Page 1

Edited by kenji c. liu

this be the town a n oakland word chapbook

this be the town An Oakland Word Chapbook

editor Kenji C. Liu associate editors Oscar Bermeo Amir Rabiyah

oakland public library ď‚• oakland, ca 2010

Copyright Š Oakland Public Library, 2010

No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying or recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Published July 2010 in the United States of America Designer: Kenji C. Liu Cover Photo: Jilchristina Vest of SNAPS

Other Oakland Word publications: In Your Ear: Selected Writings from Oakland Word

oakland public library Oakland Word’s mission is to provoke dialogue and encourage creativity, literacy and self-sufficiency by providing opportunities for underrepresented youth and adults to write, publish and perform works about their lives.



acknowledgments............................................................................. i foreword  Oscar Bermeo...................................................................... ii poetry

graffiti  Yaccaira Salvatierra............................................................... 1 postcard: harlem street party  Yaccaira Salvatierra..... 3 renovation  Yaccaira Salvatierra..................................................... 4 zaroor badalega  Irene Nexica....................................................... 5 kalamansi trees  Diana Halog........................................................ 7 public transportation  Diana Halog....................................... 9 when the trouble comes  Noelle de la Paz............................ 10 what is ours  Noelle de la Paz............................................................ 12 mediocre at its best  Noelle de la Paz......................................... 15 oakland is just not hardcore to me  Joyce Mayzck..... 17 i’ve always wanted to tell you  Joyce Mayzck................ 18 i/you are beautiful  Joyce Mayzck............................................. 19 it takes a village  Tunisia Owens............................................... 20 this be my town  Tunisia Owens.................................................... 21 lizzie borden  Leticia Garcia Bradford.......................................... 22 hope  Leticia Garcia Bradford................................................................ 25 environmental haiku  Nina Marie Cestaro.......................... 26 ode to furachoque  Nina Marie Cestaro.................................. 27 origins  Nicole Bohn.............................................................................. 30 van ness and eddy  Nicole Bohn.................................................... 31


Oakland Word thanks its summer creative writing instructors Oscar Bermeo, Claire Light, and Amir Rabiyah for their many talents and enthusiasm. Gratitude to Library Director Carmen MartĂ­nez, Nicole De Ayora, and Friends of the Oakland Public Library for their consistant support of the program. Special thanks to Jamie Turbak and Pete VillaseĂąor for opening their libraries to our summer program, and to April Kim and Wilson Wong of the Oakland Asian Cultural Center. Thank you also to Oakland Local.




What you are about to read are not just poems; they are maps to cities within cities, literary pathways to guide you into the voices and stories that, too often, get drowned out by the glamour and sirens of urban living. If you follow the word trail these poets have laid out, you’ll find yourself navigating through the middle of a West Oakland village, the pride of East Bay activism, the fog of the Excelsior, the bustle of rush hour BART, the pleas of a classic Victorian, romanticism along Lake Merritt, and into the fissures and cracks of the City where possibility blooms. In thinking about how these poets work their way through these spaces, I return to a line from Pablo Neruda’s poetry: “Should you ask me where I come from, I must talk, with broken things.” By talking about the disparate neighborhoods that compose city, these poets not only acknowledge where they come from but also where their poetry is headed. The poets of Oakland Word have stitched together memories to form a larger map of a more ideal city, a poetic city, full of imagination and promise, where every citizen’s voice is honored in verse. Impossible? If you follow a standard tourist map, then yes. But if you follow the lines of poetry in front of you and let them bring you to new sections of the city, or use the stanzas to allow you to revisit familiar blocks, then finding the poetic city will not be so impossible. In fact, you’ll find urban poetry in the everyday.

oscar bermeo

Oakland Word Poetry Instructor


Urban Poetry with Oscar Bermeo Speak On It! with Amir Rabiyah Prose Narrative with Claire Light


graffiti yaccaira salvatierra


My younger sister asks about a name, new word, or warning spray-painted on a wall in the alley behind our home. I tell her it is there because he wanted to be remembered in our city where children are forgotten. Mother becomes nostalgic and explains to her that it was written when he courted my older sister, hoping her adoration would dissipate anxiety about an empty future in our city where children are forgotten. He wanted to be remembered. The poet writes: He wanted to be remembered as aurora lights on walls for people to witness in awe— he was here. He was here extending his hand to the darkness raising it here, then there, shuffling his feet quickly for balance until the last letter was finalized. It was a quick dance and no song in his city where children are forgotten.

