Volume 29, Summer 2016
interview with Martín Espada
conducted by Kevin Sweeney
Martín Espada teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He has received the Shelley Memorial Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship as well as the 2012 International Latino Book Award and the Milt Kessler Award for his collection The Trouble Ball. His latest book is Vivas To Those Who Have Failed.
Kevin: Let’s start with a simple question: What kind of shoes are you wearing?I trust they’re not Nike. I cite your name when I argue with my 13 year old grandnephew about why I don’t buy that brand. I’m referring to that letter you wrote them in 1997 and why you wouldn’t write a poem celebrating a female Olympic athlete.
Martín: I’m wearing rather worn–out Rockport shoes. They’re very reliable, which is important, since my left foot is more of a flipper than anything else. As for Nike, I should be clear that I didn’t refuse to write a poem celebrating female Olympic athletes, per se. I refused to write a poem for a Nike commercial that would feature these Olympic athletes. And here is what I said:
This is a letter in response to your correspondence
concerning the Nike Poetry Slam and my proposed
I could reject your offer based on the fact that
your deadline is ludicrous (i.e. ten days from the above date).
A poem is not a pop tart.
I could reject your offer based on the fact that I would not
be free to write whatever I want, notwithstanding your
assurances to the contrary, since I must “keep in mind TV
network standards and practices regarding content and
language.” You clearly have no idea what the word
“censorship” means. Where, as you put it, “the mechanics of
commerce outweigh the demands of art,” then de facto
censorship will flourish.
I could reject your offer based on the fact that, to make this
offer to me in the first place, you must be totally and
insultingly ignorant of my work as a poet, which strives to
stand against all that you and your client represent.
Whoever referred me to you did you a grave disservice.
I could reject your offer based on the fact that your client,
Nike, has through commercials such as these outrageously
manipulated the youth market, so that even low–income
adolescents are compelled to buy products they do not need at
prices they cannot afford.
Ultimately, however, I am rejecting your offer as a protest
against the brutal labor practices of Nike. I will not associate
myself with a company that engages in the well–documented
exploitation of workers in sweatshops. Please spare me the
usual corporate response: there’s no problem, and besides,
we’re working on it. I suggest, instead, that you take the $2500
you now dangle before me and distribute that money equally
among the laborers in an Asian sweatshop doing business with
Nike. The funds would be much more useful to them than to me.
Kevin: So, second easy question: Have you had any good Brie lately? I’m remembering your essay Zapata’s Disciple and Perfect Brie. What you said there seems even more relevant since I read that poem in your book The Trouble Ball about a job which once required you to “remove a perfect turd from a urinal.” Do you ever feel awkward at a poetry reading when someone rolls out the wine and cheese?
Martín: I’d feel more awkward if someone rolled out the wine and turds. I don’t drink anyway.
Kevin: What’s Umass /Amherst like these days? You once took issue with people using the term “political correctness” pejoratively. Still, a lot of people would probably see UMass as a politically correct place, Amherst itself for that matter, or what I remember people calling the “Happy Valley.” What’s your take?
Martín: What I object to about the term “political correctness” is that it’s loaded. It’s judgmental. It’s akin to the old question–that– contains–the–answer–trick: “How many times have you shat in the public square?” (Answer: Zero.) Having said that, I will also say that UMass displays fewer characteristics of so–called political correctness than you might think. I believe there should be more actual diversity and less talk about diversity. I also believe that we may need a new word to replace the word “diversity.” Too many people use it without knowing what it means, or without meaning it.
Kevin: Do you ever miss being amid the fray back in Chelsea, especially since as you’ve written, you spent your early childhood years in public housing in East New York?
Martín: No, I don’t miss my days as a tenant lawyer in Chelsea. There is the burnout factor, for one thing. (See below.) For another, I have continued my advocacy work as a poet. Poetry and the law, of course, are very different, yet, for me, the common ground is advocacy, in the tradition of Whitman and Neruda. While I don’t miss the courthouse, once in a while I need to have a good argument. That’s the lawyer in me.
Kevin: I sometimes read to students your poem “City of Coughing and Dead Radiators” about the trials and tribulations of being a legal defense attorney. I say that’s the ultimate poem about burnout. Am I overstating that at all?
Martín: That’s an accurate reading of the poem. I should add here, though, that I wrote the poem well before I left the law.
Kevin: I also tell them that my all–time favorite poem title is “Do Not Put Dead Monkeys in the Freezer.” Have you heard from other readers about that? I think that poem emphasizes how routinely human cruelty and callousness is shown towards those considered lesser beings. Is that true, or am I just the kind of liberal people love to hate?
Martín: Yes, that is true. And yes, you are probably the kind of liberal people love to hate. Good for you.
Kevin: Donald Trump: asshole, giant ball–buster, racist demagogue, or just a regular guy from Queens who used to be a Democrat?
Martín: Demagogue, racist.
Kevin: Bernie Sanders: your kind of guy? He’s a fellow native New Yorker, and I remember from your essays that your mother was Jewish.
Martín: I voted for him. What I appreciate, among other things, is that he’s reclaiming the word “socialist.” That was a dirty word in the political discourse of this country till a short while ago; witness all the times it’s been hurled in the direction of President Obama who, whatever else he may be, is not a socialist. Poets should try to reclaim the language too.
Kevin: “My Native Costume” is a pretty funny poem despite its serious content. Any chance you’d tell us which “suburban school” had the teacher who wanted you to wear a Guayabera shirt when you came to visit? By the way, my students love that poem
Martín: It was, I believe, a high school in Waltham, Massachusetts. I’m not sure anymore.
