Thursday, April 24, 2014

Why Red Poppy

The first time I really connected to Pablo Neruda's poetry was the summer before my junior year of college. Reeling after a bad breakup, I was going through the Spanish section of the library when I came across a black book with gold lettering on the front - Residencia en la Tierra. At this point I was familiar with Neruda's poetry but just barely. The poems I knew were the ones that, if there was a billboard chart for poetry, would be considered Top 40 material, the types of poems that are anthologized in the intermediate level Spanish lit readers. Don't get me wrong, these are great poems, iconic poems like “Poema XX.” But they only show the side of Neruda that most people are familiar with - his romantic poems. And while, say, “Poema XX,” with its heart on its sleeve, with its “another’s. She will be another's,” may seem like the perfect break up elegy, I shortly found out that the poems in Residencia express a whole other level of anguish. For example. The heartbroken man in “Poema XX” can sing the saddest verses on this night. Whereas the man who is tired of being a man in “Walking Around” in Residencia finds the atomic film separating his skin from the horrible space around him melts away, leaving him wide open to the onslaught of reality. Poema XX is a lyrical sublimation of heartache. Walking Around is a howl at the moon. And sometimes a howl at the moon is what you need.

When I first looked over Red Poppy’s Neruda documentary footage something clicked when one of the interviewees said that Neruda himself was going through a break up when he wrote the Residencias, (as well as feeling estranged, depressed, lost in solitude). I didn't know this beforehand but it made perfect sense. While the poems are not overtly about a long gone lover, the undercurrent of loss is there, a loss of human contact, and what more is a break up than losing your closest human contact you have? Neruda gives voice to that loss. And that voice, that articulation, is exactly the answer I have started to give to my friends working as engineers and lab techs when they ask me, Why Poetry? or its sister question, that resilient New York Times Op-Ed impetus, Why the Humanities? Poetry can be a great many things and defies definition. It can be puzzle to unlock with another person. It can be an epic story. It can be a historical testament. But to me, most of all, poetry is just a human voice that refuses to fade away.

Red Poppy’s important work focuses on collecting these outspoken voices. At present the nonprofit is engaged with projects including a documentary on Pablo Neruda's poetic activism, and an anthology entitled Poetry in Resistance that challenges readers to consider art as a vehicle for demanding social justice. Every day we can read about the civil war in Syria, about turmoil in the Ukraine, about genocide in the Sudan, about Pussy Riot being shipped to the gulag, about mortgage holders illegally foreclosed upon and every single person oppressed by these forces needs a voice beyond the sterilized sentences of The News. That is where poetry comes into play. Poetry can bridge contexts and cultural divides because emotions are universal. Neruda's poem indicting the United Fruit Company, for example, is just as much an indictment of subprime lenders, because the cannibalistic effects of unregulated capitalism endure, and so does our outrage. Similarly, the poets featured in Poetry in Resistance voice dissent against oppressive and authoritarian forces which still persist to this day. And one day we hope to listen to the Syrians voice their own laments over the conflict. Because that should be the project of poetry. Understanding human conflict, and fighting for social justice. That's Why Poetry. And that's also Why Red Poppy.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

From our Facebook Page redpoppypoesia-[now converted over to and soon flowing onto 

From Todd Brown, founder of the Red Poppy Art House (in harmony but separate from this Red Poppy of Latin American poetry), one of the most substantial posts I've read in a long time, be you may in SF or anywhere else:

FRIDA KAHLO EXILED FROM SAN FRANCISCO - Frida Kahlo is one artist name that many people outside of the arts will recognize, a name of super-star iconic proportion. If you were in this city in 2008, you might remember the grand-slam Khalo exhibit at SFMOMA. It's one of those things that creates that buzz that this city of trends loves, just like foodie trucks and the latest of the latest tech developments. Cultural vibrancy, quality of life, progressive politics, food culture, the hip of the hip and of trendsetters, etc., all these things that give a city a name among names, this is the storyline that San Francisco tells itself. But underneath, is a silent unseen process of disappearance, unseen at least to the dominant majority. It is the classic and ironic undoing of oneself that too much 'success' can breed, the way in which the wealth of the pocket, in some cosmically balanced way, seems to always invite a poverty of the spirit. In the case of San Francisco, what I am speaking of is the invisible drain of culture long taking place in our city and now of which is reaching a staggering proportion. I unabashedly here appropriate Frida Kahlo's name for the purposes of attracting attention to this post, because I figure people like to read about celebrity super stars more than the latest string of SF evictions.

