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Pam Ward: California Poets Part 4, Four Poems

Pam Ward

December 29th, 2021

California Poets: Part IV

Pam Ward

Four Poems

Say Her Name We used to call her Miss Ann. Some call her Becky. A bossy little cuss who tossed shoes at our head the kind of hatchet-face bitch who sold us down river or happily handed massa the whip. Today we say KAREN with a capital K. K. K. These fraudulent little cunts pop up once a week demanding to speak to the manager flapping antebellum tongues with their fake tears fake traumatized Avon lies igniting hate crimes as wideeeeeeeeeeee as all 50 states until no man with a suntan was safe. Karens call the cops at the drop of a hat black kids selling lemonade or jogging down the street or bird-watching alone in the park. On a lark, ‘cause she crazy or got Cro-Magnon genes here she go tattling wagging that finger weaponizing her pussy….again pushing her white privilege stank all up in our face getting us lynched, tarred or feathered or burnt at the stake all while feigning some fake-ass distress. Don’t believe me? Here some Karenish shit for yo ass. Carolyn Bryant had Emmett Till killed Susan Smith said a “Black man did it.” The Scottsboro Boys were almost lynched by some lying ass trick and did I mention the Central Park kids? Some Karens have gone on to obliterate towns. Somebody say Tulsa. Somebody say Rosewood, please. See her muddy little feet? Hear those crocodile tears? There goes Karen playing the same role again going for another Academy Award. And wait, stop complaining stop saying you hate the name. If Karen’s the real victim then go ahead, flip the script. How many black chicks call the cops and send white women to prison? Go ahead, Cinderella, I’m waiting. The Karen moniker marks a legacy of predatory terror. So if the shoe fits then wear it.

Hollywood Hills Every time I went over Kim’s her dad came outside while we laid next to the pool. It was a small, useless tank with horrible swamp-green water where bugs hatched their eggs in the scum. Her dad would always come out there checking the pump fiddling with the gauges sticking his wrist in the deep end. Kim leaned over and told me they were all in therapy now ever since he fucked one of her friends. I watched him duck in the garage and emerge later, shot glass red a Jim Beam smirk on his lips. He wades in and wet covers his thighs, hips and gut ballooning vulgarly over his shorts. His grin made me think of a zipper half-down. A man whistling at kids while hosing his grass. My hairdresser begging me to “suck it,” right there in his chair. And I know that it’s out there happening in Hollywood or Watts or Marina del Rey. Everyday there’s a hand with a fistful of candy. A wet hungry tongue resting over chapped lips. A fist waiting to scrawl your name on the stall. An arm luring you down underwater.

Le Revue Negre for Josephine Baker Before Baldwin lifted a suitcase before Chester Himes escaped Josephine packed her bags & skipped off to France severing ties with America an umbilical cord strangling her neck she boarded a ship bailed the US like bailing the back hand of a bad, brutal marriage. This Nubian princess. This queen of the bait & switch had everyone going bananas examining how yellow fruit curves dancing nude, except for her produce-section skirt fifteen gyrating penis-shaped smiling grins happily tapping that ass. While everyone studied her circumference which defied gravity & physics dreaming of banana nut bread banana pudding, banana splits Josephine hid Nazi secrets on sheet music or brassieres or the ticklish part of her panties. This Doll-face This Venus This St. Louis tease became the biggest star in Europe. Twerking her galactic hips living so large so vast so spread-eagle wide Saturn dropped her shirt and slow dragged with Mars causing Pluto to yell, “I got next!” Josephine lived so big clothes couldn’t hold her back. Boogilooing in her birthday suit refusing to kowtow or bow except for her 7th her 10th or 12th curtain call hoola-hooping till the sun beamed up than dropping it like its hot touring London, Paris, Rome or Berlin showing the whole world how black girls got down. Not with dust mops not in aprons not the back of the bus but infamously untethered living high on the hog buying a Chateau, so East of the West’s ugly mess the fire bombs the German Shepherds the strange fruit strung on trees courtesy of Uncle Sam’s “Welcoming Committee.” As the zoo keepers of America gawked or angrily shook their fists Lady Liberty did a two-step and shimmied by the sea hoisting her worn-out gown lifting her teal she screamed, “I see you, over there, Josephine! Go on, girl! Get it, get it!” And way across the pond nibbling bon bons ordering prawns sipping endless flutes of Veuve or Moet champagne The Electric Slide Goddess blew a kiss to her rusty friend. Mon Chéri, you need to come back with me.” All the gorillas back in Africa eating Chiquitas beating their chest doing their best Josephine between branches and leaves dancing a Cha Cha trotting a Rumba tossing peels in the street gripping “J” shaped fruit in their palms like a spear honoring all escapees praying for those still caged. Remembering the black girl the one with gumption the nude émigrés who had the mendacity to leave her country Lil’ Miss Parlez-vous Francais. A black woman who ran from home shearing her clothes, shoes & hair severing herself completely sailing far, far away a gold star lighting the way.

