Category Archives: Washington DC

Notes on Song and Landscape and the Inner Workings of the Heart

Photograph by Jose Padua
My son Julien’s new favorite song at the time was Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger.” It happened during a trip to Baltimore for my semi-annual visit with my cardiologist at Johns Hopkins. “Play the ‘Passenger’ song again,” Julien said, though he didn’t quite demand it the way he had with Ryuichi Sakamoto whose “Mill Theme (Robotaki Remix)” had been his previous favorite. Still, Julien (who was six at the time) made it clear it “The Passenger” was essential listening for the day.

“Who does that song?” he asked

“Iggy Pop,” I said. “Ig-gy POP.”

“Did he get sick?”

“No, he’s been healthy for a while now.”

“He even does tai chi,” Heather added.

“Me and Maggie saw him play last spring when we all went to Philadelphia,” I said.

“Did I see him too?” Julien asked.

“Er, no.”

“I want to see him next time.”

As usual, even though we always tried to leave early from Front Royal, we got to Baltimore just in time for my appointment. I checked in, and went straight to get my echocardiogram while Heather, Maggie, and Julien stayed in the waiting room. I lay down, and the technician attached the electrode patches to my chest, then turned down the lights. She put the transducer, a wand-like instrument, a little to the left of my sternum. That’s when I saw it on the monitor in black and white: my heart, beating, its valves opening and closing, its walls expanding and contracting. I am always amazed when I see my heart in motion; amazed to see it at work, pumping my blood; amazed and joyful that, despite everything from minor pain to episodes of grief and anguish, and despite the continuing absurdity, folly, and obscenity that inhabits the world, I am alive. Not everyone can feel that joy–the joy which, despite these more difficult times, is still my privilege.

When I was done with my echocardiogram, Heather, Maggie, and Julien joined me in the examining room where my doctor would meet us. When he came in he greeted us all warmly (he’s been my cardiologist for close to a decade and a half now). Heather, Maggie, and Julien all greeted him warmly in return, then Julien asked, “What’s your name?”

“My name? I’m Doctor Elmer Fudd,” he said. Julien sensed that he was kidding, and looked at him sideways. “OK, I’m actually Dr. K____.” But Julien didn’t believe him when he said his real name either.

Dr. K____ went on to tell me that my tests looked fine, that although there was the issue of the thickened heart wall, it wasn’t worsening—the possibility of which was why he continued to see me every six months. He took my blood pressure, checked several other vital signs for confirmation that my heart was still healthy, and we were done. Before we left, he mentioned that if we were going home right away we may want to check if there any protests going on, because that could make it difficult to get out of town. It was just a couple of days after Donald Trump had won the election—or rather, had won the electoral college—which meant that in a couple of months he was going to be president. “If there are, we’ll want to join them,” I said.

“Well,” Dr. K____ said, nodding .“If there is a protest, you’ll see me there, too.”

We’d take Maggie and Julien out of school for the day whenever we went to Baltimore from Front Royal. Being in a real city was always a nice break from our small town. Still, we didn’t want to get back so late that they weren’t ready for school the next day. A while back, Dr. K____ had recommended the Ivy Bookshop, but that was far uptown from Johns Hopkins, so as usual we drove to the Inner Harbor, which was right on our way out of town. In just about ten minutes we were going up the escalator to the second floor of the Barnes and Noble at the old power plant building, soaring high above the magazine racks and display tables piled high with best sellers. It’s the sort of height that usually makes me a little nervous, but we’d been to this store so many times that it didn’t bother me anymore. When we reached the top, I headed toward the part of the store that carries some of its less popular items—i.e., the poetry section—while Heather went to the café for a cup of coffee and Maggie led Julien to the children’s books.

Usually I find a few things right away, but that day I wasn’t finding anything I wanted. That’s when a guy who was sitting in the aisle there asked me, “Can you recommend any poetry?” There are always people sitting—and sometimes even lying down—in the poetry and fiction sections, reading books they’ve pulled from the shelves, or sometimes just sitting, listening to music through their earbuds. This guy looked to be somewhere in his twenties and had that look in his eyes that said he was lost or else was about to get lost. “I only know Langston Hughes,” he said.

