Monthly Archives: February 2015

Take a Giant Step

Photograph by Jose Padua
All the out of business auto body shops
on this slow highway, all the abandoned
buildings with peeling paint, the vacant
lots overgrown with junk trees and weeds
bounded by chain link fences, all the things
we could never fix and threw away, all
the insane metaphors for living, the fake
equation of ideas, the pretty words that
soar today in a shallow heart as wisdom
before giving way to tomorrow’s clever
observation, commandment, or list
of the neglected and overrated, and all
the shut ups and neverminds we breed
with our lips because we have never been
upon the verge of either idiocy or genius.
This is not where you belong, alone in this
tiny town without mending, this is not
the long endless line that waits for an exit
out of city sleep, this is not the thick
wall you can’t hear through. So go,
like everything that has decayed
before us, everything that has shattered
so beautifully, go into that street like
a man crashing a parade with smelly
clothes and dirty skin, go into that building
that’s on fire because the sky is full
of smoke and you’re thinking about a river.

-Jose Padua

This is a revised version of a poem that was originally published on Split This Rock’s blog. I took the photograph of the Front Royal Kmart, which shut down at the beginning of the year, earlier this week.

I Feel for You

Photograph by Jose Padua
The sound kept me warm those winter
evenings walking down Broadway
after work, when I had work, with
work and wind stinging my face.
Chaka Khan singing Prince, singing
this song, in the lights. Chaka Khan,
I didn’t care even when the people
were cold, are cold, on a show business
kind of old show tune kind of high
that I never felt. My high was different.
I could breath through New York ice.
I could walk over puddles without
getting wet, swing my arms wildly
like a tourist from out of town and
never feel I wasn’t cool. I wasn’t.
The lead singers in up and coming
bands never spoke to me. The
actresses in my friend’s movie
never looked at me. But when I
finally spoke I could get them
to laugh. Maybe even cheer, at
one place, but I think these people
knew me. Maybe they were the ones
getting paid, not me. All my years
there I never ate a single salad. It
was fried chicken and fried rice. Hole
in the wall falafel. Because above
all I wanted it fried. I wanted
these streets fried, and the women’s
faces, so dark, so pale, so brown,
so beautiful they must have been
fed fried food all their lives. And
my heart, like a camera, taking
pictures developed by my blood,
sent to my brain, that I showed to
strangers on the corner of Avenue B
and Third, that space I called home.
Harvey Keitel, Rockets Redglare, Quentin
Crisp, Rick Aviles, Christopher Reeve—
so many of the famous New Yorkers
I saw on the street there are dead
now, except for Harvey, and the
women, who would have thunk? And
who understands how the world works,
and why it hasn’t broken down by now?
And how we walk like angels, sometimes.
On those days when we’d gladly give
all our money, or crawl how many miles,
five hundred? No, just five. To avoid being
inside, on the downtown F train back downtown
in glorious, I-am-a-star, I-am-a-worker, I am
an insignificant dot on the blue-green
globe of the Earth, in lower Manhattan,
Chaka Khan, Chaka Khan, Chaka Khan.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

The Night Jimi Hendrix Died

Photograph by Jose Padua
The night Jimi Hendrix died I was
unacquainted with the process
of integrating chords and leads,
or with the evolution from mannerism
to baroque and then late baroque style.
I was born in a hospital that
was torn down before the dawning
of the age of Aquarius, before
there was even a song about it
and the word psychedelic got
dated and trite and we no longer
felt as far out as we used to.
When I was young I worshipped
the god of disruptive mood swings,
silently staring at my homework
before screaming because nobody
told me not to; now I listen to my
inner child-like voices whenever
I feel the need to feel free. There’s
always a first time for everything,
and the first time I went to New York
City I was a child and when I saw
the trash blowing over the sidewalks
and onto the streets, the business cards,
candy wrappers, bread crumbs, and
other discarded bits of food I was
impressed the way only a child
can be impressed by what looks
like chaos and disorder but is
really nothing more than
a brief change in the weather.
And now that I am no longer
a child, I look upon the vanishing
of years, the disappearance of all
the motions I remember making,
and those nights when what is immobile
seems to move about in the dark to
reflect the slightest glow of moonlight.
And the greatest blessing bestowed
upon us is aging’s wisdom—
shades of faces, shadows of trees
and mountains; endless miles and miles
of rolling ocean and curving road.
These and whatever moments can be
called climatic or even divine
become even more so when
we realize they can be so easily
lost or forgotten. Those moments
so wearying and lovely when it feels
like the air may be drawing out
from your lungs and never coming
back; that breathless purple instant
when you smile one more time
before all the images in your mind
collapse, leaving just flat space
and the slight, subtle aroma of mint.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

The Dawning of the Age of Enlightenment

Photograph by Jose Padua
Whenever I hear that
at pre-school my
three and a half-year
old son refused
to do what the other
kids were doing
and got mad when
the teachers tried
to get him to
do it I am
reminded that doing
what everyone else
is doing has
never been my
ambition or aspiration
and that if
in the future my
son ever disobeys
an order or walks
away from the gathering
crowd it just
means that he’s
learned to
apply logic to
the situation.