Ask Lucille for BB King Ask Lucille about stomach muscles pressed against wood and how good a man feels howling in pain. Feeling him gyrate feeling him hold your wide guitar hips feasting on belt buckle armpits and sloppy wet skin hotter than ten kitchens cookin’ nothing but collards. Singing about starvin’ or sippin’ your last shot of gin or sleeping in the cold hotel room of his car. Lucille saw Lucille felt the ache of BB’s bones. She watched poems squeeze like wet dreams from folds of a fatback neck relished his low mannish moan. The thrill is gooooone,” the thrill has gone away. Ask Lucille about the road and those clubs who stole their pay the jive talk, the Chitlin circuit the weeks without decent work the nights she became weapon a stick in a barroom brawl her neck squeezed so tight she stayed out of tune for days. Paying the cost to be the Boss. Lucille saw Lucille felt everything first hand the wild nights the hicks with guns an orchestra of other women Mahogany, Maple, Ash the real ones who bore him sons. Hold On I’m Coming! The heartache that penned ballads in raspy refrains songs only grown people know. Where music becomes your medicine your confidant, your friend. Where the show must go on whether you wanted to or not playing daily playing duets playing through good times and bad a slow-dance lasting decades a love story in 12-bar chords a romance between a man and a woman’s wood grain soul. Ask Lucille about BB and she’ll flash a loyal smile but you’ll never get her to talk.


April 18th, 2024

California Poets Interview Series:

Pam Ward, Poet, Editor, Graphic Designer

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: Let’s begin with the tribute you plan to write for Lynn Manning. When did you discover his work and how did it impact your creative outlook?


PW: I met Lynn at a reading in Hollywood in the ‘90s. It might not have been long after he lost his sight. This was during an epic poetic tide flooding LA, and he and I crossed paths many times at various bars, cafes, and stages. One of his most memorable readings was at The World Stage in Leimert Park. He had a standing ovation before he even started.


DG: Do you already have a good sense of which poems you’ll select for the feature? Will you aim for continuity between pieces or emphasize a range of topics?


PW: I’d do a range. Lynn was a poet but he was mostly known for his plays. I’d like to do an excerpt / interpretation of his staged and poetic performance. I’m still moved by his play about Dr. Marion Sims who performed on black women during slavery times without anesthesia.


DG: Let’s transition to your own work, which has a very candid, direct nature. Have you always written this way or was it a more gradual transition to the aesthetic?

PW: I’ve always been direct. I hate to dilly-dally around. I don’t like small talk. I don’t like wasting time. As a graphic artist, I like dissecting and creating vivid stories. Like art, I want my literary work to convey something poignant, something vicious or something full of color and I base them on something real, a real person or place, portraying stories that boil down to hot, pungent roux, a morsel of emotional truth.

DG: Apart from poetry, you’ve also written fiction—and with the same candid style. Is there an overlap to the creative approach—how you structure a sentence as opposed to a line—or do you view the two as necessarily separate?

PW: I come from a line of musicians and Hollywood performers who told stories to us. My uncle played with Nat King Cole. My grandfather was in Porgy and Bess and my mom was in the epic Cecil DeMille picture, “The Ten Commandments.” I write in a style that I hear in my brain, leaning to more sing-song, more lyrical, more focused on poetic beats as opposed to grammarly correct constructs that feel binding. Like a song-writer, I approach ideas and try use language to bend them. I like incorporating slang. I like squeezing or stretching use of words or creating new ways to say something known.

DG: You’ve recently completed your third novel, Bury My Dress on Central Ave, which is about the Black Dahlia. Did you do an extensive amount of research for the project, or had you already known a great deal about the event? Did the writing of the book significantly change your understanding of the event, or was it more of an attempt to tell the story in your own way?

PW: As a native of LA, I’ve known about the Black Dahlia case for decades. What I didn’t know was my own family connection to the case and that one of my aunts was considered a  “suspect.” I found out about my aunt’s dalliance with the suspect by doing an search. To my shock, I found out my aunt dated the prime suspect (a doctor) and ultimately became his muse. Their relationship was the most complicated and sexually startling one I’d ever written and as a designer, the book has loads of art. I did extensive research for over six years and I still go down rabbit holes. But the most revelatory thing to meand something that’s never been fully exploredis the black community’s role in this earthshaking murder, along with how blacks in Los Angeles during the 40’s were amazing, the most highly accomplished, most well-dressed renaissance-building folks of the era; they were major contributors to LA’s rapid growth.

DG: You’re also known for mixing images with text. My Life, LA is a fascinating project documenting African-American lives in Los Angeles. What criteria did you use to select the images and was it an image-first-text-later approach, or did the text sometimes drive the selection of the images?

PW: I love criss-crossing my city. There is so much to see. No other city has so many nooks and crannies. Sometimes I searched for images. Sometimes they found me, like the magnificent Beaux-Arts 10th Street Bridge. Oftentimes, a story pulled me in first, like the first black women to own land in Los Angeles, Biddy Mason. As a novelist, I love adding these tidbits to my work.  

