Friday, April 29, 2016

Art For The Public: From A Blue Horse To Yes You Can

[Click on any image for larger view.]

Bronco Buster
Denver has a long tradition of impressive public art. A popular opinion is that we love to put our art out on the streets, and the bigger the better. Horses? Even better.

Denver may no longer be a cow town but it certainly is a horse town. From early cattle drives to the National Western Stock Show to the Denver Broncos, horses apparently have played an important role in the city's history. One well-known downtown bronze statue (Civic Center Park) is the Bronco Buster, by Alexander Phimister Proctor. The piece dates from 1920 (original displayed at the Chicago Columbian Exhibition of 1893.) The model for the rider was Bill "Slim" Ridings, who was arrested for horse rustling during the modeling. Proctor bailed out his model so the work could be finished. I don't know if Slim beat the rap or ended up wearing a rope necktie.

These days, the more popular bronco statute is the giant white horse that overlooks the Denver Broncos' stadium. (The stadium apparently is going through a name change since the current sponsor recently declared bankruptcy, just like the original sponsor.  Curse of the naming rights?)

Bucky the Bronco is a 1600 pound, 27 foot giant created from a mold of that world famous cowboy movie star, TriggerRoy Rogers  himself gave permission for a mold of the horse's remains (which one could visit at the Roy Rogers - Dale Evans Museum in Branson, Missouri, before it closed.) Roy's only condition was that the Denver horse couldn't be named Trigger.  "Bucky" won a Denver Post contest. Bucky? (Some insist it's "Bucko.")

Bucky may be famous, but the great blue horse at Denver International Airport (DIA) is infamous.  People love or hate this statue - middle ground is rare.

Blue Mustang

Blue Mustang is a fine example of the work of Luis Jiménez, a Chicano artist born in El Paso. Unfortunately, Jiménez was killed in his studio in Hondo, NM, in 2006 when a large section of the statute fell on him and severed an artery in his leg.

People call the art "demon horse," cursed, and diabolical. Campaigns have been organized to remove the statue.  Not only did it kill its creator but it also cost the city $650,000, more than double the original price. On the other hand, the blue horse recently was appraised at $2 million.

Consider that the horse greets new arrivals at the airport.  Is the message too subtle?

Big Blue Bear
Denver has a thing about big blue animals.  We got a big blue bear over by the convention center. (Artist is Lawrence Argent.) Never heard it called the "demon bear" but I know I'd be a little uptight if I saw it looking in my window.

East 2 West Source Point

Still downtown, stroll past the Webb Municipal Office Building and study the work of Larry Kirkland.  The piece has a Latino flavor -- could be the profile, could be the plumb bob, a worker's tool.

Back to DIA  - there's tons of art inside the terminals, well worth the time to track down.  And if you like conspiracies, you'll love the ones that have sprung up about the airport, including two particular airport murals.

In Peace and Harmony With Nature

The Children of the World Dream of Peace and In Peace and Harmony with Nature, both of which are found near the baggage claim area, were painted by Chicano muralist Leo Tanguma.  There are several complicated theories about these works, most of which purport to explain the "evil" and "doomsday" hidden meanings of the murals. You can easily find the conspiracies on the Internet. Do a search for "DIA art conspiracy" and you'll get plenty of hits.  I won't repeat the theories here.  Much to Tanguma's credit, he hasn't become embittered because of the negative press.  Check out an interview with him at this link.

Meanwhile, in the city proper, I've got my own conspiracies to worry about.  What is the true nature of the cabal of unscrupulous developers, sketchy marijuana entrepreneurs and greedy politicians that is behind the destruction of the Denver we used to know, and the nightmare vision of the future symbolized by Lego architecture, massive traffic jams, overpriced beer, and erasures of history, culture, and art?  Or is it just progress?

For example, two murals (since at least 1980) by artist Jerry Jaramillo once graced the corner of Forty-first and Tejon:  Primavera and Mother Earth.  Only Mother Earth remains.  Primavera was destroyed in 2014 and replaced with a blank brick wall for a remodeled building that still stands empty.  I've never heard a good explanation for the destruction of the art.

