Richard Beban, author of the books of poetry, What the Heart Weighs (Red Hen Press, Los Angeles, 2004) and Young Girl Eating a Bird (Red Hen Press, Los Angeles, 2006), turned to poetry in 1993 after spending over 30 years as a journalist, and then a television and screen writer.
Beban’s poetry has appeared in more than 45 periodicals and literary Websites, in 16 national anthologies, and he has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He has been a featured reader at such venues as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Berkeley’s Cody’s Books, and Shakespeare & Company in Paris, France.
Beban, his wife, Kaaren Kitchell, and three other poets, helped organize and run one of the most successful weekly reading series in Los Angeles at Venice’s Rose Cafe. Beban and Kitchell also produced the 2003 Freshwater Marsh Ecopoetry Celebration at Playa Vista California in a five-hour celebration of the new freshwater marsh constructed to help restore Ballona Wetlands.
A graduate with an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles, Beban and his wife co-authored a non-fiction book on mythology, as well as running monthly poetry and fiction writing workshops in their living room inPlaya del Rey, California.
Derek Alger: Young Girl Eating a Bird is quite an extensive collection of poetry. What was its evolution and your decision to divide your poems into different sections?
Richard Beban: Eating a Bird is my MFA senior manuscript, and consists of poems produced between December 2001 and December 2003, all for the Creative Writing program at Antioch University, Los Angeles. I added some post-MFA work, since the manuscript wasn’t accepted by Red Hen Press until late 2004, but the bulk of it is MFA writing.
DA: You obviously went through a productive period.
RB: It’s a large volume â€“ big as a doorstop at 192 pages and 130 some-odd poems â€“ because I had an extraordinary productive two years at Antioch. It has a low-residency program with some of the finest core and mentoring faculty in the world, and they stimulated me to better and better (and more and more) writing. I went over the manuscript in my final semester, and my then-mentor, Eloise Klein Healy, and I agreed that the surviving poems all deserved their place in the book.
The structure of the book is quite simple. I’ve based both my first book What The Heart Weighs, and my second, Young Girl Eating A Bird, on the storytelling structure of Joe Campbell laid out in Hero With A Thousand Faces. The poems being in “this world,” generally in present-day, generally happy (or not too scary), then descend into the underworld labyrinth, where the dark, painful, juicy, horrific, are-they-dreams-or-are-they-real adventures take place. Then there’s a gradual ascent from the underworld (generally through the wreckage of failed relationships and broken dreams) to return the redemptive boon to the tribe.
In both books thus far, the redemptive boon has been love, and my wife, Kaaren, is the symbol and actuality of that in my life. We met twelve years ago, after we’d each been through the wringer and rigors of other relationships for some decades, and were ready to recognize each other as “The Right One” by then.
DA: You give me hope.
RB: This is not to deny, in either of our lives, the good people we met and loved, It’s merely to say that by the time we met we had been annealed â€“ descended into the underworld like the Sumerian goddess Inanna, stripped, flayed, hung out to die, then resurrected â€“ and were ready for each other.
DA: Maybe I should take back my hope.
RB: I use the Hero’s Journey structure because I believe Campbell, though he has been criticized for the all-inclusive nature of his work (by critics who nonetheless know myth is syncretic), and the fact that he cobbled together a full journey from PARTS of various local mythologies, was essentially right in his belief that the story has a beginning, middle, and end, and that only the full telling can satisfy the reader’s hunger for story. I’ve been ground through the Hollywood mill, as a screen and TV writer, and one of my major criticisms of today’s films, particularly, is that there is no payoff at the end. The hero, generally through violence, achieves a personal victory, but doesn’t return to the tribe with the boon, with the wisdom that enriches everyone.
I believe that poets have always been shamans, griots, storytellers, seers, sorceresses, since long before writing, and that it’s our duty to continue that tradition, no matter what culture we find ourselves born into. If we have been born with that gift, it is our responsibility to use it for the benefit of the tribe, speaking truth to power, turning our visions into art to the best of our abilities.
DA: I have to ask this. What prompted the poem “Young Girl Eating A Bird”?
RB: He’s going to be pissed, because he likes to wear a humble, sackcloth cloak, and I keep tearing it off of him to attempt to reveal how wonderful a teacher he is, but here goes.