-Jose Padua

Late 1950s Science Fiction and the Making and Breaking of Empires

Photograph by Jose Padua
Looking at the pile of snow in the parking lot at the Martin’s supermarket one night, I was reminded of the 1958 film, The Blob. Starring Steve McQueen (in his big screen debut) and Aneta Corsaut (who would later become famous for playing Helen Crump on The Andy Griffith Show), The Blob features a fist-sized living lump that arrives from outer space then grows and grows and grows. Special effects not being what they are today, the living blob didn’t look all that different from this pile of snow.

It was around seven in the evening, and inside the supermarket was the emptiest I’d ever seen it since we’ve been here. Because of this, it was the most relaxing trip to the store I’ve ever had in this town. It would have been perfect for one of those occasions when I had a long list of groceries to buy, but last night all I needed was bread and milk.

When I went back out, I looked at the blob of snow again. I stood there in the parking lot, next to my car, and I looked at it for what felt like a long time. Soon, a feeling of peace came over me—or at least that’s what I thought it was at first. But then I recognized what it was, and what I realized was that it was exactly the sort of feeling I get when a movie is over.

But not a movie like The Blob, because I felt just the way I would had I just watched a movie I love, like Wim Wenders’s Kings of the Road or Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels. And standing there by the pile of snow, I found myself lost in one of those moments where I get a sense of all the places I’ve been and the slow passage of time, and not just the time I’ve lived through.

I know that for some people history is a series of wars and battles that to them are the hallmark of man’s determination and glory. For some people, all they can think about is war, as if war itself is the purpose of everything and the reason for our existence. And where some see the clashing of armies and the devising of strategies and the beginnings and endings of empires, I see the movement of millions of points of consciousness, too many of which have strayed so far from that moment of birth that the only things they see beauty in are acts of destruction.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua


Photograph by Jose Padua
“I have a wee-wee,”
my daughter would
say when she was
two and then she’d
look at me and say
“you have a wagina.”
She knew it wasn’t
true, but she had
just discovered
either the joy of
reshaping the world
or of emasculation.
I’m not sure which.

-Jose Padua

This Must Be the Place

Photograph by Jose Padua

Tonight I let out a Tourette’s grunt just as Heather was trying to record a greeting for the voicemail on her new phone. When she played it back, the first thing you heard was me in the background—my voice deep and coming up from my gut—going, “HUNNNGGGGGAAGGGGGHHH!” Following my vocal tic was the sound of Heather’s voice saying, “This is Heather. I can’t answer your call right now…”

Heather’s new voicemail greeting, I thought, sounded beautiful. In fact, we all loved it—Heather, Maggie, and I (and, if he had been listening at the moment, I’m sure Julien would have loved it too). It was like Heather and I had inadvertently collaborated on some sort of combination sound poem/found poem. We laughed at its absurd grace. We were in awe of how it seemed to get to the heart of everything.

Maggie and I each told Heather she should use it as is for her voicemail greeting. But, since she gets a lot of calls from her office on her cell phone, we agreed that it might be better for her to re-record it—without my part. There isn’t much room in the professional world for odd, grunting noises. Or for sound poems or found poems, for that matter. People would be asking for an explanation, saying, “What was that?” And “Are you OK?”

Or, they might not say anything, but think us odd, weird, or perhaps even scary. Which was fine, but we have to make money, and so often money looks down on what is odd, sneers at anything it deems weird, and steers completely away from anything it thinks is scary.

This is why, at home, we are artists, driving away the money we make at our day jobs. Driving it away except for that little bit that’s fine with our being odd, the leftover cash that pays for the weird things we love, and that tiny fraction that doesn’t fall from our hands because it’s scared. This is where we live the best part of our sometimes hard, sometimes just sort-of-hard, and always peculiar lives.

