Category: California

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Charles Harper Webb, Poet, Editor, Musician, Psychotherapist, interv...

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Charles Harper Webb, Poet, Editor, Musician, Psychotherapist

interviewed by David Garyan

 

Click here to read Charles Harper Webb’s contribution to Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

DG: Your upcoming novel is scheduled to be released in May 2022. Without divulging too much, can you give readers a glimpse into the project and possibly also discuss the inspiration behind the work?

CHW: The easiest way to answer your first question is to quote the so-called tag-line for the book: “In the fast-paced, sexy, and very scary literary thriller Ursula Lake, a husband and wife trying to save their marriage and a rock musician trying to get his career back on track find big trouble, natural and possibly supernatural, in British Columbia’s spellbinding wilds.”

The book was inspired by several fishing trips I took into northern British Columbia back when I lived in Seattle. It’s gorgeous country, haunting and wild in every sense of the word—the perfect setting for the novel I wanted to write. The plot grew out of the characters, of course, but the setting, too.

DG: Many writers have said that the difference between poetry and fiction is that the former is crafted with precision instruments while the latter requires hammers and wrenches. Why are such distinctions ultimately unhelpful and how did your work as a poet ultimately influence the direction of your prose?

CHW: Writing a good novel requires precision instruments as well as wrenches and sledgehammers. I prefer a running metaphor: sprint versus marathon. Poetry-writing skills can benefit prose, just as prose-writing skills can benefit poetry. I’ve tried to bring both skills to bear on Ursula Lake. I hope that my prose embodies poetic virtues such as rhythm, conciseness, strong imagery, and potent metaphor, just as I hope my poetry makes good use of the devices of narrative, not the least of which is entertainment value.

DG: One of your crowning achievements was collecting and editing work for Stand Up Poetry: An Expanded Anthology. Readers will find no shortage of candid, powerful, and brave poems in these pages. Indeed, the anthology feels and reads like a response to much of the tepid “academic” verse written today. Was this your original intention, and, if so, what would you say is wrong with much of the work written today?

CHW: The Stand Up anthology, which has gone through three different editions, began as an attempt to collect poems which I felt sure that my undergraduate students at CSULB would enjoy. “The cardinal sin of art,” I tell my students, “is to bore.” Too many times, beginning readers of poetry find themselves befuddled and stupefied by the poems they come across, even in prestigious books and magazines. Veteran readers, including me, may also feel that way. This, needless to say, isn’t good for readers or writers of poetry. The three Stand Up anthologies were among my many attempts to  return poetry to being a pleasure, not a chore. To make it, dare I say, fun.

Too much of the poetry being written today fails, it seems to me, to take into account the reader ‘s pleasure or lack thereof. Except in writing workshops and submissions to one’s mom, no writer is owed the reader’s attention. Attention must be earned. Too many poets seem to forget this.

DG: Very relevant to this discussion is your collection of essays about the state and craft of poetry, published in 2016, under the title A Million MFAs Are Not Enough. On one hand, the title seems to say it all—greater instruction of creative writing won’t revitalize the essence of poetry; on the other hand, you’ve successfully taught craft and aesthetics to students who are now publishing their work in some of the best literary magazines, meaning there are benefits and advantages to this approach. In your view, what are the pros and cons of a degree practically non-existent in mainland Europe—the MFA?

CHW: The title of my book means to imply that a readership of poetry specialists, even a fairly large one, should not be the ultimate goal of poets and poetry. I have wanted, from my beginnings as a poet, to entice the “general reader” back to poetry.

Poets have to learn their craft, and a good MFA program can help serious students move forward, and save them years of trying to re-invent the wheel. Students should realize, though, that having an MFA doesn’t guarantee a good teaching job, or any job at all. Nor can it turn every student, however diligent and well-meaning, into a Shakespeare, a Keats, or even a Colley Cibber. The MFA is simply one possible step on the road to possibly writing good poems.

DG: Before embarking on a teaching career, you were a professional rock musician for over ten years. We’ve already discussed the similarities between poetry and prose, but music, despite being a different genre, seems to be even closer to poetry, mainly due to the former’s melodic characteristics, which the latter has much in common with. It would be interesting to hear more about the nature of your musical career—how did the years of being on stage ultimately make you a better poet?

CHW: I think that music and poetry come from similar places in my psyche. My musical ability translates into what poets call “a good ear.” That means I’m sensitive to what sounds good, whether music or poetry. Many of my poems have a propulsive rhythm that feels very rock-and-roll to me. I try to bring the same high energy to my poems that I brought to music.

As a professional musician, I learned the importance of exciting the audience, and giving them a good time. If a band fails to do that, they either don’t work, or don’t work for long. Poetry is a different story. Poetry which pleases almost no one can flourish in academia if a few influential academics champion it. Since there is a very limited market for poetry, there is no real trial-by-marketplace. A receptive audience has no chance to overrule the arbiters of taste, as can still happen with music and novel. (These arbiters of taste, by the way, often have very peculiar, or at least atypical tastes. I could write a whole essay about the reasons why.) My goal has always been to write poems of high literary value that simultaneously enlighten and entertain.

