Category Archives: Poetry

Brie


I ponder
as of late
the manner
in which
living ages us,
how we age
in order
to live,
to become more
of what we
are destined
to be and
how in
the artful
acquisition of
wisdom and grace
we tend to
become soft and
malodorous like
really good
cheese.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

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Notes on Sun Ra’s Magic City and Other Improbable Notions


Even when the starting point is the sweet instrument that was Luther Vandross’s voice, as in the poem below, I’d often end up going back to Sun Ra’s Magic City. It begins with Sun Ra playing some spaced out chords on piano while Roger Blank adds punctuation on the drums. It goes on like that for a while, with Marshall Allen, Pat Patrick, and Danny Davis playing these sort of flying flute lines over and around Ra, who seems to be going back and forth between the piano and clavioline. Then, about fifteen minutes later, there’s this outburst where John Gilmore pierces the calm on tenor sax, and Marshall Allen, Pat Patrick, and Danny Davis are joining in, back on their saxophones, along with Harry Spencer on alto, Robert Cummings on bass clarinet, Walter Miller on trumpet, and Ali Hassan on trombone. They’re all blowing into their instruments like it’s the end of the world and their job is to make sure you don’t miss anything. It’s one of the scariest moments in jazz—and also one of the most insanely beautiful.

I’d play this in my apartment on some sleepless or post-drunk Saturday night into Sunday morning when I lived in New York. Then, on those occasions when I just couldn’t get to sleep, I’d head outside, then walk uptown to feel the pre-dawn and early dawn glimmerings of light as they swept across Manhattan. Sun Ra’s Magic City is not calming music, by any means—even the quieter parts are tense—but as I walked out into the city, going from my Lower East Side neighborhood towards Midtown, carrying this music in my head, I felt calm. It was a feeling similar to leaving the Circle Theater back in DC after having just watched something like Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers or Lina Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties—the feeling that this work of art has taken you not away from the world but deeper into it. For me, that was always the preferred direction.

It’s why I’d always rather watch an anti-hero than a super hero. It’s why, back in the days when we had newspapers in the morning, I’d start my day by reading the obituaries. I’d look for the death notices of writers whose works I admired, actors, directors, artists. A part of every morning, then, was spent looking to see if Samuel Beckett had died, or Federico Fellini was now gone. I’d always try to find who’d lived the longest, but still, I was seeking reacquaintance with the recently departed. When Sun Ra died in May of 1993, Columbia University’s WKCR played his music non-stop for a few days. For those days, if I was home, between a temp job or a stop at Scorpio’s, Mona’s, The International—one or another of the many bars I frequented—WKCR was on, and I was listening to the music of Sun Ra.

I’d just seen him perform live at the Bottom Line in Greenwich Village the previous year. This was after his stroke, so he had slowed down quite a bit. He needed help to get to his piano. He couldn’t spin around while wailing on his keyboards the way he used to do. He couldn’t put on a giant sombrero and dance around the stage while singing “Mack the Knife” as I’d seen him do at the Kilimanjaro Club in DC. But he was still making his music. Now he was gone.

I wrote this poem years later, a few years after we’d moved to the Shenandoah Valley. You’d think that being out here I’d be listening to a little more country music, but I don’t. In fact, I’m pretty sure I listened to more country music when we lived in the city. When we move back, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m playing George Jones, Patsy Cline, Hank Snow, and other folks like that more often again. But Sun Ra will continue to be in the mix, and be someone whose music I listen to—for all the secrets and wisdom he continues to release—wherever I am.

