Gerald Locklin has, in his lengthy career, alternately been called a “people’s writer”, a “stand-up poet” (co-credited for coining the term) and, by his friend and contemporary, Charles Bukowski: “one of the great undiscovered talents of our time”. In a fascinating interview, Declan Tan hears about the influence of comic books, the giants of modernism and Lady Gaga.
Locklin has somehow managed however, in his mountains of work, to remain indefinable, as his famed “alter ego” Jimmy Abbey observes in his latest collection (The Vampires Saved Civilisation): “it’s a constant struggle, against others and oneself, to remain undefined”.
Through his sheer prolificacy in the small presses since the 60s, working both as a teacher at California State University and of course as a writer, Locklin has influenced many, publishing more than 4,000 poems (catalogued here) along with over 125 books, a feat that would defy the most ardent of collectors.
He has worked in every genre, regularly putting out novels, novellas, short stories, essays, journalism and interviews, tackling all manner of subjects in his signature style, speaking directly in an unpretentious and seemingly casual, exact language.
Lisa Glatt (A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That, The Apple’s Bruise), fellow writer and former student of Locklin’s, and now also a teaching colleague in Long Beach, says: “The main thing I remember Gerry telling me was ‘Don’t think too much!’” And though I’ve forced him here to think about ‘writing’, perhaps more so than he would have liked, he has still managed somehow to remain undefined, and an ever-expanding library unto himself.
How do you think comic books have influenced writers, like yourself, reading them when growing up? Is it a kind of first step into reading before becoming a writer? And is it the same with detective novels?
I can only speak for myself. My mother, who was an elementary school teacher, and a very good and enlightened one, taught me to read before I started kindergarten. At first she read books to me, two books a night, one of my selection and one of hers. After I could read to myself, she would let me purchase two comic books at a time: one of my choosing and one from the old Classics Illustrated series. Of the former category, I liked best the ones one might expect, Superman, Wonder Woman, The Green Lantern, Donald Duck, and such. But I immediately took to the Classics as well, voraciously, which allowed me a cultural literacy long before I ever read the actual books – although I, of course, did read all of them in good time.
My mother convinced the nuns to let me into the local parish school when I was four-and-a-half, which was no problem because I had been so well prepared for it by her. I’d breeze through the readers in a few minutes after which the nun would have to find me something else to read or do for the weeks the rest of the class was on the text, and when I was simply faced with boredom, I filled the time with daydreams of being able to fly like Superman.
My father, by the way, was serving in the boiler room of a destroyer escort in the South Pacific during this time, since I was born in 1941, and he did not return except for brief leaves until 1945. After my mother had returned to the classroom, I had a caretaker, an older woman, until kindergarten – there were no pre-schools in those days – so my early entry into kindergarten was also geared to save my mother considerable expense – not that the Catholic schools were free.
As a teacher she would also have known that the Catholic schools were significantly superior to the public (in the American sense) schools, not only because of the dedication of the sisters, but because of the strict discipline – any truly disruptive students were quickly dispatched for the public schools to deal with. There was the occasional private school also (what you would call a public school over there) but few Catholics could afford those, and I doubt they were as good as the parish schools.
The Church served the sociopolitical purposes of the generation of immigrants from Ireland, just as “Negro” churches were doing the same for their members. And the division was not between black and white, but among the different nationalities – Irish, Italian, Polish, German – that dominated one or another of the parishes.
Integration did not really get underway until the 1950s. When a black fighter fought Rocky Marciano, I rooted for the black fighter, not because I had much experience, good or bad, of blacks, but because I didn’t: it was the Italians I mainly had to deal with on the way home or at the playground. And the Irish themselves, of course.
At any rate, I think I simply grew seamlessly out of comic books and into books. I did get my one strong incentive towards writing fiction from the movie and comic book of Bambi – I was so distraught by the death of Bambi that I vowed to become a writer and only write books that had less tragic endings. By then I had already been launched as a poet not only by the poems my mother read to me but by my Aunt Pat, who, when I stayed overnight with my aunts, would stand me up on the bed, direct me to gaze upon the night sky, and instruct me to compose a poem about it. The poems may have been of the ‘Star Light, Star Bright’, variety, but she dutifully copied them down and archived them and from that early, pre-literary age, I took it for granted that I was a writer and would always be one, no matter what I might also aspire to. Because I wrote well in school, I also had that reinforcement from my teachers at all stages in my education. And in high school and college, the former taught by Jesuits, I had five years of Latin, four of Greek, four of French. In graduate school: reading German, and numerous courses in Old and Middle English language and literature.
