Interview of Gerald Locklin by Raindog

(Ed. note: Gerry Locklin, author, poet, Bukowski chum & English Prof at CSULB has been influencing the SoCal poetry scene for over thirty years. He is widely respected as a proponent of the "Stand Up School of Poetry")

RD: You've been writing for many years. By way of background, how did you get started? Was there a single point/event that inspired you to take on writing poetry, or was it a slow process?

GL: I intended to be a writer since almost as early as my first words. My Aunt Pat used to stand me up on the bed at night and have me look out the window and dictate poems to her. She would write them down and save them. I received encouragement for my writing from my family and teachers (nuns) throughout my childhood, until late high school at least when I began to write things that embarrassed them. My Aunt Pat, however, continued to type manuscripts for me into her eighties, whether she approved of them or not. My family did not have the benefit of much in the way of higher education, but as was often the case among the Irish-American immigrant families, they valued education and culture and made sure that I had the opportunities that they had never had. Thus, I always assumed I would be a writer, although at various times I thought I might combine that with other vocations such as being a doctor or a basketball coach. I received an excellent education in writing skills and languages such as Latin, Greek, and French (later some German and Old and Middle English). By high school I intended to be a fiction writer, not a poet, but I wrote poetry because it was supposed to be good for your prose and because a French teacher gave us exercises writing (in English) in traditional forms. I took to it. My first book, Sunset Beach, 1967, contains sonnets, villanelles, and so forth. I still write them sometimes.

RD: Since your "day job" involves creative writing, do you find that it's easier or harder to "seize the moment" when creativity strikes? Does teaching tend to take away from the spontaneity? Or does it vary?

GL: I taught mainly literature for years--my doctorate is in literature--and have only in recent years begun teaching more creative writing courses. I love to teach both. Any job can take time from writing, obviously, but that seems often to be a good thing. I'm very fortunate to be able to make a living doing something I enjoy and that is related to writing. I realize that some teachers do seem to stop writing, but that's their problem--it hasn't been mine. I couldn't have written much more than I have. If I had a nine-to-five job it would be Miller time each day when I got off work.

RD: Was there a point where you began to think of yourself as a writer as opposed to a teacher or whatever?

GL: I think of myself as both a writer and a teacher. I take both seriously and try to do my best at both. They don't seem to conflict; rather, they seem to complement each other.

RD: In your capacity as a teacher, you have had the opportunity to see a lot of poets and writers come down the pike. Do you encourage the good ones and, if so, how do you encourage them?

GL: I try to do everything I can think of for my students, including suggesting things to read, working on their grammar, telling them about readings and poetry magazines, etc. I suppose I make an extra effort with those I consider most talented, but I don't discourage anyone because I could be wrong. I'm not in the least afraid to tell them what I think needs improvement in their writing, though, and I do assume I know more about writing than they do at their stage or they shouldn't be taking a course from me. There's nothing mystical about writing. It's a combination of native talent, education, experience, practice, and hard work, like any skill.

RD: I hear a lot about the "Long Beach School" of poetry, these days. Is this different from the "Stand up" school (which you are credited with defining in part), and how so? GL: I think the Long Beach School of poetry is simply a lot of poets who live in Long Beach or environs. I suppose many of them do write in an accessible style, often conducive to public reading, and often utilizing humor and autobiography and references to popular culture. Some have called it populist poetry or vernacular poetry or talk poetry or conversational poetry. Charles Stetler and I published an article in The Minnesota Review in 1967 entitled "Edward Field: Stand-up Poet" which analyzed the traits of such poetry, especially with reference to Field's work, and their origins in the Beat Movement of the 1950's, vaudeville, coffeehouses, the oral tradition, American populism, and the supplanting of the old education in the classical and religious mythologies by the new mythology of popular culture. More recently, my colleague Charles Webb has adopted the term and has done a wonderful job of spreading the concept through his anthologies, articles, and lectures. The only danger is the same one that can adhere to any label: that it can become reified and rigid and exclusionary and static. If you're aware of such dangers, they can be avoided. I think I write types of poetry, for instance, that would not be classified as stand-up. And a couple, I hope, that have not yet been classified at all.

