Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Philip Levine, Poet and Teacher, Dies at 87 on Feb. 14, 2015

My one great teacher, Philip Levine, died on Valentine's Day last Saturday.

Of all the teachers I've studied with as a student, none were as great as Phil Levine.  I had the pleasure of taking of his advanced poetry writing workshops at Fresno State for five semesters, from the late 1970s and to the mid 1980s just before I went to graduate school.

Some of my fellow students complained about Phil's rather harsh criticism:  I found his stinging, sometimes comic-tinged advice incredibly helpful.  If Phil didn't like something in one of my poems, I knew after his comments that I would never repeat such flaws.  For I also found the opposite, his praise, just as helpful:  If he had no harsh words for one of my poems, then I knew I had written something that might--might--have some merit.  His criticism and praise were the sharp points that spurred me on to always try to go beyond what I knew I could write.

That was Phil's gift as a teacher:  He wanted his students to challenge themselves, to never be satisfied with one's work.

Of course, his poetry will be with us for as long as written words matter.  But as a former student of Phil's, I know that I share a unique kinship with others who winced, floated, and laughed--sometimes in the same class meeting--because of Phil's gifts as a teacher.

Thank you, Phil, for the gift of your attention to those of us who became poets and, more importantly, became caring human beings, for you knew that the world is a vale of soul making.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

My father, Jose M. Vasquez, died on Nov. 25, 2014

My father, Jose M. Vasquez, died on Nov. 25, 2014.  He was 89 years old, and he would have turned 90 had he lived another 33 days.

After my mother died in March of 2013, I became my father's main caregiver:  I moved in with him in Fresno even though I still maintain my permanent residence 45 miles away in Visalia.  Hence, I have a great appreciation for anyone who cares for or has cared for an elderly parent.  Sadly, some people place their elderly loved ones in nursing homes--and my father briefly stayed in such a facility for rehabilitation purposes.  But like many in nursing homes, my father did not get better; rather, his health deteriorated and he could no longer walk after a three-month stay.  After one of my nephews remodeled his hallway bathroom into a wheelchair-capable shower, I was finally able to bring him back home where three caregivers and I took care of him until his death.  My advice to anyone is to avoid if at all possible placing anyone in a nursing home no matter how "nice" or expensive.  All nursing homes have flaws, some of which can be harmful to your loved ones.  For example, urinary tract infections are common in most facilities; many patients suffer falls, often because nursing home personnel are overworked or simply ill-trained and don't know how to keep their charges from falling out of beds or wheelchairs.

Since my father suffered from numerous ailments (heart disease, gallbladder problems, failing kidneys, an aortic aneurysm in his abdomen, etc.), we knew he had little time left, and we wanted him to die at his home instead of in a facility.  Medicare offers assistance to help care for a loved one at home; when he went from home care to hospice care at home, Medicare provided even more help, including paying for all of his medications and incontinence supplies--they even provided an all-electric bed instead of the usual semi-electric bed we used during his home care status.  And the hospice personnel who came to the house to attend to my father's medical needs were incredibly kind people.

And, of course, I'm glad I was able to find three caregivers who made my father's last months as comfortable as possible.

My father is now out of any pain or discomfort, for I know he's with my mother in heaven.  I have written a number of poems about my father, but I'd like to end with a few lines I just wrote for him.

Jalisco in Heaven

for Jose Mercado Vasquez

The dirt road that leads to Rancho de Los Zapotes
exhales into Jalisco's November light,
and children you once knew soon come into view;
even the mango trees wave hello instead of goodbye.

A horse neighs and extends her long face
over the neck-worn wooden pasture rails,
and the small house in the background, the adobe
the color of skin, offers an open door.

And one kiss on the cheek follows another,
and trays of bread and fruit soon shine
as you smile, aware of your strong legs
that can now walk the endless horizons.

--Robert Vasquez

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Juror B37: How Institutional Racism Affects Jurors

I have been routinely teaching a theme-oriented composition course that focuses on institutional racism for well over a decade.  During that time I've probably spent hundreds of hours doing research on the topic, and I've found that Paul Kivel's Uprooting Racism text is probably one of the best documents that can help anyone learn how institutional racism manifests itself in their daily lives regardless of race or ethnicity.  Before anyone starts to complain--especially whites who suddenly become overly defensive despite their relative lack of knowledge about institutional racism which many often confuse with personal prejudice--one should read Kivel's text or any other well-researched work that focuses on this thoroughly ingrained phenomenon.

And Juror B37's recent interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper unintentionally illustrates how institutional racism affects the judicial system and even jurors themselves.

