Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Lucille Lang Day, Poet, Scientist, and Science/Health Educator inter...


Lucille Lang Day

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Lucille Lang Day, Poet, Scientist, Science/Health Educator

interviewed by David Garyan

 

Click here to read Lucille Lang Day’s contribution to Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

DG: Your academic and personal background is extensive and fascinating. With regard to the former, your education encompasses both scientific and artistic disciplines, while your identity is circumscribed by Native and European ancestry. Indeed, a great deal of your writing deals with the relationship between the natural world and the man-made one. In what way, however, if at all, does science resemble poetry, and vice versa, and do you believe that highly specialized, systematic studies of nature ultimately interfere with indigenous traditions or can the relationship be a harmonious one—not only for Native Americans, but original populations everywhere?

LLD: Science uses many of the same mental skills as poetry: logic, reasoning, observation, knowledge. In addition, both science and poetry use intuition. In both realms, sometimes we have to take a leap into the unknown, following our instincts, in order to bring something to fruition, whether it’s a poem or a scientific experiment. Another similarity is that both poems and experiments go through many drafts or iterations even when they’re going well, and both require careful attention to variables, whether they be things like temperature, light, and duration, or rhythm, line breaks, and vowel and consonant sounds. Perhaps the biggest difference is that poetry embraces a larger range of experience by bringing in subjectivity and emotions.

I strongly believe that poetry can be used as a tool in science teaching because it uses many of the same thinking skills as science and can also convey scientific information. Poems by such poets as Pattiann Rogers, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Emily Grosholz, and Roald Hoffmann (also a Nobel laureate in chemistry!) would fit perfectly in a science class. So would poems from Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California (Scarlet Tanager Books, 2018), which I coedited with Ruth Nolan. Poetry can’t replace experiments, lab reports, problem solving, and scientific texts in science teaching, but it can be used in addition to them and possibly get people more excited about science since emotions are allowed.

I do not see a conflict between the Indigenous and scientific ways of looking at nature. Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, has written extensively and poetically about this in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. These two ways of looking at the world can enrich each other. Although the origins of modern science don’t appear in the historical record until the fifth century B.C.E. in Greece, Indigenous peoples worldwide have been experimenting, observing, and passing their discoveries about the environment down to the next generation for many thousands of years. I will add that Indigenous cultures have figured out how to live in balance with nature and coexist with plants and animals, which is something that our modern, technological society needs to learn.

DG: Geography and location feature heavily in your work. In this respect, Birds of San Pancho and Other Poems of Place (Blue Light Press, 2020) is a captivating example. The collection is divided into two parts: “Foreigner,” and “Between the Two Shining Seas.” The former mentions places such as Greece, Mexico, Costa Rica, The Netherlands, France, Belgium, and Spain, while the latter is mainly an exploration of the US. At the same time, Jim Morrison’s grave at Pere Lachaise makes an appearance, along with Las Vegas and its replica constructions of famous European monuments. The differences between the two continents are indeed vast; however, the collection’s seamless transition between Old World and New World suggests a closer, more interdependent relationship. Can you talk a little bit about the writing of the book and what, in your conception, lies on the opposite shores of the Pacific? Is there in fact such a thing as a “new” and “old” world?

LLD: In truth, we have one world. The “new” world was the old world to the people of the Native Nations of North and South America. They had been here for more than 10,000 years before the Europeans arrived, and there is evidence that some of them had arrived as much as 33,000 years earlier. The idea of a “new” versus “old” world is a Eurocentric concept.

Landscapes, languages, and lifestyles vary from one continent to another, and I find it fascinating to look closely at the places I visit, learn what I can about their history, cultures, and creatures, and share my impressions in poetry. Despite the differences, though, between one place and another, your term “interdependent relationship” is right on target. Everyone, everywhere, is in an interdependent relationship with everyone else: we are economically, environmentally, and politically interdependent. Keeping the planet habitable for everyone is a collective enterprise: limiting emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, using resources sustainably, and preserving habitats and biodiversity are responsibilities of every country and every individual. Our interdependence is well-illustrated by the Covid-19 pandemic. No country can create a bubble in which the virus can’t reach it, and wealthy countries need to share vaccines and treatments in order to keep everyone safe. This interdependence between individuals, countries, and humans and the environment can be expressed in poetry.

DG: If you had to choose only two cities in which you could divide your time as a writer, what would those be and why?

LLD: One of the cities would have to be in the San Francisco Bay Area with its easy access to the ocean, the redwoods, the Sierra, and the cultural life of San Francisco. Another factor is that I have a daughter and four grandchildren who live here. I would choose either an East Bay city such as Oakland, Berkeley, or Lafayette, or a city north of San Francisco in Marin County, such as Mill Valley or San Rafael. Although I love San Francisco itself, I wouldn’t want to live there. It is often 5 to 10 degrees colder than the East Bay and Marin County, and a summer evening there can chill you to the marrow. Mark Twain famously said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” He wasn’t kidding! In summer, the heat of California’s Central Valley draws ocean fog landward. From the East Bay hills, you can see this icy mist rolling over San Francisco like enormous tidal waves.

The second city would be in Hawaii, not on Oahu, which is very built up, but maybe on Maui, Kauai, or the Big Island. The tropical climate, amazing species—from orchids and spider lilies to petrels and parakeets—and awe-inspiring volcanoes are all draws. As I’m sure you gathered from my first choice of location, I am not a cold-weather person. I don’t snowboard or ski. Choosing a tropical location is tricky for me, though, because most of them are overrun by mosquitoes, and I am a magnet for these mini-vampires. Once in Mexico I got over 70 bites before I could grab the insect repellent! I have also been feasted upon in places as far flung as Costa Rica, Massachusetts, and the Camargue of southern France. I have a poem about this, “Mosquitoes,” in Birds of San Pancho. However, I have never had a mosquito bite in Hawaii.

DG: Would your choices differ if you answered from the perspective of a scientist? In other words, to what extent does the environment itself shape the creation of our so-called “objective” knowledge, as opposed to the subjective “creativity” of each individual person, and more importantly, is there really such a dichotomy in your view?

LLD: Environment shapes both our subjective and objective realities. How could we not be impacted both emotionally and intellectually by the people and natural world that surround us? The call of an ‘apapane on Maui might inspire either a poem or a scientific study of the ‘apapane’s habits and range. That being said, if one is trying to make a living as a scientist, one will need funding. This is true for environmental studies as well as for more esoteric endeavors—such as searching for exoplanets or dark matter, developing computer models of protein structure, determining the genetic relationships between Homo sapiens and earlier human species, or studying the chemical thermodynamics of organic reactions—and where you are located can impact your funding.

Although I trained as a scientist, I have made my living as a science writer and educator. If my goal were to make a living as a scientist, I think teaching at Berkeley or Harvard would be the ideal because the science professors at these institutions include so many Nobel laureates and recipients of other important prizes. I would have no expectation to receive such an award myself; just being a part of the scientific community surrounding these rock stars would suffice. These universities also attract some of the most promising undergraduates and graduate students in the sciences, and the resultant communities of professors and students and the research they do lead to major grant funding, donations, etc. These are therefore very good places to be if you want to pursue scientific research of any kind. So as a scientist, my first choice would be to live in Berkeley, and my second would be to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts (second because it’s colder there!). In either case, I would want to do environmental research, e.g., fire ecology in California or marine biology on Cape Cod. It would be possible to do research anywhere in the world during the summer or other times when I wasn’t teaching, but I could get to my research site more frequently and easily if it were in California or Massachusetts.

DG: Your 2015 collection, Becoming An Ancestor (Červená Barva Press) is a fascinating work, sometimes autobiographical, often historical, and at the same time contemporary, moving effortlessly between the dawn of America at Plymouth, to the Civil War, all the way up to Google and the war in Iraq. From a personal perspective, do you find that the challenges you envision for your descendants will be different than the ones your ancestors faced?

LLD: The inner challenges the next generation will face will be the same: sorrow, loss, anger, confusion, gullibility, the search for meaning, the struggle to discover and embrace their own identity, etc. But the external challenges will be different: climate change, the upheavals of a global economy, divisive politics fueled by the internet, global heath crises such as Covid-19. Our cultural evolution and increasing technological capability are far outstripping our biological evolution as a species. As human occupants of the planet Earth today, we are no different biologically from the people who made magnificent paintings in the Lascaux caves 17,000 years ago or the ones who found their way to North America in the late Pleistocene. Today, though, the internet, social media, and propagandist TV and radio channels that eschew fact-checking are surrounding people with a blizzard of misinformation. We have evolved to live in groups of a few hundred people who work together to provide food and shelter and thereby ensure everyone’s survival. Sorting through the barrage of true and false information now bombarding us each day is an extraordinary challenge for everyone. My own descendants, as well as others growing up today and in the future, will wrestle with many complex issues, including all the misinformation. If they write poetry, it will reflect that.

DG: And speaking more generally about the issue—do you perceive the course of America’s future pessimistically or optimistically?

LLD: It could go either way. About half of the people believe in social justice, gun control, science, environmental protections, universal medical insurance, childcare and education for all, etc. The other half are wary of immigrants and people of color, want to carry their guns, think climate change is a hoax and vaccinations are bad for you, value capitalism over the environment, and consider government investment in social programs such as health insurance, childcare, and education to be a form of socialism, and socialism to be un-American and bad. I hope that better education and the teaching of critical thinking skills will help us bridge this divide. We need more poetry about all of this. Poetry cannot solve the problems, but it can help people to think about them and see the world differently. I have a poem in an excellent anthology of political poetry that came out from Sixteen Rivers Press in 2018: America, We Call Your Name: Poems of Resistance and Resilience. Sixteen Rivers has a program that provides high school teachers with copies of the anthology and lesson plans to go with it. This type of project can stimulate critical thinking among the students regardless of whether they agree or disagree with the poems.

DG: Let’s move back in time and talk about your first collection, Self-Portrait with Hand Microscope (Berkeley Poets Workshop and Press), published in 1982, and selected by former US Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky, along with David Littlejohn and Michael Rubin, for the Joseph Henry Jackson Award. In this collection, the microscope serves not only as a tangible symbol of introspection, but also acts as a metaphor for analyzing the often unseen or hidden beauties and flaws of life. In this respect, one of the most powerful poems is “First Wedding,” where you write “Standing at the altar, I remembered my blue room. / For years the walls had been shrinking. / I saw myself grown huge like Alice / in a box, small and blue, the door shrunken / to shoe box size. I had to burn my way out.” In various interviews you have already spoken at length about the difficulties of your young adult life, but it would be interesting to know: How did the writing of this collection ultimately help you heal, and are painful experiences good or bad creative fuel?