DG: The multi-disciplinary nature of your work features political elements, but it’s about so much more—at the root of it all is really life, depicting existence as it is. Apart from Lynn Manning’s work, who else has been instrumental in your creative development?

PW: Michele Clinton: who ran a wonderful workshop at Beyond Baroque. She exposed us to so much and opened our eyes to such great work, I really grew after her.  

Wanda Coleman: was the first to publish my short story in a book called, “Women for All Seasons.”

Steve Jobs: One day, my MacIntosh computer wouldn’t start. I was so pissed, I dashed off a scathing letter to Steve Jobs with historical notes on black graphics. Next thing I knew, a UPS driver showed up. “I don’t know who you know,” Apple Corporate said on the phone, “But this came straight from the top.” Steve Jobs sent me a free, brand new top-of-the-line G5, which was a testament to the power of the word.

Charles Bukoski: who I wrote and often wrote back, sending me Christmas cards and one day, a box of all his books.

“NOMMO,” UCLA’s black student paper. Being a reporter in college helped make me fearless. I interviewed people all over including Black Panther, Eldridge Cleaver, the most electrifying and arrogant person I’d ever known.

My client, Congresswoman Maxine Waters: Who said “don’t wait to be invited, just bring your own chair.” That philosophy made all the difference.

DG: Being an LA native, the city has been at the forefront of your projects: What places feel the most literary? Which ones you do think are the most beautiful? Is there a particular location you want to write about, but still haven’t?

PW: The Watts Towers appear in my poems and are prevalent in my current novel and serve as a character in the story.

I’d love to write about the Santa Monica Ocean, there was a strong black presence there, with nightclubs and hotels and loads of black surfers similar to the iconic yet tragic Bruce Beach.

DG: I’d like to speak about your editorial activities, mainly The Super-girls Handbook, an anthology of African-American women poets. Did you actively seek out the desired work, or did you select from a pool of work you received? What were the challenges and rewards associated with the editing process and did it, in some way, change your views on poetry?

PW: I sought after the pieces from poets I admired. And there were many more that didn’t appear in the book.

But editing is no joke I bit off way more than I could chew, especially doing the whole shebang solo. I found sustaining a small press challenging at best, especially while raising daughters, running a graphic design business, reading poetry, doing loads of research and of course all of my writing.

DG: If you had the power to author any of the world’s books—but that would be the only work you’d write—which one would you choose?

PW: I really loved Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, but I’d totally re-write it and give the girl her own story. I’d make her an adolescent killer bent on vengeance and name it, “Validata.”


DG: If you could interview any writer, who would it be and why?

PW: I’d interview Alice Walker. I’d really let her speak. She was railed for her depiction of male characters in The Color Purple, but I’ve known plenty of women who shared Celie’s story. I firmly believe in telling the truth. If men want PR pieces, they should write them themselves. But the real quarrel involves an exploration of societal ills. Blacks, especially black men, are almost always judged poorly. So even a fictional narrow depiction claws at their skin not to mention furthering stereotypes that have haunted blacks for generations, ever since the Mayflower landed in Plymouth Rock.  

DG: Apart from the tribute to Lynn Manning, what are you reading and working on these days?

PW: I just read the Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. And as a yoga teacher, I’m reading Autobiography of a Yogi. I often re-read sections of the Warmth of Other Suns, and I am currently reading The 1619 Project by Nikole- Hanna-Jones, one of the most engaging and historically important books I’ve ever owned. (HEY, HANNA-GIRL! You totally changed the game, I’d love to hook up for your next project.)

As for me…

I am always working on poems.

I am working on a memoir-esque essay about the poetry scene.

I am working on a story about driving my kids through the ‘92 riots. 

I’m working on a follow-up novel to my novel Want Some Get Some

I’m working on a play entitled “Love Peace & Hair Grease” about LA’s hair industry

I’m working on the Watts Writers Workshop documentary.

I’m performing all the time in LA, and with my poetry troupe, “The Ovary Office.”

I’m living, loving life, trying to survive and as the Delany sisters said, “Having My Say.”

Author Bio:

Los Angeles native, Pam Ward’s first novel, Want Some Get Some, Kensington, chronicles LA after the 1992 riots. Her second novel, Bad Girls Burn Slow, Kensington, follows a female serial killer. A UCLA graduate and recipient of a California Arts Council Fellow and a Pushcart Nomination for poetry, Pam edited the first journal of Los Angeles black women poets entitled, The Super-girls Handbook. She operates a design studio and runs a community press called Short Dress Press. Merging writing and graphics, Pam produced My Life, LA documenting Black Angelinos in poster/stories. Her multimedia-literary showcase, “I Didn’t Survive Slavery For This!” featured poets riffing on life 200-years post emancipation. Pam has been published in Calyx, Black Renaissance, Chiron, Voices From Leimert Park and The LA TIMES. Her first book of poems, Between Good Men & No Man At All, comes out this fall on World Stage Press. She recently completed her third novel I’ll Get You My Pretty based on the true story of her aunt Mattie, a want-to-be actress and her notorious-doctor-lover, the prime suspect in the Black Dahlia murder.


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