For example, if one queries roomfuls of people of color if they think nearly all-white juries or hiring committees or police departments or court systems routinely negatively impact them, one will be overwhelmed by responses in the affirmative.  Of course, that's something white America rarely witnesses since such roomfuls don't get much attention, let alone assembled, on any cable or network news show.

One cause for institutional racism stems from one important fact:  Most whites live fairly segregated personal lives.  They might have some regular, forced contact with Latino/as, African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and other non-whites via employment situations which are usually limited in scope:  it's forced, often superficial interaction.  For example, I teach at a community college where 57.5% of the students are Latino/as (most are people of Mexican descent; 70% of our student body identifies themselves as members of non-white groups); nevertheless, many--if not the overwhelming majority--of my white colleagues can't point to one truly close Latino/a friend (not someone they say hello to in the hallways or briefly talk to in a department meeting--that's an acquaintance at best) even if such colleagues have lived most of their adult lives in the surrounding area where the latest 2010 U.S. Census Bureau report noted that 60% of the populace in Tulare County is "Hispanic."  Despite this forced interaction, few colleagues develop close relationships with Latino/as.  In contrast, my best friend for over 30 years is white; moreover, he comes from a different socioeconomic background (his father was a physician; my father was a cement mason) and is approximately 17 years my senior.  What drew to us to each other was our love for poetry (we met in a poetry writing workshop in college) despite our obvious ethnic/racial/age/socioeconomic differences.  In short, I've been able to establish a close friendship with someone who's white, but I have severe doubts that many whites in this area will ever be able to establish similar close friendships with any Latino/a even though Latino/as are the largest so-called "minority" group here (that cosmic irony always makes me flinch when I hear white colleagues talk about "minorities" when whites are the numerical minority but the majority when it comes to their over-representation within the local teaching ranks:  triple affirmative action).

Let me make the jump to Juror B37.  After listening to her interview, I can ascertain with great assurance that she probably has no close friends of color.  Why?  Any astute listener should notice how quickly she identifies with "George" (she routinely addresses him by his Christian name even though most of the attorneys in the case on both sides refer to him as "Mr. Zimmerman") and the fact that she initially voted "Not Guilty" in the face of impressive--at least according to many people of color--circumstantial evidence that Zimmerman racially profiled Trayvon Martin and used unnecessary lethal force in what was essentially a fist fight.  Conveniently for Juror B37, she ignored the medical testimony that Zimmerman was not in any way severely injured but she quickly agreed with his claim that he "feared for his life."  She's quick to defend Zimmerman in her responses, but she has to think when she answers questions about Martin.  That quickness is an indicator of her predisposed nature to defend a fellow white person who took an innocent young teen's life.

If she had close friendships with African Americans, she might have been more open to the state's evidence--and to logic.  For example, once Zimmerman shoots his pistol, the screaming stops.  Why?  Ask any forensic expert who's familiar with gunshot victims and he or she will note that once a person is shot in the torso, the immediate shock to one's cardiovascular system will generally end a person's screaming.  If Zimmerman had been the one who was screaming, he would have continued to scream to gain anyone's assistance even after shooting Martin.

If she had not been so isolated from people of color, she would have questioned Zimmerman's initial reason for calling the police.  Martin did not commit any crime, for it's not a crime to walk in any neighborhood at a leisurely pace; it's not a crime to drink an iced tea or munch on candy; it's not a crime to talk on a cell phone as one walks.  According to Zimmerman and Juror B37, Martin was "looking in houses...with no purpose."  When I walk in a neighborhood, I too look at the houses I pass, and I'm sure no one can somehow determine my "purpose" since mind reading is not a talent most possess.  Hence, Juror B37 should have asked herself this question:  "Why did Zimmerman call the police in the first place?"  We know from 911 police records that Zimmerman made numerous calls to report suspicious people in his neighborhood over the years:  All of his calls involved black people, not white people.  In essence, Zimmerman established a long pattern of racial profiling, yet Juror B37 and her fellow jurors for some reason ignored this fact.

She noted that Zimmerman had a right to "stand his ground," yet didn't Martin have a similar right to stand his ground as the person followed by a stranger?  When Martin asked Zimmerman what he wanted with him, why didn't Zimmerman identify himself as a neighborhood watch captain?  Why didn't Zimmerman immediately make an effort, considering he was armed, to assure the teen that the neighborhood has experienced a number of burglaries and he was curious as to Martin's "purpose"?

