Friday May 24

SamPereira Sam Pereira has published several books of poetry over the past four decades, the most recent ones being Bad Angels (Nine Mile Press, 2015) and Dusting on Sunday (Tebot Bach, 2012). His poems have been anthologized both nationally and internationally, some in translation into his ancestral language, Portuguese. He lives in California’s Central San Joaquin Valley with his wife, Susan, and Sonny, the most amazing Bichon Frise to ever walk the planet on four paws.


Sam Pereira Interview, with Al Maginnes

Like many poets, you make your living teaching. Could you talk a bit about your teaching and how it does or doesn’t relate with your poetry? What sort of students and course load do you teach? In my opinion, teaching has changed in many ways over the last decade or so, not all of them for the better. Would you like to comment on this?

Many of the poets my age have gone on to teach for decades at the college/university level. When I was finishing my MFA at Iowa, I thought that would happen for me, as well. But for many reasons, mostly brought on by my own darker side, that didn’t happen. I spent twenty-one years managing a farm supply store. There is probably nothing you could ask me about cattle dehorners, mastitis remedies, alfalfa seed varieties, or insecticides that I couldn’t give you a decent response to, even today. I existed mostly back then, went home at night and tried like hell to remind myself I was supposed to be writing through it all. Sometimes I actually did. Mostly, I sat around drinking and feeling sorry for myself.

When that job came to an end, I was given another chance to take back my life. It took a couple of years, but I found myself back in the classroom, not teaching college level students as the original dream had gone, but junior high school kids. These twelve and thirteen year olds bring out the best and the worst in me, but no day is ever the same; no day is ever a waste of a man’s time.

I rarely share my writing with the students. In that sense, I live in two different worlds. However, I have been able to bring them at least some notion now and then of what good contemporary writing sounds like, letting them know there is more to poetry in particular than the textbook same ol’ same ol’. It wears me out, but it keeps me somewhat sane at the same time. It’s amazing where we find our truths.

You use figures from popular culture and history in your poems. In this batch alone, we find Sinatra, Edward Dorn, Billy Joel and the Allman Brothers Band among others. I was once warned away from this as a young poet—a lesson I went on to ignore. Can you guess what accounts for these presences in your poems?

Generally, the inclusion of popular figures into my writing is not a conscious thing on my part. People like the ones you just mentioned are floating around in my head on a regular basis, so why not make Sinatra or Duane Allman earn their keep and have them doing what they did when they were alive, although in a slightly more wicked way, perhaps? Here’s an example. In an earlier poem Sinatra is performing for a crowd and introducing a song that I had presumably written the lyrics for, which Frank, as he was prone to doing, brought up at the same time he was telling them it was arranged by Nelson Riddle. If these people won’t knock on your door, you take your door to them. No one’s the wiser.

In a time when many poets, especially younger ones, are shying away from narrative, you embrace it. By the same token, your poems tend to be accessible in language and content. Are these things related and are they important to you?

Actually, I have always considered myself a narrative poet with lyric tendencies. The idea of telling a story in metaphor and with brevity is, I think, creating the nectar all good poets want to drink from.

As to accessibility, isn’t that kind of the point? Striving to be incomprehensible seems like such a waste of time. I know any number of ways to waste time, and have proven it for what amounts to about a third of my life thus far, but at 68 years old now, I just don’t have any extra hours or minutes to waste on not being understood in my work. It’s not fair to the reader and it’s not fair to me.

You are associated with the Fresno poets such as Philip Levine, Peter Everwine, David St. John, and Larry Levis. Are there any associations or memories of this group or of poets associated with this group that you’d like to share?

These people are some of the reasons anyone has ever taken Sam Pereira seriously in the first place. When I came to Fresno as a kid who’d read a little Shakespeare and knew that Dostoyevsky was Russian, I needed to be shaken a bit; told that my ideas were, for the most part, crap. If I was truly interested in writing well, then I’d best listen. I did. Phil was the one everyone feared, mostly because of his brutal honesty. He was also the guy who, once he believed you were the real deal, would go out of his way to support and help in any way he could. He was a friend for more than 40 years. Sometimes, if I look real hard, I can still see him nudging me to go on.