I thought about what was going on and what was going to get even worse; and I thought about the tasks that lie ahead, wondering who might be a good poet to read for what I hoped would be a revolution of sorts. “Amiri Baraka,” I said. “He died a couple of years ago. His work is wild and straight from the heart.”

“I never heard of him,” the guy said. I was surprised. I thought that if he’d heard about Langston Hughes that he would have heard about Amiri Baraka—and just needed to be reminded of him. But then maybe that was just a ridiculous idea on my part. None of us are immune to ridiculous ideas from time to time. And every ridiculous idea is different from the next one. Yes, it’s also ridiculous to say so. I thought of what else I could say to this guy.

“Check him out,” I said finally, then added poets like Adrienne Rich, Frank O’Hara, Lucille Clifton. Somehow I neglected to mentioned any of the poets I knew, as well as any poets who were still alive, which I then hoped didn’t give him the impression that poetry was a dead art. I looked through the poetry shelves again to see if there was something I could show him, but none of the poets I’d mentioned were in stock that day. I moved on—to the fiction section, looking for Paul Beatty’s new novel, but I couldn’t find that there either. As I browsed, the guy looking for poetry suggestions walked by. He saw me and asked, “What was the name of that poet again? Amira…”

“Amiri Baraka,” I said. “Amiri Baraka.” His name itself was a poem.

“Thanks,” he said, “thanks.” I wasn’t sure, but I think he then said, “Bless you,” before walking off.

From the Barnes and Noble, we went to dinner at the Hard Rock Café. This photograph of Heather, Maggie, and Julien was taken there. The Hard Rock Café is a chain with average food, overpriced, but it’s right next door to the Barnes and Noble, and going there with our weirdness and oddity was all the energy we could spare that night before our long drive home back to Front Royal. And, somehow, they played “The Passenger” while we were there. “Julien, listen,” Maggie said. “Your song. ‘The Passenger.’”

We didn’t run into any protests blocking the road on the way home, so we didn’t run into Dr. K___ again that night. On Route I-70 West, we listened to “The Passenger” a few more times, and we also to Joni Mitchell’s “In France They Kiss on Main Street” as we took the exit for Route 15 West, John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” and Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “I Say a Little Prayer” after taking the ramp on 340 South in Charlestown, West Virginia. Even though it was a quick trip, it was good to get away from the landscape of Trump signs where we lived. When we got close to town, after nine in the evening, it was too dark to see the signs, allowing the landscape of river winding through valley to take precedence. Of course, in the morning, the signs would be there again; and, even though with that election being over, those signs would soon come down, there would be new signs to replace them. Many of them expressing support of the same old shit.

We were about half an hour from home when Julien said he had to use the bathroom. We were right outside of Berryville, Virginia, so we stopped at the convenience store at the corner of Lord Fairfax Highway and Main Street, right in town. When I took Julien inside, we saw that there was an older woman using a walker ahead of us. A young man who was probably her son was helping her pull away from her walker, which wouldn’t fit in the door of the rest room, and make her way to the toilet.

“I have to go! I have to go!” Julien said frantically.

“You’re all right. You’re all right,” I said. “You can hold it.” The young man turned to us with a worried look as if to say sorry. And I remembered over two decades earlier when, during the last months before she died, my mother also needed help making her way to the bathroom. “It’s okay,” I said to him, nodding as I put my hand on Julien’s shoulder. Somehow, it didn’t seem to take that long.

When we got back in the car, I looked at my phone and saw a news report saying that Leonard Cohen had died. It had happened a few days earlier, before the election, but his family only announced it that day—the day of his funeral. That’s when I remembered a night right before I left New York to move back to DC (I was moving back to be near to my mother, who’d just had a heart attack and a stroke). It was one of my last nights out in New York, and a woman I’d just met who was a friend of a friend handed me a tape of Leonard Cohen’s music. I didn’t know his music that well at the time, and I guess she thought it might serve me well in the days that lie ahead. If I remember correctly, her name was Candy. And I said to Candy, “thank you.” I don’t think I ever got around to saying, “bless you,” much less, “let’s celebrate the privilege of being alive.” Though sometimes it feels as if I’ve missed out on something important when I don’t say these words, or at least think about them. Sometimes, even during days like this, I feel that the time to celebrate is now.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

The Light When It Shines Upon the Family Dollar Store as if Making Great Noise or Beautiful Silence

Photograph by Jose Padua
I’d picked up my son Julien from camp that morning, then together he and I went to get his sister Maggie from her art class. When Maggie got in the car, she asked him, “How was camp today?”