Of course, many of us know that the U. S. Constitution and Bill of Rights protect us from illegal search and seizure, that we have a right to our privacy, that we don't have to answer any questions from the Zimmermans in the world regardless of their mission, that they don't have the right to detain us as we walk down sidewalks.  After all, O. J. Simpson is in a Nevada prison for preventing others from leaving their hotel room--he committed technical kidnapping--and Zimmerman likewise had no legal right to detain Martin or anyone else on a public street who doesn't commit a crime.  Yet that fact also escaped Juror B37.

When I first heard about the composition of the Zimmerman jury, I shook my head, for I know from the research of others that mainly white jurors often side with white defendants when the victims are people of color.  One wonderful, eye-opening resource is the film Race to Execution:  the filmmakers bring to light various studies that prove that people of color, including victims, routinely suffer injustice at the hands of mainly white juries.

Institutional racism will continue to afflict people of color until juries, hiring committees, city councils, state legislatures, and police departments become truly diverse--and personal lives become truly diverse as well.  That will take personal effort and commitment, something many who sided with Zimmerman will never undertake or even consider.

Monday, March 11, 2013

For My Mother, Frances R. Vasquez (1931-2013)

My mother died on Saturday, March 9, 2013.  The following poem is for her who gave six children their lives--no greater gift yet devised on the planet since the universe exploded.

On the Day the Universe Ends
for Frances R. Vasquez

On the day the universe ends
 the sky shuts down, inundated
 by pneumonia's lung-borne flood,
for no ark drifts to shore.

 What songs the sparrows improvise
from branches to bowed power lines
go unsung, unplugged,
for no one monitors their jagged notes.

All the boys in grass-stained jeans
ladder down from tree houses,
chilled from the night's starless elms,
for the cold rungs give out like breath.

And the girls?  The girls know
what their ancestors knew, baptized
over the cistern's veined, mortal waters
on the day the universe ends.

--Robert Vasquez

Monday, April 23, 2012

Trayvon Martin's Death: The Fear of Difference

Clearly, not all of the facts have come to light in the tragic death of Trayvon Martin.  However, what is clear from the 911 tapes is George Zimmerman's anger at what he perceived to be a "punk" whose suspicious behavior--at least according to Zimmerman--mandated not only a call to local police but also Zimmerman's decision to leave his vehicle to pursue and ultimately kill a teen who was simply walking back to his father's fiance's nearby residence after buying some snacks at a neighborhood convenience store.

Although a number of people throughout this country say that Martin's race was not a factor in Zimmerman's decision-making process, anyone who labels a total stranger as a "punk" certainly illustrates his preconceived hostility.  And in doing so, he rationalizes his fear of difference.

Some speculate that the "hoodie" Martin was wearing was one initiating factor.  For example, Geraldo Rivera argued on national television that parents should not let their children wear such apparel (and, thus, he unknowingly implied that Zimmerman's suspicion was somehow justified because of Martin's attire).  Such profiling based on one's clothing is most commonly applied to children and adults of color.  If one asks a roomful of Latinos, African Americans, Asians, and others of color if they've been profiled and/or actually stopped and questioned by police or private security personnel because of their clothing or supposed gang attire (the coded language that police and others use to justify such harassment), one will hear a variety of anecdotes that paint a xenophobic tableau of contemporary America.

Others argue that Zimmerman's actions were justified because of the history of burglaries in his neighborhood.  Regardless of the number of crimes in any neighborhood, one is not allowed to pursue or confront strangers as if one is a police officer.  Zimmerman and others like him have the right to watch others in public and even report suspicious individuals and activities to their local police, but no one should associate past crimes in a specific neighborhood to strangers who, like Trayvon Martin, aren't acting in a suspicious manner.

And then there's the matter of Zimmerman's ability to legally carry a concealed weapon.

Florida was among one of the first states to become a "shall issue" state with respect to concealed carry permits:  If one pays the fees, takes and passes the required CCW classes, passes the background checks, isn't a convicted felon, and doesn't have a history of mental illness, one will be able to obtain a permit like the one Zimmerman possesses to legally carry a concealed weapon in public.  In contrast, California is still a "discretionary" state where one must give a justifiable reason for wanting a concealed carry permit (in addition to the required training classes and background checks) that must be approved by the applicant's county sheriff's office (the most common CCW permit-issuing authority in most discretionary states) or local police department.

