Marcus, Morton 1936-
Marcus, Morton 1936-
MARCUS, Morton 1936-
Born September 10, 1936, in New York, NY; son of Max Pincus (a garment manufacturer) and Rachel (a dress shop owner; maiden name, Babchek) Marcus; married Wilma Kantrowich, 1958 (divorced, 1971); married Donna Mekis, 1986; children: Jana Lin, Valerie Anna. Education: Attended Washington University, St. Louis, MO, 1956-58; State University of Iowa, B.A., 1961; Stanford University, M.A., 1968.
Home—1325 Laurel Street, Santa Cruz, CA 95060.
Elementary school teacher, Point Arena, CA, 1962-63; high school English and history teacher, San Francisco, CA, 1965-68, high school basketball coach, 1965-66; Cabrillo College, Aptos, CA, instructor in English and film, 1968-98. Director of county poetry-in-the-schools program, Monterey and Santa Cruz, CA, 1972-75; poet-in-residence at State University of New York at Buffalo, 1974, State University of New York at Alfred, 1976, University of Arkansas Graduate Writing Program, 1997, Providence College, 1998, and Fullerton College, 2001. Foothill Writers Conference, organizer, 1986—. Co-host of Poetry Show (radio show), KUSP, and CinemaScene (televsision show), KRUZ; also created sixteen-part television series Movie Milestones. Military service: U.S. Air Force, 1954-58.
Poets and Writers, King Fisher Flats Foundation (president).
Woodrow Wilson fellowship, 1961-62; MacDowell Colony fellow, 1975; Santa Cruz County Artist of the Year, 1999.
Origins (poetry), Kayak (San Francisco, CA), 1969, 3rd edition, 1974.
The Santa Cruz Mountain Poems, Capra (Santa Barbara, CA), 1972.
Where the Oceans Cover Us (poetry), Capra (Santa Barbara, CA), 1972.
The Armies Encamped in the Fields beyond the Unfinished Avenues: Prose Poems, Jazz Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1977.
Big Winds, Glass Mornings, Shadows Cast by Stars: Poems, 1972-1980, Jazz Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1980.
The Brezhnev Memo (novel), Dell (New York, NY), 1981.
Pages from a Scrapbook of Immigrants: A Journey in Poems, Coffee House Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1988.
When People Could Fly, Hanging Loose Press (Brooklyn, NY), 1997.
Moments without Names: New & Selected Prose Poems, White Pine Press (Buffalo, NY), 2002.
Shouting Down the Silence: Line Poems, 1988-2001, Creative Arts (Berkeley, CA), 2002.
Author of play The Eight Ecstasies of Yaeko Iwasake: A Legend in Poetry, Dance, and Music, produced in California, 1984. Work represented in more than eighty anthologies, including California Poets: A Centennial Anthology, 1976; Best Poems of 1975: Borestone Mountain Awards, 1976; A Geography of Poets, Bantam (New York, NY), 1979; Remembering Ray, Capra (Santa Barbara, CA), 1993; The Geography of Home: California's Poetry of Place, Heyday (Berkeley, CA), 1999; The Body Electric, Holt (New York, NY), 2002; and No Boundaries: Prose Poems by Twenty-four American Poets, Tupelo Press (Dorset, VT), 2003. Contributing editor, Prose Poem: An International Journal. Contributor of over 400 poems to more than 600 literary journals, including Poetry Northwest, Nation, Chicago Review, Ploughshares, Denver Quarterly, TriQuarterly, and Hanging Loose.
WORK IN PROGRESS:
Bear Prints: New and Collected Verse Poems, 1959-2002, and The Woodhouse Conspiracy, a novel.
Morton Marcus is a multifaceted poet whose work has been widely published in books, periodicals, and over eighty anthologies. He was a literature instructor for thirty years at Cabrillo College in California, where he also taught film history and criticism. Though he has concentrated on prose poetry since the 1990s, Marcus has also produced a considerable body of lined and narrative poems, written a stage play, and published an espionage novel titled The Brezhnev Memo. Long a supporter of the poetry community in California through his classes, workshops, readings, and radio shows, Marcus has sought to convey the vitality of contemporary prose poetry to the general public. Highly regarded by his peers, Marcus was named Santa Cruz County Artist of the Year in 1999, an honor shared previously by only two other poets, Adrienne Rich and William Everson. Summarizing Marcus's early work in the journal Shock, Andrei Codrescu described the writer as "the kind of priest-poet who …gets to the Light by tearing up the universe in ecstatic dance."
Marcus's poetry has shifted form considerably over the years. Originally working with traditional poetic structures, Marcus eventually gravitated toward free verse, which eliminated many constrictions of form, and then explored prose poetry, which has no line form at all. Marcus described this journey in an interview with Ray Gonzalez in the Bloomsbury Review: "When I gave up closed verse for free verse, I experienced a latitude, a freedom of choice, and found a more lively, vital voice. When I gave up the line, however, I experienced new ways of seeing and saying. It was a complete turnabout of traditional ways of doing things in poetry for me."
Marcus's Moments without Names: New and Selected Prose Poems contains five thematic sections of twenty-two poems each. Rather than order the works chronologically, he structured the book to mirror common watershed events in many peoples' lives: "Beginnings," "At Home," "On Streets and Roads," "Travels," and "Ends." Roughly half of the poems are new, and the rest are taken from his previous collections. In Shouting down the Silence: Line Poems, 1988-2001 Marcus gives readers a new selection of lined poems, most of which were written at the same time he was writing prose poems, highlighting his versatility. Some may consider it unusual for a poet to immerse himself in two diverse forms simultaneously, but as Marcus explained to Gonzalez, "I let the form of each poem I write be dictated by the particular impulse that drives me to put those particular words on paper, a process that remains as mysterious to me now as it was the first day I found myself writing a poem."
Because some in the poetry community have yet to fully acknowledge the legitimacy of prose poems, Marcus admits he has been somewhat marginalized, mainly because so few journals will publish his prose work. Add to that the fact that much of his work highlights the comic foibles of human nature, rather than the more prevalent theme of solipsism, and his audience shrinks even further. "I've always been on the margins of the American poetry scene," he told Gonzalez. As for his fondness for humor, he said that he's "drawn to the holy fools, cosmic clowns, idiot savants, not just for their boisterous, fun-loving, and at times scathingly sardonic attitudes toward humanity and the bumbling ways of the universe, but because they upset our habitual ways of seeing the world." Despite this, his work is praised by critics as being accessible. "With their unaffected, journalistic plainspeak," said Santa Cruz Sentinel writer Wallace Blaine, "Marcus's prose poems read as breezily as a newspaper clipping or a storyteller's monologue."
Marcus told CA: "A successful poem should speak not only to the head and heart but to the reader's cells, where the seeds of the universe's purpose have been embedded since the beginning of time, as if our chromosomes have been laid down like paving stones, one after another, and provide a silent, sure direction for us beyond rational understanding. The successful poem, then, taps each cell with an instinctive kind of knowing that causes it to resonate like a gong, until the millions of cells in the reader's body for an instant become an orchestra that trembles and swells with the music of recognition, a symphony of cosmic plentitude and unity.
"What poets come to learn is that language is inadequate to express what they want to say, yet paradoxically they have chosen language as their medium. Maybe that's because they don't want to say anything. They want to evoke everything they can: a mood, an experience, even an idea. It is this realization that makes them start using language to express what cannot be said.
"The craft of poetry is such that poets must use words to convey the experience: they don't tell what the poem is about, nor do they preach—they show, allowing (or insisting) that the reader participate in the work at hand.
"The poets' language, besides being free of clichés and trite phrases, is grounded in the senses: poets look at the world through their bodies, for they have captured the vision spirit inside their skins. Therefore, they use language in bursts of sense impressions called images.
