by Clive Matson

The first topics of our new class, “Structure of Large Work,” seem straightforward enough. “Whose Story is It?” “What’s at Stake?” “Plot Works through Character,” “Sequence of Challenges,” and “Subplot.” What these compact phrases leave out are the intricacies.

Each topic is highly articulated, so much so that you could lose sight of why we write. Our texts, Field’s Screenplay and Vogel’s The Writers Journey, lay out schemes that are layered and absorbing. We could, instead of developing our writing, become entranced with getting each page to line up with what the guides propose.

These finely evolved schemes are recipes after the fact. We have, in our past and in our bodies, in our DNA perhaps, thirty-five thousand years of storytelling around village campfires. That’s salient story-telling, too, where the stories carry forth our identity and ensure our survival. In those thirty-five thousand years we learned more than two years in an MFA program can teach us. More than one author can put in a guide. That’s the scab we’re picking.

Why should we offer this class? For one, it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves of received wisdom on the basic structure of stories. Even after those thirty-five thousand years, however many times a year, it probably helps our mental editors, in understanding and editing a story, to review the concepts. This may enhance our rewriting and it could speed our next first draft quite a bit. But this works only if we don’t take the suggestions as dictums. Take them instead as stimulus.

What our audience gets involved with, at every level, is the story. The trance and the dream. When structural guides help the story speak, we are using them effectively. I saw a movie (Was it “Good Girl”? Or “Pirates of the Caribbean?”) where the structure was so well done I was bored. You could feel what was going to happen before it happened. Some might say the fault was the casting, some might say the directing. I think, with inspired casting and directing, the movie still wouldn’t work well. The structure was too micro-managed. Too obvious.

The second reason to do the class is the same as the first, with the angle of approach reversed. We, in our technological abundance, have removed ourselves a long ways from those village fires. We are too isolated from each other and too comfortable. We are no longer in direct touch with the elements involved in telling a fine story. We see too many movies, watch too many tv series, read too much slick fiction. We need to remind ourselves of the knowledge in our bodies and in our DNA.

We want the passion, the story, the dream to bend the structure in ways that are surprising, but only to the critical mind. The reader should go with the flow and not notice. Not notice because the story has carried the reader away.

That’s the goal. The reader is in a trance.



By Clive Matson

Wonderment and curiosity fuel the poems in Greed: A Confession. “Things can’t be what they seem,” puzzles Didi Goodman when, after a windstorm, an unusual golden light fills her driveway. She discovers the hue comes from yellow leaves blown to the ground, their color enhanced by a moon that’s no longer blocked by the leaves.
Nature supplies a kaleidoscope of topics: a frog that freezes in winter and thaws for spring; a bird concealed in a variety of shapes but, without awareness, the eye discerns where it is; the confusion of lights at dusk, which is star, which porch light, and which the jeep on a mountain track; a raptor’s boundless world where a morsel of flesh is pin-pointed, “one unlucky pigeon on a wire.” Add a cricket, bones, swallows, hummingbirds, dusk, a burr, a burned-out house, and many more, even paintings of landscapes.

