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This interview was conducted via email and was published in Sept. 2002

Larry Jaffe is so active in the Los Angeles poetry scene that it was difficult to conduct this interview.  He has organized and co-hosted one of the longest running poetry readings in L.A. as well as a short-lived reading at the Gene Autry Museum.  His credits include Poets 4 Peace, a website dedicated to world peace; Poetix, an online magazine for Southern Calif. poetry; and being one of the main organizers for Dialogue Through Poetry, an annual event sponsored by the U.N.  On top of all that, he's a damn fine poet, too!  

RD: Tell me a about yourself.  What’s your background?

 

LJ: I was born in the Bronx, the holiest of the five boroughs in the great City of New York.  I was born very short and stayed short through High School (when I graduated I was 5’3”).  I grew in college to my current height of 6’3” by the end of my junior year.  This was an incredible growth spurt from the shortest to amongst the tallest.  To this day I don’t know how it happened, it just did.  It led me to believe that nothing was impossible. 

 

I grew up in, what I would call, working middle class.  My father, one of the most talented men I have ever met, was a foreman in a factory in which he eventually got partial ownership.  I used to work in the factory on weekends and summer vacations from the time I was 12 through High School and College (oops, talk about child labor). 

 

My environment was most unaesthetic, no music, no art, a few popular novels here and there.  The walls were blank, the furniture covered in plastic.  I started writing when I was about 10 for the Green Hills Day Camp Newspaper.  Yes, I was responsible for writing that glorious and infamous column Uncle Larry’s Nature Corner.  Am sure you have heard of it.  That started me off on my career as a writer and journalist.  I became the Sports Editor on my school papers and attended big time Journalism Seminars at Columbia University.  Boy, I thought I was gonna be the next Howard Cosell. 

 

But then, there was this little thing called the Vietnam War, which I decided I was not in the least appreciative of.  And I found myself moving from sport, to being much more politically active.  My poetry was part of that calling as I found, at that time, that journalism could not convey my horror of war.  Despite the political attempts to say so, this country is not a country of peace.  It is constantly engaged in war.  The list of countries we have fought since WW II is rather large.  Now we have found an enemy that is a shadow; an enemy who only comes out to play when it feels like it.  So once again, the mighty military industrial complex roars its mighty head while we bask in fearful sunshine… the people of the world are battered. 

 

There is no question that the atrocity of 9-11 deserves our wrath but how much so-called collateral damage does it take to prove our point.  Or is freedom and the pursuit of happiness only for Americans?  We put people in power, including the Taliban and then relentlessly remove them for fun and profit.  The Taliban was an atrocity to begin with but they were supported so the oil could flow and removed so the oil could flow.  And the oil will flow through Afghanistan in short order.  Just like it flows in Nigeria, where despite the presence of rich reserves sucked out by Big Oil, the populace suffers.

 

Oh yes, you asked me about my background.  My background never prepared me to be a poet, to strike at the evil in hearts of men (comic book upbringing you see).  My background was blank like the walls of my house devoid of art or inspiration.  Somehow a poet emerged, I have yet to figure out how.

 

RD: Was there a single point or event that inspired you to become a poet or was it a slow process of transition?

 

LJ: I think it was a combination.  My girlfriend in college loved poetry and she really turned me on to it.  Up until then, poetry was this rather boring subject that I was forced to memorize, but not enjoy.  Her name was Joyce, and she taught me to enjoy poetry and we would spend hours reading to each other.  She especially liked haiku and I learned a certain reverence for the craft.  I also was becoming much more politically active and poetry gave me a voice I had not had before.  I grew up wanting to be a rock star and despite my absolute love for music, I just could not play a note to save my life.  I am still trying to learn to play the harmonica.  I think I wanted to do with my poetry, and probably still do, is what music was doing in the 60’s and early 70’s.  The music had a message and that message was embraced by an entire generation and more. 

 

But the actual galvanization of this poet transpired over many, many years, including years of not writing poetry and corrupting my art with more commercial writing opportunities.  It included years of living and raising a family -- the pain of writing the pain of not writing.  All these events went into the creation of a poet. 

 

RD: How did you arrive at the work you're doing now?  Evolution?  Inspiration?  Dumb Luck?  Describe this process.

 

LJ: I think that evolution is probably close to correct.  However, to me it is more like the process of making a knife or sword – the tempering of the blade.  There is the initial inspiration, which is the most instrumental – the spirit reaching out from his home cosmos into the physical world to create and my best creation is done with words (or so I like to believe).  In order to make a fine blade the process of heating and cooling and hammering all go into the steel.  Japanese sword makers fold the almost liquid metal repeatedly to strengthen the blade even more, so you have layers and layers hammered and shaped into one.  Nevertheless, the initial inspiration creates the sword.  I think this can be likened to the making of a poet.  Perhaps, poets are so sensitive that life itself is the tempering process.  It is most important the inspiration be maintained.

