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:
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.