At the core of these poems are natural ironies, or disjunctures, or improbabilities that inspire awe, bafflement, and even disbelief. The poems are frames through which we view this magic. Goodman creates clear windows, often tinged with humor, especially when an event runs counter to intuition. The title poem traces the poet’s curiosity to childhood delight in toads, in berries, and in coins on a laundromat floor. She calls her impulse “greed,” which shows how completely the draw toward wonderment dominates and propels her poetic life. That draw, however, is healthy, enriching, vibrant, and brings to light intricacies of the world.
The poet first needs the acuity to notice an event. Curiosity compels her to observe it over time, and this gives the magic a chance to reveal its machinery. With that the poet’s initial goal is achieved. Such immersion elicits an insight, though, often placed at the poem’s end, on some parallel in history, or in human experience, or in mythology. Swallows are “like skiffs on the sea”; hope changes “as easily as water, once, to wine”; we could be salamanders that “ sprout such tiny, useless hands”; we are like cattle facing “wide-spaced slats of change, unable to risk a step.”
Goodman uses a variety of forms, most often the sonnet, and that’s testament to this form’s flexible power. Rhymes and half-rhymes are embedded in her sentences and not often rung, but when it serves to ring them, she will. The tone is generally cool, reflecting her intent to be accurate and to reveal an event, not to exclaim over it. A personal passion ripples through the pieces on Jerusalem, implying longer stories one hopes Goodman will explore. But throughout most of Greed: A Confession the poet’s interest is in discrete happenings. This stipulates that her language be tailored to each topic, and communicate clearly. That she does so in an accessible, conversational style, while fulfilling her forms’ often intricate requirements, is remarkable.
Goodman chooses subjects from our lives, too. She treats vision, aging, memory, desire, and illusion with interest equal to what she gives fauna and flora. Her metaphors, reversing the usual order, then come from the physical world. The heart finds a simile in the Luna moth, “poised for flight, perched on the edge”; the poet’s love varies as much as the “Shostakovich Preludes Opus 34”; a birthday takes on the urgency and “whistled lunacy” of a robin’s song; minute ancestral forces reappear in the present, opening “a sudden canyon at your feet.”
Didi Goodman is a scientist of natural history, which, in these poems, includes human experience. The poet shows us how to see in ways that are revelatory. The pleasure she takes in this process displays itself, with characteristic irony, in “A Certain Joy,” where her persona meets death and comments, “How the sun glints on the beautiful curve of your blade.”

(With help from Sally Bolger and Jack Litewka)

By Clive Matson

            “Oh put down thy vanity man the old man told us under the tent. You are over-run with ants.” .” – John Wieners, from “A poem for early risers,” The Hotel Wentley Poems (Auerhahn Press, San Francisco: 1958), page 12.

Many lines from John Wieners have taken up permanent residence in my psyche. They’ve been exact and revelatory for more than fifty years, and the intelligence that came up with his words is mysterious. But the process is not.

Ezra Pound wrote “Pull down thy vanity” in Canto 81, and Wieners must have started there. A friend read the Canto while we were camping in Baja California in remote mountains, and that’s significant. For me, the clutter that inhabits awareness falls away in the presence of nature.

Pound’s poem contrasts what one loves with what vanity has built. “What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage” he proclaims, and references classical Greek, 19th century Spanish, and early American history. But Canto 81 is not easy to understand. This reader gets more involved with Pound’s stance than with his material.

Wieners brings Pound’s insight to street level. It’s a common refrain, of course, from Bible school and Ecclesiastes (1:14 and throughout) “All is vanity and vexation of spirit” probably down to many of our parents’ exhortations. But look at the subtexts: Ecclesiastes puts us in a house of worship for a sermon and Pound puts us in oratory awe, hearing a sage rail at the culture. John Wieners talks to us.

Wieners distills to usefulness a line that doesn’t ordinarily reach outside its literary circle. Why put us in church or in the library, why give us any word that doesn’t communicate directly? Wieners’ work has brevity and clarity. No need to add to the clutter! “The small fires I burn in the memory of love.” “Held as they are in the hands of forces they cannot understand.” “Who has opened the savagery of the sea to me.” ‘The poem does not lie to us, we lie under its law.”

Keeping the anachronism “thy” in Wieners’ lines on vanity gives them a single, cavernous echo from the Old Testament. That one reverberation is all that’s needed. “You are over-run with ants” backs up the dictum with a physical sensation; it doesn’t need to be phrased “Thou art over-run…,” which would put us back in church. It comes as a small surprise that “Canto 81” contains an ant: “The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world.”

Wieners brought the ant from its obscure setting and made it an apt correlative in the body, working just as he did with the arcane “Pull down thy vanity.” What about “the old man told us under the tent”? Is this Wieners taking an appreciative snapshot, or is it a dig at Pound? In any case the image brings the reader into the realm of revivalist tents and country preachers. This grounds us with a thump.

Most of Wieners’ couplets have literary or folklore sources. “The scene changes” and a variety of others are from William Carlos Williams’ “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”; “My middle name is Joseph and I walk beside an ass on the way to what Bethlehem,” the Bible and William Butler Yeats; “God love you, Dana, my lover,” Irish folk sayings and the Bible, as well as “The small fires I burn in the memory of love” and many others. “I do not split I hold on to the demon tree.” I suspect this is taken from somewhere in the hip lexicon.

Inversions and anachronisms in service of what Wieners intends are frequent in Hotel Wentley.“When green was the bed my love and I laid down upon.” This phrasing gives the lyricism a mythic tenor. Equally instructive might be “I am engaged in taking away from god his sound.” Conventional phrasing, like “I’m engaged in taking god’s sound away from him,” would not demonstrate the aural resonance Wieners claims.

Wieners wrote Hotel Wentley in one week, on an amphetamine run. That could be evidence of the drug’s ability to aid focus, but one could also lament amphetamine as a contributor to chaos in the remainder of Wieners’ life. The drug created neither Wieners’ wisdom nor his refining. Both are evident in poems from before 1958, and, curiously, many of the lines in Hotel Wentley are distilled from Wieners’ earlier poems

It’s startling that, instead of the Wieners’ line above, I remembered “Held in the hands of forces we cannot understand.” This is a Wieners-like revision of his own words. The line comes from “A poem for painters,” in which paintings in an Edvard Munch exhibition are templates for some of Wieners’ most brilliant stanzas. My inadvertent revision brings those words out of the museum, and out of the clutter, into the palpable present. This process is natural, or is natural with me, and we may all do it: turn literature into something useful. I suspect the extreme daring and vision and entitlement in using this process so extensively for writing Hotel Wentley is unequaled anywhere in literature.

In this discussion, the practical is presented as essential to poetry. Many people have asked, “What makes good poetry?” Not easy to answer, with today’s entrancing personalities and spectacular intellects. Poetry should be passionate and clear; it should cut through the clutter; and it should be useful in living. This smacks of “Gebrauchtmusik,” music for public events, of the nineteen-twenties and thirties that gave us Kurt Weill and Paul Hindemith. It’s a stretch to view Wieners’ poems as parallel to Gebrauchtmusik, unless we accept that events in consciousness are equivalent to external events. A difference is that musicologists and connoisseurs judged whether the compositions were useful. Wieners’ lines show their usefulness over time, staying as cornerstones, or guides, or signposts in our minds. The judgment is made organically, and internally, by our psyches.

I’m reminded of a professor’s question, in 1959 at the University of Chicago, which became my signal to leave the university: “Why did Milton write Paradise Lost?” I raised my hand. “It’s the tug-of-war between good and evil,” I offered. “Life is like that.” I wanted as clean a relationship with literature as with mountains and valleys.

The professor replied, “That’s a good answer, but it’s not the one I’m looking for.” Milton identified with the devil, he explained, and God was the king of England, with whom Milton had a long quarrel.

My answer, like the answer embedded in Wieners’ poems, is more useful.


(With help from Sally Bolger, Vince Storti, and John Paige.)


(A Response to Robert Reich’s “Inequality for All”)

By Clive Matson

Inequality is what we have, I think, as I walk to the market, wondering if my strategy to give every beggar something will work, if there’s sufficient change in my pocket. I’m not looking forward to meeting deadened eyes. “Inequality for All” is Robert Reich’s film and the title suggests he realizes what we’ve got.

He also knows that democracy doesn’t work without a strong middle class. His film repeats the image of a bridge with two stanchions, like the Golden Gate, and the cables between them represent, over time, the stock market, levels of income, political trends, and social forces. These all follow an almost identical arc from one stanchion to the other, from the 1929 crash to the 2008 crash. After the 2008 crash, the forces follow the same arc into the present. Reich, with the goal of reversing the inequality, proposes ways to strengthen the middle class. His fleeting mention of Occupy and the one percent shows he may know how extreme the inequality is.

The major forces will continue, though, even if the laws Reich suggests are enacted. Reich likes capitalism, and doesn’t see the obvious: corporations don’t follow the laws. They listen to their stockholders. Inequality will increase, and we’ll have another crash before long, likely a worse one. The system needs its ceiling lowered and its floor raised. A lot. Capitalism can be as vigorous as it likes, within serious constraints.

After the ’29 crash Roosevelt created Social Security, vast public programs, and taxed the rich at more than 90 percent of their income over 250 thousand dollars. For the ceiling, the tax should be reinstated to at least 90 percent of all income over one million or so, and all, I wrote all and I mean all, loopholes closed. In addition, the annual 15 percent profit and 10 percent expansion that stockholders expect of corporations should be outlawed. Something much less, 5 percent and 5 percent as the ceiling, would reduce day-to-day pressure immensely. Profit from selling a business should be limited by that 5 percent, too.

I like the cheap taco shop next to the elegant hair salon in my neighborhood, the tattoo parlor next to the organic ice cream shop next to the shoestring gallery. I don’t like the poverty. I don’t like the begging, the depression, the outright pain, the depravity. “The system does not work, ask someone who isn’t.” (1) And the system has no compassion. Corporations, including the health care industry, the educational system, and the insurance companies, spend much of their resources getting around the few compassionate laws that we do have.

Raise the floor? Strengthen Social Security, make education free at all levels, health care free for all, create vast public programs. No work to be done? Hah! Ride a bike through our broken-up streets, notice the abandoned buildings and businesses and empty lots, for starters. And institute a guaranteed annual income. You object: won’t people cheat? Well, they cheat anyway. Or, where’s the money? There’s plenty of money. And if everyone’s bringing in a living wage, duh, they’re all spending money and small businesses thrive. Neither happens now.

There’s much more to do. Take the profit out of war, for instance: make zero profit mandatory. And the shell game of giving Pakistan and others billions of dollars so they can buy our military hardware? That shifts taxpayer money within this country to military corporations within this country. No compassion there. We’re all together in the same boat, hasn’t everyone noticed? The wealthiest 85 people earn 1 trillion, 648 billion dollars, as much as the bottom half of the planet, 3.5 billion people, whose average annual income is 470 dollars and 86 cents.(2) And, of course, those 85 get much of their money from the 3.5 billion. This is so much worse than “obscene” we don’t have a word for it. “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them,” Pope Francis quotes, “and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs.” (3)

The movement to raise the minimum wage is a tiny beginning and any increase would be compassionate. Am I writing about justice? Yes, but there’s no real justice without compassion. In the struggle for the survival of our species, greed is far, far ahead of compassion. Even if everything I suggest is done right away, I mean now, we’re only setting the table. Or I should say, we’re only getting ready to clear the table. The mentality that got us here, the trance that is this culture, must change. Drastically.

Compassion is at the root. And I haven’t brought enough change. The lady asking for money is someone I’ve seen before, and she looks worse, bloodshot, rheumy eyes. Every bone in her body speaks of a losing fight to stay healthy and to stay alive. Inequality is what we’ve got, and will get, without a surge of compassion taking over, everywhere. System-wide.

Change, anyone?



1 – Bumber sticker from 1980 on the West Coast

2 – These figures are from an Oxfam report, January 20, 2014.

3 – Bob Burnett’s column “Pope Francis: 2013 Politician of the Year,” December 27, 2013.

(View the entire article at

By Jerome Poyton

Bill Heine, an influential figure in the 1960s Downtown art and social scene, died on Sept. 15, 2012, at Kingston Hospital after a long illness. He was 83. He was born Bill Mossman, the son of a popular radio show personality. Upon his mother’s divorce, Bill took the name of his second father, Paul Heine. Later in life he used both names.

As a student at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in Washington, D.C., Bill visited Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital with fellow student, Eustace Mullins, secreting in a bottle of wine. Pound proceeded to open and down the bottle immediately without taking a breath of air.

Moving to New York in the early 1950s Heine visited the San Remo, on the advice of poet Sheri Martinelli, and he became integrated into the thriving New York art scene, rooming with Willem de Kooning and playing drums with Charlie Parker. Heine socialized with Parker offstage and recalled once entering a drug den with Parker, with Hank Williams entering right behind them. Who knew these two American greats met and shared a drug proclivity?

Heine was acutely aware of how racism impacted the early jazz scene, where police and sailors routinely beat up jazz musicians for sport. In one instance, he remembered drinking Navy men slamming the keyboard cover down on the fingers of a jazz pianist in mid-performance. On another occasion, a black musician stepped between an altercation between New York police and Charles Mingus, protecting Mingus by taking the beating for him. It was a time when jazz greats, such as Billie Holiday, died kicking heroin, under New York Police Department guard.

In the ’60s Heine was credited with introducing tie-dye to America. He created his paintings by injecting bundled sheets with dye, using a hypodermic needle, and unfolding them to an array of bright color. In “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” Dylan’s lyric, “The empty-handed painter from your streets/is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets,” is a reference to Bill Heine’s work.

Heine was a member of the Beat Generation with poets Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Janine Pomy Vega, Lee Forester, Clive Matson and many others. Herbert Huncke wrote about Heine in his notebooks, and Irving Rosenthal published this as “Huncke’s Bill India” in his landmark novel “Sheeper”: “His magic absorbs his spirit—black magic—white magic—Gods and Demons. He practices magic—creating. He reads about the formulas—he knows the forces to command—he calls upon the planets—the moon—the animals—the spirits of wood—metal—stone—earth—of all things—watching for signs—letter combinations—numerical values—good omens—bad omens.”

Poet Anne Ardolino met Bill Heine on the Lower East Side in the 1960s. Of the neighborhood back then, she recalled, “There were pushcarts on Avenue C with dried donkey penises and pig penises for sale. There were sheep balls hanging from clotheslines in tiny wooden stalls that passed for places of business. There were stools and people sat there and ate meals that had those ingredients.

“Heine was extremely young and thin and had a nose like Karl Malden,” she said. “He was extremely hot, as in sexy, and he was scary. He was THE person to check with if you wanted to find drugs. He was a criminal and not to be messed with. Period. And yet, as bad as his reputation was — and it was — he never did me harm or caused me grief. Never.”

Bill Heine lived in a time when there was extreme crosspollination between artists and socialites. The Lower East Side and West Village were the epicenter of this explosion of talent. Rent was not a staged play; it was cheap. Often, the drug world was where people met — some lived but some died young. Those who lived left much evidence of their spirit in today’s film, theater, performance art and music


Clive Matson comments:

Brilliant portrait, vivid and accurate – kudos to Poynton – of the man who, without being noticed, frequently inscribed arcane symbols on the lintel or an edge of the doorjamb. My partner would discover these, copy and interpret them, trembling with their effects, while I was swimming in currents underneath this activity. Strange how some people with ultra-gnarly reputations were also intuitive, wise, and inspiring mentors. Anne Ardolino’s sense of Heine might be parallel to mine of Huncke.

Why should “Occupy” be a movement with any integrity? Whatever answers I’ve heard, and mostly I’ve heard complaints, the question irritates me. I’ll bet it irritates others, too. While writing a short essay, “Out of the High Sierra,” I hadn’t meant to address this issue.


Coming down Feather River Canyon from the high Sierra, from altitude and clean air and lodge pole pines and cliff swallows and lupine, we’re aware of entering mercantile space. We were in pristine Darwinian and geological environs at a brief confluence of eons, in stark contrast to the few signs and cars along the road. The cars speak money and class and style, or lack of them. These eddies become a flood as we enter the Sacramento Valley.

Billboards and the radio and businesses clamor for attention, and at a fruit stand people’s dress and conversation display their positions. It’s all about money and “all” means all. There’s little else. And we haven’t yet entered the city. “By the abundance of your commerce you have become violent” (Ezekiel 28:16). Our car is tracked and billboards flicker and personal defenses of wit and cynicism keep me somewhat grounded. These mental gymnastics, though, suck immense energy. And they are scaffolding that surrounds and, oddly, protects greed. Greed enters our lives at every level, from food to posture to thought. It operates in the unconscious, mostly beyond our control.

What’s desperately needed is a counterbalance. Like sacred space. A ubiquitous belief in sacred space of some sort, one that we devote half our thoughts and energy and money to, would half solve the problem. Total destruction might be more apt. Could the violence of commerce at every level provoke superior violence at every level? The problem is more nearly universal than has been stated. Anywhere. Noticing a tiny corner is a crucial first step to understanding.

We’re pummeled by storms of images. And these images bind like proteins to sites in our minds, sticking like tiny, powerful leeches. Somewhere behind those leeches is our unacknowledged, pure, beautiful human nature.


We have no idea how to solve the problem. And it’s getting worse. Business and a few rich people are in control and emerging technologies will give them increasing power. They’re taking over more and more psychic and physical space.

You could say it’s exploitation, yes. But, more catastrophically, it’s invasion. What might you think as you read this? The author’s promoting hopelessness? Bogarting a position? This would be my thought, to suspect the author’s motive. To suspect it’s something invasive. Both my suspicion and that motive are commercial thinking.

My intention is description. What I appeal to is your power of observation. Who are we? Nothing on the drive into civilization relates to our nature. Nothing. Only to our susceptibility to competition and greed and our wish to rise.

The empty road shrinks and vanishes in the rearview mirror. We move into busy activity and our nature is like that road behind us, like the blank universe behind my cynicism. Have we ever occupied our own nature? Maybe in fragments. Maybe not at all. Maybe we’ve always, throughout history, lived in the service of something. Money, the class above us, the church, the goddess, the pagans, the weather.

Occupy gains integrity from this double meaning. We need to occupy this vaguely intuited space. The space of our own sense of awe, our own wish to belong, our own hearts, our own souls, our own health.

Let’s occupy ourselves.


“That was a great idea you had, Clive.”

I remember this email as I’m standing, bike helmet in hand, waiting to speak with an author who has given a presentation at an elegant bookstore in Elmwood. It was the most annoying note I received, by far, three months into Occupy. The author had sent it and asked to be taken off the list.

Was that a compliment? It “was” a great idea, but it’s worth little because the movement debased itself?

The author won’t be free soon, so I converse with the person nearby, a woman well-dressed in casual style, slacks and a careful, lace-edged blouse. She turns out to be a long-time friend of the author, and asks how I know her.

“Occupy,” I say. “She answered an email setting up our blog ‘Writing Occupy.’”

“Oh, Occupy!” Her faced brightens. “We went to a number of their meetings,” she and her friend the author, and, to begin with, they were enthusiastic. The same must have been true for many people, and these two seem like good, progressive, middle-class citizens. Occupy would likely appeal to them. Occupy needs them, too, and the corollary must be true, I think, that they need Occupy.

But the movement soured.

“Why did it fall apart for you?”

I can’t meet her eye, and this surprises me. I try to control the impulse, but find I’m unable to pull my eye into line with hers. I give up and look to the side, hoping not to appear disinterested.

“Two things,” she says and pauses, considering her audience.

“The violence,” I jump in, a not-so-wild guess. “Or the threat of violence?” I’m offering an opening, if she’s inclined to say more.

“Yes. And the Black Block didn’t help.”

“No, of course not.” They had followed Occupy Oakland well, if she knows the Black Block, some of whom justify violence against property and the police, and do that eloquently. My expression of understanding puts her at ease, but she acts as if she’s answered the question completely, with total composure. This is obvious at a glance.

And one glance is all I can muster. I still can’t make my eye obey my will, and this puzzles me. I must be frustrated or angry or something, and nothing has surfaced.

“What’s the other thing?”

“Occupy proved that horizontal organization doesn’t work.” Now she catches my eye and holds it with easy authority, with the air of a professor who’s used to respect.

I’m too flabbergasted to speak. Does it have to be like this, when the crucial moment comes, that words fail? And then it dawns why I have trouble meeting her eye. I’m afraid I’ll see my own cautions, and next I’ll think my support of Occupy is misguided. Too disturbing an issue, and too close to home.

I can meet her eye now, but I’ve got no idea what to say.

I make my excuses and leave this pleasant, independent bookstore and this precise, well-spoken person. I let go of my wish to speak to the author. I’m afraid I won’t be able to look her in the eye.

It takes the whole bike-ride home to figure out what I’m thinking.

First, Occupy hasn’t been visible long enough to prove anything, other than it isn’t an instant fix. And that’s not going to happen. No one can expect an instant fix, for such a variety of severe, deeply rooted, and related ills. So how could Occupy prove anything else, in a short time?

Next, I get the feeling somehow that these women are picking and choosing from a distance, as if they’re in a market. Shopping. And this product doesn’t quite fit what they want. Or what they think they want. Well, is it exactly what I want? We have to notice, in any case, that in the aisle of significant change the shelves are about empty. Do we want a more pleasant package? A different label? Something less expensive?

I get the sense that my acquaintances didn’t read the label, either.

I think the Occupy label says, “Choose this if you’re willing to work. The cost is exactly what you give. If there’s something you want to change, you need to pick up a shovel and get in the dirt with the rest of us.”

It works if you work it.

(With help from John Paige.)

“Almost like dancers” completes Tom Quontamatteo’s description of horses mating in the fields at dusk. If he’d used a metaphor, that would color the horses in our minds. If he’d written “like dancers” we’d miss their essential quality, their horseness. They’re energetic and graceful in ways that are difficult to articulate, but we’ve all seen them, and “almost” frees our imagination to remember their full beauty and mystery.

Every poem shows this precise attention to the world, to his psyche, and to exactly what his words accomplish. “A full moon inflated over the eastern hills.” “Sirens wail in the distance like insects in search of a fix. “In the back of old Chevys still going straight in the hot redneck wind.” And “The telephone rings a few times before I take notice of it” concludes the title poem of his book, Emptiness That Plays So Rough. Quontamatteo presents the situation and his mind in a way that holds the essence of both.

Quontamatteo treats his subjects, mostly loneliness, flawed love, and tenuous spirituality, with the same acute awareness. His work is written in the plain, most controlled, most concise language of his mind, with no enhanced feeling or embedded glamour. Compare Wieners’ “A poem for record players,” where both are uppermost, with Quontamatteo’s “Minor Chords,” which has neither. Such an exquisite sense, of how little need be said, should elicit admiration, but Quontamatteo’s own estimation is understated. Did he not know the beauty he created?

There was nothing glamorous about his adult life. That he was bipolar is troubling. His decision to die without medical analysis, in one view, is admirable. His acceptance of the psychiatric industry’s arrogance and disregard is another. “Do you talk to your therapist?” we asked, after an episode like that in “Wondering What the Trouble Is.” “Yes” was his answer, but it was clear he wasn’t being helped and he didn’t know how to manage. He let his teeth turn black and rot in his face.

The poet functions as personal and cultural guide, and this shamanic quality is omnipresent in Quontamatteo’s poems. But our society has dismissed that role, to our loss. Quontamatteo participated by devaluing his life, profoundly aware of his ineffectiveness and of his sadness. “I am calling your name as if you can hear me.” “I put together an insignificant poem, my evening’s raison d’etre.” “My reality is, yes, a contrivance, etched out of loneliness.” The same can be said of many of us, and the shamanic quality of these lines needn’t be restated.

Nothing was said to Quontamatteo about his value, beyond the little a few friends mentioned. I participated, too, sadly, unaware and slow to express my love. Free now from the pressure of trying to relate, I see Quontamatteo’s power.

“Now that I am gone I am leaving you alone with me for the first time.”

“I write it so I can read it,” said one of our writers.

Of course, what could be more obvious? We want to read what we write, and that’s not possible until we see the words on paper or on the screen. And we instinctively take this further, don’t we? We want to share our writing so others can read it.

“I hope you write it so we can read it, too,” someone quipped.

“No!” The writer made a face, twisting her mouth. “You don’t get it.”

We look at each other. “Explain yourself.”

The writer slowed down and spoke emphatically. “I find out what the words are as I write them.”

This is a wowser. Is she writing so fast she doesn’t know what the words are? Or something blanks out the words, but she’s still able to write? This is mystifying. We ask her to continue.

“I don’t know what the story is. I find that out as I write.”

Okay, this, at least, is familiar. We often hear that writers learn what their stories or poems are about after a draft is done. Is this our writer’s experience, too?

“You discover what the story is as you write it?”

“Yes. The book was already written. It just had to get through my fingers into the computer.” But then she takes a breath and gives us the full picture. “I have no idea what the words are until I read them on the screen.”

She means it literally. Having “no idea” is extreme. I throw up my hands, this is beyond my experience. But the workshop must go on, so, hoping that this case can shed light on more ordinary processes, I invite comments.

One writer says that every writing day is an adventure. Her subconscious has been busy, very busy, while she’s not aware of it, at work or at play. “I love the discovery that’s involved in writing.”

“Writing helps me see what I think. If I’m just thinking it, it goes away.”

In Deborah Janke’s novel, The Spy’s Daughter, the professor has an alter ego, Gudrun, who’s a sort of muse. The professor explains, “Gudrun is the one who sabotages my plans and makes poetry possible.”

I’m reminded of David Whyte’s observation. “Poetry is a way of eavesdropping on what we didn’t know we know.”

Another writer comments, “To be a writer is to be a spy on one’s own insides.”

By definition we cannot know what the creative unconscious is doing, so that fits. We are spies on the work of the creative unconscious.

But not knowing what the words are, until you write them?

That’s a mystery of another order. Our writer’s awareness must be so close to her Crazy Child that there’s no space between them. That’s very unusual. Usually we capture words in our head and wrestle with them, knowing what they are, before we push them out our fingers. This writer’s words come out her fingers before she knows what they are.

Then our writer ups the ante. “I dreamt about my novel. There’s a photo that’s supposed to show all three members of the family. But the dream photo had only the mother and the son.” She looked surprised and pleased. “It was blank where the father should have been.”

“What did you do?”

“I killed off the father.”

And that, we found out later, worked. The father needed to be out of the story. Our writer wasn’t responding to a random message, but instead to a signal showing that the plot had already been developed.

“I write it so I can read it.”

We’ll give it full credence, the next time someone says this.


(With help from Elaine Watt, Sheila Meltzer, Jean Hohl, and Sally Bolger.)

I’m standing at the Berkeley City College podium about to accept a lifetime achievement award. Tears stream down my cheeks. I’ll need to speak and of all the ideas rattling around my head, I haven’t settled on one. I tell this to the audience and mention, “I asked my mentor, Herbert Huncke, who passed in 1996, what to say. He thought for a moment and then replied, ‘I have no idea.’”

I begin a mini-biography on the spot. An old fellow, with elegant gray hair streaming from his tonsure and an alert glint in his eye, introduced himself as a poet. “How did you get into poetry?” I asked, and he shrugged. “Teenage angst. I never left it.” That’s the feeling in the body, an authentic, informing source of the first poem I wrote, too, at fourteen. I quarreled with that impulse for years because it wasn’t cool. I would work halfway out, and the impulse would pull me back into one of the body’s disguises. Little by little I sank into the creative unconscious and got stuck.

Michael McClure laments in Dark Brown, “So much to remember, so much to remember, so much to remember.” The conscious mind admits so much is going on in the creative unconscious that it can’t keep up. The poet stands at a portal, overwhelmed. Confronting a darker portal, Alden van Buskirk wrote in Lami, as he was dying, “I could write in all tones, mad and/or sweet drones.” I hear this as awe at the range of possibilities. Allen Ginsberg concurs in a casual, playful tone, “I am eye, old father fish eye,” with a touch of self-mockery, since “Fish eye” might be something suspect. But to this young writer, his words hinted at the wise and mysterious strength of the sea, as if that’s the creative source and Ginsberg is there, swimming in it.

In The Hotel Wentley Poems John Wieners asserts, “The poem does not lie to us. We lie under its law.” The poem does take over our minds. We are like the Greek soldiers, whose epitaph reads, “Here we lie, obedient to your will,” and we’ll tell untruths to serve its ends. We should do just that.

In 1964 Diane di Prima wrote, “The sidewalk is crumbling into diamonds. In the sky a mouth is opening to take you finally in.” I drop into the myths and passions flowing through us when I read this. Could it be an accident that the men, effective at pointing the way, contrast so sharply with the woman, whose words themselves are a portal?

Alden van Buskirk’s advice to himself was “Indolence.” That’s his way to the source, and it underlines how the huge amount of cerebration about poetry sucks our energy. Whole systems of thought tell us how to write poems, what we should include, what we should leave out. We’ve got those systems in our heads, and bend under their weight, even if we haven’t been to school.

Just be lazy, says van Buskirk, and they’ll go away. How refreshing and how simple, like Timothy Leary’s, “Tune in, turn on, drop out.” Except that we can ignore the middle command. Once you tune in to the creative unconscious, you are turned on.

You might want to turn yourself off, though. The creative source could have raging sand storms, rain funnels, a chaos of weather, foul mists, and glorious sunsets. No wonder the conscious mind wants to protect us! But too often that protection becomes a wet blanket.

Don’t give it energy, says van Buskirk, and that restrictive mind will vanish.

“Tune in and drop out.”

How does that sound?