My mother’s father had come from Ireland, fathered 14 children, and died at the age of 50, shortly before I was born. Of those 14 siblings, of which my mother was the youngest, none except her ever had a child. I was, in other words, the only member of the next generation, and all my surviving maternal aunts and uncles (four or five died during the flu epidemic of 1918, and another, after whom I am named, of tuberculosis) were my aunts and uncles exclusively. Few of them ever married. The ones who lived into middle age lived into old age as well – their 80s and 90s.
My father returned from the war with Type One diabetes and died at the age of 50 of a diabetic-related heart attack a week before my graduation from high school. He was a very good father, and I loved him very much, and it has only been later in life that I’ve realized the influence his death had upon my later life: the friends that, unbeknownst to them, filled successive roles of surrogate father for me.
My father had made the promise that I could be raised Catholic – his own father was Methodist – and he took the further step of becoming involved in all my youthful activities – which got me through cub scouts, for instance, because he could do just about anything, whereas I could do nothing of any useful nature except academics and athletics. I was encouraged in both by mother and father alike, and excelled in both. But I couldn’t change a light bulb and still can’t. And I’m technophobic and never took typing.
I have written many poems about the above, both fiction and poetry: Go West, Young Toad; New Orleans, Chicago, and Points Elsewhere; and any of my early experimental novellas, are good places to look for such materials, although all are fictionalized, as are all human memories and utterances.
As for detective novels, I did read those of the juvenile variety, which frequently involve the solving of crimes and outwitting of criminals, but radio and film were probably stronger influences. I read a lot of crime novels today, for the wit of the British ones and the maleness of the American ones. Where else in English can a male of a traditional sort find characters with which to identify in fiction of the last 50 years? I love to read of Inspector Morse, Dave Robicheaux, and Matthew Scudder. I also love Helen Mirren, Iris Murdoch, and A.S. Byatt – and P.D. James – but a lad does need his infusion of literary testosterone now and then.
I’ve never taken to “serial graphics” by the way – as much as I love dialogue – to read and to write – print is easier on my eyes. The only comic strip I still read faithfully is Pearls Before Swine. Do you get it over the there?
I’ll have to have a look.
Pearls Before Swine is truly pretty funny and sustains one’s illusion of sanity when confronted by the realities of Human Nature.
I read something you said in an interview you held with Rain Dog about “sacrifice of the ego”. How does the “sacrifice of ego” free a reader, or an audience as a whole, as well as a writer? Does it mean that the reader must accept what he/she is reading rather than rejecting it on grounds of previous education or taste?
Did I use the term “sacrifice of ego”?
Here is the quote: “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)”. I am wondering now if the phrase is somehow related to Jung?
No, there was nothing profound in my use of it. Just that a certain charisma attaches itself to the image of the poet – or would-be ones assume that, at least, and are thus reluctant to relegate themselves to the less glamorous roles of reader, critic, scholar, reviewer, editor, teacher, etc., as important as those literary jobs may be, more so, in fact, than a large percentage of the poets – now that the writing of poetry requires so little aptitude, skill, practice, education, etc., although work of any permanent value will always require quite a few of those items.
I read widely in Freud, Jung, and other psychoanalysts at one time – especially when writing my dissertation of Nathanael West – but, no, I doubt they snuck into my use of that phrase.
You’re a long-time follower of the Lakers and the Yankees. What function do sports play in your life? As a supporter of a team I find myself questioning the reason why I support them, as if it is some arbitrary selection my ego must stand by at all costs (a refusal to sacrifice the ego).
I’ve published many sports poems. And I’ve stated often that my participation in sports as a youth saved my sense of self-worth in adolescence – when I was afflicted by acne that rivaled Bukowski’s – and saved my life, to some extent during my 30 years of heavy drinking, and even more so when I gave up drinking in order to lose over a hundred pounds in the wake of pulmonary emboli at the age of 52, and found a substitute for alcohol in the endorphins released by swimming (though badly), lifting weights (as I had from an early age), and occasional long walks.
My main point, though, is that athletic competition teaches you that you can always do more than you think you can – in any aspect of life, literary and academic even: I am, for instance, a very prolific writer. When I need to write fast, I can. And I knew I could quit alcohol when I had to, without going to any 12-step program or ever proclaiming myself an alcoholic. What does that term even mean? All such categories are designed to control us, pigeonhole us, keep us from being as independent-minded as we can be and should be. To humble us. Humility is a good thing, but humiliation isn’t. Self-confidence is.