 

RD: How did you get involved with Dialogue through Poetry?  You seem to have a lot of “irons” in the fire, does this impact your writing at all?  Can you talk about that a little?

 

LJ: Unlike many art forms, poetry lends itself to be a community creation.  It is quite rare for a painter to also open a gallery for other painters, or musicians to own a club.  However, in poetry, it is considered the norm to host and be a poet.  I think hosting brings out the best in my poetry.  Being involved in the community brings out my best work.  Granted it is extremely difficult to create a balance and there are times where the time to write suffers.  Nevertheless, I have found my community efforts to be part of my art and very important to me.  Often times poets will write other types of work to gain notoriety, be it journalism or fiction etc.  I find that my hosting, currating and producing provide a platform for me that gains respect and recognition while doing the community much good simultaneously.

 

I got involved with Dialogue through my communication with Ram Devineni, publisher of Rattapalax and all around incredible poetry impresario.  Ram is an incredible individual.  I was booking a couple of his poets and we started our own dialog.  I had just started the poetry host network and well the rest is history.  We put our heads together and created a global poetry network.  It has been an incredible experience to see the joy that this type of poetic production can create internationally.   I am in touch with poets all over the world from Moscow to Hong Kong, from Bucharest to London.  It may not be a psychic friends network but it surely is a poetic friends network!

 

RD:  I’ve always had a fascination with the way an idea becomes a reality, even if only on paper... tell me about your own creative process.  Does it ever surprise you?  Do you find that it’s easier or harder to "seize the moment" when creativity strikes?  How do you capture and retain these inspirations?  Some people have a set writing schedule that they follow religiously, do you?

 

LJ: I vary on schedule.  There have been times in my life where I stayed to a writing schedule or felt I had to meet so many pages a day.  I am not operating that way now but in many ways I miss it.  There is something so special about being in such command of your creativity.  And I never felt any shortage of ideas or lack of inspiration or spontaneity.  Because of the increasing demands on my schedule, I am leaning to go back to it.

 

But for the last couple of years, my method of operation has been what I call – operation -- nothing comes between me and my poem.  This formula for creativity is based on the fact that I suppressed my own poetry for so many years while I was raising my family and so many poems got lost by not getting up in the middle of the night to write the line that popped out of nowhere.  I resolved when my voice really hit me to never let anything get between me and my poetry, that no matter what I was doing writing the poem was the most important thing I could be doing.  I didn’t care if there was an earthquake.  I had to write the poem.  This produced an incredible renaissance for me as an artist, as I was totally validating the poet and protecting my poetry from outside influences including my own laziness.

 

With this creativity program, I never let an inspiration go by.  Since I was about 15 years old I have always carried a small notebook and pen in my pockets.  I have tons of the notebooks, filled partially filled and blank.  I remember way back (college days) when this guy Steve when he saw me whip out my notebook and start writing in the middle of a conversation with a bunch of people asked me if I thought I would be carrying around a notebook ten years from now.  He asked it with a lot of derision.  I said yes and well its been a heck of a lot longer than ten years at this point… See Steve still have that pen and notebook (brandishing the notebook in the air and waving it around for all to see).

 

I am rather nuts about small notebooks, they have to fit into my back pocket have soft covers and no spirals (I hate spirals).  I found the best ones in London.  They are red Silvine memo books, so if you are traveling over there, now you know what I want for my birthday.  They are pretty cheap too, I get about 6 at a time.

 

RD: How important is the creative process to you?  As a teacher, do you think that it is something that needs to be addressed in the new century?  Do you think that it is part of a healthy mental balance, to have a solid creative foundation on which to work, and more importantly, is it an issue that is being addressed sufficiently by our society as a whole?

 

LJ: I live by the creative process and will probably kick the bucket by it too.  I don’t know any other way.  I create every day, every moment.  Some folks say one day at a time.  I have been known to live every second at a time.  Some folks say life is short… I say life is long, don’t be bored.  Creativity is part of the soul, it is what a being does. 

 

I would not call myself a teacher.  I would call myself a poet, because that is what I do.  Right now society is completely out of kilter.  I would have thought that 9-11 would have brought about a capacity for greater communication and demonstrated the importance of dialog and understanding.  We have so lost our way.  Bullets are not words, they do not heal, they do not solve anything.  Creativity is not strapping a bomb to one’s body and exploding oneself amongst innocents.  Creativity is joining hands with others and despite their foreign-ness forging a bridge of understanding.  That takes guts and courage. 

