As already discussed here on La Bloga in a lovely review by Olga García Echeverría, Tía Chucha Press will publish this week a landmark poetry anthology, The Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes and Shifts of Los Angeles. I am blessed to be one of the editors of this new book along with the very talented Neelanjana Banerjee and Ruben J. Rodriguez. The Coiled Serpent includes a powerful, eloquent introduction by the press’s founder, Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis J. Rodriguez. Of course, without the vision and poetic reach of Luis, this anthology would not have been born.
Of this anthology, Ohio State Professor Frederick Luis Aldama observes: “The dexterous hands of this high-octane trio of editors pull together in one exquisite volume LA’s finest of polymorphous polyglot poetic voices. The 150-plus poets disparately drop us into the sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and touch of our planet’s capital: the megalopolis of LA with its hybrid, polylingual, and interstitial peoples. As we brush up with and enter into the lives of the young and old, workers and artists, border crossers and code-shifters…. Persians, Asians, Latinos, African Americans, and all sorts in between, great seismic quakes of creativity invite us to feel life at its most sand-dirt blasting harshness as well as its most soothing and sweet. With The Coiled Serpent we feel the cyclonic force of poetic talent at the epicenter of change in the making of tomorrow’s planetary republic of letters.”
The Coiled Serpent will have its formal release event on March 30 at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles the week of AWP’s annual conference (more on the conference below).
In honor of The Coiled Serpent’s release, I posed two questions to Neelanjana Banerjee, Ruben J. Rodriguez and Luis J. Rodriguez. Here are their responses:
Which poems particularly touched you and why?
NEELANJANA BANERJEE: There were so many poems that touched me in this anthology. As an editor, anthology work is always about the lovely surprise of discovering new writers through the submission process and the joy of curating writers that you admire. In terms of the surprise, one of my favorite poets that I discovered through the anthology process was Yago S. Cura, who writes a series of LA Country Jail Sonnets, which come from his time as a teacher there. Of the poets whose work I was already aware of, I was especially moved by Xochitl Bermejo’s work about Chavez Ravine, and also her “The Boys of Summer” which draws connections between young people globally—from LA to Palestine. And I was proud to bring writers like the amazing Douglas Kearny to the anthology, since he is one of the poets putting LA on the map as a center for creative work right now.
RUBEN J. RODRIGUEZ: Of the many poems about earthquakes that we received for this anthology, “The Valley and Family Tectonic” by Haley Laningham stands out to me as a particularly powerful one. Laningham equates tectonic shifts to familial breakdowns, such that both an earthquake and a father’s hand slamming an alarm clock can “halt the orbit of breaths through the rooms and rattle the whole home.” As a child there is no difference between the literal ruptures that occur underground and the emotional quakes that occur within—both shift one’s world. And Laningham’s piece, with a backdrop of the Northridge earthquake of ‘94, takes me back to the earth-shattering fears of childhood: of a father’s impending anger, of home’s ever-receding comfort, of two parents drifting apart. Many in L.A. share these fears—of cracks in soil as well as families—and by the end of the poem, Laningham touches upon how these fears can bring the fearful together as much as tear them apart. For that, I find Laningham’s poem to be a poignant reminder of all the various “quakes and shifts of Los Angeles”—both explicit and subdued.
Through extensive free-associative lines, from the abstract, “before no one answered the question,” to the deeply personal, “before somebody took my sister’s fa-sol-la and made it a nightmare,” Gail Wronsky’s “Dolphins are People, Too” takes the reader back through deep time with grace and beauty. Thus it lingers on my mind. It is a piece that resonates with its blunt displays of historical atrocities, accomplishments, trivialities, and platitudes, listed back-to-back as if in a rush to a punchline. By the time the punchline strikes it elicits less a chuckle than a breather, a pause to reflect on the vastness of all that came before (within the poem and without).
