Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Jo Scott-Coe

Jo Scott Coe, April’s second feature, is a remarkable educator and author.  I’ve known Jo some time now, originally through mutual friends and through SoCal’s writing scene, where she stood out as an author of uncompromisingly powerful, and at times emotionally challenging works of nonfiction.  In her writing Jo explores a range of human experience, from her own time spent in the classroom, to her reflections as an observer of some of the darker facets of humanity.  What really amazes me about Jo is her steadfast courage in exploring these “darker” sides of life (some of her work examines themes such as mass shootings, domestic violence and suicide) within the guidelines of nonfiction.  Whereas some writers might shy away from these themes, or only delve into them while shielded with the protective veil of “literary license”, Jo challenges the reader to face and reflect on some of the uncomfortable realities of our world.

Jo’s books, Listening to Kathy (Big Jacaranda Press) and Teacher at Point Blank (Aunt Lute), are both available for sale from Amazon. She has just finished a new book, titled MASS: A Sniper, a Father, and a Priest.

She is a fearless, sensitive, creative author of the not fictional, and I’m proud to say, a good friend.  

My Place for Misfits
by Jo Scott-Coe

An altar is a place to tend, wait, go to ground. I choose and arrange and sometimes switch the elements: wax and flame, loose coins or pins, torn paper, perhaps a flower, always faces. Not saints so much as allies—partners in commiseration, failure, a lost translation. There are always signs: Cracks in the gesso surface. Three holes in the back of the head. A missing arm. Sloppily formed plaster hands that were molded in the statue factory—a blob of paint over fishstick fingers—or too-perfect vampire eyes atop a stiff neck.

Here is my place for misfits, where the only certain symmetry is an opening for me at the table. Messages scribbled, returned to, read aloud, discarded. Not a sanctuary consecrated by anyone else. Not commanding an entire room. (An invitation, oddly, even to ignore.) Instead: askew, smuggled, an envelope of treasured space in plain sight, where there is also dust and rumpled carpet and a metal trash bin that needs to be emptied.

Such a space allows a quiet so different from silences I absorbed long ago—in closets, in wincing-light basement apartments, in discarded cardboard boxes out by somebody’s garage. Silences came from things that were done to me, said to me, shown to me by other children I thought must be friends simply because they were there. These were things I had no desire for or words for and didn’t know how to refuse or respond to, things that did not end me but made me feel ugly at my core for a very long time.

Around age ten, I made a small altar in my bedroom for the very first time. I set aside one surface of a vanity bureau that had no mirror anymore. I placed a small plastic statue of Mary there, with a blue prayer book I wore to the bone. There was or was not a votive. I remember a white doily. I understand now that this ritual was not piety but desperation—I was dying to telegraph elsewhere, to borrow whatever words I could find to reach out through the security of a space I marked as sacred.

I thought for a long time that I could make bad events go away if I recalled them as sins to repent for. That was the only way to name certain parts of my experience—by locating the fault in me. But I see how the making of that first little altar marked a parallel, simultaneous awareness that has endured in a healthier way. I feel the instinct now of that child I was, who wanted to orient herself to a clearer reality by setting up a physical space where she could imagine a different world. I understand how the altar was made for connections that could be chosen rather than inevitable, where a girl would no longer be done to, by others who must have been done to (and shown to, and told that), other children who were themselves smudged little creatures pawing for comfort wherever they could, and who did not know what they were doing.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Michaelsun Stonesweat Knapp

The first featured poet for the month of April is Michaelsun Stonesweat Knapp, of the Costanoan-Rumsen Carmel Band of Ohlone Indians.   Over the past few years I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Michaelsun as he has honed his craft and made quite a name for himself in the literary scene. His ease with words is matched by a keen eye for art, which makes him expertly suited to explore so many of our vast cultural spaces.  He is able to then link these worlds in his work with apparent ease, leaving the listener and the reader amazed.    

Michaelsun is an MFA candidate at the Institute of American Indian Arts, with a BA in English lit from CSU San Bernardino, and two AAs from Mount San Antonio College. Nominated for a 2016 Pushcart, and winner of the Muse Times Two Poetry Award, he is also a 2016 Periphery Poets Fellow, poetry editor for Mud City, and has curated the Claremont West Reading Series. He has published over 80 pieces across the United States and Internet, and his most recent publications are in the Yellow Medicine Review, and Red Ink.

Discovery Of Gold
Georgia Legislature. Following the Discovery of Gold, it Became Illegal for Cherokees to Mine Gold, Testify against White Men, or Hold Political Assembly. 1829.
                                Constable, John. Hadliegh Castle. 1829.