Julien, gazing out the window, said, “It was boring work.” It was “boring,” perhaps, because he was still tired from a busy weekend; but it was “work” because that’s what they preferred to call everything—at least at this particular Montessori school. Your daily activities were never called “play”—you had to call them “work.”

Maggie had done splendidly there for 10 years, but after that moved on to one of Front Royal’s public high schools. Julien, on the other hand, was pretty much kicked out of the Montessori school after just a couple of months. He did well at the public school, though, and at the end of the school year the Montessori school let him come back for summer camp. But apparently, even though it was summer camp, everything you did there still had to be called “work.”

During the regular school year, Julien’s teachers at the public elementary school adored him. I didn’t know for sure, but maybe they even adored him when he got mad and said “Jesus Christ!”—which is what he tended to say at that stage in moments of exasperation. Maybe they interpreted it as prayer more than imprecation. Though if he said it the way I say it—which, undoubtedly, was where he first heard the exclamation, most likely in response to one of any number of asshole moves by the Trump administration which at the time had been in power for just six months—it was, unequivocally, imprecation.

Back at the house, Julien had a snack—at his request, Maggie had made him a jelly sandwich. After a bit of a coughing spell, though, he threw it up. Then he had another coughing fit. Soon it was apparent that work at camp wasn’t just boring because he was tired—it was boring because he was sick.

This evening, when Heather was back home from the office, all four of us went to take Julien to the urgent care facility north of town. “No shots! No shots!” Julien kept telling the doctor. They didn’t give him a shot, but they did have to apply the Q-tip to his throat, and when the test came back it was positive for strep. They prescribed an antibiotic and we drove down to the CVS pharmacy in Gateway Plaza back in town. Heather went in while Maggie, Julien, and I waited in the car.

The above photograph shows the late evening sunlight as it illuminated the front of the Family Dollar store across the parking lot from where we waited in Gateway Plaza. On those days when you couldn’t make it out to the mountains—and there were many days when we lived in the valley when there just wasn’t time or energy or impulse to do so—the next most beautiful thing you could behold was the color of the Family Dollar store under deep blue summer skies during the early stages of twilight. Say what you will about the colors of the second and third floors of the Main Street Mill restaurant at about eight o’clock in the evening in late July, or about the grand stone mansion on Virginia Avenue and Academy Drive when the early darkness of dusk made it seem like an ancient edifice built thousands of years ago, nothing compared to the colors of the western facing storefronts of the shops in Gateway Plaza. At any rate, not since they remodeled a couple of years previously.

Back home again, after dinner that evening, Maggie asked me to suggest some new song she might attempt on the piano. She was ready for a break from the Liszt and Chopin she’d been working on, and thought she might try another jazz tune—something other than Thelonious Monk this time.

“What about McCoy Tyner?” I said. “He used to play with John Coltrane, and he has a very distinctive style.” I pulled up a few of McCoy Tyner’s songs on YouTube to play for Maggie. After these, I said, “Also Stanley Cowell. He’s another one of my favorite pianists, though he isn’t nearly as well known as McCoy Tyner.” And I pulled up a few Stanley Cowell tunes for Maggie to hear.

A little while later, I was hearing the opening notes of Stanley Cowell’s tune “Equipoise” coming from the piano in the hallway. I first heard “Equipoise” around forty years ago, when I bought Stanley Cowell’s album Musa: Ancestral Streams at Melody Records in DC back when it was on E Street and the main clerk there was Don, who later on became one of the founders of the avant garde jazz/noise ensemble, Borbetomagus.

