PoetryDispatch No.347 | June 9, 2011
My poems scatter over the mountains,
rivers, plains, And no one hears them
but the birds, the snow, the trees, cougar,
bear, deer, a few squirrels, and a large
number of ferns in the Cascades.
They love hearing me recite them. For that
and other reasons, I love them back.
–from ULULATIONS: Poems 2006
If I were to begin (again) with the state of real writing in America today–past, present, future–I would return, begin again, with the long tradition of quality little mags and independent small presses scattered across the country, and the mostly invisible poets, writers, editors and publishers who are the conscience of American literature in an increasingly corrupt culture of mostly meaningless crap touted by New York publishing houses in bed with the media, social networking, and agents determined to direct and sell a writer’s soul for the best buck—and destroy him for good.
Leonard Cirino is one of the real writers who knows who he is, what he does, and the conditions for survival.
The news story read
probably for the rest of his life
In asylum, my body wasn’t always there.
In seclusion I went catatonic.
With my feet and wrists chained
I rarely took a breath, sucked air
through pores. On better days
I skipped lunch and sat in the shade
of the courtyard walls: hoops, football,
softball, for sport, Clean clothes, short hair,
no beard. I didn’t recognize myself.
With beatings, chokeholds, even murders
by the staff, we remained quiet, docile.
When the worst things happened we heard,
Take that and shut up or get it yourself.
Given my own journey going on fifty years, my early ploddings through live-and-die-in-a-day, no-name publications with a readership of 0 to 60 per irregular issue, to (in time—with considerable luck) creditable university or national publications that occasionally pull their head out of a dark hole and let a little light shine on the outsiders…including (in our own time) any number of legitimate online websites, blogs, publications open to quality writing by new and established writers…I can only applaud those writers-in-the-dark today who put themselves out there word by word to the sound of mostly silence, little cause for hope (serious recognition) dedicating a life to the written word in stories, poems, and books. Which seems to have become my subtext, my minor or major theme since THE SECOND NOVEL, Becoming a Writer, december press, 1978, though that was not my original intention.
To be a serious writer in American is to welcome failure as your friend. You won’t get anywhere without him. Take him under your arm. Comfort and nourish him. And remember that to know the light (when and if), you must love the darkness.
Leonard Cirino knows all this in his bones:
All I Ever Wanted
from Henri Michaux
Back then, all I ever wanted was to beat up the kids on the block, the ones who were stupid and threw bananas and spoiled oranges at me. They were always older but not as smart, so, eventually I got even. The same goes for today All these lying politicians and cheating insurance men, bankers, brokers, CEO’s and the likes, I’d beat the crap out of them if I could but I can’t even get two blocks from their homes because they all have bodyguards, security devices, and I don’t own a gun or even know how to use one. The best advice I ever got was from the delinquent kid in third grade. He said, Miss school as much as you can. He cut classes, and if he did attend he was always late. If I had the power, a lot of bastards would lose more than their millions.
When I became a poet I didn’t fit into a school. If I respect nature it’s because it’s so cruel, but close to just, unlike humans. Since I prefer the European poets I’m some kind of un-American maverick, but not an academic. Those so-called scholars fantasize what it’s like to be on the streets, and the ones on the streets are always sucking up, while pretending they are different from the mainstream. It costs me more than money to be a poet, and all that really happens is that I end up taking another beating from an editor, or the rare critic who reviews one of my books. I’ve taken it for a long time but now I’ve given up on getting even. My option is to outlast them just like I did the authorities when I was on parole. Longevity is in my genes and I plan to outlive them all.
from ULULATIONS: Poems 2006…Part IV, Nil Admirari: Ruminations, Digestions, and Digressions
What’s important here as well, what too many writers fail to grasp under the worst circumstances (too many write-alike Kerouacs, too many born again Bukowskis)—you must find you own words to tell your own story (a lifetime process), and the message is not all about anger. It’s all about soul too. Back to that darkness and light theme. And almost nobody I read in the underground ‘littles’ these days gets it, balances it better that Cirino:
What Is Needed Is Not
What is needed is not chaos or randomness
but a little bit of order and beauty, a messenger
not an informer, not a language of the confused
or the tongue of someone declaring obedience.
I’ll grant you that in the state of this world, 2007,
it’s rare to find a person who can speak
while listening to the tide move out and in,
or talk about the colors on the crowns of male birds
in the spring, much less of what roses aspire to become.
or the aroma of lavender when we pass it on the street,
under a blooming lilac, with no reason to stop
and breathe in, but the sheer beauty of it all.
