Jack’s four January shows all deal with the remarkable anthology, Fightin’ Words: 25 Years of Provocative Poetry and Prose from “The Blue Collar Pen.” The anthology was edited by Judith Cody, Kim McMillon and Claire Ortalda and published jointly by PEN Oakland Publications and Heyday Books. Among the authors included are: Ishmael Reed, Elmaz Abinader, Opal Palmer Adisa, Francisco X. Alarcón, Mimi Albert, Avotcja, Christopher Bernard, Carla Blank, Cecil Brown, Janine Canan, Neeli Cherkovski, Judith Cody, Gillian Conoley, Lucha Corpi, John Curl, Steve Dalachinsky, J.P. Dancing Bear, Lucille Lang Day, Kathleen de Azevedo, Sharon Doubiago, Camille T. Dungy, Maria Espinosa, Adelle Foley, Jack Foley, CB Follett, Joan Gelfand, Herbert Gold, Rafael Jesús González, Ray Gonzalez, Nathalie Handal, Peter J. Harris, Gerald Haslam, Juan Felipe Herrera, Jack Hirschman, Kitty Kelley, Vandana Khanna, Paul Krassner, Michael Lally, Nhuan Xuan Le (Thanh-Thanh), Rabbi Michael Lerner, Leza Lowitz, Kirk Lumpkin, Alison Luterman, Mary Mackey, Norman Mailer, devorah major, Clive Matson, Michael McClure, Colleen J. McElroy, Kim McMillon, Adam David Miller, E. Ethelbert Miller, Gerald Nicosia, A.L. Nielsen, Claire Ortalda, Margo Perin, Jerry Ratch, Tennessee Reed, Andy Ross, Suhayl Saadi, Floyd Salas, Mona Lisa Saloy, Richard Silberg, Rebecca Solnit, Jaye Lyn Stahl, Susan Suntree, Alma Luz Villanueva, Gerald Vizenor, A.D. Winans, Koon Woon, Al Young, and Andrena Zawinski. The book also includes tributes to the late Wanda Coleman, the late Ken Kesey, and the late H.D. Moe. The editors note,
“Fightin’ Words began with the notion of chronicling the literary legacy of PEN Oakland, which, in the words of former board member Jack Foley, was founded with the “unique purpose to promote works of excellence by writers of all cultural and racial backgrounds and to educate both the public and the media as to the nature of multicultural work.”
“To achieve this mission, beginning in 1990, PEN Oakland hosted a series of symposia on issues of freedom of expression affecting marginalized groups within our society including minority representation in the media and inequalities within our justice system. We also instituted the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Literary Awards and, a few years later, the PEN Oakland Censorship Award and the Lifetime Achievement Award…
“Included among our winners and panelists were such notable figures as Iris Chang, the late author of The Rape of Nanking, Daniel Ellsberg, Paul Krassner, Bill Moyers, Norman Mailer, Greg Palast, Kitty Kelley, Barbara Lee, and GaryWebb…[M]any of our speakers and award-winners did not and do not enjoy the name recognition of the writers cited above. Though their works are published, many of these writers—chroniclers of communities outside the mainstream and of unreported societal injustices—remain largely invisible to the public consciousness. This is the reason why the publication of Fightin’ Words is so important—because it acknowledges those writers who have helped PEN Oakland make a difference in the struggle for social and economic justice for the past twenty-five years…Our history is one of celebrating the underdog—the writer who may or may not become a household name, but is often the heart of his or her community, writers that honor culture, humanity, life, family and community. Fightin’ Words offers a form of immortality—through the written word—to those that have been part of PEN Oakland’s twenty-five years of fighting, celebrating, and honoring multicultural literature.”
Chairman of the board Ishmael Reed adds,
“Although I’d written poetry and nonfiction and maybe some fiction before entering college, it was at the University of Buffalo, which was a private university at the time, that I became inspired by cultural nationalism and multiculturalism in literature, particularly the cultural nationalism of W.B. Yeats and the Celtic Revival, which challenged the culture of the British Occupation, which like all Occupations required that the Occupied assimilate to the culture of the conqueror. I was also influenced by Ezra Pound, who explored Chinese culture and even tried his hand at writing in Kanji and reported in a letter his awareness of the “Nigerian god of thunder,” which those in Nigeria and the Yoruba Diaspora in South and Central America and elsewhere identify as Shango…[T]hat was the origin of my mixing and sampling of cultures, and a quest to find my roots instead of imitating a European model slavishly…We are in for a long twilight struggle, but in the end, our country will be in better shape than the one we found. We will have helped to create not an exclusive City on the Hill, but the inclusive Rainbow City in the Valley.”
The high walls I cannot scale
(with apologies to Tu Fu)
Desolate in my Chinatown morning,
among the scraps and people sleeping in urine
doorways, I ache from the politics of the heart.
Pigeons flock together in Hing Hay Park,
No children to greet them.
I walk for my sanity, since alone in my room
before dawn, the mind constructs improbable things.
The city is humming for profits
and I wait for the porridge place to open.
A bowl of sampan porridge
adorned with a clump of watercress.
These Chinese and I are one, scattered
in the four corners of the globe.
I only have enough to pay for one bowl
And so sorry, my friend, I must dine alone.
I cannot make it lovely,
this story of my father: his body
raw under the lights like a skinned
almond, surrounded by sandalwood,
pickled carrots, and the hush
of rice settling in a bag.
I can’t help it, I need metaphors:
his body curls like the curve of a cheek,
a knife lies beside him, done with its work.
This story in metaphors. Not simply:
You lie on the floor. You’ve been cut
by two men you don’t know. They wanted
money and you were too slow, didn’t understand.
But rather: bruises braid his skin, the bitter black
of leaves, eyes red as the swollen sting
of chili powder. Why do I write in the past?
He smells only sweat, sickened blood seeping,
nothing familiar—not black and red pepper pinched
into the air, not the jasmine of his mother’s
kitchen. Nothing—until his breath is like a tea
bag twisted, pressed into the cup of the room.
But it’s not an Indian grocery, it is a shabby
downtown hotel, the kind that lock their doors
at ten, have security guards to stop the prostitutes
from coming in, from warming themselves
in the lobby. The kind where hallways echo
of accents. The phone is off the hook.
Not, why do I write about the past? But, what story
must I tell? You lie there dreaming, but I’m
not sure, dreaming of your childhood in Lahore:
the city escaping the finite lines of a map, erased
by riots, civil war. You remember the hot nights,
chattering birds—how the world was never silent then.
You tell me over and over but I can’t write it:
the same story, but I know we are leaving
things out. Embellishing. What they must
have said, the words, harsh like Bengali, you never
tell, the first cut and then the next, how you fell
like a sack of mangoes into a heavy tumble.
You have left the spaces empty for me to add
in colors, the smells, the translate to English.
To translate into the present, into beautiful.
Jack’s guests are editors Judith Cody and Claire Ortalda, whom he interviews. Together, they read many selections from the book.