LLD: Through writing poetry and my memoir, Married at Fourteen: A True Story (Heyday, 2012), I came to understand myself and my choices better. Writing helped me come to terms with both my experiences as a teen mother and my relationship with my own mother. I actually wrote my way to an understanding of her. So yes, painful experiences are good creative fuel, but that does not mean that happy experiences are not. Creatively, I don’t value my mistakes, losses, and failures more than my achievements and successes.

In writing poems about my life and channeling my emotions into poetry, I have been greatly inspired by Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath. The events of my life and my emotional responses to these events are very different from those of Lowell, Sexton, and Plath. My life has been nothing like theirs, but the power and precision of their language in documenting their lives and emotions take me right there with them, and I have hoped to do that in my own poetry. Emotions ranging from sorrow and anger to love and compassion are transformed through poetry. A raw complaint is not a poem, nor is an angry rant or even a declaration of love. A poem must transform the emotion into a work of art, and once that happens, a reader can participate in it and understand something better, and so can the writer.

DG: Inspired by Pablo Neruda’s The Book of Questions, you wrote a chapbook called The Book of Answers (Finishing Line Press, 2006). As a scientist, would you prefer to have more questions or answers?

LLD: Carl Sagan said, “We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers.” To come up with a deep answer, we need to start with a good question. You can’t have one without the other. Also, answers in science tend to generate more questions, and that is an important aspect of how science proceeds. I don’t think we’ll ever run out of questions or have all of the answers.

DG: And what about poetry—should it have more answers than questions, or vice versa?

LLD: Both questions and answers are important in poetry, just as they are in science, but to avoid being didactic in poetry, sometimes it’s best just to raise the question or describe the problem and let the reader come up with the answer. For example, my poem “What Flows Into the Gulf of Mexico” in Birds of San Pancho documents the many types of pollutants—cleaning products, antibiotics, pesticides, fertilizers, etc.—entering the Mississippi River every day. The poem doesn’t offer a solution to this problem, but I hope that by raising people’s consciousness about it, the poem will inspire some people to take appropriate action.

On the other hand, sometimes an answer can be suggested without being didactic. My poem “The Butterflies Are Dying,” which appears in Interlitq, describes how climate change is endangering four hundred fifty species of West Coast butterflies. The last stanza suggests a partial solution: “Oh, welcome them with milkweed / and sunflowers, rabbitbrush, mustard. / Today, say Come to my garden.” Thus, while we are waiting for governments to creep around to taking action to reduce the use of fossil fuels and thereby mitigate global warming, we can help the butterflies by providing habitat for them in our yards. The monarch population in California is higher in 2021 than it was in 2020, and biologists think this is due primarily to the work of individuals who have planted milkweed in their gardens.

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

LLD: I just finished reading Bewilderment, a novel by Richard Powers. A troubled autistic boy with deep concerns for animals and the environment is being raised his father, an astrobiologist. It’s an engaging story but ultimately a downer, since the boy can’t save the world and the father can’t save the boy. Currently, I’m reading Deep Hanging Out: Wanderings and Wonderment in Native California, a nonfiction book by Malcolm Margolin. “Deep hanging out” is not only something hippies do but also an anthropological term meaning to immerse oneself informally in another culture. For the past 40 years or so, Margolin has been engaged in deep hanging out with the Native American tribes of California, and he has much to share.

My own latest book, which came out in November 2021 from my press, Scarlet Tanager Books, is a small anthology called Poetry and Science: Writing Our Way to Discovery. It contains poems and essays by Elizabeth Bradfield, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Ann Fisher-Wirth, and Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, as well as my own work. So I am currently trying to get the word out about this book. I hope that my next book will be my “new and collected” science and nature poems, which will contain work from the seven full-length poetry collections I’ve authored over the past 40 years, as well as new poems.

 

About Lucille Lang Day

Lucille Lang Day is the author of seven full-length poetry collections, most recently Birds of San Pancho and Other Poems of Place and Becoming An Ancestor, and four poetry chapbooks. She has also coedited two anthologies, Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California and Red Indian Road West: Native American Poetry from California, and has published two children’s books and a memoir, Married at Fourteen: A True Story. Her many honors include the Blue Light Poetry Prize, two PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Awards, the Joseph Henry Jackson Award, and eleven Pushcart Prize nominations. The founder and publisher of Scarlet Tanager Books, she received her MA in English and MFA in creative writing at San Francisco State University, and her BA in biological sciences, MA in zoology, and PhD in science/mathematics education at the University of California, Berkeley.

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Charles Jensen, Poet and Editor, interviewed by David Garyan


Charles Jensen

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Charles Jensen, Poet and Editor

interviewed by David Garyan

 

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

 

DG: You serve as the Program Director for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. It would be interesting to hear more about your role in this capacity—what challenges and rewards come with coordinating one of the largest creative writing communities in the US?

CJ: Fortunately, the rewards are many and the challenges few. UCLA Extension is an open-enrollment continuing education provider, so our focus as an institution is on working with adults who want to advance in or change their careers. The Writers’ Program has helped many newbie writers get their start on careers in both literature and screenwriting. I think what our students have in common is both that desire to express something important coupled with a pretty clear idea for how they want to do it. Most students come to us with a novel idea, a memoir concept, or a film idea—any number of projects, really.

I work with an exceptional program staff who are all writers in their own right and who understand how fraught it can be to reach out and say, “I want to be a writer.” We don’t tell our students what success is. We let them tell us, and then we help them figure out the best path to get there. We honor all writing goals, from wanting to write the Great American Novel to capturing memories for family members. Because our classes are online or at night, and because our students have busy lives—jobs, family, commitments, and so on—one of our biggest challenges is fostering community outside the classroom. We know these peer relationships will be essential to them in the future. We’ve piloted a few ways to connect our students both virtually and in-person (when safe to do so). Another reward is working with the instructors at Extension, all of whom would tell you first and foremost how much they love teaching and helping writers find their voices and stories. I believe right now more and more people are looking for opportunities to connect and express their stories—our program almost doubled in enrollment during the period of the pandemic.

Our most significant challenge has been reinforcing a culture of equity and inclusion. Writing is vulnerable work, often informed by the writer’s identity and lived experience, so our classrooms must always ensure respect and work toward shared understanding. Conflict is a natural part of this process—and we work to ensure any conflict in the classroom provides opportunities for learning, for empathy, and for growth. I believe these traits are elements of craft for all writers, but perhaps they aren’t framed that way as often as they should be.

DG: One of your firm beliefs is that writing should be brought into as many people’s lives as possible. In this respect, do you mean greater exposure for writers in any given community, or something more participatory—as in citizens of all backgrounds discovering the art of writing for themselves, taking up the pen to write about their daily experiences, for example, and how might such initiatives be initiated or look like?

CJ: Ideally, I’d support both, but I think the first outcome is naturally achieved by investing in the second. What I have learned in my many years of working in and around creative writing institutions is that a great many people feel an urgent desire to write, though few give themselves permission to do so. There is a barrier that exists for so many—they believe they aren’t good enough, or that it’s a waste of time, or that they’ll be rejected for their attempts. What’s true is that many writers are good enough, but they aren’t perfect on the first try. They don’t realize even their favorite writers also write messy first drafts, and that the time spent revising is what makes those writers great. Those who think writing might be a waste of time have fallen victim to the belief that only lucrative endeavors are worth their time, or that in order to make time spent writing worthwhile they have to have something to show for it—usually publication is what they’re thinking about. And for those afraid of rejection, their fears are justified—but rejection isn’t the end of the road; it is the road. I think we just need to broaden the conversation about why people should write and how it happens. I believe anyone can be a writer, a published one, if they put in the time and the work and trust in themselves. But I also believe that everyone benefits from writing no matter what their goal is in the long run. The worst case scenario is that we’ve taught someone to appreciate reading more, to support more publishing writers, and that will strengthen the entire writing ecosystem over time.

DG: The work you write has an edgy feel—it doesn’t shy away from speaking the truth, whether the matter is US politics, or our way of life in general. For us all, it’s tough to process many of the tragedies that occur on a daily basis, and it’s often impossible simply to watch the news. As a poet, does the writing in times like these come more effortlessly, simply because you’re trying to articulate for change, or is it, in fact, much more difficult to speak, mainly because it’s often hard to find the words at all?

CJ: I think there’s a delicate balance in holding one’s self accountable as a writer—sitting in the chair, creating drafts, revising—and allowing periods of silence to take the time they need from us. I try to honor both. I don’t believe in writer’s block; I think that difficulty is really the fear of writing badly and I’m sure many folks would agree I don’t have that fear (ha!). The creative brain is a complex system. It’s taking in information through our senses, forming connections in the background of our consciousness. It’s important to give it time and space. When I’m not writing, I think of those periods as times of receiving. Gathering. Developing. And in those times, when perhaps I don’t want to struggle to drop words on a page, there’s still plenty to do, especially with revision. I think connected to the question here is something a creative writing teacher once told a class I was in—something like “We don’t become the writers we are meant to be until our parents are dead.” My first thought was, “I don’t have time to wait.” I gave myself permission—along with writing trash—to write things I’d never have to show anyone else. I think that’s fostered an ability to write the hard truths. Once they’re down on paper, they don’t always feel quite as scary. There’s a different kind of ownership you get over those ideas when you shape them into something written. They lose the power to scare you. Of course, at the same time, some things are better left unread.

DG: One of your major interests is innovation and hybrid forms—more specifically, how these two are compatible with formalism; this is quite an interesting aesthetic. Although formal poetry does naturally require innovation and a unique voice, there’s nevertheless a greater degree of rigidity in its essence—a Shakespearean sonnet must have fourteen lines and follow a certain rhyme scheme; the Petrarchan one, meanwhile, divides the fourteen lines into two sections using a different rhyme scheme altogether. Villanelles are yet another story. How do you reconcile the often-strict character of not only these forms, but others as well, with hybridization and innovation?