DG: It’s sensible to assume that music still dictates, to a large extent, the writing of your poetry. Is the same true for fiction, or do you gravitate towards something else?

CHW: I try to bring the same musical qualities to my prose as to my poetry. I want my fiction to possess high energy, and utilize language that can roar, whisper, and sing as it tells stories that give the reader excitement, emotional involvement, insight, and pleasure. In both poetry and fiction, I try to write books that I would like to read.

DG: Will you continue focusing on fiction after the publication of your novel or will you return to poetry, and which one, for you, is more enjoyable to write, and which is more enjoyable to teach?

CHW: I plan to continue to write both poetry and fiction. Because I wrote only poems for so long, I have a buildup of fiction-energy that I’m currently using to fuel short stories and two new novels, as well as a collection of prose poems.

Poetry is more fun for me to write than fiction, because poems come out in an exciting rush and generally take less time to complete. The sprint versus the marathon. Also, if a poem fizzles, it doesn’t cost me a year or more of my writing life. I find great satisfaction, though, in creating a whole world, as one can do in a novel and on a smaller scale, in a short story. I’m fascinated by the human psyche, and enjoy delving deeply into characters, watching a compelling story grow out of their interactions with each other and the world.

 

About Charles Harper Webb

Charles Harper Webb has published twelve books of poetry, including Reading the Water, Liver, Tulip Farms & Leper Colonies, Hot Popsicles, Amplified Dog, Shadow Ball: New and Selected Poems, and Brain Camp. His latest collection, Sidebend World, was published in 2018 by the University of Pittsburgh Press. A Millions MFAs Are Not Enough, a collection of Webb’s essays on the craft of poetry, was published in 2016 by Red Hen Press. Webb’s awards in poetry include the Morse Prize, the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, the Felix Pollock Prize, and the Benjamin Saltman Prize. His poems have appeared in many distinguished journals and anthologies, including American Poetry Review, Paris Review, Iowa Review, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, Tin House, Poets of the New Century, Best American Poetry, and The Pushcart Prize. A former professional rock musician and psychotherapist, he is the editor of Stand Up Poetry: An Expanded Anthology, and recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award, a fellowship from the Guggenheim foundation, the CSULB Distinguished Faculty Teaching Award, and the CSULB Distinguished Faculty Scholarly and Creative Achievement Award.

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Phoebe MacAdams, Poet, Educator, interviewed by David Garyan


Phoebe MacAdams (photo by Alexis Rhone Fancher)

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Phoebe MacAdams, Poet, Educator

interviewed by David Garyan

 

DG: You were one of the founding members of Cahuenga Press, which has the wonderful distinction of being “owned, financed and operated by its poet-members,” as the website says. Can you talk about how it all started, how things have changed over the years, and some of the new projects you’re taking on today?

PM: Cahuenga Press started as an idea of Harry Northup and Holly Prado. It was born out of a desire to have creative control over our poetry and to be able to determine when and how we publish our books. Harry and Holly asked me, Bill Mohr, James Cushing, and Cecilia Woloch to be part of the project, and so originally, the Press consisted of three men and three women. Bill Mohr and Cecilia Woloch are no longer with the press and Holly Prado passed away on June 14, 2019. Recently we asked Jeannette Clough to join us, so we are now two men and two women.


Cahuenga Press in 2016: Me, Harry Northup, Holly Prado, James Cushing (photo by Celeste Goyer)

Harry wanted to form the press to allow individual freedom for the poets involved, for the press to be self-sustaining, which it is, and to publish at least one book a year. For Harry, “there is also the personal connection with the poets whose work I admire and respect, and to be able to share common goals in poetry: continuity, memory, hope.” Holly wrote she wanted “to keep alive and make visible an attitude toward poetry that’s serious, lyrical, irrational, skillful, thoughtful: to encourage poetry that respects both feeling and intellect, the muse and keenly-studied language.” I wanted to be part of a poetry family, where each member supports each other’s creative freedom and process. I was glad to have the burden of seeking publication lifted. It is a great gift.

Our poetry styles are very different, yet we come together with total respect for each other’s work. We get together regularly to read new work to each other, share food and talk. We are a creative family. Once a year we gather at my house to have a publication party for our new book, The house has a large backyard and there is a raised area, like a grass stage. We sit in the back around tables to hear new work. We usually have 70-90 people who gather to listen, eat and buy books. All the proceeds from the books go back to the Press, along with our contributions. With Covid, of course, we have made adjustments. Our last publication party was on Zoom, and we are now meeting on Zoom, but we continue. We hope to meet again in person this spring.