NEVER TOO MUCH

The mix tape I made for myself in 1982
and can no longer find begins with
Luther Vandross singing “Never Too Much.”
I lost it in 1992 in New York.
Maybe I lent it to my painter friend, who’d
been painting in his studio in Dumbo listening
to Captain Beefheart and Earth, Wind & Fire
and wanted to try something different.
After all, inspiration is a variable thing,
and what one sees while listening to
That’s the Way of the World is different
from what one sees when Trout Mask Replica
is playing on the boombox in his studio.
We did a lot of drinking, then, of course.
I lived above the laundromat on Avenue B
between 3rd and 4th streets. Sometimes junkies
would shoot up in the tiny foyer of my
building. Sometimes people would just
die on the street, some guy would collapse,
some beautiful woman would just stop
singing. Sometimes after smoking and
drinking I’d get to my fourth floor apartment
out of breath, thinking I could be dead too,
just another young fuck dying young,
then I’d sit down, turn on the stereo,
and listen, hearing something like “Jesus right
beside me, he never buys and he smokes.”
Maybe I heard it wrong, but those were
the words that stuck to me like the gum
on my shoe, that made me get up again
when I’d caught my breath and smiled
to myself, by myself, so high and lonesome.
Walking up a deserted Fifth Avenue
on a Sunday morning after staying up all
night, the music in my head was Sun Ra’s
The Magic City because I felt like
a black and white science fiction film
full of cold granite and gray skies.
Other cities had moments of silence,
but every moment of my life in New York City
had a soundtrack. Lou Reed was the mumbling
heat-seeking voice behind the junkies;
Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 18 was for
waking up unemployed on a Wednesday morning
just before the clock struck noon. Luther Vandross
played so many afternoons before I hit the bars
or met my friends. How many of them knew?
When I moved to New York I brought my paintings
with me but I never painted. I smoked cigarettes
and I wrote—about color, shape, and movement—
as I listened to my soundtrack, as I ate cheap
chicken and rice, washed my hands, splashed
water on my face, maybe ran a comb through
my hair, just once, that was enough. And I was always
by myself when I listened to Luther Vandross.
Sitting on the sofa in my apartment in the early evening,
waking up from whatever was missing during the day.
Stretching my arms, turning away from the window,
looking back toward the sink, as the sunlight seemed
to slide down the walls like liquid, when everything
would turn dark. I’d stand, light my cigarette,
open and close my door to walk down the dirty stairs,
and suddenly I wasn’t alone anymore.

-Jose Padua

Book Launch for Jose Padua’s A Short History of Monsters, hosted by Silvana Straw

Wednesday, April 24th 6:30pm, at Kramerbooks, Washington DC
Jose Padua book launch at Kramerbooks, April 24, 6:30 PM

“We are the happy riders on the stream of Padua’s consciousness . . . a smart, sympathetic mind at work.”
—Billy Collins

Drawing on the spirit of New York City in decades past, A Short History of Monsters presents the sins and obsessions of a poet nimble in beat and slam traditions. In his full-length colletion, Jose Padua wrestles with an American dream interrupted by failure, excess, and other nightmares. Often brash and unruly, these poems range from recollections of lost, drunken days to unadorned manifestations of hope. Throughout, the speaker redefines his relationship to pop culture, praising it, skewering it, and mourning it by turns.

The poems that make up A Short History of Monsters tend toward both dark humor and epiphany, diving deeply into their own despair and rising up again with existential absurdity. This is a poetry that gets down into the grit and grime of the real world, digging out a space to experience being alive as miraculous in and of itself.

About the Author:
Jose Padua’s first full length book, A Short History of Monsters, was chosen by former poet laureate Billy Collins as the winner of the 2019 Miller Williams Poetry Prize and is now out from the University of Arkansas Press. His poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in publications such as Bomb, Salon.com, Beloit Poetry Journal, Exquisite Corpse, Another Chicago Magazine, Unberables, Crimes of the Beats, Up is Up, but So Is Down: New York’s Downtown Literary Scene, 1974-1992, and others. He has written features and reviews for Salon, The Weeklings, NYPress, Washington City Paper, the Brooklyn Rail, and the New York Times, and has read his work at Lollapalooza, CBGBs, the Knitting Factory, the Public Theater, the Living Theater, the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe, the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, and many other venues. He was a featured reader at the 2012 Split This Rock poetry festival and won the New Guard Review’s 2014 Knightville Poetry Prize.

About the Moderator:
Silvana Straw is a writer, performer and cultural organizer. She has performed and produced shows in venues including GALA Theater, The Kennedy Center and the Nuyorian Poets Cafe. Her work has appeared in publications such as The Huffington Post, Gargoyle, Conversations Across Borders, and on the Library of Congress podcast, The Poets and Poem.

