The Gerald Locklin Interview
Introduction by Charles Harper Webb
I first met Gerry Locklin in the pages of the late, still-lamented Wormwood Review. I’m not speaking metaphorically. Gerry’s presence was so palpable in his words, I felt as if we were meeting in the flesh. When, a few years later, we did meet that way, I felt that we’d been friends for years.
Now that we have been friends for years, I still feel as I did back in the Wormwood days: wow, this Locklin guy can really WRITE!
He doesn’t, though, write capital-P Poetry. He doesn’t wander lonely as a cloud (although he writes well about loneliness). He doesn’t write sonnets to the sensitive (although he could). He doesn’t write post-post-post-modern experiments for the cognoscenti (although he knows as much about poetry and literature as anyone). His poetry, in its deceptive simplicity, has provoked the question, “Why is this a poem?” Rather than answer in a long essay (or diatribe), I remind the questioner that Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the brainiest of the English Romantics, defined poetry as “The best words in the best order.” That’s what Locklin gives us, again and again.
In the last forty-plus years, Gerry has published thousands of poems, dozens of books, and stands as a prime example of all that’s right with small presses in the U.S.A. The vibrant literary community of Long Beach, California, is due, I think, largely to him. Like his friend Bukowski, he has many imitators—including, sometimes, myself. A certain kind of poem—short, plain-spoken, narrative and/or meditative, using humor to shed light on the human condition—can rightly be called Locklinesque. But to write a Gerry Locklin poem is, to put it mildly, not as easy as he makes it seem. To write a Locklin poem as good as his, you have to be Gerry Locklin. And, as my wood shop teacher back in Houston used to say, “There ain’ no way.”
Gerry is sui generis (a term I learned from him). His poems sound like no one else’s. They’re generous, humane, brilliant, funny, insightful, wry, entertaining, tender, tough when they have to be, without a speck of pomposity or I’m-a-great-poet-ain’t-it-grand. They are, in fact, very like the man.
–Charles Harper Webb
When and where did you publish your first poem?
Marvin Malone, the editor of Wormwood Review, assured me that my first poem to appear in print was in that magazine. The poem was “Johnny Rigoletto.” I wrote it when I was in graduate school, 1961-64. It must have been published just at the end of that period or just after that.
But I’m sure the first poem I ever had accepted (except for campus magazines) was “Hart Crane,” which was accepted for publication by Approach, a fine little magazine published in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. It may have appeared slightly later than “Johnny Rigoletto,” or maybe Marvin was wrong and it appeared first.
The first poem I ever wrote that actually deserved publication was entitled “American Gothic,” after the Grant Wood painting, and it was published in the Holy Cross College literary magazine, which I believe was called The Purple Patch. Only three freshmen managed to be published in the quarterly (at least) issues of the magazine that year, and one of the others was Vito Acconci, a brilliant fictionalist who later acquired acclaim as a experimental performance and video artist. I had written reams of godawful poetry that year, all of which had been rejected, and rightly so, and then out of nowhere one night I somehow put the words to this creditable effort. I think the secret was that it was not about myself for a change and thus not melodramatic.
After receiving my doctorate and beginning my full-time teaching in fall of 1964, the publishable poems began to come with greater regularity and to be published in periodicals and anthologies and in my first chapbook, Sunset Beach, in 1967 (Hors Commerce Press, Torrance, CA, 300 copies). I corresponded with the editor but never met him. His name was Jim Callahan and he was a good guy. I had sent him a bunch of poems cold-turkey, getting the address out of the Directory of Little Mags, I think, and he took a bunch of them and printed them by hand in his garage. I think a clean copy costs more than I can afford nowadays. For a long time I thought those poems were “too young,” but these days they surprise me that they’re not at all that bad, most of them.
How does the small press publishing compare to past decades?
Oh, there are so many more mags and presses than there were when I started out. For a long time Ron Koertge and I (we became friends in graduate school at the University of Arizona) thought we only had The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly and Poetry (Chicago) to send to. And when we did discover The International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses from Dustbooks, those early annuals were “thin sheafs” compared to the hundreds of pages today. So there are many more schools and movements and MFA programs and online mags and who-knows-what nowadays. A lot more poets and a lot more publishing opportunities and performance venues to boot. The upside and downside are obvious: the process is highly democratic and much less in the hands of a few editorial arbiters, and one may hope that the cream will rise to the top, but it may just be diluted in the ocean.