Mother Earth

On the other hand,  new exciting art seems to appear overnight, often in the middle of gentrifying neighborhoods, almost as though the artists want to present counter perspectives on what's happening to the neighborhoods.  From the Art District on Santa Fe to RiNo (River North) to the light rail corridor, artists make their presence known.

At the entrance to one of Denver's remaining working class communities, Westwood, Carlos Frésquez has incorporated diverse symbols to tell the neighborhood's story, from music to a shovel to papel picado.  Carlos has shown his work around the world.  He's one of the country's major artists, and a highly influential Chicano cultural warrior.

Morrison Road

Another View of Morrison Road Sculpture

Emanuel Martinez is also world-class. He was one of the original Denver Chicano muralists and today he's busy with art projects around the country, several involving incarcerated youth.  Denver is blessed with many of his works on view in our parks, office buildings, schools, walls, etc.  At the Tenth and Osage light-rail station you can find this beautiful example of his talent.


Murals continue as a major source of public art.  The commercial explosion of the former skid row, along world-famous Larimer Street, has offered multiple opportunities for massive works of art on the walls of old buildings housing new restaurants, bars, and marijuana stores.  You can see many examples on web sites such as The Denver Public Art Collection, River North Art District, or click on "images" when you search RiNo.

I don't know the name of this piece, found in the 2500 block of Larimer, but it's by Mariano Padilla (with help from "Allison.")  You can find Padilla's work in Buenos Aires, Mexico, various U.S. cities, and right here in simmering Denver.  More examples on the artist's web site. 

Mariano Padilla
Not to be outdone, the remnants of the Northside show-off their own artistry.  Here, two examples, about a block apart and both on restaurants near Thirty-eight Avenue and Tennyson. Joaquin Gonzales is the creator of the scene at Javier's Diner, while various street artists put together the constantly changing mural at Burrito Giant.

Javier's Diner

Burrito Giant

The venerable Arts District on Santa Fe (Denver, not N.M.) also has its fair share of street art to go with the dozens of galleries along the boulevard, including the mighty Chicano Humanities and Arts Council (CHAC)News to me, there's another CHAC on Santa Fe, the Colorado Housing Assistance Corporation.  And, sure enough, it has a mural. (Artist unknown to me.)

The Other CHAC

Some artists paint their murals indoors.  Arlette Lucero painted this for the library at the Escuela de GuadalupeShe has several more examples of her excellent work on her web site. 

A quote from the artist: I love finding myself knee deep in paint, art supplies and recycled materials listening to the laughter of many children as they and I go about our business of transforming internal imagination into something to see, hold and maybe play with.

Compassionate Leaders

I'll close this quick tour with a couple of views of some rather static artistry -- but, in these cases, the message is the main thing.  Denver has a César Chávez Park, on Tennyson, not too far from Javier's Diner.  The park sits in the middle of a street that has changed from a worn-out barely-surviving strip of second-hand stores, diners, a failing bowling alley, and an empty hardware store, into a stretch of cute boutiques, expensive restaurants, craft beer joints, and a cool book/bar. Kind of like the rest of Denver.  Along one edge of the otherwise nondescript park you can find a wonderful bust of Chávez, by the aforementioned Emanuel Martinez, and concrete inscriptions of a few of the inspiring words that came out of the struggle for farmworkers' rights.  Take a look.

César Chávez

The Fight Is Never About Grapes or Lettuce.  It Is Always About People.

Si Se Puede!

I've hardly scratched the surface of examples of great Denver public art. There are hundreds, if not thousands, more.  Eye-catching images.  Groundbreaking techniques. Young artists at the beginning of their creative lives; old timers still trying to capture that perfect combination of light, color and form.  Take a walk. Look at the walls.


