Interview with Gerald Locklin

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

R. 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.