CJ: At the top level, I think form is one of the essential considerations of poetry. Another teacher of mine said that the only quality all poetry shares, and what makes it distinct from other genres of writing, is that it is “shaped language.” The shape we bring to our poems, then, is as much the poem as the words, the images, the other familiar formal elements like rhyme and meter. When we talk about some of those traditional forms, they’re not only about shape. There’s often a rhetorical form as well. The sonnet is a form of argument, with a turn and a conclusion. The villanelle can’t help but mourn—it’s very haunted. As poets, we know this instinctively. Just as instinctively, I think we should let our poems take the shapes they need. My definition of poetry is broad, expansive, and inclusive when it comes to form, which is one of the reasons I’m very quick to slip into hybrid forms. What happens to the reading comprehension exam when we occupy it with poetry? What about the encyclopedia? So many forms of writing already exist. I like to hermit crab my way into them and see how they interact with poetic technique. Robert Frost said writing free verse was like playing tennis with the net down. What he meant is that tennis (poetry) is defined by the presence of a net (a rule). It doesn’t mean a game isn’t still being played when the net goes away. It means there need to be new rules. New shapes.

DG: In 2006, you founded the online literary journal LOCUSPOINT, with a wonderful tagline for the magazine: “The Place of Poetry.” On the homepage, before entering the actual website, readers are confronted with a map of the United States—there’s something utilitarian in situating one’s place on a map, but there’s also something inherently political in the process. Directing the discussion towards poetry, would you say that place ultimately influences poetic themes, or is it like Nabokov once said, that “Genius is an African who dreams up snow?”

CJ: I think you’re absolutely right that place is political. But place isn’t only that. Place is emotional (“home”). Place is spiritual (“heaven”). LOCUSPOINT wasn’t concerned just with geography—let’s call this just its original delimiter. Instead, it was focused more on community. The way people construct meaning in and around place. When I think about “home,” for example, it was always challenging for me to picture the place where I grew up, an environment I remember mainly as hostile toward me for being gay. So I never had too many of those warm, fuzzy feelings about “home.” My parents left less than a decade after I did, so now I never have to go back there, which, too, is strange. I’ve lived all across the United States since leaving Wisconsin, and had to rebuild “home” again and again—rebuild community in some ways, too. But I’ve always known that while writing happens in isolation, it thrives in a community, and I’m curious about the intersection between physical place and how that community forms. The networks among poets. The way we shape place in that way—and also the way a place shapes us—become natural poetic themes. Many poets write so powerfully about place, identity, and power, it’s difficult to extract those concepts from each other. I’m not sure we should try.

DG: Speaking of place, you live in one of most vibrant, eclectic cities in not just the US, but, arguably, in the whole world. What are the joys and difficulties of calling Los Angeles home, not just from a creative perspective, but also from a personal one, and does the saturation of writers and artists in the city ultimately add to the excitement of being here, or does the competition sometimes get in the way?

CJ: I don’t experience a feeling of competition in the writing world. The writing life is more like a marathon for me—I’m in my lane making progress at my rate, challenging myself to keep moving. My success (or failure) has no relationship to anyone else. It’s me against my potential, always. I’ve found many writers I adore in Los Angeles share the same philosophy. It’s one of the things that makes the writing community in and around UCLA Extension such a wonderful and nurturing environment.

Los Angeles is a concept that is difficult for people to understand if they don’t live there. Common complaints I hear boil down to “This isn’t what I expected it to be and it’s not what I think it should be.” But both of those perspectives fail to accept Los Angeles for what it is. Yes, it’s “72 suburbs in search of a city,” if you think there’s only one way to make a city. But it’s also a vibrant patchwork of fiercely self-determined neighborhoods whose characters are so palpable you can tell when you cross from one to the next. It sprawls, yes—horizontally. But New York, Chicago, other cities sprawl vertically. People complain about traffic, and yes, it can be bad. But Los Angeles isn’t a city you’re meant to experience as a whole. You develop a pocket that becomes your home base, and you venture out as you need and want to. You learn how to outsmart the traffic. That’s not to say there aren’t valid critiques about LA. There are many. We fail to serve the unhoused. There’s shocking income inequality across the region. We need a more robust public transportation system. What I love about Los Angeles is that it’s a place where you can become who you want to be. There’s so much creativity and innovation here. And the weather’s not that bad.

DG: Are you reading or working on something at the moment?

CJ: Always! I find it’s hard for me to revise work that hasn’t been put into a drawer for a while. I think of it like a pie. If I cut into it too soon, it makes a big mess. If I wait until it cools, I can make clean slices. So for that reason I don’t wait until one project is done to start new projects. And I tend to tinker a long time. The work of revision is by far the hardest part for me, and I know that I practice too much avoidance when it comes to cutting things that aren’t working. But I love writing first drafts! All the possibility, excitement, discovery of it all. I have a new book coming out in March from the University of Akron Press, Instructions between Takeoff and Landing. We just approved the layout and cover, so I’ve moved from excitement about it to absolute fear (which is normal). That process has also lessened my sense of urgency about other things, though. That said, I have a memoir I’m sending out, a novel I’m actively revising with a writing group, and a big sheaf of poems I need to wrangle to see if there’s a book there or if I should abandon them a little longer. Oddly, I’ve been writing more and more explicitly about Los Angeles lately, so my sense is that I’ll have a book with that as a thread. Meanwhile, I continue to listen to Louise Glücks’s insight from the preface to The First Four Books of Poems—to examine the work I’ve done, notice what I haven’t done, and lean into that to see what I can discover there.

 

About Charles Jensen

Charles Jensen (he/him) is the author of the poetry collection Nanopedia and six chapbooks of poems. His third collection, Instructions Between Takeoff and Landing, will be published by the University of Akron Press in 2022. He received the 2020 Outwrite Nonfiction Chapbook Award for Cross-Cutting, a diptych of essays that hybridize memoir and film criticism. The City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs designated him a 2019-2020 Cultural Trailblazer, and he is the recipient of the 2018 Zócalo Poetry Prize, a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, the 2007 Frank O’Hara Chapbook Award, and an Artist’s Project Grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts. His poetry has appeared in American Poetry ReviewCrab Orchard ReviewThe JournalNew England Review, and Prairie Schooner, and essays have appeared in 45th ParallelAmerican Literary Review, and The Florida Review. He founded the online poetry magazine LOCUSPOINT, which explored creative work on a city-by-city basis. He hosts The Write Process, a podcast in which one writer tells the story of crafting one work from concept to completion, and with Jovonnie Anaya co-hosts You Wanna Be on Top?, an episode-by-episode retrospective of America’s Next Top Model. He lives in Los Angeles and directs the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension.

 

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Suzanne Lummis, Poet, Educator, Arts Organizer, and Performer, inter...


Suzanne Lummis (photo by Arlene Karno, taken at The Apple Pan, established 1947)

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Suzanne Lummis, Poet, Educator, Arts Organizer, and Performer

interviewed by David Garyan

 

Click here to read Suzanne Lummis’s contribution to Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

 

DG: You have quite a fascinating family history. It’s your great fortune to be the granddaughter of Charles Fletcher Lummis, an important activist for indigenous rights, and the founder of the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, located in Los Angeles. He was also the first City Editor for the LA Times. On top of that, your parents were in the Secret Service. In this respect, to what extent was poetry present in your upbringing, and how did your youth ultimately influence the work you’re doing today?

SL: Ah, that’s many questions wrapped into one—maybe even more questions than you realize! I grew up in Northern CA, the High Sierras. No one up there knew about Old Man Lummis (a.k.a. Charles Fletcher Lummis), nor did they in San Francisco where I was born, or in Berkeley where I went to high school. And most definitely no one connected my name with the original Lummis who walked into early Los Angeles—from Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1884-85—in Fresno. It wasn’t till I moved to L.A. that, now and then, I’d run into somebody who’d say, “Are you related to that amazing house up in Northeast LA …” or “… that museum …?”

After many years here, the Lummis name started to set some things in motion, which includes my involvement with the annual Lummis Day: The Festival of Northeast LA (the live event is on hiatus for the second year due to the pandemic), and my ten years working in the Education Department at The Autry Museum of the American West. I think the influence expresses itself in my interest in history. Americans, in the main, know little of their own history, and that includes those people who accuse others of not knowing history—they themselves know very little, just a thread of history. And it’s a short thread.

I’m among those who accuse others of not knowing history but know little myself—only difference: I have a sense of how much I don’t know. History’s huge, layered, and the interpretation of it shifts from era to era, place to place. It’s like outer space, hard to get one’s arms around.

You mentioned my parents, and of course I was far more affected by them than by my grandfather, whom I never met. Keith had retired from the Secret Service, a division of the U.S. Treasury Service (now, as of 9/11, renamed The Department of Homeland Security) by the time I was born. But the government called him back to join the Foreign Service—he spoke fluent Italian, which he leaned while pursuing the Mafia in San Francisco’s North Beach district and elsewhere. That’s why my earliest memories are set in Palermo, Sicily, and why I was bilingual for a while—until I lost all my Italian, somewhere between age 5 and 6.

My father had one of these big, virile, life-loving personalities—he often made a striking impression, on both men and women. Keith was a type of man who belonged to a certain era, and to an earlier American West—don’t see many like him around anymore. My mother, I think, came to terms with taking a backseat to him publicly, but she was equally rare and distinctive. She had an inner life. I think there was something almost mysterious about my mother, Hazel McCausland Lummis—she didn’t show her whole hand. But like my father, she had a strong character—by which I mean courage and perseverance. By which I mean a sense of what’s right.

I can’t tell you what any of this has to do with my poetry. I don’t know what my poetry would be like if I’d been raised by criminals, or slackers. Or two wimps.

DG: In 2015, Pacific Coast Poetry Series published an anthology you edited called Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond. What is it about LA that makes it both a unique epicenter for poetry, and at the same time a place that shares cultural, aesthetic, and social similarities with other important cities where poetry is written?

SL: I figure this big city includes poets who, collectively, represent all the writing styles currently practiced around the country. So, the question becomes: To what extent are various poets influenced by the landscape and culture, or cultures, which we associate specifically with Los Angeles and Southern California. To what extent are particular poets influenced by the climate—sunshine or drought, or floods, and houses sliding down cliffs. To what extent are they influenced by the car culture and urban expanse traversed by freeways, or the looming and overshadowing entertainment and movie industries which draw so many here and have spawned their own mythology and literature. Or by the wildlife that comes into the city from the hills foraging for food, or by the ocean, the seascapes …. Or are they, for example, interested in the myth of Los Angeles, as opposed to the true day-to-day life. And if so, for them, what is LA really?

One doesn’t have to be engaged with all that—some poets are, some aren’t. That’s how it is, how it’s always been. Poets like Whitman set out to capture the spirit of America, whereas Emily Dickinson could’ve written most of those poems anywhere. I don’t think one type of poet’s more interesting or correct than the other. I only care that the language fastens my attention to the page.