"The image should never be used for ornament. It must always contain vision, always be profound and direct the reader to the overall vision of the poem.
"I conceive of the poet as an entertainer in words. But he also plays a social and spiritual role in that while he entertains he simultaneously reminds us of what is important in our lives, in many cases what we've forgotten or lost in terms of cultural traditions and a sense of our place in the universe.
"In the poem, the poet allows us to rediscover our spiritual selves. His function is to put us in touch with our feelings, or, in a deeper sense, to reveal to us once again 'the primal vision'—the psychic and physical goals of both the human race and life itself, which are indelibly stained on our chromosomes. In a way, and I don't mean to be presumptuous, poets are like doctors. The poem is their medicine. In this metaphor, the readers' illness is that they do not know, or have forgotten why, they are in this world and where they are going. As doctors of the spirit, the poets in their poems show the answers to the readers' questions, and in doing so they allow the readers to experience the way in which they can once more psychically enter the harmony of the universe."
My grandmother's family was from Grodno, Lithuania, then part of Russia. They "dealt in oil and grain, and had a mill on the river." She married beneath her, a peasant originally from the Ukraine, a hard man, a blacksmith with restless energy and that sense of dreaming, no matter how material or self-serving it may be, that inspires humans to give up all they know either to seek a better life or just to see what's on the other side of the ocean.
My grandfather came to the United States in 1908, but he was so poor it took him six years of endless labor to earn enough money to bring his wife and five children to this country. The family settled first in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn and later in a house in East Flatbush where my grandfather owned a cow, a goat, chickens, and a horse; he sold eggs and milk in the neighborhood, and dabbled in real estate. His two youngest boys, my uncles Abe and Frankie, got into mischief early and soon were involved in the gang life of Brooklyn. Abe became a numbers runner for, and later a friend and advisor to, the notorious Abe Reles (aka "Kid Twist"), whom he may have known from his early years in Brownsville. When Reles joined Murder Incorporated, he supposedly "gave" my uncle control of Brownsville. Frankie, purported to have a tinder-box temper, was my uncle's enforcer.
Is this true, or is it family myth? The story goes that my uncle earned millions in the numbers racket, paid the cops and judges in the area, and had interests in several restaurants. The family insists he wasn't a gangster but a gambler, while others, taking the middle road, said he was a racketeer.
What is fact is that on September 24, 1941, he was found slumped in his car with two bullets in the back of his head, and his murder drew headlines in New York newspapers for a number of days afterwards. What is also fact is that my uncle's money was never found and Frankie, realizing a contract out on Abe had to have marked him as well, disappeared. The day before he left, someone called my mother and said if anyone investigated or tried or avenge Abe's murder, the whole family would be killed, "starting with the kids." The panic this caused made everyone vow to forget Abe and the murder.
It was the great family tragedy. Abe was loved by everyone and considered the head of the family after my grandfather's death, and the mention of his name would send my mother and Aunt Bertha, her older sister, into hysterical tears for years to come. But the newspaper headlines were also a public humiliation, and the family quietly changed its name from Babchek to Balzac a few weeks after the shooting.
While all this turmoil was going on, my mother had grown into a woman of movie-star beauty. Men and women would stop her in the street and ask for her autograph. She was a willful girl, determined to make it out of Brooklyn into the glamorous life of money and fast living across the river in Manhattan. Dropping out of school in the fourth grade, she learned early that her beauty could be the key to open all the doors she wanted to walk through. She never liked men, really; they were to be used: merely a means to an end—money and a good address.
By the time Abe was killed, my mother was thirty-four years old and had been married five times—it's still unclear how many marriages she had—and had been separated from my father for two years. He was also a Russian Jewish immigrant, who had risen to be one of the top manufacturers in the garment industry, and had given my mother two of her dreams—the move from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and an apartment in an exclusive neighborhood.
My mother was not selfish about her good fortune. She provided for her mother in her last years, paid medical bills for her brothers and sisters and their children, and had her chauffeur drive her nephew and his friends in her cream-colored Cord to play baseball in Prospect Park.
I was born into this milieu in 1936. I hardly remember my father. Because of his addiction to gambling, his womanizing, and his jealousy of me, my mother said, she left him when I was three. Supposedly, he wanted to have her complete attention and to parade her in all her beauty in public. After the separation, my mother and I moved to Brooklyn for a time, and Abe, a bachelor, lived with us until his death.
My troubled youth, however, began years before my uncle was murdered. My beautiful mother had a life to live, a life that promised wealth and excitement, and a little boy was a barrier to such aspirations. Therefore, by 1940 I had already been sent to several boarding schools while we were on trips to Florida, and after Abe's death in 1941, I was a permanent resident at thirteen different boarding schools for neglected or emotionally troubled children. In fact, from the time I was three years old to the time I was twenty-one, I spent a total of three years at home—and in the summers, my mother sent me to camps.
The schools were similar to the ones immortalized by Charles Dickens in the nineteenth century, and when I first read Oliver Twist I seemed to recognize many of the places I'd spent my early years. Not that I needed to read great literature; such films as Tom Brown's School Days and David Copperfield showed me my life on film, so that I accepted my lot as being the normal course of every child's life.
I may have thought such a youth was normal, but that didn't keep me from rebelling against it. I was a boy without a father, as my schoolmates were quick to remind me, and my mother was not only a divorcee, a status regarded by most Americans at the time as close to whoredom, but, it seemed clear, she had abandoned me. I did not obey teachers or staff members, I refused to eat or learn my lessons, and was always fighting or moping in a corner somewhere. No wonder I was expelled from one school after another, and by the time I was nine I was running away from these institutions, which were not only in Brooklyn but in Westchester County, New York, and Connecticut.
Always the new boy at these schools, I was constantly beaten up by the bullies from the age of three. This situation of victimization continued until, at the age of six, I had an ingenious idea. Instead of letting the bullies beat me up, I would beat them up. I quickly discovered it was an idea that was easy to put into successful action. I would observe from the lead bully and his cohorts' words and approach when they were about to begin their ritual of intimidation or to attack. At such moments, I struck, and struck first, doing things no dull-brained bully would—not pushing or wrestling (as one would suspect, I was always smaller than the ringleader) but punching, and not only to the stomach and the chin but to the throat. So ferocious was my attack that I was left alone afterwards, for after the leader recovered I was usually offered a place in his inner sanctum, an offer I refused.
It was in this role as bully-beater that I learned the first great lesson of my life. I never accepted the bullies' generous offer to become a member of their bands because I knew what the cowed and victimized felt like, and instead of joining the bullies, I'd warn them to leave the other kids alone or they'd have to deal with me again. I didn't know it at the time, but out of these empathetic feelings arose a sense of compassion. So pronounced was my identification with the lot of others when I was six that I believe the roots of my writing and social activism in later years originated with this early response to bullies.
These early years were seminal in many ways. I continued to be an inattentive, rebellious student, and I was continually sent from the classroom to stand in a corner of the hall and stare at a fire extinguisher or a broom, or I remained in the class, sitting in a corner, wearing a conical paper dunce cap. Left to myself in these ways, I was forced to construct with my imagination the simplest of explanations of how things worked. Again, this was not a conscious undertaking, just a child's natural curiosity to learn how things functioned.
By the time I was ten, I had a complex cosmology in place, composed of popular cultural assumptions, Old Testament Bible tales, radio programs, advertisements, and comic books that combined to create an eccentric if not absurd universe where everything from why the stars came out at night to how can openers worked took on serious, convoluted, and, in many cases, interconnected explanations. These explanations were accompanied by a variety of daily rituals it was my responsibility to perform in order to maintain the order of the universe.
