Is there a person nationwide who doesn’t know the fate of Kelly Thomas? Ron Thomas, Kelly Thomas’s father remains an outspoken advocate for the homeless community. Four years after Fullerton police officers Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli were acquitted of brutally beating his son Kelly Thomas to death near the Fullerton bus station in 2011, he continues to be an advocate for justice, not only for his son, but for all those affected by homelessness in his local community and nationwide. We spent an hour with Ron talking about the early days of Kelly Thomas, the need for social reform, the use of excessive force from both sides of the fence (Ron is an ex-sheriff) and much more. We were joined by homeless advocate, fine artist and poet Leigh White, as well as poet and reading series host, Steve Ramirez.
To My Son
A second trial has just begun
It’s been over 4 years since I lost you my son
On that hot July night with such fright in your eyes
Those six murdering thugs beat you, until you were no longer alive
As citizens watched the horror unfold
All of them learning something—that none of us were told
The fact that those who took an oath to protect and serve
Could kill a man so brutally without any reserve
I often look back on all of the years—
We did so many things together,
And soon come my tears
So many times we played our guitars
Both of us knowing we wouldn’t go far
And when we laughed so hard it hurt inside
Realizing that neither one of us could sing—
Not knowing what July 5th, 2011 would bring
I spend every day seeking justice for you
My redheaded son with eyes of blue
I give you this promise, as your dad that is true
I will not rest a day until justice comes through
You cried out my name 31 times—
And within moments you were no longer alive
I will forever miss you, my heart always sad
Those 31 times you cried out—
Crying out for me—
The only poem every written by Ron Thomas, father of Kelly.
Brian Turner’s latest book, My Life as a Foreign Country: A Memoir (W.W. Norton & Co. US 2014; Jonathan Cape/Random House UK 2014) has been called “Achingly, disturbingly, shockingly beautiful” by Nick Flynn and “a humane, heartbreaking, and expertly crafted work of literature” by Tim O’Brien. A Dutch edition was published in 2015 and an Italian edition is forthcoming in 2017. His two collections of poetry: Here, Bullet (Alice James Books, 2005; Bloodaxe Books, 2007) and Phantom Noise (Alice James Books 2010; Bloodaxe Books 2010) have also been published in Sweden by Oppenheim forlag and Poland by Galeria Literacka. His poems have also been published and translated into Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Serbo-Croatian, and Spanish.
His poetry and essays have been published in the New York Times, National Geographic, Poetry Daily, Virginia Quarterly Review, Georgia Review, and other journals. Turner was featured in the documentary film Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, which was nominated for an Academy Award. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a USA Hillcrest Fellowship in Literature, an NEA Literature Fellowship in Poetry, the Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship, a US-Japan Friendship Commission Fellowship, the Poets’ Prize, and a Fellowship from the Lannan Foundation. Phantom Noise was short-listed for the T.S. Eliot Prize in England in 2011. His work has appeared on National Public Radio, the BBC, Newshour with Jim Lehrer, Here and Now, and on Weekend America, among others.
Turner earned an MFA from the University of Oregon before serving for seven years in the US Army. He was an infantry team leader for a year in Iraq with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. Prior to that, he deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina with the 10th Mountain Division (1999-2000). As well as an infantryman, Brian has worked as a machinist, a locksmith’s assistant, a convenience store clerk, a pickler, a maker of circuit boards, a dishwasher, an EFL teacher in South Korea, a low voltage electrician, a wide variety of day labor jobs, and as a radio DJ.
Another of his ongoing passions is music; Turner was the bass guitarist for Fresno-based bands The Dead Guys, Chrome Grandma & the Shakes, and The Dead Quimbys. His recent musical collaborations and compositions include a concept album to complement an ongoing book-length poetry project.
Composer Shawn Crouch set Turner’s poetry to music, which was recorded by Chanticleer as “Gardens of Paradise” on their album Best of Chanticleer (Warner Classics, 2010). Other composers who have taken up Turner’s work and woven it into their own pieces include Jake Runestad and Rob Deemer—with performances by Vocal Essence, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, the Manitoba Singers, and at Carnegie Hall (November 2016) with the Park Avenue Symphony Orchestra and Choir.
