Would you give us a little background about yourself?
I am a woman, wife, mother, and grandmother; and for about 20 years I have been a poet active in the greater Los Angeles poetry scene. I am a Midwesterner by birth, having been born and raised in a mid-sized urban area on the Illinois prairie. I moved to California when I married and have lived over 50 years in the state—almost long enough to qualify as native! I have a post-graduate degree in literature from U.C. Berkeley and one in Creative Writing from Antioch, Los Angeles.
Would you share with me some early experiences with reading, writing, and art?
Long before I learned to read I was fascinated with visual and tactile art expressions. I remember vividly sitting at the dining room table with my crayons and a sheet of manila paper on which I looped a big free-hand figure with great abandon. Then I looked at it and colored in the enclosed areas of the loops. Often I asked Mother for a piece of paper so that I could do this.
In kindergarten my favorite activity was painting at the big stand-up easel on piece of newsprint, with tempura from cans of red, yellow, green, and blue.
I learned to read at the traditional time: first grade. Until then and afterward, my parents read to me a great deal. Mother read me all of the Heidi books, and Dad read me stories from the Saturday Evening Post. The one I remember most vividly is O’Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.” He also read the poems of Eugene Field and James Whitcomb Riley.
What kinds of stories were you told growing up?
I heard a great many stories about the Great Depression. My parents had just lived through it shortly before I was born, so that era was a background to my childhood in much the same way, I suppose, that my own children’s lives were colored by stories of the 1960’s. I also imbibed from mother the tales (colored with nostalgia) of life on the farm. She grew up in the country and made that life seem idyllic. In Sunday School I heard most of the child-friendly narratives from the Old and New Testaments—Bible stories that today I value as a rich part of my heritage. When missionaries visited our church to report on their experiences with Africans in the Belgian Congo, I was fascinated by the artifacts they put on display but skeptical of their entitlement—their assumptions that these people needed to forsake their own creeds and practices to become Christians.
Were there teachers or teachings that influenced you?
In 5th and 6th grades, I took a great interest in geography and the early history of the Americas. I remember an avid interest in the Incas of Peru and the Aztecs of Mexico, along with tales of the Spanish explorers who conquered them. All countries represented on the globe interested me in 6th-grade geography, but I was frustrated with the emphasis on natural resources, exports and imports, population demographics, etc. I wanted to know more about the customs and daily lives of the people living in those places. I credit my having to study geography in school for my interest as an adult in the novels of world authors such as Michael Ondaatje, Haruki Murakami, Chinua Achebe, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, V.S. Naipaul, Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, J.M. Coetzee, Amos Oz, and Zadie Smith, to name just a few. More recently, I’ve come to appreciate a number of poets outside the British-American tradition: Yehuda Amichai, Wislawa Szymborska, for example; also Pablo Neruda and Jean Follain. Additionally, I can trace my interest in foreign travel back to my exposure to geography. The lands and people of our world call out to me.
What were three pivotal moments in your life? How did they come to be?
Deciding to marry a California instead of a Pennsylvanian was a pivotal moment. It arose from my changing schools during my junior year in college, when I started dating the man I was later to marry instead of the boyfriend I had left behind. A life on the West Coast would prove to be quite different from anything I had anticipated, culturally and geographically at least.
Another moment pivotal for my lifestyle, indeed for my entire understanding of life, was the decision to abandon work on my Ph.D. and start a family. This put me on a different life track—less academic and professional and more oriented toward creating and sustaining a nurturing community for my family. I participated in wonderful communities in Pasadena and Claremont (I was close to the academy but not part of it except as a spouse). Eventually, my academic credentials led me to take up teaching in private, college-preparatory schools. I got interested in writing, something I had dabbled in throughout my adolescence and adulthood. This led to the third pivotal moment, which was choosing poetry as my genre instead of fiction (short stories) and enrolling eventually in a low residency MFA program.
Do you have mentors or other working artists who influence you today?
Paul Muldoon, my first poetry teacher, and Richard Garcia, one of my mentors in the Antioch program, still influence me whenever I attempt a poem in form, for these two outstanding poets taught me most of what I know about the range of forms available and what to do with them!