I thought I should try this to encourage another
to do it better, a foe of anguish and friend of faith.
from ULULATIONS: Poems 2006
Without entering the maze and history of self-publication, or the many good and bad of online printers/publishers who offer to take a big bang out of your buck, bestowing instant writer-cred, publisher-cred upon anyone seeking writerly fame…there is still and always something to be said about a writer’s lifelong line of publishing credits. You’ve got to nail some hides to the wall. The more, the better. Though it’s not quantity as much as quality. But the more ‘legitimate” (from a real publisher who puts his own real money on the line—not yours) the better yet. There are damn few of these old fashioned publishers out there. But we need them—their eye for good work; their desire to put out the best looking book they can afford: quality paper, design, art; their dedication to beginning and obscure writers; their love for stories, poems, and books that need to be shared with others, beyond the academy’s tit for tat, beyond New York’s bombast and bestseller-dom.
Leonard Cirino’s record of small press publication goes like this:
- The Source of Precious Life* (Pygmy Forest Press, Albion, CA, 1987)
- A Small Book of Changes (MAF Press, Portlandville, NY, 1988)
- for you on stones (Pygmy Forest Press, 1989)
- Her Poems (MAF Press, 1989)
- A Collage (Nightshade Press, Maine, 1991)
- Rattlesnake Logic (Arts End Books, Brookline, MA, 1991)
- Ballad of the Mad Boy and His Shadow (Pygmy Forest Press, 1992)
- Sweeney Everyman (The Plowman, Ontario, Canada, 1992)
- Poems after the Spaniards of ’27 (New Sins, Pittsburgh, PA 1993)
- Rocking Over Dawn* (Sisu Press, Bayside, CA, 1994)
- Poems from Some Latins (Poetic Page Press, Madison Heights, MI, 1994)
- Poems of the Royal Concubine Li Xi (JVC Press, Arcadia, FL, 1994)
- Tinctured Blood: Mournful Beauties (Mandrake Press, Gliwice, Poland, 1995)
- Waiting for the Sun To Fill with Courage* (Pygmy Forest Press, 1995)
- A Special Place for Love (Cedar Hill Publications, Mena, AR, 1997)
- The Terrible Wilderness of Self* (Cedar Hill Publications, 1998)
- 96 Sonnets Facing Conviction* (Cedar Hill publications, 1999)
- War Horses (anabasis, Oysterville, WA, 2000)
- American Minotaur & Other Work* (Cedar Hill Publications, 2000)
- The Sane Man Speaks & Other Poems* (anabasis, 2001)
- The Widow Poems (Lone Willow Press, Omaha, NE, 2001)
- Everything Is Small from a Distance* (Pygmy Forest Press, 2004)
- Glossolalia* (Pygmy Forest Press, 2005)
- Mister Hatter’s Matters* (Pygmy Forest Press, 2006)
- The Truth Is Not Real (Adastra Press, 2006)
- Ambiguities* (AA Press, 2007)
- The Ability To Dream (Phrygian Press, Bayside, NY, 2007)
- Ululations* (Pygmy Forest Press, 2008)
- Ruminations after Yang Wan-li (Pygmy Forest Press, May, 20090)
- after Yang Chi & others (from March Street Press, May, 2009)
- Chinese Masters* (March Street Press, October, 2009)
- Russian Matinee (Cedar Hill Publications, November, 2009)
- Omphalos* (Pygmy Forest Press, 2010)
- Tenebrion* (Cedar Hill Publications, 2010)
- The Instrument of Others* (Forthcoming, Lummox Press, 2011)
*Denotes full-length collection. All press runs between 150-500
Who is Leonard Cirino?
He lives a seemingly solitary life in Oregon. I’ve never met him, talked to him. You will find him in his work of course. There’s a beloved brother who pops into his poems occasionally. A dog. An old mother. Women—one woman in particular: Ava. Most of his books are dedicated to her: “for Ava Lynn Hayes” Darkness and light abound in his lines–handled with the sure care of just the right words. ‘Light’, which I read/translate as Eastern.
I asked him to tell a little more about himself. This is some of what he had to say:
I was born in Los Angeles in 1943 I had a quiet childhood in the San Gabriel Valley, east of LA. A mediocre student in high school, a minor delinquent and trouble maker, I was a good athlete and placed second in the state and fifth in the nation for high school students in the pole-vault event in 1961. Went to junior college for two years and then transferred to UC Berkeley in 1964 and my real education began.
