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James Cagney: California Poets Part 5, Five Poems

James Cagney

December 22nd, 2022

California Poets: Part V

James Cagney

Five Poems


in an atrium of ash-

black holes barricade their bony compost of

crushed cities in a crossfire of

death documentaries; deliberately

edited so that every execution ends in envelopes

fanned out like fish scales or five card stud

or geese gathered geometrically

herons hovering as for homecoming or hallucination.

Invasive insects have made the inauguration inaccessible!

A jigsaw of japonica petals justify

knitting kite strings with kelp and knives

lacerating a large amount of loose lemons

more meadowhead machines

more muscular mirrors

its our national nostalgia for natal narcotics

or orphans overlooked in other

parishes - prisoners in platform pumps of

quartz. Under quarantine quilts, a quiet

riot of rhythms, rage residue

scrubbed from a skeleton of soot.

In this timeline, their throats

ululate under upturned umbrellas!

Very violent voices in the vestibule.

Where have all the winos wandered?

an xl x-axis of spit gurgles its solo on the xenophobic xylophone.

Some yahoos yapping in the yard about its Yankee

zealot from Zion zonked out on zucchini


for tongo eisen-martin

will walk on a missile for food

will sing a song of teargas for repast

momma usedta walk 37 missiles in nuclear fallout

to harvest enough food to feed a family of four

whenever a missile migrates overhead, I open my mouth. I am:

a bird

a tourist

walking dead


i will sing a song of teargas for repast

if you can recite the pledge of allegiance in time,

this bullet will fry itself into a chicken wing

whenever a missile migrates overhead, i open my mouth. i am:

a bird

a tourist

walking dead


will twerk 4 housing: will shoot 4 shelter:

will turf dance rolling rims of mushroom clouds

4 cotton candy

if you can recite the pledge of allegiance fast enough,

this bullet will fry itself into a chicken wing

(make sure your allegiance is wanted)

And He rebuked the air’s ignition and shattering and said:

Missile! Bring Food!

And the debris became man and the flames became falafel

will twerk 4 housing: will work as ballistic target 4 food:

will turf dance rolling rims of mushroom clouds

4 cotton candy

Did you have a tough coup?

If you’ve got a van full of hungry revolutionaries

Pull on up to the glowing arches...

And He rebuked the air’s ignition and shattering and said:

Missile! Bring Food!

And the debris became man and the flames became falafel

momma usedta walk 37 missiles in nuclear fallout

to harvest enough food to feed a family of four

Did you have a tough coup?

If you’ve got a van full of hungry revolutionaries,

Pull on up to the glowing arches

You deserve a detonation to hush that appetite

Will walk a missile 4 my field sobriety test

my dna has 400 years of probable cause

Yes I understand your instructions

Heel n’ toe. Heel to toe. Walk and turn.

And do not stop until me and my family are left for fed.


the sky sheds hot apples of light

rapacious grins slashed across the throat of the sky

this in celebration of war

which we worship with tears in our eyes

in this church of vampires

we obediently raise our faces

to the falling dead

at the appointed time

while tithes of loyalty are looted

from our back pockets

we are blindfolded in faith at this service

where we slice open stolen cultural lambs

on a pew of slot machines

our prayers full of shrapnel

swarm to Reconstruct the truth

these prayers are all processed catch phrases

and repurposed ad campaigns

the last freestyle sampled from a dying mouth

Nightly I check myself for bite marks

a rubber stamp of lips

proof of percussion in sucking

its the brains insistence on untying knots

secured by the tongue

this isn’t prayer dancing: its response to

infestation; a swarm of the wrong gods

healing parishioners with fortune cookie astrology

we pray just to breathe in certain spaces

and you expect us to pay weekly to be suffocated


i planned a toast to tenderness, but the ice in this drink is full of thorns

certain words detonate when whispered; my mouths impact crater, its gaping maw of shrapnel, its incisors of glass

since my breath harmonizes the key of blood there are certain gospels I’m forbidden to sing

my voice makes enemies in rooms where I’m clearly understood

certain words detonate when whispered; my mouths’ impact crater, its gaping maw of shrapnel, its incisors of glass

post traumatic conversations with a parasitic tongue twitching electric

my voice makes enemies in rooms where I’m clearly understood

among certain strangers I cannot take a deep breath

post traumatic conversations with a parasitic tongue twitching electric

since my breath harmonizes the key of blood there are certain gospels I’m forbidden to sing

among certain strangers I cannot take a deep breath

i planned a toast to tenderness but the ice in this drink is full of thorns


she straps me to a high chair like it's my last night a bachelor

once i peel out of my shirt, shit gets real

I might have to turn the fan on, she says

She flips her red box braids like a cat o’ nine tails

After tying me off, she smacks my arm for any productive bulge

but my hide and seek veins get blood shy

shrinking capillaries reverse flow baby lick the needles tip

so she calls for backup

I was just getting some, she said. Then it stalled and stopped

Girl, tell me about it

The second tech had old tricks, of course

her fingers dowsing, tapping code on my arm like checking a melon for sugar

He offered his neck a minute ago, the first tech said

He wanted to neck? the second one gasped

That’s what he say, the first insisted,

then blew on my fist to relax my hand

With both arms petted and frisked, I blushed a new color

But that second tech knew the call and response of blood

how every cell came to her like a hungry school of fish


August 24th, 2023

Californian Poets Interview Series:

