‘The Dinner Party Before the Revolution’: Jim Smith’s radical West Coast poetry
Power to the People. | Illustration by Erica Snowlake

Jim Smith, longtime resident of Venice, Calif., has made a name for himself as a crusading journalist whose gigs included, for a time, People’s World, the West Coast newspaper that corresponded with the Daily World on the East Coast. People’s World is no longer a West Coast print newspaper, of course, but an online global news source.

The year 2019 turned out to be a signal year for the author. His long-awaited, monumental (424-page) Gentrifying Paradise: Resistance and Removal in 21st Century Venice California, written under the name James R Smith, is based on response and reflection on many years’ worth of elite planned land use transformation in the seaside community that was once a visionary independent city cum social project with canals but is now incorporated into the City of Los Angeles.

Smith sums up his analysis of Venice, and his prognosis for the future in his final paragraph: “Although gentrification may be an integral part of late capitalism, that doesn’t mean it is inevitable in any one community. Gentrification can be defeated by a mass involvement of the community. The power of an aroused community that outlasts the developers and their financiers is the short answer to winning this fight.”

Concisely, those are Jim Smith’s politics.

But the year 2019 also saw publication of The Dinner Party Before the Revolution, a successor to an earlier collection of poetry called If the Dead Had Email. Poems can often distill the spirit of an age, of a place, of a moment or idea, in ways that a many-chaptered, extensively footnoted dissertation cannot. The love of few words to express great thoughts and feelings has been a hallmark of the human mind for as long as we have used speech and writing to communicate.

“Nearly every day,” Smith writes “About the Author” at the end of his new volume, “I compose a poem in my head, and sometimes write them down. I believe that one of the reasons many people become so frustrated is that they don’t have a way to express how they’re feeling. Poetry gives me a pressure valve, an escape hatch, that makes me feel a whole lot better. It might do the same for you.”

Happily, The Dinner Party evinces the same politics that inform Smith’s tome on gentrification: Power to the people!

Jim Smith is not a “poet’s poet” writing primarily for his peers in the literary Parnassus. You will search his latest collection in vain for obscure Renaissance Provençal rhyme schemes and meters, for esoteric classical references only the cognoscenti will catch, for multi-syllabic ten-dollar words and for arty odes to the avocado. His poems have a rough-and-tumble, earthy, proletarian grittiness that’s not afraid to get its feet dirty. In many cases you can tell he pounded the streets on a lot of demonstrations and picket lines to produce them. You wouldn’t find his work in The New Yorker any time soon.

Let’s have a look at a few examples of his work.

What good is poetry? serves as a kind of manifesto, summoning up, without naming them, the spirits of Amos, Shelley, Mayakovsky, Brecht, Ginsberg. The fact that he ends so many of his poems with no punctuation suggests that the reader must take the thought and run ahead.

POETRY
tears down the walls of the world
Poetry is a people’s art
Poetry is a revolutionary art

Poetry tears down the wall
between fiction
and nonfiction
Poetry makes the true, fantastical
and the fantastical, true

Illustration by Erica Snowlake

If poetry lies,
it is not poetry

Smith expands on his poetic esthetic in Beware the poem:

Beware the poem
If you are seeking comfort
in clever words
you’ve come to the wrong place

Beware the poem
It is a stabbing light
that cuts through the thickest fog
and shows what we don’t want to see

Beware the poem
It tears down the walls
that hide us from the truth
of the onrushing abyss

Beware the poem
It will find us
no matter how far
or how fast we run

Beware the poem
Its edges are knife sharp
and its essence
is the future

Any poet these days—hell, anyone, period—goes through intense emotional highs and lows, with a lot of sadness and terror at the fate of the world, and the occasional, much-needed ray of sunshine. In the next two poems Smith plumbs some of those depressive depths, and reaches for a little hope.

She’s dying, Jim

There’s nothing we can do.
I can’t believe it.
She’s so young and beautiful.

I know,
but she took in too much
carbon dioxide.
It’s suffocating her.

Isn’t there something we can do,
I asked.

Nothing. Her body is shutting down
system by system.

But why? I cried.
We thought she’d live forever.

These past years have been
hard on her.
She’s been mugged, raped, robbed
and brutalized.
Not just once, but over and over.

But if she dies, what about us?
Should’ve thought of that a whole lot sooner.

I know, I know. But we can’t live without her.

True enough. But maybe it’s for the best.
Do we really deserve to live,
if we treat Gaia this way?

Trust me.
The universe will be better off.

And now for the hope, in The Last of the Oil:

Oil is the white man’s buffalo.
He thinks it will last forever.
But once millions of buffaloes
trod the prairies.

The People of the Land
culled the sick and the slow
but left alone the thundering herds.
Then the invaders from the morning sun
came and, without a care, slaughtered
down to the last buffalo.

About that time, they found a new buffalo
A black sticky goo under the earth
that made their cars go
that made their weapons of war go
and shrank the world
from months to days to hours.
They sent their armies
to capture all the oil in the world
and there they killed without a care
as if their victims were the buffalo.

Now the goo is almost gone
Soon the cars will be parked,
the airplanes will fall from the sky,
the tanks will creek to a halt,
the pirates of oil will scatter.