Everyone knows the romantic archetype and myth of the artist - that image of living passionately though poor, with ceaseless creativity, choosing freedom from all conventional constraints. We love these characters in the movies, and envy what we perceive as their freedom of spirit and their vitality. I find it interesting that in popular culture we can name so many artists from famed eras and famed cities, and yet know not a single name of the wealthy tycoons that lived at those times. Is it that art - the depth and breadth of cultural expression of a person or a people - brings into the world something of substance and value that endures beyond that of the business transactions of the day? Maybe it's akin to the discovery of a cure in medicine which lives long into the future, because it brings us health. But today in San Francisco, where do we place our values? To what extent is the story we tell ourselves true? How progressive are we. innovative, how ahead of the times? Clearly, part of the myth is true, San Francisco blazes a trail in a number of areas that lead the way for other parts of the country. But how intelligent is a city, really, that evicts its culture makers along with its working class, a city born of cultural vibrancy that upon achieving economic success flushes its culture and the people that made it into the sewers like rainwater into the Bay.

I write this post because a dear friend, artistic elder, and cultural icon of this city is about to be vomited out of its wealthy belly. Myself being an artist, I have already been writing to my colleagues and peers, as the matter at hand has long threatened our ability to remain in this city, but in this post I am not so much writing to them. Rather, I'm hoping that FB friends of other professional sectors might read this and more presently feel the alarm that is sounding, that the artist of your city are leaving, have been leaving, in droves. They are being driven out. And here, today, as the most symbolic of symbolic gestures, our great city is poised to deposit one of its artistic Godfathers Rene Yanez and his family outside it gates. It is not merely a landlord evicting tenants. It is the city itself that is divesting itself of the people that helped make its name. Stated simply in Rene's own words, “This city loves to preserve its murals and to evict its muralists.” I'm certain that if Frida were here, she would just as quickly be swept out as her name and image would be marketed and profited from. It is telling, that it was Rene Yañez that first brought Frida Kahlo to SF long before the SFMOMA would have her. Reñe's artistic resume is gigantesco and his service to this city is of mythic proportion, in particular the Mission District and the Chicano Movement of the 70s. I won't go on about it, as you can read of it in the post that I have attached, as well as the link to an open letter by Guillermo Gomez Peña, where you can read in depth of both the profound love and rage that the city's artistic community is feeling.

From my own personal experience, if you know the Red Poppy Art House, then you should know how much Rene's support kept me going in the early years. I founded the Red Poppy Art House in 2003, along with the Mission Arts & Performance Project later that year, without any real idea of what I was doing, without any connections and knowing only a small handful of artists. It was Rene who let me know that I was on the right track. He knew it was not something of a trend that had no regard for the city and/or the Mission community's history, that it was something more genuine and with a flavor that he knew and loved. His affirmation helped me to believe in the work, and the belief kept me going so that the Poppy today continues. But the Poppy is on a lease, as was Rene and his family. And as such, in the heartless real estate of this city, it days, too, are likely numbered.

To all of you who don't consider yourself 'artists', this matter should still be important to you. Anyone can bring artistry into their lives, but it is the artists of our communities who inherent purpose is to remind us of this fact.

In the words of Rene's son, Rio Yañez

"Being an artist means they have no savings, no retirement, no health care. They live check to check. For their dedication to art, that’s where they are. With elderly people like them, with limited income, this essentially makes them homeless"This is the sacrifice that artists make to do their work - work that has a direct and dramatic impact on the vibrancy of life and culture and quality of living in any given city. Would you be willing to do the same, to forgo savings, health care, retirement funds? If not, in the very least, then please consider supporting those who do, show that you understand the difference between romance and reality when it comes to artists. Come out and show your support and be vocal and vote wherever you can to make that support greater. Please read Guillermo's letter to learn more about Rene's remarkable work, and attend the upcoming benefit at Brava Theater.Thank you for reading.