 -by Michaelsun Stonesweat Knapp

I was eight when we started
working on a thousand
square-foot addition
to our house. My dad brought in guys
he knew from his Chino
Y.A. Chaplainhood.
Guys who got out and stayed out
for a year he would bring by. One of them
was Julien. During an interruption
in digging by hand a sewer
trench beneath our house to the future
half, Julien saw me dunking
on the basketball hoop dad had gotten
me from a garage sale. I had lowered the rim
to 4 feet, low as it would go.

I couldn’t dribble, I couldn’t shoot.
I just held the ball and ran
and ran and leapt into the air,
slamming the ball through hoop
and chains. I’d hold on
long as I could, kicking,
imagining a crowd cheering on
my beautiful imagined body,
until fingers gave out
and small sneakers hit the driveway.
Then I’d do it again.
I was super-good at basketball.

Julien clapped for the ball. I couldn’t pass,
I couldn’t throw. I didn’t want to look
stupid either, so I carried the ball to him
and two-handed I handed it to him.
He squeezed the ball to test
the pressure, then he dribbled beautiful,
dribbled between his tall legs
and started shooting free throws
as if with cheat codes—to me:
the hoop still only four feet high.

I was super-good basketball.
I asked him how he did that.
He asked if I wanted to learn,
and I did, so he raised the hoop
to regulation height.

He showed me to hold
the ball, to be fluid and move,
how a dribble is so much more
than just a hand to strike with
an orange surface, and how
shooting the ball was more than pushing
a thing away. So I did, over and again,
until I was laying up balls like a flu,
hitting free throws as if I was Bruce Lee
and Cochise’s green Power Ranger baby.

I did that until I was old enough
to help with the addition.

After homework I dug ditches
until we filled them with sand
and rebar, pipes for water
over pipes for sewage, and screed it all with cement
and then we put up the walls
I picked up nails, and caulked
every, every seam, and some days
I saw my friends too. But first
came insulating and wiring
and more plumbing and dry wall
and picking up black screws.

My basketball paled and cracked
and flattened from the sun and years
and years and years
and years.

By the time I was 16, Julien had six
children from four different women,
and he was bringing back songs
and ceremonies, and I was fighting Bros
in their white, lifted, Ford F150s
for throwing soda cans at me
working their mouths around injun
the way they did with Skol
faggot or nigger. My dad tried to convince me
to quit fighting: if I was ever hurt,
what would all these Y.A. guys do
to these stupid mixed-up boys?

They loved me through their love for my dad.

Julien just broke up with his then girlfriend.
A seventh baby, and fifth woman. He couch
surfed, his checks garnished of everything,
no matter how much he tried to be there
for his girls, all seven   girls.
So when his old cell mate, Frankie, called my dad
saying Julien was spending time in his old territory
in east L.A., my dad called and sat down with Julien.
            ~                                              ~
Frankie had since moved to Texas,
started a company to make custom computers
for companies. He offered Julien a job
if he would leave the LAC, and would pay
enough Julien could afford his garnishments
and after a few months Julien would be even
able to afford to move his twins and their mother
out with him and his lighthouse of a smile.

But he would have to leave his tribe,
leave everything he’d worked for with them
behind and he’d have to abandon his other girls
which all he loved behind, with their mothers
whom wanted nothing anymore to do
with his wandering smile. Julien came around
to leaving everything behind, to sleep in a bed,
for Texas and the women who would have him.
            ~                                              ~
He recorded a C.D. of lullabies for all of his girls
for while he was gone. He packed up his Ford Torus,
and drove out from a Riverside couch to Texas.

We got a call that he’d died at one in the morning.

A drunk got on the 10 the wrong direction
doing 80. Killed Julien instantly. He never made the border.

At the funeral, my dad pulled every mother
Julien had made to the side, and told them
each to support the other. Put away all
dirt and teeth. Care for all of these girls,
these sisters.
            ~                                              ~
Frankie pulled me aside and told me
how Julien always loved me like a brother,
loved I never asked what he went to the Y.A. for.
Frankie told me all the ex-cons dad helped out
loved me for never asking after their pasts.
And yet Frankie said I needed to know Julien’s.
            ~                                              ~
Julien went into the Y.A. when he was 13.
He was part of a gang, and he tortured
other gang’s members–children, men
–in his boyhood bedroom. They called him Spike.
Bic lighters, four-inch galvanized steel nails.
A man who had a tongue roughly split by Julien
turned State’s Evidence. The longest part
of Julien’s trial was trotting out evidence,
photographed burns, cuts, tongues and eyes marred.

Julien was angry for a long time in the Y.A.
and earned himself years of extra time.

When my dad came to the Y.A.,
bringing ceremonies with him,
helped Julien to set down his rage.
Julien quit fighting, lifting weights,
and started playing basketball.
With good behavior, he bought
his extra time down and was free
at 25, seven years after
he was supposed to be released
            ~                                  ~
Frankie held my shoulders, said, you remember.
You always remember how much people can change.