AN INTERVIEW WITH POET LINDA E. CHOWN & A SAMPLER OF HER POETRY, PART 1
“The word “palimpsest” helps to describe the trajectory of my poetry. I grew up as a pianist, practicing five hours a day—Haydn, Mozart, Bach. I played in recitals, long pieces of music I then memorized by heart. Music gave me a sense of both sequence and depth, the combined sense of which has never gone away.” Linda E. Chown
JAMIE: I know you’ve been writing poetry for most of your life. How has your writing evolved?
LINDA: Initially, I wrote poetry feeling and being rather locked in, in the confines of McCarthyism and terrible asthma. These poems were outcries, full of a sense of being an outsider and a non-success. This first stage of my poetry was full of words, big words sometimes, as I was reading a lot of Faulkner at a young age. And I think my poems were without much nominal direction.
A second stage took place as I went to SFSU and got a degree in Creative Writing. Then, I worked intimately with and heard truly great poets who encouraged me to write spare poems, to take off the loud pedals of my poetry piano. I wrote at this time very lean poetry, often of minute changes in the physical world, of bird calls, of colors blending. Sometimes, I also wrote at this time much longer narrative poems presenting moments of meeting, losing or finding. Then, there was a long time I lived and taught in Spain and the poetry stopped for some years, also when I went to get my Ph.D.
Now, in this third phase, I’m writing of the unforgettable, the personally traumatic, of artists in poems I call “intrications,” I find myself able and ready to write of traumas. I think my poetry has become freer and truer. Not now attempting to use strong fine words, but to allow language to match and measure the person I’ve become and am becoming. Also, now I write without immediate readers. That fact alone gives me a kind of freedom I didn’t have before when people “made suggestions.” My poems today draw upon the first period of Faulkneresque big word poems and the spare lean writing of my creative writing days. It’s as though I can now write of anything in a form which has more hybrid, mingling poetic terseness and prose expansiveness within a guiding imagery.
JAMIE: What were your original inspirations and who or what inspires you now?
First, I was affected by the Holocaust and its pictures of the opening of the Camps. Since I was mostly in bed at that time, I was dramatically changed by seeing this ghastly suffering objectified. Seeing the thinning bodies and expressionless faces. And the stripes in the stillness. Then Albert Camus’s The Stranger brought the world in my focus: I’ll never forget how Meursault wrote at the end, before being hung, about “resigning himself to the benign indifference of the universe.” I did not yet totally understand the kind of social repression Meurseult lived under, its deadening proprieties. I have always resisted imposed proprieties. I was enormously impressed by Camus as a writer and as a fighter, by his argument with Sartre over what was important.
Later at SFSU, I found Jack Gilbert’s writing to be enormously profound and compact. The great Samuel Johnson influenced me to mind myself, to take myself in hand. Linda Gregg’s poetry is beautifully simple and calls to me from everywhere. Her poems are like dense, language-smitten miracles.
Having worked at SFSU’s Poetry Center, I met Robert Creeley and was extremely impressed by his writing and the utopian spirit of Black Mountain College. Now the passionate simplicity of Dylan Thomas, as in “Fern Hill,” slides me into a happiness. I love Gerald Manley Hopkins and John Donne for their enormous reach and power of generalization, all the while growing in images. Poets who can draw together the terrible horror of an actual event and the beauty of a reflective mind captivate me.
Wisława Szymborska’s sense of mystery intrigues me and draws me to her. She said,” Poets, if they are genuine, must … keep repeating ‘I don’t know.’” Now I like a poetry which does not pretend to know but which charges ahead into mystery, into politics, love, parenting, learning with great curiosity and the power of imagery fresh. I don’t like poems of words, of mechanical play.
JAMIE: Why is poetry important?
LINDA: Poetry refreshes who we are and opens our eyes. It is a second sight on all that we’ve known and done. It penetrates into the invisible world we don’t speak of often and thus can bring us together. I heard many of the best poets reading in San Francisco and London. I was lucky enough to hear Voznesensky. Once, he said “metaphor is the motor of form.” Tomas Tranströmer, a genius of internal life and artistic form, wrote: “We look almost happy out in the sun, while we bleed to death from wounds we don’t know about.’ Poetry is the biggest surprise. It can be our double, echo, enhance our solitudes and tell us how the world is in its mysterious questioning ways. Poetry is a beautiful agent of radicalism in all ways.
who came to see me reading poetry at the I-Thou Coffee House
and whom I visited later in a VA hospital
Compact, with wiry bones, you had the face
of a near criminal except for the sweet doe’s
eyes that would sparkle and lust.
You loved motorcycles and speed and solitude.
A man of incompleted skills, you were my
first lover in a dank drunken room
where I performed with such aplomb
you never knew it was a cherry
we so casually took together.
In the dark, I asked just what it meant
to have a “heart-on” and you laughed,
slapping my behind. Short-lived lovers,
when I had my fill, we drifted off
into others, without our moment of pain
You grew enthusiasm as old ladies tend
their orchids: printing, Cuba, phoney ID’s
used to acquire tons of new TV sets to sell,
carrying big-time dope across the border
for small-time profits from other men.
