Portuguese American Journal

Poetry: True North with Sam Pereira – Interview

By Millicent Borges Accardi

Raised in Los Banos, California, Portuguese-American writer Sam Pereira has published six books, most recently, True North and Untrue You (Nine Mile 2020), a poetry collection which David St John (author of The Last Troubadour: New and Selected Poems) states is “uniquely American. . . as if Lenny Bruce had written songs with Tom Waits.”  Diniz Borges, director of the Portuguese Beyond Borders Institute at California State University, Fresno adds that Pereira’s latest book “engages, surprises and liberates.”

Besides the six collections of poetry, Pereira’s work has also appeared in several anthologies of contemporary American poetry, among them: Piecework: 19 Fresno Poets (Silver Skates, 1987), The Body Electric (W. W. Norton, 2000), and How Much Earth: The Fresno Poets (Heyday/Roundhouse Press, 2001).  His individual poems have been included in numerous magazines including, Alaska Quarterly Review, The American Poetry Review, and Poetry. Pereira received his BA from California State University, Fresno, and an MFA from the University of Iowa’s prestigious Writers’ Workshop.

In 2019, after teaching English for twenty-one years, Pereira retired to a newly-quiet life of morning coffee, jazz and cigars, with his lovely wife, Susan, and former street dog named Marley in the Central San Joaquin Valley of California.

“My grandmother was originally from Altares, a freguesia (“civil parish”) in the municipality of Angra do Heroísmo on the Portuguese island of Terceira in the archipelago of the Azores. According to my younger brother, Alan, who is apparently more on top of that sort of thing than me, my grandfather, to the best of my knowledge also came from Terceira, although pinpointing the exactness of his presence there is less certain.” – Sam Pereira

Millicent Accardi: First of all, thank you for welcoming us (your readers) into your fabulous poetic world of jazz, fedora hats, Sinatra, brandy and side-mouthed conversations with dear friends about the nature of the universe!

Q: What made you choose to bring a new collection into the world in 2020-21?

A: This particular collection of poems has been in the works for the past five to six years, having undergone massive changes along the way. It reflects a good part of the turmoil and utter disbelief at what had been going on over that time frame. A few months into 2020, everything seemed to be reaching some kind of dramatic conclusion. In short, the former president and then the virus made me do it!

Millicent Accardi: One of the things I like about your work is that it has a way of uniting how you think about the creative process with a narrative.  As in the poem, “Selling the Idea in a Dark Corner of a Hollywood Bar” which talks about writing in a bar and how painful it can be when you sometimes have to “kill” your favorite stories

 

I give the participants in my little stories

The best lines & the wickedest love scenes.

They smell of the French countryside, laced

With tobacco and Bordeaux. If you ask them

Where they like to spend their time

When they are not in bed,

They will always respond with great lust:

The art museum on 23rd, or the laundromat

That serves Champagne, while everyone waits,

Watching the bras and panties spin

 

Q: What so-called Portuguese sensibilities (like worth strength) have had an impact on your poems?

A: One of the most overused/overdeveloped words people call upon to describe the Portuguese frame of mind is saudade. However, it does apply, more often than not, to my writing, I think. There is a love of solitude, a love of the cold, harsh reality surrounding a poem. We surround ourselves with facts and art, to be included within our work, and if you happen to be of Portuguese extraction, whole or partially, and lucky enough to see saudade as an incredibly special gift, you grab onto it as well. You call it what it is, the elixir of tempered souls.

Q: Ah Sardines!  As in your poem Amanhã (tomorrow), the image of a plate of sardines seems so evocative of Portugal and the Portuguese people and their darkness, often referred to as saudade, a regret. How has saudade impacted your poetry?

A: I think on this question I will let the poem “Amanhã” speak for itself.

 

Years ago, while staring

At a plate of sardines

In what passed for a winter sun,

The old thoughts returned.

 

How on numerous occasions,

Under the direction of a bass guitar,

My head filled with a darkness

Even Melville might have envied.

 

I had walked the perimeters

Of this small town most of my life,

Sometimes knowing that cars

Might come out of nowhere,

 

Sounding horns, the split second

Before ending my lusts

For a scotch in the night. I thought

About the anguish some saw

 

In being alone. I picked

One particular evening, face dashed

With the blood of my follies,

And sat, just sat, on a curb, dreaming

 

About making love with the sea,

Her salt and infinitely wet glances

Bouncing off my forehead, and off

Into the after-breeze we’d shared there.

 

If I had been lucky, If I’d seen the clouds

As the ocean’s gray mascara,

Designed to wear me down and take me,

I might have been okay with that.

 

I might have said, in a slumber of love,

That she, my beloved Pacific,

Had given me a daughter, Amanhã,

Wearing the haunting silver of sardines.

 

Q:  What part of Portugal is your family from?