James Cagney, Poet

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: The publisher, Nomadic Press, which released your first book, Black Steel Magnolias in the Hour of Chaos Theory in 2018, ceased its operational activities on February 28th of this year. Two questions: How has this affected your book, along with your writing, and do you foresee more publishers closing their doors in the future, or are we headed for better days?

JC: It was a disappointing surprise hearing about Nomadic’s closure, but the pandemic changed every industry across the board and shut down many good businesses. The publisher, JK Fowler, was incredibly thoughtful to all his authors and worked to get books transitioned over to another publisher. My book is now available through Black Lawrence Press. They’re a superb, hardworking press and I’m grateful they saved a bunch of Nomadic authors from obscurity. Me too. For a minute I thought my book was going to go out of print, but I’m relieved it’s still out there. It’s foolish to attempt to foresee anything, so I offer no predictions. I watched the last COVID infected cruise ship enter San Francisco the day the city mayor shut the city down. I never could have predicted what was going to happen next. But years later things are different. Nothing remains fixed. Everything changes, we just have to remain flexible enough to move with it.

DG: Let’s stay with your first book, which has a special significance for you. In a 2019 SF Chronicle interview you discuss the background behind the collection, which centers around the major life revelation you received at the age of 19. Crafting the book, as you say in the article, was a way of writing “all of that stuff out of my system.” It’s been five years since the publication of the book, and a pandemic on top of it. Has anything changed about the way you perceive not only what you wrote, but the events themselves?

JC: That book was me assembling my personal mythology into a single unit before the stories become lost to time. I grew up an only child, so now that my parents are gone, there’s no one around for me to volley any memories and stories with. I feel as if I can’t prove anything from my life that I remember or experienced. I have photos of my parents, I’ve Googled my old house, but I can’t prove they really existed or that I once lived there. The only thing that remains is memory and memories are less than nothing if they’re not preserved. The book has made me a supportive relative to myself. Its weird going through that book now. They’re my experiences and memories, but there’s no way I could rewrite them today. Reading that book is like conversing with my past self.

DG: In a KALW radio interview with Jeneé Darden you discuss your latest collection, Martian: The Saint of Loneliness. The title encompasses so many themes and yet you reveal that the overall “title and identity happened last after everything was said and done.” Throughout the book you tackle themes of isolation, along with the sense that you’re a “person truly dropped here from another planet.” The books deals with themes of “feeling like an alien inside your body.” Questions like: “What exactly is the man I’m supposed to grow into?” To what extent did writing the book help you address those questions and do you see poetry more as a form of healing or as an art that, above all, brings awareness?

JC: I’ve utilized poetry and writing as a healing art, and always have. Being introduced to spoken word, café society of the 80’s and 90’s, I realized I could use my time on mic to speak the truth and work through some things. As a performer I felt a responsibility to be real with audiences who would attend open mics and themselves never share. They would appear, applaud, and leave. I wanted to respect them enough to be honest and tell the truth. I wanted to learn to speak without fear and poetry allows for that. As writers all of us come to the page with questions we haven’t found answers for. Sometimes, if you get quiet enough, the answers actually show up.

DG: You witnessed the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, which destroyed the home you’d grown up in. You’ve talked about not having, in a sense, a real childhood, and if it did exist, it was quite a protracted one, as you’ve stated, given how quickly the environment forced you to mature. Can you speak about how 1989 affected you personally—at that time—and how the impact subsequently went on to affect your work?

JC: I tried to leave home and go to University. I chose a college as far away from home as I could get, because I wanted to find myself and grow up beyond my parents immediate gaze. But college never worked out. That year I went to Washington DC twice to rectify problems with my admissions, once in the spring then again in the winter, to no avail. When I came home after my second try, the quake hit one month later. It was October, and by the opening of the new year, my father would be diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him. That quake severed me from everything I thought I wanted. In a way, it forced me to engage writing. My father died, the house was being repaired, and my mother became ill from a similar cancer that claimed my dad. I gave up my college dream to work for her, and then we had my grandfather, her father, as our roommate for a while. So my life stopped for a number of years. I did In Home Care for the elderly, my remaining family, and hated it. The only thing I could practice was writing. The library and my journal was the only places I had to go. I had no one to vent to; I couldn’t complain to my mom, I didn’t have a huge number of close friends, I wasn’t dating. Plus, I just learned I was adopted so there was a lot of stress in me around that. Somewhere during those years I discovered poetry and that was hugely important in directing my creativity. Those years were hard, more than I’m sharing here, and certainly forced me to mature. That quake changed the course of my life.