There have been changes to Cahuenga over the years. Bill Mohr is a full-time literature professor at Long Beach State, and Cecilia Woloch now publishes her work with BOA Editions and other presses, so they are no longer part of Cahuenga. The four of us continued for many years. After Holly died, Jeannette Clough agreed to join us. We are gathering in person less now because of Covid, but we stay in touch by e-mail, by Zoom and on the phone. Our next book will be Tangled Hologram by James Cushing which will be out this spring (2022).

The Cahuenga family is intact.

As Harry said (and made t-shirts for us with this on it):

“Nothing Stops Poetry!”


Cahuenga Press July 2021 (photo by Ron Ozuna)
Jeannette Clough, James Cushing Me, Harry Northup

DG: Before moving to LA, you were part of the Bolinas scene. A recent article in The New Yorker even quotes an untitled poem by Ellen Sander that mentions Lewis MacAdams:

I swear to God
Me and Angelica
w/Juliet
met a diabetic monkey
in a tree on Hawthorne
in the Sheriff’s yard
and if that is not as good
as Tom or Bob or Lewis or Joanne or even Bill can do
You Can Kiss My Ass

In this respect, how was the LA scene different from the Bolinas one, both on a social and creative level, and did you find that you settled in quickly, or did it take some time to adjust?

PM: Lewis MacAdams and I moved to Bolinas in 1970 to be in the country and to start a family. We had friends in Bolinas: Tom and Angelica Clark, Joanne Kyger, Duncan and Genie McNaughton, and others. It is a beautiful rural community in Marine County on the Coast an hour north of San Francisco, built along the Bolinas Lagoon, a large body of water home to a variety of birds and other critters. We rented a house at the end of Nymph Road overlooking the Pacific in upper Bolinas, the Mesa. My two sons, Ocean and Will, were born there. Bolinas was unincorporated and its governing body was the Bolinas Public Utility Board, which determined who and how many people could get a water meter and build a house. Lewis got involved with local politics and was on the BPUD. I worked at the school.  It was the first time in my life I had been part of a community that truly controlled itself. The whole community rallied to prevent a big county sewer system from being built in Bolinas which would have opened up the town to massive development. We fought this and won, designing a sewage treatment system based on a series of ponds. There were incredible people in town, and the brilliant scientist and ecologist Peter Warshall helped design the sewer project.

View from Mt. Tamalpais

The other defining moment in Bolinas happened in 1971. In dense fog at 1:45 a.m. on Jan. 19, two massive Standard Oil Company tankers met in a catastrophic collision in San Francisco Bay, spilling more than 800,000 gallons of oil into the Bay. The oil spill drifted toward Bolinas and the entire town turned out to try to keep the oil out of the Lagoon and to save as many birds as we could. With logs, hay and anything we could get our hands on, we kept most of it out and spent days cleaning birds. It brought the community together. The complete story of this time can be found in Orville Schell’s The Town that Fought to Save Itself (Pantheon Books, 1976)

Bolinas was a community of poets, artists, rebels, and visionaries who gathered to make a forward-looking living space. We organized poetry readings, walked to each other’s houses to read and talk. We’d meet downtown for coffee and donuts, or at Smiley’s, the local bar.

The best book about Bolinas is an online book: Dreaming as One: Poetry, Poets and Community in Bolinas California 1967-1980 by Kevin Opstedal. This wonderful history is filled with many photos of the time.

(www.bigbridge.org/bolinas.htm)

Our marriage began to fall apart, and eventually, Lewis and I separated. Bolinas is a beautiful place, but it never felt like home to me, and while I figured out what was next, I moved to Colorado, where my mother lived. Eventually, Lewis and I decided that we needed to live closer together for the sake of our two sons and I moved back to California. I settled in Ojai, which a friend told me was Southern California’s version of Bolinas, a wonderful tip. I immediately felt like I belonged in Ojai. My kids went to Elementary and Jr. High School there. However, as they got older, Ojai began to feel too small—not enough going on for two teenage boys—and so we moved to Los Angeles, an hour and a half away. Ojai was close enough for me to visit, and my kids went to a great school—Harvard-Westlake, where Lewis was teaching creative writing.

Living in Los Angeles was hard for me at first. I felt that I had no community.

Then, in 1988, Harry Northup, who was a well-known Los Angeles poet and who had run the reading series at Gasoline Alley since 1986, asked the poet Bill Mohr and me if we wanted to take over the reading series. Gasoline Alley was a coffee shop on Melrose Avenue, and Bill was a long time Angelino. He was very active in the literary community. Thanks to Bill, I met many poets who came to Gasoline Alley to read. I began to feel part of a creative community again. Of course, L.A. is spread out, so no walking to people’s houses for coffee and talk, but we drove to be to be together. The LA literary community is tightly knit, thanks largely to Beyond Baroque, which is the center of the city’s poetic life (see question 6). In 1989, Harry Northup, Holly Prado, James Cushing, Bill Mohr, Cecilia Woloch, and I came together, creating Cahuenga Press. We were a creative family.