RD: I imagine that poetry has changed a bit since the "old days" when you and Bukowski were doing it. Can you talk about this?

GL: The main difference, I suppose, is that there is so much more of it, more poets, more presses, more magazines, more readings. But that doesn't necessarily mean that poetry or poets are better today. In fact, the danger of such profusion is that it can be harder to find the needle in the larger haystack, the wheat among so much chaff, to employ a couple of handy clichés.

RD: What advice can you give to poets today to help them improve their craft?

GL: I would advise poets in any age to study what they don't necessarily feel like studying, not just what seems easy or reinforces the stage one is already at. In other words, study the ancient poets, study the history of poetry in the English language, study the history of metrics, study art, music, and the related arts, study languages, travel widely (or just stay home like Thoreau or Dickinson and study intensely your near surroundings), become conversant with many discourses, those of the library and those of the street. Use your ears! Listen! Don't think you're already there, that you have nothing to learn. Forget about whether or not you are a genius--it may be a valid concept but it's either dangerous or useless for a poet to think of himself as one. For God's sake, don't just read Bukowski and listen to alternative rock and drink and do drugs and watch videos of alternative filmmakers. That's not how Bukowski became Bukowski, and there's not going to be a second Bukowski anyhow. Whom was Bukowski the second incarnation of? No one. No, not Hemingway or Henry Miller or Fante or Knut Hamsun. He learned from them, but look at how different he was from them. The more influences the better. You find your own voice, ironically, by working your way through imitations of many styles. One danger of the proliferation of readings could be that a young poet might think he had arrived before he really had--because of the ease of developing a following on the reading circuits. That could really stifle growth.

RD: Aside from the academic writer/poet, do you think that it's possible to actually make a living as a poet? Or is it, by necessity, an avocation?

GL: No, it's seldom possible to make a living exclusively as a poet. Even Bukowski didn't. Look at the income he derived from his stories and novels and movies, and, for a time, readings. Edward Field has managed largely to survive without a day job, but he's been willing to live extremely frugally. If you're not going to work a regular job, you'd better be able to do other more lucrative forms of writing also, or be rich, or have a rich aunt or uncle or patron or patroness or wife or husband or something. But what's wrong with that? I've never noticed that the poets with the most time on their hands are necessarily writing the best poetry. Bukowski was extremely critical of poets who didn't support themselves. And who ever promised us that we deserved some form of support simply because we began calling ourselves poets? I'm not even terribly upset about the decline of federal funding for the arts, since so little of it ever came my way anyway. Bad economic times have tended to have a cleansing effect on the arts, to drive out those who aren't sufficiently committed to put their own money and effort where their mouths are, support their own alleged creativity. That doesn't mean I want to starve to death, but if I'd tried to live off my literary earnings I would have starved to death a long time ago.

RD: There seems to be a renewed interest in creative writing & poetry on the college level. Do you think that this is a fad that will pass or is it more than that? (I'm thinking there's some connection between the sense of loss of individuality and the desire to be acknowledged).

GL: There is a renewed interest in poetry everywhere, and, as always, there are both positive and negative points to this. It is healthy that more people are taking advantage of this avenue of self-expression, self-discovery , and a sharing of one's life within an artistic community. It's even better, though, when they make the effort to sharpen their verbal skills, read the centuries of English poetry that have preceded ours, broaden their familiarity with the other arts and forms of music throughout the ages, practice self-discipline, and extend their sympathies beyond themselves to others. And we really need appreciative readers more than we do more poets, but that requires a sacrifice of ego which few are willing to make {and which many no doubt feel that I should be the first to make) .

