On Serving as California Poet Laureate

Published in Catamaran (Summer, 2017). Interview conducted by Maggie Paul.

As a native Californian who has written about the literary heritage of the state, were you happy to be chosen as the tenth California Poet Laureate?

I was delighted and surprised to be chosen laureate. It was a great honor to be recognized by my native state. I didn’t expect it.

How is your tenure as laureate going so far? What have you been doing?

The laureate’s official duties are minimal—just a few readings a year. I wanted to do something more ambitious in order to reach beyond the urban cultural centers.  Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Berkeley dominate our literary scene. Why not visit all of the state’s 58 counties, most of which are small and rural? California is immense, almost half the size of Western Europe. I thought it would fun. So far I’ve visited 35 counties. 

We’ve put together a different event in each county– combining my visit with local talent. We invite the town or county laureates to read with me. We also invite the high school students who have won the local Poetry Out Loud competitions. Sometimes the events get very large. In Ukiah we had six past and present laureates as well as the high school recitation champ. In Lakeport we had five laureates. My visit creates a chance for the local literati to gather. 

Can you tell us how your parents came to settle in California? 

My father arrived in L.A. in the Depression when his family was wiped out in Detroit.  My grandfather packed everyone in an old car and drove west to start over. He liked California because the weather and landscape reminded him of Sicily. They chose Hawthorne because that was a place poor people lived. Eventually his whole clan followed. I had a hundred relations in or around Hawthorne.

My mother, Dorothy Ortiz, was born in Hawthorne.  The Mexican side of my family has been in the U.S. since 1900. The Ortiz men were vaqueros from Sonora and Chihuahua.  After my great-grandfather, Jesus Ortiz, was murdered on the Wyoming frontier, my grandfather rode the cattle-drives for a few years and then drifted into Los Angeles. The family became assimilated but remained poor.

What was it like to be a child from two different cultures in Los Angeles in the 1950s and 1960s?

It was odd. My father was the only person in his family who had married a non-Sicilian. I was always conscious that I was different. The experience didn’t traumatize me, but it made me very sensitive to ethnicity—how cultures differ in even the simplest things. I’m still fascinated by immigrant family histories. 

What was it like in Hawthorne when you grew up?

I was raised in a cluster of stucco apartments occupied by my Sicilian relations—grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins. It was an urban peasant village speaking a Sicilian dialect in the middle of Los Angeles. The neighborhood was pretty bleak. Our apartment faced the garbage dumpsters behind a Chinese restaurant and a liquor store. 

The whole family went to the same parish church, except my atheist uncle who never entered a church except for a funeral. My cousins and I walked together to the local parochial school. Hawthorne was mostly Mexican. The only Anglos I knew were Dust Bowl Okies. (I’ve been told recently not to say Okie, but these people proudly used the term to describe themselves.) My mother’s family was scattered in nearby towns, though one of her brothers, a Merchant Marine, shared my room when he was on shore.

My dad’s family spoke a Sicilian dialect. My mother knew no Italian so we spoke English at home—not always grammatically. The neighborhood spoke Spanish. The schools taught in English. And the Church still worshipped in Latin. My polyglot childhood was good training for life in California. 

We were all poor, but we were together. I can’t imagine a better way to grow up.

Some writers resent being closely associated with their geographical homes. They feel it makes them appear regional or provincial. You seem proud of your California identity.

Life doesn’t occur as an abstraction. Each person’s life happens in real time and specific places. The best writing usually emerges from that reality.

The problem for most writers is that they read things written in London or Paris, Vienna or New York, but that isn’t where they live. Literature seems like an art that happens somewhere else. They worry that no one will take their actual lives –far from any cultural capital–seriously. Consciously or not, these writers begin to marginalize their own existence. That is a fatal mistake. Imagine if Faulkner or Joyce, Austen or Achebe felt their home landscapes were not worth writing about?