Manuel Ramos is the author of several novels, short stories, poems, and non-fiction books and articles.  His collection of short stories, The Skull of Pancho Villa and Other Stories, is a finalist for the 2016 Colorado Book AwardMy Bad: A Mile High Noir is scheduled for publication by Arte Público Press in September, 2016.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Chicanonautica: With Kundalini Noir to Planet Pleasure and Back

 by Ernest Hogan

When most people think of Latino or Chicano writers, they think serious social commentary, or maybe thoughtful magic realism. The sort of thing that make readers feel aware, or maybe enlightened, but not the sort of thing you can read for a long, intense blast of fun. This is not the case for Mario Acevedo, and his Felix Gomez novels. Starting with The Nymphos of Rocky Flats, and keeping up with the pulpy, B-movie style titles, they take the Chicano vampire private eye through worlds of trouble and adventure that earned the right to have National Bestselling Author on the covers. I can attest that when I worked for Borders, I saw them sell like crazy. 

So, I'm happy to announce that there's a new volume, Rescue From Planet Pleasure, and it's another wild ride through weird territory with vampires who dunk their tamales in boar's blood.
As an extra, it includes a short story, “A Rainy Night in Commerce City,” which should provide background to those who aren't familiar with the series. It's nice bit of gritty, earthbound noir with vampires.

But we're talking about a universe with kundalini noir, and Rescue From Planet Pleasure, takes you through Acevedo's brilliantly thought-out paranormal universe that is worth of the hard science fiction “nuts and bolts” school of fantasy, on an epic chase/road trip across New Mexico with a fantastic side trip to the other side of the galaxy (this universe has UFOs as well as vampires), and some alien sex that is both ingenious and mind-blowing, and will be a challenge for the special effects crew if someone tries to make it into a movie.

Yes, this is a good book for young people who don't need trigger warnings, and who find the limits of YA fiction to be cramped.

There's also ancient Chicano wisdom with appearances by Coyote, La Malinche/La Llorona, skinwalkers, and other things that you can find in wild and woolly New Mexico – I've been there a lot lately, and it can get that strange, maybe even a little stranger – Transylvania ain't got nothing on Aztlán! And the noir/realism blends into a vision of an intergalactic barrio full of cosmic dirty deals and lots of spectacular action. More than a mild-mannered “good read” – you have to hang for dear life, and it's worth it.

It's certainly not Twilight, closer to Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse series, plus there's some serious, badass Chicano in the mix. It deserves the attention of all of you out there who are hot for vampires. I know you're out there. I see the fangs gleaming in the dark.

If only I had listened to that editor that told me that sexy vampires sell . . .

Ernest Hogan is the author of High Aztech, Cortez on Jupiter, Smoking Mirror Blues, and a lot of short fiction, including “Pancho Villa's Flying Circus” that is available in both We See a Different Frontier and Lost Trails: Forgotten Tales of the Weird West, Vol.1.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Nothing Up My Sleeve

By Diana Lopez

  • Age Range: 8 - 12 years
  • Grade Level: 3 - 7
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (April 19, 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0316340871
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316340878

From beloved author Diana López comes an exciting middle grade story about three friends, a magic competition, and how far they'll go to succeed.

Sixth graders Dominic, Loop, and Z stumble upon a new magic shop in town and can't wait to spend their summer mastering cool tricks to gain access to the Vault, a key holders-only back room bound to hold all kinds of secrets. And once they get in, they set their sights even higher: a huge competition at the end of the summer. They work on their card tricks, sleights, and vanishing acts, trying to come up with the most awesome routines possible....Problem is, the trip is expensive, and it's money that each guy's family just doesn't have.

To make things worse, the shop-owners' daughter, Ariel (who just so happens to be last year's competition winner), will do anything to make sure the boys don't come out on top. Even pit them against one another. Will they make it to the competition? And if so, at what cost?

Diana López, author of Confetti Girl and Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel, offers a story that's just the right mix of heart, high jinks, and a bit of magic.

