Poet draws on music, ancestry and desert
The highway first brought Lawrence Welsh to El Paso in 1989, when he hitchhiked to New Mexico and Texas from Los Angeles, where he was a prize-winning journalist and had co-founded the punk rock band The Alcoholics.
Five years later, he moved here and embraced his dream of working as a poet.
His newest book, "Skull Highway" (La Alameda Press), features the austere beauty of the Southwestern landscape he now calls home, and the highways, both actual and metaphysical, that cross the Chihuahuan Desert, as well as the grittiness of the streets of Southern California.
In the poem "Norton Flats," Welsh's vivid imagery evokes desert life in recognizable terms: "... just sand, yucca / rambler's stone // a '38 chevrolet ... the sun / the bullets // on blackened glass." The poem "Skull Highway" resonates like a mission bell tolling news of a death: "... the vestige of bone / scattered off / the interstate: // ... the blackened holes // lanes of regret / lanes of possibility / lanes of eternal light."
Born and raised in south-central Los Angeles, Welsh is first-generation Irish-American, and the musicality and passion of his poetry are true to his roots in a culture that has revered and respected word weavers since prehistoric times. Welsh's place in that tradition was recognized when The Bardsong Press awarded him the Celtic Voice Writing Award in Poetry.
His work with the band The Alcoholics made him a seminal member of the Los Angeles punk rock community. Artifix Records
Welsh's poetry is firmly grounded in the geography and vernacular of the Southwestern United States. In "Milagros," he writes, "... we become / vestiges / of pictured / fate: rusted steel / too gone / for the polisher's knife."
Welsh, now 50 and an associate professor of literature at El Paso Community College, has said he never expected to live past 25. His book recognizes his own eventual mortality, and the loss of friends along the road.
In "the eve," Welsh writes: "those flown / become // birds // a blood's religion / an inspired knife." In "Troubadour West," he recognizes the dead end he may have faced but for going to college and becoming a writer: "... old punk pedigree / speaks / tales. all / (now)? / faded / smoking // transient's pipe / and song."
"Skull Highway" is the sixth of Welsh's published collections; the earlier ones are "Walking Backwards to Santa Fe," "Believing in Bonfires," "New Shouts at Broken Dreams," "Rusted Steel and Bordertown Starts" and "Lenny Bruce in El Paso." A seventh book, "Carney Takedown," is forthcoming in 2010 from Unlikely Books.
Donna Snyder, the founder of Tumblewords Project, is an El Paso writer and poet whose works have been widely published.