For example, to make sure the sun would rise each morning, I would hold open my eyes to that blazing star the day before. If the day was cloudy, I would walk in circles a number of times or not touch the floor with my feet when I got out of bed in the morning, agilely sliding my toes into the mouths of my waiting shoes, which on behalf of the world carried my feet gently all day in their obedient jaws. These rituals were endless and most of the time performed on behalf of the planet, if not the universe, rather than for myself. They were childish superstitions, of course, and maybe inadvertent admissions of early delusions of grandeur, or incipient megalomania, but I like to think of them more as the honing of my imagination rather than the workings of a diseased mind. Out of them emerged a world of wonder and mystery, which has inspired my writing and my vision of life.
At the same time, and very much a part of these rituals, I began to play a strange game that was to have far-reaching consequences. I'm sure the game arose because I couldn't draw. Even in kindergarten art periods, I created the most wretched stick figures saluting the flag or, with hands joined, setting off on a smiling family outing.
This deficiency in my artistic abilities inspired me to paint word pictures of anything on which my eye might alight. I started playing this word game when I was seven years old. I was at the Hudson School in New Rochelle, New York, and my room was adjacent to the house mother's. A heavy-set woman who always wore a gray uniform, she would get up at around 5:30 each morning and turn on the radio, first listening to gospel music, then news of the war in Europe, and finally Arthur Godfrey. That was her ritual, and it took place an hour and a half before she woke the boys and girls in her "house." But the radio woke me, and soon I was looking forward to hearing the church music and opening my eyes in the pre-dawn dark to see the plane of light outlined at the bottom of the old woman's door.
By overhearing the news reports on the old woman's radio, my world was enlarged beyond the school grounds and New Rochelle. I became aware of world events and history. World War II was raging in Europe and the Pacific, and like litanies I murmured over and over again the strange names I heard: Guadalcanal, Bataan, Midway, Stalingrad, Leningrad, and the Urals. On one report accompanying news of the Russian front, there was a dramatization of Napoleon's march into Russia and his defeat by both the winter weather and the heroic Russians.
That program and other news reports of events at the Russian front led me to idealize Russia. After all, my family on both my mother and father's sides came from Russia. In Russia, I was convinced, I would not be an outsider. I would be a heroic fighter, loved by the world.
These were the kinds of notions that scampered through my brain each morning, as I lay undisturbed before the other students woke. And as I thought about the news reports, or the experiences of the previous day, or the longings for my mother who was in such faraway places as "Frisco" or Little Rock, Arkansas, I would create pictures of those events or places, pictures that were drawn with words I'd mouth, piles of words I would pick among like a scavenging bird, discarding some, choosing others, until I had words that best described what I was seeing in my head.
Soon I was playing this word game throughout the day, snatching the words that would capture how the wind moved in the trees across the road, what the cruel mathematics teacher looked like when he was angry, and what the sound resembled when all the hundred or more boys and girls were let loose after dinner on the athletic field.
Was this the beginning of my becoming a writer? I have no doubt it was. Did I know it at the time? Of course not. I was just a seven-year-old kid playing a lonely boy's game, a game, like the rituals, which gave him a sense of his place, if not his power, in the world, and allowed him to avoid thinking of how alone he was and why his mother, who would call him on the phone every week from one faraway place or another, wouldn't visit him—or take him home.
Another reason the games didn't immediately point to my future as a writer was that I wasn't able to read until I was almost ten years old, when the man who became my mother's sixth husband taught me to sound out the words on billboards as we drove through New York City or in the country. Even playing the word game didn't inspire me to master the function of reading, so I could bury my loneliness in books. I was a morose, angry, lonely child.
My life in the schools continued until I was ten years old, when my mother remarried. She and her new husband, a rich garment manufacturer, bought an estate in Westchester County, thirty miles north of the city. Finally I had a home, my mother, and a father. My miseries seemed to be over. But the idyllic family situation lasted less than a year, when my new father revealed homicidal tendencies. The ugly divorce proceedings were reported in all the New York tabloids, and their salacious articles were highlighted with endless photos of my beautiful mother.
My mother and I moved to an apartment in New York City after that, and she kept me home, sending me to a public junior high school, where I discovered my athletic prowess, developing into an excellent basketball and baseball player. I also discovered I had a sense of humor, which was sharpened by the street wit of the boys I hung around. I wasn't a loner anymore, and would play ball with my new friends in the school-yard and in Central Park until all hours. But the guys I was mingling with also stole and dealt drugs, and in the spring of 1949, two uniformed cops paid my mother a visit and advised her to send me out of town for my own good. I hadn't done anything wrong yet, they said, but it was only a matter of time.
The result was that my mother sent me to boarding school again. But now there was a difference. Always aware of status, she managed to enroll me in a highly regarded Ivy League prep school, where the new headmaster wanted to break the school's anti-Semitic entrance policies. I had three fights the first week I was there, but my athletic abilities and street humor won my classmates over. I played varsity basketball and baseball, and the headmaster was so pleased with my accomplishments in race relations and sports that he awarded me an athletic scholarship for the following year.
But of all the events that befell me that first prep school year, the most important was my meeting Roger Maren. There is an old saw that each of us will meet the person who will change his life forever. For me, that person was Roger Maren.
Maren was the master of the freshman dormitory. He had been hired that year as the school's English teacher (the school only had 100 or so students), and he was a linguist, musician, translator, and writer. He was in his early twenties, and so thin that when he was sitting or standing his postures were those of a contortionist, as he bent his arms around his body or wrapped his legs around each other.
At night before lights out, he would invite the students into his room, where he passed around a gallon jar of apple cider, played the guitar, sang folk songs in several languages, played 78-rpm records of Django Reinhardt, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, and Ledbelly, and told us about their lives. Most of the other students thought Maren was "weird," but he fascinated me with his stories and songs. I learned his renditions of "Sam Hill" and "Barbara Allen" by heart as well as a dozen other English folk songs within a month, and I was mesmerized by the big sound of Ledbelly's twelve-string guitar and Django's unique picking style.
"Any time anyone wants to come in and talk, or wants to borrow a book, just knock," Maren said the first night he invited everyone into his room. I took him up on his offer in my inimitable New York street style. I knocked on his door a week later, told him I'd like to read a book, and when he asked what kind, I answered, "Something dirty."
Without hesitating, he took down James T. Farrell's "Studs Lonigan" trilogy. "I'll give you this and any book you would like to read, but on one condition: You've got to discuss it with me after you're finished and write down questions you may have while you're reading it."
And so I was introduced to the world of books with my personal tutor. Next came Gulliver's Travels and Rabelais, and the questions and discussions went deeper and deeper. My grades, even in English, remained deplorable, but I was reading everything I could get my hands on, transported by the word pictures in books to other places and other times and into the lives of other people, in many cases into lives similar to my own.
In mid-November, Maren gave me the key to the school's library, which stretched in glass cases down one side of the classroom hallway in the main building. I read almost all the books in Random House's "Modern Library" series—histories, novels, poetry—with Maren showing me the fine points or directing me to the significance of what I was reading. Soon, I was tackling everything from Richard Wright's Native Son and Black Boy to James Joyce's Ulysses, and Franz Kafka's The Trial.
By Christmas vacation, I'd begun to write, trying to put my own word pictures on paper. But my efforts were mostly science-fiction stories or satirical fantasies. Then, somewhere I heard that a poet's "sensitivity" made him "attractive" to the opposite sex, so I turned my literary endeavors to poetry—bad poetry, really bad poetry. The word pictures were somehow forgotten for a time and replaced by abstract protestations using a lot of "thy's," "o'er's," and "yee's."
As for Maren, his strange body movements and bohemian ways made him the subject of ridicule behind his back. I became his defender: first verbally, then physically; and let everyone know that if they bothered him they would have to cross me, and now that I was one of the school jocks, a part of the "in" crowd, only a belligerent few wanted to get on my bad side. Actually—and it occurred to me even then—I was once more defending someone I considered a victim of the bullies.
