Out of Fresno—Poetry & “Career”
Philip Larkin—one of the most popular British Poets among my generation in the US—replying to an interview question about why he did not give more readings, said he would hate to run around pretending to be himself. . . . And so this raises the question of poetic careers—celebrity vs. the life and long work of a writer/poet . . . which Larkin seemed to have sussed out. So, while very grateful, I was a bit embarrassed to be asked by a poet friend in Northampton, England, to give a talk at his university about my “career” as a poet/creative writer as I have never been particularly well-known. I spoke then about teaching and making a life as a poet, a writer, about helpful influences and how had I managed what I had managed.
The American poet Jane Kenyon giving a talk at an AWP convention many years back offered a check list for writers; the most salient of ten or so points of advice was to WORK REGULAR HOURS. As a teacher of creative writing I emphasized to students what William Carlos Williams said constituted a “successful poet”: One who writes a successful poem! And of course Yeats famously said: “I believe passionately in inspiration—that is why I work regular hours.”
In my experience, Fame is largely based on Luck, fashion, current poetry-politics, insider-trading, ruthless ambition, and who happens to arrive on the planet sprinkled with pixie dust. . . . So, while I have been fortunate enough over the last 45 years to know and associate with a few of our best and justly most acclaimed poets, I have certainly not been included in that celebrated group. Yet I have made a life in writing and am grateful for that.
In my college class of Major British Authors in the ‘60s, I loved Eliot, the modern prophetic/vatic voice, though I then did not understand it and all the erudite allusions . . . which lead to many early and bad imitations. Ginsberg, WCW, Josephine Miles, Gary Snyder, and many others had been around for a while and yet were unknown to us and most likely to our professors. We’d read no American poets at that point (last half of the 1960s) and had no idea what a contemporary voice sounded like until William Stafford came to read at our small college one afternoon. He’d been a CO during the war and knew our department chair who was in the same CO camp, hence his invitation. I was stunned by his poems, their accessibility, their directness and clarity. He read from Traveling Through the Dark, National Book Award winner for 1963, and also from The Rescued Year. You could write about riding a motorcycle? Being Fifteen? Our chair encouraged questions after the reading, a dozen of us standing around, looking at our shoes, no one speaking, and so reflecting on our recent studies in “The Wasteland” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” with my naïveté at 19, I asked, “Is it really allowed to say “I” in a poem?” Pretty thick—‘50s influence of writing essays in parochial school underneath it all. But Stafford answered kindly, “It works for me, what do you think?” My first real lesson in creative writing that took me 5 or 6 years to begin putting to use. Far from a promising or propitious start to a writing “career.”
Graduate school teachers, Glover Davis—an early student of Philip Levine’s—and, Diane Wakoski, were rigorous line by line critics, and gave generously of their time to student writers. Hard to say enough for that. Wakoski, Philip Levine, Charles Wright, Peter Everwine, and Gerald Stern all became friends and taught me by the example of their work. Over the years, Peter and Phil would occasionally help out with re- writes of poems that were especially giving me trouble. A story about that upcoming. . . .
In my MFA program my close poetry pals were Gary Soto who was already in all the best magazines, and Jon Veinberg, both students of Levine and Peter Everwine from Fresno. Gary Young was also there my first year and became my steadfast and generous editor for the last 40 years. Veinberg was, hands down, one of the best poets of my generation and an amazing editor and critic—my dear friend of 43 years who died far too early, two years ago. He received little notice as he did not “network” or curry favor in poetry-politics nor pursue a career in academia. He worked mainly as a counselor for teens at risk and did a lot of good in the world for that. He published in good journals, and, because the grants are read anonymously, received two National Endowment for the Arts grants in Poetry. He was a great and unique talent who received little attention. Politics always obtains. I don’t think Jon would have thought of himself as having a “career” in poetry, but he had the poems, and he published five excellent and original books.