This is, indeed, the place.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Travelling Men

When we were seven or eight my neighbor would sometimes
run around behind his house with no pants, laughing his child’s

laugh. Sometimes we’d see him with a glass and we’d ask him
what he was drinking and he’d say sharply “whiskey” not with

pride or to surprise but just because that’s the way it was. He
never went to jail like his brothers and we were never scared

to have them living next to us, even when his brothers were
stealing or robbing people with guns. I was not a pervert like

him when I was young, I didn’t drink like him when I was young,
and my brothers never went to jail like his when I was young

but he was my neighbor which meant that he was one of us
and I was one of his, and the door to his house opened and closed

as ours opened and closed. He grew up and worked cleaning
the floors at bars I sometimes went to for fun, doing the hard work

I didn’t have to do and couldn’t have done. Clarity for me were
those moments of revelation, clarity for him were those moments

of stillness when there was nothing left that someone needed him
to get done, when the noise had stopped and the lights went on

and the air was like whiskey and wine and time was like a coin
that had dropped through a hole in outer space. We were different.

When I see him for the first time in ten years with my wife and
daughter he’s sitting on a bench staring into space. He’s still mopping

floors, he says, and he talks and he talks, about how he’s getting married
as soon as his girlfriend gets out of jail, and he lives in another part of town

now because he can’t afford to live where we grew up together and when
he tells my daughter that he’s like a brother to me I can’t say that it isn’t

true, because although we didn’t hang out together and you could only
measure our closeness with units of measure or measure how perfectly

we fit into our separate spaces, we somehow are destined to journey back
to these same places. I could say that it easily could have been me mopping

floors but it wouldn’t have been easy—the odds were against him even more
than they were against me and anyone with a brain can see that and anyone

with a heart would know that, but sometimes there’s no heart, no organ
pumping blood and wisdom, just machines of great efficiency pumping

noise through our veins until there’s nothing left to do but talk and listen
and do nothing, and I walk with my wife and my daughter to our car while

he waits on his bench on this beautiful spring morning for his wedding day.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua. First published in Gargoyle #58.

The Prince of Intoxications

Photograph by Jose Padua
Sometimes when I’m driving around my small town
in my mini-van I like to listen to Desmond Dekker’s
“The Israelites,” and as if I were a character in an
old Gus van Sant film, I pretend that my goal for
the day is to score some drugs. I have never spent
much time trying to score drugs. Usually if a friend
had some and was sharing them, I’d partake, but
now if they have some to share, I decline, which isn’t
to say that a lot of my friends are still sharing drugs
because they’re not. But this also isn’t to say that
they’re not still doing drugs because I think they all are—
which is how they tolerate my many indiscretions and
obfuscations of fact—it’s just that they no longer
share them. So I continue driving through town
in my mini-van, leaning back, my arm hanging
out the window like I’m cool, pretending this
family vehicle is really a beat-up old sedan with
stolen license plates, and knowing that as soon
as he’s old enough my four-year old son sitting
in the back will snitch on me and that I’ll respond
by saying, “Yes, yes, my boy’s giving it to you
straight. I did all that.” Because after all he is my son,
and although I am a grifter at heart, for me blood
runs deeper than any drug, longer than any high,
and I’m raising him to always speak the truth.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Fifteen Bucks and the Passing Glory of Every Gone Year

Photograph by Jose Padua
I’ve somehow forgotten the name of the place, but back in 1990 I got a call from Matthew Courtney asking me to do a reading there. It was somewhere on the Lower East Side, which meant it would be easy for me to hop down from my place on Avenue B and 3rd to get there; plus, with Matthew hosting the event, I knew it would be a fun gig as well—he was, at the time, one of the most entertaining poets/actors/artists on the downtown scene. But what most sold me on doing the reading was what he said I’d get in return for my performance: “Fifteen bucks, and all the glory.”

Back then, fifteen bucks could pay for a least part of a decent evening, and the glory part was the icing on the metaphorical cake, even if the glory was only being bestowed upon me by an audience of fifteen people. I wasn’t all that picky back then–I didn’t even have a chapbook out at that point if I remember correctly—so there really was no reason why I should have turned it down, and I didn’t.

As it was, the audience at this reading turned out to be of a fairly decent size, and I ended up meeting a number of other writers with whom I’m still in touch to this day. But what I most remember about that night and that reading is that it was here when I first met Maggie Estep and heard her read her poem, “The Stupid Jerk I’m Obsessed With.” Right away the poem blew me away, and like a lot of other guys, I too wished I could be that stupid jerk. She was a cool, smart, gorgeous woman—the sort I thought would want nothing to do with me. So when she came up to the table where I was sitting after I’d read and told me that she was blown away by my work, I just went “Wow” and “Thanks” and “Cool” and I was pretty drunk (as I usually was at any reading back then) and I thought I must have sounded like an idiot.