* * * 

Diana Lopez is the author of the novels Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel, Choke, and Confetti Girl, which won the 2012 William Allen White Award. She is the editor of the journal Huizache and the managing director of Centro Victoria, an organization devoted to promoting Mexican American literature. She lives in South Texas and teaches at the University of Houston-Victoria.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Hey folks - 

This Saturday we're presenting the latest volume of stories to come out of my workshop, Tell Your True Tale. At East LA Public Library, 3pm.
Again, just amazing stories (always stunned by how cool the pieces are)....
One of them is by Peggy Adams. Read her "Finding Jerry," about the day her brother and sister died in the river near their home in rural Alabama.
Stories from the South, from ELA, from Michoacan, Cuba and more - All in one terrific volume of stories by new Southland writers.
Don't be missing this, folks!

Review: Nightmare Parenting in Mexican Satire. AWP-LA III. Americo Paredes Conference. The Gluten-free Chicano Discovers. Classic Slam!

Review: The Body Where I was Born.

Michael Sedano

Guadalupe Nettel. Translated from the Spanish by J.T. Lichtenstein. The Body Where I was Born. NY: Seven Stories Press, 2015. ISBN:

At seven years old, it’s as if the little girl has already come of age, and as she grows into her thirteenth year, it’s a wonder the adult woman narrating the story isn’t worse off from the wear and tear that little girl undergoes at the hands of a wildly erratic mother, an old-fashioned grandmother, a mysteriously vanished father.

Guadalupe Nettel keeps her reader spellbound at the narrator’s remarkable resilience and the blatant stupidity of the adult world she has to fit into. The child moves around at the edges of normalcy, in her neighborhood, in schools, in family life from Mexico City to a commune in the countryside to Aix in France. Just when she seems to find stasis something or someone blindsides her, kicks her footing out from under her and she spins off into a new, for her, normalcy.

Normal is a difficult concept. The Mexico and Mexicans of J.T. Lichtenstein’s translation of Guadalupe Nettel’s novel—taking the publisher at its word this is a novel not a hellish autobiography—are not los de abajo but seriously upper class hippies who can take an afflicted daughter to Barcelona, New York, Boston, San Diego seeking a cure for the child’s congenital cataract.

Mexico in the 1970s has not yet become the hell-hole of kidnapping and random murder that dominates today’s news reports. That Mexico looms at the outskirts of consciousness, and usefully the novel skirts around politics in favor of depicting the parents’ nihilist pursuit of pleasure in a case study of extreme illogic and selfishness.

The girl doesn’t have a name. In fact, the first time we hear her mother call her anything it’s a viciously endearing nickname. Owing to her vision, the child bends close to peer at objects. Her posture becomes another therapeutic issue and elicits unconsciously casual cruelty from a loving parent:

My habit looked so much to her like curling into a shell that she came up with a nickname, a term of endearment, which she claimed perfectly matched my way of walking.
“Cucaracha!” she yelled every two to three hours. “Stand up straight!” Or, “Cucaracha, it’s time for your atropine drops!” (p.11)

The narrator asks her analyst if it’s possible any human being could emerge from that environment unharmed?

Child abuse is not funny, and this possibility could put a damper on the comedy Nettel extracts from her character’s experience. But comedy—or satire—is where the novel shines, not as elegant tragedy but as a pinnacle of noir fiction.

The title comes from the final stanza of Allen Ginsburg’s “Song.” The poem is worth a reading in its entirety for the light it casts on the raison d’être of this novel. Given the awful events and circumstances of the girl’s upbringing, the narrative could be taken as blood-curdling tragedy. Instead, given the beat milieu of the poem and its status as precursor to the hippie life the child was put through, The Body Where I was Born reads as archly comic, its plot of events not so much relived as crafted for hair-raising comedic effect by a classic unreliable narrator.

Given where the novel might have taken the reader, the girl’s progressive degradations and lifetime of contradictions sneak up on the reader. Readers will have an “aha!” moment when they recognize in Cucaracha elements of the eiron, the hero of satire. No, child abuse isn’t funny, but that’s all grist for Cucaracha’s story-telling prowess.

AWP III: Poetry of Resistance Anthology at Avenue 50 Studio

Among the highlights of the recently concluded Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in the caverns of the Los Angeles Convention Center were the off-site events in the intimate settings of local hotels, cantinas, and galleries.