Other mentors include my peer group of local poets with whom, individually, I exchange poems; also several very wise and generous poets who have critiqued my manuscripts.
How did you come to have the creative pursuits and lifestyle you have?
I credit the communities in which I was, and still am nurtured. I’ve lived in proximity to colleges and universities all my life. As a child I grew up a block or so from one of the Illinois State University campuses, and it was there that wandered the open greens and its buildings, attended plays and concerts with my parents, and acted in a children’s theater production. Illinois Wesleyan University, a couple of miles up Main Street, was where I studied piano for eight years in the classrooms and studios of Presser Hall. My parents raised me with the expectation that I would go to college, and they were able to afford to send me to a small liberal arts college in Ohio. From there, it was almost by chance that I applied to U.C. Berkeley’s English Department and was accepted (the man whom I was marrying was already enrolled in the Physics Dept. there). As a younger woman with children, I lived near Caltech in Pasadena (where hubby was employed) and participated actively in its Women’s Club. Currently, I live several blocks from the Claremont Colleges in this vibrant college community. As a poet and curator of a poetry reading series, I collaborate with Claremont Graduate University faculty and staff as a community liaison in the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award programing. Finally, I have enjoyed the short-term communities of several outstanding writers conferences and retreats: in Sewanee, Tennessee; Iowa City; California’s Napa Valley; and at Spannocchia, in Italy’s province of Tuscany. Each of these confirmed for me that the path I was following was the right one.
Were there gatekeepers in the professional world for you . . . ?
The only time I’ve thought much about gatekeepers was when I was called one myself—by Hilda Raz, then Editor of Prairie Schooner, when she looked at the card I had just handed her and noticed that I was host and curator of a reading series. “So you’re one of the gatekeepers,” she said, not disapprovingly. As “one of the gatekeepers,” I’ve had the amazing privilege of learning from the poets to whom I’ve opened the gate. Each reader in our series has taught me something about writing poetry or its delivery to the audience. As a result of listening, and reading these poets’ books, I’ve gained much—strategies I use every day to extend my range and improve my craft.
Who are your favorite contemporary artists / musicians / writers?
I sing some contemporary music with the choral groups to which I belong, but I don’t have favorite composers, though John Rutter and Mark Hayes rank high. As for listening, the late Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla and the American John Adams are two whose music I like. I love listening to exceptional choral groups, such as the Los Angeles Master Chorale or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Favorite contemporary writers include poets Kay Ryan, Brenda Hillman, Marianne Boruch, Mark Doty, Tony Hoagland, Jericho Brown, Amaud Jamal Johnson, Forrest Gander, and Timothy Donnelly. Some fiction writers: David Mitchell, Marilynne Robinson, Alice Munro, A.S. Byatt.
Do you feel it is important to have more than one pursuit in life?
Definitely. Music has been a constant in my life since early childhood when I was taught to sing songs in church school. At every stage of my life, I’ve been in some way or other in relationship to music, whether it was the Top 10 hit parade platters, my piano lessons, or singing in the Girls Chorus in high school. Or that I continued singing in choral groups and church choirs in college and beyond. I listen to classical music (or sometimes jazz) almost every day. And going to concerts makes me happy. Music is my avocation. Language, poetry and po-biz are my vocation, what I am professionally trained to do. Music helps keep me sane as I pursue poetry, and yet the two are not unrelated. It’s a felicitous pairing.
Could you describe a current project you are working on now?
I’ve been writing a collection of poems about my experiences in music since childhood. Some of them deal with my piano lessons and music theory classes at the piano conservatory when I was about seven years old. The social and psychological dimensions of this experience for me and for my mother, who was required to accompany me to lessons, have been a fertile terrain. I’m also trying to capture what it’s like going back to playing the piano after many years away from it—playing some of the Bach standards from one of my ancient music books, the challenges of this. I feel that I’d like to write ekphrastic poems about particular music compositions from the point of view of a listener; but this is a much more elusive task. One that makes language do the work that the music itself is doing, perhaps: making the music accessible in a different medium and dimension.