A:  My grandmother was originally from Altares, a freguesia (“civil parish”) in the municipality of Angra do Heroísmo on the Portuguese island of Terceira in the archipelago of the Azores. According to my younger brother, Alan, who is apparently more on top of that sort of thing than me, my grandfather, to the best of my knowledge also came from Terceira, although pinpointing the exactness of his presence there is less certain.

My grandfather arrived in the United States in the early 1900s, because I remember talk about him having been here when the San Francisco earthquake—the big one—happened in 1906. He later sent for my grandmother, Carolina, whom my first book is dedicated to, as you might recall. She and their oldest daughter—their only child at the time—joined my grandfather in California, once he had established himself.

Q: Can you talk about the significance of the title for this new poetry collection? How you chose True North and Untrue You, what it means to you?

A: Those particular words appear at the very end of the final poem in the book. I knew I wanted that poem, “Manifesto at the End of Things,” to have that particular place in the manuscript when I was sorting through the material to include. What I didn’t know was just how valuable those last five words in the poem were to the overall concept of the book. That came much later.

Anyway, there is nothing particularly mysterious about what “true north” is, I don’t think. It’s the internal compass we all have/we all choose or don’t choose to follow. It gets us home or leads us over a waiting cliff with our names on the signpost. It’s the second half of the phrase that causes questions, I think. Who is the you referred to at the end? To that, I can only say it’s a belief system—personal and political—that a person lives with every day; in a sense, makes love to over news headlines; wants to kiss, but is afraid something so potentially treacherous will devour him. In short, the voluptuous and charming anti true north.

Q: Like the definition of “true north,” “the internal compass that guides you successfully through life. It represents who you are as a human being at your deepest level. It is your orienting point – your fixed point in a spinning world – that helps you stay on track as a leader.”  Is poetry your own “true north”?

 A: Yes, and south, and east, and west.

Q: The poet David St John notes that your poems are uniquely American in tone, “as if Lenny Bruce had written songs with Tom Waits, all of it graced by the angels of film noir and the cool of Miles Davis.” When you write, are you actively trying to capture this magical all-American voice-commentary of the world we live in?

A: When I write, and I know this is going to sound affected, I am trying to do one thing: allow the door to stay open, even if just a crack. If any or all of those elements slip in, I’ll give them co-authorship. We’ll have some lox and bagels and compare notes on what it is to be stuck in Kansas, or South Dakota, or Copenhagen, or Havana. I know it’s corny, but I enjoy being a prisoner of poetry. Her whip is my pleasure. Then there’s the added pleasure that comes when she hands me the whip and smiles.

Q: Can you compare the differences/similarities between an American viewpoint and a Portuguese-American viewpoint?

A: The dark is darker for the Portuguese American, I think. Personally, I savor that aspect, that difference. The Portuguese American viewpoint tends to be more world-endowed and less confined to a backdrop of landscape and whim. I don’t decry landscape and whim, necessarily; I just know that the soul has better highways.

Q: How can poetry help us enjoy life? Cope with life? Especially during these troubled times of social injustice, unrest and the pandemic.

A: I can only speak to how it helps me. At an exceedingly early age, around 17, I realized something had entered my life and was there to help. It wasn’t religion. It wasn’t a shiny, red convertible. It wasn’t the green leather shoes that no self-respecting young guy would warrant himself worthy of. Poetry gave me what no one else seemed to want. I took it and have been holding on for dear life ever since.

Q: What about writing are you reluctant about?

A: Reluctant? Not a damn thing. I approach it with caution in most cases, but with my eyes open. It’s the hitchhiker I once was leery of giving a ride, until I realized that it was the one driving the car.

Q: What can writers do to advance their careers, without sacrificing the words on the page?

A: It all boils down to honesty. The word, coupled with a writer’s love of puzzles, is the doorway in. I always had teachers along the way that I admired for their “success” in publication, along with their great work on the page itself.

Without missing a beat, they all would tell me with words to the effect: “Put it down on paper. The rest will show up if the ones throwing the party like it. If they don’t, fuck ‘em. You’ll still have the words.”

Q: Hotels, bars, film noir, alcohol, trains, alleys, “the cigarette, the bourbon, and a long-legged blonde,” contained within the seedy underbelly of cities, these populate the poems in this collection. What other “city” or noir works have influenced you?

A: Chandler, of course. Chandler, without regret. And Mickey Spillane if I’m being honest. I always try to be honest.

Q: Can you share a personal definition for the word “truth”?

A: “Truth” means always having to say you’re sorry.

The poem, “Thanksgiving with Pessoa” is a lovely comedic and touching nod of homage to Melville and George Monteiro, also a nod to mortality—how all the great souls of writing DO dwell in the past.

for George Monteiro

I have taken the Cornish hens

From the freezer to thaw.