Lewis continued to be deeply involved in politics and started an organization called Friends of the Los Angeles River (FOLAR), whose goal is to bring back the LA River. This became an enormous project with many successes, and before he died, the city named a park along the river after him, The Lewis MacAdams Riverfront Park. He is considered a local hero for his efforts on behalf of the river.

I am grateful to be part of the literary community of Los Angeles, but not involved in city politics. I taught for 26 years at Roosevelt High School, a large inner city high school in Boyle Heights (East Los Angeles). It was a job I loved up to my last day. (See question 7 below for reflections on that.)

I have been fortunate to live in literary communities: San Francisco, Bolinas, Boulder and now LA. Of them all, I feel most at home in Southern California.

DG: In Aram Saroyan’s 1998 collection, Day and Night: Bolinas Poems, there’s a work, “For Lewis MacAdams,” that must surely hold a special place in your consciousness, and I will quote all of it:

I can always count on you and Phoebe
To invite a few extra people
To any party we give. You two are the social couple
Here in Bolinas, we well as the mysterious,
Weird, insane, glamorous, captivating, delightful duo

You both just naturally are. And we count on you
To be. You’re into politics, too.
And Phoebe knows poetry. A poem of hers on giving birth
Is in today’s new issue of The Paper.
Last night you both were here for my birthday

And our housewarming combined. So were
A couple of other people I know only
Slightly. No matter. You know them perhaps slightly
Better than I do, and in that there is comfort.
The two of you are great at parties.

Phoebe threw a small toy at me at one point

Last night. I don’t know why she did it, and I know
I won’t ever know. She just did. You brought me
City Money, your first book, inscribed to me
with the words “Hell’s Bell.” I tell you,
I don’t need to understand. The two of you
Are perfect, that’s all. And if it’s perfect mystery
Or perfect insanity, all the better.
We love you.
Keep that in mind, will you.

What were the emotions you felt upon first reading Saroyan’s poem, written years after all the events, and do you take trips down memory lane often, or are you somewhat glad that the joys—but also the difficulties—of youth have been celebrated and overcome?

PM: When I read this poem, I laughed out loud. What a romantic interpretation of Lewis and me!

First of all, I have to admit that I have no memory of this party or of throwing a small toy at Aram. I wonder why I did that? Aram and Gailyn bought a wonderful house on Hawthorne Road on the Mesa, the upper section of Bolinas. It was nestled in among trees in a street off the main road. They were old friends and I was very happy that they were able to buy a house and settle in it to raise a family—Aram to write his poems, and Gailyn to paint her paintings.

To characterize Lewis and me as “glamorous, captivating and delightful” is such a stretch of the imagination from where we were at that point—Lewis and I were actually hanging on to our marriage by our fingernails. It was not very long after the time of this poem, I think, that we finally separated and then eventually, divorced.

It’s true that we did sometimes bring people with us to gatherings. Once a group of poets arrived in Bolinas, the secret got out and folks headed to the Bay area to visit. Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley stayed with us for a while, Franco Beltremetti came out, along with Anne Waldman, Jim Carroll, Bill Berkson, Joe Brainard, and various others. Some stayed and took up residence in Bolinas, others went back to New York, Boulder, or wherever they lived permanently.

The great social couple in Bolinas was actually Bob and Bobbie Creeley. They had bought a marvelous California farmhouse on Terrace Avenue, the road that joined downtown Bolinas to the Mesa. In the middle of their kitchen was a big round wooden table surrounded by chairs. There folks would gather and talk endlessly while Bobbie filled up coffee cups. The conversations around that table were a source of inspiration, joy, and comfort. When it got too hot inside, we all went outside and sat in chairs on the grass.

Joanne Kyger also held court in her house, a kind of glorified three-room wooden shed until she and her husband, Donald Guravich, built a beautiful large studio room in the back of the property. Joanne could talk to anyone and conversations at her house were an endless delight. The walls were covered with paintings. The surfaces were filled with all kinds of tchotchkes: Buddhas, little statues, candles, incense, small paintings, blessings of various kinds, all fascinating, all Joanne.

If we got tired of being in people’s houses, or people needed to go to bed, we would go downtown to Smiley’s bar and continue.

It was a time of world class talk!

Bolinas was filled with amazing people, and it was a beautiful place to live. I will always remember walking downtown on Terrace Avenue surrounded by nasturtiums and monarch butterflies; or standing on Ocean Parkway, the road overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and watching the waves coming in one after another, sparkling in the sunlight. There was much to love.

However, in all this beauty. Bolinas never really felt like my spirit’s home. When Lewis and I split and my life fell apart, I did not stay in Bolinas. I went to Colorado Springs to be near my family while I got myself back together. Finally, Lewis and I decided that we needed to be near each other for the sake of our sons. Lewis had moved to Los Angeles, and I moved to nearby Ojai. As I said earlier, a friend told me that it was Southern California’s version of Bolinas. As soon as I arrived in Ojai, I felt like my spirit was home. Though I am now based in Los Angeles, I visit Ojai frequently and still feel at home there.