California shaped my imagination—the landscape, the cities, the rich demographics, the cultural energy. It was a fantastic place for a poet to be born. The challenge was to figure out what to do with it all, its weird and wonderful diversity. That’s the hard part. L.A. in particular has never really been assimilated into poetry, but what a subject! 

Several of your poems such as “California Hills in August,” “California Requiem,” “The Freeways Considered as Earth Gods,” or “Becoming a Redwood” are tributes to your state. One of the many qualities of these “love poems” to California is their honesty; they embrace both the beauty and difficulties of the Golden State rather than idealizing it.

One purpose of poetry is to allow us to see and bear the truth. The poet needs to reconcile our imagination with the world we actually live in—which is so often disturbing or confusing. Even in the best of times and places, there is always a distance between our inner and outer reality. In our beautiful but despoiled state, the distance is enormous. That gap is where a poem needs to begin.

In California Poetry: From the Gold Rush to the Present, you assert, “ No single quality characterizes all, or even most California writing.” Like the landscape itself, California’s literature is diverse and should be seen as “its own distinct imaginative enterprise.” Can you describe an “underlying worldview” of the varied poets you included in the anthology?

I reject the narrow stereotypes that have been used to describe California writing. Critics or journalists, especially from the Northeast, often assume that all California poets are Beats and rebels. How does that stale and second-hand opinion account for Robinson Jeffers, Yvor Winters, Kay Ryan, Josephine Miles, or Shirley Geok-lin Lim?  We need engaged criticism not cliches. A description of California poetry needs to start by actually reading and thinking about the poetry that has been written here. 

California has a different history and geography from the Eastern United States. We were originally a Spanish colony. We face Asia and the Pacific Rim. We merge into Central America. Our population has been diverse from earliest history, even before the Spaniards arrived, when over a hundred native languages were spoken. The first colonial settlers were Spanish Catholics, not English Puritans. The first Anglos were sailors, soldiers, and prospectors, not families and farmers. California has always been different. 

How have those differences influenced the poetry?

California poetry does not share a single theme or style. Its “underlying theme” is a particular perspective on the world. California poets tend to have a reverence for the natural landscape combined with an anxiety about its current human despoliation and colonial past. California writers also tend to see themselves as existing outside history. The place remains a sort of tabula rasa on which artists project their own dreams and nightmares. That is one reason why our writers are so frequently drawn to myth, religion, and philosophy, often borrowed from outside Western culture. 

Our major poets also tend to be visionaries or dissenters. California poets usually see themselves in opposition to some cultural or political authority located elsewhere—Europe, Washington, New York. This defiant or sometimes sly contrarian stance is what unifies poets whose styles have nothing in common—Rexroth, Jeffers, Winters, Ryan, Snyder, Reed, Herrera Addonizio, Bukowski.  We are all contrarians.

Does New Formalism fall into this category of contrarianism?

If California poetry is oppositional, then it tends to move against the mainstream consensus of the moment. Just as the Beats reacted to the formalist academic poetry of the immediate postwar era, part of my generation reacted against the confessional, free verse academic poetry of the late 1970s. It seems counterintuitive that so many of the poets who revived form and meter either came from California or emerged there—Robert McDowell, Timothy Steele, Mark Jarman, Vikram Seth, Leslie Monsour, Kay Ryan, Kim Addonizio, and myself. 

We weren’t a group in any conscious sense, though some of the writers knew each other.  Jarman and McDowell, for instance, met at U.C. Santa Cruz. Seth and Steele were friends at Stanford. We were just young poets playing with things like rhyme and narrative that had been discarded by the older generation. It was surprising how annoyed the literary world got at our dissenting views. 

When was the first time you read the work of Robinson Jeffers? How were you introduced to his poetry?

I was never assigned a single poem by Jeffers in my schooling—not at Stanford or Harvard, not even in high school. In college I independently read Jeffers’s play, The Tower Beyond Tragedy, because I was interested in Greek tragedy. I liked the play, but it made no deep impression. Today it strikes me as amazing that only a decade after his death, Jeffers had so totally vanished from literary consciousness, even in California. 

