THE STATE OF THE ART IN THE ART OF THE STATE by Gene Frumkin

Gene Frumkin, photo from Rio Grande Writers Quarterly, January 1986, heads his article The State of the Art[From the Rio Grande Writers Quarterly, Vol 1 Issue 1, January 1986, this adds so much to the RGWA material in the previous post . . . a  survey here by the late Gene Frumkin, note especially the beginning section and the end (can’t find a photo credit). Many thanks to the Quarterly which actually became Southwestern Discoveries. lg]

This past November in Albuquerque’s KiMo Theater the Rio Grande Writers Quarterly sponsored a benefit poetry reading and concert in which tradition appeared hand in hand with evolution.

The readers were Luci Tapahonso, Keith Wilson and Rudolfo Anaya, who, as Native American, Anglo and Chicano, respectively, represented tradition, that is, the bringing together of New Mexico’s three main cultures into a community of workers in the arts. It must be noted, however, that this is, so to speak, a new tradition. Two decades ago, when I moved to New Mexico, it did not exist. One didn’t hear much about Native American and Chicano writers then.

Evolution, in the sense I am proposing it, lies partly in the existence of the Rio Grande Writers Quarterly and the Rio Grande Writers Association, of which the Quarterly is an outgrowth, leading the way toward a possibly firmer, more integrated expression of the state’s literary resources.

But by no means are the RGWA and the Quarterly the only motivators in bonding together New Mexico writers for their common welfare. The state or region might be considered as a single entity, but of course it is comprised of smaller sectional communities. In this respect the Santa Fe Writers Co-op, whose primary organizer was Stan Steiner, continues its efforts to bring works of New Mex­ico writers to greater state-wide attention, and S.O.M.O.S. out of Taos, under the guidance of Anne McNaughton and Peter Douthit consistently bring excellent-writers into Northern New Mexico; while the newly-formed Albuquer­que United Writers, under the leadership of Holly Wilson, is intent on developing a higher level of unity and aware­ness in the state’s largest city.

Much older than any of these organizations is the New Mexico State Poetry Society, which continues to hold bi-weekly meetings and produces books of poetry period­ically, the latest being Earth Chant, a 1984 anthology.

But in assessing the state of the writing art and of poetry in particular at the present time in New Mexico, one must begin with the individual writers. While more needs to be said about presses, publications and the New Mexico Arts Division’s role in the evolutionary process under discussion, what is most impressive about the work that emanates from this area is its growth in quantity and quality.

One perhaps minor indication of how our writing com­munity has grown in numbers is suggested by a bit of name-counting in A Directory of American Poets of 1973 when there were 23 listed under the New Mexico heading. Under this same heading in the 1985-86 edition of this directory, which has now added the words and Fiction Writers to its title, there are 75 names. And for every writer listed many others, for whatever reasons, have chosen not to send in notice of their whereabouts.

More significant than numbers in this case are the kind and quality of work found in this region, so far from the publishing centers of the East and West Coasts. In her poem “Listen” (Seasonal Woman), Luci Tapahonso writes:

I tell my daughters:
When your daddy or your grandpa is singing—
be still and listen. It’s important to listen,
let the song come inside you. Even if it’s a
silly song or a haunting song—it’s important to
listen and see how he is when he sings.
It helps you grow strong, feel good about yourself.

The words come simply with feeling from this Navajo poet, and often they deal with family or tribal matters, in a personal, relational way. Although Tapahonso teaches in the Native American and the American Studies pro­grams at the University of New Mexico, the nature of her composition will not soon or easily fit into the customary niches of so-called academic poetry.

In his fiction, plays and poetry, Rudolfo Anaya gives us many of the key essences of Hispanic life in New Mexico, for example in this excerpt from his best-known novel, Bless Me, Ultima:

     For Ultima, even the plants had a spirit, and before I dug she made me speak to the plant and tell it why we pulled it from its home in the earth. “You that grow well here in the arroyo by the dampness of the river, we lift you to make good medicine,” Ultima in­toned softly and I found myself repeating after her. Then I would carefully dig out the plant, taking care not to let the steel of the shovel touch the tender roots. Of all the plants we gathered none was endowed with so much magic as the yerba del manso. It could cure burns, sores, piles, colic in babies, bleeding dysentery and even rheumatism. I knew this plant from long ago because my mother, who was surely not a curandera, often used it.

Even for one of Irish ancestry, New Mexico-born Keith Wilson, the mountains and plains of his environment hold many meanings; the following excerpt from “A Lament for Old Cowboys” (While Dancing Feet Shatter the Earth) discloses only one of a variety of responses in Wilson’s keeping:

They hear voices, the old
whispers of the land, the blued
hoofbeats of their horses shatter
the stone arroyo’s silence

beside the mountain
in soft mesquite dusk
the flutter of eagle feathers
shadows of lost ceremonials

Anaya and Wilson are also professors, yet in their writ­ings little will be found to gladden the editorial hearts of those who produce most of our major anthologies—mostly academic stuff—despite which both writers, among quite a few other New Mexicans, have garnered numerous honors.