A HEARTFELT LETTER to Rene Yanez & the SF arts community by Guillermo Gómez-Peña:
this link.

(A community action to benefit Mission artists Rene Yanez & Yolanda Lopez, with the participation of Culture Clash, Doctor Loco, Alejandro Murguia, Marga Gómez, Cherie Moraga, Enrique Chagoya and many other artists. Performances & art auction will take place @ Brava Theater, (Brava! For Women in the Arts) on October 26 at 7:30 pm.)
Spanning three decades in the Mission District, prominent San Francisco artist and curator René Yañez, who seeded and grew the annual Dia de Los Muertos celebration into a citywide event, is in the process of being evicted from his home of 35 years. His former wife, artist Yolanda Lopez, and his s...
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Sunday, June 30, 2013

For the Futaleufú: Neruda's "The Rivers Emerge, Los Ríos Acuden"

The Futaleufú river, at the top of Chile's Patagonia, is one of the most captivating in the world. The valley it runs through is stunning and majestic, a special, sacred place, surrounded by snow-capped mountains, dense forests, glaciated lakes and other roaring rivers. However, as is so often the case in pristine areas such as this, the watershed faces many threats, from hydroelectric interests wanting to dam the wild rivers to the potential construction of contaminating mines, as well as unsustainable development and the entrance of invasive species. 

Fortunately, many locals and concerned individuals and groups from Chile and around the world are working to defend it. The Fundación Futaleufú Riverkeeper is a Chilean foundation leading the fight to protect the watershed and its communities. For their inaugural digital newsletter, they asked me to translate parts of Pablo Neruda's poem, "The Rivers Emerge". It is from Canto General, his epic reinterpretation of the history of the Americas. As a construction worker told me once in Chile, as I was interviewing him for our Neruda documentary,  "The importance of Canto General is that it shows us the history of the Americas from a different point of view, from the point of view of the people themselves, not the history told by the conquerors. Yes, we could call it the “history told by the conquered.” (For more on the documentary featuring that worker please see

The poem "The Rivers Emerge" comes at the beginning of the book, part of Neruda's pre-Colombian Genesis tale, where all is pure and man himself is the earth. Following his mythological vision of the creation of North and South America, this poem tells how the rivers emerged onto the surface of the earth, how intrinsically they and the land are bound together:

The Rivers Emerge

Adored by the rivers, assailed
by blue water and transparent drops,
your spectrum of a dark goddess is
like a tree of veins which bites apples:
so then, at your awakening, naked
you were tattooed by the rivers,
and in the wet heights your forehead
filled the world with fresh dew.
The water trembled at your waist.
You were shaped by springs
and lakes shined on your face.
With your maternal vegetation you gathered
the water like vital tears,
you pulled the river beds to the sand
throughout the planetary night,
traversing rough dilated stones,
through the path smashing
all of geology’s salt,
cutting the compact walls of forests,
dislodging quartz’s muscles.

(translation (c) Mark Eisner)

Los ríos acuden 

Amada de los ríos, combatida
por agua azul y gotas transparentes,
como un árbol de venas es tu espectro
de diosa oscura que muerde manzanas:
al despertar desnuda entonces,
eras tatuada por los ríos,
y en la altura mojada tu cabeza
llenaba el mundo con nuevos rocíos.
Te trepidaba el agua en la cintura
y te brillaban lagos en la frente.
De tu espesura madre recogías
el agua como láfrimas vitales,
y arrastrabas los cuaces a la arena
a través de la noche planetaria,
cruzando ásperas piedras dilitadas,
rompiendo en el camino
todo la sal de la geología,
cortando bosques de compactos muros,
apartando los músculos del cuarzo.      

Sunday, June 13, 2010


Lawrence Ferlinghetti, legendary Beat poet, literary activist, artist, and dear friend of Red Poppy, recently celebrated his 90th birthday.