I still listen to the mad, intense, incredible noise of bands like Borbetomagus, but not as much as I used to. More frequently what I’ll be listening to are tunes like Stanley Cowell’s “Equipoise”—slower, quieter, and though I’m not going to say it’s more beautiful than the noise, it’s a different kind of beauty. The kind of beauty that has lines of age around its eyes, slight wrinkles around the cheeks, and moves not with that get-out-of-my-way sort of daring but with a subtle kind of boldness that begs you (without even asking) to make room for it, to let it stand in front of you for as long as it can, so it can shine.

And that’s what I heard that night, coming from the hallway where Maggie was playing piano, and that’s what I’ll be listening for next time, when the sun is going down and the season’s air is cooling and it’s time for me to get out of the way again. When it’s time for me to practice making distance, for one reason or another. But for as long as I can, whatever the sound and whatever the speed, I’ll be listening, watching the colors as they move through whatever room I’m in—or whatever street, city, or oddly open space I find myself in. And when the time is right—and only at that time—I’ll close my eyes to see if I can feel the earth spinning.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

These Rhymes Out to All the Nations

Photograph by Jose Padua
My sixteen year-old daughter shouts from downstairs,
“Mom? Mom!” and then again after getting no answer
shouts, “Mom? Mom? Mom!” which is when my nine-year
old son goes to the top of the stairs and shouts back, “She’s
on the phone” and waits a moment before adding, “Shut
the fuck up!” When he hears no further inquiry or attempt
at what he interprets as ill communication on the part of his
sister he says, “Thank you,” which I think goes to show how
sometimes it’s best to stay out of the way of your children’s
business, and that every day we stay alive is a reminder
that the universe is a thing of great natural beauty.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

A Brief Story About My Head and Other Fragile Sensibilities

Photo by Jose Padua
So I tried jumping up and down, my head tilted to the right. I did it several times, at two in the morning. There was no one awake in the house to see me doing it, though I was careful not to jump too hard—I didn’t want to wake anyone up. Because even if I were to explain it to my wife Heather and to my fourteen year old daughter Maggie and to my seven year old son Julien, there was something about it that felt ridiculous. It would have been like someone coming down the stairs to see me not hard at work writing, but in front of the television watching Little House on the Prairie. Yeah, I love that show.

All right, I’m lying about loving Little House on the Prairie, which isn’t to say that back in the day, in the house I grew up in, I didn’t enjoy having it on in the living room, watching it with my mother. I especially liked Alison Arngrim as the mean and nasty Nellie Oleson. Nellie Oleson had attitude, and from what I remember, she liked to mess with people. Years later, Alison Arngrim would write about her work on the show as well as her real life struggles in Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated.

I haven’t read the book, and I hadn’t thought about Alison Arngrim in a long, long time, but somehow I thought about her when my ears started to clear up. When, after jumping up and down a few times, I began to hear something beautiful in my right ear—sound. Sound from the outside world and not that of my heart beating or the blood rushing through my veins. Sound, like water dripping from the faucet. Sound, like the asshole next door with his unmuffled pickup truck, running the noisy engine for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes before finally driving off to who knows where. Sound. It was what the instructions I found somewhere on the internet said I would get. Sound—it’s what I got back in my right ear that Monday night.

Sunday, the day before, my ears had been congested for about a week (they’d been clogged on and off since December of the previous year, when I had pneumonia). With the general fatigue, achiness, and congestion that accompanied pneumonia having come back, it seemed like a good idea to go to a doctor. What’s more, with Maggie feeling like she’d come down with the flu, it seemed like a good idea for her to go as well. And so, as usual, we got in the car—Heather, Maggie, Julien, and I—and headed up to the Front Royal urgent care center, which was the only place open on a Sunday.

We got there at three, and not long after that one of the nurses led us all into one of the examining rooms. She took Maggie’s and my blood pressure, and left. Soon, the doctor opened the door. He looked at us and right away gritted his teeth. The look in his eyes seemed like scorn or disgust.

“OK, what are you here for?”

“Well,” I said. “My head is congested and my ears are all clogged, and I’m also having some chest congestion and trouble breathing.”

“And what do expect me to do about it?” He practically barked his words at me.

Maggie looked over to Heather, surprised at the doctor’s hostile tone. And I raised my voice a bit in response.