In this city where children are forgotten alleys become tunnels in the night,


openings are streetlight abysses, and passionately placed on the walls are memorials—graveyards of warnings, old words, and names of those only few remember.


postcard: harlem street party yaccaira salvatierra


Freed, silver print, 1963

Grinning, they delight over waking the metallic jellyfish from heat as the water-tentacles reach for them from under its stout upright body.

Your grandchildren are just like them, but they scratch a whale’s flat concrete back with their feet, so it will spray water out of its many spouts. Will you come visit and sit close by in case the whale decides to move?


renovation yaccaira salvatierra

A pensive blue cottage sits behind a towering Victorian house with broad square shoulders dressed in wooden lace. Shaded from the afternoon sun, or life in the city, it skittishly awaits renovation. It witnesses men climbing the withering Victorian, changing windows, stripping the roof and replacing it to perfection like the precise legs of an orb-weaving spider. It squints as the royal blue turned dusty is chipped off and painted mustard, lace whitened, and on occasion, sections graced in blood orange. Somberly, it watches childless couples replace families once living there; and the man with his tattered wagon who would wake neighbors before dawn with his instrumental solo of glass against glass, be substituted with silence. Tucked away in the backyard, the cottage wants to lock its doors and secure its windows, so that the family who lives in it will not leave.


zaroor badalega irene nexica


In the city with a big heart and small cash Spare change for a cheap poem? Straight from the corner store where the only thing alive is a soft onion, Abraham behind the counter, and you. I see Oakland proud as ultralight dragon boats race on Lake Merritt. The Santa Barbara team drinks mint juleps and cheers Oars weave in and out Phuong unbowed balances a black sack at each end of a broomstick on her shoulders, dips it lightly as she reaches inside the brown bin alchemically turning metal into lunch money. Pausing to relax, Kincaid looks through a glass wall on Broadway at the red convertible shining inside. His brown bags in the silver cart would fill the back seat. Inside, suited men lean over the desk and share Raiders stats: “When are they going to win?�

Rajvir never retired after immigrating here to join his family He walks the streets five days, each door gets pizza coupons. Out of the corners of his eyes


Sometimes people on the bus stare at him, dressed in white with his pagri “Dukh santaap na lagii jis har kaa naam adhaar.” Inside concrete block walls above the Safe Storage company, next to the BART tracks, women plan a velvet revolution, united by their colonizer’s language and queso fresco sandwiches. Look at the photo: you’ll see me there.


kalamansi trees diana halog


My uncle grew these kalamansi trees before I was born. And now 25 years later, the pamilya gathers at his house because he is about to die. I sit useless listening to the stories of my auntie Pot, his wife. Listen to the ebb and flow of love, strength, and fear in her voice. They’ve been together longer than the kalamansi trees. I remember when he’d call my mom and tell her the kalamansi trees are ripe. Tall trees turn a San Diego suburban backyard into the Philippines. It’s the smell of citrus and the green leaves. If I stand there I can almost feel the heat and humidity of my uncle’s hometown. We pluck kalamansi fast from the trees with our bare hands A ferocious speed as if we were picking the cancer cells from my uncle’s kidney. As if the faster we picked we could overcome this mutation in my uncle’s body. He only has weeks to live and we only have minutes to spare. Soon other family members come to help pick the kalamansi. We talk and laugh and joke because this work helps us to feel less helpless. We have control over these trees


unlike my uncle’s disease. We return from the garden plastic bags full of round orange orbs. And place them on the table. An offering of abundance to dam the pain that threatens to break our hearts.


public transportation diana halog


Commuters stand Eyes averted Even expired ads Rivets attention

Excuses to stay enclosed In our private spaces On public transportation Clutched hands Arms as fences Marking boundaries Of personal space

Clamp our mouths Everyone is deaf and mute Except for the cell-ophane conversations A sudden screech Our bodies lean into others for contact But when we touch Disgust frissions through our bodies


when the trouble comes noelle de la paz

when the trouble splits us open when boulevards stutter and home convulses when the trouble splits us down the middle which side are you on on whose side do you find yourself trembling, drenched broken, bitter the quaking the opening up of earth and brick and stone and what we thought was solid ground sky cracked wide like a frozen howl and when trouble comes and cracks the pavement when home is ruptured and lungs sucked hollow how much fear can you swallow when ripped apart at the seams when the trouble splits us down the middle which side are you left on with who can you dream when towers topple when the ground beneath us shakes when a pipe ruptures when a levy breaks like swarms of locusts, like plagues of old like rains that unfold the sobbing of saints whose insurance will pay whose news will be reported