Peter was there before Phil as one of my teachers, and before Pete, Chuck Hanzlicek. Both of these generous men eased my work along, Pete with gentle, dignified coaxing, along with an undercurrent of firm beliefs about what a poem could and should be. Chuck--because he was a bit younger than the other two and was my introduction to poetry at the college level--was able to get my complete attention and devotion to the art by introducing his classes to great poets like James Wright and Robert Bly, and, yes, the one and only George Oppen, who deserves a shelf all his own. I hate the word “blessed” most of the time, but dammit, I was blessed!

David and Larry were there with me, both at Fresno, and later at the Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City. I still rely heavily on David’s responses to my work, along with the thoughts of my teacher and friend, Norman Dubie. These two poets are essential to me in ways I can’t even begin to express clearly.

Larry Levis was and is an enigma to me. I go back and read his poems on occasion, usually at difficult times, and every time I do, much as I did years ago with the poetry of John Berryman, I find myself so wrapped up in the sounds and ideas, that I begin to write like them, and not myself. At least, it feels that way to me. So I have to put their work aside for a while and grab my own voice back before it goes away forever, looking for trouble.

By the way, this year, the fine poet, Michele Poulos, who is also a wonderful film maker, directed and introduced to the world a documentary about Larry’s life called A Late Style of Fire: Larry Levis, American Poet. I was honored to have been included in the film, even though it is a brief moment. Our dog, Sonny, also makes an appearance in the film. He walks around the house now as though he’s Whitman reincarnated.

You write a lot about music. So what is on your turntable, CD player, ipod as we speak?

Honestly, this question made me think of an old Jerry Jeff Walker song that came out sometime in the late 1980s. It’s called “I Feel like Hank Williams Tonight,” and it goes through all the possible background music of a man’s life, be it classical, or rock, or jazz, or country. A marvelously mellow and honest song!

As for me, I listen to a lot of jazz vocalists. Sinatra, of course. Julie London. June Christy. Nat Cole. Ella Fitzgerald. No surprises. I still believe in the power of rock ‘n roll, but only as God intended: dark & joyful, with just a hint of ennui coming from a Fender bass. Country when it’s the pure stuff—Merle, George Jones, Hank (the old man, to be clear). Classical? You bet. Bach, Vivaldi. Not Strauss, and for the most part, not the Russians.

Finally, here is a question that was posed to me when I was interviewed by Connotation Press. What superpower do you wish you possessed?

The ability to cure pain. Not doctor magic. Shaman magic, where you take a person’s soul and rip it to shreds, then painstakingly put it back together again in some new, more useful configuration. On a good day, I like to think poetry cures pain.

The Vocalists of Miroslav Holub

Every time Bobby Darin did Sinatra,
The only thing missing was the cigarette,
The bourbon, and a long-legged blonde,
Which is why Frank will always be
The ultimate multitasker. Still,
As Miroslav Holub might have said,
No one but a kid from the Bronx,
Or Ella Fitzgerald could ever sing
"Mack the Knife" like they meant it.
This then is a compendium
Of what I know about jazz. Oh,
There would always be the brief
Interlude with June Christy, but
She was much older than me,
A refined alcoholic of means.
Someone cool to walk into
A dive with, to watch her pull tight
That long white glove to better
Hold the chrome mic up
Near her deep red lipsticked mouth.
Music hasn't looked so good in years,
According to the broken bodies
In this alley, where immunology
And Satchmo couldn’t save a soul.