One of my most accomplished students—still a “young” poet in my view—though he now has 4 books published and is an Assoc. Prof at a NYC University—is Alex Long. I was his first poetry workshop teacher in PA, and did some of my best teaching by just pointing him to Larry Levis, and from there he pretty much taught himself reading Larry. Larry was only a year older than myself, but far advanced in accomplishment and talent, so he always seemed older. Justly famous, the outstanding poetic talent of our generation, he was one of the early group of poets who studied with Phil Levine and Peter Everwine in the early days in Fresno. Years later he would become one of Levine’s essential critics, the two of them trading many poems and responses, the majority of those letters (in those days prior to email) contained in the Berg Library of the NYC Public. What career Larry had came from his immense talent, but also from getting a start with Levine, as well as Larry’s singular dedication to the poem, and not from networking and celebrity associations.
So, my friends were getting on with their careers and leaving me in the dust—book publications and prizes with major publishers, teaching jobs etc. I survived teaching basic writing classes at community colleges. It was 1981 and I went to the MLA convention in L.A. though I had no interviews for jobs. I’d gone just to visit with Larry and Charles Wright and anyone else I could turn up. As luck had it, all of the young hopefuls were up in the rooms for job interviews throughout the afternoon, and the hotel lobby was deserted. Larry had finished his work and was in the bar alone, and we had a couple hours to talk. We were drinking a very green hard Chablis and in my best scholarly voice (I had a tweed jacket with elbow patches I’d picked up second-hand) I asked him what he was trying to accomplish in his work, I actually said that, said WORK—being more than a little nervous talking to one of my poetic heroes at the time, and Larry said without missing a beat, without academic theory of any kind, I am trying to Stop Time. For me, that seemed to sum up most of the project of poetry, and after a 2nd glass of the bad Chablis we had a wonderful and relaxed conversation about poetry. As editor of The Missouri Review, Larry had published a couple of my poems, and at one point he said, without me fishing, “You’re a good poet” and that comment alone made my career for many years to come. . . .
After a few years teaching part-time at community colleges in So. California, funding dried up due to Proposition 13, and I moved north to Fresno to hopefully pick up work there. I had no influential friends who could pull strings in their departments to arrange a part time position for a young man no one had ever heard of and so went on unemployment for a semester; but waiting paid off and the following semester and I picked up some composition classes part-time—enough to survive on. Then I received my first and greatest award in poetry: I was assigned to share an office with Philip Levine. I’d visited Fresno with Gary Soto and Jon Veinberg and so already knew Phil slightly from dropping in on him when visiting with Jon. I’d met Phil in grad school at San Diego State when he came to do a reading and workshop; Glover had set me up to play tennis with him. I had been a teaching pro early in my 20s and Phil did not want to miss his weekly match while traveling. I gave him a courtesy game or two. It was a good move. I had an embarrassingly miserable poem in the special graduate workshop the next day that Levine was teaching, and Phil pointed out the poem’s one good line but said the rest was not worth much discussion and, returning the courtesy, went on to the next poem on the worksheet, to my great relief.
So my first semester at Fresno State . . . Phil’s office mate was on medical leave and I was given that desk, and after teaching 8, 9 and 11:00 classes, holding forth on the pit falls of the comma splice, and the dangling modifier, I sat there correcting stacks of essays, waiting until later in the afternoon when Phil would come in just so I could ask him about a poem or a poet or some article in a journal. And he would start talking and thus my true education in poetry and how to survive with some integrity as a writer began. He emphasized work ethic, integrity, a democratic vision, wide reading, and that I should never betray myself to fashion, adding warnings about the vicissitudes of fame and politics and prizes in poetry. One afternoon at a gathering in Veinberg’s back yard, I was complaining about the winner of a first book contest I had entered, a poet of meager talent and imagination. Phil looked over at me and said, “Oh, life’s not fair?” The message was that the work was the thing, not the prizes. And that helped me keep my head above water for the next 20 years.