You mention rooting for the black fighter against Rocky Marciano: Now, this may seem unrelated, but did/do you feel some duty to root for the underdog, and not just in sports? I’m not sure what it’s like in America with this sort of thing, but the British (and Irish) for example, always seem to take pleasure in supporting the underdog.
I would have rooted for Rocky Marciano because of his excellence if it weren’t for the Irish-Italian neighborhood rivalries of those days. Later, my best friends in high school, college and as teaching colleagues were Italian, and I consequently read voraciously in the Italian novels of Pavese, Vittorini, Moravia, Verga, Manzoni, all of them. I rooted against the Russians during the Cold War Olympics, but that didn’t deter my reading of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and the rest.
I root for some teams in solidarity with my kids. I root for the USA when we’re the favorite and when we’re the underdog. I become very chauvinistically American when my country is attacked abroad. But when the USA is not involved, I root for whatever place I’m visiting. Sometimes I do root for an underdog mainly for that reason, but I also hate to see a legend grow old and over the hill. So I often root for an “over-the-hill gang,” all the more so now that I identify with the aging gunfighter (though I’ve never fired a round of live ammunition in my life). My great film hero was and still is Shane – I’ve watched the movie more than any other. I’m an only child and according to psychologists who place an emphasis on the role of Birth Order, the only child, even more than the first-born, hates to see a king dethroned, or any kind of radical change.
I have my liberal sympathies, inculcated by an educated schoolteacher mother who was of an ‘enlightened’ bent way ahead of her time, but I’m not fond of the extremes to the left or right. Of course, one person’s extreme is another person’s mainstream. I’m a registered Democrat but more of an Independent, in fact, and I wish the Democratic Party had remained more libertarian and individualistic, and less socialistic and Orwellian.
A lot of my foreign policy is based on my experiences of human nature in the bars. I learned, for instance, that the person who is willing to fight is less apt to have to. I think that goes for countries as well. The more pacifistic the American public has become, the more wars we find ourselves fighting. I’ve taught courses in contemporary literary theory, but that doesn’t mean I swallow it whole – most of it derives from Marx, and I’ve seen the Marxist countries fail.
It’s assumed that one grows more conservative as one ages because one has more money, and it’s true that one hates to have one’s earned savings eroded by confiscatory policies, but it’s also because one has seen so many sociopolitical, psychological, and pedagogical theories fail in the course of one’s lifetime. Look at all the ‘growing-up’ in terms of political realities that Obama has had to do in just two-plus years. I’m glad he has moved closer to the center. I was never fooled by all his rhetoric anyway. The real racists were not those who voted against him because McCain was a much better prepared candidate for the office of the presidency, but those who voted for Obama only because he was black and because he told them everything they wanted to hear.
He’s been a quick learner – I have to give him that – but I’m afraid he’ll revert to his old ideological ways if he ever re-gains the electoral power of his first two years. I would have loved to have had a Colin Powell or Condoleeza Rice to vote for, especially the latter. And I much preferred Bill Clinton to Hillary, and I don’t give a damn how many blow-jobs he got in the White House.
I don’t usually discuss my political opinions because some people will just use them as an excuse not to have to read a writer’s work, to feel superior to it because the author’s opinions are, in their view, so barbaric. Almost all the great moderns held political views that are unfashionable today. And it’s a lot of work to read them. So those views are great excuses not to invest the effort that an Eliot or a Pound or a Joyce demands, and that their work repays.
The Four Quartets is profoundly beautiful verbal-intellectual music, no matter what one thinks of God, royalty, or the House of Lords. And ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ explained intertextualism decades before the term was coined. I’m not a fascist, far from it, but I don’t dismiss great artists as “elitist” either.
That’s about all I have to say on those matters, though. I don’t politicize my teaching or my friendships. And I tell my students they can probably reach more readers and accomplish more with a well-written letter to the editor than with a sloganeering poetic rant. But they’re free to follow their own literary instincts. I don’t teach them what to write, but how not to write poorly.
Do sports teach something to a writer, as a participant or a spectator?
Sports teach us that competition is not a bad thing. Feminists prefer cooperation, and it is a necessary component, but neither America nor the western democracies have been better off since they became less competitive internationally. And most of us know that committees are far less effective in making decisions than are strong, confident, decisive leaders – those, at least, who are committed to making the best choices for their constituents. Washington, Lincoln, or Churchill, not Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, nor, it would seem, Saddam or Gaddafi.
The best editors and publishers I’ve had were individuals. As for committees, judge by the recipients of literary awards, and the advanced age at which those most worthy of recognition are finally accorded it. I think the feminists prefer committees because they’re good at dominating them. Whereas the women who have risen to leading nations have all emulated male decisiveness.