That poem, like many in the book, was prompted by an Antioch exercise that the poet/teacher Robert Garcia gave his students when I was in his mentor group. He sent each of us a different title, and told us to write a six-line stanza based on our title. So I did.
Then a few days later, he sent us each a URL (a Web hyperlink leading to a particular Web address), that revealed, when we clicked on it, a work of art that had the title he had first given us. He told us to study the art, then finish the poems we had begun in the first six lines.
DA: That’s an interesting exercise.
RB: I was so awestruck by the power of the image he sent me to, which looked like no Magritte I’d ever seen, that the rest of the poem flowed easily. I had one of those unbelievable dysfunctional childhoods, which you’ll see when you read Heart Weighs and Eating A Bird together, and I considered the girl in the painting to represent the young female part of my psyche. I thought Magritte’s image and my poem to be so strong together that I knew the book had to have that title, and I had to get permission to use the painting as the cover.
DA: And you succeeded.
RB: Luckily, the Red Hen Press folks work wonders with no money, and their non-profit status, so I’ve had the covers I’ve wanted each time â€“ a 1300-year old papyrus from the British Museum as the Heart Weighs cover, and the Magritte as the cover for Eating A Bird. The Magritte estate wanted to see the manuscript, which I had no problem with, and gave us the painting rights for an extraordinary fair, affordable price. The British Museum’s price was about the same, and they didn’t even need to see the manuscript.
DA: You were fortunate to discover Red Hen Press, or maybe I should say they were fortunate to find you.
RB: I adore the Hens. Mark Cull, the publisher, and Kate Gale, the managing editor, are a married couple who’ve sunk everything they have and more into this small press started in 1994. They both have what I like to call (since they are close to my own) Sixties values, and they are mortgaged to the hilt in an effort to support quality writing that’s being ignored or overlooked by large or commercial publishers. They want to help keep creative and stimulating literature alive, and promote it in Los Angeles, which like any community west of the Hudson, is considered a bastard/stepchild of literature. Not any more â€“ New York has come to the Hen.
DA: I’m proof of that.
RB: Red Hen also donates books to schools and other institutions, and runs its own Poetry in the Schools program with poetry workshops and books for underprivileged Los Angeles kids. I did six weeks as a visiting poet with graduating seniors at Crenshaw High, considered a problem inner-city school. Let me tell you how rich those kids lives are, how they battle for EVERYTHING, including an education, in the midst of poverty, pressure to join gangs which are an economic engine in the community â€“ very enticing for kids who have no money â€“ and suffer through the usual hormonal tidal wave we all remember.
They write from raw places, and their work speaks truth to power. I was privileged to be with them, and wish that ANYBODY with “power” over schoolchildren, from Bush to the local school administrators, could spend six weeks in a modern classroom. These are not “lost” kids or causes by any means, but our political and legal systems sure give them short shrift.
But back to the Henfolk. They also run a poetry series to pair Red Hen authors with other authors from around the country who bring new work to Los Angeles. I was privileged, in a whole other way, to read with Galway Kinnell last October. Kind of like being paired with Mount Rushmore.
Red Hen also publishes 20 to 24 high-quality titles a year in poetry, literary fiction, creative non-fiction, counter culture biographies, and education, and its Los Angeles Review publishes both new writers and writers with national reputations giving Los Angeles a much-needed literary magazine of weight.
DA: How did you end up in Los Angeles when your family roots run so deep in San Francisco?
RB: Funny, I STILL get the same question from my Bay Area friends who can’t believe that anyone would move to LA, let alone stay for 19 years (so far). I’m a fifth generation San Franciscan, all because the “Ur-Beban,” Rocco, fled Dalmatia (off the coast of present day Croatia) in 1856 as a draft dodger from the Austro-Hungarian War. A great impulse. He sought his fortune in the California gold fields, made enough money to move to San Francisco and open a North Beach restaurant, then lost everything and became a lamplighter by 1870.
DA: Sounds like a versatile guy.
RB: The Bebans went on to marry other lower, or lower-middle class Irish, lots of intermixing because Croatians and Irish were both Catholics, and slowly populated the local suburbs. My parents, even though political radicals, succumbed to the desire to move to Ober-honky, 99 percent white Marin County, which anchors the other end of the Golden Gate Bridge. But that was an economic, social and personal disaster.
Within two years their marriage was over, I was living in juvenile hall and foster homes, and my older brother was farmed out to my father’s mother.