Kevin: I wonder if people who haven’t read your work thoroughly know how funny you can be. You have plenty of serious, polemical poems, but I’ve had more than a couple of chuckles reading your work. I’m thinking “DSS Dream,” “Revolutionary Spanish Lesson,” and titles like, “I Apologize for Giving You Poison Ivy by Smacking You in the Eye with the Crayfish at the End of My Fishing Line.” Then there’s “Instructions on the Disposal of My Remains” in which you write:
I want to be stuffed and mounted at the White Castle
in East Harlem. I want to welcome everyone, with glass eyes
and cotton in my head, to buy tiny steam–grilled burgers by the sack.
I want to stand in the doorway like a grizzly bear
at the museum of Natural History, his mouth frozen
in a roar for all eternity, as if to tell the world:
That imperialist bastard Teddy Roosevelt shot me.
Am I way off–base here, or is this hysterical? Isn’t it true you can read Martín Espada and have a couple of laughs along the way?
Martín: I hope you have a couple of laughs along the way. In fact, I must resist the impulse to write nothing but funny poems. I have to resist the impulse to turn every reading into a stand–up routine. It’s too easy for me. That trend continues with my most recent work. Consider:
Once Thundering Penguin Herds Darkened the Prairie
I. Poetry for Tourists
The poets bring poetry to the Coney Island Aquarium,
around the corner from the wooden rollercoaster
creaking since 1927, tourists staggering away queasy,
yet hungry for a hot dog on the boardwalk. We will
tempt them to taste the steamed tofu dog of poetry instead.
II. Poetry for Jellyfish
Tonight we declaim poems at the jellyfish exhibit,
creatures that plummet like parachutes of light,
illuminated mushrooms zooming sideways, amusing
themselves, oblivious to the nuances of alliteration
and assonance, silently refusing to clap after the last poem.
III. Poetry for Penguins
The voice of a poet on a loop, installed in the penguin
exhibit, booms out poetry in praise of penguins:
Once thundering penguin herds darkened the prairie.
Once flocks of flapping penguins blocked out the sun.
Now they cower behind a rock, peeking, ducking down,
listening to poetry for penguins, hearing only the rumble
of the Almighty Orca opening his jaws on Judgment Day.
IV. No Poetry for the Octopus or the Security Guard
The Coney Island Aquarium is closed. We are locked in.
The octopus glares at us with one huge eye. No one fed
him today. No one read him any poems. We panic and flap
like flightless birds. We rattle the gate, wailing in chorus:
We are the poets. Let us out. The security guard glares
at us with one huge eye. No one fed him today. No one
read him any poems. He unlocks the gate anyway.
Kevin: What does it mean to be Puerto Rican in 2016? I trust you’d be less likely to get arrested in Mississippi or need to integrate a diner in San Antonio like your dad? Maybe today he could even play for the Yankees. I’m remembering that poem, “Tato Hates the New York Yankees.”
It was the spring of 1947.
There were no brownskinned boys
in the American League.
And the New York Yankees
gave no more tryouts;
they broadcast the message sent
by overdue bills
and losing lottery tickets.
Certainly the Yankees have employed a few Latinos more recently. Is “the Puerto Rican Dummy” in your essay of the same title a no–longer extant stereotype?
Martín: Being Puerto Rican in 2016 means that we’ve come a long way, and we’ve a long way to go. No, Puerto Ricans no longer suffer the kind of racist oppression suffered by my father’s generation — thanks, in great part, to my father’s generation. At my father’s memorial, I said this:
How do we carry on the legacy of the generation now passing
before our eyes? We’ve heard about “The Greatest
Generation,” mostly referring to white men who fought in
World War II. For the Puerto Rican community, this was our
Greatest Generation. They marched. They picketed. They
organized rent strikes. They staged hunger strikes. They staged
sit–ins. They went to jail. They went to jail again. They built
schools and community centers. They took photographs, wrote
poems and plays, painted and sang — but their activism was
inseparable from their art.
This was my father’s advice to Los Seis del Sur, a group of
Puerto Rican photographers documenting the South Bronx:
“We need to raise some holy Hell, for we have landed at the
bottom and stayed there.” For my father, raising hell was holy.
His generation raised holy hell for us, for everyone in this room.
In the introduction to the new edition of Zapata’s Disciple, the book of essays that was banned in Tucson as part of the Mexican–Studies program outlawed by the state of Arizona, and will be reissued by Northwestern University Press, I said this:
“The Puerto Rican Dummy and the Merciful Son,” published
eighteen years ago, is still relevant. The essay cites Governor
Pete Wilson of California, “being seriously considered for the
presidency on the strength of his support for Proposition 187,
the most blatantly anti–Latino, anti–immigrant initiative in
recent memory.” Now comes Donald Trump, Republican
candidate for the presidency, bellowing sock puppet for bigots
everywhere, trying to ride yet another wave of anti–Latino,
anti–immigrant demagoguery all the way to the White House.
The essay addresses the stereotype of Latino males as violent
predators. Trump has slandered Mexican immigrants, saying,
“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re
rapists.” With this utterance, his poll numbers skyrocketed
and he became the frontrunner.
As this essay noted eighteen years ago, this perception of
Latinos is dangerous. According to an article in the Boston
Globe on August 19, 2015, two South Boston brothers, Scott
and Steve Leader, came across a homeless Mexican man on
their way back from a Red Sox game, woke him up by
urinating in his face and then beat him severely, breaking his
nose. Scott Leader was quoted as saying, “Donald Trump is
right. All these illegals need to be deported.” Trump, upon
hearing the news, responded that his supporters were
“passionate.” Only later did he issue the requisite
denunciation of violence.
Kevin: As a guy who went from the projects to being physically and mentally abused in a Long Island suburb to one day busting his hand as a bouncer, do you ever shake your head at all this college campus stuff about “micro–aggressions” and “trigger warnings?” Does a guy who once had “racial obscenities” spray painted on his locker feel some of these students have been overindulged?