Turner co-edited The Strangest of Theatres: Poets Writing Across Borders (McSweeney’s, 2013) for The Poetry Foundation. He serves as a contributing editor at The Normal School, and he curates an ongoing series for Guernica Daily called “The Kiss.” He also founded and directs the MFA in creative writing program at SNC Tahoe, which emphasizes writing in fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and writing for children and young adults.
Brian is married to poet Ilyse Kusnetz. They live in Orlando, Florida.
I am a drone aircraft plying the darkness above my body, flying over my wife as she sleeps beside me, over the curvature of the earth, over the glens of Antrim and the Dalmatian coastline, the shells of Dubrovnik and Brčko and Mosul arcing in the air beside me, projectiles filled with poems and death and love.
I am 32,000 feet over the Atlantic seaboard. The fields, the orchards, the woodlands below press together the way countries on maps do, coursing waterways, paved roads and dirt tracks and furrows cutting through. Countries touching countries. Bosnia and Vietnam and Iraq and Northern Ireland and Korea and Russia pressed together in the geography below. Cumulus scattered above them, their shapes authored by sunlight on the ground beneath. The Battle of Guadalcanal emerges from the shadows where my grandfather lives. Now Bougainville. Guam. Iwo Jima.
Highway 1—Iraq’s Highway of Death—stretches through desert on one side and California’s San Joaquin Valley on the other. The eucalyptus trees of my childhood line the sides of the highway. In places I can see the scorch marks on the asphalt where transport trucks were left to burn. My dead Uncle Paul steals oranges in the night groves there, just as he did when I was eight years old, while fresh dark earth covers the newly dead on the other side of the highway. Owls perch on their gravestones calling out for water.
Each night I do this, monitoring heat signatures in the landscape, switching from white-hot to black-hot lenses as I bank and turn, gathering circuit by circuit the necessary intelligence, all that I have done, all that we have done, compressed into the demarcations in the map below.
This is the year it could happen. Maybe you’re stuck in a stop-and-go rubberneck on the 91 Freeway, the radio a dull drone through your morning migraine as the partisan station of your choice recaps last night’s 184th presidential debate, a town hall-style, lightning-round game of charades, where the candidate who terrifies you the most intellectually pantomimes the dismemberment of the candidate who offers at least a squint of hope, like those glimmers that might or might not be oncoming headlights emerging from the glare of a blinding commuter’s sun. Maybe it’s already happened. Maybe you’ve already begun making a list of rhymes in your head. Dump. Slump. Jump. Maybe you’re slant-rhyming Bernie with wormy, smarmy, and germy—most poems start as limericks (it was true until the fact-checkers checked it, I swear).
Wherever it happens, you might find within yourself at some point over the next eight months the sudden urge to write a political poem. If you do, I’ve prepared this simple guide to help you handle the situation with aplomb.
First of all: Don’t panic. Pull over to the side of the road somewhere safe, or wait for the nearest exit, then find an empty parking lot or an exceptionally long drive-thru line. Poems sometimes write themselves, but they can’t write themselves while you’re driving. Only poem in park.
Don’t feel guilty. A poem is just a special way to talk about special things. Human beings come equipped with language processing lobes in their brains that demand we talk, and all humans are subject to special times like now, and special thoughts about those times like these. We all have an innate desire to say the unsayable, to articulate all that lies just beyond the reach of articulation. Poetry can happen to anyone, anywhere, so remember: It’s not your fault.
Find a recording device. Often people today carry with them smartphones, and if you yourself have one, you can record your poem as a voice memo, text it to a long-lost friend, email it to yourself, or tap it out using a standard writing application. If not, many of the world’s greatest poems have been written on ancient, crusty glovebox napkins. It’s true. If all else fails, there’s still rhythmic memorization, a pneumonic device, which historically has been the point of poetry more often than not. Whatever tool you use, just don’t lose it.
Now that you have your poem saved, the real trouble begins. Sure, you’ve written something “felt in the blood and felt along the heart,” as Wordsworth put it, but what next? Does your political poem have any cultural value? Should you share it with close friends, or perhaps even the general public?