DA: You acknowledge your brother in Young Girl Eating A Bird. That was obviously a close relationship.
RB: Yes and no. I’m glad I was able to make that change to the book on the press, because he (Bob Beban III) died in December of last year after a massive coronary at Thanksgiving and a period on life support, until my nephew, a strong man in his own right, made the decision to honor Bob’s wishes and unplug him.
DA: Always a difficult decision when it’s real and not just an abstract argument.
RB: We loved each other, and I spent the last weeks with him, almost every hour the hospital allowed, by his bedside, but he was more deeply damaged than I by our family grief, so we couldn’t get close in our later years. He was the eldest (by two and a half years), and I was second, with one sister who died at fifteen months, and two birth sisters, still alive, who are now in their early fifties.
As the eldest, my brother took the brunt of my father’s drunken rages, and my mother’s insanity. Her mother spent her last forty years in a mental institution, and died in her mid-eighties. I thought I had been damaged but I was at least more vocal about it, and was the “identified patient” as they say in family therapy, when we were growing up, because I was the one “acting-out.” Bob kept it in, but behind the scenes with his kids, he was as much a rage-a-holic as my father.
So while my brother and I shared much the same experience growing up, he decided that he wanted to stay in 1961, which was to him, the best year of his life. He made his later living as a mobile disc jockey, playing pretty much ONLY pre-Beatles rock.
DA: Some may say you started out late as a poet but I suspect your previous experience provided rich material.
RB: Well, while my family was a rich mine to begin with, I did go on to a long career as a journalist, beginning in college. But I only spent my first go-round in a junior college accumulating credits working on the student paper, which I eventually edited, and becoming a campus activist at Marin as well as an “outside agitator” visiting other campuses and working against the war, the draft, etc. I did learn the word “ecology,” there, and began, the year before Earth Day, agitating as an environmentalist, work I still do to this day for various non-profits.
DA: Is it true you were once a disc jockey at an underground radio station?
RB: You’ve done your research, sir. I confess, I was a midnight-to-six disc jockey on the staff at KMPX-FM, which was the first “underground radio” station on the West Coast, a job for which I dropped out of college, and at the same time worked for Ramparts Magazine. I did a lot more journalism, and worked at other underground radio stations, but gradually lost interest in radio because the free-form of “underground” degenerated into formats and personalities of the individual jocks got lost in the homogenization of what came to be (who knows what they call it now?) “adult-oriented-rock” and, eventually, the insulting “classic rock.”
DA: What did you do after that?
RB: Well, by 1978 I could see that journalism and entertainment were becoming the same thing. I was doing weekends as a DJ at KZAP, a station in Sacramento, and during the week working in its news department, as well as being a stringer for a number of media outlets, from the BBC, to the San Francisco Chronicle, to Marin County’s weekly Pacific Sun.
My then-partner, newswoman Judith Nielsen, and I quit the radio station and wrote a satire about it, which we called KRAP-FM. We saw it as a vehicle to satirize both the counter-culture (I mean, really, disco?) and the establishment culture. We sent the satire, which after a six-month class at Sacramento City College taught me was a “TV treatment,” to an agent in San Francisco, who sent it to, among other places, CBS. They returned it some six months later, saying they had “something similar in development.” They sure did. Out came WKRP, and it was REMARKABLY similar.
DA: Sounds like a possible case of the sincerest form of flattery.
RB: Judith wanted to sue, but I didn’t think you started in a new profession by suing one of the three (at the time) major employers. Besides, radio people, like car salesman, ARE generic, and WKRP was the product of a fellow who’d worked radio in Florida, so perhaps the idea was just in the zeitgeist.
Before we could decide whether or not to sue, along came Danny Arnold, who, at the time, was producing a top-ten TV show called Barney Miller. He read the treatment our agent sent and said, “I don’t know from radio, but these kids can write. Would they like to do Barney Miller?”
Crisis of conscience. I’d been on the receiving end of police truncheons in the Sixties, and thought a show about cops would be about as funny as a show about a prisoner of war camp (which is why I never watched Hogan’s Heroes, either).