My son, Ocean, lives in San Francisco with his wife, and their three children. They were both born in Bolinas and his wife’s parents are still there and so they spend a lot of time in Bobo, as we call it. When I go up to the Bay Area to visit, we often go up to Bolinas for the day. Though I am living happily in Southern California, I feel great tenderness for Bolinas.

Lewis always felt his home was Bolinas. This spring, the family and close friends will gather to bury Lewis’ ashes in the beautiful Bolinas Cemetery on Horseshoe Hill Road.

Bolinas will always be part of us.

DG: If you had to choose one poem you wrote in Bolinas and one in LA that you’re particularly proud of, which two poems would they be, and why?

PM: These two poems are very different and far apart in time in my life. I wrote the first one, Happy Birthday Bolinas, in the late seventies when I was living there with my two children and with Lewis MacAdams. It embodies a kind of mystery that is still challenging to me. I have loved this poem for years and I am still not certain about the meaning of it, if we can talk about meaning in a poem beyond the poem itself.

 

Happy Birthday Bolinas

for Joanne Kyger

Good morning, Joanne. This country is two hundred years old.
One green car. One white car. One convertible.
The heart is a muscle, the heart is a door.

Dream 1: I am in a concentration camp. I am on the beach. The water is black. I am standing by the wire. I am talking to someone outside the wire. We are standing face to face talking. There is no difference between life outside and inside except for the wire. I am in the apartment of the commandant. I strip in front of an empty bed. I get in and make love to the air.

Dream 2: There is a car machine, stripped down. There is a driver somewhere. A voice says, “Now you have to make another one.” The second car will be identical to the first.

A death’s head.

Dream 3: I go out of my house to the pre-shamanistic exercises. We do splits standing on our hands in preparation for the shaman movie. I am awkward. The woman teaching is a shaman. She has silver discs on the tops of her hands and on her palms.

O Great Tongue, do not abandon us. Our conversations make a difference.
All I want out of life is to live in the grace of the Holy Spirit.
The tone was honest and the words fell about in the length.
The song is resilient. The song is a muscle.
Birds fly over, grass moves in the breeze.
Rational Mind, you are so stupid here in the morning, in the gentle aching
where the door is open and the view is clear.

—from Sunday, Tombouctou Press, 1983

 

The dreams are in dream time, and trying to explain them means that I am using my “limited Rational Mind.” But doing so, I would say that dream 1 refers to a division—inside and out—but that really the two are one. Each side of the division is identical. Dream 2 might be telling me that I will have to remake my life (which I did do, in fact, when I left Bolinas) A Death’s Head? Well, these days, that is everywhere, isn’t it? Dream 3 has always been Joanne to me. She was the guiding spirit of Bolinas, our Soul, our singer, our healer, magical, full of silver discs, our teacher.

Dreams are woven into Joanne’s poetry, one part of her constant chronicling of spirit, and so they are here. These dreams are still meaningful to me, a message from some deep consciousness which I am still musing on.

Poetry was serious business in Bolinas, where the Tongue reigned supreme and where conversations were our lifeblood. What a joy it was to walk from one house to another to talk, then go down to the beach and talk some more, maybe eventually end up talking in Smiley’s, the local bar and hang out. Conversation was the coin of the land.

Bolinas was a place of a kind of magic, magic of song. It was a lovely time, and this poem brings it all back to me.

The second poem The Large Economy of the Beautiful, is the title poem from my selected poems which came out in 2016, published by Cahuenga Press.

 

The Large Economy of the Beautiful

I am wearing my birding hat
and crazy paraphernalia:
binos and bottles, little notebooks and pens
as the cars whiz by on Highway 1.
today I have learned about Syrinx, nymph
beloved by Pan,
also the throat muscle and cartilage of bird song.

the Black Skimmer moves along the top of the water
trolling for fish,
the California Cormorants stand on the sand
drying their wings

willet, whimbrel,
dowitcher and plover
yellow feet, red bills
Great Blue and Snowy White

at night the shapes of birds move differently:
wings calling

us to rise from our daily difficulties
and sing ourselves into form

—from The Large Economy of the Beautiful, Cahuenga Press 2016

 

Here, the mystery is birds. My husband and I are birders, an activity we began after we retired in 2011. My husband takes exquisite photos of birds. The bird life in Los Angeles is a treasure. We live in Pasadena, and are among them. They sustain me in this city and have led us to wander to Mono Lake, to Arizona, to Colombia. I love to be with their movement, their song and calls, their wonderful names. They give us beauty and give us wings within. I have come to them here in this big city and they are everywhere—the world of the urban wild.

This poem speaks to this joy and also to all the stuff that birding entails. You see birders with the equipment mentioned, binos, bottles, also birding hats, scopes, etc. There can be a lot of paraphernalia involved! Birders tend to be a gentle, joyful lot, how not to be in the presence of such beauty.

And this Los Angeles brought to me—the nymph beloved by Pan, birds and joy.