There are, or course, exceptions to every generalization. Please remember that you’re asking me to attempt generalizations. I’m doing my best to do so provisionally.
Are sports another release of tension, like drugs or writing or anything else? Or is it much less serious than that? Why do you support ‘a team’?
I choose my teams or individuals for a variety of reasons, I think, most of them fairly common and superficial: I root for the Lakers because they’re a Los Angeles team and I’ve lived here since 1964, whereas I rooted for the Rochester Royals when I was a kid, because I was living in Rochester. I was convinced to favour the Yankees not so much because I lived in New York State – Rochester is 350 miles from NYC – but because a young, athletic priest upon whom I based one of my novellas convinced me that it made much more sense to root for a team that never lost than for one of the many that seldom won. And the Yankees, with their storied tradition, have given me years of pleasure as a result of that – especially, though, in my 1950s adolescence when Mickey Mantle (my great hero), Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Billy Martin, and other colorful all-time all-stars were comprising their roster. I’ve rooted for the athletic teams of the universities I’ve attended and the ones I’ve taught at.
Furthermore, I enjoy watching sports and rooting for teams, although not as much as I enjoyed playing them – God, I wish I could still compete at basketball. I’m not as fanatical a fan as I once was, but I’m loyal to the Lakers and the Yankees, because they are a part of my personal history, and, more importantly, because rooting for a team is fun… a pleasure… which, as Coleridge understood, is the best reason for reading or writing poetry also.
There is also the camaraderie that sports provide, and the sense of continuity with our own earlier selves. Nor is that camaraderie homo-erotic. Trust me: there is no sexual pleasure – even of a cryptic variety – in slapping a teammate on the hip-pads – which are composed of a very hard and un-phallic plastic.
Heterosexuals have many faults – which have been amply enumerated by others, but a frequent though not universal gay weakness resides in the need to assert that everyone else is in some way or other gay also. In truth, the closets of the world are simply not that capacious. If diversity is a value, doesn’t that include heterosexuality as well?
What you say about sports relating us to our personal histories I find particularly interesting; is it the same with literature and your own writing?
My own writing is postmodernist, but my literary heroes are moderns: Yeats, Thomas, Auden, Hopkins, Hemingway, Faulkner, Conrad, Joyce, Woolf, Forster, Lawrence, Greene, Waugh, Frost, Eliot, Pound, Robinson, Stevens, both Cranes, W. C. Williams, Cummings, Jeffers, etc.
That doesn’t mean I haven’t enjoyed reading my contemporaries – hundreds of them, especially the novelists – I’ve read them all and taught 20th-Century British Lit and 20th-Century American Lit and Contemporary Literature at both the graduate and undergraduate levels for my entire career. I love Beckett, Byatt, Kureishi, Naipaul, Murdoch, Spark, Doyle, Roth, Mailer, Updike, Malamud, etc. all of them. That’s not even touching on the writers in translation, and the films of the New Wave that I was weaned on in the late 1950s and early 1960s or the earlier ones of the Angry Young Men. I saw them all… we all did… “we” meaning the students and writers of my generation. I side with the Modernists in their Aestheticism. I don’t believe in reducing art to a servant of society. I believe any demands outside of the aesthetic are secondary to it, and should be used for it, not catered to by it.
I know that’s not fashionable. So what?
Do you find yourself taking a dislike now to things you once enjoyed, perhaps a book or a writer or piece of music, perhaps? Or maybe the reverse, that you take a liking to something that once seemed unpleasant or simply bad?
I pretty much enjoy the same works I enjoyed the first time around. And new ones all the time. I don’t re-read many books. There are too many new ones. And my writing takes more time from my reading all the time.
Money has never influenced my writing significantly because I’ve never made significant money with my writing. I haven’t come even close to earning with my writing what I have for my teaching. Of course the writing contributed to promotions, travel, and such, but I never wrote anything for extrinsic motives that I wouldn’t have for its intrinsic worth anyway. I wouldn’t even have been any good at it.
Maybe literary wealth awaits me – though I greatly doubt it. But even if it did, to paraphrase Bukowski, it would be arriving too late to harm me much.
I’d use some of it to get back to Britain, Ireland, and Europe, though.
You’ve travelled quite a bit, also spending some time in the UK. What do you think differs in American and British appreciation of the arts?
I wouldn’t want to belabor our differences, because we are obviously more alike than different. We love your comedies. We admire your verbal genius. I tell people that you don’t raise children who can’t write over there; you put them out on the passing ice floes.