Since 2010, La Bloga has happily shared column space regularly with the Facebook poetry community Poets Responding to SB 1070: Poetry of Resistance. The outpouring of work from the community, started by Francisco X.Alarcón QEPD, and supported by a team of Moderators, has been magnificent. So much so that Francisco and Odilia Galván Rodríguez compiled a powerful anthology of work from poems that La Bloga published in our La Bloga On-line Floricanto.

Poetry of Resistance. Voices for Social Justice, published by University of Arizona Press, stands as a final labor of Francisco X. Alarcón’s love of life, poetry, and people.
The first copy of the publication reached Francisco’s side just as his spirit was transitioning to the other side. His hands did not get the pleasure of holding the finished product, but his energy felt its presence, just as the packed house at Avenue 50 Studio shared the pleasure of hearing a number of the poets read their work during one of those AWP off-site events.

Fatigue numbers among the topmost elements of the AWP experience. The AWP-LA experience featured an early morning subway ride and short walk to the centro, then a full day’s traipsing about from the distant hotel panels through the warren of trade show aisles, then upstairs to the remote reaches of panel presentations. The train ride home offered a respite for weary feet. Once home, a quick nap became a long nap. As a result, I reached Avenue 50 Studio after La Pachanga was well underway. Drat! I missed some outstanding readers.

Fortunately, John Martinez’ generosity produced a video archive of La Pachanga-Poetry of Resistance readings. The wonderful videos are available via Martinez’ Facebook videos collection at the link below.

John Martinez’ videos:

La Bloga columnist Melinda Palacio, Poets Responding Moderators and La Bloga friends, among others, are in Martinez' archive. If the video Facebook status is not public, one may be out of luck, or need to Friend John Martinez, or find the videos by searching Facebook.

Upper left, clockwise: Concepcíon Valadez reads her son Cesar Love's poem. Claudia D. Hernández.
Andrea Mauk. Nancy Aidé González.

Odilia Galván Rodríguez

Andrea Mauk

Nancy Aidé Gonzalez

Sharon Elliott

Clockwise from upper left: Melinda Palacio. Edward A. Vidaurre. Matt Sedillo.  Odilia Galván Rodríguez.

Melinda Palacio

Claudia D. Hernández

Iris de Anda- To Be A Pocha Or Not To Be

Sexto de Mayo (el 7 de Mayo, too): Conference on Américo Paredes on Tap for LA State

Chicano and Mexicano Literature's hardest-working conference impresario, Dr. Roberto Cantu, has planned another important junta for raza scholarship, the 2016 Conference On Américo Paredes: Border Narratives and the Folklore of Greater Mexico.

Sponsored by Cal State L.A.'s Office of the President, the Gigi Gaucher-Morales Memorial Conference Series, the College of Arts and Letters, the College of Natural and Social Sciences, the Department of Chicano Studies, the Department of English, and the Emeriti Association, in conjunction with the University of California, Santa Barbara, the University of Texas at Austin, and the Américo Paredes Center for Cultural Studies at UT-Austin, the conference is open to the public and, except for paying a fee to park, is free.

Cal State University LA is the eastside university in El Sereno, not the one on the westside that is inaccessible except via automobile. CSULA is a short hop by bus from Union Station, the downtown terminus of LA's burgeoning subway and light rail system.

Click here for details and the conference program:

The Gluten-free Chicano’s Palm Springs Discovery

Travel poses a constant hassle for the gluten-free. Unfamiliar restaurants staffed by ill-trained waitstaff mean risk with a threat of a gluten attack. That’s why The Gluten-free Chicano’s Autumnal Equinox visit to Palm Springs was such a delight. Giuseppe’s Pizza makes one of the world’s two most delicious gluten-free pizzas, plus delightfully tasty pasta dishes.

For his Spring visit to Palm Springs, The Gluten-free Chicano dined again at Giuseppe’s then made a fabulous discovery. In the same mall, the Smoke Tree Village Shopping Center, Pho533 features not only naturally gluten-free Pho, but a menu offering a rich variety of dishes using Tamari soy sauce, and corn flour, where dangerous places use wheat.