Martín: I don’t recommend having racial obscenities spray painted on your locker or breaking your hand on a drunk’s skull as pathways to character development. Speaking of trigger warnings: I had a guy stick a gun in my face once. I wish he had given me a trigger warning. I’ll have the overindulgence with extra cheese, please.
Kevin: I know James Tate passed away not long ago. When I first heard you were teaching at UMass, I wondered whether the two of you might chat about poetry or whether your aesthetics were just too different so you’d be polite but go your separate ways. It’s hard to picture him having read much Daisy Zamora or Roque Dalton. It’s hard to picture you curled up with a volume of John Ashbery. Your thoughts?
Martín: Jim and I never exchanged a harsh word, despite the aesthetic gulf between us. He was invariably polite. We served on some MFA thesis committees together, although I am not a member of the MFA faculty at Umass. Having said that, I will also say that I didn’t really know him. And no, I wouldn’t curl up with a volume of Ashbery. It would be more stimulating to watch a volume of Ashbery curl up.
Kevin: I’ve been assigning your book Alabanza to my poetry class. However, the conspicuously missing poem is “Another Nameless Prostitute Says The Man is Innocent,” so I give them the online link, and I generally read it aloud. Up here in mostly white Maine, they are pretty fascinated by this gap between people who celebrate Mumia Abu–Jamal and those who call him a murderer. Why did you leave it out of Alabanza?
Martín: I left it out because it’s my second–best poem about Mumia Abu–Jamal. The first poem, as you know, was first solicited and then censored by National Public Radio in 1997. As a result of the ensuing controversy, I ended up meeting Mumia on death row in 1998. That personal encounter resulted in a poem called, “Prisoner AM–8335 and His Library of Lions.” The library in question was the one confiscated from his cell shortly before our visit. He discussed his possible execution very calmly; when he got to the subject of the books taken away from him, he cried. The poem was so much more immediate, visceral, and emotional than the poem censored by NPR that I included it in my Selected Poems instead of the first poem. Why not include both? A Selected Poems, I discovered, must be selective. I left out many a poem I liked.
Kevin: Given the predominant themes in your work, would it surprise you that one of my favorite Martín Espada poems is “The Mexican Cabdriver’s Poem for His Wife, Who Has Left Him?” Despite a couple of forays through my bookcase, I can’t find A Mayan Astronomer in Hell’s Kitchen, the volume in which it appears. Although I can’t, therefore, quote from it, I have always thought it a wonderfully lyrical poem about heartbreak.
Martín: You mean this poem?
The Mexican Cabdriver’s Poem for His Wife, Who Has Left Him
We were sitting in traffic
on the Brooklyn Bridge,
so I asked the poets
in the back seat of my cab
to write a poem for you.
if you are like the moon
or the trees.
I said no,
she is like the bridge
when there is so much traffic
I have time
to watch the boats
on the river.
. . . That actually happened. I guess I’m a sensitive brute after all.
Volume 27, Winter 2016
“Kim Addonizio: Poetry . . . Made Me Feel Less Alone”
an interview with
Born in 1954, Kim Addonizio lived for most of her adult life in California, but is currently based in New York City. Her poetry books include: The Philosopher’s Club (1994); Jimmy & Rita (1997), a novel–in–verse; Tell Me (2000); What Is This Thing Called Love (2004); Lucifer at the Starlite (2009); My Black Angel: Blues Poems and Portraits (2014), a collaboration with woodcut artist Charles D. Jones; and, last October, her first U.K. publication, Wild Nights: New & Selected Poems from Bloodaxe Books. She has also published fiction, notably the novels Little Beauties (2005) and My Dreams Out in the Street (2007), as well as a short story collection, The Palace of Illusions (2014). Addonizio’s honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, and Pushcart Prizes for both poetry and the essay. Commenting on Tell Me, a National Book Award Finalist, former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins remarked, “Kim Addonizio’s poems are stark mirrors of self–examination, and she looks into them without blinking.”
KS: When I assign your poems to young women in my classes, they practically thank me for making this important introduction. Some imply that reading you has changed their lives. Some even tell me to be sure to keep you on the syllabus next semester. What’s that all about?
KA: I don’t know, exactly, but my work really does seem to strike a chord for young women. I’m happy about that. It’s tough to be female in a patriarchal world, and I think we are all looking for someone who gets that and is living through it, struggling with it. Still. I’m more pissed off now about the situation of women than I have been for many years. I don’t mean to say that we are all stuck in some sort of negative “situation.” Just that we are trying to find ourselves, to empower ourselves, and it’s fucked up, and I’m glad if my writing that experience can help a girl or young woman find her own way.
KS: Do you think if poets like Sylvia Plath — or especially Anne Sexton — had been able to read a poet like you when they were growing up and finding their way as artists — and as women in this country — that they might not have committed suicide?
KA: That’s pretty funny. Plath was a poet I read who helped me find my way. No, I think suicide’s more complex and deeper. There are so many factors. But I do think that the less alone you feel, the less likely you are to be depressed or despairing, to feel like there’s no reason to live. Poetry did that for me — made me feel less alone. If my work does that for somebody else, I’m really glad if it did, or can. We need each other. We can connect.
KS: Not to get too personal, but are you — or were you once — a Catholic? There’s a Catholic sense of sin, I think, in poems like “Bad Girl,” “’Round Midnight,” “Ha,” and “Fuck,” just to cite some examples. Also, you sound like a guilty Catholic school girl
in “Garbage” (“don’t think now of all the food you’ve wasted . . . /
you meant to save everyone /the children /especially”). Also, in “What Do Women Want?” don’t we hear a bad Catholic girl (or just a bad girl) longing for that red dress?