The mag I published most prolifically in–literally hundreds of poems–was the aforementioned Wormwood Review, and I think it was the best poetry mag of its long epoch. Poetry LA was another one, quite different, edited by the elegant and tasteful and kind Helen Friedland. Others are Slipstream, Pearl, Tears in the Fence, Ambit, Nerve Cowboy, New York Quarterly, Quercus Review, Minotaur, Beggars and Cheeseburgers, Cafe Solo, Presa, . . . in my early years I published in a lot of university quarterlies such as Prairie Schooner, Beloit Poetry Review, Western Humanities Review, New Orleans Review, The Literary Review, etc. And since 1988 I’ve been poetry editor of Michael Hathaway’s Chiron Review. My son, Zachary, has joined me as co-poetry editor now, and John Brantingham and Ray Zepeda continue as fiction editors.
Your 1995 book Charles Bukowski A Sure Bet shares some key moments regarding your friendship with him. What were the circumstances that brought you two together and what one event of that relationship in the book or not stands out 15 years after the book was written?
The first essay in that book is “Meeting Charles Bukowski,” which goes into that first meeting in detail, much of it amusing, I’d say. Basically, I was asked to get in touch with him and ask him to read in Huntington Beach, and that fell through because they wanted him for free, and my summer department chair here at LB State came up with fifty bucks, which was more in 1970 than today. I borrowed a car, picked him up, watched him consume a strange hangover breakfast of soft-boiled eggs, took him to the 49er tavern for schooners of beer which he chucked up, along with the soft-boiled eggs, in the parking lot. He wasn’t famous yet, but the noontime reading in a lecture hall was reasonably well attended. Afterwards, we repaired back to the 49er. Eventually I drove him back to his place on De Longpre, where we drank more and b.s.ed until he said, “Here we are, back to the old literary chit-chat,” which I decided was a good time to leave. The friendship took off from that afternoon. He later read other times on campus for much greater fees in much more inebriated states.
When he later turned down blank-check offers to read that club bookers asked me to forward to him, I knew he genuinely hated to read and would no longer do so at any price. Not just trying to drive up the fees by playing hard to get. He had his own sense of dignity, and his audiences did their best to reduce him to the role of the fool. They didn’t succeed, but he regretted having lowered himself at all, and he regretted that readings drove him to even greater consumption of alcohol than was otherwise the case.
Audiences paid their money to see him act out, and after he gave them what they’d come for, they walked out complaining that they’d blown five bucks to hear a guy read who couldn’t even see the page, when that was exactly what they had paid to see.
It wasn’t pretty, but they were the fools, not Bukowski.
I am a small press publisher that strives for diversity but academic vs underground poetry keeps popping up—some poets make a distinction between the two, some make a ruckus. How do you see this…?
I’ve always had a foot in each camp, one of the few who have. But there’s much less of a divide these days. Mags like Chiron Review and NYQ and Pearl are open to the best writing of all styles and lifestyles. In, say, 1960, though, the schism was quite real, with anthologies like Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry, and Donald Hall’s New Poets of England and America agreeing on only one poet. Anyone who thinks schools of poetry are worth fighting over must have a lot more time on his or her hands than I do. I save my fanaticism for the Lakers and the Yankees.
What stands out as a memorable moment in your teaching career?
Too many to mention. I took my teaching as seriously as my writing and I still do. I’m still teaching for minimal compensation because I love the classroom and the students and the campus and the subject matter so. I was born with very limited talents: I can’t draw a straight line or change a lightbulb, but I can read and write and teach. I was born to write and born to teach, and I’m an awful ham, so I was very lucky to back into making a living by teaching literature and writing. I still can’t believe I was paid to do what I most loved to do. I guess Lou Gehrig was the luckiest man alive, but I was right up there. I taught my first class of the semester this afternoon, closed with a little Lady Gaga routine, had a ball. I’m not doing it for the money, though I don’t give back any of the paychecks. I do endow one of the department’s creative writing prizes in the spring. We have amazingly talented students and a first-rate faculty, my colleague Charles Harper Webb, for instance. I’ll be 70 next spring.
I see you have 125 or more books published and do not seem to be slowing down. Many are chapbooks and many are full length. Do you favor one type over the other? Does one title stand out for whatever reason? They say you never forget your first.