DG: For a long time, you’ve been associated with the LA poetry scene; still, having studied with Philip Levine, you naturally have a place in the Fresno school. Can you talk about some of the fondest memories you have of studying with Levine, the impact his tutelage had on your work, and to what extent the Fresno aesthetic is both unique and similar with respect to what’s being written in LA?

SL: That first class with Levine—I was an undergraduate—I kind of fell in love with him, in Crush. He was audacious, outrageous and funny, and unfailingly honest. He’d say anything. We students would pick up copies of everyone’s poems that were scheduled to be discussed in the next class. I’d look at these and think What lousy poems! They’re all dreck! Except for mine, of course. Then, I’d go to class and find out mine were lousy too.

Gary Soto was in that class. Years later he said, with some humor: “Levine would come in and just trash everything.” I didn’t see it quite that way myself—I mean, no one knew what the hell they were doing. People’s early poems did not work.

I got better. But I wrote my first passably OK student poem out of terror. I was terrified of writing another crap poem. And, by chance, it happened to be about my grandfather, the first and only poem I’ve ever written about him. I haven’t presented that work at any reading for decades. Why would I read the first immature-but-not-awful piece I ever wrote? At the time, though, it got me to the next level.

As far as the Fresno sensibility, that anthology, edited by Christopher Buckley, David Oliveira, and M. L. Williams, is titled How Much Earth for a reason. Seems to me that an attention to not only to the physical, tangible thing, but even, in some sense, the ground under our feet, recurs in various ways through many Fresno-influenced poems. There’s an engagement with the natural world, but in a way that doesn’t always fit the definition of “nature” poetry. Maybe it’s an interest in the rudimentary. At the moment, I’m thinking of Larry Levis’s well-known poem, “The Oldest Living Thing in Los Angeles.”

However, the element that recurs through my first collection is water. So, there you go. I just can’t get with the program.

DG: Your newest creative undertaking is the Michael Caine Project, three reading events, which has, at least with the second installment, attempted to bridge the great poetic divide of our wonderful land. David Lehman and Michael Lally represented New York, while Kim Dower, Shahé Mankerian, and you read as Angelenos—all very noble, and to some extent even necessary. The only curiosity in all of this—why Michael Caine and not Michael Douglas, or even Michael Keaton? Didn’t he play an amazing Batman in ’89 and ’92?

SL: Oh my God, there’s no comparison between the span and significance of Caine’s career and the filmography of those two actors. And now I’m going to add that I adore Keaton in Spotlight and Douglas in Wonder Boys, two of my favorite movies ever. I’m going to add that because I don’t want Douglas and Keaton to get offended and see to it that I never work in this town again—which would not be hard, since I’ve never worked in this town.

Michael Caine was the first Cockney or, more-accurately, English working-class actor to achieve A-list stardom, and he came up from nothing. And I do mean Nothing. I mean no-hot-running-water-one-bathroom-down-the-hall-shared-by-several style poverty. I mean his mother was a char woman and his father a fish monger—who expected his son to follow in the trade. Not only did Caine become a star, a romantic lead—at one time an unobtainable dream for anyone with his accent and lineage—but also the only other actor besides Jack Nicholson to be nominated for an Academy Award for acting in every decade from the 1960s to 2000s. (He won twice). He’s made 120 movies. He’s now 88.

Beat that record.

After the reviews came in for The Ipcress File, Caine realized that after struggling—sometimes in debt, sometimes going hungry—for ten years to break into the movies, he’d finally made it. But he couldn’t get his mother to stop working. Although he could provide for her now, she was still going out to clean houses. At last, he came up with a way to persuade her. He told her that if she, the mother of a successful international film star, was seen scrubbing down rich people’s kitchens and bathrooms, everyone would think he was a terrible son and it’d hurt his career. Only then did she agree to retire.

When asked why he continued throughout his life to make movie after movie he said, “I’m from the working class. I can’t be idle. The only thing I know how to do is work.”

Unless someone’s close to 88 years old, it’s a sure thing Michael Caine has spanned their lifetime or most of it. For The Michael Caine Project, Expressions First, Second and Third, I invited a few poets and writers to evolve pieces that pertained, in some kind of way, to his life, his quotes, his movies, anything that got them going. I figured if out of his unusual life story, out of all those genres and styles of movies, action-suspense, comedy, love stories, historical, character studies, all those themes and images, and personal memories we all associate with the movies, if a poet couldn’t find anything in there, well …  Gosh. I don’t know what it’d take. A trip to the moon?

For example, in the Second Expression, which you mention, the Zoom event, Kim Dower read her poem inspired by a bit of dialog in Get Carter, her favorite line in the movie. Carter says sleepily to the woman he’s waking up next to, “You must be joking. I never eat breakfast.” It struck Kim as such an odd thing for a vigilante, cut-throat gangster killer to say. Turns out she never eats breakfast either. Come to think of it …. neither do I! (What can this mean?)

The Third Expression took place live at Susan Hayden’s celebrated Library Girl series in Santa Monica. Susan brought in some additional writers and musicians for that one—and we had great fun collaborating, promoting the event, and behaving ridiculously about Michael Caine, as if we were teenagers again.

In the First Expression, a video in the They Write by Night series, which draws contemporary poetry together with film noir and crime movies, I mention the first Michael Caine movie I ever saw, but then focus on one that opened shortly later. That episode, “First Blood—Spy Noir: The Ipcress File,” can be found here at Poetry.LA, on YouTube, and also via Cultural Daily where I always write a little hardboiled lead-in.

DG: It seems we’ve transitioned into movies. The creative sensibilities which seem to capture your greatest interest are those of film noir—to the extent that an article you wrote in the Malpais Review called “The Poem Noir—Too Dark to Be Depressed” was practically the thing which, if it didn’t invent that genre, it certainly was the catalyst for defining the work previously written with that aesthetic—giving it a name, an identity, if you will. At the same time, all poetry, in a sense—at least when black ink meets white paper—has elements of noir; everything else is no longer visual. What elements of film noir appeal most to you, and how difficult is it to translate those sensibilities into your poetry? In addition, what are things the visual genre can do that the written genre can’t, and vice versa, and how do you navigate that territory as a noir poet?

SL: I first became interested in the noir style and crime writing through books, Raymond Chandler—that wit, that imagery, the scrumptious and startling details, the humor, that charismatic lone wolf private eye, Philip Marlowe, the most attractive character in all crime fiction. From those books, I found my way to film noir. And then there’s this: My life. It features noir elements—picked them up here and there along the line. I’ve got noir cred.

I can understand the confusion regarding this, but I don’t actually call myself a noir poet, because I only write what I consider a noir poem now and then—rest of the time I write other types of poems. I probably have less than two dozen poems I’d call pure noir. So, I’m a poet who’s interested in the noir style and sensibility and have written on the subject.

I wouldn’t say all poetry has elements of noir—unless you take “noir” simply to mean the appearance of the color black or dark themes, in which case the term becomes meaningless. Noir as a style didn’t exist before the 20th century, and specifically the rise of the modern 20th century city, along with the crime of that time period. Before that you had, say, Jane Eyre—mad woman in the attic and all that. It’s not noir; it’s Gothic by definition—Gothic because of the setting, the strangely empty manor, deeply buried secrets, and shadowy, supernatural mood. Before that, Poe—Gothic horror. King Lear? Hamlet? Treachery, Bloodshed, Madness—they’ve got that, but it’s not noir. They’re Elizabethan, those plays, or simply Shakespearian. (The great ones become a category unto themselves. A Hitchcock movie isn’t usually referred to as film noir. It’s a Hitchcock Movie.)

I wrote a downright bossy essay for the now-retired Malpais Review, where I served as the California Correspondent, because people kept throwing the term around and making it mean … whatever. I wasn’t the first one out of the pen. David Lehman had published an article years before, but while he folded in examples of poets who at that time were inspired by film noir, and discussed their approaches, it seemed to me he stopped short of defining the poem noir/noir poem. (His full-length book on the subject is forthcoming from Cornell U. Press, The Mysterious Romance of Murder.) So, I wrote this bossy essay asserting that a thing must have some of these features or it’s not a poem noir. It’s this and not that …. Then, I sat back and waited for the world to attack me for my views. No one did, which threw me a bit off-balance—like when you’re bracing yourself to get smacked by falling debris, but nothing happens.

From the other side of the world, the writer, educator and critic Wiktoria Klera picked up news of my article and wrote to me. In her piece “Noir Poetry,” a survey of Polish noir, she quotes from my essay, “The Poem Noir: Too Dark to be Depressed.”

DG: Let’s go back in time, 1984, to be precise, when your first collection, Idiosyncrasies, was published. A poem there called “Earthquake” caught my attention, and I would like to quote it in full:

EARTHQUAKE

Whole neighborhoods
will begin traveling like lemmings,
mine first.
Meanwhile, I go through this city
achieving, at some cost, these poems.
I’ve done what they say I’ve done
or else I invented it,
which was almost as taxing.
So at night when the house settles
I half fly out of bed,
then lie awake reasoning with the earth:
I’m too old to die!
If it was gonna happen at all
it should have been years ago,
before all this started.

Surely, this work is about more than just an earthquake. The cost of achieving poems in a city like LA is indeed high. For years, you’ve worked to promote poetry by organizing festivals, readings, and events, paying, perhaps, too great a price for it. A 1996 LA Times article says the following: “Poetry has extracted a price from Lummis in other ways. Money is a constant inconstant; for many years she lived in a ramshackle East Hollywood building that harbored gang activity and was routinely littered with hypodermic needles.” Looking back on all of it, what are things you would’ve perhaps wished to do differently, and what are things you absolutely don’t regret?

SL: That particular poem you mention is a very early one, from my 20s, when I was living for a time in the family’s San Francisco house—(now no longer our house since my mother, then father died). It was on a hill overlooking the ocean. I had a horror of earthquakes, more specifically of being buried alive—the fate of many in serious earthquakes. It’s not a pleasant thought even now, but at least I’m living in structure likely to remain standing. Of course, one never knows where one’s going to be .…

Funny thing: About 15 years after writing that poem, I’d just flown in from Los Angeles to visit my family, just gotten home, just walked upstairs to my old room—in time for the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. I’d had enough earthquake experience to feel the first warning signs through the soles of my feet, rising from deep underground. It’s a singular form of terror. I’ve never flown down a flight of stars so fast.

I couldn’t do it now—couldn’t move that fast to save my life.