You seem to enjoy us most when we are least like you: a Bukowski, for instance. Or a Fred Voss – good friend of mine – who writes poetry out of building airplanes.
Your present is more rooted in your past than ours, but you have a longer history and less immigration. You have done a wonderful job of preserving much less green land, whereas we have a tendency to squander our resources and our talents.
Your schools emulate ours, which is a tragic error. You are a little lacking in confidence at times, whereas we are cocky to the point of obnoxiousness. (In some of these things, the Irish may resemble us more than they do the Brits.)
You are more aware of class than we are – and I do think there is more opportunity for upward mobility over here still – though it may be endangered by our fiscal indebtedness.
I spent a semester on a teaching exchange to the University College of North Wales at Bangor. We (my wife and two young children and I) lived in Menai Bridge, with one of the most beautiful views that side of Big Sur, California. My wife loved it so much it may have spoiled California for her.
I’ve traveled about on various trips giving readings. We had a car during the teaching exchange but it was not very reliable. We had a good rental car for a month a few years later.
We’ve stayed in a lot of bed and breakfasts. We’ve been to most parts of England, a few days in Scotland, a couple of weeks in Dublin and Galway. I spent two-and-a-half months in England while on Sabbatical in spring 1980, mostly in London, with ten days in Paris.
We’ve spent significant time there and other places on the continent. To paraphrase Hanif Kureishi, London just about effing killed me, but those were my heaviest drinking days, and I was lonely for too many weeks.
I was first in England in, I think, 1971, early summer and late; again for five weeks in 1972; back for two weeks of readings while staying with John Mowat and his family in Hull in, I think, 1987; back for Wales, London, Dorset, and all over in 1989; five weeks in 1992, but having had a deep vein thrombosis getting on the Piccadilly line at Heathrow; a few days each in Dorset and London in 1997 (or 1998) and 1999 to participate in the Dorset Literary Festival for Dave Caddy’s Tears in the Fence magazine.
Many poems and stories in that, and many poems in Ambit and elsewhere and on Ragged Edge, Keith Dersley’s online mag and press. A play I co-authored, The Toad Poems, played for a week in Camden Town early last summer, directed by Donita Beeman, but I didn’t get over there for it. I hope it’s revived again soon.
Is good writing more than many different people saying largely the same thing, just in a different way? Is it a natural progression then that things get a bit more money-oriented in this environment of writing, where it becomes a kind of trickery to say the same thing in a new way? Does it need to be more?
There are almost infinite and unpredictable ways in which writing can be good, but finite ways in which it can be really bad. I’m not a terribly judgmental person in any arena except, I suppose, sports. And there are people who are simply assholes. But they generally elicit a certain sympathy from me, maybe because my wife considers me such a consummate asshole myself.
Is there a kind of writer that you don’t respect?
Any writer who manages to stick with it deserves a certain amount of respect. But who am I to presume any other writer needs or desires my respect anyway. I spend much more time doing things – writing included, of course – than I do thinking in the abstract about them. Entertaining abstract controversies that inhibit or restrict a writer’s writing is not my nature. The same for teaching. I like to get things done, and I like to have fun doing them, or afterwards at least. People waste a lot of time on matters that are just pure bullshit. Action cuts through the theoretical shit.
Do you think self-taught poets/writers somehow differ with students of the arts? What can each offer?
Ultimately we’re all self-taught because we can always accept or reject what our teachers teach us. I just try to help my students in any way I can, mainly by telling them what my own experiences have taught me. And to facilitate their learning from each other, from their reading, etc.
I also teach them some things about the techniques of poetry and fiction that would take longer for them to learn on their own. And to point them towards reading works they may enjoy and which may serve as models or stretch their minds. And their own works serve as models for and inspirations to each other. I emphasize positive reinforcement. I tell them to increase their vocabularies and to expand their syntactical arsenal. Most of the time the principles of good prose apply to poetry also.
I also try to get them to write more prolifically and to open their minds to the vastness of subject matter in the world and in themselves. To break through our self-imposed assumptions. Right now at the end of the semester, when I see some good poems I urge the writers of them to submit them to periodicals, and I show them how and I tell them to tell their editors that I urged them to do so. Once they start publishing their work and reading it publicly, they’ll find they can go forward with a new confidence. Success breeds success (as someone more concise than I once said).
So do you think it’s important for your students to get published? I mean, the main concern must be writing something worthwhile, or new, but is it then about having people read it? I presume it is.