But our agent, a genius named Ann Brebner, advised us that this show was different. She got us some scripts and videos, and lo, she was right, It was an incredibly subversive show. It dealt with race, current politics, government cover-ups, etc. Through the device of “cage characters” (those folks who are arrested and held in the precinct’s cell for an episode) they could talk about ANYTHING. One of my favorite episodes concerned a cage character arrested for protesting the fact that the CIA ran nerve gas experiments in the New York subways in the 1950s, and he felt his rights had been violated. After being an investigative journalist through the seventies working on COINTELPRO (the FBI’s war on the New Left), I knew that this character’s words were TRUE, although at this point in American history the information hadn’t been widely reported.
So here, on a 1979 cop comedy, they were telling 30 million people a week much of what was REALLY going on. We went on to write some Barneys, some other episodes for other shows, a TV movie, and do development at ABC and for Lucasfilm for a series that never saw the light of day.
DA: Why did you finally leave a fairly lucrative profession for the less than certain outrageous fortunes of poetry?
RB: Well, flash forward to 1993. I had turned to feature films, after co-writing one in Marin County in 1983. I finally moved up to LA in 1987 (which I did only because my father died and left me his car â€“ and you had to have a car in LA) and had some screenplays optioned (for which they pay you large sums of money), but never made.
I had also married poorly, twelve weeks after getting to LA, to an LA woman who crashed my father’s car nine months later, throwing herself through the windshield and scarring herself badly because she refused to wear seat belts. The emotional, financial and physical drains of taking care of her, an unsatisfying career, and a “lifestyle” in Malibu to which she wanted to become accustomed, led me back to doing environmental public education, this time for agencies and government entities involved in recycling, stormwater management, etc. â€“ all stuff I learned about in the early seventies, but which was finally becoming a paying industry.
DA: You said a poetry reading changed your life.
RB: Yup, an event predicated by one of my two best friends in the world (I’m lucky to have TWO male best friends in a world in which men are raised to distrust each other).
My buddy Phil Cousinea, in his 1998 book, the Art of Pilgrimage, offers two insights which, taken together, describe my personal journey into poetry, and my later relationship with Antioch University. First, he paraphrases South African writer Laurens van der Post, who said the native Bushmen “distinguished the two hungers in human beings. The first is the hunger of the body for food, the second, and more important, is the hunger for the spirit for meaning.”
Cousineau’s second insight: Often when traveling someplace new, despite the strain on your budget, it’s worth skipping a few meals to hire a local guide.
So, here’s how the hunger of my spirit for meaning led me to the deeply personal realm of poetry, and a guide to my own soul. At Phil’s urging, I found myself in an audience of one hundred and fifty people in a drafty converted Army warehouse in San Francisco in the summer of 1993. Imagine my surprise when tears began to run down my cheeks during a poetry reading by Jack Gilbert (We find out the heart only by dismantling what/the heart knows â€“ Gilbert, from The Great Fires, page 9), a complete unknown to me until that evening, I could say to you that in that moment, hearing Gilbert read from his book, The Great Fires, (Silence except/for the machinery clanging deeper in us (Gilbert 7) I suddenly knew what Juan Ramon Jimenez wrote about in his poem Oceans, translated by Robert Bly, and I quote, “â€“Nothing happens? Or has everything happened/and are we standing now, quietly, in the new life?”
Would this mean anything to you if you hadn’t inhabited my body for forty-five years prior to 1993? If you didn’t know that at least two major chapters of my life were closing: a fifteen-year screenwriting career that resulted primarily in optioned work that was paid for but never produced, too many glad-handing lunches and too little artistic satisfaction; and the final, desultory skirmishes of an impossible seven-year marriage drifting toward the shoals of divorce â€“ a doubly dark night of the soul for which there were neither guides nor companions until I heard Gilbert’s voice. Gilbert’s words ushered me into Jimenez’s “new life.”
DA: Quite a change occurred within.
RB: I had been a prose writer since I discovered that marks on paper meant something â€“ my five-year-old brother Bob and my parents taught me to read at three-years-old when he brought home his kindergarten books and we practiced together â€“ and those marks could transport you into a billion different worlds (I discovered my father’s pulp science fiction magazine shortly thereafter).
I hungered to make those marks myself, to transport my fellow humans in the same way I was being moved.
But in all the worlds I discovered through reading â€“ and through a long professional writing career that began with radio public service copy writing when I was thirteen and had thus far encompassed journalism, broadcasting, television, and film scriptwriting, public relations, advertising, corporate communications, and even grant writing â€“ nothing has rocked my soul like the poetry of Jack Gilbert that night.