I was active in the Free Speech Movement and the anti-Vietnam war protests. Flunked out of school in 1965 and began taking hard drugs for two years. Moved to the country as a back-to-the-lander and to kick drugs. Psychotic symptoms began in 1967. I was in three state mental hospitals for short periods from 1967-1968. In 1969 I committed a tragic, violent crime and was found “not guilty by reason of insanity.” I spent until 1975 in two different hospitals. Paroled in 1975 I went back to college and graduated from Sonoma State College in 1977.
Unable to find work except as a dishwasher, I was accepted into the C.E.T.A Solar Energy Technician Training Program at Sonoma State and studied solar and alternative energy until my graduation in 1978. I moved to coastal Mendocino County, north of San Francisco, and worked as an apprentice carpenter, landscape laborer, dishwasher, newspaper reporter as well as a part-time instructor of solar energy and poetry at the local community college, from 1979-1998.
From the time of my incarceration I began writing poetry and considered myself a serious poet. I started Pygmy Forest Press in 1987 and self-published my first book. I moved to Eureka, CA in 1998 and worked for the local environmental non-profit as an office person. In 1999, after 24 years of being on parole and being hassled by the mental health authorities I was found, “fully restored to sanity.”
In 2001 I moved to Springfield, OR with my elderly mother. I worked for five years in the mental health field and retired in 2006 to do full-time home care for my mother. This entire time (except for the five years in Oregon) I worked 20 hours a week or fewer and devoted myself full-time to painting and poetry, but mostly poetry. Currently I live in Springfield, OR where I take care of my nearly 97 year-old mother.
Since 1987 I have published 20 chapbooks and fourteen full-length collections from over a dozen different presses. I usually write almost two full collections and two or three chaps a year. Right now I have six unpublished manuscripts out at various presses and I hope to have two or three more books this year and next.
On the “asylum” business. Let’s deal with the dark here first. Some excerpts from his “Seven Quick Takes from Asylum”
One: Just Desserts
Gary is small and wiry. A Vietnam special forces vet and state champion in lightweight wrestling before he went to the Nam. He’s sitting at dinner when the 240 pound body builder next to him tells Gary he wants his dessert. Gary is quiet and doesn’t respond. The big guy tells him he’ll beat the shit out of Gary unless he gets the dessert. Then he stands up, glares, and throws a punch. Gary tilts his head and slips the blow. Before the guy can move Gary counter punches a short right to the solar plexus. The guy goes down in a flash. Still sitting, Gary continues his meal. The techs run over and ask what happened . Someone says, “He must have fainted.”
Everyone knows John is a racist. One day at lunch, Seth, a black guy, is last in line and the only seat left is next to John. Seth sits and begins eating. With no warning John picks up his fork and stabs Seth in the forearm. The techs rush over and take John back to the ward. When we get there he is being wheeled out on a gurney covered by a sheet. We never see him again. Later we learn the official cause of death says he choked on a piece of meat. We didn’t have meat that meal.
Seven: Tom, Disappeared in Asylum
Tom was a religious young man. Once he told me I knew all the forms of human love, but, that someday I would experience divine love. He was a Christian Scientist who believed his faith meant that he shouldn’t have to take meds. When they would drag him into isolation and strap him down Tom would astral project out to the cosmos. He told me he had friends and family on some stars and every planet in the universe. One time, after he refused meds for three days, the technicians approached him with a syringe full of Thorazine. Before they got to him Tom hurled an ashtray at them. They threw him down, took him to the isolation room and strapped him in. A few days later I asked one of the technicians what they had done with him. All he said was, “We fixed him.” I never saw Tom again.
So there’s that. Some of that. Not ‘pretty’ but definitely real. Well told. Revealed.
And there is this too:
Variation on a Seven-Character
Regulated Verse by Zhangji
My worth is not much in this big world,
in fact I’m barely more than a beggar,
but what little I have I give freely
and often more than those with lots of money.
The world is poor, I have so much: a house,
old car, coffee, smokes, art, and lots of books;
what more can I ask? My arrears are paid in full.
One day III sell this house and live at my
brother’s farm. The dark, old, dusty barn
may be drafty, but with solid, dry madrone
and a good stove, winters won’t be bone cold.
from CHINESE MASTERS
And this…that light of the East in his work I was talking about:
For My Friend, David, Who Lived in a Shack
How I envy you, far from all striving. —Li Po
The moon, your shadow, come to visit and the
of you are one. In the high light of darkness
the tips of redwoods spin to the east, the five
are splendid under the waxing moon. Westward,
the ocean, with its specific smell and hermit fish.