[ 10 ]


whose fears will be fanned whose dead will be counted who is it that throws money at the tattered terrain who is surprised

when the anger riots and crashes through storefronts when at the bottom of our rage we find the question: who are we fighting god or each other when the trouble comes into our corner and leaves us choking into whose arms do you fall gasping, weeping, breaking


[ 11 ]

what is ours noelle de la paz

who remembers the era of the McDonald’s on Mission and Ocean? snatching each other’s fries, afterschool fingertips peppered with salt and schoolyard grit when it was the place to be, a hot spot before its time now folded into the thick layers of this city unaccounted for on maps who remembers where stealing pogs got you a polaroid mugshot, chased out and banished forever? yes, the old Woolworth sign’s still up there, though it’s been two furniture stores since back before bike lanes and MUNI fare citations, underneath and despite the layers overlapping and replacing and disappearing and growing and being crushed under the weight of each other, like colson whitehead’s new york, this city is many cities, they are all breathing our San Francisco is the thirty-percent-families-withchildren part of san francisco it’s the Mitchell’s ice cream, the windy beach of puffcoats and beanies and bonfire and nighttime—no swimsuit, no surfing, no sun it’s the only home we know kinda place

[ 12 ]


where our growing up is the daily design of a curiously hybrid culture that in its bravest moments attempts to climb but does not readily translate up the family tree

my city is the pink house with the rapunzel braid dangling out the window our family climbing up a string of petitions plaited 7,000 miles across the pacific we’ve got our very own checkboxes on forms here and we still come from the sizzle and crackle of garlic in a pan now raised on the local evening news that teaches my parents what to be afraid of

my city is the smell of rain on concrete moist must released from seething sidewalks stop lights and stop signs and a night that beckons us toward forbidden adventures we of the chili mango lollipops and grocery stores that sell lumpia wrapper, cheap saffron, and banana ketchup we’re from going to church but hardly going to confession from the steady hum of cars, the absence of real silence, and taquerias open til 3 am we make the sign of the cross when a siren whizzes by

[ 13 ]

—and we do call it Frisco perched on Avalon and Moscow, scanning the panorama from this rooftop we tell each other we will raise our kids here one day they will misunderstand us, and we them but they will have this city, like we do it will be a clay that binds us, one we didn’t have with our parents see we fall askew from family trees those faraway islands, we have to earn them but this in front of us: this city is ours, and that is our secret

[ 14 ]

mediocre at its best noelle de la paz


Windows down, volume up, destination flexible, me in the driver’s seat and you barely navigating, we drifted around the city. Surveying the territory beyond our neighborhoods we wanted to stake our claim, a bigger universe with a bigger soundtrack than the seventh grade garage parties and the high school dances with the flashy photos and the dolled-up couples and their bright-eyed never-changing settle-for romances. We wanted more, we wanted trouble, but you were always braver and needier than me. So we drive around discovering new parks, new corners, new cuts to drink and smoke at, leaving behind Little Hollywood and Cayuga Mini-park. Sit in the car outside Amoeba and turn up the music. You want out so bad because you wear every place out like there’s no tomorrow, indulging and blazing a fiery trail through your roads home, slowly collapsing the way back because, really, where is home for you? We forget ourselves in a cloud of laughter and onward we go, on a mission for specific fish tacos today, per your request. An entire summer I drive our asses up to Twin Peaks, cruise a constant 35 mph down Great Highway to Ocean Beach, look for impossible Saturday parking on Haight Street. We jam on and on in the car as you pop in your latest anthems—Sleater-Kinney, Portishead, Gravy Train, Mirah, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Julie Ruin, Le Tigre:

[ 15 ]

Who took the Bomp from the Bompalompalomp? Who took the Ram from the Ramalamadingdong? We bounce in our seats, bob our heads with dizziness, and whine along. We can only guess what the bomp is or what the alamadingdong will do without its ram, but we are understanding this feeling of something being taken and we want to know who took it. So we rock out past Forest Hill station, your glazed eyes staring out the window, my hand on the wheel and the thump and wail in my ears, I will remember you in this playlist always, burning onto this story, this how it’s written, a haze of drives and stops, and wandering, and wishing, and forgetting how we got here, but knowing that this could be it, that sooner or later, life will sweep you up, and you will run with it, away, like a let-go kite. But I hope to always have this aching summer, weighted with pending storm, songs that transport me back to these moments in the car, precarious and invigorating when I remember it, when really, it was lethargic and aimless, a summer of momentous mediocrity, the best kind that a couple of nineteen-year-olds could have shared before the unraveling of it all.