KA: Yeah, I was raised Roman Catholic. I think of it more as a kind of scaffolding, a world–view that I can use when I need to. If I had any true Catholic guilt, I outgrew it a long time ago. But using it — I can use it all day long, to talk about guilt, to argue with God (and I don’t believe in any Christian, Muslim, Jewish, etc. conception of God).
KS: To this reader, Catholic writers have a sense of death. There’s certainly a sense of death in your work. I love your poem “Noir” and the way you keep citing that line from the movie “Body and Soul”: “Everybody dies.” You say it outright in this poem, but you bring up death in others such as “Eating Together” about your
friend with cancer. You even appear to throw in a little Catholic theology about dead babies in Limbo in “The Burning.” Do you think about death a lot?
KA: All poets have a sense of death. All artists. And a great many other people. So I don’t see that as especially or essentially Catholic; it’s just the nature of life. We die. What do you make of that? Everybody has to confront it at some point. Writing is a great tool to do just that, and to explore, and freak out, and try to accept it.
KS: Were you ever a Schopenhauer reader? He thought desire was the itch you can never scratch enough to make it go away. Some of your poems seem to take up that idea. Is desire painful, even agonizing? People experience plenty of pleasure in Kim Addonizio poems, but it doesn’t always make them feel better. I’m picturing you sitting at the bar on the cover of Tell Me.
KA: I never read Schopenhauer except in a college philosophy survey course, most of which I’ve forgotten. I did write that poem, “It,” and afterward I came across some Schopenhauer that just nailed exactly what I was saying in that poem — the impersonal force that just takes you over, that has nothing to do with you. And he called it — guess what? — the It. So we were thinking the same things. I agree with him about desire. Think about Buddhism, too: desire as the cause of suffering. I hope if people take pleasure in my poems, it does make them feel better to know somebody else has had similar thoughts and feelings.
KS: Is there a spiritual side to your work? I’m thinking of your poem also titled “Body and Soul” in which you give us such striking images:
is the soul up late in the kitchen, sleepless
standing before the open refrigerator
And then this:
Sometimes the body
gets so quiet
It can hear the soul
scratching like something trapped
Inside the walls.
Is there a little Plato going on here?
KA: I hope the spiritual side is apparent in my work. I’ve pulled a few fragments from Plato in other poems, but I wasn’t aware of it here. As I said, I don’t believe in God, at least as constructed by organized religion. But I do feel something. That the universe is conscious. That we’re a part of it.
KS: In your poem “Ha,” you pose a question that sounds like something from Dostoevsky:
If God is good, how is it that the weed of evil
takes root everywhere, and what is there to keep us
from murdering each other in despair?
Have you come up with any answers to that question lately?
KA: Not really. Only I’d amend it to murdering each other out of pain and ignorance. It’s certainly one of my obsessions, trying to understand why we are so fucked up and why we hurt each other so much.
KS: That poem makes me think of your poem “Dead Girls,” which I’ve passed out to a few introductory literature classes.
Is there a connection, or have I just randomly free-associated the wrong way?
KA: I’m not really clear on what you’re asking. . . . It [the poem] came out of watching yet another movie that opens with the trope of some girl’s dead body being found.
KS: Is it true that, in your poems, that “weed of evil” more often and in more ways affects women? There’s nothing I can find in your poems that is anti–male, but the loss of youth in “31–Year– Old Lover” and the vulnerability to assault in “Dead Girls” seem to make the case that women are particularly exposed to suffering. (“Ex–Boyfriends” also mentions some problems).
KA: As for women being more affected, it’s pretty clear that one of the big problems in the world is male violence against women. And against other men, for that matter. So, male violence, period.
KS: Has Camille Paglia ever commented upon your poems? I’m recalling something she said once about Mediterranean religion and the visual intensity of it. Your poems seem particularly visual, which is possibly what I enjoy most about them. Is that a fair description?
KA: I’ve never heard of her commenting on or reviewing my work. I’m glad to hear you enjoy the visual imagery.
KS: In your poem “God Ode” you refer to the deity as:
. . . You demented, You disapproving
or possibly AWOL Higher Power.
That poem makes me think of Jim Holt’s book Why Does The World Exist? in which he posits the notion “that the universe was created by a being that is 100 percent malevolent but only 80 percent effective.” It seems that if one were to read enough Kim
Addonizio poems, one might arrive at a similar conclusion. But then some of your most despairing poems somehow manage to also sound like prayers.
KA: Maybe I should refer you to Frost’s “Design,” a poem I love, which ends:
What but design of darkness to appall? —
If design govern in a thing so small.
KS: I read recently about some women protesting a performance of The Vagina Monologues. Eve Ensler is faulted for excluding women who don’t have vaginas. Is that weird or just the new normal?
KA: It’s weird to me. But I don’t really understand the gender /
sex /identity thing very well. I’m all for more dialogue and less
hate around the whole issue, but Eve Ensler? First, it’s an important piece from a particular time period. Second, she has championed women’s rights around the world. If you’re going after a target, you could certainly choose a better one.
KS: At the end of my poetry class I have students read a favorite poem by one of the poets we have studied. Once a young woman stood and told us she was still a virgin due to her religious beliefs then proceeded to read “What Do Women Want?” We all loved it, but what connection was she making with your work?
KA: No clue. But you never know who is going to respond to your work, or how. That’s not my job, anyway; I’m just trying to make poems. What happens after that belongs to whoever reads them.
KS: I’ll be honest; I love your poems but haven’t read your fiction. What am I missing?
