Beginning in December 2008, West End Press launched “The New Series” of poetry, “full-length volumes by new and recently recognized poets.” So far nine volumes have been produced, by Marianne Broyles, Jason Yurcic, Jeanetta Calhoun Mish, Jenifer Rae Vernon, Sy Hoahwah, Maisha Baton, Lauren Camp, Mary Oishi, and Jessica Helen Lopez.
Four of the authors, Broyles, Yurcic, Oishi, and Lopez, live in the Albuquerque area, also the home for the last twenty-six years of West End Press. Baton divided her time between Pittsburgh and Albuquerque before her death in 2010. Camp has lived on the outskirts of Santa Fe for many years. Mish and Hoahwah are Oklahoma natives or longtime residents. Vernon was raised in western Washington and is teaching in Juneau, Alaska. All nine writers come from working class backgrounds. Two identify as Native American, two are Chicana/o, one is African American and one is Asian American. All the writers are steeped in family and community history, though the stories they tell are often directed to the present.
Marianne Broyles’ The Red Window intersperses stories of her Cherokee upbringing and her life as a hospital worker with PTSD victims. Her poems embrace subjects as diverse as Muslim workers on her family’s farm to her visit to the gravesite of a Cherokee ancestor.
In Work Is Love Made Visible, Mish takes her Oklahoma family through generations of struggles to survive poverty, exploitation and harassment, ending in resettlement away from the land. Family photographs from over a century reinforce her story. Mish won an Oklahoma Book Award from the Oklahoma Center for the Book and a Wrangler Award from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, both for best poetry book.
In Sy Hoahwah’s Velroy and the Madischie Mafia. Comanche and other warriors are reincarnated as lawbreakers affiliated with casino owners on the reservation. Behind the violence and humor is his portrait of a people with past and present inextricably bound together.
Yurcic’s Odes to Anger is a story of conversion from a youth of violence and pain to a present in which work is balanced against his love of his children and his dedication to writing about the life and people he knows. His poetry demands the respect and involvement of his audience, and Jason, who learned to read later in life, is an advocate for literacy, especially among troubled youth. Odes to Anger was a finalist for the New Mexico Book Award and has been a favorite among the youth groups whom he has taught writing.
Jen Vernon’s Rock Candy begins with the struggle of her Appalachian family in a western logging town as they survive everyday threats of violence, poverty, and moral temptation. Her later poems reflect her departure from home and struggle for dignity among strangers. Poems from Rock Candy have been read live on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac program on public radio, and the book won the prestigious Tillie Olsen Award from the Working Class Studies Association.
In Sketches Maisha Baton, a native of Pittsburgh who moved to Albuquerque, offers clean, clear portraits of the people she knew in her lifetime. With a discerning eye she presents those she encountered, from the street, from families in her neighborhood, and artists like herself. Ms. Baton passed away shortly after her book was published, but the works continue to be read on public radio blues programs for their fine blend of musical syncopation and real-life emotion.
In This Business of Wisdom Lauren Camp, daughter of an Iraqi Jewish refugee in New York City, suggests what you face “as you grow, persistent and clumsy, into your bones.” She shows us how, despite obstacles, what you see can be trusted—thus she constructs an educated view of life. Lauren is a popular reader and lecturer on poetry and jazz, and her chapter on the fusion of jazz and poetry appeared in the March 2011 issue of World Literature Today.
Mary Oishi’s Spirit Birds They Told Me (the title drawn from her mother’s name) brings a message of trauma and recovery, war and reconciliation, and the passage from personal shame to self-regard. Oishi was child of a Japanese bride and an American soldier from World War II.
Jessica Helen Lopez, raised in Deming, New Mexico near the Mexican border, was a member of the 2008 National Champion Albuquerque Slam Team. The writing in Always Messing With them Boys is said to “represent a revolution in the mechanics and mission of poetry.” This debut was chosen as a Southwest Book of the Year from the Tucson-Pima County Public Library.
These first book-length volumes, all fully empowered, seem to us to offer continuing hope that the best poetry seeks human understanding, speaks to a broader audience than its place of origin, and should be seen as a kind of triumph in which we may all participate. The continuity of voices inspires us to look further into a sometimes difficult and even frightening future at how art and performance can affect positive change and how “new” writing can inform the present.