On the weekends when Maren had on-campus duties, he had visitors. One who came several times was the poet, fiction writer, and social theorist, Paul Goodman, whose book on the growing disaffiliation of youth in America, Growing up Absurd, would be an important contribution to the thinking of the 1960s. Maren introduced me to him, the first "real" writer I had ever met, and he encouraged me to keep writing. His early book of short stories, The Break-up of Our Camp, had a profound influence on the direction of my work.
In the city on holidays or during the summer before I went to camp, I became a haunter of bookstores—the used book row below 14th Street and the Marboro Book Shops with their seemingly endless tables of remainder books. In addition, I joined the headmaster's ballet and opera clubs, and with them went to the city to attend performances of the New York City Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera.
That summer I honed my basketball and baseball skills at camp, sharing my passion for books as well as my tales of love with a wonderfully compassionate and athletic counselor called Whitey, who showed me that a man could be sensitive as well as manly, another lesson I was not to forget.
For the month after camp was over and before school began, I once more played basketball every day at the 81st Street courts in Central Park, but the guys I had hung around with the year before were no longer there, and I never saw them again. Now, however, I started playing early and leaving by two or three o'clock in the afternoon to sit or wander until closing time through the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art, a sweaty kid in T-shirt and sneakers the guards at first eyed with concern, but after a while would smile at and nod to in greeting. I had changed. What my mother and the headmaster had intended was happening. My rough edges were being smoothed.
Although my thinking became a jumble of notions about death, Taoism, and existentialism over the next ten years, my writing didn't take a serious turn until I was in the Air Force. I enlisted in the fall of 1954 because I had flunked out of high school the previous spring and was at loose ends. My basketball career seemed over, and after living with my mother for three months I thought that even an experience that resembled boarding school life was preferable to remaining in the tiny apartment with her.
Two days after I enlisted I realized that by the time I was discharged I would have spent one fourth of my life in the military and eighteen of my twenty-one years living in dormitories. Maybe that's why writing became more important to me than ever before: I needed to write for both solace and self-understanding. This need started during a pass from boot camp in November of 1954 and has continued unabated ever since. I bought three stapled booklets by Kenneth Patchen at a Syracuse bookstore while on the pass, and read them to pieces. At Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, where I was assigned after boot camp, I began studying and copying poetic techniques, especially closed forms and poems that demonstrated varied diction and different tones of voice. My models were Richard Wilbur, Karl Shapiro, Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Bishop, Muriel Rukeyser, and the young Adrienne Rich. I found many of those poets in the Twayne Mid-Century American Poets anthology that I had also bought in Syracuse. I was especially intrigued with evoking spoken American through closed forms and marveled at how Robert Frost projected a New England voice through rhymed, metered quatrains and sonnets. I also learned a lifelong lesson, namely, that even the smallest and most innocent library could, and probably did, carry literary gems and oddities. At Scott's library I found David Ignatow's The Gentle Weightlifter in the poetry section and renewed it again and again. Ignatow's plain, spoken style intrigued me. I also read and liked the work of T. S. Eliot, not for its endless allusions, but for the subtly nuanced speech rhythms he used in "Prufrock," "Gerontion," "Journey of the Magi," and other poems. And, of course, I was drawn to the poems of William Carlos, whose imagist background and concerns with American speech patterns were enormous influences.
At the same time, I discovered the main library in downtown St. Louis and began dating one of the librarians. She introduced me not only to her wholesome Midwest family, but also to the small St. Louis literary world, and had me send my poems to the library's annual contest in which I took third place. At the awards ceremony I wore my uniform and read my poem. I was an anomaly—a warrior poet. On the basis of the award, several fledgling poets my own age courted me, and the editors of local literary journals published my early poems.
I was also taking out books from the library on such subjects as history, literary criticism, and biography. Maurois' biography of George Sand, and her relationship with Balzac, fascinated me, since my family, wanting to avoid notoriety, had changed its name from Babchek to Balzac after my uncle's assassination.
The most instructive books were Brooks and Warren's Understanding Fiction and Understanding Poetry. I read them diligently and came away with many ideas.
All this literary activity was suspended during a six-month self-pitying drinking binge after which I began putting my life together. I had my mother ship me my text books, got my high school diploma, and decided to go to night school at Washington University in nearby St. Louis. I seemed to be blossoming with questions like a thorny rose bush. My first two years in the Air Force had made me hungry to learn because I had been directly exposed to war, politics, and military folderol. I wanted to know why certain things had happened in the past, how things worked, and why people acted as they did as a species and as individuals—and what the great thinkers had to say about those subjects, which, of course, were history, philosophy, the physical and social sciences, and literature.
I took a number of classes at Washington University, including a creative writing class taught by Jarvis Thurston, a wonderful short story writer and editor of the national literary quarterly Perspective. Thurston, who was in his late fifties, was married to the poet Mona Van Duyn, who co-edited Perspective with him. Both of them were very encouraging, and I found Thurston's excitement about literature infectious. He taught me that reading and writing were inseparable and that a reader should read as a writer wrote and intended—or that the act of reading was as creative in its way as was the act of writing. I attended the workshop for the year and a half left of my enlistment.
A few months before my discharge, friends told me about the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. I mentioned it to Jarvis after the next workshop meeting. He smiled and told me that he and Mona had taught there and he would be happy to send a letter of recommendation for me. Coincidences seemed to be pointing me in a definite direction, and I decided to let them carry me along. "Besides," Thurston said, "Mona and I have accepted one of your poems for Perspective. So you're now a nationally published writer, and Paul loves having published writers in the workshop."
And so he did. With Jarvis' letter in one hand and my high school and Washington University transcripts in the other, Paul Engle, the director of the Writers' Workshop, walked my admissions form through the registrar's office at the State University of Iowa and found me a place to live.
On a hot, humid August day in 1958, my discharge papers and college acceptance forms on the seat beside me, I drove my Volkswagen beetle north along the western shore of the Mississippi River to Iowa and the life of a bona fide writer.
My three years at Iowa was a period of great change, not only because of my studies, but because I was married the previous spring. I had met Wilma Kantrowich during the fall of my senior year of prep school. She was two years younger than I and an intelligent, aspiring dancer. She was intrigued by my knowledge of dance, music, books, and art in general. She had never met a boy who knew about art, particularly dance. We corresponded and began to date when I came home during the holidays, and we continued writing each other almost daily when I was in the Air Force. Her intelligence, our mutual commitment to the arts, and our intimate rapport led to our marriage a few months before my discharge.
The apartment Engle had found us in Iowa City belonged to the poets Don Finkel and Constance Urdang, who were leaving town. I had read a number of Don's poems in literary journals and enthusiastically accepted his invitation to dinner and his advice as we sat around the table. Two things he said have allowed me to avoid many mental and emotional pitfalls in my writing life. First he warned me to beware of competition and second he urged me to continue writing without regard to whether I was a good writer. From what Don and Connie said I realized that writing was a solitary, individual undertaking in which one could not compete with another. In the same way, one didn't have to be a "good writer" since one could only write what one wrote and goodness or badness had nothing to do with a writer's undertakings—only the desire (or the need) to perform the act of writing was important, and performing it to the best of one's ability.
I entered Iowa as an undergraduate in English but was allowed to attend the graduate poetry workshop. In a way, it was like having the best of two worlds. But if my experiences in my undergraduate studies in Iowa were more than I had expected, the writers' workshop proved to be much less.
I had come to the Poetry Workshop thinking I would learn the secrets of writing I had not been able to discover on my own. What I found instead were several teachers and their acolytes rigidly promulgating assumptions about what constituted a successful poem. Iowa had become a bastion of what was termed at the time "academic poetry"—a poetry that was founded on closed forms and was almost entirely concerned with technique. Not only sonnets but such forms as sestinas and villanelles were held in high regard by the powers that be. Students experimenting with free forms were not only frowned upon but derided in class—if their poems were discussed at all.
