Wednesday, December 17, 2008


“In a world ruled by the logic of the marketplace, or in Communist countries by state planning, poetry is an activity that brings no return whatsoever. Its products are scarcely salable and very nearly useless (except as propaganda in dictatorships and totalitarian ideocracies). To the modern mind, even though it will not admit this to itself, poetry is energy, time, and talent turned into superfluous objects. Yet against all odds, poetry circulates and is read. Rejecting the marketplace, costing almost nothing at all, it goes from mouth to mouth, like air and water.”

These words, from Octazio Paz’s essay, “The Other Voice” (collected in The Other Voice: Essays on Modern Poetry, First Harvest, 1990), ring truer every time I read them. I quote them frequently. Each time I ask myself if it’s appropriate to quote them yet again. The answer is always: now more than ever.

This time, “The Other Voice” came to mind in Richard and Rachel Hansen’s midtown bookstore, The Book Collector. I’d dropped by during yesterday’s rainy mid-afternoon to buy a copy of Danyen Powell’s new chapbook, Blue Sky Flies Out, recently released from Rattlesnake Press. I asked Mr. Hansen how the release reading went last week and he beamed with enthusiasm. An enthusiasm widely shared since Kathy Kieth launched this chapbook series with the release of Danyen’s Anvil in 2004. Blue Sky Flies Out is number 45 in Rattlesnake Press’s Rattlechap series.

Danyen (Dan when we’re quaffing a pint) facilitates the Sacramento Poetry Center’s Tuesday night writers group. He’s been at it for over a decade, and writing poetry since he was a very young man. I’ve enjoyed seeing some of his poems in the early stages of their development, so the opportunity to read a new collection of his poems in final form is a real delight. Which brings me back to Mr. Paz’s essay.

“Its value and usefulness cannot be measured; a man rich in poetry may be a beggar. Nor can poems be hoarded: they must be voiced. A great mystery: the poem contains poetry only if it doesn’t keep it; the poetry must be given, shared, poured out like the wine from a bottle and water from a pitcher. All the arts, painting and sculpture in particular, being forms, are things; they can be kept, sold, and used as objects of financial speculation. Poetry, too, is a thing, but a thing that amounts to almost nothing: it is made of words, it is a puff of air that takes up no room in a space.”

While the poem itself may not take up room in a space, Mr. Hansen said it was a full-house the night of Danyen’s reading. Which is not uncommon. Sacramento poets turn out in enthusiastic numbers for Rattlechap releases. As do the foothills poets Ms. Kieth publishes. This was the case last month when my go-to writing partner, Moira Magneson, and Wendy Patrice Williams read from their newest collections. It is a personal pleasure to see my own Rattlechap displayed beside theirs at the Book Collector; beside those written by other friends and colleagues, including my teachers.

These Rattlechaps, and their associated release readings, are local treasures. Treasures that are aptly described by a quote Ms. Keith posted on her website, from the essay "In Praise of the Humble Chapbook," by Vive Griffith (Poet's Market, 2004): “They can be held easily in the hand, tucked graciously into a bag, slipped safely into a pocket. They can be read in one sitting. They are inexpensive to produce and purchase, and thus provide a perfect means for getting more new poetry into the world.”

In many ways, Rattlechaps are an example of the environmental community’s admonition to “think globally, act locally.” Grassroots, or bottom-up, labors like these are how we sustain what we value. I’ll leave the last word to Mr. Paz, whose essay is more relevant to our immediate times than he may have imagined.

“I argued, before, that if a new form of political thought were to emerge, the influence of poetry would be indirect: reminding us of certain buried realities, restoring them to life, presenting them. And confronted with the question of the survival of the human species on a poisoned and devastated planet, poetry can respond in no other way. Its influence must be indirect: intimating, suggesting, inspiring. Not logically demonstrating, but showing.”