“Well, I’d like to know if there’s anything I can do,” I said. “I had pneumonia last month, and I’ve been feeling bad again for a week, so I thought I’d better have it checked out.” It was hard for me not to add, “Do you have a fucking problem with that?”

The doctor lightened his tone slightly—very slightly. “All right, let me put it this way. What are your expectations?”

This time, I had to refrain from saying, “My expectations when I come here are to be seen by a doctor who’s not going to act like a total dickhead.”

When he listened to my lungs, he said, “They’re completely clear.” And then, as I took another deep breath he added, “a little wheezing is normal.” I was ready to smack him. And, as Heather told us later, she was too.

The tension never let up. Even when he examined Maggie, he seemed ready for confrontation. His advice before leaving didn’t go much further than “wait it on out” for Maggie, and “blow your nose” for me. Usually, when we go to the urgent care center, we get a decent doctor. This was not one of those times.

Later that night, I googled the doctor. He lived in one of the towns out here in the valley. Right away, I found, in the opinion section of his town’s little newspaper, an op-ed piece he’d written. The paper titled his piece “Madison County physician decries warming ‘hoax.’” Among the doctor’s opinions was that “global warming/climate change advocates are part of what will undoubtedly be known as the greatest hoax in modern times and Al Gore as the 21st century’s greatest snake oil salesman.” Further searching found a letter-to-the-editor where he decried how “the self-reliant and personally responsible” are “in conflict with the dependent and entitled”—with him, of course, being among what he considers the “the self-reliant and personally responsible.” I wondered if the scorn he showed Heather, Maggie, Julien, and I was in response to his looking at us as part of an “increasingly dependent and entitled segment of the population.” Indeed, I wondered exactly what it was he saw.

The next night, after a day in which I blew my nose and drank plenty of hot drinks—after a day when the clearest sound I could hear was that of me chewing my food when I ate—my ears were still clogged. Then I jumped up and down. And Little House on the Prairie wasn’t the only thing that went through my mind that night. I also thought about House of Pain’s song “Jump Around.” And the Mikey Dread song, “Jumping Master.” And, I thought about the time when I was five, jumping up and down in the apartment in DC where my family lived at the time. Jumping over and over and hearing later, from my mom, that all the plaster in the ceiling of our downstairs neighbor Eleanor’s apartment, came crashing down while I was jumping. Eleanor, who’d had polio when she was a child and had to wear leg braces to walk. Eleanor, who couldn’t jump.

Over five decades later, there in the Shenandoah Valley, taking my kids to school the morning after a night when I jumped up and down, up and down, my ears were clogged again. After dropping them off, I turned up the car stereo so I could hear the music better. The song was Ahmad Jamal’s “ Marseille,” featuring vocals by Abd Al Malik. The vocals were in French, and in English they say something like this:

Marseille, I often walk your streets alone
And then, too often I am gone
Marseille, my lonely heart needs your caress
My life, is full of deep regret
Your sun, is unrelenting till it sets

And even though I have never been to Marseille, and have never even been to France, and even though my French is bad, I am feeling it. Feeling it, even when I’m not hearing it well. Feeling it even, sometimes, when I’m not seeing it. And sometimes, though not as often as I used to, I am walking. To somewhere and from somewhere, with the emphasis sometimes being on the former and sometimes on the latter. Sometimes, too, I will jump. I jump less often than I walk, but I do jump, because it’s my privilege. It’s something I’m entitled to do. And, for now, it’s something I depend on.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Bright Moments and Other Entries in the Discography of the Sky

Photograph by Jose Padua
Before we left the old family house in DC, where we spent that weekend, my seven-year old son Julien said, “Wait, I need my Rahsaan Roland Kirk CD.” Searching with Julien the day before, I’d found a few Rahsaan Roland Kirk CDs in the vast collection of LPs and CDs in the basement, and he didn’t want to go back to Front Royal without borrowing at least one of them.

Of the three I’d found—Rip, Rig and Panic; Simmer, Reduce, Garnish & Serve; and Bright Moments—Julien chose the last to borrow. As soon as we got in the car, he asked me to slip Bright Moments into the car stereo, and I did. Meanwhile, he called out the window to my brother Tony who was standing outside our car, “Make sure you have some Ornette Coleman records.” Which meant, I suppose, that he wanted to borrow some Ornette Coleman CDs next time we were in DC. And then we drove home, west on 66, listening to Bright Moments.