So, despite never being one of the princes of NYC, I consider myself very fortunate. I had work, I could buy groceries and pay the rent, just. . . . Over Time, I published books with small and university presses without much notice. I began applying for a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1981—the realistically top award for most poets, with some real money behind it, money that bought time off from teaching for writing, though I knew folks who bought things like fancy pick up trucks etc. And as my wife Nadya has noted, I was tenacious, meaning stubborn, I kept on sending in applications every year despite rejection after rejection. Friends with only one book, one or two applications had received fellowships; many people who could not, in my view, write their way out of a paper sack, received them. I’d published 4 or 5 books at that point, critical work on contemporary poetry, had done a lot of teaching all which was supposed to have counted. The most onerous thing about the application was that you needed 4 letters of support, the more famous the poets recommending you the better. Phil wrote every year for me despite the miserable lack of results. He was generous and loyal. About 25 years later I went to the mailbox and found what experience had taught me was the annual rejection letter from the Guggenheim, though it seemed to have come even earlier than usual; it was March not April; I went in and when Nadya asked what was in the mail I said the usual rejection letter from the Guggenheim, but when I opened it the great surprise was that I had been awarded a fellowship! What had changed? Most likely just a different member of the Literature Board who voted for me based on the work, with no poetry-politics agenda. Or, after 25 years, I just wore down the odds. My applications and books were clogging up the files. I immediately called Phil and said I had good news for us both!
Which leads me to the NEA grants in poetry. I received two of these in 1984 and 2001. The first time, my famous pal Gary Soto was one of the judges, but he recused himself when my application and Jon Venberg’s came up. Other judges, Gary reported, did not do the right thing and it was obvious they knew for whom they were advocating. Jon’s, Gary said, went through unanimously, mine was on the bubble. But some last minute funds were found and Linda Pastan spoke up for my poems, bless her, a poet whom I never met. Skin of my teeth. But I made it, early 30s, and enough money to take a semester off and Nadya, Jon and I traveled to Europe for 6 months, experience which provided years of material for writing. I applied for several more years until in 2001 when I received a 2nd grant. When the director called to give me the good news, she also told me who some of the famous judges were, and I said they must have made a mistake! I knew most of those judges had agendas which would not ever have them voting for my ms. But it turned out they’d increased the number of judges and my application fell into the hands of what I like to think of as more “discerning” poets/judges, and avoided somehow those poets with whom I had no chance. Pure luck really.
You never know your luck, and you need it. My 13th or 14th book, ROLLING THE BONES, had been accepted by a University press and then did not come out on its publication date: there were problems with the new Director of the press, and with the press as a whole. The director sent it out again for review despite being already approved by reviewers and the Board. It came back recommended again for publication but missed a second pub date. I began to get the message. I started sending it out to contests and over a year later, after 17 or 18 rejections, I received a call from the Univ. of Tampa Press saying I had won their contest and would receive the prize money and publication. Good luck as result of the bad. Nothing you could count on.
A poem in that book, “Poverty” has done well for me, winning a couple Prizes. I had some help. In the 40 some years I knew Phil, he looked at/helped with four, maybe five poems. I learned from reading and rereading his poems, and from talking with him about contemporary poetry. Phil was absolutely amazingly generous with his time, which is one reason I did not dun him with poems for help all the time. He had many students who, after graduating and moving on, still sent work, and there were many people who asked for help who had never been his students , who barely knew him. The price of fame. . . .
