On one of the first cool nights of Houston’s autumn, September 27, Rodrigo Toscano flew in from New Orleans and Charles Alexander came from Victoria, Texas to deliver their singular and meditative poetry at Kaboom Books. They were brought together by a partnership between Failure to Identify and Tintero Readings.
Failure to Identify bills itself as an “Occasional, Itinerant, Sporadic, Vagabond, Versatile, Irregular, Incidental, Intermittent, Roundabout, Accidental, Stray, Raro, Combustible series of arts & writing events.” Tintero Readings is the events arm of Tintero Projects, run by married couple Lupe and Jasminne Mendez, which “aims to promote writing and reading opportunities for emerging Latinx poets and writers in the Houston” and beyond.
Toscano works for the Labor Institute, “a non-profit organization that provides labor unions and community groups with education on health and safety”—and this has inspired his work, which recalls Muriel Rukeyser in its activist intentions. He read from his newest book Explosion Rocks Springfield, inspired by an “actual event in Springfield, MA,” in which a gas leak combusted “almost four square blocks of property,” including a daycare, where the kids were fortuitously on a school trip, and a strip club, which was evacuated in the nick of time by a quick-thinking manager.
This narrative became a refrain in his musical composition of a poem. Toscano trilled, he cheeped, he slurred, and he surged. He used the mundane diction of “municipal zoning definitions,” serial and inspector numbers, citations, “arbitration hearings,” “silica dust droplets,” and other highly technical language. He blended in the non-sense song of phrases like “spittle datootling,” “jank!” and “frabba jabba”(approximate transliterations). He spliced in more vernacular voices: “My real name is Lulu Chateau,” “face the bar, poor Jack,” “wet t-shirt contests,” “stone cold bitch,” “free cupcakes,” “Bob’s house of finance.”
He punctuated these verbal encounters with questions: “Is fire keen on burning?” “Is fire itself in the act of stripping?” “What is stability?” “What is engorgement?” “What is vascularity?” “What is mitochondria?” “Wherefrom plasma?” “Wherefore spermatozoa?” “Is vision visionary at every time of day?” It may sound bewildering, but it was exhilarating. As he read, Toscano practically danced; at one point, he double-tapped his microphone to make a novel sound, like breaking the fourth wall, in a voice as distinctively syncopated and charmingly funny as Christopher Walken’s.
Charles Alexander similarly delivered sections from an extended piece, this one an ongoing opus he’s been working on for twenty years called Pushing Water. Alexander is an artist, poet, and bookmaker, in addition to being the founder of Chax Press. He’s written several chapbooks—his work seems concerned with poetry as a living practice and ritual. In his poetry, you’ll find the stuff of his cultural life, such as references to Charles Olson, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Paul Celan, Pierre Bonnard, Barbara Henning, H.D., Jack Spicer, bpNichol, David Byrne, Arthurian and Greek myth, and…Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
Many of Alexander’s poems were dedicated to friends and some were elegies. His poetry is fragmentary, prophetic, and elemental, and concerned with “language weather.” It’s full of adjectives and descriptions, as if trying to get to the bottom of things or the “quality of material,” “the granularity of English” from “land deposits to launch modules.” At one point, he experimented with a travel narratives braided with Welsh vocalics.
As one of them observed during their Q&A, “co-reading is an art.” Alexander’s and Toscano’s poems were quite different in many respects, but both responded to the lived environment—it was a refreshing exercise to see two distinct approaches complement the other.