About a week later, on my way into work one still sleepy morning, I was catching the bus to go cross town on 23th Street when I saw her waiting at the bus shelter. (As big as New York City was, I was always running into people I knew.) I was more coherent at this hour and we talked and talked and it was here that she gave me her phone number, saying, “Call me, call me” and that was how I started to get to know her—which isn’t to say that I called her. It’s just that there were soon so many readings and events going on that I didn’t have to in order to see people. I’d see Maggie at one event or another, and we’d talk, but I’d always just leave it at that, because I was a drinker and she—having lived beyond her own days of wine and roses and other substances—wasn’t. Back then, liquor was a big part of both my social life and my poetic process.

Still, she’d call me; and I remember one time getting the most amazing phone message from her in which she told this long, surrealistic story about how these microscopic dwarves had invaded her blood vessels and made her ill, all of which was a way of explaining why she wouldn’t be able to see me at some important reading I was doing. In addition to that, even though we only lived a few blocks apart, we’d write each other letters. Her letters were like her phone messages, filled with stories and imagination and far out ideas—all written in a state of total sobriety while I always liked to have a few sips of something before writing my replies.

She eventually started seeing this guy I knew who was one of the nicest guys on our scene, and I was happy to see that she’d hooked up with him. In the meantime, I went on in my own way, in search of poetry and drinkers, and never once imagining that I could separate the two.

Maggie, of course, went on to hit it pretty big, appearing on MTV, fronting her own band and recording CDs of her work, and then on to writing novels, and working and playing with some pretty well-known people. The last time I saw her in person was in 1995 when she played the old 9:30 club in downtown DC, my hometown, where I’d moved back when I left New York. It had been a couple of years since I’d last seen her, and when I went down to the dressing room after the show she was surprised and genuinely happy to see me, introducing me to people as this “tremendous poet.” But this time—even though she was as nice as she always was—I just felt like some kind of a fuckup talking to her. After that, I’d only be in touch with her every few years or so with email exchanges that began enthusiastically with the sharing of news and other life changing events before eventually turning quiet. SkepReading_1992_Blog
Over time, I found a way to separate poetry and drink—though in doing so I spent around eight years when I hardly wrote a damn thing. They were years when I just sat back to enjoy one drink a week—though most of the time it was even less frequent than that—and a life of domestic tranquility with my wife and kids. Then, after thinking there was no way for me to be content and still write, I found a way to write again. Or perhaps, to be more accurate, I should say that the words started coming again, because those years when I didn’t write were years when certain uses of language just seemed beyond me—in particular, the sort of writing where I had no idea if I’d ever get paid or not. Because, now that I think about it, I did do some writing during those years, but it was always for one job or another. Writing for which I knew there was both immediate purpose and payment—never poetry or fiction or anything where I was taking a risk of some sort.

A year ago this month, when a friend sent me a message telling me that Maggie Estep had suffered a massive heart attack, I was shocked. I’d always thought of her as the healthy artist, the one who’d found a way to keep her edge and angst and still be healthy and content. Even though I’d been living a much healthier—no, I can’t use this horrible word, but what the hell, I’ll go ahead and use it—lifestyle, I never imagined that someone like Maggie Estep would die before me. Me, with my high blood pressure, my heart condition, and my high-strung OCD attitudes and impractical worries and Tourette’s rages—older and outliving a writer like her. And taking more and more risks, even if they’re only in my mind. But then again, sometimes the risks you take in your mind can be just as dangerous as the ones you take with your feet or your hands or your fists—well, that is, if it’s a risk worth taking.

So here I am after all those years, writing poem after poem and story after story and feeling bored or sad in those moments in between, before I’m quite ready to start the next one. And then I start it. It isn’t, by any means, a logical sort of storyline. But, then, no one becomes an artist of any kind because it’s the logical thing to do—and anyone who does become an artist because he or she thinks it’s the logical thing to do is probably more of an asshole than an artist. Which isn’t to say that that person can’t still get some work done.

And of course what I’ve felt through all this is not just sadness but fear as well. Sadness, still, over an old friend’s death, and fear from thinking about all the damage that’s been done over the years. Yes, damage, because to live and survive means spending time being damaged, being hit and bruised and getting back up, losing blood, hair, teeth, muscle, and all those other things that make living an easier thing to accomplish, and it’s only when one dies that the damage stops.

And though it’s yet another thing that isn’t logical, I like to think that once the damage stops that there’s something that continues somehow. It may not be life as we know it, but it is, nevertheless, a form of existence. Call it soul or spirit or the collective unconscious or whatever you want, but I think it’s something that somehow gets released into the air. Something like that early spring breeze that hits you on the cheek like a surprise. That sweet feeling in your gut that’s part ache and part hunger when you look toward the mountains and think you can almost touch the colors you see. Or that joke from years ago that you’re only now beginning to understand—you think about it for a minute, and you laugh quietly, to yourself, then wonder if someone can hear you. If, somehow, someone else is getting there with you.

-Jose Padua