Specifically, those who've taken any CCW course should know that they should never put themselves in the position of a pursuer:  CCW holders throughout the United States know that they can only use their weapons in situations where flight is impossible and where an attacker has the means to cause a life-threatening injury.  By physically pursuing Martin, Zimmerman violated that primary tenet since he's not a police officer, just a CCW holder; consequently, Zimmerman created a situation by becoming a pursuer and not just an observer.  Moreover, a fist fight between two men in most jurisdictions would not constitute a life-threatening situation; otherwise, countless police officers would be shooting people who physically challenge them to the point of fisticuffs on a daily basis. Consequently, Zimmerman's use of a firearm against an unarmed Trayvon Martin certainly would be viewed by the vast majority of CCW instructors--and most police officers--as inappropriate use of a concealed weapon.

If George Zimmerman somehow avoids conviction of second degree murder or a lesser charge of manslaughter, his actions will set a dangerous precedent that CCW holders can not only pursue people they deem to be suspicious but also utilize deadly force against people who don't wield lethal weapons.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

William Carlos Williams' Legacy: Poetry as Poetry


William Carlos Williams' poetry has never generated a critical canon (unlike texts about Eliot's or Pound's poetry) that's truly appreciative of Williams' primary goal:  Poetry should first and foremost be poetry.  In contrast,  Eliot and Pound seemed forever intent on using poetry as a vehicle to promote culture, history, religion--in short, anything other than simply poetry.  And, true to their nature, the critics took to Eliot and Pound in the same manner that sharks feed in a frenzy:  They couldn't get enough.  Sadly, those same critics largely ignored Williams as if his works exuded a kind of critic repellent.

No wonder most critics often don't know what to say about Williams' work (just as they often don't have anything interesting to say about Whitman's work as well); and, unlike Eliot and Pound, Williams didn't spur critics with metaphors or terms that required exegesis or Greek or Latin or Chinese translations.  Williams utilized the vernacular he spoke and heard in his daily life.  No reader will ever be impressed by literary allusions or extended conceits and metaphors in Williams' poetry, for he rarely relied on or was drawn to such conventions which are often the main reasons critics have written about poetry.  True, the Paterson volumes are Williams' answer to Eliot's The Waste Land and Pound's The Pisan Cantos, but one can assume that Williams was human:  He had to prove to the critics that he too could write an epic poem (though, and this is of course highly arguable, epic poems tend to be rather boring no matter the author).

Critics, on the whole, have been blind to the fact that Williams' chief influences were what appear to be two dichotomies:  His interest in the plastic arts, especially Cubism and other Modernist movements, and his outright love for his daily work as a physician.

Cubism nurtured Williams' appreciation for what many avant-garde artists strove for, that paintings (and, analogously, poems) didn't have to be informed by the historical and critical baggage of previous artistic movements.  Specifically, Picasso no longer felt a need to promote verisimilitude and one-point perspective once he gave the finger to the past with what some consider the first Cubist painting, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.  One could even argue that he left the painting supposedly unfinished (the areas around the canvas' borders are empty and unpainted) because, if he had finished it, such overall completion would have signaled to Picasso himself that he was finished in changing as an artist; on the contrary, Picasso had just begun to enter a new artistic world that's still evolving.

Not surprisingly, literature students often find Williams' refusal to let literary conventions like metaphors control or even appear in many of his poems discombobulating:  "Mr. Vasquez, what does he mean by 'red wheelbarrow' and 'white chickens'?"  If one responds with the following, "He means exactly what he's referring to--the poem's speaker focuses on the ordinary things of the world, for these things matter in and of themselves and should matter to us all as well," one will find that some students will think less of Williams' work because he often eschewed literary conventions.  However, if one were to note that Williams wrote that poem after visiting a family who had just suffered the loss of a child, the students would be quick to reevaluate and possibly even like the wheelbarrow and the chickens:  "Oh, I see.  These were the things that must have mattered to the child who died."  But Williams chose not to include those tidbits of information in his poem and for good reason:  The poem would have been about death ("Class, what is this poem about?"  "It's about death, Mrs. Marley."), and Williams was not interested in writing poems that could be easily summarized or categorized.  For the world of poetry to change, Williams realized that his appreciation of the world around him had to change if he was to free himself from the literary conventions that all too often dictate a poem's creation even before one stroke of a pen or a typewriter key hits paper.


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Tomas Transtromer Awarded Nobel Prize in Literature

This year is certainly a good one:  Tomas Transtromer has won the Nobel Prize.

I first became aware of his work during the late 1970s/early 1980s when I studied with Phil Levine and Peter Everwine at FSU; both are admirers of Transtromer's poetry and promoted his work to their students.

Now all that's left is for Bharati Mukherjee to win a Pulitzer or the Nobel as well (J.M. Coetzee won the Nobel in 2006--I think it was 2006, another writer I have admired for decades).