For the next two days,

They will converge in the fridge

With the eggs and yesterday’s soup.

I sometimes think this by the fire:

What if Pessoa had been a bird?

I also find a strange connection

To him and any one of his

Nefarious heteronyms at once.

Then comes the ultimate

Creative chess move: I wonder

If either myself, or the great

And mysterious Pessoa alone

Could settle for taking up residence

In a box, along with the eggs; along

With the soup, when our blood

Goes on telling us there are fish

Out there with our names on them.

All the great tuna live in Mallorca now,

Which leaves sardines and a random octopus

For the rest of us. Fernando’s been dead forever.

So too, each of his somber guys went with him,

Which leaves me, who also kept a trunk

Filled with the scandalous correspondences

 

And photos of old lovers, those who were and

Never were old lovers from the past.

It was a black trunk with brass straps all around.

It smelled dank, as though the Atlantic had come

To rest in the basement back in the 90s.

 

Or was the smell that of Melville’s whale,

Steeped in literature and threat; throwing itself

Against the door to tell me it had been aware for years,

I was just the shadow of Pessoa’s hat; an impostor

And a would-be heir to Lisboa’s big blue sea?

 

Q: In a way, Pessoa “haunts” your poetry as a reminder rather than a muse. Perhaps? Like an old friend you converse with, who, instead of remaining silent, always decides to speak up. Can you describe your literary relationship with our literary heir-apparent Pessoa?

A: Pessoa came into my literary landscape late. Throughout my writing career, I have been drawn to a few who it would always be dangerous, yet essential that I call brothers. One, early on, was Philip Levine, who spoke of work and the common lives of people, as though all of that mattered. It does. Phil made me feel like I mattered, for reasons including and beyond poetry. Another was John Berryman. A brilliant man who had just a wee bit of the self-destructive in him. I was drawn to his work like the proverbial magnet, and on many occasions had to put it down for fear of combusting myself. Finally, there was Pessoa, who gave the world the heteronym. He allowed himself, and those who came after him, a means to break out of self-inflicted walls; become “others,” with different paths and different circles. It was marvelous the things he could do with creation. It just seemed right to return the favor with the poems in the book that include him.

Brandies & Cream Puffs with Pessoa

Pessoa has come by

To watch the Impeachment trial.

I offer him a brandy, and he takes it.

 

We have cream puffs and cigarettes.

 

There is no better way than the truth,

We tell each other, as the senators

Move in the direction of the light.

Fernando dips his cream puff

Into his brandy–a disgusting move

I have never appreciated. I say so.

 

Pessoa laughs that I am concerned

With such trifles. He tells me

In Portuguese, the Azoreans

Who had discovered New York,

As he once had back in the day,

Would have never elected this liar.

He wants another brandy.

I walk it back to him and place it

Between the coffee table and my TV.

 

Fernando, I say, do you think

The president drinks brandy,

After making love to his wife.

 

Brandy? A wife? Love? The president

Drinks the piss of Russian hookers.

 

You and I, Pessoa says, you and I

Must savor the salvation this brandy brings,

As it moves up our well-defined noses,

In the direction of our four bedeviled eyes.

 

Speaking of eyes, it was your own James Tate,

Who once mentioned in a poem: “…the eyes

Of a mild savior” when speaking to his readers

About the importance of love and the stars.

We need those eyes again, Samuel.

We need another brandy before the cab

Comes to take us back home.

 

Q: The poem “Saroyan’s City Then” jokingly compares writer Saroyan’s Fresno with the Paris of the 1920’s. What influence do you feel do cities have on the writers (and artists) who create work IN them?

A: In my own case, without the cities I have inhabited in my now 71+ years on the planet, I would probably be forced into a career of writing about daffodils. Not that there is anything wrong with that. William Carlos Williams did just fine with them. Much of my own life has been spent, as you know, living in a small farming town in California, and that presence is in a lot of my work, too.

But, it is the big cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Baltimore, and San Francisco that continue to capture me and leave me breathless at times.

 

No one ever said

Fresno was the Paris

Of the San Joaquin,

But some of us thought it.

William Saroyan, in the role

Of William Saroyan.

It was like living down

The block from Hemingway,

Only without the shotgun,

And our Hemingway

Rode a bicycle most days.

People always laugh at this,

But you could sit and wait

For a bus on Cedar,

Chewing a doughnut and nursing

A hot cup of coffee, thinking

The woman on the bench with you

Had oiled herself by the pool

The day before, and rinsed

Most of it off in the deep end

Afterward. You smile at her,

Swallowing what’s left of breakfast.

You say what’s been certain

To you for months it seems,

That Fresno and Paris remain

A religion to you and most

Of your friends. You swear

She will remember you,

Stepping on your bus, and

Throwing her a kiss. Saroyan

Rides by at exactly the same time.