It would be inexact, however, to leave the impression that the poetics of New Mexico has solely to do with hearth, landscape or magical plants. Nor is it true that the three main cultures are the only ones present here or worth paying attention to.[*]

In Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, of Chinese and Dutch extrac­tion, we have a poet who is gaining steadily in national recognition. Her earlier work gave substantial attention to her heritage—as does Arthur Sze’s, whose background is also Chinese—but more recently she has developed a style which owes more to the inherent properties of lan­guage in depicting the environment of sensuous thought itself. This results in a poetry that is dense with implica­tions, with levels of reference:

And I can’t predict your trauma. Potent and careless
as radiation here, which we call careless, because
we don’t suspect anything. Then future form is in doubt
Like a critic I thought form was an equilibrium
which progressed by momentum from some original reduction
of fear to the horizon. But my son’s thigh bones
are too long. I seduced myself. I thought
I’ll give a little fish for the unexpected. Its paw
moved. My back-bones are sparking mica on sand
now, that carried messages up and down

This poem from Berssenbrugge’s latest book, The Heat Bird, illustrates the sense in which strong poems can exist through thought-feeling processes not available to either surrealism or realism. Here the fidelity is not to outward facts—or not only to them—but to facts engendered in the mind by combinations of the outward and a language of the imagination dependent on the recognition of itself, insofar as that is possible. Therefore, when the first person refers to her son in line 6, it does not matter to the poem that Berssenbrugge herself has no son nor is it necessary to assume that the first person actually refers to her.

Were the words not so conscious of their subterranean dimension, it might be fair to call these evocations “dream-thoughts,” which is Freud’s description of the uncon­scious at work in the dream state. But Berssenbrugge does not show us dreams, although her work uses the psychol­ogy of that condition. More overt in dealing with the visions of night is Stanley Noyes’ newest book, The Com­mander of Dead Leaves: A Dream Collection.

Noyes has told me that all the poems in this volume result from actual dreams although many have been touched up here and there in the interest of poetic integ­rity. One of the outcomes of these nocturnal studies is Scene 2 from “Two Scenes from Bad Night:”

He’s in a wooden room, smaller
than an attic, where a rat hangs from a rafter
by its hind legs. It’s big as a Lab
and resembles a pig. The thing is dead.
Or is it? Sometimes it seems to move,
sometimes to peek at him, still dying.
What a way to kill animals, he thinks.
But they, they believe in making examples.

Much of the power of this work lies in its particularity of description, its exactness, whether the dream itself was precisely so or not. The language offers no difficulties; the picture is the fact that gives the poetry its surreal stark-ness and its moral perspective. Noyes’ gift has been to capture the sense of moral quality which inheres in the dreamworld as much as it does in the waking one.

The question of morality leads naturally to terms of social consciousness, to politics and probably, in some form or other, to the life of religion in our daily affairs. In this kind of context the arrival of Nathaniel Tarn and his wife, poet Janet Rodney, on the New Mexico scene during the past year adds significantly to a sense of ampli­tude that characterizes the work of our region these days. Tarn, an anthropologist and student of religion as well as one of the country’s most highly regarded poets, is among the more overtly political moralists we have in our midst.

In his chapbook, The Desert Mothers, he opens a poem:

 They never dreamed it.
     Or that the president,
discussing his wars with a general,
     should give one thought to a soldier,
a common man, or
     initiate consideration of his fate
          and, by extension,
perhaps call off the war: no,
     no president will talk, except of other leaders,
          as if to say: kings? KINGS? what kings?
Thrones are well-oiled, kings always protected.
               (“Or That the President Would Abdicate”)

The poem is dedicated to the soldier as common man. But it also offers us an equation, one which places poetry at the core of socio-political morality: “it is inescapable: the poem’s new/ or else, each time, a soldier dies for it.” The idea does not originate with Tarn, but what he does with it at the conclusion is quite original:

                    Silence approaches.
A lonesome ancient man.
     All are gone home. You are the poet.
With silence moving towards you,
     and you trying to work your throat, your voice,
          the ice-blue mind

It is in this last image of the ice-blue mind that Tarn challenges all of us, along with himself, to think. That is, to toughen our minds as we soften our hearts, to give our work a freshness and intelligence sufficient to impinge on the approaching silence, one’s own and possibly the world’s, and to bear on human events. Clear thought, poetic thought, would in this view of it go beyond the pettiness of literary politics and actu­ally give credence to the poet as a revitalizing actor in the language, in the news of the time and in a sense of the sacred.

I have chosen to take as examples from six poets what is generally true of other writings in and of New Mexico. The breadth of the work being done is large and exciting. Yet, although writers from this area re­ceive their share of National Endowment for the Arts grants, recognition from those in power in the pub­lishing world has been slow in getting here. Clearly, the Southwest is at a disadvantage due to the extent of its territory and the relatively small numbers of its inhabitants. We are located far from major industry, from financial centers, from the main publishing insti­tutions and reputation-making critics.