The lobster “popcorn” appetizer comes to table amply filling its glass vessel and toothsomely crunchy from a dusting of corn flour then flash fried. There’s a calamari appetizer for his next visit.

While the Gluten-free Chicano prefers a more savory beef broth to the on-the-sweet-side broth served at Pho533, Mrs. The Gluten-free Chicano had no complaints about her Ginger Soy Marinated Chicken with Jasmine Rice. Ordinarily, gluten-free dishes give her asco. And, the dish being gluten-free, The Gluten-free Chicano was pleased to share a taste of the gourmet chicken dish, and placed it on his “next-time” list.

Pho533 offers unassuming dining ambience, superbly friendly service and staff, and excellent affordability. As always, gluten-free diners need to exercise caution. In addition to gluten-free Rooster brand Sriracha, the restaurant serves a wheat-based Hoisin sauce that must be avoided.

Classic Slam This Weekend in El Lay!

One of United States poetry's finest events comes to Los Angeles' Orpheum Theatre this Saturday, and to the Los Angeles Theater Center on Thursday and Friday: Classic Slam.

High School students challenge themselves to learn a classic poem, analyze it, then compose their own reaction poem. The students read the paired work in a contest pitting dozens of readers in preliminary rounds. Judges apply a rubric of issues and advance selected reader poets to the contest finals.

The event sizzles with high-octane poetic energy. Often standing room only, visitors should arrive early to ensure a seat off the floor. Not that it matters because some of the presenters will floor you with their power and creativity. A thing of beauty is a joy forever, and Classic Slam will forever thrill you.

From the organization website:

300 Poets. 50 Schools. 1 Champion.
The Classic Slam is the largest youth classic poetry festival in the world, where high school students from schools throughout Southern California face off to "slam" classic poems by poets like Neruda, Lorca, Hughes, Dickinson, Angelou, etc. in combination with their own spoken word responses. The Classic Slam occurs every year during National Poetry Month for audiences of thousands. 

Scholarships will be awarded to winning teams and bouts will be judged by leading writers, actors, and artists. This year's judges include Sundance actor/director Nate Parker, award-winning poet & journalist Patricia Smith, head of arts for LAUSD Rory Pullens, acclaimed poet Andrea Gibson, and actress/producer Jessica Oyelowo.

General Admission to the event is free.  Suggested donation at the door: $15 for adults and $5 for youth under 18.

Celebrate Get Lit's 10-year anniversary, and join the #LiteraryRiot! 

Monday, April 25, 2016

On Being a Proud Papa

Ben (left) and Amos after the first
leg of last Saturday's practice ride.

It might sound trite to repeat that oft-uttered sentiment that being a parent is the hardest job one can have. Ni modo. I’m saying it again. The difficulty may stem from many sources and may begin early: a difficult conception and pregnancy; your infant’s (or infants’) health issues that can run the gamut from life-threatening to relatively minor; your lack of sleep; juggling employment with parenthood, etc.

And as they grow older, other worries kick in: searching for daycare; finding a good preschool; letting go slowly but surely; a shrinking bank account.

And then helping (just enough) with homework; teaching your child how to be a good person while navigating a sometimes hateful world; puberty (!); driving; dating; high school; college search...

Sometimes horrible, evil things invade your child’s life: hate crimes; bullying; temptations to “experiment” with drugs and alcohol; dangerous adults.

But there are joyous moments, of course, those times when you can say that it was all worth it, that you’ve survived, that you are a proud parent.

I can say that my wife and I recently puffed out our chests with pride when our son, Ben, decided to participate in this year’s AIDS/LifeCycle along with his partner, Amos. This year, from June 5 to June 11, Ben and Amos will be joining over 3,000 Cyclists, Roadies and Virtual Cyclists in this 545-mile bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles to help raise funds for the life-saving services offered by the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

If you want to show support for my son and this great cause, visit this page to make a pledge.

