds no sense
and the promises of lovers of no consequence.
Gone the desire for acquisition,
gone the option to forgive;
so live for this moment you who can:
Note: “Short Shrift” was originally published in International Times.
“Lame Gods That Haunt the Halflight” was originally published in The Dawntreader.
Click to Purchase through Book Depository