The event that had a profound impact was the Broadway revival of Jeffers’ Medea with Zoe Caldwell and Judith Anderson in 1982. I was utterly unprepared for the play’s enormous power. Leaving the theater, I told my wife, “No one writes this well just once.” I began reading through Jeffers’s works and encountered a great American poet who had been written out of literary history. As a Californian working in New York, I also discovered a poet who captured the magnificence of my native landscape. A few years later I seized the opportunity to review Rock and Hawk, Robert Hass’s edition of Jeffers’s selected poems in The Nation and wrote the essay reprinted in Can Poetry Matter?  Since then I have done my best to champion California’s greatest poet.

Jeffers attended USC where you currently teach each fall semester. When you were offered the Judge Widney Chair of Poetry and Public Culture at USC, did you think of Jeffers?

Yes, I did remember Jeffers, but other memories were more important. The University of Southern California was a place I’d visited all the time in high school to compete in debate tournaments and attend concerts. My friends and I were young musicians. We couldn’t afford seats at the LA Philharmonic or visiting opera companies. USC’s Thornton School of Music, which was already a world-class institution, let us into concerts, operas, and recitals for free. I’d never forgotten the school’s generosity to a bunch of scruffy teenagers.

I’ve tried to make Jeffers more visible at USC. He is our greatest literary alumnus. I’ve sponsored two big conferences. I also teach him in my undergraduate poetry course. At last year’s conference a dozen of my students performed Jeffers poems from memory.

In his book, Robinson Jeffers: Poet and Prophet, James Karman refers to Jeffers as an anti modernist whose poems differed in content and form from those of his contemporaries. His work reveals a reverence for earlier forms and traditions, including narrative verse and poetic drama. Might you also be considered an anti-modern modernist?

That’s an interesting but complicated question since it depends on how you define “modernism.” Karman and I are probably in agreements, but we are using the term “modernism” in different ways. Let me explain my view.

I consider Jeffers a modernist, but a different sort from T. S.  Eliot or Ezra Pound. There is a modernism of style and a modernism of content. Jeffers’s vision and content were modernist rather than his style, though his style was innovative.  In this sense, he resembles some other key modern writers such as D. H. Lawrence, Eugene O’Neill, and Robert Frost (in his narratives). Jeffers’s vision grew directly out of modern science and philosophy. His poetry was shocking to his early readers. 

Did Modernism influence you?

I grew up on the “High Modernists,” not only Eliot, Pound, and Stevens in English but Eugenio Montale, Paul Valery, and Rainer Maria Rilke. These were formative authors for me. I would’ve loved to follow them. The problem was that their style and concerns belonged to the past. By the time I started writing, Modernism had been exhausted. All the major modernist poets were dead. I loved my literary grandparents, but I didn’t want to dress like them.

I had to develop another mode of writing that reflected my time and place. My life experience differed from the milieu of these exquisite mandarins. I was a working-class Catholic from California with roots in Mexico and Sicily. I had assimilated the modernist tradition, but it wouldn’t work for me unless I transformed it. I had to create my own brand of post-modernism.

So what did you salvage from Modernism?

From the Symbolist side of modernism (especially Stevens, Rilke, and Montale) I learned the subtle power of sound. So much of the meaning in early Modernist poetry is carried by its music. By contrast, the sound of 1970s American free verse seemed very boring. I wanted to create poetry with compelling physical sound like the work of Stevens and Cummings (or a century earlier Dickinson). Sometimes I used meter or rhyme, sometimes just the word music of free verse.

From Frost, I learned how to create a poem that seems to unfold directly on the surface but contains a subtext that moves in a different direction — a poem that quietly argues with itself. One sometimes finds this quality in Symbolist poetry, but Frost does it in a tougher and more mischievous way.

