City Lights Books: Sesshu Foster, World Ball Notebook

I am saddened to read this morning about the poetry reading Eileen Tabios recently attended (see her blog post here). Actually, that type of poet, what I’ll call the entitled poet, really gets me negative about po-biz and how folks get consumed about it. For more on po-biz, and the importance of each of us controlling our own careers, hence, avoiding its consuming you, do read Guy LeCharles Gonzalez’s post here. But po-biz and poetry are two different things, and I am a firm believer in the poem, the work to birth the poem, the body of poems, the book, and the connection made with the reader and audience.

world-ball-ntoebookOK, that’s my preface to Sesshu Foster’s City Lights Books reading from his latest book, World Ball Notebook. This is the second time I’ve seen Sesshu read; the first was with Small Press Traffic for their evening of fiction which also included R. Zamora Linmark, and so I was very happy to be co-hosting that event. I’m a big fan of his work, having come to City Terrace Field Manual nearly a decade after its release. Still, I realize I came to this book at exactly the right time in my poetics, writing process, ongoing education. At his SPT reading, I picked up Atomik Aztex, which was bloody, surreal, absurd, crazy, and dense, and really very very funny.

At this point in my reading of his work, I am coming to understand well some things about his process. It’s hard not to admire him. We just picked up World Ball Notebook so I haven’t read it yet. What I can say so far from what I’ve heard from his readings, and from his and his editor’s talk yesterday evening, is that Sesshu is interested in these poems about being a father, a soccer dad, about time passing, about place and geography, what poetry exists in the spaces we inhabit/live in, how we impart poetry in all these places. He is playful, and of course we see this in the game format of this book, i.e. each poem is a “game,” and he is interested also in these games/poems being interactive. That is, we create via our social interactions, our dialogues, our sharing of space and information. Space here can also be e-space, productively used.

Certainly, the soccer game is one of those spaces a soccer dad can occupy over time, and see people growing and changing. He told us of one of his daughter’s teammates, whose family was brilliant, academically successful. At some point after graduating from Brown University (or other Ivy League school), she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and is now homeless, living in the streets, in Ghana. So this is obviously a sad story, but imagine how it must weigh on the former soccer dad, who saw this girl grow up alongside his own daughter. Perhaps he saw her every week, and perhaps he was on the soccer field sidelines with this girl’s parents every week, for years.

OK, so that’s one thing about this collection — its range. Optometry questionnaires and Trader Joe’s grocery lists, internet memes are all a part of that world of soccer games, giving his daughter rides to the wrong airport during LA rush hour gridlock traffic, standing in line at the DMV for hours and having a crappy or dorky diver’s license picture to commemorate those many hours in the DMV line, and so the poetic forms he uses, also have range, as does the book’s emotional content.

His City Lights Books editor hosted the reading, which afterward, she opened up for a Q&A. We were able to hear from her how she worked with him in developing this collection. She also told us about the challenges in editing Atomik Aztex, in considering accessibility while protecting the interests of the author. At this point I thought, OMFG, this woman edited Atomik Aztex, and this made her the most amazing person ever. I do wish I could remember her name. She was great about stepping back and letting Sesshu have the podium.

She and Sesshu did talk about that development of the manuscript into the book, and this was really great, for we were able to hear Sesshu discuss his poetic concerns. He tells us he is against refinement for sake of itself. If what you are writing is rough, if that is the effect you want your work to have because it mirrors the lived experience, then forego that process of refinement. Let the work have grit, or let it be whatever it needs to be. We definitely see this in the very “in the moment” sense of the poems, in which he does pay acute attention to that moment’s internal and external details. Nicely structured litanies about very profound concepts come to him while washing the dishes, for example.

Oscar asked Sesshu a question about his use of the prose block or prose poem, and his answer was great: Sesshu told us he felt uneasy or uncomfortable with enjambment. He told us, how many poems do you read on the page that you wonder about that enjambment. And then when you hear the author read that poem, s/he completely disregards that enjambment. So then, what’s the point of it? Here, I was thinking, AMEN! How many times do I read a poem that I wonder, why is this considered a poem? Because it’s broken into lines? And why is it broken into lines? Because it wants to be considered a poem? He then said, I don’t want to enjamb because it’s cute. So the prose block then. Within the prose block, there are other opportunites for caesurae: a tab space, or an underscore blank line also gives the pause effect when needed. So here we see his technical poetic concerns, his very deliberate choices, as he tells us very justifiably why he is against refinenent.

I am looking forward to reading World Ball Notebook, and I am also wondering how to get a hold of Angry Days (West End Press, 1987), which is out of print.

4 thoughts on “City Lights Books: Sesshu Foster, World Ball Notebook

  1. “…why is this considered a poem? Because it’s broken into lines? And why is it broken into lines? Because it wants to be considered a poem?”

    Interesting stuff about Sesshu Foster and the prose block.

  2. So sorry I’m only seeing your comment now…more anon. Very much appreciate your thots. Love your blog too.


  3. Hi there, i am a friend of Sesshu and I have copies of Angry Days. I’d love to give you one. email me and i’ll figure out how to get one to you


  4. Hi folks, thanks for the comments.

    Anisa, yes I am very interested in poetic lines and line breaks, used in interesting, meaningful, and musical ways. Having read one book each of poetry and novel by Sesshu, I can say there are big blurs or overlaps in “genre,” which are deliberate. I think about how what appears to be prose can indeed be poetry; another example of this is Linh Dinh’s Blood and Soap.

    LH, no worries on those comments. Thanks! And looking forward to hearing more.

    Arnoldo, this is very generous of you. Thank you. I’ll backchannel, and would like to offer a trade. Poetry and gift economy, and all.

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