These fruits were short-lived, too.
like brushing skin in the dark.
Somehow that does’s sense of honor in your eyes
kept you blinded to the way life juggles
fixed points and unambitious men.
Dead end street blues got you before the police
took both you and the haul
at some barren Texas border town.
Too clean to squeal on the commercial
zeals of your well-fed friends up north
one thing led to another as before—
handcuffs to a narrow cell in Leaven-
worth and bells and bars and guards
spare sunlight came about as often as Christmas
and the flowers of your hope withered
in unceasing and unfilled
promises of future parole.
You thoroughly marginal man,
to think our skins fit once
and I don’t know how you signed your name
or how you approached your mornings.
How was it, then, to get deathly sick in the glands
alone, to be blasted with mustard gas
and to watch your own physique shrink,
lessen, until your joints weakened
and took you forever to bed, leaving
a gaunt man’s face on a child’s thin bones,
to walk into death at 32 in a military bed
where your listless legs dangled
without reaching the slippers on the floor
and your neck looked chicken-scrawny,
bony and grotesque?
Perhaps, hombre, it was your crowning
success, your way to elude all the many
buyers of your exceptional loneliness,
that terrible disintegration proving
you did, in fact, exist, but
you died, doe-eyed, as you lived, adrift
in the shadows, never really being
© 2018, Linda Chown, All rights reserved
A Man Who Laughed in the Dark at Jackie Gleason
Daddy, this one’s for you,
whimsical father marooned
in a sea of women.
You appear by heart-light
in the sheer pores of feeling.
You appear lean and indelible
stretched out at life like that from within.
Your blue eyes raging truth at the sky.
How we snickered like fools at you.
At your cane’s tap-tap clattering.
At your soundless chokings on food
in mid-afternoon deluxe restaurants.
Your eyes gasping about for help.
When Schatzki’s ring kidnapped your throat.
How you got fixed sometimes
in a Victorian long-suffering,
fixed to pretend, to smile tolerant
in an eviscerating niceness.
Long you. Long suffering.
Badged in a dark-grey suit
pitched against the sky here
on a bare bridge in Grand Rapids.
Inside feeling burbled strong,
strong enough to burn the blue clamor
of your eyes into concrete pillars.
To shatter the still airs
and countermand finally
a long ingrown stillness:
To rage that truth of yours at the sky—
shedding passionate heart-light out
about us everywhere.
© 2018, Linda E Chown, All rights reserved
PART II CONTINUES TOMORROW WITH MORE OF LINDA’S POEMS. STAY TUNED …
LINDA E. CHOWN grew up in Berkeley, Ca. in the days of action. Civil Rights arrests at Sheraton Palace and Auto Row. BA UC Berkeley Intellectual History; MA Creative Writing SFSU; PHd Comparative Literature University of Washington. Four books of poetry. Many poems published on line at Numero Cinq, Empty Mirror, The Bezine, Dura, Poet Head and others. Many articles on Oliver Sachs, Doris Lessing, Virginia Woolf, and many others. Twenty years in Spain with friends who lived through the worst of Franco. She was in Spain (Granada, Conil and Cádiz) during Franco’s rule, there the day of his death when people took to the streets in celebration. Interviewed nine major Spanish Women Novelists, including Ana María Matute and Carmen Laforet and Carmen Martín Gaite.
Poet and writer, I was once columnist and associate editor of a regional employment publication. I currently run this site, The Poet by Day, an information hub for poets and writers. I am the managing editor of The BeZine published by The Bardo Group Beguines (originally The Bardo Group), a virtual arts collective I founded. I am a weekly contributor to Beguine Again, a site showcasing spiritual writers. My work is featured in a variety of publications and on sites, including: Levure littéraure, Ramingo’s Porch, Vita Brevis Literature,Compass Rose, Connotation Press, The Bar None Group, Salamander Cove, Second Light, I Am Not a Silent Poet, Meta / Phor(e) /Play, and California Woman. My poetry was recently read by Northern California actor Richard Lingua for Poetry Woodshed, Belfast Community Radio. I was featured in a lengthy interview on the Creative Nexus Radio Show where I was dubbed “Poetry Champion.”
The BeZine: Waging the Peace, An Interfaith Exploration featuring Fr. Daniel Sormani, Rev. Benjamin Meyers, and the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi among others
“What if our religion was each other. If our practice was our life. If prayer, our words. What if the temple was the Earth. If forests were our church. If holy water–the rivers, lakes, and ocean. What if meditation was our relationships. If the teacher was life. If wisdom was self-knowledge. If love was the center of our being.” Ganga White, teacher and exponent of Yoga and founder of White Lotus, a Yoga center and retreat house in Santa Barbara, CA
“Every pair of eyes facing you has probably experienced something you could not endure.” Lucille Clifton