I don’t think the poem’s much good though—it’s stupid. I hadn’t evolved my style. Well, I have several styles, but back then I hadn’t yet evolved any. As of that writing, I wasn’t yet living in the Vermont Avenue building, East Hollywood. The line “achieving, at some cost, these poems” makes me wince. What cost? Nothing had cost me—yet. I mean, it was going to. But at the time I wrote that it was an empty grandstanding gesture.

Regardless, I’m lucky that the late Robert Mezey included that little poem, and another little one from that same period, in that great Pocket Poets Knopf anthology, Poems of the America West, together with—by contrast (and what a contrast)—the blistering “Poem Noir.” I wrote that in the Vermont Avenue building and, whoa … nothing ridiculous about that one. I’d honed my talent and sharpened my skills. It’s a tough poem, though, not a fun one. I rarely include it in my set at readings.

When I finally moved out of that place, Charles Webb said: “I’m glad you’re moving. I was always afraid you’d be murdered there.” The thought had crossed my mind. In fact, though, I faced more threats in other parts of the city than I ever did in the building where I lived. Those people knew me. I was “The Writer,” or “Miss Lady,” or “La Roja Loca,” or the “tough little white girl.”

DG: Let’s stay in 1984 and look at another poem from your first collection, mainly “Things that Catch Fire,” which I will also quote in full:

THINGS THAT CATCH FIRE

Your comb stands on end,
sparking and crackling.
The goldfish are little lights
too far gone to save.
You wonder what variation
of the Midas touch
you’ve got that turns things
not to gold but to flame.
You can make a little window
in your dreams to peer out,
but cannot prevent
your shoes from flattening into
footprints of charcoal.
Next morning, your possessions
have been restored, the goldfish
behaving as if nothing happened.
Even your favorite old coat
won’t let on where
it went last night. It hangs
unrisen, blank
as winter light, its sleeve
brushed with traces—sly,
immaterial ash.

Similar to the poem “Earthquake,” this one uses fire as a symbol to talk about things that simply won’t come to fruition, develop, or even do what we expect—in a strange way, here, we wouldn’t want that to happen. Looking back at your first collection, what are sensibilities that have remained constant over the years, and what are things that have changed in terms of your poetic approach? In other words, regardless of subject matter, do you write basically with the same method as you did in 1984, or have changes in aesthetic also produced variations in your writing habits?

SL: That first collection got one review in a small, local publication, Electrum Magazine, which vanished long ago, but it was a lovely review, to this day among the most insightful reviews I’ve received. The late Roger Suva—back then, a poet in Los Angeles—called the work “bright and vibrant,” and laced with “humor, wit and sardonic bite.” But he also wrote: “Fantasy, imaginative and extraordinarily credible, is what fuels many of these poems,” and I found that especially interesting. He might have substituted “dream” for “fantasy” and that would also have resonated with me. The poem you’ve chosen, “Things That Catch Fire,” speaks exactly to that quality Roger Suva caught on to.

To your question what traces through my poetry from then to now, it seems to me that even though most of my later poems spring from cityscapes or actual environments, or in other ways seem rooted in the real world, sometimes an element of fantasy and dream runs alongside them. Sometimes, fantasy and dream bear them up. Sometimes, behind the worldliness there courses an otherworldliness. This is certainly true of my two poems that appear in Interlitq’s Californian Poets, Part I.

Few remember that tiny oddball publication, Electrum, and, perhaps, beyond his family and friends, few remember Roger Suva. And few know of a poetry collection called Idiosyncrasies, published by Illuminati, a one-man press run by Peter Schneidre—whom few remember. Be that as it may, I find Roger Suva’s comments noting certain characteristics in my poetry to be perceptive, useful, and surprising.

DG: The YouTube series you host, They Write by Night, fuses film noir and poetry in a very visual, and yet poetic way. In the fourteenth episode, “Homme Fatale,” you’re in LA’s famous Frolic Room, a former speakeasy, but as you say, “it’s not so noir these days. When it’s crowded, there are very non-noir people, nice people, regular people, good neighbors, good citizens, good students. It’s empty right now—very uncharacteristically—so it’s very noir, and you know why? Because I’m here.” It’s so refreshing to hear you say that because we get the sense that noir isn’t a specific place—it’s an atmosphere, a mood, a feeling, a way of life, even. It was probably the Biltmore Hotel, and not the Frolic Room, as you say, where the Black Dahlia was last seen, but does it really matter, especially if the atmosphere is right? In terms of aura, then, what’s your favorite LA noir place, and, in this respect, how has the city’s character changed over the years?

SL: Oh, I’ve never heard or read anyone quote verbatim my TWBN dialogue before, what fun. I’d forgotten about those lines because I don’t remember everything I’ve said after the filming. I work aspects of the narration out in my head but some moments (for better or worse) I improvise—unless it’s one of the episodes that’s in voiceover. For voiceovers I do write a script with descriptions re. imagery to accompany my voice, which Wayne Lindberg then finds or creates.

Noir places in Los Angeles—oh, oh, oh … so many have disappeared, most of them. It troubles the hell out of me. Each time a place vanishes, one I associate with memories or periods of my life, a piece of my past goes. That big sidewalk newsstand with a large interior space with all kinds of stuff in it, including, way in the back, a few literary journals, World Book and News on Cahuenga just below Hollywood Blvd., must of been there for—who knows how many decades? Now it’s been cut back to a small storefront. I never thought that would happen. At night, that location was very noir, so reminiscent of some earlier LA. Some other time. Some other life.

And, I was thinking about this the other day—there used to be a big strange space that I knew was doomed. I knew because it was so different from everything else on that stretch of the Boulevard, and it used up so much real estate for what it offered—couldn’t possibly make enough money. Chicken Delight. Unlike other fast-food places, it inhabited a sprawling, kind of cafeteria-sized space. In fact, it was a cafeteria—serving Chicken Delight and many sides. No doubt one time it burst with activity, but by the 80s, usually, most of the tables were empty. To me, it had a post-war feeling, though the joint probably opened in the late ‘50s, maybe ‘60. You could get a lot of food cheap and stay as long as you wanted. It felt like the past—and it was the past. That was its problem.

I loved that place—very noir. Of course, I wouldn’t have wanted a murder to occur, but for a movie it’d be a good spot to set a crime. Or, the beginning of a crime. A man and woman down on their luck, meet at Chicken Delight, among all those interesting sides, plus chicken, outside—dark, inside—dim, yellow light, people shuffling along the sidewalk past the windows, but the place is almost empty. Except for them ….

And the woman’s just late off the bus, which reminds me—the old Greyhound Bus Station, Downtown LA. Talk about Noir. Talk about desolation. Cheeto wrappers and chewed gum, a couple melancholy vending machines …. By the 80s it was run down. But to sit there and think of the stories of those thousands, or hundreds of thousands, who rode into LA with their ambitions, maybe some talent ….  And what became of those people? The station’s long gone of course—I think it’s now a big market of stalls with cheap stuff. People catch the Greyhound at Union Station.

I don’t know if there are any truly noir places left in the city—seems they’ve all been gutted or revamped, remodeled, in a way that erases the past. Thing is, if a place has a truly noir vibe, no one wants to go there. Except me. Apparently.

DG: In the first episode of They Write by Night, you feature the poetry of Weldon Kees, specifically his piece called “Crime Club,” which you consider “the first poem noir because it has all the qualities a poem noir has to have—its control, its cool, decisive wit, its tone of concealed despair—not melodrama, there cannot be melodrama. If there’s melodrama, it’s not noir. It’s complete absence of sentimentality. If it’s sentimental, it’s not noir. It might be dark, and sentimental—it might be dark and melodramatic, but it’s not noir.” I would like to quote the poem in full:

CRIME CLUB

No butler, no second maid, no blood upon the stair.
No eccentric aunt, no gardener, no family friend
Smiling among the bric-a-brac and murder.
Only a suburban house with the front door open
And a dog barking at a squirrel, and the cars
Passing. The corpse quite dead. The wife in Florida.

Consider the clues: the potato masher in a vase,
The torn photograph of a Wesleyan basketball team,
Scattered with check stubs in the hall;
The unsent fan letter to Shirley Temple,
The Hoover button on the lapel of the deceased,
The note: “To be killed this way is quite all right with me.”

Small wonder that the case remains unsolved,
Or that the sleuth, Le Roux, is now incurably insane,
And sits alone in a white room in a white gown,
Screaming that all the world is mad, that clues
Lead nowhere, or to walls so high their tops cannot be seen;
Screaming all day of war, screaming that nothing can be solved.

Indeed, this is a poem which embodies all those traits you mention—cool, decisive, and controlled. Can you talk about how it felt to first discover the genius of Kees, and was it he, specifically, who first got you interested in the genre, or was it a combination of factors?

SL: First and foremost, Donald Justice gathered together and found a publisher for his poetry when it might otherwise have slipped into obscurity. And for years after the publication of the Weldon Kees’s Collected Poems in early ‘60s, it still seemed he might slip away. Then, others stepped up to champion him. Dana Gioia threw his weight behind him, and later Christopher Buckley, along with Christopher Howell, published an anthology called Aspects of Robinson: Homage to Weldon Kees. Various people started saying: “Hey, here’s an utterly distinctive voice from mid-century American poetry, and readers should know who he is”—and they were poets who had clout, which (I notice) makes all the difference. I must have first seen his work in the groundbreaking Naked Poetry, edited by Robert Mezey, a good friend of Donald Justice.

In June 2005, Anthony Lane published an article about Weldon Kees’s life, poetry, and mysterious disappearance in ‘55—the pair of red socks left in his sink, his Plymouth Savoy with keys in the ignition, abandoned near the Golden Gate Bridge—that article ran in The New Yorker, so ….  He’s good. We don’t have to worry about Kees’s poetry being lost to posterity anymore. Outside of the fact that in time nearly everyone’s forgotten.

As soon as I started to think about the poem noir, I knew Kees’s “Crime Club” was the first perfect modern example. Of course, there are always forerunners.

DG: Classic films often get remade in Hollywood, with varying degrees of success, but with some exceptions, the results are often poor. What’s your favorite noir film and would you like to see a remake of it, if one hasn’t been done, and what do you think of remakes with respect to the genre in general? In other words, film noir was as much about its production (unassuming, low-key, absence of major stars, and so on) as it was about theme—and so, would you say it’s possible to make noir films with sophisticated Hollywood budgets and production techniques, even if you manage to capture the essence of the original plot?