DG: In your poem, “these joys are temporary,” there’s a powerful metaphor about freedom, and I would like to quote the work in full:

over 100° today, yesterday 106°
when I didn’t go to hear Dana Gioia at Vroman’s,
having read his poems on line;
“new formalism”—why would you do that?
tie yourself up in old rhythms, smother
the exuberance that Walt won for us.
today I contemplated pictures at Avenue 50 Studio,
brave images of violence in Mexico
where artists who talk about killings are punished by death.

we are fortunate to walk these streets in any meter we choose
then come home to
turkey salad, jumbo artichokes, heirloom tomatoes,
frozen blueberry yoghurt.

The first line of the last stanza seems to imply that while poetry today is fortunate enough to have the possibility of making greater connections with the real world, it instead chooses to further distance itself by adopting tradition instead of innovation. Would this be a correct assessment of how you feel or is something else going in the poem?

PM: My poem, “These Joys are Temporary/And I Praise them,” was written on a very hot summer day in Los Angeles. Vroman’s Bookstore, Pasadena’s famed family bookstore which opened in 1894, had scheduled a reading of Dana Goia. Dana Goia is part of a school of poetry known as New Formalism. New Formalism is a movement in American poetry that has promoted a return to metrical rhymed verse and narrative poetry on the grounds that they are necessary if American poetry is to regain its former popularity. Along with Goia, some of its adherents are Timothy Steele, Maelyn Hacker, and Mark Jarman. This poetry is radically different from the work of any of the poets I grew up with and considered my mentors and teachers:  Ted Berrigan, Frank O’Hara, Alan Ginsberg, Bob Creeley, Joanne Kyger. The poets that I love take their inspiration in the poems of Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams—poems with vitality and surprise, poems that are rooted in the speech of America. They are free, wild, and full of energy. They are not constrained and imprisoned by a set of metrical patterns or rhymes. I find that anathema to the spirit of modern American poetry.

Which is why, in my poem, I ask “why would you do that?” Why would you “tie yourself up in old rhythms, smother/the exuberance Walt won for us.” Walt Whitman opened up the verse form for us all—blew it wide open with his free verse. Free verse for a free country. I feel this is a great gift to American poets, and to the world. To return to strict rhythms and rhymes of the last century is going backward. It’s un-American!

The afternoon I did not go to hear Dana Goia read at Vroman’s, I instead went to a small gallery near where I live—Avenue 50 Studio. There was an exhibit of past political violence in Mexico, where I read that artists in Mexico who talked about the killings were punished by death.

The line “we are fortunate to walk these streets in any meter we choose” refers to a double freedom: the freedom artists have in this country to talk about anything they wish without fear of governmental reprisals, and the freedom American poets have thanks to Walt Whitman to write in free verse, “any meter we choose.”

I end the stanza with a description of the delicious foods we eat in California summers. The poem is part of a series of poems that I entitled “Small Dinners.” My plan was to anchor the poems in our summer food, a kind of love poem to the incredible wealth of fresh produce that we have in California.

So, after lines of appreciation to Walt Whitman and our literary legacy, the poem ends with a more grounded appreciation of the glorious fruits and veggies of our state, great temporary joys.

DG: With Bill Mohr you coordinated the Gasoline Alley reading series on Melrose Avenue. Can you talk about those years, some of the people who read/attended the events, and why programs like this are important not just for LA writers, but for poetry in general?

PM: When I started coordinating the Gasoline Alley reading series with Bill Mohr in 1988, I did not know many poets in Los Angeles. Bill (founder of Momentum Press, editor, poet and scholar) knew the literary scene well and because of him, I met many of our local poets: Suzanne Lummis, Ron Koertge, Laurel Ann Bogen, Steve Kowit, Jack Grapes, Amy Uymatsu among many others. This was a weekly series and we hosted a great number of poets in the course of running the series for two years. It was a wonderful way to get to know them. I would read their work in order to do introductions before the readings, and became familiar with a lot of the LA poets as they came through the doors of the coffee shop.

Hearing poets read is important—to really understand the beauty of poetry, it must be heard, and live readings are essential. It is a joy to go to a local coffee shop, and over a latte, hear some of the best poets in California. It is also a chance to get to know them, to talk with them afterwards, and in this sprawling city, to feel part of a community. There have been many reading series in LA – from the wonderful Aloud series at the Central Library’s beautiful Mark Taper Auditorium, sponsored by the Library Foundation, and the longstanding series, Library Girl, at the Ruskin Theater in Santa Monica organized by Susan Hayden, to the series at tiny Battery Books in Pasadena curated by the LA poet Steve Abee. All of these are a joy and you often get to hear poets whose work you don’t know well, so it opens you up to new voices.