Technique wasn't the only area of the workshop's concerns. There was an unspoken rule that subject matter and theme should be impersonal and non-controversial. Most of the poems, therefore, were about scenes, characters, or stories from Greek and Roman mythology, fairy tales, and the Bible, from which the poet would make ironic and/or insightful comments. Visionary poetry or ecstatic utterances were not fit subjects for discussion.
Although these guidelines would loosen somewhat in the early 1960s, when Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, and W. D. Snodgrass published the first books of confessional poetry, I found the limited scope of the workshop depressing. I was relishing my new friends and all my other classes at Iowa except the one I had come to the university to attend. In the end, the situation in the workshop acted as a catalyst that made me confront my reasons for writing. Certainly I didn't want to write about the Greek gods or comment about Biblical tales. And witty irony was no more a part of my writing than it was of my personality.
By the end of my first two months at Iowa, I had decided to work in free verse, writing in an informal, conversational American idiom. My subject matter would be taken from common everyday life and I would elevate the ordinary to the marvelous, as if in my poetry I was uncovering a glittering diamond buried in a clump of mud. This thematic direction was pursued more than understood by me for years to come, but attendant with it was a grasping for the visionary over the insightful, the intuitive over the rational, and the resultant poems were rendered in a non-rational imagery that welled up from I knew not where in my psyche—an imagery that would be called by others surreal, subconscious, "deep," and heaven knows what else.
The best thing about any creative workshop is the people you meet there. They are usually your own age and as dedicated to writing as you are. Soon you and several classmates are meeting outside class, discussing writers and writing, trading manuscripts, and commenting on each other's work. The relationships are many times the most intense, long-lasting, and artistically satisfying you will ever have.
It was no different in Iowa. There were five of us who liked the direction and quality of each other's work. We got to talking individually or in groups and finally began to meet regularly in the student union cafeteria after Monday's class, where we would rehash what had just transpired in the workshop. After several cups of coffee, we would wander downtown to Kenny's Bar where we would meet with others and talk writing and politics for the rest of the evening. Although I was the only undergraduate in the writers' workshop, most of us were Korean vets on the G.I. bill. We were not naïve kids but men in our early to mid-twenties, who were questioning everything about the tranquil, buttoned-down world of America in the 1950s.
Since I had a 4.0 average from my classes at Washington University, I was admitted to Iowa as an honor student, which, under a new policy, encouraged me to visit any professor in his office at any time for private conferences. It was this part of my stay at Iowa that far exceeded my expectations. I took philosophy classes from an as yet unknown Richard Popkin, and made an intensive study of Chinese civilization under Professor Mei Yi Pao, the world's foremost authority on Mo Tzu. I had gone to his office to inquire about a Chinese literature course and come away minoring in Chinese civilization.
As an undergraduate, I was expected to take a number of required courses. One of them, geology, was a revelation, and accounted for one of the most memorable and important experiences of my life. The head of the department, knowing my presence in the "famous" workshop and my position as honor student, asked me if I would like to take his field geology course in place of the second semester of introduction to geology. The second half his class, he said, would be spent outdoors, digging up fossils. I didn't hesitate to say yes.
The first day in the field was sunny, but a late winter chill was still in the air. We drove in a school bus to a farm outside Cedar Rapids. The rusted barbed wire fence on the gate proclaimed KEEP OUT—STATE PROPERTY, but the state had leased the land to a farmer.
The professor unlocked the gate and herded the fifteen of us onto a stony wagon path that hadn't been used in years. Sparse patches of grass had grown down the middle of the track, and we followed it for several hundred yards, when it curved downward, below the level of the ground, descending for a hundred feet or so into a quarry with a muddy green pond at the bottom.
We trudged down the path, leaving the sunlight and the upper world behind us. It was shadowy and chilly, and most of us had stopped talking before we reached the quarry floor. We were surrounded on all sides by a giant wall.
"Okay," said the professor. "I want you to line up against the wall, facing me." He waited until we did. "Now this is what we've been talking about in class that many of you doubted was true. Ready? I want you to turn around and look at the wall."
We did as he instructed. I actually gasped and heard the same reaction from several others. I was facing a gray wall of compacted bushes and sea creatures, and the pattern of animal remains and vegetation continued from the floor of the quarry for as far up as I could see.
As we watched transfixed, the professor continued to talk. "As I said in class, Iowa was once part of a tropical inland sea. What you are looking at—and standing in the middle of—is a reef 400 million years old that's crammed with fossils. A hundred years ago this was a limestone quarry that the owners had to abandon because of all these little buggers. It was a nuisance to them, but a goldmine to geologists. We'll be visiting five or six more quarries like this, but now, to work. I want you.…"
I was entranced, and the professor's words whirled away in the vortex of time. I recalled the naturalist Loren Eiseley descending a narrow cave on the Great Plains, each footstep down taking him thousands of years back in the earth's history. It was a mystical experience for Eiseley, and I realized that the descent into the quarry was a mystical experience for me. Suddenly time, that ungraspable dimension, was palpable. I felt claustrophobic, hemmed in by the immensity of the time trapped in the wall around me. One hundred feet of wall equaled hundreds of millions of years. In many ways, I was standing nose to nose with my ancestors, creatures who would eventually crawl onto land and stand erect in the thin air. I felt like a flyspeck, less than a blink of dust in the scheme of things. My ego deflated like a punctured balloon.
I worked for the next six hours in a daze, breaking open rocks and exposing the fossils of trilobites and other ancient sea animals.
That evening I brought eight of my cronies to the quarry, a half-drunk squadron of poets and fiction writers carrying several six-packs of beer. We scrambled over the barbed wire, ripping our clothes and hands, and made our way, stumbling and traipsing, arms cradling the six-packs, down the gravel road to the quarry. When we reached the bottom, I lined the motley crew up against the wall in the dimming light, and as the professor had done, told them to turn around. Again, as the class had earlier in the day, several of my friends gasped, but then all of them stood silently and marveled. Though covered in a darkening layer of shadow, the details of the reef were still visible. A few of my friends went up to the wall and ran their fingers along the edges of the fossils. Soon all of them were running their palms over the contours, caressing the wall as they would a woman.
Slowly the light drained from the quarry and soon we were all talking at once, opening the beers, and becoming more and more boisterous as darkness enveloped the quarry and our voices echoed across the black pond. It seemed as if we were trying to dispel the eerie atmosphere and the pervasive chilliness around us. Then someone said, "Hey, look up," and we turned our gazes skyward to see a scattering of stars above the quarry's small rounded opening. I shivered. I felt I was at the bottom of a well looking up at eternity spreading far beyond my gaze and the limitations of my vision. Several of the guys let out wild whoops, and one began a drunken stomping dance. All of us joined in, and I suddenly conceived of us as prehistoric men living in a primeval world, dancing in fear and celebration at the immensity of our ignorance in the cosmic scheme of things, which at the same time we felt an integral part of.…
What I learned that day, more immediately than any book could have told me, was the immense span of geologic time and humankind's infinitesimally small place in it. One could say that I came away with a view not of human but of cosmic history. This vision, if I may be so bold as to call it that, was to inform the themes of my writing and can be seen in both the selection and treatment of my subject matter and the very conception of my imagery and metaphors. It would become the foundation of my thinking. Although this notion can be seen continually surfacing throughout my work, it is most clearly stated in the poem "My Aloneness," which is the opening poem of my 2002 poetry collection, Shouting down the Silence.
