Tag Archives: Ginsberg

Writeliving Interview – Charles Harper Webb

I first met and became acquainted with the work of Charles Harper Webb more than 15 years ago, and I think of him as one of our essential Southern California writers. I’m thrilled that he took the time to give us a look into his writing life.

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

I’ve had a lot of influences, so I apologize to those I’m leaving out.  That being said . . .

My parents—both avid readers and language aficionados—made me aware early of the power and pleasure of words.  Both of them spoke well, and were very witty.  Humor, both verbal and physical, had a strong presence in the house where I grew up.  My mother, a librarian, kept me well-supplied with books.

My earliest literary influences weren’t poets. Twain, Dickens, and Dostoyevsky were among the first non-children’s authors that knocked me out.  Other than children’s poems recited by my mother when I was very young, the first poets I loved were Poe, Eliot, and Dylan Thomas.  A friend in high school English turned me on to Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti.  When I loved their work, and said, “I wish I could write something like that,” he said, “Don’t whine about it.  Try.”  So I did.

Ron Koertge, Gerry Locklin, Edward Field, James Tate, and Russell Edson had a big impact on me when I was first beginning to publish.  I’m sure their influence is still evident today.

Ed Hirsch, whom I worked with at a writer’s conference some time later, also had a major influence on me, as did Robert Pinsky, with whom I worked at another writer’s conference.

My wife and son have also influenced my writing in many ways, all for the better.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

Experience has installed a kind of Geiger counter in my brain that begins to tick when I’m in the presence of something interesting that might yield a poem.  I jot down what that something is, then, when I get a chance, start writing about it in a free-associational way to see what shows up on the page.  Writing poetry is an act of discovery for me.  If I’m lucky, something amazing turns up.  If I’m not lucky, no problem; I try again.  I work hard at my craft, but to generate anything worth working on, I have to trust my unconscious mind.

How has living, writing and teaching in Southern California shaped your work?

I think being in the entertainment capital of the country has reinforced my instinct—also reinforced by years as a professional musician—to shun the pedestrian, and make my poems as entertaining as I can.  I also think being in LA has heightened an already-present tendency toward strangeness, absurdism, hyperbole, and surrealism in my work.  That’s part of the natural environment here.

Speaking of natural environment—I suspect that living in LA has worked against my impulse to be a nature poet.   If I’d lived someplace more pastoral, I suspect that impulse would have been easier to follow.

Has your background as a trained psychotherapist influenced your poetry?

I started studying psychology in order to better understand the human psyche, and thus become a better writer.  I hope that happened.  I think it did.

I know that working as a therapist had a profound effect on me personally. Being allowed to look deeply into other people’s . . . what to call it—souls? . . . is humbling, and humanizing, and broadening in the extreme.

Revising, for me, is very similar to psychotherapy, in that I listen to a lot of rambling (my own), then try to pick out and foreground what is important in all that has been said.

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

I’ve heard Edward Hirsch say something to the effect that “Everyday life is the enemy of poetry.”  The contemporary world seems to conspire to keep us from the kind of patient observation, uninhibited emotionalism, and intense inferiority that is necessary to write good poetry.  Every hour that I manage to write is an hour wrested from the powers of social responsibility and psychic darkness.

What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?

I have a pin-prick-sized hole in the flesh of my right ear.  I inherited this from my dad.

On the other hand, if you read my work carefully, you’ll find out more about me than even I know.  Not that everything I write about happened to me . . .

About the Author:

CHW by stream

Charles Harper Webb is the author of ten books of poetry, including Shadow Ball: New and Selected Poems, and What Things Are Made Of.  Editor of Stand Up Poetry: An Expanded Anthology, Webb has received the Morse Prize, Pollak Prize, Saltman Prize, and Kate Tufts Discovery Award, as well as grants from the Whiting and Guggenheim Foundations. He teaches at California State University, Long Beach, where he has served as both Director of Creative Writing and MFA Director.

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Writeliving Interview: Marge Piercy

We’re proud to present an interview with groundbreaking novelist, poet and memoirist Marge Piercy. Woman on the Edge of Time made an impression on me when I read it in my teens, and Gone to Soldiers later challenged my thinking about what women and men should and could write about.

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

Influences are a matter of adolescence and early adulthood. After that, if you’re real, you’re on your own path. American prosody comes from Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson and that’s where I started. I read widely and had an excellent education in British and Irish literature in the Honors program at the University of Michigan and in grad school at Northwestern. In the latter, I began an intensive exploration of American literature which I continued after I left to work.