The sun and the wind
will bring us power
and the world will grow again
and become wondrous and exotic.
And just perhaps the buffalo will return

When I moved to Los Angeles, I first set down roots in Venice, on Ozone Avenue, not even a stone’s throw from the famous boardwalk. Through my bedroom window I could hear the Pacific waves caressing me to sleep. Mine was an odyssey followed by millions of others before me and since: To dip my toes in the westernmost waters of the continental destiny. One of the places I visited as often as I could was our small but noble local Venice post office, overlooking a spacious traffic circle, with its 1941 fresco of Venice founding father Abbot Kinney painted by Edward Biberman. In its infinite wisdom the USPS decided to close that facility a few years ago and sell it off to a private developer—-the latest, but hardly the last assault on the historic character of our little town by the sea.

Illustration by Erica Snowlake

A section of Jim Smith’s volume contains his poems of Venice, followed by a short essay mentioning other key writers and poets who called Venice home. In Our Sacred Places he commits his apostrophe to the post office to the printed page and memorializes its fate, at one and the same time recalling the destruction of our human patrimony by succeeding hordes of obtuse goons.

There are sacred places in the woods
first recognized by the Tongva people
and revered to this day.

And who would not stand in awe of a mountain spring,
or a mighty tree thrusting towards heaven,
amid the woodlands silence, and the subtle sounds.

The Sacred is where you find it.
Here in Venice, the hidden Redwoods,
Japanese gardens and impossible flowers.

And walking toward the center, the Circle,
there is a Temple on a rise of ground,
Inside is a space like the Greeks once knew.

Abbot Kinney. | Illustration by Erica Snowlake

In ancient times they looked up in awe at the mighty Apollo,
or the wise Athena, until their calm places
were pulled down by Barbarians, blind to the Sacred.

Inside our Post Office, the deified Abbot looks down
and watches us through the journeys of our lives
as we embrace the Sacred, or turn away.

And now we face the loss of our holy place
Where joy and sorrow are carried in a letter
as the new Barbarians pull down our temple.

In Venice Sweet, an ironic title to be sure, the poet captures the down-and-out and sometimes bizarre population that shuffles out of the way just ahead of the coming bulldozers:

On the Boardwalk
a woman wrestles
with a baby elephant.
The Sun—such a show-off—
sinks into the hot Pacific
…to applause
The artists scurry home.

Illustration by Erica Snowlake

Hard times at the wrong time.
A time without compassion
no jobs, no justice, no peace,
no hope.
Just the same old, same old.
Dodge the cops
Dodge the vigilantes
pick up cans
pack up bottles
Stay outta trouble

Venice
shackled and chained
A beauty by the bay
Nailed to the cross
by jealousy and avarice.

The Dinner Party Before the Revolution gives its title to the book, and actually appears first in it. Smith summons up an image that is positively Buñuelian—the discreet charms of America’s bourgeois oligarchs finally having met their match. It’s a revenge fantasy to make up for the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the torching or the bombing of synagogues and churches with innocent worshipers inside, the carnage of hundreds of Bangladeshi garment workers caught up in a holocaust of collapse, trade unionists trapped and murdered in a Kiev building surrounded by the new Ukrainian fascists, all the crimes of capitalism gone amok.

The general and the spy arrived at the door together,
where they met the securities trader

The host
who everyone knows for her great wealth and generosity—
opened the door
and took their coats and weapons
“You won’t be needing these in here,” she smiled.

Everyone welcomed the Adman when he arrived,
bearing well-written denials for everyone.

The unbiased reporter walked in
looking for his chum, and some said, lover,
the CIA spy lady.

Then the deep-thinking professor came,
apologizing that his think-tank duties made him late.

Last of all, with pomp and circumstances preceding him,
came the Politician with his Secret Service entourage.
He made a short speech thanking all for his re-election.

Much of their talk was about the great feast to be served,
for they knew the host always shared the spoils of wars.

Alas, an hour went by, then another,
without a call for gluttony.

The host apologized,
“It seems the servants have all run away.”

The spy began to grow alarmed when she couldn’t reach HQ.
Then softly, at first, but growing more insistent
came the sound of drums,
then the sound of voices,
maybe thousands,
and sounds of general merriment.

The party before the revolution. | Illustration by Erica Snowlake

The procession stopped outside, and a loudspeaker proclaimed:
“This is the party before the REVOLUTION.
Celebrate the world turning upside down!”

The General was furious.
“I thought this was the party
before the counter-revolution.
I must return to my troops.”

The reporter, sweating profusely, said:
“I see many of them outside,
wearing red bandanas.”
At this, everyone ran to the door to escape,
but found it locked from the outside.

Finally, though it appears midway in the book, a kind of epitaph for the poet and a challenge to the reader, I could have done better:

I could have done better,
with my life.

I could have done better,
than those turkeys who became President.

I could have done better,
for my friends when they really needed me.

I could have done better,
than those liars in the media.

I could have done better,
for those ladies who really loved me.

I could have done better,
than those jokers who run our city.

I could have done better,
for the whole wide world.

If you could do better
maybe there is still hope.

The Dinner Party Before the Revolution can be ordered through Ingram and is also available at Amazon and other internet sites. For further inquiries write to venicewest@igc.org.

The Dinner Party Before the Revolution
Poetry by Jim Smith
Illustrations by Erica Snowlake
Venice, Calif.: Venice West Publishers
First edition, November 2019, 107 pp.
ISBN: 9781704134000


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski. He received the Better Lemons "Up Late" Critic Award for 2019, awarded to the most prolific critic.

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