By the spring semester of my third year at Iowa I was getting ready to graduate. My grades put me in the top ten percent of my class, I made Phi Beta Kappa, and the professors in the English department had nominated me for a Woodrow Wilson fellowship, which I easily won. Although I had planned to do graduate work at Iowa in Chinese studies, the terms of the Fellowship insisted I do my graduate studies at another college. Hoping to continue my Chinese studies at Columbia or the University of California at Berkeley, I almost offhandedly applied for admission to Stanford as well. Ironically, Stanford was the only one of the three that deigned to answer my inquiries. I had applied there for admission in English literature rather than Chinese studies, and this simple, absent-minded mistake determined the future course of my career.
A month later, Wilma and I packed our little Volkswagen with our few belongings and headed for California. Although we didn't know it, Wilma was pregnant with our first child, a girl we would name Jana.
After a year at Stanford, Wilma, the baby, and I lived in northern California and New York City before settling in San Francisco in 1965, when I was hired as English and history teacher and sometime basketball coach at Lick Wilmerding high school. I also set up regular visits to the school by local writers. But Lick didn't occupy all my time during the three years I taught there. I was writing steadily and publishing in journals throughout the country, and during the spring of 1966, I began to organize poetry readings with two other poets at the I-Thou Coffee Shop in the Haight Ashbury district of the city.
More important, I was one of the original group that founded the Artists Liberation Front, an organization that was attempting to stop both censorship and centralization of the arts in San Francisco. I became vice chair of the Neighborhoods Committee, which was headed by George Hitchcock, an actor, playwright, poet and activist who had started publishing Kayak magazine the year before. In time, he would publish not only my poems regularly but my first book as well.
Among the many things the committee did was put on art festivals around the city and seek out neighborhood arts groups and encourage them to organize. I was living in the largely Latino Mission district and found a group of painters, musicians, and poets at the community center, and helped them organize into a Latino arts group. At the same time I organized the first neighborhood performance of the Front, which consisted of bilingual readings by Latino and Anglo poets as well as jazz music and a recitation by a Gaucho poet from Argentina who was living in the Mission.
I met many members of the San Francisco arts community through my association with the Front, a number of whom I asked to read at the coffee shop as well as at Lick. One person was a Yugoslav professor of literature who was in the United States on a Fulbright fellowship. He asked if he could read translations he had made from the work of the Yugoslav poet Vasko Popa. I thought it would be a novel event, and I accepted. Would I look over the translations and "brush them up," the professor then asked? I shrugged a disinterested acceptance, but when I read the poems I underwent one of those moments archaeologists must experience when they unexpectedly discover a treasure-laden tomb or lost civilization. Even in their awkward English renditions, the originality of the poems struck a response in me that poems seldom do.
Popa wrote sequences of short, ten-to-sixteen-line poems that took their direction from riddles and, I discovered later, Serbian folk tales. Poems from one sequence in particular, "Games," set me off on a three-month explosion of writing, which turned out to be a sequence in itself, and, within the year, my first book, Origins. From that point on, half my work has been conceived of in sequences. Popa had entered my consciousness. Several years later, he would enter my life.
The coffee shop was jammed for every performance, and I was learning more about organizing and publicizing with each event I put on. I was also being invited to give readings of my own in other venues in the Haight and in different parts of the city, and I gave a number of readings at different city libraries.
The Artist Liberation Front meetings took place at the Fillmore Auditorium on Monday nights, when the rock and roll palace was closed. Bill Graham, its owner and entrepreneur, was on the steering committee. The meetings were tumultuous and more emotionally exhausting every week. Fewer and fewer people were in attendance from one meeting to the next, and the group dwindled from three hundred to less than fifty. Finally, I stopped going regularly, then did not go at all. In January 1967, I received a phone call inviting me to a goodbye party for the Front; the organization was disbanding. The party would be a "gathering of the tribes," the caller said, mostly the original members and a "few friends" of the organization.
When I arrived at the Polo Grounds in Golden Gate Park that afternoon of January 14, 1967, an unexpected sight greeted me. The "few friends" had turned out to be 20,000 people, painted, costumed, wearing garishly colored tie-dyed shirts and paisley-patterned blouses and trousers. Jefferson Airplane played, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti read, and Jerry Rubin, Timothy Leary, and others spoke, as the crowd passed around food, drugs, and drink.
I stood on a slope overlooking the Polo Fields with several friends from the Front, and we stared speechless at the masses of people below, a crazy-quilt patchwork of colors. "Well, I guess we did it," one of us finally said. I nodded. What we had tried to do—ignite the minds and souls of the country to new political, social, and cultural possibilities—seemed to be rising like a phoenix out of the ashes of the Front's demise. The next day the newspapers described the gathering as a "be-in." It was the first one. Woodstock wouldn't happen until two years later.
The be-in at the polo fields signaled more than the end of the Artists Liberation Front. It was also the beginning of the end of the creative explosion known as the Haight Ashbury years, as well as my stay in San Francisco. The following year I moved to Santa Cruz, California, where I had been offered a job teaching English at Cabrillo College. There were four of us now, Wilma, Jana, me, and a new daughter, Valerie.
In 1968 Santa Cruz was still a small, rural county, hugging the California coast seventy miles south of San Francisco, and extending twenty miles inland through a landscape of mountains and redwood forests.
Most of Santa Cruz's population consisted of farmers, fishermen, shop workers, and retirees. The only industries were the food freezing and canning factories and apple storage barns in Watsonville and south county, and the Wrigley gum and Lipton tea factories on the outskirts of the town of Santa Cruz.
But cosmopolitan changes were already taking place by the time Wilma and I and our two daughters arrived. In 1965 the University of California had opened its ninth campus on the old Henry Cowell ranchero above the town of Santa Cruz, and, more important, the county had established a community college in 1961 whose administrators and teachers were actively changing the political, social, and cultural world of the county.
Wilma and I wanted to live by the sea, but we found an idyllic rental high in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It was well off the road, part of an undeveloped forty-acre parcel owned by an old couple who lived in a small house at the front of the property. Our house, set against a redwood grove, had been the main house when the owners were young and raising a family.
The rest of the property consisted of dirt roads and gravel paths that continued onto thousands of uninhabited acres of county water-table land and second-growth forest. There were no fences or boundary markers in the shadowy woods, and I was free to wander wherever I liked in the uphill-downhill landscape that occasionally opened on an upland meadow and led, in one direction, to an abandoned quarry that fell more than a thousand feet in three tiers and resembled, even with its rusty machinery, the ruins of an ancient civilization.
After tentatively exploring the edges of this world, I plunged deeper and deeper into it, spending whole days wandering through it alone or taking six-year-old Jana or Wilma with me for short walks. Soon I was taking long hikes alone, carrying a light backpack filled with sandwiches and bottles of water or wine, and after the first poems announced themselves in my head, I added a spiral notebook to my gear.
The word "announced" is carefully chosen here because I was not writing the poems, but hearing them—in many cases fully written—in my head. The whole process was very mysterious, and at times frightening. But I gave myself up to whatever was happening to me. At times I would sit on a lichen-covered tree trunk and watch the play of light and shadow or observe the animal life—birds and deer mostly—that would go about their business unconcerned after I had remained still for a while. At other times I would nap, jolting awake at voices that seemed to whisper from the wind or mutter from the mulch of leaves that carpeted the trails and hillsides around me. At such times I would grab the notebook and write what I "heard."
Am I being fanciful here or giving in to poetic delusion? Whatever the situation I was experiencing, that was the impetus that accounted for hundreds of short, Chinese-and haiku-like poems in the next three years, and, more important, put me intimately in touch with, I still like to think, a mysterious element in my surroundings. The novelist James D. Houston defined it as my discovery of nature, and I'm sure he's correct. As a city boy, even though I attended schools in the countryside outside Manhattan, I was living in a closeness with nature in Santa Cruz I had never experienced before.