[ 16 ]

oakland is just not hardcore to me joyce mayzck


Oakland is just not hardcore to me It’s just a plain, simple beautiful city The youngsters would surely beg to differ Since they all want to be hardcore and gangster How can one be hardcore in a city so nice? No Chicago hawk. No snow. No ice. Flowers that bloom almost all year long Their perfumed scents linger in the air so strong Nowhere in the world does the sun shine as bright Rays beam down to erase all the blight It is seriously a shame and a pity That so many lives are lost in this city Oakland is the epitome of a natural high So why the need to artificially try Wake up everybody and smell the roses Reclaim the beauty that Oakland possesses San Francisco, No way San Jose Oakland is truly my city by the bay

[ 17 ]

i’ve always wanted to tell you joyce mayzck

I’ve always wanted to tell you As we walked the streets of Oakland I’ve always wanted to tell you When we sat on the Emeryville Marina I’ve always wanted to tell you As we sailed around Lake Merritt I’ve always wanted to tell you But the time was never good I’ve always wanted to tell you But I never found the right words I’ve always wanted to tell you But there were other things to do I’ve always wanted to tell you However I didn’t possess the strength I’ve always wanted to tell you But I felt you were too weak I’ve always wanted to tell you Amidst your cries of love and devotion The time nor words, Will never be right So now is the time I tell you I don’t love you

[ 18 ]

i/you are beautiful joyce mayzck


The world says thin is in I am thick I am beautiful Contradiction?

The world says long hair is sexy My hair is short I am sexy A contradiction?

The world says only tall women can be models I am short I can be a model Can’t I? The world says dark skin is ugly I have dark skin I am pretty Am I a contradiction?

The world says youth equals beauty I am old I am beautiful Is that a contradiction? Could the world be wrong? Who really cares? I am who I think I am I am who I say I am Who is the world? Precisely!

[ 19 ]

it takes a village tunisia owens

Cradled in her arms “the village” swaddled me Reeking of marijuana and later Cocaine’s half brother (it was the 1980s after all) Wrapping me in her cool embrace Joining my extended family like familiar neighbors: Mr. Percy and China’s mom, who became mother and grandmother the same year. Gunshots and fighting rocking me to sleep Like my cherished childhood lullabies. Village elders attempting to share street wisdom with young cats too hard-headed to learn from prior mistakes. Sweet Daddy—whose whores all wore fur coats— was everyone’s favorite and most-hated uncle, tricking teenage girls out soon after puberty giving low-level street hustlers a piece of action. My brothers and sisters in arms coddled by their own extended families in 65th, Acorn, Tassaforanga, Campbell, 69th Village.

[ 20 ]

this be my town tunisia owens


From the industrial big rigs crowding the Lower Bottom To the cinnamon sugar sweetness of the beignets at Powderface This be the Town, my Oakland From the hot, sweet and tangy grilled pork at Le Cheval To the wasteland of abandoned homes in Deep East This be the Town, my Oakland From the architectural magnificence of the Pardee Home To a cold, thick, chocolate milk shake at Ben’s This be the Town, my Oakland From the hearty goodness of Chicken and Waffles at Merritt Bakery To the muscled hikers on the trails of Knowland State Park This be the Town, my Oakland. From the quirky cafÊs and coffeehouses on Lakeshore To the original home of University of California at (Oakland) This be the Town, my Oakland. From the steak super burritos with extra cheese and sour cream at El Taco Zamorano, To the pretentious hilltops of Broadway Terrace This be the Town, my Oakland. From the runners and jog-walkers crowding around Lake Merritt To the barbequed beef brisket slathered in sauce at Everett and Jones To the scraper bikes halting traffic on 73rd and Bancroft To doro wat chicken at Addis Ababa on Telegraph Ave This be the Town, my Oakland.

[ 21 ]

lizzie borden leticia garcia bradford

Lizzie Borden took an ax Gave her mother forty whacks When she saw what she had done Gave her father forty-one One Two Three Four Five (Snap) (Snap) (Snap) It’s in the air It’s in my dreams It’s all that I am breathing Gasping Choking Blood blood Everywhere It’s in the air It’s in my dreams Jumping rope jumping rope Off the tallest skyscraper Into the air I breeze It’s a bird It’s a plane

[ 22 ]


It’s Lizzie Borden She’s out of her mind Hurry kids inside inside Don’t look in her evil eyes

I hear that every day as I cross the street Onto my parent’s grave I grieve Who could have been so cruel? Who could have been so obscene? Blood blood everywhere Why is this happening to me?