SL: Oh, indeed there’ve been effective contemporary films noir, with good budgets, stars, and color. Three stunning examples would be Chinatown (1974), Body Heat (1981), and L.A. Confidential (1997). Roman Polanski, Lawrence Kasdan, Curtis Hanson. Neo-noir, right? These are stunning movies, immortal classics, better by far than the average film noir of the classic era, from ‘44 toward the end of the ‘50s.  Their stories, the way they unfold, the meaning and implication behind the stories, it’s all more sophisticated and interesting. The acting’s better, the suspense more skillfully invoked. Everything’s better. I mean, better than the run-of-the-mill film noir from the original era, which, by contemporary standards, was often thinly plotted.

What classic film noir would I like to see remade? Oh, absolutely a 1948 picture that’s one of the few, maybe the only, early noir narrated by a woman character. Raw Deal involves a potentially fascinating situation with complex, highly charged connections between an escaped convict, the woman he took hostage—his own defense attorney—and his lover who helped him bust out. “Pat,” played by Claire Trevor—always good as the smart, tough woman—is stuck on him, enough to risk everything and act as driver for his jail break. His idealistic attorney, “Ann,” (Marsha Hunt), is fighting a mysterious attraction to him, and incurs Pat’s jealousy. Pat knows her escapee felon is, in turn, attracted to this good looking, educated, and accomplished professional woman who’d strived to get him out of jail legally. And then there’s the escaped convict, who controls one woman by force, holding her captive, and the other through his emotional power over her. The escaped convict, “Joe,” is played by Dennis O’Keefe, who’s so uninteresting we can’t figure out why either of these interesting women would be drawn to this ill-humored, charmless jackass. His colorless, bland-but-abrasive tough-guy act is one of the biggest crimes in the history of film noir.

Anthony Mann was a fine director, and, even with what we’ve got now, it would be a challenge for contemporary production designers and cinematographers to top the great John Alton’s glorious, high-contrast shadow and light—back then, no computers or green screens to be had. But, in our times, with so many skilled writers—and subtle thinkers—a sharper, more suspenseful and emotionally moving script could be developed. And for “Joe,” get someone with old-fashioned sex appeal.

DG: How has the pandemic changed your writing habits, if at all, and are you reading or working on anything interesting at the moment?

SL: At the beginning of the lockdown, I thought, OK, now I’ll write three novels. However, I didn’t write three novels, or any. So, I’d say my aspirations have not changed, nor my writing habits.

I am producing more essays—so, that’s a different direction. One’s in this new anthology from What Books, What Falls Away is Always: Writers Over 60 on Writing and Death. A Marilyn Monroe themed poem from In Danger will appear in the anthology I Wanna Be Loved by You: Poems on Marilyn Monroe (Milk & Cake Press), coming out in 2022. Just out, an anthology of essays and interviews Naming the Lost: The Fresno Poets, edited by Christopher Buckley (Texas A&M University Press). It includes two interviews with me, one by Georgia Jones Davis, one by Olga García Echeverría.

And then there’s this: I have a nearly finished—4/5th finished—poetry manuscript, Crime Wave, which, in the current climate, might never see the light of day, only dark of night. Maybe not even dark of night. I’m anti-crime and anti-criminal, so today, 11/24/21, has delivered good news: the killers of Ahmaud Arbery convicted on multiple counts, with lifetime sentences assured. It’s such good news that even though it pertains to crime, I can’t regard it as noir.

 

About Suzanne Lummis

Suzanne Lummis was a 2018/19 COLA (City of Los Angeles) fellow, an endowment to influential writers, musicians and artists of the city enabling them to create new bodies of work. Individual poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Spillway, The Antioch Review, The American Journal of Poetry, Plume (on-line and in-print), and The New Yorker.  She teaches through the UCLA Extension Writers Program, and a series of private workshops, Deep Poetry Knowledge.

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Mike Sonksen, Poet, Performer, Journalist, and LA Tour Guide, interviewed ...


Mike Sonksen (a.k.a Mike the Poet)

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Mike Sonksen, Poet, Performer, Journalist, and LA Tour Guide

interviewed by David Garyan

 

Mike Sonksen’s poems to appear soon in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

DG: Your given name is Mike Sonksen, but in the context of your creative life, you’re known as Mike the PoeT. Some establishments like poets.org write the final letter with a lowercase, while others like Cultural Daily have it as “Mike the PoeT.” Your own Twitter handle is @MikethePoeTLA. Can you, at last, set the record straight and what significance does the uppercase have?

MS: The uppercase T dates back to the early 2000s, when I was hanging out with a lot of visual artists and even graphic designers who were experimenting with typography. I liked how small changes in punctuation and with capitalization could add emphasis and style on both how you said a word and how it looked. Some of it was also just having fun with the visual element of how it appeared on the page. As I have gotten older it no longer really mattered, but I had fun with it early on.

DG: Your poem “I Am Alive in Los Angeles!” has become quite the talking point over the years. It was my great fortune to experience this work for the first time neither in print nor recorded, but through your performance of it in 2010 at the LA Public Library Newer Poets XV reading. Compared to this video from 2008, for example, it seems that there’s always a slight variation in how you read/perform the poem. In this respect, would it be more correct to say that these differences arise out of improvisation, highlighting the impromptu changes the city is given to, or do the contrasts arise consciously, emphasizing human intervention and the degrees to which planning ultimately shape the city’s evolution?

MS: I love this question and improvisation has always been a big part of my poetry performances. The differences are quite often directly connected to the place and space where the poem is being performed. Early on I did a lot of poems out in the street while doing city tours, or even at a backyard party, or some after-hours jam session, so the poem would inevitably mirror the location in some way. The event at the Central Library was a milestone for me because I grew up going there and have always loved that space. That night I was definitely doing my tribute to LA’s literary history and I was also feeling deep gratitude to be able to read a poem in that building.

I had already done poems hundreds of times outside in front of the building along 5th Street across from the US Bank Building and in the rotunda room in the library below the Dean Cornwell murals on the ceiling, but I had never been invited to read in the main auditorium until that night.

I like what you said about human intervention, and I believe Poetry is a living, breathing entity that should reflect where it is being shared. I always like to look around and consider where I am before I start sharing a poem. The poem does change a bit as the city changes—you are definitely right about this.

DG: For years, you’ve been a Los Angeles tour guide, showing visitors the real LA—places they probably won’t find listed in Lonely Planet and stuff. Two questions: How does showing the city to others ultimately affect the way in which you perceive its culture and landscape, and would you say this leads to a different understanding of it than everyday locals might have, for better or worse?

MS: Tour guiding had a lot to do with many of my first LA poems. I was doing tours all over the city and there were many times I would write a poem as a summary of a specific tour. There were also times where I had already written the poem about a certain area and then ended up giving a tour there down the line sometime. It’s definitely one of those “what came first, the chicken or the egg scenarios.”

I have really enjoyed giving tours and I still do tours from time to time, though lately mostly virtual due to the pandemic. I started doing it professionally in 1997 right out of UCLA. It was accidental and very serendipitous, but it’s ended up being a major blessing for my writing career. It taught me a lot about public speaking and performance. It also helped me see what the public really connected with. I saw how people loved stories about the people who made history happen. The person behind the building, the monument, the sculpture, the architecture. As much as I love design, public art, and historic architecture, what’s often even more fascinating is why the architect or the artist decided to create the building, the mural, or the sculpture the way they did. I learned about how the public loves these background stories.

The more I learned about different pockets of the city, the more I wanted to share the information. Originally, I was asked to do mostly Downtown LA and Hollywood, but as time went on, I ended up doing many more neighborhoods like Koreatown, Little Tokyo, Leimert Park, the LA River, Boyle Heights, Monterey Park, Long Beach, Venice, and quite a few other spots.

Tour guiding taught me that the more concrete and specific you are in your descriptions, the better it is for your audience, whether it be in a city tour, a poem, an essay or even in conversation. I wrote an essay that’s in my book and also published on KCET where I really go into the Ethics of Giving A City Tour.

DG: You’re now an instructor at Woodbury University, where you teach classes to architecture and other artistically inclined students. How do these activities ultimately inform your own creative endeavors, and, conversely, do you find that students also inherit a bit of the “poetry gene” in the end, even if only in small amounts?

MS: I am the Program Coordinator of Woodbury’s First Year Experience Program and I teach in the Interdisciplinary Studies Department. I have really creative students who major in not only Architecture, but Game Design, Game Art, Animation, Film, Graphic Design, Fashion and Marketing among other majors. I do a lot of project-based learning so I have them turn in a portfolio of their writing at the end of the semester. The assignments are mostly short prose and quick poems and I do my best to connect the assignments to their own life. We have published quite a few of my students’ short pieces too.

I recently had students make a map of their lives that uses 7 turning points in their life, or 7 key locations like their childhood home, an eatery they went to often with their parents, a park, a church, a museum, their high school, their grandma’s house. Any location that has been meaningful to them.

The map is accompanied by either a short one-page poetic explanation, or some even write haiku or short poems about each site. Many of them do not know they like poetry until they take my class. I have them write a lot about their own lives, but in a poetic and creative way. Another recent assignment was “the circumstances of your birth.” Students wrote about the day they were born after talking with their parents to get the story from that day. It’s part oral history, but there’s also some nostalgia, and of course this even adds romantic or tragic elements to their piece.

We do a lot of short poems like the acrostic poem or even some forms like sonnets and villanelles. They see that poetry is the arrangement of language. Like architecture, it’s about how words are arranged on the page. I also host open mics at the end of class and they enjoy hearing one another’s work. I have had quite a few students tell me that they did not realize how fun poetry could be until they heard one another.

I emphasize that it’s about experimenting and even the idea of “play.” So much schooling and academic writing can be so serious that when they see how fun writing can be, it is often a revelation. We have a symbiotic relationship and they keep me young. I enjoy hearing their work and from time to time I share my own poems with them.

DG: Many of your recent projects have dealt with bringing exposure to the marginalized voices in the city. An article published in May of this year was about the group Vigilant Love and its attempt to “dismantle systemic Islamophobia,” as you write. Another piece, published in December of last year, talks about Hiram Sims, a poet, professor, and longtime resident of LA, whose project concerns opening a library of poetry, so far the only one in Southern California. In this respect, politicians and lawmakers would say poetry needs to become more popular/marketable to justify the funding of such libraries; however, is it not more correct to say that we need precisely such places to give poetry greater exposure so it can help alleviate the ethnic and cultural tensions—which often exist in a void begging to be filled with something more productive? In other words, are we speaking too idealistically here, or can greater community cohesion also be “profitable” and in what ways might this “surplus” manifest itself?