Even more pertinent is our overall stance in what we write about and how we write it. The sampling offered above reflects the cultures of the region as well as an encompassing and innovative attitude toward poetry. There is little produced here of what might be termed mainstream work, that is, a high degree of psychological attitudinizing, travel reports, slivers of natural lore, love poems as a species of suffocating fish, etc. On the whole, the mainstream produces poems with glossy beginnings and middles in addi­tion to the high polish of their finishes; they are wrought by our safer university workshops, which are more interested in encouraging contact-making rather than risk-taking.

Even so, the local presses keep running. Tooth of Time Press, out of Santa Fe, has put out outstanding books for a number of years and is gaining increasing notice. Sunstone Press, also of Santa Fe, continues steadily, while among the newer publishing ventures are Jim Harris’ Hawk Press in Hobbs and Jon Gill Bentley’s Automatic Press in Albuquerque.

Among other presses listed in the 1985-86 edition of The International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses are: Duende, Anonymous Owl, Carlo, The Sirius League, Center, Ancient City, Milagro, Mothering, Indian House, Saurian and Bilingue Publications.

Besides these a number of other presses got their start in New Mexico and moved elsewhere or discontinued after some years. These include Judson Crews’ pioneering Motive Press, Glenna Luschei’s Solo Press (now located in California), San Marcos, Red Earth, Lightning Tree, Yellow Butterfly and William Oandasan’s A Press.

A vigorously eclectic magazine (yes, it is possible to be both vigorous and eclectic) which recently came out with its first issue is Tyuonyi, edited by Phillip Foss and published by the Institute of American Indian Arts Press, Santa Fe. Puerto del Sol continues its long and fine career from New Mexico State University in Las Cruces and the same is true of the New Mexico Humanities Review from New Mexico Tech in Socorro. Emanating from the University of New Mexico are New America and Conceptions/Southwest, while among the privately-produced little magazines, all of them lively, are: Carol Berge’s long-lived Center, Carl Mayfield’s The Margarine Maypole Orangoutang Express and Jeanne Shannon’s Wildflower, Tarasque, which is brought out by Jim Burbank and Sharon Niederman, and Huevos, edited by two UNM students, David Putney and Steve Sullivan.

They are all unifying outlets—those referred to and the others—through their publishing of in-state writ­ing, but also through bringing to the attention of their readers quality writers from different parts of the country.

In 1979, Stanley Noyes, coordinator of the literature program for the New Mexico Arts Division, wrote: “The New Mexico Arts Division has made energetic efforts to employ qualified Native American and His­panic poets and to have them work, whenever pos­sible, in schools with high proportions of Spanish-speaking and American Indian students. They have, of course, also worked with Anglo students, and Anglo poets have worked with Chicano and Indian kids. There is no quicker way to get out of a mental ivory tower than to work in a multi-cultural classroom, and perhaps there is no better way to experience a culture alien to one’s own than through its children. One result of New Mexico PITS (Poets-in-the-Schools) has been an increased mutual respect among poets . . . ; another has been an increased sense of professionalism.”

While the PITS program has its problems from time to time, it nevertheless continues to accomplish excel­lently what it was founded in 1973 to do. New Mexico has become more multi- than tri-cultural in the past few years, but among writers at least there appears to be a reasonably good integrating knack. What we have, then, is communion in diversity. This fact, together with the continuing output of quality poetry and fic­tion, leads to the speculation that work from New Mexico residents will gain rather than lose impact on the rest of the nation in a shorter time than may now seem likely.

______________________________________________________________
Gene Frumkin has been a New Mexico resident since 1966 when he came here to take a teaching job at the University of New Mexico. His latest book of poems is Clouds and Red Earth, based largely on New Mexico experiences and moods. Forthcoming in 1986 is A Sweetness in the Air, an 85-poem sequence resulting from time spent in Hawaii. His poems have appeared in Boundary 2, Conjunctions, Sulfur, Kayak, Poetry, Paris Review and elsewhere. A chapbook, A Lover’s Quarrel with America, has just been published by the new Automatic Press of Albuquerque. [end of article]

Gene Frumkin .(1928–2007) was a longstanding teacher and poet at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

*as Maisha Baton has shown, and to a lesser extent Fred Ward has premiered  (perhaps New Mexico’s first published Black poet, Poems, Frederick Ward, 1966, duende press)  the “tri-cultural” banner has always been  an offensive joke as Afro-Americans and Asian-Americans have been in the state’s history all along and I don’t see any way to describe ourselves but a diverse culture . . . from the beginning. lg

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About larry goodell

Poet, voice theater, open space for others, helping hands, sensual paradise here on earth reinvigorated by organic gardening, spirits of New Mexico dancing....
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