My regular editors, Gary Young and Jon Veinberg, had each taken a couple whacks at the four-page poem, cut it down, suggested shifts, slashed and burned. I’d written my usual 25-30 drafts and it still wasn’t right. I knew Phil would not pull any punches and could bring it to heel if indeed it could be made to do so. I sent Phil the most recent draft and took a yellow highlighter to about twenty lines near the beginning that I felt still suspect. Phil said, Yes, those lines should go. He tweaked another couple and then, saying the ending was not quite right, wrote new lines for the ending. I re-wrote, cut, tightened up, and sent it back. Phil responded that This was more like it! but, The ending still needs work! He re-wrote the ending yet again and sent it back. This one even better. I did not let my ego get in the way, smart enough by that point in time to accept a gift when one turned up. I sent the final version back to Phil and he said any time I had a poem this good to feel free to send it to him. No pressure there. I sent it off with a couple others to the fine journal FIVE POINTS for their James Dickey Prize and it won. The phone call was a real surprise however, as you try lots of contests and never hear anything. But then, when I thought about it, about the help I had received, it was not so far fetched. I owed Phil a good bottle of wine. I owed him much more than that. Here’s that poem, about a spiritual poverty, a poverty of ethics, as well as physical poverty— seems esp. applicable in the U.S. today. This was written several years back during the administration of George Bush the 2nd, who by comparison to the current occupant of the White House now looks almost honorable and intelligent.
la colera de pobre
tiene dos rios contra muchos mares. —Cesar Vallejo
Vallejo wrote that with God we are all orphans.
I send $22 a month to a kid in Ecuador
so starvation keeps moving on its bony burro
past his door—no cars, computers,
basketball shoes—not a bottle cap
of hope for the life ahead . . . just enough
to keep hunger shuffling by in a low cloud
of flies. It’s the least I can do,
and so I do it.
I have followed the dry length
of Mission Creek to the sea and forgotten to pray
for the creosote, the blue salvia, let alone
for pork bellies, soy bean futures.
There are 900 thousand Avon Ladies in Brazil.
Billions are spent each year on beauty products
world-wide—28 billion on hair care, 14 on skin
conditioners, despite children digging on the dumps,
selling their kidneys, anything that is briefly theirs.
9 billion a month for war in Iraq, a chicken bone
for foreign aid.
I am the prince of small potatoes,
I deny them nothing who come to me beseeching
the crusts I have to give. I have no grounds for complaint,
though deep down, where it’s anyone’s guess,
I covet everything that goes along with the illustrious—
creased pants as I stroll down the glittering boulevard,
a little aperitif beneath Italian pines. But who cares
what I wear, or drink? The rain? No, the rain is something
we share—it devours the beginning and the end.
The old stars tumble out of their bleak rooms like dice—
Box Cars, Snake Eyes, And-The-Horse-You-Rode-In-On . . .
not one metaphorical bread crumb in tow.
Not a single Saludo! from the patronizers
of the working class—Pharaoh Oil, Congress,
or The Commissioner of Baseball—all who will eventually
take the same trolley car to hell, or a slag heap
on the outskirts of Cleveland.
I have an ATM card,
AAA Plus card. I can get cash from machines, be towed
20 miles to a service station. Where do I get off penciling in
disillusionment? My bones are as worthless as the next guy’s
against the stars, against the time it takes light to expend
its currency across the cosmic vault. I have what everyone has—
the over-drawn statement of the air, my blood newly rich
with oxygen before the inescapable proscenium of the dark,
my breath going out equally with any atom of weariness
or joy, each one of which is closer to God than I.
I retired about 5 or 6 years back . . . and when the news reached NYC the calls did not come in asking me to take over the NEA, or teach one semester a year at NYU for a fabulous salary. Teaching was always the best part of the job of course. I taught at 5 or 6 universities, but it was time to escape “colleagues”, administrators and other malefactors, as well as a myriad of petty and political agendas.
I’d won a couple small book contests, received some awards, but never rose into the ranks of the famous—as my friend Gary Young says, “When the phone doesn’t ring, it’s them!” But I wrote some successful poems and helped some young writers, and that equals a career. I am still happy to go to work every day writing and editing. As Gandhi said, “The Little thing you do will not be important, but it is important that you do it.”
Out of Fresno—Poetry & “Career”