Click here to see the listing at Kramerbooks.

Out this week: A Short History of Monsters (winner of the 2019 Miller Williams Poetry Prize)

A Short History of Monsters
A quick, early review from Booklist:

“Padua is a very wry poet who, in his first book, presents stinging and riotous poems, as in the two-stanza ‘Barbie’: ‘I am Barbie / I live in your dollhouse / You change my clothes every day. / If I could get out / of here I would / kill you all.’ These are works that sharpen the mind on the micro, as opposed to the macro of our human experience. This debut collection was selected as winner of the 2019 Miller Williams Poetry Prize by Billy Collins, who invokes in his succinct preface the specter of Charles Bukowski, and indeed, the infamous barfly poet is echoed here, yet Padua’s own dry wit and driving purpose cut through. These poems evoke not bold headlines but rather a quiet righteousness or realization. In “On These Days Driving”: ‘Perfection is the moment when the worst / is behind you and the best slowly reveals itself / like a song from decades ago that only now / becomes a hit.’
— Raúl Niño, Booklist, March 2019

Available from:

University of Arkansas Press:
https://www.uapress.com/product/a-short-history-of-monsters/

Barnes & Noble:
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/a-short-history-of-monsters-jose-padua/1129710790#/

Amazon, Books-a-Million, etc.

Puñeta

Margarita Padua, circa 1960
Mother, you were the history
that never made the books,
the woman who fed us
chicken flavored with garlic
and ginger, sweet pork with
soy sauce and rice on
a plain white dinner plate,
the woman who dressed us
to smile, to praise, give thanks
like every day was church,
but only so long as
we were allowed
to stand tall and look
these motherfuckers
in the face,
which years later I learned
is how you translate
the word
puñeta
into English
for a clown.

-Jose Padua

Photograph of Margarita Padua, circa 1960

North Richmond Street, Being Blind

Photograph by Jose Padua
My eight-year old son Julien is singing
an East River Pipe song, going “I don’t care
about your blue wings, I don’t care about your
blue wings, baby” and my fifteen year old
daughter Maggie reads The Girl With Curious
Hair
while my wife and I drink beer at the pub
on Main Street (Julien and Maggie, iced tea
and a coke) before we all go back to our old,
dirty, small-town house. This place used to be
called Helltown and some people still call it
that, except at that precise hour when the sky
over the mountains is a perfect flinty lapis lazuli
blue, and the river is a woman named Edna with
the most joyous laugh, or a man named John,
his kidney stone like a 12 gauge shotgun shell.
He hopes to pass it before his Monday night
factory shift, the roughest in all the valley.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

A Routine Evaluation of My Accomplishments at This Late Stage of the Middle Part of My Career

Photograph by Jose Padua
Because of a mix tape I played for what
must have been a couple of decades, I can’t
hear Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover”
without expecting to hear T.S. Monk’s
“Bon Bon Vie (Gimme the Good Life)”
right after it. There were train rides when
I was so weary I’d fall asleep in minutes,
days when I was so sad flowers lacked both
scent and color. Weeks were lost like socks
with holes in them and days recalled like
bad products except there was no store
where I could take them back, no class action
lawsuit for squandered opportunities and
essential connections missed. These years
of love have sustained me far beyond
anything I ever could have imagined;
a dusting to an inch of snow overnight
on cold asphalt resulting in a two hour delay
is all part of the good life. I admit I didn’t
always know this, just as I understand
that there are gaps in my resume that
will never be explained, and disturbances
in my sleep that briefly interrupt the dream.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Pulp Fiction, Part Two

Photo by Jose Padua
Putting on my shoes
this autumn morning
I notice how my ankles
aren’t swollen
and that the skin
on my lower legs
is no longer taut and dry
the way it was
this past summer;
and the poem
that comes to mind,
as spoken by
my vascular specialist,
is a simple one:
compression socks.
And now,
for the rest
of my days,
whenever I walk
the Earth like Caine
in Kung Fu,
or like the bad motherfucker
Samuel L. Jackson plays
in Pulp Fiction,
I’ll be wearing
my compressions socks,
gliding across sidewalks,
travelling over dirt roads,
forging new paths
under the starry sky,
ready for what happens
next.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