I never require that any of my students seek publication. But many are grateful for me giving them the benefit of my 50-plus years of experience with manuscript submissions – and I allow them to say I urged them to submit their work, and I tell them what magazines I am publishing in regularly, and I tell them not to hesitate to say that I urged them to submit their work to these mags that do at least know something of my own work. Without this help from me, most of them would be paralyzed by ignorance of and fear of the submission procedures. They wouldn’t know where to start; they’d be afraid to embarrass themselves, etc. I just give them the confidence to make these first attempts at publication. When they succeed, they gain tremendous confidence, and their writing generally is strengthened by that. And even though the editors who read their work will range from experienced to novices, they will at least be more objective than the students’ friends will be. The “market place”, even for the little mags and small presses, is a more valuable immersion in the literary world than are the endless series of “literary sewing circles” out of which many writers never escape. They become addicted to these captive audiences.
You know the statistics show that most graduates even of MFA programs stop writing shortly after graduation. Having to earn a living is part of it – it often leaves no time for writing. And when you don’t write regularly or ever get any success experiences, you lose confidence in your abilities.
So I try to help them get actually involved in the world of publishing IF they want to.
And I try to teach them everything I know in my creative writing classes, because I know very few of them will continue writing for very long – or will just “write for themselves,” consigning their work to boxes or drawers… forever!
They can learn a lot besides how to write poetry or stories in these classes – about literature, about society, about what and how to read, about how to get along with others, or how to retain your individuality under social pressures, about themselves – their repressed lives… I’m glad my degree was in literature not creative writing, but today with the politicization of literary study, it is less useful for a writer. At least in creative writing they learn the nuts and bolts of writing.
With the explosion of online journals in recent years, how do you view this fanning out of writing/writers, put into boxes and published in niche publications, where the readers and editors keep everything within the same style and limits? Is that a problem? As people on the Internet tend to read or look at things they are familiar with or ‘like’, is there less of a chance for someone to encounter something new unexpectedly?
The good side is that writers can get their work into at least this form of ‘print’ who might never have been able to break into print in the past. There are fewer dictators of taste and such… and when I started publishing, there were very few mags and thus the editors of the ones that did exist were very powerful. And I managed to step on almost every one of their toes: at APR, Esquire, The New Yorker, Poetry, etc. – it’s amazing how many shit lists I got on in spite of my existing in obscurity. And those editors never died!!! I got on The Shit Lists of The Immortals. So I was very grateful for the emergence of so many new magazines, some of them with brilliantly independent editors such as Marvin Malone at The Wormwood Review.
The downside of course is that there is so much more work out there that the wheat can get lost in the chaff. And I think there has been an overall decline of ‘taste’ as a result of that, and of performance poetry, of self-publishing, etc. But somehow the cream does seem to rise if not to the top than not too far from it. And sometimes that happens faster; and sometime more slowly. But a writer has to have faith that somehow it does eventually happen.
I’ve fought against joining the cybernetic world, but, ironically, the friends who have dragged me clawing and screaming onto the Net seem to have done me an enormous favor. I seem to have somehow achieved some modicum of a reputation in the last couple of years. And at the young age of 70!!!
With the web journals it seems (probably only from the ones I am reading) that a lot of writing is concerned with throw-away observation (like the worst of comedy) or a ‘timely’ aspect (like in journalism) and aimed more and more at a temporary effect. Nothing seems timeless from what I read. It becomes more of a titillation, an entertainment (my writing included, unfortunately). This is maybe the result of so much writing published all of the time that stories/poetry must have this ‘angle’ that is for a moment refreshing, but cannot be sustained. But perhaps things were only ‘timeless’ when there was not as much of it being written.
You’re no doubt onto something, though the trivialities you note may have been endemic to postmodernism itself. The modernists were such giants. I guess after WWII the whole literary world craved a bit of a rest – which has turned into a 70-year snooze.
Postmodernism contributed self-reflexivity, but the modernists were anticipating even that, and the modernists dramatized subjectivity and relativity, whereas the postmodernists took them to absurd extremes: to the extent that they mainstreamed the marginal, and marginalized the mainstream, though the marginalized themselves naturally rejoice at that.
I just finished re-reading Hemingway’s Garden of Eden, and having read it (too hastily) and taught it when it first came out. This time I was in awe of it. Talk about a giant. And last night I saw Woody Allen’s Moonlight in Paris, which is a wonderful film, only flawed (for me) by his jejune and stereotypically uninformed parody of Hemingway – when he first comes on screen, that is – gradually his greatness begins to emerge in spite of the filmmaker’s intentions.