She is throwing him a kiss.

The great Levine is almost here.

Soon, none of this will ever

Get mentioned again, Paris

Being a lot like Fresno back then.

 

Q: You recently retired from teaching. What has changed with your work and your life since you left the classroom?

A: For the most part, time. I am no longer finding it as necessary to slot out times and isolate myself in a room to write. There are always the daily tasks that do not involve sculpting one’s thoughts into lines. They continue to be necessary and relevant, of course, but now I am able to spread it all out over a much longer timeline, so things like buying the proper cut of meat, bill paying, and the like can now be compartmentalized more easily, and poetry concerns can ascend to their rightful place at the head of the table. Yeah, right.

Q: What do you miss about teaching? What do you miss about students?

A: I taught 7th grade Language Arts (English), so I guess I miss the enthusiasm in the eyes of students on the rare occasion I was able to bring them something outside of the textbook/outside of the test prepping syndrome that schools have become known for over the past twenty years. I can say that a little more forcefully these days.

Q: Do you have plans to give readings and/or teach workshops virtually or in person after the pandemic?

A: I’m going to be 72 this spring, so moving around is a continually present concern. My eyes are not what they used to be but thank God and Ophthalmology for the magic of new lenses and large fonts. Honestly, I would love to entertain any notions out there for bringing the Pereira show to various cities. Does Rio have Uber?

Q: What were the difficulties you faced while getting the collection out into the world during a difficult period in America?

A: I could lie here and tell you how the sweat poured, but the truth—that word again—is that I ran it by Bob Herz, the publisher and one of a handful of editors for Nine Mile Press, who grabbed it up immediately. The book had gone through some earlier versions before, and those were unacceptable all the way around. So I retooled, sent it off to Nine Mile, who had published my previous book, Bad Angels, and how can I say, “Morning became electric.”

Q: In other books, your Portuguese grandmother has been featured.  What role did being Portuguese play in True North and Untrue You?

A: As I have gotten older, I realize more and more the importance of that ancestry. Even now, after the new book. This morning I wrote a poem where my grandmother is mentioned. I will always see those generations as the backbone I tried so hard to abandon during the awful middle years of my life. Gratitude and more gratitude.

Q: From “Salvation of Any Kind,” you bring about the image of a Portuguese moon, what does that signify to you?  As if dissimilar worlds or lives are ONLY able to unite in Lisbon!

A: Lisbon became symbolic for me the first time I watched Casablanca in a theater. The Lisbon plane flying off overhead at the end carried freedom and dreams and, I will forever believe, poetry.

 

It was in January, during a year

When the fog came early,

Trying to cover up our crimes.

I remember her, delving

Into the photographs captured

During our escape into Lisbon.

It had been the only time,

When faced with despair, we turned

At the corner with the broken sidewalk,

Looked up at the church

That was staring back at us,

And decided to laugh. Just laugh.

We didn’t drop dead then,

Or now, as the guilt

Rolled off our shoulders

And into the gutters of Lisbon.

The Jew and the altar boy

Had come to grips, kissing each other

Under the Portuguese moon.

The fog continued to cover us,

And in Heaven, if there was such a place,

The owner nodded, ordering

More jazz! More jazz, in the names

Of those who came dressed in fog

Every year, about this time, to

Protest salvation in unholy Lisboa,

Or anywhere else that seemed real.

Perhaps as a legacy to the Covid pandemic, as if we are all existing (not thriving) in the last days (as people call them). Sam Pereira’s final poem in the new collection True North and Untrue You harkens readers back to how the world is all existing in the new normal. The last three lines of Manifesto at the End of Things” end with this insight:


. . . Piercing this umpteenth day

Of April 2020 into a justified, mellow anger;

Doing it facing true north and untrue you.

 

Sam Pereira’s Books

  • True North and Untrue You (Nine Mile Press, 2020)
  • Bad Angels (Nine Mile Press, 2015)
  • Dusting on Sunday (Ash Tree Poetry,2012)
  • The Marriage of the Portuguese
    • Expanded Edition (Tagus Press/University of Massachusetts, 2012)
    • First edition (L’Epervier Press, 1978)
  • A Cafe in Boca (Tebot Bach 2007)
  • Brittle Water (Abattoir Editions/Penumbra Press, University of Nebraska at Omaha, 1987)

————

Millicent Borges Accardi is the author of three poetry books, most recently, Only More So (Salmon Poetry 2016).  She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Fulbright, CantoMundo, California Arts Council, Barbara Deming, Foundation for Contemporary Arts (NYC), Fundação Luso-Americana (FLAD). She has published over 50 reviews and interviews in Portuguese American Journal, Poets Quarterly and AWP Writers’ Chronicle. Find her @TopangaHippie (Twitter and IG).

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