LUIS J. RODRIGUEZ: All the poems work in their own way. I love the ones with a twist in the verse, a word that springs out of common language, an arresting image. I don’t want to say if any are better than others, but just contemplate these lines: “You carried the night with you...,” “Her nasty field of energy was the polar opposite of the magnanimous blind teenagers. I left it alone but it reminded me that the city is also filled with sour souls. The range is infinite in the urban electromagnetic spectrum,” “Past the neon signs raw as splinters,” “All nerve, this city / ferocious, it chews / and spits out / exhales blue / smoke and steel / and I am like this city / edging toward oblivion....” “We are 99 percent in this world off-kilter / more than flies drawn to sugar / more than this constant running, / more than fears driving men to cars.” “Large tokes and small conversation,” “Dive into my bones….”
I can go on and on. Lines that wake up the sleeper, forcing synapse surges in the brain; lines that re-imagine a city block, a bleeding sunset, an earthquake morning.
This is Los Angeles, in the only way this city can speak, and also about the multitude of voices, each in their own style, with their own music, arising from their own abysses of thoughts and feelings. From William Archila’s “Three Minutes with Mingus” to Tina Yang’s “Why My Mother, the Bald-headed Nun, Rejected Me” you know you have walked into a dreamscape of concrete, palm trees, and ghetto birds. This anthology is about the L.A. that erupts forth every day, every hour, yet only striding the foam and lava stones of its settling magma. Yes, we need more poetry, more anthologies, more Los Angeles. As co-editor Ruben Rodriguez points out, there can never be enough of these.
In your estimation, what is the importance of this anthology?
NEELANJANA BANERJEE: It is interesting to be at work editing a poetry anthology in the 21st century, to think of those hours we spent reading these poems last summer, that we spent discussing them—and now, in the Spring, there is an election going on that seems deafening, which is churning so much hate and anger. Right now, The Coiled Serpent anthology seems important in relation to all that noise, in relation to the idea that possible future leaders of this country are talking about closing borders and deporting Muslims. Los Angeles itself seems important in relation to all that noise—the diversity here, this city of immigrants and visionaries and dreamers and lost dreams, and as Luis puts it, of multiple uprisings. So, to be able to put together all these voices of Los Angeles, what a salve to the violence being spewed in this election. I think a poetry anthology is important as a snapshot of people, ideas, images, thoughts, and dreams of a city’s poets, and that is what this anthology gives us at this moment.
RUBEN J. RODRIGUEZ: Because sometimes the traffic is too much to go out and we just wanna sit away from a screen—to have a book in hand that brims with a plethora of voices, that neither conforms nor necessarily comforts, that speaks of L.A. from L.A. It is necessary to anthologize the poetry of this city and to do so often. Poetry is all-access story-telling without the restrictive syntax of prose. In just a few lines a poem can incite and frustrate and inspire and illuminate—but these poems do not silence, they do not ignore. And so the more anthologies the better. There aren’t enough pages in any one book to encapsulate the richness of this city.
LUIS J. RODRIGUEZ: Los Angeles is a largely made-up city—Hollywood lights, flat-head skyscrapers, billboard limbo. More images and sounds of L.A. have entered the homes, movies houses, and psyches of most people in the world than any other city. But, what of its multi-layered stories, its ardor, its poetry? That’s why we have to fill in the many sides of the mismatched L.A. puzzle.
This is riot town after all. It’s taco trucks, Venice shore bikers, Valley strip malls, Century City towers, Bel-Air opulence, and Skid Row squalor. It’s the iconic Watts Towers, nowhere in the world is there such structures, and Mariachi Plaza. It’s San Pedro and Long Beach ports, which combined does more business than any other U.S. harbor. It’s Griffith Park Observatory and crumbling Hollywood sign; its well toned and tanned walks near rising tides and sleeping broken next to graffiti-scarred concrete river slopes; it’s murals on the walls of federal housing projects and Asian lettering on cluttered business signs. Where cars are the medium and dried out hills the landscape. It’s low riders, leather-clad bikers, skaters, surfers, Mexica dancers, Korean drummers; it’s Thai food palaces, pupusa joints, the best chili dogs in the world and, arguably, the best hamburgers (In-And-Out, anybody?).
What poems can possibly sing such a city? The Coiled Serpent is our contribution to that question. The Coiled Serpent touches the heart of all this, yet also skims the dense surfaces.
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