KA: Thanks, I appreciate that. Not sure what I can tell you about the fiction. Whatever there is, it’s in the work itself. My latest is a story collection, The Palace of Illusions. There is definitely a lot there a young woman could connect to (but I hope guys too) . . . And there are certainly some similar themes around sex and empowerment. Here’s an interesting thing: When I first started writing stories, a fiction writer who had read both the stories and the poetry said it seemed as though I was writing poetry with one hand and fiction with the other. He meant that I got to something in my poetry that my stories didn’t have. I think I figured out how to write them both with the same hand. Check out The Palace of Illusions, and then you tell me.
Volume 26, Fall 2015
six questions for
(interview conducted via e–mail)
Wayne Atherton: Sumac Magazine’s first Editorial Note appeared in issue three, Spring 1969. In a joint statement by you and Jim Harrison, part of it reads, “Some criticism has been directed at us for being what we are not, and we shall remain so. We are not Caterpillar, Io, Kayak, The Sixties, Tri –Quarterly, or Poetry. They are.” In the years prior to publishing your first issue, were there any other poetry–centered periodicals that you may have read and admired which may have served as a possible prototype to expand upon, giving Sumac its own individual imprint or identity? View, The Paris Review, New Directions, and Evergreen Review immediately come to mind as publications worth mentioning and with a history prior to Sumac.
Dan Gerber: I don’t remember Jim and I discussing any other publications as models for Sumac. We just felt that American poetry had fallen into a number of groups, or cliques, and we wanted a journal that was free of those perceptions or divisions. I remember a note from George Hitchcock, that he thought a poem I had sent him was a fine poem, but that it just wasn’t a Kayak poem. We didn’t want to have an idea of a Sumac poem, only that it seemed to us a good poem and a worthy addition to the rather eclectic mix we were putting together.
WA: How was the word spread so quickly in order for you to obtain such a great deal of unsolicited work from such a wide range of poets? This was before the Internet so the word must have been spread via letter writing and phone calls. This fact would set you apart from Semina and The Floating Bear, whose contributors were by invitation/mailing list only and were never sold. Of those other poets whose work you had to actively seek out with direct solicitation, were there any among them who chose not to respond that you wished had contributed something?
DG: We had a very fortunate circumstance in that Jim — in 1968 and just before returning to live in Michigan on a grant he had just received — was working as assistant to Herbert Weisinger, a former professor or ours at Michigan State — who was then head of the English department at The State University of New York at Stony Brook. Jim, along with Louie Simpson, had organized what was called The World Poetry Conference, and it was attended by just about every poet — foreign and domestic — you could imagine. So we were able to talk to a number of poets at the conference, and we had the mailing addresses of almost all of them. My memory is that almost all of the poets we approached responded enthusiastically. If there were any notable exceptions, I don’t remember them. We were also very fortunate that through James Laughlin, with the help of George Quasha, we were offered a new canto by Ezra Pound for our second issue. So, if we needed any additional means of attracting quality work, that certainly helped.
WA: Another co–edited Note from D.G. and J.H. reads, “We’ve had little work from the New York School but then they seem to prefer clubiness.” With the sole example of one Gary Snyder poem, the San Francisco Renaissance poets were virtually absent from Sumac magazine’s nine–volume run. Was that by their design or yours?
DG: There was no design. And certainly no design of exclusion. We wanted to get away from, or around, “The New York School” and “The San Francisco Renaissance,” way of looking at things. And I question the ways in which labels for groups of poets come into being. I remember meeting and spending considerable time with three of the so–called Objectivist poets — George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, and Basil Bunting, and in our conversations learned how tenuous was the title under which they were grouped. In 1968 Sumac Press did an anthology called Five Blind Men, comprised of the poems by Jim, George Quasha, J. D. Reed, Charles Simic, and me, and in the years and decades that followed I received a number of inquires by graduate students doing studies of “The Five Blind Men School of American Poetry.” What was that, I wondered?
WA: What was the small press distribution situation like back then, 1968 –1971? One of your earliest issues lists 21 bookstores where Sumac could be found. Sumac went four issues before you added a managing editor to the staff. Besides your Sumac Press Books, you began to run several full page ads for books by other presses in your back pages but since Sumac sold for $1.50 to $2.00 per issue back then I cannot imagine a lot of revenue generated there. Do you recall what your subscription base was at its highest peak? Also, James Randall of PYM –Randall Press was your first East Coast Editor. Would you expound upon his role as East Coast Editor for us, what his exact duties may have been? And, who did most of the proofreading? There was a lot of material to proofread in the nine volumes, one issue topping out at around 240 printed pages.
DG: There are about a half dozen questions in the question you ask. The short answer is that $2.00 was a lot more money in 1968. When my first novel came out, in hardcover, in 1973 the price was $5.95. We distributed with a lot of work, contacting bookstores either by mail or by visiting them and making our pitch. I think we had a subscription list approaching 500. Initially I did all the proofreading and I was then an undiagnosed dyslexic. I remember one week, at least, when we received 150 manuscripts for consideration. It was a tremendous amount of work. This led to a managing editor. James Randall had published a broadside of one of Jim’s poems. We would visit him when we were in Cambridge, and he very kindly advised us about establishing a new press.
WA: Your front cover design and images maintain somewhat of a singular and consistent identity with each issue, but with the exception of some etchings by Mary Oppen, all of the inside art pages were black–and–white photo images and a lot of those were taken by you. And, with the exception of Jim Harrison’s “A CHAT WITH A NOVELIST” (Tom McGuane, also to become Sumac’s fiction editor) no interviews with poets appeared. Was that intentional and do you think that if Sumac continued on for several more issues that there would have been more interviews and a more diverse selection of artwork, or was it ever discussed?
DG: I don’t know.