Allen Ginsberg opened my eyes to the possibility of writing far more directly and emotionally out of my own experience and politics than I had been led to believe was something that could be done.

I’d say the news is a far more extensive influence on me, the economy, what happens to people I know or don’t know but feel for than any “influence” of the sort you mean. I’m not in the academy but out in the regular world. At the moment about half my town is out of electricity from the snow hurricane – people without heat or water. NSTAR seems in no hurry to get them back up. I just wrote a poem about that. That’s my influence of the moment.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

My creative process is to sit down at the computer and work. I write most days I am not on the road for gigs. More ideas swarm in me than I can get to before they evaporate. I write. I read aloud. My cats approve but often I don’t. I revise. I try again. I revise again. I turn the poem about trying different line breaks, verse paragraph or stanza breaks, beginnings, endings. I look at my imagery with a cold eye. I put the title through several revisions, usually. The first time I perform the poem, I find the weak spots and go home and rewrite again.

How does writing both fiction and poetry impact the other genre?

There’s very little cross over between the fiction and the poetry. Generally an idea comes with the genre attached. One exception happened recently when I jotted notes while I was doing a miniresidency. I thought it would be a poem. Then when I sat down to write it, it became an essay instead. It was just too prosy and diffuse to be a poem, but it was something I wanted to write about. “Gentrification and its discontents.”

The other exception is when I am doing research for a novel or nonfiction, often I experience things that produce poetry. They are about our experiences during research and have no direct connection with the prose work. Examples: Slides from my recent European trip in Available Light; the poem “The happy man” in The Hunger Moon.

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

I left graduate school and worked part time living in a slum apartment in Chicago in order to write what I needed to. Staying in academia was stifling my poetry and fiction. It was a hard life. I dressed from rummage sales, ate whatever was cheap, dealt with the experience that nobody but me took me seriously as a writer. That went on for some years. I could not publish serious fiction about being a woman at that time. My poetry got published long before my fiction could. The world had to change from women’s liberation before I could break through with my fiction beyond an occasional short story. I could not make a living from my writing until I was 32. I have done so ever since.

What project(s) are you working on now?

I have a contract with PM Press for a book of short stories. Some of them I wrote years ago, but once I had the contract, I began writing new ones. I’ve written eight so far and hope to write a couple more before the book is due. I have been sending them out and getting them into various zines. I am enjoying working on short fiction very much. It feels good to get back into a genre after two decades away from it.

My agent has a new novel I completed just before I started writing short stories.

I am writing a lot of poetry, as usual.

As I said, I wrote an essay two weeks ago. I am not sure what to do with it.  Usually I only write essays when approached to do so.  Haven’t figured out where to send it.

What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?

I am an avid gardener. Ira Wood and I grow almost all our own vegetables (exceptions being red onions, avocados, artichokes) and bush fruit, sour cherries and pears. I freeze, dry, can. Put up enough paste tomatoes & 4 kinds of tomato sauce so we never have to buy any. I planted what has become a rhododendron forest years ago. Many beautiful trees. A rose garden (no hybrid teas; no bushes requiring poisons) – I actually know a lot about roses and freely give advice. Lots of daylilies. Very few annuals except marigolds & sunflowers that I start from seed. I actually start almost everything we grow from seed, except perennials. Our ornamental gardens are like British cottage gardens, a mix of perennials and bushes. I grow lots of herbs for cooking and medicinal uses.

I’m a very good cook. These days I mostly cook Mediterranean – all the way around.  Provencal, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Middle Eastern, Moroccan. The exception is on the Jewish holidays when I do some traditional Ashkenazi dishes as well as Sephardic and Mitzraki. For over thirty years, I have conducted a Seder for friends and now into the third generation. I update my Haggadah a bit every year and do most of the cooking. We no longer hold it in our dining room as we only have room for fifteen and it has grown far beyond that.

I find that gardening and cooking make a good accompaniment to writing. The rewards are physical and it’s good to do something besides sit on my ass in front of a computer.

About the Author


Marge Piercy is the author of seventeen novels including The New York Times Bestseller Gone To Soldiers; the National Bestsellers Braided Lives and The Longings of Women, and the classic Woman on the Edge of Time; eighteen volumes of poetry including The Hunger Moon and The Moon is Always Female, and a critically acclaimed memoir Sleeping with Cats. Born in center city Detroit, educated at the University of Michigan, the recipient of four honorary doctorates, she has been a key player in some of the major progressive battles of our time, including the anti-Vietnam war and the women’s movement, and more recently an active participant in the resistance to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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