As Ben notes on his AIDS/LifeCycle page, “I have watched people die from this disease. I have watched friends, younger than I am, react to the diagnosis of having AIDS. Though modern medicine has changed the ‘look’ of the disease, it is no less devastating to live with it. Someone in their 20's should be thinking about grad school and jobs, not what their T cell count is. Someone in their 30's should be planning their lives, not burying their partner. And yet HIV and AIDS is still a reality for so many.”

So, you see, while being a parent is the hardest job in the world, it can be worth it when you see your child do good works. This is how I am feeling today. I am, without a doubt, a proud papa.

* * *

Tongue & Groove presents:
2016 PEN/USA Emerging Voices Fellows
Saturday April 30
6:00 to 7:30 p.m.
The Hotel Café
For details, visit here.
* * *

10899 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90024
Poetry Reading:
Eduardo Corral
Thursday, April 28, 2016, at 7:30 p.m.

(Coffee & Cookies Served)

"This is Technicolor poetry," writes Ray Olson of Eduardo Corral's Slow Lightning, in which he "mixes colloquial Spanish and English, and he packs many, many lines with sharp, sensual, specific imagery.” Such linguistic originality garnered a Yale Series of Younger Poets award for Corral, making him the first Latino poet to win the competition.

Admission to the event is free. Please arrive early. This series is curated by Stephen Yenser, Distinguished Professor of English at UCLA, and dedicated to the memory of Doris Curran. This event is co-sponsored by the following organizations at UCLA: the Chicano Studies Research Center, the Department of Chicano and Chicana Studies, LGBTS, the Department of Comparative Literature, and the Deans of Social Science and the Humanities.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

All That and a Bag of Poetry: Creative Writing with 5th Graders at Gulf Elementary

Olga García Echeverría


When we say poetry, it is really the vision for all voices. That's really what it means. People ask me, What is poetry, Juan Felipe? I say, It is freedom. That's what it is. That's what everybody has, and when you use your own voice, your own personal voice, freely, the real you, then we're all united.
--Juan Felipe Herrera
From the 21st U.S. Poet Laureate Inaugural Reading
Once a week, I venture south on the 110 towards San Pedro. My destination: Gulf Elementary School in Wilmington, California. My mission: creative writing workshops with 5th graders.
On the days I visit the 5th graders, I rise before the roosters crow. I sip on strong coffee in the shifting morning light. I pack energy snacks and a hearty lunch. It's an hour-plus drive from my home to Wilmington. On some parts of the commute, traffic clears and I fly. On others, the highway's arteries are clogged. I nudge forward like a slug, past downtown, the 10, the 105, the 405.
I know my exit is approaching when I spot the billowing white smoke of the oil refineries, a Wilmington trademark. These industrial chimneys coughing up smolder and fumes are hard on the eyes and lungs, but lately I've begun to envision the large pipes painted in rainbow colors, puffing out fat cumulus clouds. Soon it will rain poetry, I think. And as soon as I park my car and enter Gulf Elementary School, it does.
“Ms. Olga! Ms. Olga!” a preadolescent voice yells.
When I turn, a group of kids with wide sonrisas are waving their arms up into the sky as if they're flagging down airplanes. In an instant, this boisterous morning saludo shakes off the lethargy of post-traffic-trauma that has settled on my body like a heavy winter coat. I feel lighter—dare I say younger?--via these kids' enthusiasm. I wave back as if I were disco dancing. It's gonna be another great day in Wilmington, y'all.
During the next 5 hours, I'll meet with about 120 of these loud little people who smile a lot and ask such interesting off-topic questions...
“Is it true that if I drink coffee, I won't grow?”
“Can you please bring us a Chinese calendar next week?”
"What's your favorite taco?
“Do you believe in purple llamas?”
These are the brown, bilingual children of Wilmington, lovers of pizza, Cheetos, donuts, and tacos. They talk a lot and make their way through the day with a glazed look of wonder in their eyes. Do I believe in purple llamas? This could very well be my long-lost tribe.

