In the Postmodern era, cities are defined by traffic, endless sprawl, and overlapping and intersecting cultures. International cities like London, Madrid, New York, and Los Angeles especially display these qualities. Many 21st century poets create verse that matches the frenetic pace and cultural diversity of our era. This week L.A. Letters spotlights two poets, who both in their own way create ultramodern poetry of collision that inevitably answers metaphysical questions as it unfolds and unravels.
Long-lauded in the Spanish-speaking world as the foremost Cuban poet of his generation, Jose Kozer was born in Havana, Cuba in 1940, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Czechoslovakia. In 1960 Kozer moved to New York City, where he eventually taught at Queens College until he retired in 1997. Author of 52 books of poetry and prose, Kozer is the first living poet of the Cuban diaspora to have a book published in Cuba after the rise of Castro and the revolution.
Along with seminal Cuban poet Jose Lezama Lima, Kozer is associated with the "Neobarroco Movement." These writers are known for "a poetry marked by complex collisions between perspectives, language registers and layers of experience." As noted in the introduction above, this type of poetry matches the pace of our times. Thus it's no surprise that Kozer's poems are difficult, and many have a very riddle-like quality. The more you read them, though, the perspectives become clearer and his frenetic pace gets easier to decipher.
Kozer's latest book, "Anima," published by the British imprint Shearsman Books, is a cycle of 60 poems. His prologue explains his rationale: "A sixty-year old man writes a poem and entitles it 'Anima.' Days later he writes another poem with a tone similar to the first, entitles it 'Anima', then realizes he has just begun a series in which all must bear the same title." Kozer continued to write Anima poems until he had more than he knew what to do with. The book culls 60 poems from his original 150 plus pieces. Kozer writes in Spanish; the book is printed in both with Spanish on the left page and English on the right. Translations are done by Peter Boyle.
Similar to other respected cycles of poems, like Ezra Pound's "Cantos," or William Blake's "Songs of Innocence" and "Songs of Experience," these poems possess organic unity and speak to each other between threads and phrases. Kozer plays with the signifier. Line by line the tone switches from cynical, sweet, sarcastic, irreverent, meditative, musical, and provocative. Kozer returns to Cuba and his childhood many times throughout the book. These poems, as described in the book's prologue, "are a register, perhaps a last will and testament."
His aesthetic disregards direct narrative and chronology in a similar manner to Surrealist and Language poets. Instead he takes a topic and riffs on it every which way he can. He uses ample wordplay and paronomasia. He circles around his topic, and sometimes returns to his starting point. Consider these three lines:
Beyond the threshold I entered a street of sand, the Milky Way,
Midday the mirage
Of a single star.
Kozer is making a rare Los Angeles appearance in November: at Cal State L.A. on the 12th, 4:20 p.m., and at the Last Bookstore on the 13th, 7:30 p.m. Presented by Professors Pablo Baler and Andrew Knighton, Kozer is a guest of both Cal State L.A.'s Modern Language and English Departments. His visit is highly anticipated; in addition to being one of the world's foremost Spanish-speaking poets, his achievement as the first Cuban-born expatriate to have a book published in Cuba during the Castro era secures his legendary status.
Furthermore, Kozer's position as an East Coast poet prominent in both the U.S. and the Spanish-speaking world make him one of the foremost international poets. His versatility and unique history make him a writer that defies convention and traditional boundaries. Kozer is one the few truly Transnational poets writing today.
"The Boss" by Victoria Chang is McSweeney's latest poetry collection. This cycle of poems is similar to Kozer's "Anima," in that each poem sustains a meditative sequence. The 45 poems in "The Boss" circle around power structures in the workplace as well as the home environment. The Chinese-American Chang meditates on her own role as both a daughter and mother. She addresses her immigrant father, his expectations, and her own perspective on aging and navigating the corporate world.
There's a degree of formalism in her poems, and each piece is delineated in four line stanzas. Chang shuns punctuation; instead she crafts stanzas where the ambiguity creates multiple meanings and a very musical quality. These four lines from "The Boss Rises" demonstrate her poetic agility:
The boss rises up the boss keeps her job
the boss is safe the workers are not
the boss smiles the boss files the boss
throws pennies at the workers
The titles of her poems are insightful: "The boss is not poetic," "The boss has a father," "The boss is back," "The boss has grey hair," "The boss looks over us," and "My father used to be a boss." Anyone that has ever worked in a corporate environment, like a financial firm or advertising agency, will find several instances of insightful humor. Chang's biography reports that she works in business, and the specifics embedded in these poems corroborates her experience. Overall, though, the poems are not so much about the corporate world as they are about how individuals negotiate power and ambition in contemporary culture.
Titling the book "The Boss" is not only a great rhetorical tactic; it creates an ideal extended metaphor for her lyrical cycle of poems. Chang's poetry is a poetry of collision, in that she examines a slew of conflicting topics as they collide with the boss. She not only explores her role as a Chinese-American woman in the working world, she turns her lens on the power structure and the influence of her family history.
There are many stanzas that reach sublime levels. Similar to Kozer, Chang uses lots of wordplay and plays with the signifier. The "Boss" in her collection makes the perfect straw man to address. These poems take the mundane day to day experiences and turn them into musical reflections. Chang's poetic craft is well honed and it shows in these poems. Here's the opening stanza to "I Once had a Good Boss":
I once had a good boss a National Guard kind of boss
soft as a flag tough as a pole I once had a
good boss a god boss who played me like
a good bass plucked all my strings now
McSweeney's is celebrating their 15th Anniversary this year. Chang's book is the fifth book of their poetry series. They also recently released another new poetry title, "X," by Dan Chelotti. Since Dave Eggers started McSweeney's in San Francisco back in 1998, they have been on the cutting edge of the publishing industry. Right out of the gate they established their trailblazing status. Beginning first with their literary journal, and then eventual fiction titles, they have steadily pushed the envelope with both their literary content and design aesthetic. Victoria Chang's clever poems fit perfectly within this framework.
Much has been made about the speed and fragmented nature of the Postmodern era. These two poets write verse with the velocity to match contemporary culture. Jose Kozer bridges North American and Latin American worlds, and Victoria Chang connects the dots between womanhood, ethnic identity, the corporate world, and the interpersonal realm. Both manage to address very personal issues while creating poems that sing to a universal audience. Through their respective poetries of collision, many disparate elements are reconciled. Both works produce a satisfying reading experience and their own redemption. Salute to Jose Kozer and Victoria Chang, both are bright beacons in the landscape of international and L.A. Letters.
Top: Victoria Chang at the Kansas City Public Library, October, 2008. Photo: Kansas City Public Library