On this question, poets themselves have long been split. In “A Defense of Poetry,” Percy Shelley famously wrote that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” and others have been trying to pat themselves on the back equally firmly ever since. William Carlos Williams says, “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” Your political poem could be a matter of life and death! More recently, Meena Alexander writes that, “We have poetry/ So we do not die of history,” a statement I particularly love.
Not everyone agrees, though. In a 1965 lecture to students at Berkeley, Jack Spicer said, “I don’t know of any political poems which have worked,” and suggested instead of writing poems that they write letters to their congressmen. Both would be equally effective, he reasoned. I once asked National Book Critic’s Circle Award winner Troy Jollimore why he finds political poems difficult to write, and he worried about preaching to the converted: “The people who know those are good values are already on my side; the people that don’t think they’re good values aren’t going to be convinced by my siding up with good values.” He has a point, too. A poem isn’t an argument. A poem’s purpose isn’t to persuade—persuasion is for op-eds and campaign ads. Poetry doesn’t argue; it argonauts.
So keeping that in mind, re-read your political poem. Is it cheer-leading, or is it trail-blazing? Is it just a bullhorn for someone else’s bullshit, or does it reach deeper into that abyss to haul up some new creature?
Ken Waldman has drawn on his 30 years in Alaska to produce poems, stories, and fiddle tunes that combine into a performance uniquely his.
A former college professor with an MFA in Creative Writing (University of Alaska Fairbanks, 1988), Waldman has had published six full-length poetry collections, a memoir, a children’s book, and has released nine CDs that mix old-time Appalachian-style string-band music with original poetry. Since 1995 he’s toured full-time, performing at some of the nation’s leading universities, festivals, arts centers, and clubs.
Three of his poetry collections are set in Alaska. His first, Nome Poems, details white and Native issues in rural Alaska and went through two printings with Albuquerque’s West End Press before Waldman reprinted it himself. His second, To Live on This Earth, was released by the same publisher and has poems set throughout Alaska; many focus on the natural world there. His third, The Secret Visitor’s Guide, was published by Wings Press of San Antonio, and revisits both Alaska settings, and includes work set outside Alaska, plus a sequence of political poems inspired by the September 11, 2001 attacks. Waldman has three other full-length poetry collections by respected and known publishers: And Shadow Remained (Pavement Saw Press), Conditions and Cures (Steel Toe Books), and As the World Burns (Ridgeway Press). His memoir, Are You Famous? (Catalyst Book Press), chronicles Waldman’s adventures on tour throughout the United States. His self-published children’s book, D is for Dog Team (Nomadic Press) is a sequence of Alaska-set acrostic poems for young readers that was almost immmediately picked up for distribution by University of Alaska Press.
Waldman has had over 400 poems and stories in journals and anthologies, including Beloit Poetry Journal, Puerto del Sol, and Quarterly West. He is currently shopping four additional full-length poetry collections, a novel, a story collection, a sequel to his memoir, and a hybrid work that is both memoir and a guide to writing—and also includes a full poetry collection of poems about writing and writers.
Among Waldman’s CDs are two for children, Fiddling Poets on Parade (2005) and D is for Dog Team (2009), which goes with the children’s book of the same title. On all CDs, Waldman is joined by ace accompanists. He’s also composed and recorded over one hundred original tunes.
Though he still performs solo on occasion, Waldman teams with other musicians when he headlines such venues as Cal Poly Arts, Lakewood Cultural Center in Colorado, The Millennium Stage at The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., or else for concert series and festivals. He’ll also bring a troupe of musicians for performing arts series shows.
He is also a popular visiting artist in classrooms. Using both his fiddle and a repertoire of proven writing exercises, he has led workshops in over 225 schools in 34 states nationwide, and has been a guest writer at over 100 colleges and universities, including University of Tennessee, Knox College, and San Diego State University.
His recent essay about making a living as a touring artist was in the September/October 2015 issue of Poets & Writers magazine, and can be seen here.