WA: Fast forward to 2105. Are there any current poetry–centered periodicals in print that you would put on the same shelf alongside Sumac ? Not just those in the US but abroad. As an example, in his introduction to The Sumac Reader, Jim Harrison states, “I most loved Botteghe Oscure, edited by Marguerite Caetani out of Rome. Only about one third of each issue was in English which made it attractively mysterious as I had no foreign languages.”
DG: I never thought about comparing Sumac to any other periodicals, either before or after its existence, though there were a number of other magazines Jim and I both admired. Bly’s The Sixties, would be one shining example.
Editor’s Note: all of the poems preceding this interview were contributed by poets who had previously published their earlier work in Sumac (1968 –1971). Some of the poems following the interview are by poets whose work we felt would fit in with the spirit of what Sumac was all about. Other poets were specifically recommended to us by Dan Gerber, Joseph Bednarik of Copper Canyon Press, and Jim Harrison. We would like to thank all three of these gentlemen for their gracious support and assistance in putting together this special Sumac tribute issue.
conducted by Kevin Sweeney via e-mail, March 2015
Gerald Locklin is a small press legend whom Charles Bukowski once called “one of the great undiscovered talents of our time.” He is the author of more than 150 books, chapbooks, and broadsides and has published over 4,000 poems, stories, articles, reviews, and interviews including his latest collection, Poets and Pleasure Seekers: New and Selected Poems, 2010 –2015 which has just been published by Spout Hill Press. A native Easterner, he went west to obtain his Ph.D. from the University of Arizona and later taught at California State University, Long Beach where he is now Professor Emeritus of English.
KS: You’re originally an Easterner who went West? How has that worked out?
GL: I did my best to become a Californian, but I never became quite that liberated — I’ve always retained a certain reserve inculcated by good working-class parents, aunts, uncles; a good education by the nuns, Jesuits, parish priests, and the doctoral program at the University of Arizona, where the ruling professors were medievalists and old-fashioned, in the best ways, in their values and their treatment of students; what I learned from athletic competition from coaches who were admirable role models up through high school at least; and as part of a circle of friends who could have a lot of fun with little booze and no drugs. I didn’t drink at all until I was twenty, married, on my way to graduate school, and beyond competitive sports. Even after I embarked upon thirty years of drinking during which the good times and bad mostly evened out, my upbringing sustained me, and my athletic foundation helped greatly in quitting booze altogether, cold-turkey, and without twelve-step programs.
KS: Is there a distinctly different perspective in the West, whether on art, life, politics, Mexican food? (I’m thinking of that local Mexican restaurant you once wrote a poem about.)
GL: The worst thing about the East is the snobbery, but even that is limited to certain schools, cities, income levels, “sophisticated lifestyles.” There are plenty of blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth people such as my good friends Dave Newman, Lori Jakiela, and my other literary friends in Pittsburgh; the editors at Slipstream in Niagara Falls and Mike Basinski in Buffalo . . . but you’ll find that in the Middle West and Southwest and Northwest as well. It’s what Edward Field, a New Yorker, discovered via his readings around the country that led to his monumental anthology — A Geography of Poets, from Bantam Books, and his sequel from University of Arkansas Press, The New Geography of Poets.
And yes, there’s still some of the frontier individualism that settlers came West for. And it’s embodied anew in the immigrant and minority communities. But just as American English has homogenized since radio and television and film, so has the mobility of Americans minimized the regional differences. I love Long Beach, but I love Tucson and New Orleans and Texas and Oklahoma and Kansas . . . and Chicago and NYC too, but you won’t find much of my work in the latter, except for the TOAD play, co-authored with my bi-coastal pal, George Carroll, that played for a month of weekends off-off Broadway a few years ago (and in London on the Fringe for a week of evenings a couple of years ago, and in Billings, Montana a year ago). And, ironically, Edward Field has been tragically unappreciated in his two “homes” — New York and London — whereas he is the Father of Us All in Long Beach, even more so, I would say, than Bukowski was.
KS: You taught at Cal State, Long Beach. Some other California poets have been associated with the school such as Joan Jobe Smith, Fred Voss, Marilyn Johnson. Was there ever a Long Beach poetry thing going on?
GL: Yes there was a flourishing Long Beach poetry scene at one time, and you’ve named some of the most prominent figures, and it took its accessibility and gutsiness from writers such as Field and Bukowski and from each other, and it included nearby neighbors such as my close friends Ron Koertge and Ray Zepeda, and Charles Webb, who later joined our faculty at Long Beach State. A scene of younger writers is proliferating right now but I’d want them to speak for themselves. One of them is my son Zach Locklin, and another is Clint Margrave, and an amazingly active and prolific one is Sarah Tatro, and the bookstore, Gatsby’s, is central to it, as is Beyond Baroque in Venice central to all of SoCal writing. Go to these websites and Facebook pages or to my own www.facebook.com/geraldlocklin, and they’ll lead you in the right direction. Oh, Donna Hilbert and her son Andy should be mentioned, and our Sci-Fi genius — Robert Guffey — and our prolific noir author, Tyler Dilts. Long Beach is still a hotbed of adventurous writing.
KS: You’ve written a book on Bukowski whom you knew. Do you get tired of answering Bukowski questions?
GL: Yes. I do. I wish everyone would read my book, Charles Bukowski: A Sure Bet. It’s short and has a great cover by Crumb. You can find it on amazon.com or through its publisher, the rare book dealer, Jeffrey Weinberg, at Water Row Books.
The manager of my FB, by the way, Todd Fox, also maintains an invaluable website for me at www.geraldlocklin.org (dotorg, NOT dotcom). And Mike Basinski produced a scholarly 500-page book of Locklin biblio and scholarly articles by others: Gerald Locklin: A Scholarly Introduction, from BlazeVOX books, also on amazon.com.