In 1971 I chose the best of the poems I had been writing for the past three years and arranged them in a sequential order approximating a day-long walk through the mountains that simultaneously was a trip through a year, and I shaped the group into a manuscript I called The Santa Cruz Mountain Poems. There is no doubt that in the poems I was further purifying my notions of language that had occurred in the unpunctuated poems of Origins, and was employing Popa's practice of sequencing to a greater degree than in the earlier book, although those concerns were unconscious at the time and the final work was nothing I could have imagined when I began "recording" the forest voices.
My second year at Cabrillo I founded a poetry series that brought poets to campus who had published at least one book. George Hitchcock was the first poet I chose. He drove from the San Francisco, participated in a gathering of four English classes, and gave a reading. In the course of his meeting with classes, he was asked what writing meant to him. He said he wrote to achieve heightened consciousness for as many minutes or hours as he could each day. That statement reminded me of the beginning of a Richard Eberhart poem I repeated to myself over and over almost daily: "If I could only live at the pitch that is near madness." Hitchcock's quest for heightened consciousness struck me as the precise rendering of that line in two words, and I have used the phrase ever since to explain my pursuit of the creative life.
Through my contacts in the literary world, I soon had more poets requesting readings than I could handle. In addition to old friends from San Francisco, there were poets on tour from all over the country, such as Robert Bly, Charles Simic, Galway Kinnell, Allen Ginsberg, John Logan and a number of others whose names were a veritable roll call of the best American poets of the 1970s and 1980s.
In the spring of 1970, Vasko Popa came to America. I was his West Coast host for the State Department. Not only did he give a memorable reading at Cabrillo and spend a week with me, but I arranged for him to read at the University of California at Berkeley and meet Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet in-exile who would eventually win the Nobel Prize.
The following year, I began organizing readings in downtown Santa Cruz, after realizing how many first-rate writers and emerging young writers lived in the area. My idea was to have two local writers present their work one night each week in a local restaurant, one of them an established author, the other, a young writer just beginning to publish. All who read received a meal for two and all the wine or beer they could drink, a deal I worked out at the three restaurants where the readings were held over the next five years. Crowds packed the premises every week.
It was a time of extraordinary creative energy in Santa Cruz, with painting, theater and handicrafts thriving, as well as the literary arts. I made friends among all the groups and would give occasional readings at potters' sheds while they worked, and regular readings at the Big Creek pottery school, at that time the biggest ceramics school in the world. I also experimented with presenting poetry and dance, although not with Wilma. She and I were divorced in 1971. Luckily, she remained in Santa Cruz and I was able to see my daughters every weekend. My experiments in dance culminated in an epic work for theater called The Eight Ecstasies of Yaeko Iwasaki, which had two successful runs on the West Coast in 1985.
In 1972 Noel Young at Capra Press published my second and third books, Where The Oceans Cover Us, a selection of published poems written before and after Origins, and The Santa Cruz Mountain Poems, lavishly illustrated with drawings on every page by Gary Brown who had done the illustrations for Origins.
Poetry wasn't all I was writing, however. Over the years I have enjoyed reading well-written mysteries and novels of intrigue. I think some of the best contemporary fiction is produced in those genres. In the spring of 1979, someone challenged me to write a thriller of my own. I think that's how it happened anyway. Whatever the impetus, I attacked the project with gusto. I had enough material from a five-month trip to Greece in 1975 to place the piece in an exotic setting. "What if?" I said to myself the first morning I sat down to write. "What if someone I knew from America approached me in Athens and …?" It was an old ploy, but within fifteen minutes I had the entire plot of the novel sketched out. I knew that genre fiction was driven by plot, but at this point I set myself a problem I have never abandoned in writing fiction: namely, that although the story line may be the main concern of a genre novel, the work must seem as if the characters are causing the various events to happen because of their personalities, interests, or, more simply, their moral failings or strengths.
The writing was easier than I had imagined. Guided by a rule I had learned from poet and fellow classmate in Iowa, George Keithley, I made sure I wrote at least one page every day (George had pointed out that writing a novel seemed less daunting if one wrote at least a page a day, since that meant one would complete 365 pages in a year, and if one wrote two pages a day, 730 pages).
I followed the same regimen every morning, dressing, exercising, and eating at the same time, and reading the last one or two pages I had written the previous day before I began to work. I wasn't concerned with style, and strictly forbade myself any polishing or rewriting. I just concentrated on getting the material on paper. As a result, I finished the novel in six weeks, having rewritten it not once but three times during that period.
On a night out in San Francisco a week later, I told my friend Leonard Gardner, the author of Fat City, about the novel, and without looking at a word of it, he called a highly placed Hollywood agent, urging him to read it. Two weeks later, the agent sold the book, now titled The Brezhnev Memo, to a big New York publishing house for $20,000. With that money I took my daughters to Europe, letting them choose where they wanted to go. Valerie, then twelve, chose Germany; and Jana, sixteen, Italy. It was a memorable trip for the three of us, made just before both girls blossomed into young adulthood and became preoccupied with their own lives.
Writing fiction had taken me away from poetry for over a year. At the request of a small publisher, I collected the best of the verse I had written between 1972 and 1979, and he brought it out under the title Big Winds, Glass Mornings, Shadows Cast by Stars in 1981. The same publisher had brought out a small book of prose poem experiments in 1977. Other than that, I wrote no poetry between 1979 and 1981, and found I had gone longer without writing than at any time since high school. My creative impulses were further stifled by the burden of teaching new classes and correcting student papers—a predicament I had sworn years before I would not allow to happen.
To curb the situation, I set up another self-imposed, what I considered "artificial," writing regimen in the spring of 1981. I would rise at 6 A.M., eat a small breakfast, and write whatever came into my head from 6:30 to 8:30, when I would get ready for my 9 A.M. class. At the end of the second week, I realized I was writing about different aspects of my family's immigration to the United States and my growing up as a first-generation American. By the fall I had completed the rough draft of a book, Pages from a Scrapbook of Immigrants. Not surprisingly, the book turned out to be a sequence. Maybe less surprising in light of the fiction writing I had been doing since 1979, the poems were narrative in approach, although each one concentrated on the lyric moment within a narrative event.
I wrote and rewrote the poems for the next seven years, and Coffeehouse Press published the book in 1988. I was elated, and thought for a while that my entire writing career had been a training period that had prepared me to write my family's history in this way. So strong was this notion that I even considered that by writing the book I had fulfilled my purpose as a poet and I would never write a poem again.
In the course of the seven years leading to the publication Pages from A Scrapbook of Immigrants, I had remarried and, with Donna Mekis and her young son, Nick, I finally found a stability I had never known before. I have been absorbed into her family of six brothers and sisters and a long line of Croatian aunts and uncles in Watsonville as well as in the old country, which we've visited a handful of times, and she and Nick have become integral parts of my daughters' lives and my family's in New York. Nick and my daughters are like brother and sisters, and Donna is a confidante to both girls. Meanwhile, I became more and more involved in school politics and finally became president of the union.
During this time I also became a film historian and critic and wrote a television history of film in sixteen episodes, which has been shown on numerous cable TV channels and was for some years the main visual history of film at the Australian National Film School where I lectured several times while on a poetry reading tour of Australia in 1989.
That was not all. I had come to realize that all my actions over the years had been directed to community affairs, and that I had even conceived of my art as a communal undertaking, since I had almost unconsciously chosen a community of ordinary men and women as my readership. My work, I hoped, would enrich their lives by making them acutely aware of their neighbors, their surroundings and their place in the universal scheme of things.