There, the crabs and abalone grapple with rocks
and sand the way you have transformed your small
with the path to its door often unswept, and the
lying unbroken at the entrance. If l asked why
you live here alone with only the trilliums and
you would answer, because of the fog and the rare
yellow clouds. To separate myself from the crowds
I take refuge in the woods, to keep myself sane.
Li Po said, The world hates a thing too pure,
but I’m sure you’ve walked the right way,
far into the essence and the unknown.
from CHINESE MASTERS
I asked him about the Eastern influence, which I see in much of the best American poetry going back to the Transcendentalists, the imagists…on to Pound, Williams, the Beats…some of the poets who matter today. Leonard Cirino’s own work…
My introduction to the Chinese was when I was in high school and my mother had “Translations from the Chinese” by Arthur Waley I read this book many times and it started my interest in poetry along with Wallace Stevens. From my teenage years I preferred the translations of Waley to those of Pound. They seemed so much more thorough and more deeply involved with the culture than any “Amercanizations” that Pound did.
I read widely in my youth but mostly fiction as that was my interest back then. I read the Asian poets through the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s but with no real knowledge of what I was reading. In the late 80’s some friends of mine traveled to Europe and left me with several anthology translations from the southern and eastern Europeans and my interest in poetry was restored. I had become very despondent with the quality of US poets since the deaths of Lowell, Berryman, Sexton, and James Wright. Very few US poets spoke to me then and they still do not now. I think this is when I began to find my own voice mixed among the voices of many poets I could relate to – men and women who had been through either the Spanish Civil War or World War 2 – either under Nazi or Communist occupation.
My asylum life was tough and these poets spoke to me with authenticity about the human condition. After living a rural life for twenty years I began to “get” the Asians in all their variety and depth. I lived a life of relative simplicity myself and found that these men (and a few women) were uttering the most complex ideas with the simplest language and beautiful imagery. The conditions they lived under were difficult but they transcended their situations with a simplicity that I look to today as an aspiration in my life.
I still devote most of my reading, except for magazines, to poets in translation. I’d say that 75-80% of the poetry I read is in translation because I find people from around the world have far more to say than the poets in the US who are either self-described “outlaws” or belong to the privileged or academic classes and I don’t relate to either of them.
The rural life still appeals to me although I live in the suburbs of Eugene – still a small city with a town-like feeling, When I resolve my life here I might possibly move to my brother’s farm in the rural coastal mountains of Oregon. The closest stoplight is 34 miles away and I would like that but my health is starting to fail and I might need to be closer to medical help. No matter what happens I will continue to read the Asians, both modern and traditional.
Along with Kenneth Rexroth from earlier times my favorite contemporary translators from the Asian are Jonathan Chaves, David Hinton, David Young and Burton Watson.
I don’t know where to go from here, there are so many directions. This is one of the longest introductions, in-depth pieces I’ve ever done on an unknown writer-of-record—who definitely needs an introduction. He has so much to tell and show.
I might end with Cirino’s evaluation of his own writing career:
As one of my poems says, “He was hard at work being unemployed,” and only in the last five years of working did I live above the poverty level. I always had food and shelter and enough street smarts to trade for used books and I didn’t want for much more than that. As far as where my writing is going I just keep on keeping on. I have absolutely no commercial success and a bestselling book of mine is 75 copies. I have received no awards or grants, won no contests, yet I am among the most devoted, well read, and hardest working poets in the US or anywhere. I don’t have many illusions about success—especially in today’s literary market—so I will go on in my suburban hermit mode and do the real work. Most likely I will keep on reading translations from all over the world and use the poets I read to “inspire” my own work. As one of my unpublished titles says, I have become “The Instrument of Others.”
But better yet, let the poet close with this little lament:
I give my simple love, true to the bone,
and cover you with persimmon kisses,
mushy and wet with lust like the sky tonight,
its ten thousand maple leaves fallen,
raked, and spread around the blueberry fence
that divides me from the rest of the world.
The persimmons are now bread, but you remain
in my huge heart where the world is tiny.
Editor’s note: Jane Crown’s excellent “Heavy Bear” will feature 75 poems by Leonard Cirino this summer. http://www.heavybear.janecrown.com