KS: You have a Ph.D. in English. What was your dissertation on?
GL: A Critical Study of the Novels of Nathanael West, 1964, Tucson, University of Arizona. It can be purchased at University Microfilms (or whatever it’s called now).
KS: Don’t you defy a certain stereotype about poets with Ph.D.’s who are members of university English departments? You publish in plenty of the smaller, less-funded journals, and you actually have a sense of humor. Don’t they require you to relinquish a sense of humor in order to get tenure?
GL: No, I’ve been treated beautifully by Cal State, Long Beach, never held back for tenure, promotion, and even, in 1997, granted the Outstanding Research and Creative Writing Award by the university. The Library’s Special Collections houses The Locklin Collection, its largest archive, and I’ve been granted access in retirement to my old office, computer, book shelves, etc. That’s where I’m right now. I share it with two former M.F.A. students of mine /now colleagues. I’ve had great department chairs and colleagues, and the chair of our department for the last 15 years, Dr. Eileen Klink, is an administrative genius, a patron of us all, and, simply, a force of nature.
KS: What poets do you like to read?
GL: Webb, Koertge, Billy Collins, my son Zach, and the writers I’ve recommended since 1988 to the editor of The Chiron Review, Michael Hathaway, in my capacity as Poetry Editor, joined now by Wendy Rainey, my son, Zach Locklin, and as fiction editors, John Brantingham, Ray Zepeda, and Sarah Daugherty. But frankly, I’ve always preferred reading fiction and writing it. Poets write for themselves, feeling their egos (and dicks) swell as they emote. Fictionalists tell stories to entertain others.
KS: Is there anything you could tell us about your technique? It seems you have the gift of writing poems that appear to have been easy to write. However, when one tries to write similar poems, one finds it’s not easy at all.
GL: It’s not easy for me to write like myself either, when I try to do it. I don’t write every day — I’m too busy. I write in streaks, fast and furious, with pen on paper, and the worst chore for me is typing the mss. on the computer because I never learned to type and need a lot of help from friends like Todd Fox and Greg Hosilyk (IT director for the College of Liberal Arts) at the computer, where I am a one-fingered, typo-ridden Luddite.
KS: I remember a Richard Hugo poem years ago which he called “a Dear John letter to booze.” Do you have any thoughts about the writing life and the drinking life?
GL: I’ve had a writing life since my Aunt Pat got me started at the age of four. I had a life as a good student, a life as a fanatical athlete, a teaching life, a life of travel, a life of women, a life of children, a life of grandchildren, a life of drinking, a life after drinking, and a life, now, of the culminating years. But I haven’t tossed in any towels. I turned 74 a couple of weeks ago. I hope Kobe Bryant has a memorable final year next season. I hope the Yankees get some pitching. And the writing . . . and readings . . . will, I hope, continue.
KS: I read that Philip Roth had retired and planned to write no more books. I remember learning, back in college, that Hemingway killed himself because he was written out — or some such expression. You’re 74 and still writing; how do you envision your writing future?
GL: I wish that Philip Roth were still writing, because he and John Updike were bookends of their generation for me. My writing future? I never know what I’ll write next. Do you think I envisioned writing these interview answers? I’d pretty much retired from interviews. But your questions opened doors for me. I hope I didn’t slam them on my toes.
No one knows why Hemingway killed himself — or even IF he did. When someone says why Hemingway killed himself — IF HE DID — he’s saying something about himself — perhaps about why he would like to kill himself. Most men — and women — envy Hemingway. They’d sell their souls to write one story as good as his worst one.
KS: I found a couple of your poems in the anthology Literature and Its Writers in a section called “poetry of the chaps and zines?” Don’t most anthologies avoid chaps and zines writers?
GL: The major literary figure, Samuel Charters, who died recently, was responsible for my being in that anthology at all, and also was a force in presenting the work of the Swedish poet /artist (who writes in English), Henry Denander. His wife, the Kerouac scholar, Ann Charters, sent me a copy of his final volume of New and Selected Poems.
KS: Here are 2 exam questions I gave to my Introduction to Literature class about your poems:
How is Gerald Locklin’s poem “Friday Night Lights” a commentary upon American males and their rites of passage?
Why is “So It Goes” a good choice of title for Gerald Locklin’s poem? Is the title — and perhaps the poem too — similar in any way to Bukowski’s “the mockingbird?”
Anything you can share with me in case they dispute my grading?
GL: The title “So It Goes” is lifted from a refrain ending chapters in a Vonnegut novel. Vonnegut’s works suggested at least as many poems, and possibly more, than Buk’s work. But I do think “The Mockingbird” is a much finer poem than, say, “The Bluebird.” The latter poem typifies for me the poems that appeal to readers who don’t really like Bukowski’s at his best, which, for me, is funny and dirty and, in Robinson Jeffers’ sense, “Inhumanistic.” Some readers demand that a writer be soft at heart. The Bukowski that I liked best wasn’t.
As for “Friday Night Lights,” one of the major trends within my life span (1941 – present — sort of ) has been the Emasculation of the American Male. Avenues such as football have to some extent resisted its thrust — the extent of its success, of course, is nonetheless readily apparent in most other areas of American life. Even the current attempts to minimize the number of sports-related concussions may be in hopes of preserving more of the brain for washing.
A Chinese Immigrant in America Seeks to ‘Create a Wave’
and, Ultimately, a Tsunami
Wang Ping, 47, is the author of several books of fiction, non –fiction, and poetry. Her writing has won the Eugene Kaden Award, the Asian –American Studies Award, and the Minnesota Book Award. Born in Shanghai, she earned her bachelor’s degree in English literature from Beijing University, her master’s degree in English literature from Long Island University, and her doctorate in comparative literature from New York University. The recipient of awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bush Foundation, the New York State Council for the Arts, and the Minnesota State Arts Board, among others, Ping is also a translator, photographer, and teacher. She is a professor of English at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. The following telephone interview was conducted, in English, by Timothy Gillis on March 13, 2014.