I defend Woody Allen’s films, because he’s been an obvious victim of simpleminded feminist and puritan hostilities. But the film is pure parody of the Giants of the 20s, so as funny and engaging and appealing as it is (and God, the women are beautiful!), it makes one aware of how less a giant the parodist is, than are the giants he is caricaturing.
Parody was really the name of the game for the intertextualizing postmodernists, myself included. I’m glad I wrote in so many styles and moods that not all of my work is guilty of it.
I think a lot of people who haven’t liked [Woody Allen’s] recent films will find Midnight very hard to resist, as romance, as nostalgia, as fairly gentle parody. I’m one of them, but I also saw it in a romantic mood in romantic company, and I’ve long been a sucker for the 20s, like most of my literary generation. I’m guessing that for younger generations the 60s might fill that bill. Then again, with their flattening of history, and the pedagogical ‘privileging’ of the synchronic/ahistorical viewpoint over the diachronic/historical one, they may not even be aware that there were decades before their own.
Earlier in your career, did you ever feel as if you were following any writer in particular, as some writers have (becoming heavily influenced or obsessed by certain predecessors), before finding your own honesty/originality? Or did it come naturally?
There’s no question that I was influenced greatly by Edward Field first, in the 1960s, and a little later in the 1960s by Charles Bukowski.
Both were quintessential ‘Stand-Up Poets’, a term that suggests most of the qualities most common to poets of my ilk within my own lifetime. You could find it defined first in an article my former officemate here, Charles Stetler, and I published in the Minnesota Review in 1969, Volume IX, Number 1, entitled ‘Edward Field: Stand-Up Poet’.
Field’s first book had been entitled Stand Up, Friend, with Me. I discovered him through a poem, ‘The Bride of Frankenstein,’ from his second book, Variety Photoplays – the poem had also appeared in the New York Review of Books.
Field is still a good friend, and I consider him our greatest living poet. He splits the year between a rent-controlled apartment in Greenwich Village and a flat near Paddington Station in London.
Later, my friend and colleague, Charles Harper Webb, a great poet himself, published an enormously successful anthology in various editions, the most recent of which is Stand Up Poetry: The Anthology, from University of Iowa Press. I use it in all my poetry classes, even though Field, and Stetler, and I were co-editors of The New Geography of Poets, from U. of Arkansas Press in 1991 or 1992.
It was a lesser sequel to Field’s Bantam Press anthology A Geography of Poets, that sold 31,000 copies in a pocket book edition in, I think, 1977. It was the first truly decentralizing anthology of poets in the USA, because Field had discovered via his readings around the USA that poetry was no longer the possession of NYC and Boston. The spread of university creative writing programs and the underground little mags and small presses had combined to ignite that phenomenon. Another aspect of it was sometimes called “the mimeo revolution,” a precursor, I suppose, to the Internet revolution. It helped to popularize Bukowski.
Webb didn’t know we had invented the term “Stand Up Poetry” when we used it for our article – especially in the first couple of pages, but he credited us as soon as I called it to his attention and showed him the similarities in our summation and his brilliantly organized and explicated introduction to his anthology. Field’s first Geography introduced many of us young California poets to a national audience for the first time.
Ron Koertge and I had become great friends at the University of Arizona in graduate school – I was there 1961-64 – and we were very much both in a learning stage, and much of what we learned was from each other – an ongoing mutual influence which continued into The Wormwood Review, which was the best poetry magazine of my lifetime, from the 1960s to the death of its editor, Marvin Malone, in the mid-1990s.
I’ve mentioned that I was inevitably influenced by poets I had learned to love earlier – Dylan Thomas, E. E. Cummings, Frank O’Hara, Sylvia Plath – not to mention all the poets I read in graduate school and as a lifelong teacher and reviewer of literature. But Ron, Edward, and Buk (or Hank, as he liked to be called) were major influences from among the living. And so were many fiction writers such as Hemingway, Barthelme, Brautigan, and such, because my poetry was often highly narrative or dramatic – lots of dialogue(s).
Though it is your career, have you found yourself taking writing less or more seriously as it has gone on? Or has it been the same throughout? I guess I am speaking here of futility and purpose.
I always took my writing seriously, and I always wrote a lot and published more and more all the time (from about 1993 on), but my writing seemed more casual in the early days – more youthful, naturally – and I still write a lot of what I call my “smart-ass poems,” as they occur to me, and because my younger readers demand them, and I virtually invented the very short poem – one of mine was three words – although I got the idea from Norman Mailer’s collection Deaths for the Ladies, but I don’t think he wrote any poems after that, and I wrote thousands – I’ve published something like 4,000 according to one index that is linked to geraldlocklin.org.