Earlier that weekend Julien was watching one of the Spiderman movies when his big sister Maggie switched the station to see what was going on with the Grammy Awards. Onstage at the time was Ed Sheeran singing that “I’m in love your body” song, and Julien immediately said, “I don’t like this stupid guy!”

Around that time, Maggie had been working on learning to play one of my favorite Ryuichi Sakamoto songs, “Bibo no Aozora” (Beauty of a Blue Sky). Sometimes, when Julien was with her in the hall where our piano was in our Front Royal house, she’d try to teach him the opening notes to Thelonious Monk’s “Ruby, My Dear.” He wouldn’t get very far, but whenever he sat there with her at the piano, even if it was only for half a minute, he seemed intrigued by the possibilities.

The next day it was Valentine’s Day. On that day, twenty-one years earlier, Heather and I had gone to Planet Fred near Dupont Circle in DC. They had a martini special going on that night and a DJ was playing a mix that included things like Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and, I think, Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade.” I don’t remember for sure if “Moonlight Serenade” was playing, but that’s what it felt like. Ever since that night we’ve been together, with the years going by fast like blue skies and each day opening up like the album cover of a double LP. Which was what Bright Moments was—a double LP. You opened up the cover and on each side was a sleeve with a separate LP. We’d only borrowed the CD, although the double LP was also at the house. That, we couldn’t play in the car, though. And today, Heather and I are celebrating twenty-four years together.

This photograph of Heather, Maggie, and Julien was taken earlier that month in 2017 in Clearbrook Park, north of Winchester, Virginia. It was one of many days when we went out without any real plan and no idea of what we were going to do. It was one of those blue sky days. It was a sane day in the middle of an insane age. All we knew was that as soon as we were finished doing one thing, we’d move on to do whatever we had to do next.

-Jose Padua

A Free Jazz Solo for the New Wave Sky

Margarita S. Padua
I remember playing John Coltrane’s Ascension when my mother
came downstairs with one of the women she sewed for and they
both seemed to think that the music sounded like “a dreary day,”
but one time when I was a little older the B-52s’ “Rock Lobster”
was playing and my mother started swaying to the beat, almost dancing
in the doorway of our house on Hobart Street and she turned to me
to say that she liked it and it sounded “mysterious” as she moved
her head this way then that, meaning that she wasn’t a fan of
Coltrane’s later, wilder, avant-garde, and totally free work, but
this new wave, part punk rock, retro-forward, pop sound featuring
a guitar missing two of its strings was something she could believe in.
We drank our Royal Crown cola with ice in the kitchen back in those days
when I was even younger, living in an apartment, going to school at my
downtown parochial school, and on warm days driving to the beach
when the beach was the Chesapeake Bay, not an ocean, and not a vacation,
but a Saturday afternoon when summer was a deep blue heaven
I could crawl into with my hands waving in the air like long goodbyes
as soon as the sky turned dark. And today I believe in both the true
new wave and punk rock, as well as the real outside, free-jazz sound
of John Coltrane’s later years, and I know that if my mother were
here today she would listen to it once again, seeing the clouds
scatter, watching gray turn to blue, letting the mystery begin.

-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.

The Distance Between Ground and Sky as Measured in Units of Work

Photograph by Jose Padua
When we were dropping our son Julien off at school earlier that week, he looked at the boy who was getting out from the car ahead of us. I opened the side door to let Julien out and he yelled, “Shavon!” Julien ran toward the school door and yelled, “Hey, Shavon, Baby!” Shavon, the boy who was in the car ahead of us, turned around and waited for Julien. They walked in together.

I never say “Baby” that way. Nor do I use the variant “Babe.” And as far as I can remember, the only person to regularly call me “Baby” was my landlord in New York. “Jose Baby,” he’d say. It was, I imagine, his way of acknowledging that I was all right. I wasn’t one of the junkies or crackheads in his building (my next door neighbor Anna would often complain about “those junkie people”). And I paid my rent more or less on time—or at least until toward the end of my stay in New York. It made me all right in my landlord’s eyes. It made me “Jose Baby.”