My debt to Symbolism and High Modernism made me different from most of the New Formalists. My practice grew out of Modernism. I wasn’t reacting against it. 

A sensitivity to sound and subtext was what I took from the great Modernists. And, yes, I learned one other thing– the futility of imitating them. I had to make it new. 

Can you speak about the genius of another California poet, the former U.S. Poet Laureate, Kay Ryan? Her brilliant work is reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s—so quick-witted, concise, and universal, using the fewest words possible to turn our preconceived notions inside out. I believe you were one of her earliest readers.

In 1994 I came across Ryan’s Flamingo Watching in a pile of new small press books. I had never heard of her. She had not yet appeared in The New Yorker. It was a wonderfully odd and entirely fresh book. I wasn’t quite sure how to read the poems. But I kept the volume on my desk for months and kept dipping into it. As I slowly learned how to read her tightly packed poems, I realized that she wasn’t merely good; she was fabulous! I showed her poems to several other writers who seemed indifferent. I decided to write a short essay on her work. It turned out to be the first essay anyone had ever done. 

It is important to champion the work of new or neglected writers. I started putting Ryan into my anthologies and convinced a few other editors to do likewise. I introduced the Librarian of Congress to her work. Gradually, the rest of the world caught on. Things happened. Now it is a truth universally acknowledged that Ryan is one of the best poets  writing in English. 

The legacy of William Everson is especially prominent in Santa Cruz. He taught at U.C. Santa Cruz in the 1970s and 1980s, and he lived for many years in a cabin north of the city. You have praised his accomplishments as a poet, critic, fine press printer, and Jeffers advocate. What about his work in particular appeals to you?

Everson was a man of passionate dedication and varied accomplishment. He was also one of the most interesting Catholic poets in American literature. If I had to pick one thing that Everson did supremely well, I would choose his criticism. I don’t know any American poets except Ralph Waldo Emerson or Ezra Pound who wrote criticism of such imaginative intensity and originality. Everson’s book on Jeffers, Fragments of an Older Fury, is stunning. It’s hard to think of anything that matches its tempestuous advocacy. His Archetype West: The Pacific Coast as a Literary Region (1976) and its “sequel” Birth of a Poet:The Santa Cruz Meditations (1982) are the best books ever written on the idea of West Coast literature. I’m sorry to describe him solely in superlatives, but only excess will suffice for Everson.

You have often said that poetry is for everyone. It does not require an academic education to appreciate the power of its music and meaning.

Not everyone enjoys reading poetry, but in my experience nearly everyone likes to hear a good poem well recited. The power of the art resides primarily in its orality. It’s not a matter of a simplicity. People respond to the dense and the mysterious if it has sufficient aural energy. Consider the popularity of Eliot, Cummings, Thomas, and Neruda, none of them simple poets.

Many of your poems have an intimate conversational tone. They invite the reader in, often seeming to confide in the reader. How do you envision your reader during the act of composition?

I love the kind of poem that starts as ordinary speech but quietly changes into a lyric without the reader noticing exactly how or when. Frost, Bishop, and Larkin are masters of this mode.

I never worry about the reader as a poem begins, but when I finish a poem for publication, I always remember that another human being will read it. Recognizing the reader doesn’t mean making the poem easier. It’s often just the opposite. I cut things out. I explain less. Why? Because all of my readers have spent their entire lives on the same planet as I have. Their minds are stocked with similar knowledge and experience. I want them to bring their life experience into my poems. I want their imagination and memories to collaborate with mine. I always treat my reader as an equal.

Seeing the reader as an equal also makes me avoid certain things. I hate poems that lecture the reader. Or poems that nag. I particularly dislike poems that become self-advertisements for the poet’s own moral perfection. I’m a screwed-up person full of contradictions just like the reader.

Do you sometimes think of poetry as a way of sharing some secret, insight or story with the reader?

Yes, I say things in poems I would never say in person to anyone except my confessor. I also write narrative poems because there are some truths that we can only tell one another as jokes or stories.