You can breeze through the day Not anymore for me I wish I was a bird Chirping to my heart’s content Now I am only hunted The evil one The spinster I went to school I am educated I was the school marm Harm my pupils I would never do It’s a bird It’s a plane

Where am I going?

[ 23 ]

Going to the capitol Going to the zoo Going to the cuckoo’s house Lizzie Borden took a rope When she found she couldn’t cope Everyone’s fears have come to rest Lizzie Borden has flown west (Snap) (Snap) (Snap)

[ 24 ]


the graffiti poem

leticia garcia bradford


Hopefully a beautiful Scottish accent I hope tomorrow can get better All of tomorrow will be fabulous just wait <3 feeling the chaos standing with grace and beauty staying with the love

I need yellow please I hope it goes well Hope is what you make of it Hope is the light at the end of the tunnel Hope is seeing the shore from your drifting raft amid the chaos of the mighty sea Silver shining light It is not at the end of the tunnel It is not in my heart Hope is near by Only if I keep the faith Only if I donâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t lose hope Remember the love It is the greatest

[ 25 ]

environmental haiku nina marie cestaro

1. Blackbirds in concert Swoop down redwood branch Resting with no doubt 2. Oil drill spill kills most Sea holds regeneration Creatures want clean-up 3. Fully concentrate Manâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s sweat pouring out head, hands Gripping grey granite

[ 26 ]

ode to furachoque or good woman in muisca

nina marie cestaro


Wonder in what tongue my mother sang me a lullabye & was it in Muisca or Spanish?

Cestaro (my given Italian name) A family of Italian basket makers in Ferrare, Italy Befriending French and Jew alike. Lived generations in service of Caesar before washing upon Brooklyn’s shores discovering the art of wholeness in Cooking, sewing, Mortician work De la Rosa (original name) a descendant of landless mixed blood Spaniard w/ a quixotic El Dorado quest eye-ing Guatavita—volcano crater near my hometown, Bogota’ Indian tricks light the skies mirages of agua in sahara—finding nada! First in heavenly Andean territory of Muisca indigenous roots,

[ 27 ]

forced to leave Spain where only roses proliferated to set themselves on high peaks extending over the Magdalena river Basin Indian shaman and campesina living side by side Pizarro stumbles the greedy fool over his prideful Babel tower No native understands pompous conversion-talk about the one true god A legion of Muisca women labor 12 hours a day in Emerald mines Building funds continue to stream in from King Ferdinand quickening their grave If the picture in my mirror matched the picture of pretty Cestaro mother who raised me amidst the missing mother whose face I fictionalize, the one killed too young, preparing my exile at two, would identity & culture be so readily fused?

[ 28 ]


Wrestling for authenticity A fly caught in a spiderâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s web Still Colombiana flows every possible moment When I am still I can almost hear my Mother gently singing songs to us in Muisca, invoking the goddess Furachoque, the goddess of protection Butterfly flutters by forgiveness for being the only one to survive genocide may be only one breath away

[ 29 ]

origins nicole bohn

i was born by accident before broken bottle bar towns and you betcha before cracked bats and hot dog stands and Buddy Guy before golden-gated bridges and punk-eyed kids and rose-inked skin with an all-access pass to the city of my body broken by accident broken by birth mapped with hard, invisible beautyâ&#x20AC;&#x201D; meant through the detours and the contours and the plain to become my dwelling place.

[ 30 ]

van ness and eddy nicole bohn


This is where we say goodbyeâ&#x20AC;&#x201D; on the edges of the Tenderloin, beneath the Pronto Pizza sign, the homeless are wrapped in blankets around us, we are wrapped in whiskey and lemon-drop shots, you bend to wrap yourself around me, I brush against your beard, you whisper in my ear, we wash the street with our breathing, and receive the grace with a hush, hush, hush.

[ 31 ]

Poetry nicole bohn  leticia garcia bradford  nina marie cestaro  diana halog  joyce mayzck  irene nexica  tunisia owens  noelle de la paz  yaccaira salvatierra

oakland public library [ 32 ]


an oakland word chapbook Edited by kenji c. liu associate editors Oscar Bermeo Amir Rabiyah editor Kenji C. Liu oakland public library  oak...