At home with my family, in the small town we live in now, I’m the sort of person who often uses the term “Honey.” I rarely ever call my wife Heather by her name—I always say “Honey.” If I do somehow say “Heather” it’s reason for us to look at each other and pause, as if we’d suddenly been transported to some odd parallel universe where I say “Heather” instead of “Honey.” I also call the kids “Honey” at times, the way my mother would use the work “Anak” with me and my brothers—“Anak” being a Tagalog word for “son”/”daughter” or, simply “child.” It was the sort of term I’d hear if I was coming down with a cold and my mother had just felt my forehead to discover I had a fever. “Anak,” she’d say, out of concern. As such, it was a word that comforted me. It meant that she knew what was wrong, and was taking care of things.

A couple of days earlier, we were a little late dropping our daughter Maggie off at school in the morning. That meant that by the time I got to the drop-off line for Julien’s school, I was a little further back than usual. I was tired and wished I could just close my eyes until the doors for Julien’s school opened, but then I looked out into the distance. Because of where we were in line—right where there’s a break in the woods that surround Julien’s school—I could see clear through to the sky above the tree line where the land slopes down to Leach Run, the stream that lies about a mile east of town. The way the colors were blending made it hard to distinguish between earth and sky, horizon and cloud, near and far. Or maybe it was just my aging eyes. Either way, I liked what I saw, so I took a photograph. Then I had a coughing fit.

I’d been under the weather since the past weekend when Maggie and I saw Yuja Wang perform at the Kennedy Center in DC. I was a running a bit of a fever and was hoping that seeing Yuja Wang might do the same thing Sun Ra did about a quarter century ago when I saw him at a performance at the Bottom Line in New York. That night I was in the middle of a horrible sore throat/flu and I wasn’t sure it was wise for me to attempt to make it out to the Bottom Line. But, because it was Sun Ra, I made the effort. I dragged myself out of my apartment.

That night, I left the Bottom Line after some two or so hours of Sun Ra’s performing (usually he’d play even longer, but this was after he’d had a stroke). And I felt fine. My lungs were clear. I could smoke a cigarette without feeling like I was breathing in fumes from the back of a bus (yes, I was a hard-core smoker back then). And, I could have another Jack Daniel’s on the rocks with my friends and have it slide down my throat as smooth as the overnight DJ on WBAI. I was, in other words, all right. I was, once again, Jose Baby.

Seeing Yuja Wang perform that weekend didn’t quite do it. Unlike after seeing Sun Ra, I still had my flu and my fever. I still needed that ibuprofen a few times a day to feel at least marginally human. But then, Yuja Wang is only thirty years old. I think that in a few years the power to heal will come along on top of the ability to play a sick-as-fuck encore off the top of her head.

After I’d dropped off Julien, I stopped at the grocery store to pick up some soup, orange juice, and ibuprofen. That’s what I figured I’d need to make it through the rest of the day until it was time to pick up Maggie and Julien from school. As I passed by the magazine rack, I saw something horrible. Wrapped in plastic, it was labeled the “Trump Anniversary Collection,” and beneath those words, peering out into a distance populated solely by wealthy, racist assholes, were the eyes of Donald Trump. At the bottom of the package, underneath Trump’s orange chin, was further explanation that this was a “Patriot’s Kit” and included bumper stickers, a “’Promises Kept’ magazine,” and a “Ready-to-Frame Portrait.” The scream I made in my head was so loud I swore everyone in the store could hear it.