You don’t forget any of them, just like with women. “POOP and other poems” (1972) was kind of an underground classic, and I loved all my appearances in The Wormwood Review, and Son of Poop, and all the Applezaba Press titles and the five Water Row Books, and the beautiful Event Horizon volumes, and the ones now from Kamini Press and World Parade Books and Aortic Press and Lummox Press. Nowadays I get asked for more manuscripts than I have available, but that was certainly not the case for the first few decades. I was overjoyed for ANY opportunity to get my stuff in print. And I wrote and wrote and wrote, but in streaks, not every day, because I had many pressing obligations in my life, among them seven children from three marriages, and, so far, nine grandchildren. And, of course, I couldn’t neglect my drinking buddies. It’s been 17 years though since I put the cork in the bottle and the bottle on the shelf. I almost died of pulmonary emboli when I was fifty-two–I was about three hundred pounds. I shocked my lung doctor by taking off more than the hundred pounds he said I needed to, if I didn’t want to die the next time. I’ve put a few back on, but nowhere near what I took off. Still, I do need to take some off again. I swim almost every day, though badly, and I eat healthily, but it’s really hard to keep the weight off as you get older–ask any of us. I still lift weights too, but that no doubt does more damage than good.
How old were you when you wrote your first poem?
I didn’t actually write my first poems, I composed them. I was three or four years old and one of my aunts would stand me up on the bed looking out the window at bedtime and tell me to make up a poem, and I would, and she’d write it down, and so I grew up taking it for granted that I was a writer. And my mother was a first-grade teacher who taught me to read and write before I started kindergarten, which she got me the nuns to allow me to start when I was four and a half years old. Thus, I always got positive reinforcement from my teachers for my writing. Then I went through college in three years, and through a doctoral program in English lit in three years, so I had my Ph.D. when I was 23 and starting my teaching career at Los Angeles State College. The next year I began teaching at Cal State Long Beach and I’m in my office there writing this on a computer right now.
My mother, by the way, was the youngest of fourteen children and none of her siblings had any kids, and I was the only one she had, so I had lots of extra parents. She was also the only one to be allowed to go beyond high school (for two years of Normal School–teacher training). She later earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees after years of classes at night. My father was a very intelligent man who could do just about anything, but he had dropped out of high school. He later passed his GED easily. By no means did I come from an affluent background. In Rochester a lot of people worked for Eastman Kodak. I did have the advantage of Catholic schools from kindergarten through college. In those days you were pretty much excommunicated if you went to public schools, but I had a great education, and great athletic experiences as well.
I remember as a high school student and college student waiting for the next Brautigan release at the bookstore or pocket series. But something changed somewhere along the line. Did you experience any excitement similar to this? Do you believe it was the time that contributed to this ?
I loved Brautigan, Barthelme, Bukowski, Roth, Updike, Malamud, etc., all of them, and all the foreign authors too. Frankly I enjoy reading fiction much more than poetry. The novelists are writing for my pleasure. The poets are writing for their own. In college, graduate school, and for a long time after, I read a book a day–allowed myself three days to read a War and Peace or a Middlemarch. When I started teaching I wanted to learn everything there was to learn, including whatever science I was able to comprehend. I was not the exception. Our whole generation was like that, and we were very competitive with each other. Then I wrote a lot too. It’s easy to do things that you feel you’re good at. I’ve never agonized over writing or teaching. I just did it. We all did. Probably you too. Certainly you too. Aging takes its toll, but you don’t give in to that either. If you die with your boots on, then that’s the best way to go. Better yet if you have them on in bed. Fuck Death.
If you could have a sit down moment with anyone. Who would it be and how would it go?
I’d sit down with Lady Gaga and tell her to keep faith with her talent and not to let her fans drive her to an early death, as they did with Morrison and Janis and Jimi and Michael Jackson, but keep loving what she’s doing, and piss on the critics, and if anyone asks her if she’s a hermaphrodite, tell them that she wishes she were because then anytime someone told her to go fuck herself, she could. Let the great lyrics flow for as long as they will, as Dylan did, and keep the rhythms and polyphony driving us to turn any surface into a dance floor. And that she looked beautiful nude in Vanity Fair. I’d tell her not to ugly herself up just because it’s the fad. We still need beauty in the world, and there’s nothing more beautiful than a beautiful woman. Let her motto be: “Eschew the Tattoo!” Lose the drugs. Nobody really needs them. Ask any addict how much fun it is. I feel very fatherly towards Lady Gaga.