Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Poem by William Archila

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At work, no one has seen him or his taxi.
Newspapers read, "Juan Márquez Missing:
Any sighting, please contact family."

A few months ago, police led a trail
to graves: some broken bones,
the kind you find in times of war.

In Nicaragua, they remember him,
poet so blue and modern like Dario,
almost a song of swans about to break.

Honduras spoke of him naked, hairless,
barefoot, tobacco skin without toenails
or ears, a man of ants and stray dogs.

Two weeks ago, a boy found a body
dark as eggplant. His wife, worn and rumpled,
could not recognize the blown-out face.

My mother thinks he's deep in the ground,
sleeping with torn clothes, thick,
dank roots spreading over his limbs.

The rumor goes at night in smoky bars
he met Jesus of Nazareth, a red lightbulb
flickering on and off in the corner.

Today I heard he's a bus driver
in L.A., circling long avenues,
parks, the same hotel signs, traffic

lights, the rain that falls at night.
Around ten, a rumor goes he gets lost
in a downtown dive, drinks his shot of gin.

Don Chamba, a shoe shiner from Santa Anita,
gave me the final word the other day.
"To me," he says, "those stories don't mean shit.

By now, after all those small deaths,
he has to be a soiled shoe, a worn-out tire,
aflame, smoking by an empty highway."

This poem is published in William Archila's debut collection: The Art of Exile (Bilingual Press, 2009).

William Archila was born in Santa Ana, El Salvador, in 1968. When he was only twelve, he and his family immigrated to the United States to escape the civil war that was tearing his country apart. He eventually becaem an English teacher and earned his MFA in poetry from University of Oregon. His poems have appeared in Agni, Blue Mesa Review, Crab Orchard Revewi, The Georgia Review, and The Los Angeles Review. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife.

The Art of Exile is the recent winner of the Emerging Writer Fellowship Award from the Writer’s Center and the International Latino Book Award. The Art of Exile was also featured in “First Things First: The Fifth Annual Debut Poets Roundup” — the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of Poets & Writers.

For more on this collection and Salvadorean literature check out Adolfo Guzman-Lopez's KPCC article, "Salvadoran American's Poetry Makes Amends for Silence Over Civil War."

Monday, April 18, 2011

Angel Island Poems

In one of my first posts I talked about the journey of Chinese immigrants through Angel Island in the early half of the 20th century, and shared the book ISLAND: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940. I now realize that I didn't share any of the poetry from the book. Here are two poems from the book that were transcribed and translated from immigrant reflections scribed into the wooden walls of the detention center barracks.

For what reason must I sit in jail?
It is only because my country is weak and my family poor.
My parents wait at the door but there is no news.
My wife and child wrap themselves in quilt sighing with loneliness.
Even if my petition is approved and I can enter the country,
When can I return to the Mountains of Tang* with a full load?
From ancient times, those who venture out usually become worthless.
How many people ever return from battles?

*A Cantonese colloquial term for China.

Because my house had bare walls, I began rushing all about.
The waves are happy, laughing "Ha-ha!"
When I arrived on Island,* I heard I was forbidden to land.
I could do nothing but frown and feel angry at heaven.

*The colloquial name given to Angel Island by the Cantonese immigrants.

A facet of the immigrant journey that always fascinates me is the willingness to be cast out into the unknown, the decision to be neither here nor there. I often wonder how this decision is made knowing that venturing out might make you "worthless"? Knowing that this country will most likely see you as worthless, no matter your background, because you don't speak the language. I think perhaps because I was born in the this country, I might never understand what can be worth becoming worthless for.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Poem on Borders by Sholeh Wolpe

My Brother at the Canadian Border

by Sholeh Wolpé

For Omid

On their way to Canada in a red Mazda, my brother and his friend, PhDs and little sense, stopped at the border and the guard leaned forward, asked: Where you boys heading? My brother, Welcome to Canada poster in his eyes replied: Mexico. The guard blinked, stepped back then forward, said: Sir, this is the Canadian border. My brother turned to his friend, grabbed the map from his hands, slammed it on his shaved head. You stupid idiot, he yelled, you’ve been holding the map upside down.

In the interrogation room full of metal desks and chairs with wheels that squeaked and florescent light humming, bombarded with questions, and finally: Race?

Stymied, my brother confessed: I really don’t know, my parents never said, and the woman behind the desk widened her blue eyes to take in my brother’s olive skin, hazel eyes, the blonde fur that covered his arms and legs. Disappearing behind a plastic partition, she returned with a dusty book, thick as War and Peace, said: This will tell us your race. Where was your father born? She asked, putting on her horn-rimmed glasses. Persia, he said. Do you mean I-ran?

I ran, you ran, we all ran, he smiled. Where’s your mother from? Voice cold as a gun. Russia, he replied. She put one finger on a word above a chart in the book, the other on a word at the bottom of the page, rought them together looking like a mad mathematician bent on solving the crimes of zero times zero divided by one. Her fingers stopped on a word. Declared: You are white.

My brother stumbled back, a hand on his chest, eyes wide, mouth in an O as in O my God! All these years and I did not know. Then to the room, to the woman and the guards: I am white I can go anywhere Do anything I can go to Canada and pretend it’s Mexico At last, I am white and you have no reason to keep me here.

I saw Sholeh read this poem at my reading series Hitched at Beyond Baroque Literary/Arts Center in March, and I fell in love with it. Before reading it, she shared that this happened to her brother and that it was a true story.

This poem is from The Scar Saloon (Red Hen Press, 2004)

You can hear Sholeh read this poem here or visit her website at

Hitched is an inter-generational reading series that couples established poets and writers with their emerging cousins. April 17, 2011 at 4pm we will feature Jenny Factor with Lisa Cheby and Mariano Zaro with Barbara Blatt. I hope you can make it!

Sholeh Wolpé is the author of Sin—Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad (University of Arkansas Press, Oct. 2007), The Scar Saloon (Red Hen Press), Rooftops of Tehran (Red Hen Press, Jan. 2008) and a Poetry CD (Refuge Studios). She is the coeditor of upcoming anthologies, Iconoclasts and Visionaries, and With Love, From Iran – Poems of Love and Seduction.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Harlem and The DREAMers

April is National Poetry Month, and as celebration I will post poems through out the month of April that are somehow related to immigration.

Here's a particular favorite of mine by Langston Hughes. "Harlem" ponders the question, what happens to a dream deferred? Hughes was speaking about the marginalized and abused African Americans of Harlem and across the country in the 1930s, but I think his words hold relevance to the immigrant issues of today. The DREAMers are young men and women brought here illegally by their parents, who didn't have a say in the matter, who know no other home but the U.S., and who are now threatened as adults with detention and deportation every day. They are not allowed to dream or flourish, go to school or hold jobs, and are like prisoners in their own home. I wonder, what will happen to them if they are given no options?

HARLEM by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

To learn more about the Dream Act, or find a way to help go here.