Paul Portuges, the UCSB lecturer for film & media studies, is one of the authors the former rap artist 2Pac Shakur read. Or at least that is according to “2Pac’s Reading List” on www.alleyezonme.com, which states “This is a handy reading list of good reading material if you ever find yourself locked up.” Cited in 2Pac’s reads among Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member and Black Like Me, is UCSB’s own Portuges and his work, Visionary Poetics of Allen Ginsberg.
“I like 2Pac. … A lot of these guys, they seem tough, but they’re actually quiet-smart, and some of them are really good poets. They’ve helped poetry in the last 20 years, bringing back new forms and old forms,” Portuges said. I caught up with the teacher, screenwriter, filmmaker and poet this past weekend at Peet’s Coffee & Tea. The first thing he had me do was hand a copy of his newest book of poems, The Body Electric Journal, to two of our neighboring coffee drinkers. Later, the book back in our hands, he discloses to me, pointing at the elder of the couple, “That guy’s a writer.”
I begin to look at my surroundings in awe, thinking of them no longer as a mere cafe off La Cumbre Road, but as a hub for Santa Barbara artists. Portuges sits at ease in the coffee shop, his laptop resting in front of him. We fondle his book. “[The book] is called The Body Electric Journal because it treats all different aspects of the body: making love to dying and everything in between. The title of The Body Electric Journal is actually taken from Walt Whitman’s line, ‘I sing the body electric…’ Still today he is the greatest American poet, I think,” Portuges reveals, his kind dark eyes shining back at me.
The Body Electric Journal is Portuges’ sixth book of poetry. It comes out next week and will be available at Chaucer’s Books, Borders and the UCSB Bookstore. The philosophical, rich poems are constructed into 12 chapters and that begin with a prose poem, or what is known as “haibun,” a Japanese style of writing haiku and prose. Following the prose is more sparse writing dealing with the theme of the chapter. The poetry not only serves as a book, but also as a tool for Portuges to combine his dual passion for film and poetry.
“For the last year or so, I’ve been working on each of these chapters, [making them into films]… I’ve been traveling all over the world filming it with a crew, and this summer, I’m going to Europe to do some shooting there and to China… This book is kind of like the screenplay for the film. It will be 12 short films which will all be linked. It’s an old tradition, poetry and images,” Portuges said, generous with knowledge. The poet, who has a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley and has received numerous awards, is also working on a book about poetry and film, as well as his seventh book of poems, titled Mao, which is about Mao Zedong, and is written in iambic pentameter.