 

Putting a flower in a rifle barrel does more good than shooting a soldier.

 

RD: Have you been able to make a living (modest or otherwise) from writing? Do you think it’s possible in today’s “Mega-hit” oriented entertainment business/society for an artist to actually make a living without “selling out”?  Or is selling out such a bad thing?

 

LJ: I have always made a living as a writer, just not as a poet.  Although, I do okay as a poet.  Most of my early writing besides poetry was journalism and then technical writing and copywriting of ads.  Yes this was selling out for me.  And yes I had a family to raise.  It became increasingly difficult to write poetry when I was doing this other type of writing.   I just cannot combine the two.  I imagine that some folks can.  I find that I cannot.  I have to keep my poetry line pure.  I cannot sell my words out like that without suffering the consequences aesthetically.  It is quite painful for me when I do so.  And I know I have to survive but still, it is very difficult.

 

Today, I do okay between hat passes and book/cd sales and various fees and grants I can survive and even do pretty well.  I like to make money, I have great affinity for it.  I am not a hat in hand poet, looking for a handout.  Same way with those poets who read for me, they always get paid something.  There has to be exchange of some sort.

 

RD: Many poets still shy away from the Internet (which I don’t understand), what about you?  What do you think of this medium?  Tell the readers about your website and what you hope to accomplish with it.

 

LJ: The Internet for me is one of the greatest tools a poet can ever have.  I have totally revitalized myself as a poet thanks to this medium.  As an artist I have always looked for a way for my words to received directly by a reader, no in-between folks, just me the poet and the reader.  The internet allows that to happen in a global fashion.  I probably was one of the first individual poets to have a web site.  I helped pioneer poets using the Internet to promote readings etc.

 

Without the Internet, I never could have accomplished what I have to date, could never have done the Dialogue project or poets for peace, created the poetry host network or any of this.

 

I host and maintain a number of web sites.  My own personal site is www.larryjaffe.com and I feature my work, my reading schedule, etc.  At www.poets4peace.com we have a monument to peace instead of war, with poets putting their shoulder to the wheel so to speak.  At www.poetix.net we will soon have an online newsletter for socal poetry.  www.unitedpoets.org is a new coalition of poets who are active in their respective communities.  www.dialogupoetry.org is the home of Dialogue through Poetry project which we conduct under the auspices of the United Nations.

 

The Internet is as important and revolutionary as the printing press, I can communicate with poets on the other side of the world in an instant for minimal costs.  How incredible is that?  (smiles)

 

RD: Who do you draw inspiration from these days?  Got any new projects planned?

 

LJ: It is a funny thing you ask that.  I think that I can safely say that it has taken me 30 years to learn how to read poetry let alone write it.  Because of my education or lack thereof, it has taken me an unearthly long time to figure out how to read poetry.  I am an extremely fast reader.  I can read 2, 3 or even 4 novels in a week even with my crazy schedule.  Reading is relaxing for me and I rely on it to transport me wherever.   But reading poetry always was like work, or I had to read it out loud to gain the nuances I was missing in just reading to myself.  Finally, I have taught myself to read with creativity and it is a godsend.  I love it.  Frank O’Hara is one of my favorite poets lately and I always read one of his poems when I am featured somewhere.  The Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky I find fascinating.  And there are many local poets that I read regularly and I hesitate to name them for fear that the list would go on too long or that I might miss one. 

 

My poetry coach is Suzanne Lummis.  Yes, I said coach, she works very intensely with me on a one on one basis, pushing me to go beyond my initial words and not just scratch the surface.  These sessions are very inspirational to me.

 

As for projects, one big one coming to an end – L. A. Rhapsody is finally completed after about two years of work and I will be handing it off to one of my favorite publishers shortly.

 

 

CUFFS CHAINED TO BONE

 

I watched this young black man

wearing tearstained handcuffs

knowing that if my white face

was on his wrists they would not

be covered in iron.

 

It was just a quick drive by viewing

cop car's lighting up twilight sky

like fourth of July.

 

Two l.a. gendarmes led the fray of one

young black man manacled to himself

so he could do nobody harm

standing there like a poster boy

for political violations.

 

He drank in their eyes and scowls

-- bloodlines curdling his vision

 

This young man ventured out of his playground

into some white stucco neighborhood

that I always thought was mixed

 

He looked up at me with eyes half full of tears

blemished with futility and defiance

as if to say: 

 

can you see yourself wearing so

much official jewelry?

 

Threaded through stocks of public humiliation

crying hard tears of frustration,

his eyes were not running

they were caught in the headlamps of

the American law machine.

 

(C) 2002 lgjaffe

Exploring the Creative Process since 1996