But as my parenthood burgeoned – I have seven children by three marriages, and nine grandkids so far – my seriousness naturally increased – and I took my teaching very seriously, although I gave the impression of being highly unconventional and off-handed about it – and when I almost died of pulmonary embolisms in 1993, and quit drinking and hanging out in bars – the drinking life poems trailed off, and I began writing hundreds of ekphrastic poems in which I was often as irreverent as I had always been, but also celebratory, and mainly I used the art objects, or jazz or opera, etc. as starting points for poems that might end up who knows where, often in my memories or reflections.
I had always written books of travel poems and I continued to. But yes, one does begin to confront aging, death, and so forth, although I still tap dance vigorously at my poetry readings, and I toss in a Lady Gaga medley.
So I would say that I take things more seriously now – especially my progeny and other loved ones. I had always taken my friends very seriously also. I wouldn’t call myself somber or saturnine, but I do pontificate more than I used to, though I’ve long been a somehow agnostic ex-Catholic, who definitely took Catholicism seriously as a kid. I was practically a theologian, though also immersed in athletics: I was co-captain of my high school football, basketball, and track teams in senior year, but I was also Student Prefect of the parish sodality (a youth organization, non-political).
But by the end of high school I was growing away from the church, mainly just tired of sexual guilt, but also under the influence of James Joyce, Graham Greene, and Italian novelists such as Silone, Vittorini, and Pavese – actually all of them, because I had a very literary and Italian good friend. And I also had a high school sweetheart, who would become my first wife.
I definitely mined my childhood and adolescence in my early, often experimental stories and novellas.
With growing amounts of disposable fiction being published, do you think writing has become something too much of a profession, a moneyed ends, rather than a sincere exploration that is merely a necessity for a writer? Perhaps it has always been this way. I often catch myself revering the things from before my time, imagining they were somehow better, though I guess there was also a lot of chaff then, too.
I do think we’ve lacked the giants of the modern period during the postmodern period, but on the other hand we’ve had a lot more extremely good writers in the last 60 years than in the previous 50. Think of Iris Murdoch and A.S. Byatt alone, how many excellent and many-layered novels they produced, and Martin Amis, David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury, Roddy Doyle, Kureishi… I could go on endlessly, and what pleasure I took from them, and maybe they are a bit long in the tooth now – or worse yet, a bit dead, and maybe I haven’t found as many younger writers I enjoy as much, but their own generation probably enjoy their writers as much as I enjoyed mine.
My former officemate, Chuck Stetler, and I created a course, ‘Fiction Now’, and took turns teaching it for years, and we changed the reading list every semester, and we loved the books and the students loved the books, and we never came close to running out of current books to teach. And even in my graduate seminars in 20th-Century British Fiction and in 20th-Century American Fiction, we sometimes studied a neglected modernist in detail, but more and more I just assigned more and more of the current novels and let them do their papers on the modernists, whom I concentrated on in the double-numbered graduate/undergraduate period courses, the surveys as opposed to the seminars. So I don’t think the novel is dead by any means but we may be waiting for a few rough beasts to slouch their way into print.
Is it dangerous for a writer to a have a philosophy, even for a time, despite that philosophy changing? This brings me back to the message. Is there a place for a message? Or is it all eventually forgotten and lost to inculcation or early education and prejudices?
I think I’ve already noted that there have always been great novelists with a message – Tolstoy, Dickens, most of the Victorians, most of the writers of the 1930s; it’s just that for later readers the messages that were most topical when the books were printed are of least importance to later readers.
The same with poetry: who really cares about the politics or religion of Hopkins, Yeats, Auden, Thomas, Browning, Arnold, etc.? The fiction lives by its stories, not its messages, and the poetry by its music not its messages. But a message for its own generation can be one level of the work – it’s just ultimately not the most important one. No matter what the theorists tell us, there are such things as aesthetic universals – they are just not to be narrowly implemented.
Find a novel or novella you really like, and imitate its structure. I did that with Miss Lonelyhearts, and it served me very well as a starting point and scaffolding for an early novella of mine that I still like a lot. I used Nathanael West’s structure for my own characters and story.
We all learn by imitation. Look at Lady Gaga and Madonna. Look at Ulysses and the Odyssey.
Two messages that have stood the test of time – unfortunately – are those conveyed by Brave New World and 1984: the totalitarian carrot in the first (Soma, or drugs in general) and the totalitarian whip in the latter (threatening the greatest fear of the individual or the group).