Before that, I had the good fortune to become friends with Marin County poet Adrianne Marcus in the mid-1960s, and to take her introductory course at College of Marin. But she gave me an incomplete because I was too busy becoming embroiled in the politics of the time, which included the demonstrative theater of the streets, and not paying enough attention in class.
DA: There’s something to be said for the need to do research, to gain experience away from the cloistered halls of higher education.
RB: We did, however, co-produce a Writer’s Conference in 1971 or ’72 that drew thousands to campus to hear Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Robert Bly, Robert Creeley, Eugene McCarthy, and others.
My other major exposure to poetry was being a neighbor of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s in North Beach in the 1980s. He occasionally attended an informal salon I held for writers and artists every Friday night for six years in a local coffeehouse, and Lawrence and I spent a couple of raucous Columbus Day parades in front of the same coffeehouse, sitting at an outside table where he would shout insults at the politicians being driven by, perched on the back seats of the convertibles.
But Jack Gilbert’s 1993 reading opened a trapdoor that dropped me into the labyrinth, and I returned home to Los Angeles and tried to describe the feelings to my then-wife.
She simply commented sharply that I was romanticizing the whole experience, and that I should direct more of that feeling toward her, although it had been dead in both of us for a long, long time.
DA: But you were now definitely on the road less traveled.
RB: I edged slowly into my poetry pilgrimage. American theologian Richard Neibur wrote, also quoted by Cousineau in The Art of the Pilgrimage, “Pilgrims are persons in motion â€“- passing through territories not their own â€“ seeking something we might call completion, or perhaps the word clarity will do as well, a goal to which only the spirit’s compass points the way.”
Seeking clarity, I bought books, books by Jack Gilbert, and books by Linda Gregg, and Gerald Stern (both also on the program that night); by Robert Bly, and Pablo Neruda, and Dorianne Laux, and Rainer Maria Rilke, and Anna Akhmatova, and Emily Dickinson, and Antonio Machado, and Lucille Clifton, and Daisy Zamora, and Galway Kinnell, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Jane Hirshfield, and Walt Whitman . . . suffice it to say, I bought many books.
DA: I know the feeling.
RB: I began to write again in my journal, only this time, in place of dry recitations of the day’s events, and solipsistic complaints about the state of my marriage and life, another voice emerged, one informed by the books I was reading, including a few “How-to” books by Bly and Mary Oliver.
DA: What did you do at that crucial turning point?
RB: By now separated from my wife (whom I never saw again) and living in what I called my druid’s hut of a small, dark duplex on a walk street two blocks from the beach in Venice, California, I wrote and wrote, inspired by the works of poets alive and dead, guided by books on craft, reading again and again Bly’s anthology, News of the Universe.
When I had amassed around a hundred separate scribbling, I took them in early 1994 to a free Saturday afternoon poetry workshop at Santa Monica’s Midnight Special Bookstore, and tentatively offered them to the circle of twenty or so poets and aspiring poets there. To my surprise, they were received well.
DA: Doesn’t surprise me.
RB: Emboldened, I brought more, and began reading the poems that survived the workshop at the Friday night readings held in the same book-walled bookstore storage room. Even more encouraging: people liked hearing them. They touched others, with an immediacy alien to any other medium I had worked in.
Poems didn’t need a producer, a director, actors, lighting people, grips, etc. They were unmediated communication between me and other human beings; they moved people as I was moved by the work of others.
But I still had doubts. These scribbling were fine for a local bookstore, and in an audience of local peers (since most were, in truth, struggling writers just as I was) but were they really poetry?
DA: I think doubts plague most of us.
RB: I noticed on the bookstore bulletin board, a flyer for Santa Monica College’s annual Poetry Workshop, a week-long event that, in 1994, offered national poets Alicia Ostriker, Lynn Emanuel, Walter Pavlich, and some local fellow, David St. John. The admission was predicated upon your check being good and the quality of ten sample poems.
I called a friend Joyce Jenkins, who published the West Coast Magazine, Poetry Flash (I met her as a friend of Phil’s the night of the Jack Gilbert reading she sponsored), and told her I had been writing some since that reading, and asked her if this conference could be worth my money. After all, how good could it be â€“ it was right down the street, and they had some local guy taking up one of the “national poet” slots?
She assured me that the conference had a national reputation, that I would find the “local guy” up to snuff, and suggested that I try to get Ostriker to evaluate my work (the conference fee included a one-on-one evaluation of your ten poems by one of the featured poets.