Elizabeth Bishop was your teacher at Harvard.  Was your poetry influenced by her work? “Nothing is Lost” brings to mind her famous villanelle. What was it you learned from her?

“Nothing is Lost” was actually written before Bishop’s villanelle was published or at least before I read it. The connection you feel shows how powerfully her poem now owns the verb lose. My poem was originally part of a sequence called “Daily Horoscope,” which played with the rhetoric of newspaper horoscope columns (second person, present and future tense, prophetic tone). Two other poems in that sequence, “Beware of Things in Duplicate” and “Do Not Expect,” were reprinted in 99 Poems.

Bishop influenced my poetry only slightly, but she had a major impact on how I understood poetry. She pulled me away from abstract theories and made me pay attention to the surface of the poem. She made us understand every word, image, or detail in the poems she assigned. If there was a flower or bird in the poem, she asked us to look it up. She told us to visit the Boston buildings that appeared in Robert Lowell poems. She didn’t want us to analyze poems; she required us to memorize one each week. Bishop made me understand that the surface of a poem was the poem. That insight changed me as both a poet and a critic.

Are there East Coast poets whom you consider important influences on your work?

I’ve never cared where a poet came from. Only the poetry matters.  The poets who shaped me came from everywhere. To name just the Americans–Eliot, Stevens, Frost, Pound, Cummings, Hughes, Millay, Bishop, Weldon Kees, Theodore Roethke, Randall Jarrell, Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, Anne Sexton, Donald Justice. I should also name Auden, who died an American citizen. He has always been a huge influence on me, not simply as a poet but also as a moral conscience.

Influence is a fluid thing. Sometimes a poet teaches you one small but useful trick, sometimes they change your life. If I were asked what American poets had been the most influential on my work, I would say Frost and Stevens–plus Auden, if we can count him as a Yank.

Was Frost an early influence on your poetry?

Not an early one. Frost was too plain-spoken for my modernist younger self. But when I started to write narrative poems in my mid-twenties, he was decisive. I realized that he had opened up possibilities for verse narrative in his North of Boston (1914) that no one had pursued. This book is an unacknowledged masterpiece of American Modernism. (I believe its minimal style influenced Hemingway’s fiction a decade later through their common friend Ezra Pound.) Frost’s example changed everything for me. I could learn from him without in any sense copying him. He gradually became central to my sense of the art.

I hear echoes of Frost in your dramatic monologue “Haunted” and in the final stanza of “The End of the World”:

   I stood at the edge where the mist ascended,

   My journey done where the world ended.

   I looked downstream. There was nothing but sky,

   The sound of the water, and the water’s reply.

Well, certainly the idea of “The End of the World” is very Frostian—a walk through nature, though that theme was something Frost himself had borrowed from Wordsworth. When I left the urban world for rural life twenty years ago, Frost became more important—not just to writing but to seeing the world. I have an un-mortared stone wall on my property. I live Frost’s “Mending Wall” on a weekly basis. 

Sadly, the city is constantly getting closer. California is insatiable for development. I may end my days in a suburb without ever moving.

Your appreciation for classical music is evident in such poems as “Elegy for Vladimir de Pachmann,” “Lives of the Great Composers,” and “Marketing Department Trio.” You have also written three opera libretti.  Did you study classical music in school? Was playing part of your upbringing?

Music was everything to me as a kid. I took piano lessons from Sister Camille Cecile in parochial school. She also gave me a weekly class in theory. It only cost a few dollars a month—God bless the nuns who serve the poor.  By eighth grade I was playing Beethoven sonatas and Bartok Microcosms. She also got me my first symphony tickets—for free. I was no musical Wunderkind, but I was proficient. I received from her the great gift of experiencing music from the inside. I soon took clarinet lessons, then picked up the tenor saxophone. I also started writing music. 

How long did you continue to study music?