I toted my junker, side seam already cracked,
an old cheap box of wood that would take
the steep banks of small planes aiming
for runways, the bumps and jostles of sleds
hooked to snowmachines, the ice, the wind,
nights in the villages. Higher education
missionary, I made rounds to students’ homes
(where I visited, but never fit), to liaisons’
offices (where the state-issued equipment
sometimes worked), to the local high schools
and elementaries (where I volunteered service)—
fiddle closer to my heart than the backpack
full of books. Indeed, closer to my heart
than the frozen broken truth: a bloody pump
buried in utter darkness. Quick to unsnap
the case, I scratched tunes where no one had,
played real-life old-time music to Eskimos
and the odd whites in that weathered land.
The Pied Fiddler, I might have been, gently
placing the beat-up instrument in others’ hands,
giving up the bow. Good for smiles and laughs.
Random questions and comments. A third-grader:
It must be like having a dog making noise—
you must never get lonely. A high-schooler:
Is it hard to learn? One of my college students:
Why are you out here? Where is your family?
Education. While at Naropa University (Boulder, Colorado) studied and hung out with beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, Gary Snyder, and others; became a Tibetan Buddhist meditator. Performed in and produced conceptual art multidisciplinary presentations as poet, videographer, and electric guitarist. Undergraduate thesis on Japanese classical haiku, BA in Poetics and Expressive Arts, 1982. Completed Tibetan Buddhist seminary training in 1984, and returned to Naropa for an MA in Contemplative Psychology, graduated 1986. Worked as a clinical adult outpatient psychotherapist at Boulder Community Mental Health Center. In 1990, completed a Ph.D. at The Union Institute & University, in Poetics and Depth Psychology, studying Archetypal Psychology with James Hillman. Moved to Kumamoto, Japan, in 1997, teaching at university and publishing academic articles on Japanese and English-language haiku, while designing EFL educational software. Received tenure as an Associate Professor of British and American Literature, Faculty of Letters, Kumamoto University in 2002.
Activities. Co-judge of the Kusamakura International Haiku Competition, Kumamoto, Japan (2003-present). Founder and Director of the Kon Nichi Haiku Translation Group, Kumamoto University (2002-present). Founding Associate Member of The Haiku Foundation (thehaikufoundation.org). In March 2008, publication of Poems of Consciousness: Contemporary Japanese & English-language Haiku in Cross-cultural Perspective (Red Moon Press, 2008, 306 pp.) was awarded the HSA 2009 Mildred Kanterman Award for Haiku Criticism and Theory. In mixed media publication, the gendaihaiku.com website presents subtitled video interviews with notable gendaihaiku (modern Japanese haiku) poets, biographical information and haiku translations. In 2011, publication of Ikimonofûei: Poetic Composition on Living Things (a talk by Kaneko Tohta, with commentary and essays. Gilbert, et al, Red Moon Press, 92 pp.), and The Future of Haiku, an Interview with Kaneko Tohta (with commentary and essays. Gilbert, et al, Red Moon Press, 138 pp.). In 2012, publication of Selected Haiku of Kaneko Tohta, Part 1, 1937-1960 (with commentary, essays and chronology. Gilbert, et al, Red Moon Press, 256 pp.), and Selected Haiku of Kaneko Tohta, Part 2, 1961-2012 (with commentary, chronology and encyclopedic glossary. Gilbert, et al, Red Moon Press, 250 pp.). The two 2012 Selected Haiku of Kaneko Tohta volumes were awarded The Haiku Foundation 2012 Touchstone Distinguished Book Award. In August 2013, publication of The Disjunctive Dragonfly: A New Theory of English-language Haiku (R. Gilbert, Red Moon Press, 132 pp.): A revised and expanded update of the decade-old essay, which first appeared (in North America) in Modern Haiku Journal 35:2 (2004). The book contains 275 haiku by 185 authors, and several new sections, including a comparative discussion of strong and weak styles of disjunction in excellent haiku, and a presentation of seven newly coined “strong reader-resistance” disjunctive categories. (Full bio. available: http://thehaikufoundation.org/poet-details/?IDclient=159)
as an and you and you and you alone in the sea
Haiku in English, Kacian et al, New York: Norton, 2013, p.240
a drowning man
pulled into violet worlds
Haiku in English, Kacian et al, New York: Norton, 2013, p.240
something of a scar
of ocean left