With Joyce’s seal of approval on the conference, I ponied up the money and asked for Ostriker. Just my luck, when I arrived on the Monday opening day, I was told Ostriker was fully booked, and that I’d been given a fifteen-minute slot with the local guy instead. Oh, well.
DA: I hope the “Oh, well” ended well.
RB: The poetry gods were all smiling that day, and the muses were singing, dancing, and gleefully kicking up their heels. The local guy turned out to be one of the planet’s more brilliant poets and generous teachers (ah, we are so ignorant when first starting out), and he answered my first (and only) question with such a positive response I left the room in the stratosphere.
DA: What was the question?
RB: My question going in was “Are these really poems? Because, if not, I can go home now and not waste your time or mine.”
DA: And the answer?
RB: St. John’s answer was “Yes. And at least six of these ten you submitted are good enough to be published.”
DA: That must have been a wonderful surprise, though, I suspect, not completely unexpected. The curse of internal doubt, if we could sometimes only see ourselves, and our work, as others do.
RB: With those sixteen words, the new world opened. By 2000, my (primarily free verse) work had since been published in forty local or national journals and fifteen national anthologies. It had won prize money (and one conference fellowship) in five national contests. I’d had three chapbooks published, and my first full-length manuscript was a finalist for the Ohio State University’s 2000 Journal Award in Poetry. The editors of Beyond the Valley of the Contemporary Poets â€“ 2000 nominated me for a Pushcart Prize, and I had been featured reader in thirty-five Southern California venues, six in Northern California, and at Shakespeare and Company, Paris.
DA: Not bad for a poet with doubts.
RB: I’d also attended a variety of workshops and classes, including a weekly workshop taught by the native-born L.A. legend Laurel Ann Bogen, a week with Sharon Dubiago and Lowell Jaeger and weekends with Carolyn Kizer, Dorianne Laux, Kim Addonizio and others, to sharpen my craft.
But my poetry pilgrimage is not just about “my” craft. I happen to believe, with author Lewis Hyde, that a gift is not a gift unless it circulates and helps build community.
So, with poets Jeanette Clough and Olin Tezcatlipoca, I became director of the Midnight Special Bookstore Poetry Center until 1996, running the weekly workshops and reading series, and we three were editors of the sold-out (300 copy) 1996 anthology, Foreshock: Poems from the Midnight Special Bookstore.
DA: Your wife, Kaaren Kitchell, has obviously been a major, if not the major influence in your life. How did you two meet?
RB: In another serendipitous gift from the universe, I met Kaaren at that 1994 Midnight Special workshop, and we were married in 1997 in Crete. She’s an incredibly gifted poet, and is polishing her first novel as we speak.
DA: You and Kaaren, and three other poets have been praised for helping organize and running one of Los Angeles’ most successful weekly reading series.
RB: From 1997 to 2000, Kaaren and I helped organize and run the free Wednesday night poetry reading series that brought nationally known (and the best of the Los Angeles area) poets to Venice’s Rose Cafe, along with poets Clough, Jim Natal, and Jan Wesley under the nom de poetique Hyperpoets.
We also organized a series of eight readings at two Westside Barnes & Noble stores for National Poetry Month in April 1998, and Jim and Jeanette now continue the Barnes & Noble series in Santa Monica, and occasional readings at local art galleries, as well as workshops with poets like David St. John.
For two years, from 1998 until early 2000, we chipped in to pay David to give a weekly Monday night workshop in our living room for a small group of local poets serious about their craft. That workshop continues in another poet’s living room, because Kaaren and I took two years off to write Living Mythically, our 550-page non-fiction manuscript, based on the workshops we teach about how people can incorporate myth into their daily lives. Now that the manuscript is done, we have returned to producing once-monthly master classes in our living room with various master poets (Carolyn Kizer, Wanda Coleman, Carol Potter, Chris Abani, Laurel Ann Bogen, etc.) who don’t ordinarily teach such workshops in the area.
I have been fortunate to be an audiodidact with a charmed relationship to whichever gods or goddesses have nudged me toward the right people at the right moment â€“ non-fiction writer Gene Marine from Ramparts when I was 17 and needed a journalism mentor, TV producer Danny Arnold who gave me my first break at scriptwriting in 1978, David St. John when I needed a poetry mentor, and my wife, Kaaren, when the time came to finally write a non-fiction book (based on her thirty years and my fifteen studying myth) that had a real gift to pass to the world.
