Death of a Mexican & Other Poems
by Manuel Paul Lopez
MET AND BECAME quick friends with Manuel Paul López, who I call Paul, while we were both graduate students at San Francisco State University. I was immediately drawn to his laic approach coupled with his facetious narratives. And honestly, the best thing about Paul is that he is down to earth and always willing to go out for drinks.
On the subject of remembering, his new chapbook 1984 (Amsterdam Press, 2010), inspired by the late Joe Brainard, utilizes the prompt “In 1984” in lieu of “I remember,” in a confessional style. In the Introduction of The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard, edited by Ron Padgett, Paul Auster writes, “whenever I open Joe Brainard's little masterwork again, I have the curious sensation that I am encountering it for the first time.” Even though Paul's collection is much smaller, I feel exactly the same way each time I pick up 1984. I know that Coming of age at the same time as Paul definitely contributes to the nostalgia that I experience, but there is a depth of humor and honesty that is magical in Paul's writing. He throws you right back into the eighties with stanzas like, “In 1984 I wore striped tube socks pulled up to my knees...” and, “In 1984 I memorized every lyric on Van Halen's 1984 while my cousin jerked off in his parent's bathroom to an old wrinkled Sport Illustrated Swimsuit Edition featuring Paulina Porizkova and Kathy Ireland.” Then he throws in lines that reveal how quick our youth becomes corrupted, “In 1984 Pixie Stix were only Pixie Stix, Sugar was only sugar. And the lines we made out of it during lunchtime on school lunch tables, just lines. (93 was a different story)”
While 1984 is overtly confessional, Paul's is far from limited and traverses a broad range of genres. I asked Paul how his family and culture influence his writing, he told me, “Yes my family/culture influences my writing, very much so, though I wouldn't think of my work as purely autobiographical. I have many interests and sources for inspiration, though where I’m from is certainly the blood and pulse of what I do even if it isn’t overtly expressed on the surface.” However, I truly believe that Paul's unwavering fortitude spills over into his characters. All of his characters are flawed somehow and he often concocts foil characters that highlight the many facets of the main character's personality. His first full-length collection Death of a Mexican and other poems (Bear Star Press, 2006) shows the versatility of his work. In a series of letters between the narrator and his uncle in the piece “TRES GENERACIONES, An Incomplete Chronology,” the uncle's words reveal more about the narrator than the narrator's own words. In the piece, the narrator pleads with his uncle, “I am writing this to you because last night I had a dream that Grandma died and it was so real I woke up crying. I haven't been able to forget the look on her face. But the reason I'm writing this is because I need you to stop being mean to her. I know you hurt deep inside. I know about your problems. I know you long for your dead brother. I know you're broke. I know you feel misunderstood. I know the violence within you surges like a sky full of thunder and lightening trapped in the fishbowl of your mind, I know, but you have to stop being mean to Grandma.” His Uncle's response adds an insight that the narrator is unable to admit to when he replies, “Don't you lecture me, you pinche rata (fucking rat). You think just because you've made a little money, gone to college, and put yourself in debt with all that fancy crap you surround yourself with that you have a right to tell me I'm wrong. Pinche rata. If only your mom knew about the shit that you do, because that is the only difference between us . . .” The narrator goes on to tenderly discuss his last moments with his Abuela, “When my grandmother went to the hospital for the last time, I sat at her bedside like a candle in a windstorm, trying to keep us both alive. I read Andres Montoya's poems as if his words from the other side could somehow soothe her pain like the nopal she used on my childhood knee-scrapes.” Successfully, in a single piece, Paul drags the reader through a myriad of emotions seamlessly. Whenever I read his work, I always end up saying GOD DAMN then I find myself going back to see how he does what he does.
“In 1984 I memorized every lyric on Van Halen's 1984 while my cousin jerked off in his parent's bathroom to an old wrinkled Sport Illustrated Swimsuit Edition featuring Paulina Porizkova and Kathy Ireland.”
Paul credits many of the writers and professors that he had the good fortune of working with. Like me, he studied with Daniel Langton at San Francisco State University. He said, “I hardly had any formal training as an undergraduate, so sitting in these classes was equal parts inspiring and maddening. Let's just say I spent many hours in the library trying to catch up. Some stand out teachers for me were Daniel Langton, Paul Hoover, and Lewis Buzbee at SFSU. Paul Hoover brought in work from writers that I had never heard of, work that was innovative and many times confusing, but I enjoyed the challenge of taking these works apart and thinking about how they “behaved,” a Hoover term I remember and love.” Paul is as modest as they come because his poetic insight was light years ahead of the other students and his talent is raw. When people debate over whether or not MA/MFA programs are worthwhile, I always think of my time at SFSU and with some of the most incredible people that I have ever had the honor of meeting and learning from. Paul being at the top of that list. Like me, Paul was always reading and he introduced me to some of my favorite writers. His college background at UCSD was in psychology/basic neuroscience, but he also had the chance to work with Quincy Troupe. He credits Troupe for “implanting the literary bug that just kept proliferating.”
Why Poetry? #3 continues...