I was only mildly interested in the prose poem when I published The Armies Encamped in the Fields beyond the Unfinished Avenues in 1977 The brilliant ink drawings by Futzi Nutzle, at that time a featured artist in Rolling Stone, enlivened what amounted to a chapbook of experiments. But when I was asked to write a long review of a collection of prose poems in 1992, everything changed. There is no doubt that my writing such a detailed piece forced me to look at ramifications of the prose poem I had been unwilling or too lazy to see before. Many of the things I said about the book I was reviewing, I discovered, allowed me to verbalize my own practices and concerns and to recognize directions in my work I had either half developed or hadn't pursued. Two of the most important realizations were that my work had veered toward the parable ever since I had first put pen to paper all those years ago in high school, but I had ignored that impulse to write in an accepted form of poetry. As I said in an interview several years later in the Bloomsbury Review:
When I first immersed myself in the prose poem in the early 1990s, I discovered freedoms I had been unaware I could attain until then. Another way of putting this is that while writing prose poems I discovered restrictions in lined poetry I hadn't known existed. I had learned early on that the way poets of the past had solved the problems of getting from one line to another determined the way that I did. They had shown me the way(s), so to speak, in their poems. But I also found that the line in closed verse determined how I used language and how I conceived of developing the structure of a poem. When I gave up closed verse for free verse, I experienced a latitude, a freedom of choice, and found a livelier, vital voice. When I gave up the line, however, I experienced new ways of seeing and saying. It was a complete turnabout of traditional ways of doing things in poetry for me. What I came to realize was that the line had inhibited my thinking process, since my choice of words and sense of structure (in terms of word choice, syntax, and overall development of the poem) was determined as much by the line as by the way I conceived of moving from one thought, image, or metaphor to another, and how, in the end, I structured the entire poem. In other words, I found content was as much determined by my using or not using the line as free verse had been in releasing me from the tried and true ways of getting from one line to another in closed verse. Thus, in getting rid of the tyranny of the line, I had also gotten rid of the baggage I had not realized came with it. The scales fell away from my eyes all right, but at the same time—joyous surprise!—the chains fell away from my imagination, and I decided to let that shape-shifting beast guide my words and determine the structure of the poem. Ultimately my greatest discovery in writing the prose poem was its ability to free the imagination, and this freeing has everything to do with my vision as a poet, since I seek the level below consciousness from which to speak. My world is composed of funhouse-mirror distortions of reality, dream visions rooted in metaphor and symbol, which for me evoke a more resonant picture of the world than everyday realism does. Looked at another way, my choice to abandon the line has allowed me to pursue an unshackled phrase as my basic unit of rhythm, which at times extends phrases to 13 and even 15 beats before a caesura—"a sweep of words," as I wrote in The Prose Poem: An International Journal, "that in its unfolding opens unexpected vistas of content by releasing my imagination from conventional modes of thought which the line and other poetic devices, it seems, unconsciously dictate." At the same time, I employ all the techniques of poetry, such as figurative language, assonance, consonance, and even internal as well as end-line rhyme to drive my rhythms and energize my poems.
The result of all this thinking and verbalizing was that, several months after I wrote the article, I experienced an eruption of writing even more explosive than during the period I created Origins or Pages from a Scrapbook of Immigrants.
The pieces seemed new, fresh, exploiting language, image, and idea, as I never had before. My imagination constantly surprised me. As usual at such times, I let my flights of fancy carry me along, not understanding what I was writing at first, but trusting the energy that was directing me. Many times I discovered that the fantastic situations and outlandish images I would put on paper were the beginning of extended metaphors, or parables that themselves, in the end, were metaphors.
While all these elements were surging to the fore of my work, humor, a constant in much of my poetry, gushed up more antic than ever, spreading in garish colors over the poems. As I said in the BloomsburyReview interview, "My predilections for the comic extend to my favorite authors: Rabelais, Cervantes, Stern, Swift, Aristophanes, Zhuang zi (Chuang Tzu), Rumi of the Mathnawi, and the folk hero Nasrudin. I'm drawn to the holy fools, the cosmic clowns and idiot savants, not just for their boisterous, fun-loving, and at times scathingly sardonic attitudes toward humanity and the bumbling ways of the universe, but because they upset our habitual ways of seeing the world, show us new perspectives by presenting us with the unexpected, and destroy our comfortable expectations and conventional values so we will once again encounter the world in fresh ways, renewed." It is interesting to note that most of the writers I listed in that quotation speak in parables and extended metaphors.
My prose poems took many forms. Some were outlandish satires of travel books, historical monographs, and saints' tales. I wrote on an enormous range of subjects, and literally, as the poet Jack Marshall said, "constructed a private universe."
I sent the new poems to Peter Johnson, who had just started The Prose Poem: An International Journal. Peter, a fine prose poet himself, so appreciated what I was doing that he included my new prose poems in every issue of the journal, asked me to do a long review of Russell Edson's selected prose poems, The Tunnel, and made me an contributing editor of the journal. He also invited me for a three-day visit to speak at Providence College, the university at which he taught.
In what seemed quick succession, Hanging Loose Press began accepting a number of the prose poems for their magazine and brought out an entire book of them in 1997 under the title When People Could Fly. New Rivers Press included two of the pieces in its definitive anthology of North American prose poetry, The Party Train, and asked to do a book of my selected poems two years later. That book, which came out with White Pine Press in 2002, was called Moments without Names. Later that year Creative Arts Book Company published Shouting down the Silence, a selection of verse poems written since the Immigrants book came out.
Long forgotten was my notion that I had written my last poem with the end of Pages from a Scrapbook of Immigrants. I felt more like a moth who rose from its cocoon to find it was a radiant butterfly. But all this didn't mean that I was abandoning the verse poem. On the contrary, I am writing both prose and lined poetry on a regular basis.
My mother came to live near me in 1995. For the first time we got to know each other. One of the turnabouts was that she had to depend on me in her last years, and was surprised to find someone she could both rely on and trust. Her sharpness of mind, charisma and sense of humor delighted everyone she met. She also got to know Donna, and loved her, I think, as she never had anyone else. The three of us spent many happy days together, and my mother and I were able to lay to rest the problems of the past.
I retired from Cabrillo in 1998, and the following year I was named Santa Cruz County Artist of the Year. Since then I have published three more books and am finishing another novel. I still host The Poetry Show, a radio program I've been doing since 1986, and since 1998 I have been the co-host of a movie-review television show that is broadcast in San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and most of the San Francisco Bay Area. My friends say I'm busier now than when I was teaching. I smile at that, knowing I'm just trying as much as I can each day "to live at the pitch that is near madness."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Bloomsbury Review, March-April, 2001, Ray Gonzalez, "In Praise of the Prose Poem: An Interview with Morton Marcus," pp. 3-4, 30.
Caesura, spring, 2000, Elliot Roberts, review of When People Could Fly, pp. 10-12.
Cream City Review, summer, 1988, Jerome Mazzaro, "Morton Marcus and the Ethical Lyric," pp. 30-42.
Dryad, no. 10, 1970, Gail Barnett, "Three Kayak Poets," pp. 62-66; no. 13 (Morton Marcus issue), 1975, Michael Hefernan, "The Poetry of Morton Marcus."
Kayak, summer, 1981.
Minnesota Review, winter, 1970, Vern Rutsala, review of Origins, pp. 262-265.
Poetry, October, 1969.
Red Wheelbarrow, spring, 2002, Ken Weisner, "An Interview with Morton Marcus."
Rolling Stone, January 18, 1973, James D. Houston, review of The Santa Cruz Mountain Poems.
Santa Cruz Sentinel, April 7, 2002, Wallace Blaine, "Morton Marcus Remains a Pro's Poet."
Shock, March, 1974, Andrei Codrescu, "The Mystic Twang," pp. 71-84.
Sun, November 17, 1988, Tom Maderos, "Morton Marcus's Family Portrait," p. 28.
West Coast Poetry Review, autumn-winter, 1972-73.
Morton Marcus Web site,http://mortonmarcus.jlmphotography.com (November 17, 2003).