The oldest series in Los Angeles is at the venerable Beyond Baroque, which was founded by George Drury Smith, who started publishing a magazine at a storefront in 1968. It is now housed in the old Venice City Hall on Venice Blvd. Beyond Baroque is the heart of Los Angeles’ literary life and going to the reading series on Friday night is like going to church. It’s a sacred space, as well as a place to meet friends, hear great poetry and find books in Beyond Baroque’s bookstore. One of my fondest memories of Beyond Baroque is the night that Ed Dorn came to read. He was dying of pancreatic cancer at the time and this was his last reading. After he had finished the entire audience rose to its feet and gave him a standing ovation, very unusual for LA audiences. Tears were shed.

Poetry readings are always important, but particularly in LA, where we live so far apart. There is no walking to someone’s house to read a few poems in LA. Beyond Baroque, for instance, is an hour’s drive from my house in Pasadena, so readings bind us together. They make us family.

That said, we are (hopefully) just coming out of a two-year pandemic when all live poetry readings stopped happening. Beyond Baroque had its first in-person reading this March. Many of the reading series moved online to the Zoom format. Zoom kept poetry readings alive for us and I am eternally grateful for Zoom. It is not a perfect format. It is an odd feeling to read your poems facing a screen where you are looking at yourself and little squares of a completely quiet audience which wiggles its fingers to show its appreciation. However, in spite of its difficulties, Zoom has some advantages over live readings. I have been going to more readings than ever, readings in Ventura or Ojai that I don’t always get to. And the readings are attended by people all over the country and the globe. I am hoping that many venues will continue to have an on line option along with their live readings.

As Harry said, “Nothing stops poetry” and nothing stops poetry readings, either!

James Cushing at a Cahuenga Press Reading

DG: For many years you taught English and Creative Writing at Roosevelt High School, before retiring in 2011. How did teaching in this setting influence your writing?

PM: I started teaching at Roosevelt High School, a large LA Unified school in East Los Angeles, in 1986, not long after I moved to LA. I had gone to and taught at private schools my whole life and I wanted a change. When I went to the Roosevelt campus, I loved the warm friendly atmosphere and the principal, Henry Ronquillo. I was hired on the spot to teach English in the Magnet program. When I started at the school, the student population was 5,000. It was one of the largest schools in the country and had a student population about the size of the population of the town of Ojai where I had lived before coming to LA. I was overwhelmed by the size, but somehow the school worked. The principal supported his teachers and many innovative programs. I loved teaching at Roosevelt until my last day in June of 2011.

I met my husband, Ron Ozuna, at the school. He taught in the science department and his colleagues decided that we were meant for each other, and kind of threw us together. It worked! We were married in 1995, with my principal and a lot of Roosevelt teachers at the wedding. Ron and I taught in an interdisciplinary program together and started outdoor education at the school. We took many students for weekend trips to Catalina Island and Mono Lake, and other outdoor programs. They loved it, and so did we.

Teaching is more than a full-time job. We worked from 7:00 am to 4:00 pm, then came home to grade papers and plan lessons for the next day. Naturally, the big issue for me was how to find time for writing. I decided that I needed to incorporate my teaching life into my writing. I taught creative writing for many years and when I assigned writing to my students, I wrote along with them. I began to write poems that would help me figure out what I was doing in the classroom.

So much goes on in a week.
July 29, 1996, I watch the news:
a bomb at the Olympics,
the crash of TWA flight 800.
We talk in class about roundness
and the spirit of the bear.
My students write poems
in the Japanese garden.
We discuss the Puritans,
sin and virtue.
I wonder about my mole,
do I have cancer?
I collapse with stress, sleep, recover.
So much goes on in a life, and

what is teaching, anyway?

One poem became many. After reading 1968, by the poet Ed Sanders, a wonderful journal history in verse, I decided to keep a poetry journal for one year, to see if I could answer my question in a meaningful way. I did this for the academic year 2001-2002. I wrote as I moved through my day, in my conference period, after school, etc. One advantage of teaching is the generous vacation time, during which I could edit my work. Eventually, that collection of poems became a book, Livelihood, which was published by Cahuenga Press in 2003. It is a book that I treasure, filled as it is with memories of a profession that I loved.

To date, it is my most popular book.

DG: What are reading or working on at the moment?

PM: On March 11,  2019, the World Health Organization declared the Covid 19 epidemic to be a pandemic, and on March 19, Governor Newsome issued a stay-at-home order for California. I began going out only to go to grocery stores—covered with a long raincoat, a mask, and gloves. We did all the disinfecting that was recommended and lived inside our house.

I kept a journal of the events, and kept up with friends and poets on Zoom. However, little by little, the atmosphere of the pandemic began to affect my creative life. I was taking enough precautions so that I was not particularly afraid, but there was a prevailing atmosphere of dread. In addition, the entire country had to listen to the lies and appalling misinformation of our president. That bothered me particularly. The sense of honesty and dignity that I had grown used to during Obama’s term had completely disappeared. Everything that I held dear in our American government was being chipped away. Words meant nothing to the president. I felt myself in a kind of despair and the daily onslaught pushed me inward, into a protective cocoon.

Happily, after Biden’s win, things began to be better. We all got our vaccines and boosters and began to venture out into the world again.