MS: You are right about this as far as these community spaces. The Sims Library is an incredible place and they exist because of a variety of reasons. They have a program called the Community Literature Initiative (CLI) and they have a weekly poetry class. CLI has become so popular that they not only have multiple weekly classes, they have become more popular during the Pandemic.

The classes are a lot less expensive than graduate school but still enough that between the funding CLI gets from the students, some donations to the library and a few grants, the library is able to sustain itself. They have classes over Zoom and poets from across the country are enrolled. It’s a great program.

Besides being a thoughtful poet and teacher, Hiram Sims is a community-minded man and also has a great pragmatic perspective and astute practical intelligence. The students in CLI are of all ages and very diverse demographically. The program definitely eases cultural tensions and builds bridges across Los Angeles and beyond.

The same is to be said of the Vigilant Love coalition. These organizations heal the scars of society and connect people through the healing power of the arts, poetry in particular. Your comment regarding community cohesion being profitable too is also relevant because there are ways to help these arts organizations make enough money to be sustainable. In Downtown LA, the Last Bookstore exists where it is at 5th and Spring because the building owner knows it’s a tourist attraction and a major boon to the community. I do not know the specifics of their rental agreement to the bookstore, but I do know they have worked out a situation where everyone wins.

We need more business owners, real estate developers, and other philanthropists and benefactors who not only support these arts organizations but understand that our society needs a lot more libraries, bookstores, art galleries and organizations that promote creative pursuits such as poetry, which give us the healing juju that the arts offer—better than any other alternative.

DG: Your 2019 collection Letters to My City was received very well. One of the poems, “Still Alive in Los Angeles!” harkens back to your well-known piece, written over eleven years ago. Naturally, the city has changed a great deal, for good and bad, depending on who you ask. But I wonder: What remains the same for you, both on a personal and creative level, and what are you doing differently these days? Are there any discoveries, experiments—either failures or successes—you’ve made or embarked on and would like to share?

MS: “Still Alive” is definitely the sequel to “I Am Alive,” in the sense that it’s the version I wrote after having two kids and teaching for a dozen years. It’s the remix of the original poem with my older eyes. I have learned a lot about how responsibility deepens your understanding of the world at large. I am much more seasoned now and I see a bigger picture. Parenting and teaching have both taught me so much and these experiences have made me a better writer.

I still love the city as much as when I first wrote “I Am Alive in Los Angeles!”, but this version is also the one that sees the price of rent rising and the gridlock strangling central arteries. It’s a mix of both innocence and experience and it still manages to keep the joy in the balance.

I reflect on the fact that long before I read Wanda Coleman and Bukowski, my first LA poets were Chick Hearn and Vin Scully. I also remember driving around with my grandfather, but these days, it’s my two kids and I cruising the streets. The city as a teacher but also as the only constant in a rapidly changing world.

I lament how the wetlands are gone and we now have endless condos and Trader Joe’s and makeshift dog parks across Southern California instead of orange groves or wheat fields. We have a dog, so I like the dog parks and Trader Joe’s is cool, but the condos are rampant and the landscape has definitely become more monotonous. I love parks and open space within the city. We need to figure out ways to better preserve nature and the legacy businesses that give the city so much life. My poem touches on all of this.

DG: What are some places in LA that a first-time visitor must absolutely see, even at the expense of missing one or two touristy sites, and why?

MS: I am really big on murals and public art. Sites like the Great Wall of Los Angeles in North Hollywood. Baca’s mural is a 10,000-year history of California and it offers a deeper insight into the city than Hollywood Boulevard. I recently wrote this for KCET about public art across LA: Inclusive Public Art.

Many of my own favorite sites include Indie bookstores like Skylight in Los Feliz, Vroman’s in Pasadena or Eso Won in Leimert, family eateries in Little Tokyo like Suehiro, hikes at Lake Hollywood or Culver City Park. There are also day trips to Elysian Park, the Museum of Latin American Art and Signal Hill in Long Beach, the Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley, the Watts Towers, Leimert Park, Lake Balboa in Van Nuys, Mural Mile in Pacoima. I like the San Gabriel Valley a lot too, especially the Cascades Park in Monterey Park and Downtown Alhambra.

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

MS: I am reading a lot of books as always. My two beats more than anything have always been Los Angeles and Poetry, but in between that I read a lot of Nonfiction on Urbanism, Cultural Studies, Music, Architecture, Sociology and Philosophy. I read some selected fiction too, especially when it’s about LA.

The most recent was The Perishing by Natashia Deon. I have also recently read The System by Ryan Gattis and I am about to read The Death of My Father the Pope by Obed Silva.

I am finishing an essay on the muralist Fabian Debora, who just completed two giant murals featuring the poets Felicia Montes and Alyesha Wise at 69th and Main in South Los Angeles. Debora is the founder of Somos La Arte aka the Homeboy Art Academy. He is an alchemist that uses his art to paint the reality he wants to see, and he’s worked closely with Father Greg Boyle for many years.

Recently I appeared in a just-finished documentary about a poetry venue that ran from 2003 to 2015 called the Venice MoZaic. There was an incredible group of poets, singer-songwriters, DJs and artists that gathered every third Thursday of the month in Venice. The host Nickie Black had grown up in the shadow of the Venice Beats and he liked to bring artists together. Quite a few of my longtime co-conspirators are in the film including Phillip Martin Aka PhillHarmonic.

I am also finishing my next two books. One is a book of essays and the other a collection of poems.

Thank you for your time, these great questions and all the work you are doing to promote California literature and poetry.

 

About Mike Sonksen

Mike Sonksen aka Mike the PoeT is a 3rd-generation Southern Californian. Poet, professor, journalist, historian and tour-guide, his latest book Letters to My City was published by Writ Large Press. He’s written for KCET, Poets & Writers, Wax Poetics, PBS SoCal, LA Taco, LA Review of Books, LAist, Boom and the Academy of American Poets. His poetry’s been featured on Public Radio Stations KCRW, KPCC & KPFK & Spectrum News. Sonksen teaches at Woodbury University and taught high school before that. Follow him on Twitter & IG @mikethepoetLA

 

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Christopher Buckley, Poet and Editor, interviewed by David Garyan


Christopher Buckley

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Christopher Buckley, Poet and Editor

interviewed by David Garyan
Christopher Buckley’s poems to appear soon in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

DG: Let’s begin with your most recent project, Naming the Lost: The Fresno Poets. At first glance, the book seems to be an anthology of poetry, but actually it’s not. Can you talk about the inspiration behind the project, what you hope it will achieve, and how editing this work gave you greater insights into the Fresno poetry scene?

CB: With the death of Peter Everwine in October of 2018, the untimely death of Jon Veinberg in 2017, and Philip Levine’s passing in 2015, the stark reality was that the Fresno Poets, the early core group, had become pretty thin on the ground. That added to the fact that too many poets were lost far too early in the proceedings: Ernesto Trejo in 1991, C.W. Moulton in 1995, Larry Levis in 1996, Sherley Ann Williams and Andres Montoya in 1999, Roberta Spear in 2003, and Luis Omar Salinas in 2008.

The interviews and essays present the poets speaking in their own voices about the ideas and processes behind their poems as well as about their comrades, the community of poets in Fresno, their interaction, mutual development, and support—what it was like working together in those early days. The concept behind the book then is to preserve the voices of the poets talking about their work, their beginnings and development in interviews they have given over the years. Philip Levine came to teach at Fresno State in 1958 and Peter Everwine followed in 1962; C.G. Hanzlicek came in 1966 and the initial group of Fresno poets collected here became students and colleagues of theirs.

NAMING THE LOST is substantially representative of that essential core—roughly 1960 through the early 1980s—the early group who wrote and published books and made a poetic life that began in Fresno, and whose work and accomplishments contributed to the continuing zeitgeist of the Fresno community of poets. So while there are three anthologies of poetry by Fresno Poets, it was clear to me that this book of prose about the poetry and the poets was needed.

The book focuses on those poets lost to us, and those of us still standing—if a little wobbly—in our 60s and 70s. This, I believe, is a collection of historical and aesthetic value to contemporary poetry and creative writing in the 20th and 21st centuries. There hasn’t been another grouping of poets like this in the U.S. in the last 60 years. It seems unlikely there will be another.

DG: The majority of anthologies covering California poetry—and we may even say that all of the most popular, widely known ones—are heavily focused on the Los Angeles and San Francisco scene. Why is Fresno deserving of the same respect and who are some of writers connected to the city you have particular fondness for?

CB: When you think of the number of major and accomplished poets who lived in and came through Fresno, teachers as well as students, names such as Philip Levine, Peter Everwine, C.G.  Hanzlicek, Larry Levis, Luis Omar Salinas, Gary Soto, Roberta Spear, Sherley Anne Williams, David St. John, Greg Pape, Kathy Fagan, Suzanne Lummis, Dixie Salazar, Juan Felipe Herrera, and many more, come immediately to mind. All of these poets are important contributors to American poetry in the 20th & 21st centuries, let alone California poetry. It is just amazing.

DG: In 2001, with David Olivera and M. L. Williams, you edited, as part of the California Poetry Series, the anthology of poetry How Much Earth: The Fresno Poets, which was positively reviewed by Edward Hirsch and Eavan Boland. Exactly twenty years have passed since that project and your newest one. How has Fresno poetry changed over those years and do you think it will be a long time before the city will have another figure like Philip Levine?

CB: The short answer is that we will not see another Philip Levine. But it must be said as well that one reason for the success of the poets coming through Fresno was not only Levine, but Peter Everwine and Chuck Hanzlicek, amazing poets and mentors. That combination of influences and voices accounted for and supported a true range of talents and visions. As the program grew and its poets made their names in poetry, young poets were drawn to the program and came to live and write in a place as unlikely as Fresno. The first anthology, Down at the Santa Fe Depot, 1970, collected that substantial first wave of poets who came to Fresno, though some were already in the area—Larry Levis, David St. John, Roberta Spear, Gary Soto, Michael Clifton, Greg Pape, Lawson Inada, Sherley Anne Williams, an amazing confluence of talents. The second anthology of Fresno poets was Piecework: 19 Fresno Poets, edited by Ernesto Trejo and Jon Veinberg in 1987, which rounded up most of the poets who had come through after the initial group. HOW MUCH EARTH, 2001, was an attempt to be as inclusive as possible, to gather up as many as possible of the more recent poets who were studying, writing, and publishing in Fresno and be sure they were added to the mix.  Certainly poetry in Fresno has changed as the poets themselves have changed, as the world they respond to has changed. Chuck Hanzlicek has been retired for some years now and Phil and Peter are gone. But I think the essential project of poetry had not much changed. Connie Hales came in and taught for many years and kept students focused on their lives and a common humanity, and like Chuck Hanzlicek, a clarity of vision and voice. For a number of years Dixie Salazar and David Dominguez taught workshops on a part-time basis and both had been student writers in the program going back several years. Certainly there was no one style that marked the Fresno poets, but clarity and a grounded imagination, and often the stories of lives in the central valley of California, continued to ground the poetry.