A Short History of Monsters—Coming March 2019, University of Arkansas Press

A Short History of Monsters by Jose Padua
My book, A Short History of Monsters, is now available for pre-order at Barnes and Noble (this early listing says 60 pages, but it’s actually a little over a hundred pages, so it’s a short history but not that short):

“We are the happy riders on the stream of Padua’s consciousness . . . a smart, sympathetic mind at work.”
—Billy Collins

Click here to pre-order from Barnes and Noble

A Self-Portrait of the Artist Written in the Early Off-Season of the Universe

Photograph by Jose Padua
It was during my sophomore year in college when the professor for my Introduction to Poetry course laid the tone arm down onto the record that was spinning on the portable turntable. This, she assured us, was poetry we might already be familiar with. In a moment, we heard a voice on the record singing “Morning has broken like the first morning/ Blackbird has spoken like the first bird/ Praise for the singing/ Praise for the morning/ Praise for them springing fresh from the world…”

I was sitting near the front of the class, and upon hearing the first sung notes of this song, I turned around to see how the rest of the class was reacting to it. That’s when I saw Claude, a big grin on his face, looking like this was the happiest moment of his academic career. He was a political science major—maybe even a “college republican.” Whatever it was, there was something about him smiling at recognizing a Cat Stevens song that was sickening.

I mean, Cat Stevens was OK. I might have liked his music more back then if I’d seen the film Harold and Maude, in which his music plays a big part in setting the atmosphere for what happens between Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon, but at the time I hadn’t. I only saw Harold and Maude recently, watching it with Heather and Maggie one weekend night after Julien had fallen asleep early. After several decades, I started to like Cat Stevens more. Back in 1976, though, my idea of poetic language in music included things like the work of Gil Scott-Heron and Chicago Beauchamp’s spoken word performance in Archie Shepp’s Black Gipsy. My poetry professor, I gathered, had a different idea. She let all of Cat Stevens’s “Morning Has Broken” play, and when it was finished declared, her eyes wide with the passion of a million sonnets, “Poetry is about the beauty of language, as such.”

That, of course, was the worst part of it. Hearing that cheap and easy declaration, I was sure, had to be both the lamest and most frightening moment of my poetic life. I felt like I’d been abducted by some horrible cult. It was sort of like that time between my Junior and Senior year in high school when I was at the University of Georgia on a program run by the National Science Foundation. A group of students from the university had befriended a number of us from the NSF program, and one weekend took us on a picnic in Watson Mill Bridge Park, then tubing down the shallow south fork of Broad River.

It was a fun afternoon. I was tubing down the river holding hands with Anne, this girl with long blonde hair from Texas who was studying math for her NSF program. She was beautiful and smart and, as I was a little slow in these matters, she was the first girl I ever held hands with. Everything was going fine until after we’d gone tubing, where our older friends from the university had one other stop to make. That stop was to their church. We had to listen to a talk about Jesus and being born again and all this other stuff. My mind wandered off toward thoughts I found much more pleasant, and I kept trying to distract Anne, but she was paying attention to all the Jesus talk.

I avoided our so-called friends from the university after that day, but Anne had come to the conclusion that they were cool. I started hanging out with Janet, who was also studying math in the NSF program but was an atheist, idolized Orson Welles, and at the time was making her way through the works of Aldous Huxley.

As for the poetry class with the professor whose mantra was “Poetry is about the beauty of language as such,” I zoned out for the rest of the semester. I sat in the back, staying out of it, wondering if, perhaps, this whole poetry thing wasn’t for me. Forty years later, not a day goes by when I don’t still wonder that. But then words start coming to mind again along with the sounds. Sometimes I just let them bounce off of each other in my head for a while. Sometimes I write them down immediately. Either way, it’s my work. It’s what I do, whether anyone likes it or not (and some people don’t). My poetry presents my ideas, my aesthetic, my view, my way of connecting with the world—as such. And every time I write a new poem, it is as if I am born again.

This is a photograph of the birds that flew over my wife, my daughter, my son, and I last year after we’d arrived in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware in the early off-season of the universe.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua