Sounds of Poetry
August 13, 1999
BILL MOYERS: Her mother cleaned houses for a living. Her mother left home one day never to come back. Growing up worlds apart they had poverty in common. Poverty and the love of poetry. Shirley Geok-lin Lim is the first Asian and woman to win the Commonwealth Prize for poetry. Lorna Dee Cervantes won the American Book Award for her first book of poems. I'm Bill Moyers. Join me for the Sounds of Poetry with two women whose lives were saved by poetry.
The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival
Waterloo, New Jersey
LORNA DEE CERVANTES: This first poem comes out of a series of poems I've been writing as exercises with my students where you put a title in a hat and we pull it out of the hat and everybody has seven minutes to write a poem without revision, without editing. So this is an unedited poem and it's about a girl, a Chicana in the barrio in Denver who wrote poetry at age 17 in the same way that I wrote poetry.
"Summer Ends Too Soon" Summer Ends Too Soon Was the last she said. Beautiful Maria, Ave Maria. Maria dodging father's fists - and his. Maria praying under the table. Maria crooning pain songs in the bathroom. Maria combing his sludge out of her hair. Maria serving masters. Seventeen-year -old Maria. Maria, your Lady of the Kept Secret. Maria, dancing to his temper. Maria, washing her panties in the toilet. Two days after graduation, Maria swaying from the limb. Maria, sweet, purple fruit of his sin. Ave Maria.
CERVANTES: When you grow up as I did, a Chicana in a barrio in a Mexican neighborhood in California, welfare-class, you're not expected to speak. You're ignored. You're something in the periphery, you know, emptying garbage cans or washing plates. And you're not expected to speak, much less write.
MOYERS: So where did the idea come from: "I can write"?
CERVANTES: Oh, I started writing when I was eight years old. My brother used to bring me books of poetry. He had a job - he dropped out of school and was a janitor in a local junior high school. And he used to borrow books from the library - he hates when I tell this story - and he did it alphabetically. And he got all the way up to the Ds before they found out and he lost his job. So, my early library included people like Gwendolyn Brooks. I mean, I was very aware that poetry was for this aristocratic class who had the leisure to sit down and write poetry. I didn't think that it was an option, that you could be a poet.
MOYERS: And when you found African-American poetry, what happened?
CERVANTES: Oh, saved my life. Literally.
MOYERS: What do you mean it saved it?
CERVANTES: Oh - I remember a time right after my first book had become accepted. And I was moving to Provincetown for a year. And I found this foldout from my junior high school - my middle school class. And I looked at this foldout of all of these kids, and it wasn't that long - you know, not that much time had passed. And I looked at them and I said, “Wow, he's dead - he died driving drunk. She's dead - her boyfriend killed her. They're dead - they od'd on barbiturates. They're dead - they got killed in prison.” And on and on and on. And I realized that almost 50 percent of my junior high school class was dead. And I was about 23, 24.
MOYERS: Poetry literally saved your life.
CERVANTES: Literally, yes.
CERVANTES: “California Plum" For Nathan Trujillo discovered frozen to death in a public restroom in Boulder, February 3rd, 1992 and identified only as a derelict.
"California Plum" I suppose I was a derelict. I was a derelict's kid. I succumbed to man and minotaurs were a thing of the past not in my vocabulary. I knew the trees, the fruit, the sweet, the fences in my neighborhood to get me there where dogs and men can't reach. I beat the boys and joined their clubs. No initiation could deter me. Oh yeah, I know where the tracks go, how to catch it going South, what to carry, who to talk to, what size jar of instant coffee will get you into camp -- how to walk like a child of a maid, go inside the Inns, at 10am leftovers line the galleys: ham and omelets in the hall, waffle, cutlet, biscuit, gravy.... I filled my skirt with packets of jam and ate through noon. I judged my troops by the content of their refrigerator (only ones with working moms could pass). And oh, my literate acquaintances! My bums and babblers banging in the stacks! I suppose I'm just like they are, dry inside at last, pumping the poems of Pushkin, Poe and papers by the racks. I sat in there most every day, whoring working hours away. I know the open places, graves, the cemetery gate - the only one we're allowed to pass without eviction. "Idle tears will get you anywhere,” said Tennyson. You can read it in our clothes, the rips we care to camouflage, bunker, in clunky shoes and hand-me-nots, the stabs, the odds of ever reaching our normality. I'd say I was a derelict - I was a derelict's kid.
CERVANTES: Poetry to me is an exercise in freedom. This is what I got from it. It's free on every level. I mean, it's the cheapest stuff on Earth. What are you working with? You're working with language and you're working with memory. It's the cheapest substance on the planet.
Freedom. Because poetry to me is a whole series of choices. If it has one theme at all, it's about choice. Because I know that when I was growing up, I did not believe I had a choice. I did not see alternatives. I did not see that I could make a choice or a change in my life. I just believed like we all believe that, you know, we probably wouldn't finish high school, we'd probably stay on welfare, we'd, you know-
MOYERS: Dead end?
CERVANTES: Dead end, exactly.
MOYERS: You said your materials are memory and freedom. And when I think of your story and so many others, though, that memory comes with a price and that freedom has been hard won.
CERVANTES: Well yes. l have a recent poem, very long poem, called "Coffee". And I preface it with a quote from Czeslaw Milosz: "What is poetry that does not save people — save nations?"
MOYERS: But somebody once walked up to Stephen Spender, and said "Mr. Spender, what do your gossamer dreams have to do with saving this world? Do you think poetry matters that much?"
MOYERS: It saved you - clearly it saved you. But nations? I mean-
CERVANTES: It's like, you know, does life matter? It depends on what you do with it. And all the little minute details that go into living, somehow add up. Of course not. What poem ever really saved a nation? And yet, what poem didn't. I mean, where do we get our conceptions of freedom?
CERVANTES: [Singing] "No more genocide in my name...." A young girl in trenzas sings outside The Mexican Consulate in Denver. "Go back to where you came from!" shouts a car of gringos speeding down memory lane, and is nearly drowned out by the ritual drums and the Native chants. First World faces sing out above the placards like severed heads or scalps. "No more Genocide..." ...in Guatemala, Colombia, El Salvador, Chile, Sand Creek, Wounded Knee.... Not with arms. Not with training. Not with money. No more of my tax dollars that buys the man who drives the Humvee that transports the soldier who shoots the weapon that blinds the toddler, that enters the heart of Guadalupe Lopez Mendez who dies in Ocosingo asserting her civil rights. No more Genocide in my name. We shall not overcome. We shall fight this way forever. A culture isn't vanquished until the hearts of its mothers are lying on the ground." I will fight this way forever: I will say. I will fight this way forever: I will pay. I will fight this way forever: I will pray. Amen. Y Con Safos. I will pray. Amen. Con Safos [with respect].
LIM: We Chinese practice ancestral worship. Our ancestors do not live unless we worship them. And of course being in the United States, it's very hard for me to practice ancestral worship because my father is buried in Malaysia. But I write poems to him and almost every year I write a new poem to him. This is called "My Father's Sadness." He had 10 children and he wanted every single one of them but he got poorer and poorer with every one of us, as well you can understand.
"My Father's Sadness" My father's sadness appears in my dreams. His young body is dying of responsibility. So many men and women march out of his mouth each time he opens his heart for fullness, he is shot down. So many men and women like dragons teeth rising in the instance of his lifetime. He is an Oriental. He claims paternity but in his dreams, he is a young body with only his life before him. My Father’s sadness masks my face. It is hard to see through his tears, his desires drum in my chest. I tense like a young man with a full moon and no woman in sight. My father broke with each child. Finer and finer the clay of his body crumbling to a drizzle of silicone in the hourglass. How hard it is to be a father, a bull under the axle. The mangroves netted by lianas. The host perishing of its lavishness.
MOYERS: Has poetry helped you find this very singular identity that you have? Because here you are born in Malaysia under the Japanese occupation, of an ethnic Chinese background...
LIM: In a Malay-dominant society.
MOYERS: In a Malay-dominated society. An immigrant to the United States who when she gets here marries a Jewish-American.
LIM: That's right. And I have a wonderful Jewish American boy who identifies himself as Asian-American. And his name is Gershom Baysaman.
MOYERS: I mean, you were destined to become American.
MOYERS: That's the only thing you could have become with that kind of background.
LIM: You think so?
MOYERS: Oh, I think so. I mean, where else would you have gone to become yourself?
LIM: Well, you know, that's a sad thing to say, if I may say that. Because I think the rest of the world should be like that. The rest of the world should be open to those kinds of transformations.
LIM: "What the Fortune Teller Didn't Say"
When the old man and his crow picked the long folded parchment to tell my fortune at five, they never told about leaving, the burning tarmac and giant wheels. Or arriving - why immigrants fear the malice of citizens and dull shutterings of those who hate you whatever you do. My mother did not grip my hand more possessively. Did I cry and was it corn ice-cream she fed me because the bird foretold a husband? Wedded to unhappiness, she knew I would make it, meaning money, a Mercedes and men. She saw them shining in the tropical mildew that greened the corner alley where the blind man and his moulting crow squatted promising my five-year-old hand this future. Of large faith she thrust a practical note into the bamboo container, a shiny brown cylinder I wanted for myself, for a cage for field crickets. With this fortune my mother bought me, only the husband is present, white as a peeled root, furry with good intentions, his big nose smelling a scam. Sometimes, living with him, like that black silent crow I shake the cylinder of memory and tell my fortune all over again. My mother returns, bearing the bamboo that we will fill with green singing crickets.
LIM: Poetry is what has saved me through the years.
LIM: I started writing when I was perhaps about nine. The idea that you can go into a space where there is language. And it’s language which is yours, which is completely private and where you can do anything with it. You can curse at someone that you cannot curse otherwise. You can create a space of beauty when all around you is poverty and deprivation. You can have an uplifting of the spirit when all around you things are pulling you down. I think that act of writing that poem is the act that has centered me all my life.
LIM: In all the years since the age of about eight I have been following poetry. "Lament" I have been faithful To you, my language, Language of my dreams, My sex, my laughter, my curses. How often have I Stumbled, catching you Short when you should be Free, snagging on curves, Till fools have called me Fool. How often have you Betrayed me, faithless! Disowned me - a woman You could never marry, Whom you have tired Of long ago.
I have been faithful Only to you, My language. I choose you Before country, Before what eyes see, Mouth, full hearted, taste. I choose you before Lover and husband, Yes, if need be, Before child in arms, Before history and all It makes, belonging, Rest in the soil, Although everyone knows You are not mine. They wink knowingly At my stupidity - I, stranger, foreigner, Claiming rights to What I have no right - Sacrifice, tongue Broken by fear. Thank you.
MOYERS: There is a moment that some poems become art. What is that?
LIM: Finally, you get to words. A poem is nothing but words. But it's how words look together, how they are put in order. The classical poets, people like Dryden, would say that poetry is the best words put together in the best order. I don't think it's just that. They're the way that words work with the world around you. It's the way that words work with the environment around you. So, it's just not words, but words as you can hold them in the world. So it's not words like from a dictionary. I was telling a group of teachers that there is this new contraption called Magnetic Words that you can put on a refrigerator door. They have different words, and people have created poetry out of these words. They play with them on their refrigerator door and they create these magnet poems. And, yes, of course, you can create a poem. But it's just not an arrangement of words because a monkey, given a hundred years working on a word processing computer could come up with these incidental poems, but they have to be words that come with an intelligence, and an intelligence that is not just an intelligence of ideas and that come with a profundity, or a depth, or an intensity of emotion. And finally, if a poem does not move and does not give pleasure, then I don't think it really succeeds as art. So it must give pleasure. That's the first thing a poem must do. It must give you pleasure.
MOYERS: But so many of your poems are about - and so many of the poems we've heard -
MOYERS: Pain and grief, and-
LIM: And isn't it important for us to get pleasure in some way even in the deepest pain and grief to survive? Isn't this how we get out of it so that we don't sink and drown?
LIM: "Starlight Haven". What you need to know about this poem is the two most popular beers in Singapore are Tiger Beer and Anchor Beer. Susie Wong was at the Starlight Haven, the Good Times Bar and Sailors Home. It was always dark at noon: you had to blink three times before you could see Susie standing by the washed chutney jar half-filled with ten and twenty cent coins. When the bar was empty her eyes were sad and she'd dry a row of tall Anchor Pilsner glasses. The wet cloth slap-slapped like Susie's Japanese slippers over the dirty floor.
Then the swing-doors bang and the darkness is full of white uniforms, full of cold Tigers sweating in warm air-conditioning. I think of the flutter in Susie's pulse. Buy a drink, Tommy boy! GI Joe! Yankee Doodle! Howdy Doody! Romeo! and suddenly Johnny Mathis like black magic is crooning "Chances Are." Her girlish voice is soft and happy, soft like a tubby belly after six babies and ten years of beat-up marriage, happy as only Singapore Susie Wongs can be, when Johnny and Ray are rocking the bottles and their tops pop off and the chutney jar is singing chink, chink. The red faced brawny men are laughing at her voice. Quack, quack, they laugh so hard they spill Tigers over the plastic counter. Susie looks at the bar-man who makes his coolie eyes dumb black stones and wipes up the yellow puddles without a grunt.
Thirty years later I hear mother singing "In the sweet bye and bye." She is a Jesus woman grown up from bar-girl. Sailors and Tommies have disappeared from her Memory Lane. I still keep the bracelet mother gave me, gold saved from the beer spilled on the clean tables, her clean lap. I savor the taste of that golden promise, never to love men in white who laugh, quack, quack.