Why Poetry? #3
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Why Poetry? #3

With Manuel Paul López

 Rebecca Schumejda
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 Rebecca Schumejda
Why Poetry? #3
by Rebecca Schumejda  FollowFollow
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Rebecca Schumejda is now on the pickle diet, so she can fit into her skinny jeans sometime in the next millennium. www.rebeccaschumejda.com
Why Poetry? #3
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I 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.
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.”  
Over the years, I have kept tabs on Paul's work, smiling when I come across one of his pieces like “There is a Whole in My Living Room” in Rattle. In the piece, a tribute to Paul's grandfather, he writes, “I bring him water/ sometimes, because I know he is thirsty, because I know his medication dehydrates him,/ I know the crackers and salami he loves to eat need to be washed down with something./ But I can hear only the incomprehensible echoes of his Spanish, like the death hum of a/ gasping bird trying to lift itself out of the darkness.” Paul's direct approach is complimented with his ability to extradite herculean poetic devices. He nails the ending too, “My grandfather had died. And there are 2,700 glasses of water/ that cannot satisfy our thirst.” In a way, I think that Paul's willingness to experiment with his writing tends to keep his readers thirsty. This is one of the poems that has always stuck with me, mainly because of his ability to organically weave mind-blowing poetic devices with a memorable story. In addition, he never allows the page to limit the form. What I mean by this is that he naturally allows his pieces to take shape.
Oddly, I have noticed over the years that Paul often writes simple, sweet and straight-forward pieces to the women in his life. For example in “Maps,” he writes:
     This afternoon      I borrowed      your eyes
     while you      slept      I studied      the lines      across      your face            read them      like a map
     and found all      the fucked-up      places
     I have      taken you
This terse poem exposes the complexity of regret that is often overlooked in love poems. In the piece “CHERUB CHERUBIM,” which is the next poem in the collection he writes to“sons who have wanted to confess but couldn't” he writes:
     I haven't spoken of drinking      or of drugs, Mom,
     or of these broken thoughts      I've got--
     only because I fear to lose the wings      you have attached      to my back      with your eyes
Because of the richness of Paul's work, I find myself wanting to talk about each piece, but that would be selling him short because he says it best himself. When I asked for a jazzy autobiography, Paul sent me this via e-mail and it, not only gives background information, but also demonstrates his striking style.
I was born in 1975 in El Centro, Califas, just a few short miles from the Calexico/Mexicali border. Early haircuts compliments of Mexicali barbers in busy shops.  Mouth-watering Chinese cuisine served up at La Misión and el Dragon. Played lots of baseball as a young Chicanito; big public library reader, especially during the summer months when the temps peaked at 115-120 degrees, where stern librarian never commented on my magnificent stack of books, just stamped due dates without smile or salutation as she stood directly under air-conditioning vent blowing 70 degrees; played trumpet under local jazz institution, Jimmy Cannon, teacher who impacted so many of us in ways beyond adjectives; early interest in heavy metal, punk rock and MC Hammer's dance moves; the agricultural fields that glowed green even during relentless summers; carnicerias; Central Union High School; Danny Sugarman's No One Gets Out of Hear Alive, the acclaimed Jim Morrison Biography that soon had me thinking spectacle like a misunderstood Artaud; loved to people-watch at the border, impacted by the crisscrossing farm laborers whose hard work and sacrifices shone above their heads like haloes in Mexicali taquerias after long days in the fields, bandanas still worn on their heads or tied around their necks, listening to jukebox, work previous generations of my family did, stories of movement up north and back again part of our narrative; we the teenage Morrisseys, it's true!, latinos love The Smiths, circle of friends in bands, art, film, all pre-internet occupations in the middle of the desert somehow, Miles Davis, Tom Waits, so fortunate to have access to older cousin Marc's bedroom, a music conservatory, where we'd sit cross-legged sometimes just listening, his vinyl everywhere, god bless him for that wonderful education!  Barbecues with familia, birthday parties where we'd rip into piñatas that looked like our favorite cartoon characters with a Wiffle bat or a broom stick, candy raining on our heads when too-old cousin tore off poor piñatas extremities with a single whack; winter's dry desert chill, bonfires and beer at clandestine high school locations, trips to Caliente en Mexicali to place our bets, hours spent skateboarding, leaping into irrigation ditches from a rope tied to a tree, or from the ledge of the Interstate 8 bridge feet first into the life-affirming splash, glory, beloved wife, also from the Valley, brother, sister, mother, father, abuelitas, familia so big we can easily populate and operate any small California town, infrastructure and all...”
Paul went on to share this anecdote when I asked him to share a unique story about is hometown in the Imperial Valley:
Heard a story once about a sheep that died by climbing a ditch bank near one of the fields in the Imperial Valley.  When he reached the top, he began to descend the other side without breaking stride.  Not being the most nimble of animals, he quickly lost his footing and rolled into the water, splashing, raising his little lips toward the sky to shout something in sheep.  (If you've grown up in the Valley, you know to tread carefully around various waterways because of the vigorous undercurrents that can yank you underwater faster than you can say "o shit.")  Sheep being sheep, the group left behind then followed suit and climbed, fatefully reaching the same conclusion.  In ranks, a large group of wooly sheep drowned themselves by following that first sheep's desire to see what was on the other side, or to take a swim, or to sip from the Colorado River water, or to protest, who knows.  Maybe it was a vision they had, somehow fulfilling some sheep-derived prophecy. Maybe it was bad alfalfa, inducing wild hallucinations.  Maybe they were the sacrificial lambs intent on teaching us something.
I've always been captivated by this story, despite whether it's indeed fact or fiction. I prefer not knowing.  Though I do wonder why, on occasion.  Why did that sheep break ranks?  And did he know they would follow?
Paul is currently working on a book-length manuscript titled The Yearning Feed, which will contain a mix of poetry, short stories reflections, etc. He is one of the recipients of the Creative Catalyst Fund Grant from the San Diego Foundation. He says, “ It's unique because individual artists are awarded these grants based on a project that will be realized in collaboration with a participating arts organization. In my case it is the Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company. For the 2012 calendar year, Mo`olelo will support me in different ways as I try and finish this manuscript. In October, I will read from the manuscript at Mo`olelo's resident space at the 10th Avenue Theater in downtown San Diego.  Since the grantees are working in different disciplines, for example music, sculpture, etc, all of these collaborations are unique and exciting.  I'm happy to be a part of this inaugural year, and I hope that the CCF grant remains in place for a long time.”
You can find Paul's work on Amazon or through the presses named above. To see what I mean about Paul's work,  please check out this extraordinary video of Paul reading 1984 and this article and his blog spot.

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