TG: You’ve been in the United States since 1986, when you came to New York to get your master’s degree from Long Island University at age 19. Tell us about those early days in that new setting.
WP: The first year was really hard. I spoke English, but the cultural shock was tremendous. Having only $22 in my pocket didn’t help. People said “UPS” and I said, “I have no idea. What is that?” And the next day, I was working there. So I started working right away and was fired three days later because I didn’t really know anything. I had grown up in the late Cultural Revolution. I was a farmer. Then I went to college. Then I taught. Then I came to the United States. It was basically [during] the Communism regime. Material-wise, I basically had one of everything — one pen, one jacket, one shirt. I did speak some English, but it was a total transformation.
TG: Talk about your literary influences. Who were the writers that moved you toward writing and writing poetry?
WP: I grew up in China, and classic Chinese poetry is in my blood — poets like Li Po, Du Pu. We didn’t really have that much Western culture or poetry because it was forbidden, until I came to the United States. The second year [here], I came to Long Island University and I studied American and English literature. What really impacted me first was the day I walked into the wrong classroom. I thought it was literary criticism, but it was a writing workshop. Lewis Warsh was the professor. [ED. NOTE: Warsh was co-founder with Anne Waldman of Angel Hair magazine and books.] It was pretty funny. When I discovered it was the wrong classroom, it was already too late. One assignment was to write about my first [political] experience. I wrote about the Cultural Revolution. This was what I’d wanted to do all my life.
TG: What was your next poetic step?
WP: Lewis introduced me to Allen Ginsberg, who was organizing the first American-Chinese cultural festival, and he was bringing all these people to New York, and they were going to travel across America to give poetry readings, and Allen Ginsberg needed a translator. Lewis asked me if I was willing to do that and I said, “Of course!” That’s how I started working with Allen Ginsberg, and we traveled all over the country with John Ashberry, Gary Snyder, Bob Creeley. That’s how I became friends with all those people. We became quite close. Pretty soon after that, I met Xue Di in New York. Actually before I met him, Keith Waldrup wrote to me asking me if I would collaborate with him on a translation. And I said yes. After translating all these poets, through this process I started writing poetry. It’s a natural process. After that poetry festival, I started doing more translations which resulted in the book, New Generations: Poems from China Today, a very cool and intimate collaboration with poets like Anne Waldman and Ron Padgett.
TG: I see you have a new work out that’s fiction. And in your previous work, 10,000 Waves, there are poems with dialogues from workers. In the title piece, you take on the voices of 18 of the 21 people who died at Morecambe Bay, England, on February 5, 2004. The Chinese laborers were collecting cockles late in the evening when they were caught by an incoming tide. You did some journalistic research for that, correct? It reads like Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters, your own watery epitaphs to the dead. You also tried to give a voice to the three unidentified people who died.
WP: At that time, there were three missing people. It seemed somewhat symbolic to have the chorus in the poem perhaps stand for those missing voices. As I did my research and travel, I heard all the stories, all the voices. From the very beginning, as a writer and a poet, I always questioned myself. After writing about myself and my own position in the world — which is one of your duties as a writer — I ask: Do I only talk about myself or do I have this ability to speak for others? And if I do, what gives me the authority and the right? That’s the true question.
TG: How does one acquire that authority, that right to create a poetic voice for others?
WP: It started with an earlier poem. I was living in New York at the time, hanging out with Ai Wei Wei and others. I wanted to write a poem for this big reading at the Poetry Project. I was scheduled to read with Allen Ginsberg, who was going to read from “Howl.” And I thought, “How can anyone perform with Ginsberg’s “Howl” and not be completely faded?” At that time, the Golden Venture ship was very much on our minds. [ED. NOTE: The Golden Venture was a cargo ship that ran aground at Rockaway Beach in Queens. The ship held 286 undocumented workers, ten of whom drowned trying to flee the stranded ship.] I decided to write a poem about the accident. I researched it.I tried to visit the cemetery in New Jersey. I spent a lot of time learning about what happened. Adrienne Rich later selected it for The Best American Poetry collection. “10,000 Waves” was a continuation of that [type of] poem, and also my interest in answering the questions about whom I write for and what gives me the authenticity. My experience in China and my experience as an immigrant in America allow me to build that bridge.
TG: Tell us about your writing process. Do you typically pursue a topic by researching it, as you did with “10,000 Waves,” or do you let the muse come to you?
WP: I do not have the luxury of not having to work. I’ve always worked, several jobs at the same time. So writing for me is more of a discipline. Every day I must put in some time and energy, either to sit down and write, or think about it — when I walk, or work in the garden, or while cooking. Not while teaching. That takes too much energy. It takes discipline to be ready to write, to remain vulnerable and open, instead of building a wall. In terms of craft, my first two books of poetry were more intuitive. 10,000 Waves is much more conscious. Some of my poems are more narrative because the content requires me to use the story-telling form, and I always try to make sure the music and cadence is there. I believe I have internal music. Music is everywhere. Music is about rhythm, the consonance and dissonance. I’m a dancer — modern dance and the flamenco. I’m a martial artist. I do fencing and yoga. I’m a big mover. I teach full time. I write. I travel. And I sing. I’m a single mother with two children. So how do I do all these things? There are only 24 hours in a day. It’s the rhythm. I’m tapped into my inner rhythm. I synch my internal rhythm with the universal rhythm. So I get rest and am revitalized through doing different things that feed me. I create a wave, and wave after wave creates a tsunami.