I meet with five different classes during my visits at Gulf Elementary. I have about an hour with each group. 5th grade time, though, is a vortex. It's a location, a colorful crowded room full of desks, chairs, books, posters, activities, and awesome teachers who master Silence Signals. The teachers I work with orchestrate silence with a hand, a countdown, a clap, a stare. I watch in awe. Without a Silence Signal in the 5th grade, I have learned, you have to project your voice like a football coach or an opera singer. Without a Silence Signal your words may get drowned out by the beautiful buzzing of bees. To be honest, I am a sucker for noisy classrooms. Art, after all, rattles and strums and stomps and sings. In my college classes, I pull teeth to get students to share opinions and interact; here with the 5th graders, the rambunctious classes are, in my opinion, signs of success.  (All this to say that I have not mastered the Silence Signal).
When you're on 5th grade time, the minutes fly by faster than hummingbirds. “Less Is More” rings true week after week. The writing exercises need to be short, focused, and fun. If you loose them and they start to wander like a disoriented flock, good luck. I aim to keep the 5th graders engaged, all of us moving forward together as we graze on leaves of grass, poetry.
We practice Six Word Memoirs, sensory description, similes, metaphors, haiku, acrostic poems. We read and discuss Sandra Cisneros' “My Name” and then ponder why our parents named us what they did. What were they thinking? Are you named after someone? Whose name did you inherit? If your name were a color, what color would it be? If you could rename yourself for fun, what new names would you choose for yourself and why? Every week, we attempt to do as Juan Felipe Herrera's poem instructs, “Let Us Gather in a Flourishing Way...” We gather, we read, we play, we write, we blossom, we flourish.  
Along the way, even when one is flourishing, there are inevitable poetic mishaps. Some of the kids write memoirs with 5 or 7 words instead of 6. Syllable get miscounted. Line breaks and margins collapse and poems landslide off the page onto the desks. Someone's assignments disappear. Words are misspelled in both English and Spanish. Kids go overboard with the glitter glue. Students steal each others' lines and arguments ensue, “Hey! I said that first!” One student, ecstatic at having successfully completed her first haiku, yells out, “I wrote a jacuzzi!”
And yet, all of these things are part of the journey. Imagine what would happen to the creative spirit if we kept interrupting it (silencing it) with corrections? Three of our essential rules at Gulf Elementary yourself, be creative, and have fun! There are other rules, of course, but these are the essential ones.
Last week, I invited poet and teacher A.K. Toney to join and guide us in the making of poetry books out of paper lunch bags. Ever since I learned the art of making paper bag books from A.K. back in 2014, I've been a paper bag convert and worshiper. (You can read a previous blog on A.K. and his poetry books at
Much can be said about the day A.K. visited us at Gulf Elementary. The kids absolutely loved his charisma, humor, and 5th grade charm. We participated in call-and-response chants about honoring our words and the trees we write on. We broke up each class into two large groups. I took one side of the class, A.K. the other. Like the poets that we are, we went with the flow and handled paper bag emergencies and glitter glue catastrophes with calm. At times we needed a bullhorn to be heard, but it was exhilarating watching a room full of eager hands folding, cutting, pasting, creating.
After the last class left and we finished cleaning and packing up all our supplies, we laughed at the intensity of it all. It was a day full of mini-tornados and electrical currents. Whirlwind and lightning. I laid down on the floor for a few minutes to catch my breath and center myself. A.K. lifted his arms towards the ceiling, stretching. Yes, the 5th graders worked us to the bone. Yes, it was beyond WILD. But this is part of the gathering and the flourishing; this is what poetry-book-making in the hands of 5th graders looks like.

Poetry classes at Gulf Elementary are made possible by Amy Eriksen and Angels Gate Cultural Center, LAUSD, Principal David Kooper, Gulf staff, the awesome 5th grade teachers (Ms. Peralta, Ms. Uchida-Smith, Ms. Solache, Ms. Reiland, and Ms. French) and, of course, all the children who show up, open themselves up to poetry, and participate weekly.