Homily for Poets and Their Ilk

When Ed Dorn wrote
The Gunslinger poems,
I was nineteen years old
And knew I was going to be
A poet. Gates and Jobs
Wouldn’t become new money
For another two decades.
Dorn died. I will, too.
In another fifty years or so,
The best I can hope for is that
Someone sits down at whatever
The contraption happens to be—
And, perhaps with a pencil,
Maybe, a sharp stone—
Simply lets the words slide:
When Sam Pereira wrote
About Ed Dorn writing
The Gunslinger poems,
He seemed convinced
Of salvation’s dark rhythm.
Pereira died. Everyone accepts
The homily as the only realistic form
Of good-bye, which Ed and I
Talk to the horses about, here
In the clouds of cowboy heaven.

Not Taking a Walk in Cheyenne, Wyoming, 1973

Today, I have been thinking about death. It's nothing new. In fact, I once told a priest or a bartender--I forget which, but my money is on the bartender--that my memories of some people have taken on an amber color, making them seem richer than they ever really were. The woman on the bus, missing a leg, and insisting on telling me about the surgery, comes to mind. Over eggs and sausage at a diner in Cheyenne, Wyoming, she took out a small bottle of vodka and rubbed it over the area where the leg once crossed the other leg. She said she wanted to go out and walk in the snow and then she laughed. The bus took us where we were going. I believe she must be a racehorse in the clouds today, looking down and whispering, in her best impersonation of wind sounding like a gallop, "Think about it. Think about it. I'm walking in the snow, old stranger. You can do it, too."

13:11, Elizabeth Reed, Fillmore East ‘71

I suppose it’s a generational thing,
But no guitar has ever sounded
So sweet. In the middle
Of a quiet wood, what can I say?
The South will dance again?
Probably not ever. Probably,
When the final cloud rushes
The old highways, and the ghosts
Of my ancestors once removed
Take snuff and clear liquids
Into the dawn; when
A cigar-toting politician
In a white suit, caressing
A watch fob, smiles
At a long-legged young girl
In short jeans, perhaps then
Another guitar can take over
And make young men think
They are hearing violins again.

The Grand Pianos of Maryland
                                    for David St. John

Once, in Baltimore, I walked
Into a hotel bar containing a piano.
A thin man in a suit was playing it.
I was drunk, of course, and, yes,
I asked if he would play "Piano Man."

He smiled. He told me I was the first
To ever ask for such a fine tune.
He was mocking me, but as a drunk,
I believed in the power of Billy Joel.
Each night, while I stayed in that hotel,

I managed to stagger in around eight,
And as I walked across the floor,
James, because we were on
A first name basis by then, James
Would fire up the eighty-eights

Like it was really nine o'clock
On a Saturday. I pointed toward him,
And smiled away from my booth.
He continued for the next two hours,
Ending with Piano Concerto No. 2

By Rachmaninoff, prefacing
That Billy always believed Sergei
Had been his grandfather, and
This was where he'd gotten all
Of his natural talent for "Piano Man."

Ah, man, I believed that, too.
Then James would take his snifter,
Give a slight bow, and walk to his car
In the rain. It was eleven o'clock
On a Saturday, and the regular crowd

Began shuffling home.

An Open Letter to My Wife about the Potassium Gods Who Tried to Take Her

If there is anything I can say about the whiteness of your pills, and the harsh burn of the drip into your right arm, it has to be that gods like these are simplistic in the end. We are asked to pay attention and they sting us. Maybe, they kill us, or merely prop us into daylight, enticing us with the god equivalent of a nice cup of tea.

Of course, the world is crazy, they say. It's the goddamn Potassium Wars that started when Man asked Woman for a dance. After that, the children became obese and indifferent, but continued telling their children find a decent partner. Multiply, as in 1 X 0=0. This will never happen, assuming the two of us refuse complicity.

Here's the plan: You come home. We make some soup. We get some sleep. We get on with the Potassium Wars in the morning. This time, we win. Come here. I want to kiss the softness of your belly and fall asleep, as what passes for drums in the night rolls on. Everything is about medicine and religion in the end. Come here.

photo credit: David St. John