The media attention to performance poetry has probably made poetry appear an easy path to star-status. There's probably the impression that the poet-- unlike the musician, the painter, the dancer, the architect--doesn't really have to know very much. Emotions , experience, liberal political opinions (or mindless ones--whatever the audience wants to hear ) , and a spontaneous gush of words ( often trite or inaccurate ones) have more cachet than the enormous preparation that an Eliot or Pound or Auden or Dylan Thomas invested in becoming a poet. Bukowski is always cited as an example, but Buk was, first, much better educated than many realise and, two, was an exception to a lot of rules that few who attempt to emulate him are sufficiently exceptional to circumvent themselves. It's time to quit challenging every item of good sense with, "But what about Bukowski?"

As for our M.F .A. program at Long Beach State, it exists because there was for years a tremendous demand for it among the students. Many talented students simply don't have the family or job situations that would allow them to move to some other area. And there is an enormous amount. of talent in Southern California, a great deal of it in our undergraduate courses or in the Long Beach area. And ours is a very selective program which also demands a lot of study of literature, literary theory , and, for some, composition theory and practice, so it's not as if we're turning hordes of illiterate bards out onto the streets. We also attract a great diversity of students and styles, and I feel that the students learn more from each other than they do from me--not just in mutual criticism but in learning new possibilities from what their classmates are doing. We teachers can accelerate their progress by pointing out some of the obvious things they are doing well or poorly in their writing--matters of economy, directness, vividness, concreteness, preciseness, clarity, for instance. Overall, they get to write for and read for an educated audience, and they get the encouragement they earn and whatever help we can give them in entering the literary world. They become their own network.

The dangers to be aware of and to forestall are careerism, narrowing of subject matter and discourses, and a stultification into academicism. But our students don't seem to be in danger of catering to respectability . Go to one of their readings...

RD: Apart from the writers you've already mentioned, is there anyone, any poet(s) you would like to recommend to our readers?

GL: I always know I'm going to forget worthy people, and I won't try to name all my talented colleagues and friends or all the poets like Koertge and Collins who are already widely heralded, but let me list Lisa Glatt, Tricia Cherin, Denise Duhamel, Mark Weber , Todd Moore, yourself (Raindog), Dave Newman , René Diedrich, Donna Hilbert , Joan Smith, Fred Voss, Dave Alvin, Paul Agostino, Richard Houff, Joseph Shields, Chris Daly, Hayley Mitchell, Dan Cracker, Jay Alamares, and my apologies to all the rest, including our MFA graduates and students. Our current students will be featured in the second issue of Free Thought magazine. Oh, I forgot England, where Dave Caddy, Jules Smith, Shane Rhodes, and Keith Deeley are doing outstanding work.

RD: What are your plans for the future? Projects? Inspirations?

GL: I'm always working on new fiction and poetry. Some poetry chaps are due out soon, including a Little Red Book to follow up .The Iceberg Theory. I hope that my book-length Life Force poems will be out early next year. And I'd love to have more book-length fiction out to follow-up on the success books like Candy Bars, A Simpler Life, and Go West have been enjoying. I would hope for at least one book each from Water Row Press and Event Horizon Press in 2001.

The False Rhapsody of Art

a phrase from ondaatje's english patient: 
perhaps why "odysseus never wrote a word."

a purity of mind of the man of action
that we of words might emulate.

what pound sought;
what william carlos williams set out for:
to demonstrate we did not need it,
that poetry can do quite well
without the false.

oppen, edward field, bukowski--
they all sought to avoid it
while keeping their ears cocked,
their voices clear and clean,
for the new music
of the truth
of the never old emotions.

Gerald Locklin

from The Iceberg Theory and Other Poems
Published by Lummox Press 2000
World Wide Rights Reserved
Copyright 2000 Gerald Locklin

About Gerald Locklin

The Iceberg Theory and Other Poems: LRB 18
An Index to his work in the Small Press: 40 years and counting
Final Bukowski issue of the Lummox Journal: One of two poems in this issue (Aug. 2000)
Water Row Books: Books by Locklin, Bukowski, the Beats and more...
FAMILIARITIES: LRB 33 w/ Patricia Cherin
The ALL POETRY issue - April 2000: Read Gerry's poem