DA: And sometime along the way you graduated from the MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles.
RB: My first nine years traversing this world of poetry were only prelude. I considered my work facile â€“ because of the reportorial skills I learned in journalism â€“ with some moments of power and depth, but I believed I could go much deeper.
I looked at various low-residency programs, since as an adult, I didn’t want to spend my life in a classroom five days a week, and discovered that Antioch had a program, created by the poet and lesbian activist Eloise Klein Healy, that honored the muse, the art, and each idiosyncratic individual who came into the program. Her motto is that students should leave with their own voices, and not the mentor’s fingerprints all over their work. It’s the least cookie-cutter MFA program you can imagine. Antioch has been a progressive institution since 1852, and the progress hasn’t stopped yet.
My mentors included Eloise, Richard Garcia, and a for a full year, Chris Abani, a Nigerian poet and novelist who will be a MAJOR literary light in the country damned soon.
I also got to study with Carol Potter, Jack Gilbert, Alicia Ostriker, Molly Peacock, Frank Gaspar, Natasha Tretheway, Nancy Zafris, Percieval Everett, Susan Straight, Bernard Cooper, Doug Bauer, Tara Ison, Jim Krusoe, Peter Levitt, David Ulin, Susan Rich, B.H. Fairfield, and a host of others in a program I’d say matches or betters any in America.
DA: You said that you view writing as a worldwide profession.
RB: It is in a number of ways. It becomes more portable as the electronic age enables you to be anywhere and still work for anyone. It’s also not a completely homogenized, Americanized corporate world culture, as you learn when you study the works of writers from all different cultures, which Antioch encourages. The diversity of voices and opinions is a heady brew that can take you anywhere.
That, to me, incidentally, is the greatest sadness of what we in the U.S. refer to as 9/11.
After that attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, we had the largest international chorus of voices expressing sympathy and solidarity with the American people than at any other time in history. Had we stilled ourselves, looked inside, and listened to the amount of support we had as a culture and a people, and how much people really do look to the USA for the values of freedom, democracy and diversity, the world would be radically different today.
Instead, we allowed an ignorant cowboy mentality to co-opt and cut short our humility, and to plug our ears to the international voices that could have taught us some lessons about the reasons for that attack: How our capitalist, materialistic dark side threatens and warps other cultures. Now we have one of the most corrupt, evil, arrogant, and venal administrations in American history, and are embroiled in a fundamentalist war between the worst sides of two cultures, as well as a war on the global environment which may result in the extinction of the species.
If there was ever a time in history for the poets of all cultures to speak truth to power, this is it. I’m one of two poetry editors with Ray McNiece, of an online journal called November Third Club, which grew out of the anguish of writer Victor Infante and a lot of others of us, after Bush stole Ohio for his SECOND victory. We’re publishing voices against war (with the editorial help of Sam Hamill, too) because we feel we must.
DA: Yet now you’re thinking of moving to Paris.
RB: It’s a dream that Kaaren and I have had separately, and now collectively, for years. I spent a few months there practically every year through the mid-eighties, including one trip to scatter part of my father’s ashes in the Seine. Rather than go on about that, here’s a link to an article in Yoga Journal that talks about that experience: http:/www.yogajournal.com/travel/271.cfm.
Suffice to say, we’re drawn to Paris for dozens of reasons, including its rich culture, the streets named after writers and artists, the museums, the human scale of its architecture matched with the grand scale of Hausmann’s boulevards â€“ and because it’s traditionally warmed and welcomed expats from all over the world, from Ho Chi Ming, to James Joyce, to Karl Marx, to James Baldwin, to Ernest Hemingway. It’s having problems with racism at the moment, but so has the country of my birth since its own founding. I’d speak out against that social evil anywhere I lived.
Anyway, we imagine living in Paris part of the year, and in the U.S. the rest.
DA: So you won’t be completely abandoning Los Angeles?
RB: Of course not. Los Angeles has a far richer and more vital multicultural scene than anyplace in the U.S., and we’re part of the literary community here as long as they’ll claim us. We’ll get to live in two world capitals, and that can only enrich the soul and the work.
At the risk of sounding like Randy Newman (who meant the song as satire, though people seem to have missed that part), “We love L.A.”