A prominent voice of the wide-open poetry movement that began in the 1950s, Lawrence has written poetry, translation, fiction, theater, art criticism, film narration, and essays. Often concerned with politics and social issues, Ferlinghetti’s poetry countered the literary elite's definition of art and the artist's role in the world.

In 1953, with Peter D. Martin, he founded City Lights Bookstore, the first all-paperback bookshop in the country, and by 1955 he had launched the City Lights publishing house.

The bookstore has served for half a century as a meeting place for writers, artists, and intellectuals. City Lights Publishers began with the Pocket Poets Series, through which Ferlinghetti aimed to create an international, dissident ferment. His publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl & Other Poems in 1956 led to his arrest on obscenity charges, and the trial that followed drew national attention to the San Francisco Renaissance and Beat movement writers. (He was overwhelmingly supported by prestigious literary and academic figures, and was acquitted.) This landmark First Amendment case established a legal precedent for the publication of controversial work with redeeming social importance. (taken from

In 2004, City Lights published The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems, which I edited, and includes translations from such great poets as Robert Hass and Forrest Gander. Lawrence wrote the preface.

From the groundbreaking (and bestselling) A Coney Island of the Mind in 1958 to the "personal epic" of Americus, Book I in 2003, Lawrence Ferlinghetti has, in more than thirty books, been the poetic conscience of America. Now in Poetry As Insurgent Art, he offers, in prose, his primer of what poetry is, could be, should be. The result is by turns tender and furious, personal and political. If you are a reader of poetry, find out what is missing from the usual fare you are served; if you are a poet, read at your own risk—you will never again look at your role in the same way.

Lawrence has given us permission to quote from his long title poem from the book, which is lyrical literary activism, using the power of poetry towards social change:

I am signaling you through the flames.

The North Pole is not where it used to be.

Manifest Destiny is no longer manifest.

Civilization self-destructs.

Nemesis is knocking at the door.

What are poets for, in such an age?
What is the use of poetry?

The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.

If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this means sounding apocalyptic.

You are Whitman, you are Poe, you are Mark Twain, you are Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, you are Neruda and Mayakovsky and Pasolini, you are an American or a non-American, you can conquer the conquerors with words.

If you would be a poet, write living newspapers. Be a reporter from outerspace, filing dispatches to some supreme managing editor who believes in full disclosure and has a low tolerance for bullshit.

If you would be a poet, experiment with all manner of poetics, erotic broken grammers, ecstatic religions, heathen outpourings speaking in tongues, bombast public speech, automatic scribblings, surrealist sensings, streams of consciousness, found sounds, rants and raves--to create your own underlying voice, your ur voice.

If you call yourself a poet, don't just sit there. Poetry is not a sedentary occupation, not a "take your seat" practice. Stand up and let them have it.

Have wide-angle vision, each look a world glance. Express the vast clarity of the outside world, the sun that sees us all, the moon that stews its shadows on us, quiet garden ponds, willows where the hidden thrush sings, dusk falling along the riverrun, and the great spaces that open out upon the sea . . .high tide and the heron's call. . . . And the people, the people, yes, all around the earth, speaking Babel tongues. Give voice to them all.

You must decide if bird cries are cries of ecstasy or cries of despair, by which you will know if you are a tragic or a lyric poet.

If you would be a poet, discover a new way for mortals to inhabit the earth.

If you would be a poet, invent a new language anyone can understand.

If you would be a poet, speak new truths the world can't deny.

If you would be a great poet, strive to transcribe the consciousness of the race.

Through art, create order out of the chaos of living.

Make it new news.

Write beyond time.

Reinvent the idea of truth.

Reinvent the idea of beauty.

In the first light, wax poetic. In the night, wax tragic.

Listen to the lisp of leaves and the ripple of rain.

(C) Lawrence Ferlinghetti

For the rest of the poem, and the whole book, buy it at Lawrence's City Lights Books. There's also a podcast there of Lawrence reading a series of his thoughts on the book.