My otherwise undistinguished Catholic high school had the best concert band in Los Angeles. That was another gift. For two years our teacher was a professional trumpeter who had us play Holst, Vaughan Williams, Hindemith, and Persichetti rather than military marches or show tunes.

I also played saxophone and then piano in jazz band. My friends were all musicians. Los Angeles was already a great musical center. We drove all over to attend concerts, sometimes sneaking in if we couldn’t afford tickets. 

We also read novels and poetry, went to foreign films and museums. But music was the center of our cultural lives. When I entered college, I thought I would be a composer. Then, without warning, poetry claimed me.

 

What is the value of creating a canon of American literature? Should there be a separate West Coast canon of poetry? Or is it better simply to open up our definition of the American canon to include all?

A canon is just a reading list. We can’t read everything that has been written, and nor can the young study it all. Since ancient times various teachers and writers have contrived to list what they consider the best or most useful works. All canons are provisional because there is always someone coming onto the scene with new perspectives. 

Any adequate canon of American literature needs to include California writers, though many have not. There is also great value in starting from a local perspective. Once you start by listing the most interesting works written in California, you notice the importance of the Naturalist tradition—Jack London, Frank Norris, Edwin Markham, Robinson Jeffers, John Steinbeck, and later Charles Bukowski. This starkly realistic and political tradition tends to be slighted in Ivy League histories and anthologies. 

Has California literature expanded the canon?

Yes, but very slowly. Our state’s two most innovative genres, science fiction and realist detective fiction—took over half a century to be acknowledged by academia. It happened only after those disreputable populist genres transformed both international entertainment and literary fiction. Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, and Olivia Butler are now canonic figures.

Poems such as “Do Not Expect,” “Most Journeys Come to This,” “Progress Report,” and “The Road” read like directives from the narrator to the reader, and to the Self. Is writing a way for you to come to terms with essential lessons from your own experience?

Some of my poems are conversations with myself that the reader is invited to overhear. That isn’t a particularly literary notion. Everyone lives inside his or her own mind. We all constantly talk to ourselves, sometimes even out loud. That inner conversation is part of consciousness. I like poetry which imitates the shifting nature of consciousness. Not “stream of consciousness” with its avalanche of details but the essentially lyric shape of consciousness, shifting moment by moment.

I never set out initially to say anything in a poem. I follow the impulse of inspiration to see where it will lead. If I’m not surprised by what I write, the poem won’t feel new to the reader.  Likewise if the final poem doesn’t communicate something real to the reader, it will feel like a formal exercise.

Some of your poems do the hard work of social critique, yet avoid didacticism because of your sense of humor, mastery of form, or even ironic use of cliché. The poem “Money,” for example, explores vocabulary around the subject.

Sometimes the most powerful way of getting at truth is by being funny. It entices people to listen to ideas that they would shut out if stated straight- forwardly. 

Music is important, too. The tougher the truth you tell the more important the pleasure principle becomes.  That is one advantage of form. The musical structure provides pleasure even if the message is painful. A bitter critique like “A California Requiem,” which excoriates our state’s lack of respect and awareness of its natural environment, would not be bearable without its formal rhythm and rhyme. My sorrow for society’s failures, its crass materialism, and its destruction of the natural world pervades every poem I write. That’s why the language needs to be compelling, even beautiful. 

One of my favorite poems is your six-line “Unsaid.” It admire its honesty, the way it capture’s art’s attempt to express the ineffable. At the same time the poem honors the private silences in which many of us live.

   So much of what we live goes on inside—

   The diaries of grief, the tongue-tied aches

   Of unacknowledged love are no less real

   For having passed unsaid. What we conceal

   Is always more than what we dare confide.

  Think of the letters that we write our dead.

In a poem, there is what you say and also what you don’t say. There is always a temptation to over-explain things. I leave much unsaid in my poetry. The reader needs to fill in those silences from his or her own life. Creating that secret conversation with the reader is the purpose of the art.