I laid a few copies of Field & Stream on top of the stack of Patriot’s Kits, then walked to the back of the store. There I grabbed a quart of Tropicana 50% Less Sugar/Some Pulp orange juice. I took that, a double pack of the store brand ibuprofen, and two cans of chicken soup and went up to the register. As I drove home, I thought about how the sky by the elementary school, in the clearing between the trees, looked something like a Mark Rothko painting. And I thought about my wife and my children, my mother and father, and all the days of winter we had ahead of us and all the work we had to do.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

On the Loving Grace of Well-Oiled Machines

Photograph by Jose Padua
It was eighth grade during
Sister Conrad’s English class
when we’d read an article or two
out loud from the latest issue
of Reader’s Digest.
Every month she picked up
a big box filled with copies
from the classroom floor,
laid it down on her desk
and opened it up proudly.
We’d pass a pile of them
down each row of desks,
every one of us a cog
in the well-oiled machine
of the classroom—
me holding my hands out,
grabbing a pile from
the girl in front of me,
picking one out for myself,
then passing the rest behind me
before marveling at the flat surface
of a magazine shaped
like a small gift box.
And I remember that month
when the article we
read out loud was
“I Am Joe’s Man Gland”
and we learned how Joe’s
left testicle manufactured
sperm and a magical substance
called testosterone that
made Joe a man of action,
and I knew that some of the kids
were trying not to laugh
while reading out loud
about some old man’s balls,
but me, I was just scared
because I thought that Joe sounded
like the Dad of the kid
who sat next to me,
a kid who was big-eyed
slow and serious,
the kind of person to whom
I never had much to say
and who during a discussion
of the soldiers who were
then on trial for taking part
in the My Lai massacre
said that killing was simply
what a soldier like his Dad
was supposed to do because
if your orders were to kill
then by God you’d better
go ahead and kill.
And there never was an article
about Jane’s woman gland
though maybe we just never
got around to reading one,
or never made the time,
or maybe we graduated
by the time Reader’s Digest
got around to it
but maybe that’s how
patriarchy works,
so fast and efficient
when it comes to killing,
so in love with the magic
of finding beautiful new worlds
to destroy.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Portrait of Donald Trump as Poet Transforming into a Creature from Out of a Francis Bacon Painting

Photograph by Jose Padua

Sometimes I feel like I’m several billion dollars
worth of tax free income but all you want to do
is kill my high. Like I’ve just had a
poetry reading in an elegant theater,
attended by three hundred people,
which for poetry is big, it’s huge, but
all this guy with a poetry blog publishes
is a blurry photo of some sad bar where
ten drunk guys are nursing their craft beers
while I stand alone in a corner reading
my magnificent poem about how great I am.
That’s not how it’s supposed to happen.
And that’s why I didn’t have some other poet
read his work at my inauguration because
I’m the only poet worth reading nowadays
and I was too busy to read my own poems
while being inaugurated as the forty-fifth
and best president ever that day so screw you.
It’s because of people like you that I’m
going to have to build a wall around
Rae Armantrout and make her pay for it.
I’m also going to build a wall around my
drug dealer because where the hell is my
cocaine? Where are the big league hookers
peeing on my ex-wives’ four-hundred dollar
shoes, where is my steak made from the
best American cows, oh there it is, it’s
over-cooked, it’s disgusting, but I love it.
Where is the symphony I paid you to write
for me, Philip Glass, the one called
Donald on His Amazing Beach, you say
you never made a deal with me, that’s a lie,
I’ll have you deported. I don’t care if you
were born here. I have very big hands. I’m
Donald Trump and your advice is over-rated,
your comfort none of my concern; your desires
are not my desires so do whatever I tell you
and pay attention to my beautiful words.
I’m Donald Trump and you’re an errand boy
sent by illegal aliens with marked disabilities,
get out of my American hotel. America, there’s
a thorn tree in the garden if you know just what
I mean; I’m going to send it back to China,
I’m going to finish eating my steak. America,
I am in my painted heaven where harps and lutes
adore me; I lie between the young bride and
bridegroom, I call this land from shore to lake
to shore my home. America, I live in my terrific
penthouse surrounded by strong walls
trimmed with gold as I walk on floors made
of lovely fluid and precious stone. America,
I live in the White House, which they
used to say really belonged to the people
or some shit like that but it’s mine, now;
be great and get over yourselves, be best
and put your hands in the air. So, here I am,
America, here I am. Feed me, America, feed me
cheeseburgers and Diet Coke on Sunday afternoon;
America, I’m really a lizard, feed me flies, feed me
crickets, feed me small frozen mice. America,
I’m thirsty, bring me water, just point the hose
down by my desk; I’ll lay down on the floor of
the oval office and absorb it through my skin.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua