Terry McCarty: Elitism is a deadly fungus that, if not controlled, will continue to choke the life out of poetry and continue to condemn it to "club" status in the United States.
I would hope that some poets reading this will agree and, in their own way, try to keep the good ship of poetry from continually running aground on the rocks of stubborn, snobbish and elegantly antisocial behavior.
POETRY IS ...
Wayman Barnes: I guess the most pressing question is Am I the Poet with a Website mentioned in this poem? Hunh?!!!!
Terry McCarty: No. It's actually referring to other people-the poet who I referred to as a blend of Johnny Carson/Abbie Hoffman is a particular example. And the reference isn't intended to be entirely negative-it just indicates that the poets who put in the most time to network and create opportunties that are poetry-related become the community leaders most often.
What the poet does with his/her power then becomes important-is he/she helpful and nurturing or overly egocentric with an urge to disown friends/colleagues on the way up the ladder or, perhaps, some of both.
Wayman Barnes: Why do so many of these people like to refer to themselves as poets? Is it cooler than being a writer? What is so special about being a POET?
Terry McCarty: To some, being able to make language do wondrous, extraordinary things it can't do in most prose (or prose poetry) is what makes them poets.
It's sort of like the mathematician proclaiming superiority to the bookkeeper.
Wayman Barnes : Why do many poets need to distance themselves from other poets by defining the others as nonpoets? Does this disparaging make them better poets?
Terry McCarty : Poets often love to distance themselves from the lower orders (nonpoets). If you were to go up to a prominent poet and say "I think poetry should be more than just banalities and teenagers reading their diary entries", then you have the prominent poet's attention and interest immediately.
I'm going to name names, but an infamous example of this locally was Carol Muske Dukes giving a lecture at UCLA's Festival of Books a few years ago. Ms. Dukes discussed teaching writing at a prison (I believe it was a women's prison)-and complained about the "bad" poetry she had to read.
To my mind, she seemed to be so obsessed with declaring her high standards and quality of her own verse that it's probably likely she didn't try too hard to look for any glimmerings of talent in her convict students-almost all of which were likely engaged in other activities besides reading and writing poetry.
And that kind of arrogance I really don't care for.
To answer the other half of the question, to say you're not one of the mediocre rabble doesn't make your poetry any better-it just makes you more obnoxious and worthy of avoidance when it comes time to seek constructive advice.
Wayman Barnes: What is a poet?
Terry McCarty: A poet is someone who loves to write poetry whether he/she has to or not-and loves to read and listen to others' poetry for the betterment of all poets.
AN EMPTY ROOM
Wayman Barnes: Why does poetry have such a bad reputation with nonpoets?
Terry McCarty: I would presume that with nonpoets (here defined as those who are civilians who don't write poetry), they can feel as if they're at an endless chamber music concert where the conductor occasionally gives lectures on how Serious the material being performed is.
Wayman Barnes: Sometimes it seems that poets don't like poetry. I've been to many poetry readings where the audience doesn't even seem to be listening. They are all too busy writing their own poems. Do think this is from being inspired by what other poets are doing? Or are they just killing time before they can read their own stuff?
Terry McCarty: It would seem to be some of both. But it's not good audience behavior regardless. If someone is on stage to "get up and bleed" as the Johnny Carson/Abbie Hoffman host once said, then the audience should pay attention and write down their poems or inspirations for future poetry only during a break in the reading.
Wayman Barnes: Why are poets always late to poetry readings? Is this the result of an artistic temperament? Or an asshole temperament?
Terry McCarty: The latter is correct. But at this point it seems a no-win situation. If a host actually starts on time, then some latecomers will scream if he/she doesn't let them sign up after the reading begins. If a reading starts at or after 9:00 p.m. on a weeknight, then hosts run the risk of certain readers being unwilling to show since they don't want to be fatigued during their day jobs.
Perhaps LITRAVE readers might want to offer their comments on this situation and how it could be improved.
Wayman Barnes: Do you like reading poetry in front of a large audience or a small, intimate one?
Terry McCarty: I like reading with both audiences, but it's very rare when I've had the opportunity to read in front of a large crowd. And one has to remember that, outside of school assemblies, the courting of large crowds is still considered verboten in local poetry. Because then the poet or poets might be popular and that would be considered wrong (and then their poetry will be called "bad"). It's akin to the alternative rock scene of the 90's when bands like Soundgarden or Nirvana would follow up a successful album with one purposely created to attract only a core audience of the faithful so these bands could maintain their "street cred".
Terry McCarty: Actually, I liked the large audiences that would result when Pete Justus used to have multiple-poet readings at Westchester High School. Not all of them liked the poetry, but those who did-and stayed afterwards-were enthusiastic about hearing poetry and writing some of their own.
Wayman Barnes: My own personal rule for features and open mic'rs alike is if you read you should stay and hear everyone. They paid you that respect and if you can't do the same then you shouldn't read. Simple. But I do not understand your opinion on established poets needing to attend poetry readings. Just because someone likes writing and reading poetry, doesn't necessarily mean they like going to poetry readings (or even hearing other people's poetry for that matter). Why do you think they should be obligated to spend a Friday night at the Rapp Saloon?
Terry McCarty: Established poets should understand the importance of reaching out-at least on occasion-to audiences outside of the venues they're most comfortable with. For the Rapp Saloon and the Un-Urban Cafe (to name just two venues) to be bypassed by certain poets is sad. There are some poets in the community, such as S.A. Griffin, Nelson Gary and Holly Prado, who are highly revered. It would be nice if they'd show up at venues they may believe are below them so audiences can understand why they're revered by a select few.
Wayman Barnes: And who is in this poetry hierarchy anyway?
Terry McCarty: In the poetry hierarchy, I would list the following subgroups:
a. Former followers of Tom Ianniello when he operated the Iguana Cafe and the Exile Books and Music store-including poets as diverse as Scott Wannberg, June Melby, Doug Knott, Teresa Willis, etc. etc.
b. People who are in the Carlye Archibeque circle (a subset of the Iguana) including Carlye herself, Amelie Frank, Michelle Ben-Hur, Erica Erdman, Orchid Black, Richard Modiano, Rick Lupert, Larry Colker, etc. etc.
c. People in Orange County including Michael Paul, Mifanwy Kaiser, Jaimes Palacio, Steve Ramirez, Ben Trigg, etc. etc.
d. The remnants of the former Hyperpoets-including Richard Beban, Kaaren Kitchell, Jim Natal and Jeannette Clough.
e. Suzanne Lummis and her various students.
f. Followers of the World Stage and/or its hosts Imani Tolliver and Michael Datcher.
And it must be mentioned that some of these poets do attend readings at Rick's Cobalt Cafe venue or Larry Colker and Jim Doane's Coffee Cartel in Redondo Beach-but they are most often only there when they feature.
All I can say is, "Get out more often, we need your words and your presence!"
Wayman Barnes: Maybe I'm way out of the loop, but I can't think of anyone who can make or break a poet in LA (excluding college profs, of course. But that is more of a student/teacher thing). What makes a poet successful within this community?
Terry McCarty: I would think that poets are successful in the upper levels based on their talent and their compatability to what the hierarchy believes to be "good" community behavior. Sometimes I think it's weighted too much towards the latter (going to workshops by national "names" or to retreats like Idyllwild)-but that's just my opinion.
Wayman Barnes: If you were suddenly the king of the LA poetry scene, what would you do to make other poets feel included?
Terry McCarty: I wouldn't want to speculate about being king of the poetry scene since there are too many people with messianic aspirations. What I could do to make other poets feel included would be to (if I were just a host) book the most diverse slate of poets possible for feature status. Also, I wouldn't subscribe to the extremely self-limiting and silly attitude that occasional poet-to-poet arguments "hurt" the community. If the poetry community can't abide self-examination, group discussions and critical thinking, then it isn't much of a community-instead being something out of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" where conformity is encouraged by selective stoning.
Ideally, poets should say to newcomers "You too can be great". Instead, it's "We're great-and you're not. Live with it".
Wayman Barnes: Isn't exclusion often the impetus for creativity? You have certainly used it to your own advantage, this book being an obvious example.
Terry McCarty: Exclusion can be an impetus for creativity, but so can inclusion. The trick is to not let your writing become too curdled either way.
Wayman Barnes: Would you still write poetry for the sake of writing poetry if there was no one to read or hear it?
Terry McCarty: Yes, I would write poetry regardless of audience. I do have cats at home, so I'll consider them a potential future audience. However, I may have to shorten my poems a bit since cats have a somewhat abbreviated attention span.
DON'T MENTION MY NAME
Wayman Barnes: I, of course, have to ask whose name you can't mention. Please?
Terry McCarty: Since they sent private e-mails, I'll keep their names confidential. However, it's one male and one female-the male in particular gave a spirited defense of elitism in poetry.
Wayman Barnes: Have you ever thought about starting your own reading, website, or workshop?
Terry McCarty: I'm not literate enough at this juncture to start a workshop. I did have a website for two to three years-and it was used to self-publish poetry, plus it included a links page to other area poets' sites. In terms of hosting, I'd like to someday invite poets (first come, first served) to home gatherings where poetry can be read. Hosting an actual venue is a ways off; I'm not temperamentally suited for it at present.
Wayman Barnes: Do you feel that people who do such things should be given any special praise?
Terry McCarty : They should be praised when they do good things for poets in these functions. When they err on the side of selfishness or megalomania, then criticism-whether it be delicate or blunt-may well be necessary.
Wayman Barnes: Were you an iconoclast in high school? Did you rail against the popular kids? Or were you one of the popular kids?
Terry McCarty : Actually, I fell between popular and iconoclastic. I grew up in the town of Electra, Texas-where the total student population of the high school in my senior year (1976-77) was approximately 240 people. I was involved in group-oriented activities-drama club and concert and marching band-as well as more solitary activities such as participating in Informative Speaking contests. But true popularity in high school only came from being involved in athletics-particularly football, which was and is a religion in the South and Southwest.
I don't think there were many true iconoclasts in my high school. Some students were openly gay and one was openly liberal (it was considered worthy of derision back then if you listened to Frank Zappa-as he did-instead of consensus-approved bands like Kiss and Led Zeppelin).
A few students, such as myself, prepared to leave Electra and go to college. More often, male students in my graduating class prepared to go into the professions (mostly relating to the oil business) of their fathers. I was sheltered a bit in my growing-up, so I don't know a lot about the young women in school other than that a few were scorned if they openly enjoyed sex with more than one person. And some of the women did go to college and still have decent careers.
Wayman Barnes: There are cliques and prominent persons in every walk of life. It doesn't matter if you are a singer, a baker, a candlestick maker. Some people will always be more popular than others. That's the way it goes. Why does it get your ire up when it happens in the poetry community?
Terry McCarty: I'm aware that "that's the way it goes". In fact, when my wife Valarie and I were in Victoria, BC a few years ago, we stopped by a coffeehouse where readings were held (unfortunately, we didn't get to see any). And the flyer for the reading said something like "there are stars and moonbeams at our readings". Obviously, this meant that "that's the way it goes" in Canada too.
I know that some poets may be genuinely greater than others. But that often in local poetry leads to a foolish and blinkered definition of poetry being limited to strictly "literary" (with certain forms of writing poetry being "proper"), with no tolerance for other types of poetic endeavor such as slam or storytelling.
This is just like fundamentalist Christians believing they speak for everyone who practices Christianity. Behavior like this from allegedly distinguished poets should not be tolerated without some expression of open dissent.
Wayman Barnes: I actually attended these symposiums (the first one anyway) and remember this segment. My take was a lot different than yours. I may be giving the speakers the benefit of the doubt based on my own experiences. For many years, I ran the creative nonfiction writing workshop at Beyond Baroque and would occasionally have to deal with these creepy people (I've also had to deal with, to a lesser extent, from running this website). I have had strangers show up and give me the manuscript to their autobiographies and leave, simply because my name was in the newspaper. I once had a guy scream at me because I didn't give him the praise he felt he deserved. I could go on and on, but my point is that when you are the focus of a workshop or a reading people will sometimes build you up into something you are not. As a host, you can become the blame for someone's failings. And sometimes these people can become … creepy. I think this was what they were talking about at the symposium. Then again, you may be right, they might have been making fun of people and being creepy people themselves.
Terry McCarty: Thanks for what you said about when other people take things out on you due to either their failings or their perception of you being nonsupportive. For every person who lets their anger get the best of them on this issue, there are probably a dozen who seethe silently but hope they'll be recognized someday. And there's a dozen more who just keep doing what they're doing without being fazed by slings and arrows (real or perceived) from other poets.
The incident alluded to in "Creepy People" occurred during the second year of the Beyond Baroque poetry hosting panel. To me, it seemed as if the mention of a certain poet's eccentric and/or disagreeable behavior devolved into a way that some of the hosts and poets in the room could show off a sort of smirking superiority (and uniform conformity) regarding this poet.
There are several poets in Los Angeles who suffer from mental illness. Some display it openly and others keep it (or have kept it) secret so they and their work won't be penalized.
And it IS a bit creepy to rejoice in other people's suffering-but that's just my opinion.
Wayman Barnes: Is it true that Amber Tamblyn read poetry about how much she hated working on General Hospital? That is hilarious! I would have paid good money to have seen that. I know that makes me just as bad as those assholes in your other poem who demoted Bukowski and Morrisson into nonpoets, but I can't take her seriously. When I was running the Beyond Baroque workshop there was a poster of her upcoming reading with an older, established, poet. It made me laugh every single time. But, of course, that was very snobbish of me. She might have been fabulous! I might have been completely moved by a piece about the drudgery of working on a soap. So … how was she?
Terry McCarty: I'll have to preface this answer with a disclaimer asking that Amber and her famous father Russ (WEST SIDE STORY) Tamblyn not call the family attorney until they read what I have to say.
The mention of Amber in "Poetista" was intended as a sort of joke about both her newfound prominence as a poet and a remark she once made before the first season of JOAN OF ARCADIA about how her GENERAL HOSPITAL work wasn't included on her performance reel (typical of ex-soapers because soap operas, due to their sometimes cartoonish outrageousness, are still dismissed in Show Business as requiring less than "real" acting).
I haven't heard Amber's work yet, but I'm curious about it since Fred Dewey of Beyond Baroque is a supporter of hers.
In the late 80's/early 90's, young actors as diverse as Charlie Sheen and Drew Barrymore would read their poetry at Largo (then known as Cafe Largo) on Fairfax. In fact, the old MOVIELINE magazine ran an article about this trend. It says a lot about how hermetic the poetry scene was in L.A. in that period (and how I didn't know how to even locate the scene in those days before the Internet became widespread) that this was all I knew of the city's poetry.
In fairness to Amber, she's exposed through her father to an artistic circle including Dennis Hopper, Dean Stockwell and Neil Young (Russ was involved in the staging of Neil's GREENDALE tour). So she might have some interesting things to offer. And Amber's on a bill with Wanda Coleman at Beyond Baroque-as well as the Suzanne-and-Fred-curated Newer Poets Reading at the Central Library in Downtown L.A. later this spring.
Wayman Barnes: I must admit, next to talking about myself, gossiping about other poets is one of my favorite things. And, oh my goodness, there are some twisted poets on the scene! Someone should write a chapbook about that. Can you imagine how packed that reading would be?
Terry McCarty: It would be packed-and then the poet would be denounced. And perhaps someone would try to speculate about his/her personal life-making up the most outrageous suppositions. It's happened to me (but not directly because of USE YOUR DELUSION).
And people love to speculate and denounce when they want to shut someone up-for hurting their feelings or reminding people that they have a double standard of Important and Unimportant Poets or daring to suggest that they turn the Ego Volume down to a lower level from 11.
Wayman Barnes: I know you have been very successful at getting your chapbooks into a lot of established bookstores. Any advice on how to approach these places?
Terry McCarty: I would say an ideal way to approach some bookstores would be to consider printing copies of your chapbook with a spine since certain store owners won't take saddle-stitched books (they want the customer to easily identify the book). Then, call or e-mail first and ask the owner if they would be willing to read a copy of the book and decide if it's suitable for sale by the store.
Wayman Barnes: Have there been any hostile reactions to the fact that your book is a chapbook?
Terry McCarty: Not this book, because it's meant more for the poetry community than for consumption by the general public.
Wayman Barnes: Which bookstores would you say are the most chapbook friendly? Which are the least?
Terry McCarty: Dutton's in Brentwood (thanks to Scott Wannberg) and City Lights in San Francisco are the two I can think of off the top of my head. There's also Village Books in Pacific Palisades. These are the stores that will take saddle-stitched books.
Regarding bound books, Portrait of a Bookstore in Studio City and Chevalier Books in Larchmont Village are two stores that will consider them.
All of the above are reasonably chapbook-friendly. I would think in the case of the latter two stores, they might lean towards books with some local appeal. Chevalier and Portrait both accepted HOLLYWOOD POETRY.
The least friendly are Book Soup and Skylight Books. Other people may have had different experiences with Skylight's majordomo Kerry Slattery, but I found her really dreadful. Skylight, when it wants to reject your book, will usually have an underling do it-first with a "submit another time". And if you take that statement literally (in the manner of Rupert Pupkin in THE KING OF COMEDY), you might get to actually give a copy of the book
to someone in the store to read at a later date. Then, if you call the store weeks afterward and speak with Kerry, she'll kiss you off with a statement like this:
"I don't think you'll ever be satisfied no matter what we do."
And I was well-behaved and not a raving lunatic either. But it goes to show that she's only interested when poets are published by well-known regional or national companies. Otherwise, don't bother.
With Book Soup, it's a Temple of Quality. And my poor little chapbook (HOLLYWOOD POETRY, which I thought might have some crossover appeal to their clientele) must have profaned the Temple. I like to shop there on occasion, but I'm aware that the store only truly cares for people in the Industry-no matter whether they're stars or bottom-feeders. Julia Sweeney devoted two minutes of her GOD SAID HA! monologue show to praising Book Soup. Maybe I should go there and tell the clerks I'm a reader for Julia's production company (joke) and see the reaction I'll get.
Wayman Barnes: Have you ever bought an ISBN number? Why or why not?
Terry McCarty: That's a good question regarding the ISBN number. At this point, I'm too self-conscious about my poetry to take the risk of buying one and submitting a book to online booksellers or store chains. I'd rather deal with independent stores at this juncture-and most local stores I've dealt with will at least consider books that aren't ISBNed and bar-coded.
Wayman Barnes: How important is getting a copyright? It seems odd to me when it is obvious that the person doesn't really have one, but they put it on their poem anyway. Do they really think someone might steal their work?
Terry McCarty: I've always heard if you write it down on paper or publish it on the web, it's already copyrighted. Concerning your last statement, I do think that people feel that mentioning a copyright at the end of their work is a statement of proprietorship.
In terms of having poetry books or individual poems registered, that's up to the poet. I believe that most poets are honorable enough not to plagiarize the work of others.
FOR G. MURRAY THOMAS
Wayman Barnes: Do you still have a copy of NEXT? I would love to see it sometime.
Terry McCarty: I do have a copy somewhere at home. Just tell me when you're at a reading and I'll show it to you.
Wayman Barnes: G. Murray is definitely an unsung hero within the LA poetry community. He has definitely done a lot to make it possible for people who are new to the scene to get involved. It would have been very difficult to find half the readings I did in the early days if it hadn't been for the NEXT calendar. So thank you, G. Murray Thomas! Are there any other unsung heroes you would like to give a shout out to?
Terry McCarty: Don Campbell in Pasadena is certainly an unsung hero in the respect that he gives a lot of people exposure in the anthologies he publishes. And he also hosts what I call "Cavalcade of Poetry" multiple-bills (I was in one such show in Burbank last year). Soon, he'll be taking a group of poets on a tour of the Southwest.
R.D. (Raindog) Armstrong is another hero since he gives a lot of people exposure through his LUMOX and DUFUS publications as well as his distinctive Little Red chapbook publications.
These men can't be praised often enough.
And then I should mention Ellyn Maybe and Jeni Bate-two of the kindest, most generous, least egocentric people in local poetry.
And Amelie Frank as well. Although we don't always agree on certain things, she strongly believed in my work when it was still in its early stages-and I do thank her for her support.
FOR JACK SHAFER
Wayman Barnes: Jack was one of the first people to be supportive of what I was doing on stage. This was waaaaaaaay back in the Exile Books days (Seems like a lifetime ago, doesn't it?). He, more than anyone, was doing something similar to what I was doing. Although, as you said, his had a lot more heart. From what I've heard, his was a very sad life, full of heartbreak (especially, his final years). Still, he always came across as a relatively happy person. Since you obviously can't answer for him, I'll ask you how poetry has affected your life. Can you imagine your life without it?
Terry McCarty: It affected my life in the respect that it gave me something to focus on and appreciate during a time when I feared that a happy life was not going to be a possibility for me.
Wayman Barnes: Has it helped you thru hard times? Has it made you a better person?
Terry McCarty: Yes, it has helped me through hard times. After my mother-in-law died early last year, I found a renewed urge to write to help me through the depression I felt at the time.
I don't know if I'm a better person yet. I've been in trouble for being too hypersensitive and quick to anger when I've felt slighted by other poets. And I'm getting analysis to cope with those feelings. But the one positive attribute is that I'm less shy and more comfortable with most people as a result of writing and reading poetry.
Wayman Barnes: Have you ever written a poem that taught you something about you what you didn't know before you wrote it?
Terry McCarty: In retrospect, I'll say it's "Visiting A Prisoner"-it was inspired by someone else, but I do fit the profile of the protagonist sometimes-a person who can't always stay out of his own way. It's in ANTHOLOGY TWO.
QUOTES FROM TWO POETS
(Terry wrote me and asked to stop the interview, so I never got to ask about the last two poems. In fairness, when the interview about the book is longer than the book … maybe it is time to stop.)