My creative life, however, did not recover so quickly. For many months. I did not write poems, but kept writing in my journal.

As I began to feel a bit more hopeful, I looked over my journals and realized I had a substantial record of my spirit’s life. I have always loved day books that track one’s mind and heart over time. I love Holly Prado’s Weather, a wonderful chronicle of her life day by day, and I love A Day Book, by Bob Creeley. I decided to take the essence of the journals that I was keeping and distill them into what I called snapshots—snapshots of my inner life. I started with my journal that began in July of 2019 and began pulling out what seemed significant to me. It is progressing little by little—we will see how it goes.

It feels like a project that sustains.

 

About Phoebe MacAdams

Phoebe MacAdams was born and raised in New York City, but has lived in California most of her adult life, first in the poetry community of Bolinas in Northern California, and then in Ojai in Ventura County. She has been active in the Los Angeles literary community since her move here in 1986. She is a founding member of Cahuenga Press, a poets’ cooperative press (1989-present), with the poets James Cushing, the late Holly Prado and Harry Northup, and recently Jeanette Clough. Its goal “is to create fine books of poetry by poets whose work we admire and respect; to make poetry actual in the world in ways which honor both individual creative freedom and cooperative support.”

For two years, Phoebe ran the Gasoline Alley reading series on Melrose Avenue with poet Bill Mohr. She taught English and Creative Writing at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights for twenty-six years until her retirement in 2011. She has published seven books of poetry: Sunday, Ever; and with Cahuenga Press, Ordinary Snake Dance, Livelihood, Strange Grace, Touching Stone, and her most recent Cahuenga title, The Large Economy of the Beautiful, New and Selected Poems. In 2017, Beyond Baroque Books published Every Bird Helps: A Cancer Journal.

According to Amelie Frank, “What she reports back to us from her daily pilgrimages should give us hope: truth and beauty are at hand everywhere we look and always just as we need it most.”

She lives in Pasadena with her husband, Ron Ozuna.

Spitting Out Seed, a poem by Michael Koch, published by Interlitq

Spitting Out Seed

a poem by Michael Koch

published by Interlitq
27/02/2022

Click here to read “Stars and Stripes,” by Michael Koch

Click here to read “Nature Lover,” by Michael Koch

 

Spitting Out Seed

Wind blew.  Clouds broke.
A sail billowed.  A man waddled
toward his wife.  An oily smear
caught fire.
Someone leaped from a window as
a car sped past.
Money bobbed to the surface.
A sparrow sank.
A short circuit
shot the breeze.

 


Michael Koch is a poet, translator, and visual artist whose Jamaican-Slavic heritage only partially explains his passion for syncopation and absurdity. His most recent book, Street Theology (Night Horn Books, 2019), was cited by the San Francisco Public Library as a staff pick.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955), a poem by Willis Barnstone

Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
Artist: Willis Barnstone

 

With his creation formula E=mc2Los Alamos makes a bomb nuclear.
He shares the fear.

 

About Willis Barnstone

Poet, religious scholar, and translator Willis Barnstone was born in Lewiston, Maine, and earned a BA from Bowdoin College, an MA from Columbia University, and a PhD from Yale University. An intrepid traveler, he taught in Greece at the end of that country’s civil war and in Argentina during the “Dirty War,” and was in China during the Cultural Revolution. He later returned to China as a Fulbright Professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

The author of more than 70 books, Barnstone has published more than a dozen volumes of poetry, including From This White Island (1959), China Poems (1977), The Secret Reader: 501 Sonnets (1996), Algebra of Night: New & Selected Poems 1948–1998, and Life Watch (2003).

He has also published numerous translations from Chinese, Spanish, French, Latin, ancient and modern Greek, and biblical Hebrew, including a complete translation of the New Testament (which he translates as the New Covenant), as well as memoirs, religious studies, children’s literature, and songs.

Izumi Shikibu (c. 976?), a poem by Willis Barnstone

Izumi Shikibu (c. 976?)
Artist: Willis Barnstone

 

Izumi Shikibu

On this winter night my eyes are closed with ice.
I wear out the darkness until the dawn’s rise.

 

About Willis Barnstone

Poet, religious scholar, and translator Willis Barnstone was born in Lewiston, Maine, and earned a BA from Bowdoin College, an MA from Columbia University, and a PhD from Yale University. An intrepid traveler, he taught in Greece at the end of that country’s civil war and in Argentina during the “Dirty War,” and was in China during the Cultural Revolution. He later returned to China as a Fulbright Professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

The author of more than 70 books, Barnstone has published more than a dozen volumes of poetry, including From This White Island (1959), China Poems (1977), The Secret Reader: 501 Sonnets (1996), Algebra of Night: New & Selected Poems 1948–1998, and Life Watch (2003).

He has also published numerous translations from Chinese, Spanish, French, Latin, ancient and modern Greek, and biblical Hebrew, including a complete translation of the New Testament (which he translates as the New Covenant), as well as memoirs, religious studies, children’s literature, and songs.