DG: Your connection to California is undoubtable, and you capture the environment in a very personal way. At the same time, all the issues within the collection have a deep, insightful sense of universal relatability. This is the ultimate accomplishment for a poet—to make the personal universal. At the same time, do you perceive this with some sense of sadness—some sense of longing or hope for a world where the pain you describe wasn’t as widespread as it is now?

JC: I’m cynical. Its helpful in writing satire, but still, I’m stuck. I was in a workshop this week and they offered a prompt to write about humanity and I couldn’t think of anything positive. I hold hope for the future, but mostly I feel happy to be aging out of it. Social media fuels narcissism and I don’t see humanity getting over worshipping itself. I grew up in the church, but today God feels locked behind gates of human greed and abuse. People have been lured away from God for the robotic mirror in their hands. The only thing besides writing that helped me survive was faith, was relying on God, whom I find to be the source of all hope. But God feels like a hard sell in today’s age, and there’s people who’ll leap over this paragraph because I merely mentioned it. But I do hope people begin to remember love and veer towards that. My mother always told me God Is Love—love is the antidote pain and sadness. If we can only get people to see the word love and not conflate it with sexuality, as Americans often do. After my dad died, I found myself compelled to tell close male friends that I loved them, but they never saw the word as one of respect and openness. It was always shaded and misunderstood. Somehow the word love becomes an arrow pointing only to the crotch, not the heart.

DG: You’ve always been very active in the poetry community. Can you speak about some of the most vivid recollections you’ve had throughout the years and how reading/working with other poets has driven your own poetic development?

JC: I’ve learned a lot from a wide array of writers, many who’ll never be recognized, many who flared locally for a few years and are now long gone. I think a lot about Lee Williams, a brilliant and beautiful storyteller and poet from Oakland who got around better than I did and was in a wheelchair. I miss him and his voice greatly! I learned a lot from this club series, Above Paradise Lounge in San Francisco that maintained a fierce open mic that I considered my poetry university. I featured one night and read this rather homoerotic chain-gang story to a room full of lesbians, there in support of the co-feature. That was a great series and that room was hugely influential for me to push into writing darker, heavier more personal poems. The Afrometropolitan series in Oakland organized by poet Richard Moore (Paradise), was my first primarily African American open mic. That series was fostered by a far more politically engaged community that allowed me to engage historical poems or personal poems about family or race. That was a wonderful place to grow and practice. I started doing poetry in the years before slam, so after slam caught on, The Starry Plough which hosted the Berkeley Slam became a serious contender and was hugely influential. One night, this poet got on stage and performed what he called Wiggle Poetry. He announced his poem, then laid down on his back on stage and vibrated at different levels of intensity based on the stanzas. He spoke no words except gibberish while he shook. I don’t remember anything else about that night except for him. That crazy, distinctive poem will live within me forever. I wish I had the courage to do such a thing.

DG: What’s your favorite place in the Bay Area and have you written a poem about it?

My favorite place is near where I live, Lake Merritt. I haven’t written about it or many specific local places, really. Being local they’re sometimes hard to see and appreciate and trigger writing. Truth told, my favorite places are bookstores and record stores, with many being lost or compromised to time. Haven’t written about them yet.

DG: What’s a place in California you would like to visit and why?

I never get to do anything touristy. I currently work in San Francisco and have never visited Alcatraz. I’d like to go back to the redwood forest, but I never take the time. I could use an extensive visit to Hollywood, to be honest.

DG: Do other mediums, such as music and art, influence your work in any way?

Absolutely. I love visual art and painters are hugely influential. Robert Rauschenberg. Jean-Michel Basquiat. I’m currently a fan of Mikael Owunna and Kehinde Wiley. I honor visual artists and wish I practiced it.

DG: What are you reading or working on at the moment?

I just finished The Delectable Negro by Vincent Woodard, and Race and the Unconscious: An Africanist Depth Psychology Perspective on Dreaming by Fanny Brewster. Both fascinating books. There’s a great new translation of poems by Joyce Mansour which I adored, called Emerald Wounds. And I just started The Exorcist Legacy by Nat Segaloff which explores the cultural history of that film. Personally, there are some other poetry collections I’m in the midst of editing and hoping to find homes for soon.

Author Bio:

James Cagney is the author of Black Steel Magnolias In The Hour Of Chaos Theory, winner of the PEN Oakland 2018 Josephine Miles Award. His newest book, Martian: The Saint of Loneliness is the winner of the 2021 James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. It is due from Nomadic Press in 2022.


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