DG: In 1994, you published Cruising State: Growing Up in Southern California, your first work of non-fiction, consisting of eighteen essays about growing up in the Golden State. One of the essays, “Playing with Time,” describes the experience of walking down Grant Avenue in San Francisco one random day, eating at a Chinese restaurant named after Li Po, the great Tang dynasty poet, and then discovering two musicians—a guitarist and saxophone player—laying down a song “easier than that buttered pearl of a sun dipping west,” and yet both are utterly unknown: “They are too fine, steady and full of that blue river and resolve of jazz to be playing for drinks; certainly too little in it for dope.” Certainly, the world is full of talent that’s unrecognized—it’s likewise inundated with famous people who don’t deserve any recognition, and California seems to be an epicenter of this phenomenon. As a poet, to what extent have these extremes affected you, and what are things about California that make it easy to be writer and what are things that make it particularly difficult, at least from your perspective?

CB: Well that was the Li Po bar, not a restaurant. Tourist trap to be sure, but Gary Young and I stopped by for a drink and photo opportunity in front as we were of course both admirers of the poet and thought it would be a great photo—in those days long before selfies—to be pictured at the entrance to a river cave with Li Po’s name on it as they had the entrance tricked-out. No idea now where that photo is—we were just in our 30s then I think? I believe you are correct re the deserving and undeserving in California. Happens more so here as we are such a large state with a huge population. But this phenomenon per capita, I’d venture, is no more prevalent here than anywhere else, people being people. Politics, insider trading, current trends, friendships, fashion, all, in my experience, accounting for many mediocre or poor writers becoming famous and many great talents going unrecognized. Best example that comes to mind is Jon Veinberg, one of the truly gifted and original Fresno poets, and for that matter, one of the very best poets of my generation. Veinberg, Soto, Gary Young and I were in grad school together. After school, Jon chose to avoid academia and worked in psychology/counseling his whole life, doing a lot of good in the world. He did not network with the rising stars in “po-biz” or curry favor in the academies. He just wrote his poems and published five outstanding and remarkable books of poems. He did receive two NEA grants in poetry as they are submitted anonymously, and I have always thought the famous judges must have been perplexed trying to guess who this great poet was whose manuscripts/poems they did not immediately recognize.

It is difficult to be a writer in CA as there is so much competition and probably not enough first-rate poetry publications. And, of course, one has to land a job to support yourself, and then find time for the writing. One of the great things about the Fresno community of poets was that everyone was mutually supportive and not competitive.  Of course the many stunning environments around the state are sources of inspiration, though Fresno is certainly not Big Sur, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, La Jolla etc. Still it was easy to write in Fresno as that seemed to be the business of the place and you had so many comrades down the street to exchange poems and ideas with and so many good nationally known poets came to read as there were great poets in town to visit with. One of the great subjects and motivations for poets I think is always the notion or atmosphere of “home.” So the many varied environments of CA call place readily into play. As for undeserving poets being recognized, given the prizes and jobs, well that is nothing new, politics as usual. As early as 1956 or ’58 Robert Lowell, in his sonnet “Words for Hart Crane” (Collected in Life Studies, 1959) began: “When the Pulitzers showered on some dope / or screw who flushed our dry mouths out with soap . . . .” Nothing new under the sun.

DG: If you saw an American restaurant in Fresno, for example, called William Saroyan, is this something you would find strange or would you see it as an exciting way to bring more attention to literature?

CB: Well that would be interesting and encouraging, it would show someone is thinking, has some respect. Saroyan was born in Fresno, and was a fabulous writer of the human drama. I would think such a restaurant would promise great Armenian food.

DG: Like its cultural and social oppositions, California is also a land of geographical extremes—the highest point in the contiguous US, Mount Whitney, rises from its forests and the lowest point in North America is there in Death Valley. As a poet, which feature appeals to you more, and why?

CB: Well, candidly, neither, though both have their merits of course. What worked for me as a poet was Santa Barbara, growing up there from age 4, long before anyone knew we were there and real estate was beyond most everyone but the ridiculously rich. The route through town, along the coast, before it was the 101 Freeway, was a 3-lane highway; one lane each way and a center “suicide” lane for passing as they had it back in the ’50s. I grew up in the foothills and would walk the creeks from there down to the beach. I spent a lot of my early years at the beach, skin diving and surfing. The town was an arboretum with an amazing variety of trees and plants. Rain was regular, everything was green year round, the average yearly temperature was 72, population was low. There were 4 lanes, 2 each way, up and down State Street and a variety of shops and department stores and during the holidays they were open until 9:00. Not much traffic and we could ride our bikes without risking our lives from the foothills into town and back. It was Edenic. Having to move elsewhere for work later on gave me my themes of the loss of Eden, if you will, and tossed several curve-balls about metaphysics, in both poetry and prose.

DG: You’ve had the great privilege and honor to win four Pushcart prizes. Indeed, winning just one isn’t easy, and you naturally must be proud of every single accomplishment, but is there a particular piece, for one reason or another, that means a bit more to you, and do you have any advice on how this young poet can perhaps win one? (That last question is a joke, of course—I will appreciate no answer.)

CB: Well, the Pushcart provides a great service to poetry and letters. I received 4 prizes fairly close together, oh I don’t know, over an 8 or 10 year span and felt very fortunate indeed. It was just luck—luck that the poetry judges did not have a political agenda or friends and students they were looking out for as often happens in these things. One year Marvin Bell and William Stafford were the poetry judges, and man was I pleased and amazed to have a poem selected by them. It all depends on the judges—often who you know, are you famous, etc. Forgive me if I sound cynical. I was a poetry judge one year and Bill Henderson asked me to suggest a co-judge and I offered Chase Twichel, a good poet I knew from Bread Loaf. We each took boxes of submissions for the few pages we could fill.  I just went through and found the best poems I could. I don’t think any of our selections duplicated, and so you had two varying visions. You have to be lucky. Each year after my last Pushcart Prize in the late ’80s or early ’90s I was nominated, thousands of folks are nominated each year. I have been nominated almost every year since then and have never won another prize. Perhaps my writing has become worse instead of better? Or there just might have been judges with other agendas?

DG: In 1999, also as part of the California Poetry Series, you edited, with your close friend Gary Young, an anthology called The Geography of Home: California’s Poetry of Place. The concept of place, as you’ve said in another interview, holds great significance in your work: “Place is very important in my poetry. I was born in California and grew up in Santa Barbara/Montecito of the 1950s and ‘60s, long before anyone knew we were there, though we were only one hundred miles from L.A …. This was when Southern California had more trees than cars; I could walk out my front door to creeks, woods, hills, long and empty beaches. It was Edenic, and like all Edens, it is lost.” With respect to this loss, how has poetry helped you cope with these changes and are there any specific poems you always turn to in this respect?

CB: Yes, well in one of the responses above, I pretty much confirm this loss of Eden theme that presented itself to me as soon as I had to leave CA for a job in Pennsylvania, which was a shock to the psychic and physical systems. I don’t mean to inflate my “theme” here and sound as if I am trying to be a minor Milton. But I realized then that that loss of place, of home, not only was a gut-punch emotionally but that it called up the natural landscape that had supported me and given me my life thus far, and thus put an unresolved metaphysical question in front of me: the origin, value, beauty, sustainability, and loss of such an environment—the meaning of it, full stop. Two poems that have always been markers for me in this regard are “Sycamore Canyon Nocturne” and “The Presocratic, Breathing, Surfing, Cosmology, Blues . . . ” both from Camino Cielo, 1997. “Sycamore Canyon . . .” appeared in POETRY, due to the generous offices of  Joe Parisi who published a number of my poems for several years, and “The Presocratic, Breathing . . .” appeared in American Poetry Review; it was a long poem and I have always been grateful to Steve Berg, bless his soul, for taking a chance with it. Poetry helped me face up to and work through this theme/consternation, especially while I was exiled to the gulag of Pennsylvania for my sins. I don’t know that I have landed any firm conclusions but dealing with it through poetry and nonfiction has kept me working and thinking.

DG: If you could bring one poet you really admire, living or dead, who wasn’t or isn’t from California, to write a poem about the state, who would this person be and where would you take him or her?

CB: Well, the question as formed eliminates Philip Levine, Peter Everwine, and Charles Wright all who wrote wonderful poems set in CA. And as well probably my good friend and mentor Jerry Stern, whose great writing about PA all these years again demonstrated the importance of place; and, as well, I think Jerry has a few CA poems, plus the fact that he is still with us, continuing to write great poems into his 90s. Honestly, I think I would vote for Wislawa Szymborska. She has always been a favorite of mine and my great good friend the poet Jon Veinberg.  Her attention to everyday detail and the way she observes the human condition with simple but yet deep and sophisticated logic and irony—how her thinking is always fresh and accessible—is compelling, and close to a miracle.  I have a poem in AGNOSTIC, Lynx House Press, 2019, “Juhan W Niebie”—an elegy for Jon which uses his full Estonian first name and adapts a title from a Szymborska poem, in Polish, “Ella w niebie” (Ella in heaven) . . . an elegy to Ella Fitzgerald.  That poem appeared in Szymboraka’s book HERE, 2010, and my poem had its start from the cover photograph of Szymborska in her study with a cigarette and cup of coffee, her eyes closed perhaps in another ironic realization.

I’d take her to Santa Barbara for the contrast between now and the ’50s/’60s.

 

About Christopher Buckley

Christopher Buckley’s most recent book is Agnostic, Lynx House Press, 2019. He has recently edited: The Long Embrace: Contemporary Poets on the Long Poems of Philip Levine, Lynx House Press, 2020; and Naming the Lost: The Fresno Poets—Interviews & Essays, Stephen F. Austin State Univ. Press, 2021. His most recent book is The Pre-Eternity of the World, Stephen F. Austin State Univ. Press, 2021, and The Consolations of Science & Philosophy is due from Lynx House Press in 2022.