RD: By way of background, how did you
get started? How long have you been actively pursuing your craft? Were you inspired/encouraged
by any one person to pursue your craft? Was there a single point/event that inspired
you to take up your craft, or was it a slow process?
LAB: I began writing poetry in 1967,
when I was a 17-year-old freshman at USC, I wrote because I was incredibly depressed and feeling a lot of teenage angst and
fancied myself a female T.S. Eliot, who was my favorite poet at the time because I could think of no one else other than him
who could wallow in self-pity more than myself. I probably would have stopped
writing except in 1968, at the end of my freshman year, I won the first prize in the Academy of American Poets college award
at USC, the first freshman in the history of the school to do so. I have been
a practicing poet ever since that time, because or despite of this. I had this thought that I could have a life in the arts,
that I could be somebody, that I could be a poet and that gave my life meaning and a sense of direction.
RD: Since your “day job”
may be unrelated to your craft, do you find that it’s easier or harder to “seize the moment” when creativity
strikes? Do you have a special time set aside?
LAB: I have always worked and written. That's the way it is for poets in the U.S. I don't beef about it, I just do it.
And I've done all kinds of things while I needed to pay the bills -- I've been a receptionist in a non-profit corp.,
a proofreader-typesetter at the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner (which I parlayed into a writing/reviewing poetry gig), a reader
at the William Morris Agency, sold greeting cards door to door, worked in many bookstores, taught. I've always been able to write on my jobs, in fact I have written some of my best poetry while working.
When did you begin to think of yourself as an writer as opposed to whatever it is you do to pay the bills (assuming
that the two are separate)?
LAB: I am currently working 3 1/2 jobs,
all part-time (unfortunately or fortunately), I am a consultant (i.e. -- chief, cook and bottle-washer) at a literary agency
4 days a week, I teach both at the Writers' Program at UCLA Extension and privately a master class and individual students,
and I am the new literary curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Right
now, because I have worked in the field for close to 30 years, I am somehow lucky enough to find that all my jobs are related
to writing, which hasn't always been the case.
So, you’ve always known you were a writer?
In your capacity as a writer, you have probably had the opportunity to meet a lot of other writers; do you encourage
the ‘good’ ones and, if so, how do you encourage them?
People have been incredibly kind and supportive of me and my work and I feel it is an honor to help repay the debt
I owe to the Poetry Goddess, who has given me an identity and a place in my own private cosmology. I feel that if someone is serious about their work, and their desire to be a poet and want to DO IT NO
MATTER WHAT, then I feel like I would like to offer my support. Primarily, I have done this with the poets who come to me
to study -- I have recommended magazines to them, let them use my name in their cover letters to the editors who have published
me, turned them on to readings, etc.
RD: Has the “scene” changed
since you started, and, if so, how has it?
You know, everybody says the scene has changed, that there's so many more poets now than before, but I just don't think
so. I actually, have been pretty entrenched in the poetry demimonde since about
1974, and there has ALWAYS been an active poetry scene here. Every few years
(8 or 9), some major news source (LA TIMES, WALL STREET JOURNAL, TIME MAGAZINE, LOS ANGELES MAGAZINE, LA WEEKLY, etc.) will
write an big article "discovering" poetry in L.A. But the poets I've known for
20 or more years, have been doing it and writing it and living the life whether or not they ever get "discovered". The only real difference is in the press it has been getting. And
in the proliferation of 'BAD POETRY' that is being promoted as art, not that it wasn't always there, but with zines and easy
publishing access, more of the bad stuff is getting published and unfortunately, more people are reading it and thinking that
this is what it is all about.
Can we do anything to stem the tide of bad poetry?
LAB: I do not believe anyone responds
well when they encounter ruthless criticism or judgmentalism. I try to teach
by example. I don't publish work that I don't believe is any good just for the
sake of publishing -- and I've written my share of godawful poetry in my day. I
try to turn my students on to the great poets I love -- Galway Kinnell, Phillip Levine, Sharon Olds, Billy Collins, Lawrence
Raab, Yusef Komunyakaa, local poets I admire like Ralph Angel, Suzanne Lummis, Eloise Klein Healy, Ron Koertge, David St.
John -- there are so many. The problem with poets who write "Bad Poetry" is that
they don't read other poets -- ones that are in the top of their form -- and operate out of a vacuum where "self expression"
is more important than art. They publish each other and think that that's it
when it comes to the world of poetry -- their vision is too small. There's nothing
wrong with being "on the path" as it were -- we are all on it somewhere, but one has to be responsible about one's impact
world, and the place of publishing
and publications and promoting oneself. I used to write for the L.A. HERALD-EXAMINER
as a poetry reviewer, and I came to the realization, as I did with other reviews and articles I wrote, that when something
is in print that people BELIEVE you, they think you are some kind of expert or that what you say is the truth. This may be in part because of the lack of sophistication in many readers, but all writers have a responsibility
to act/write in good faith,and to see that what one writes is the best one can write and the truth as they see it.
ALSO, one must take responsibility
for one's past publications, which sometimes come back to haunt one. When I was
what I call a "Baby Poet" I was more than a little full of myself, rather arrogant, ambitious and insecure -- in other words,
I had an attitude, much to my later chagrin. I sent poems out to magazines weekly
-- in fact, at one point, I sent out submissions for seven years without getting a single poem accepted, but continued anyway
because I believed that SOMEONE would like my work and I DESERVED to be published, but that is another story -- I finally
got some accepted in some rather mediocre publications....my poems weren't very good and neither was most of the work in the
magazines, but I promoted myself shamelessly and with much gusto. And people
read these poems, and they judged me. They thought that this was the best I could
do, that THIS was typical of my work, and it took a long time to change people's opinions about me and my work. I had to fight
an uphill battle for about fifteen years to get a little respect, as Rodney Dangerfield would say. I was written off as a lightweight, a person who was noted for giving lively readings but not a very good
poet -- in other words whose performances were better than the work itself. This
really upset me, I wanted to be taken
seriously and wasn't, so I guess you
might say when I talk about responsibility I speak from experience. And then
there is the fact that if one is serious about writing poetry -- or making any art -- one has to be in it for The Long Haul. One doesn't write good poetry after 2 or 3 years, or even after 5 years, and you need
to work the craft & etc. as well as realize that this is not a passing thing, that you need to be a poet for the DURATION--
for as long as it takes -- and not to expect to write like Robert Frost or T.S. Eliot after 6 months.
RD: What do you see as the future of
your medium? Do you think that funding (Govt. vs. private) for the arts is good
I WISH there were more funding for the arts -- every year for about 24 or so years, I have applied for an NEA grant--
never got one, but I apply nonetheless. I suppose I never will now. But whether or not there is arts funding, the most important thing is TO DO THE WORK and the rest be damned.
RD: What advice can you give to poets
today to help them improve their craft?
READ READ READ!! Read everybody, the good poets, the bad poets, the poets
that speak to you. Develop your analytical mind, your critical eye. And write
until your arm falls off.
Aside from the academic-sponsored poet, do you think that it’s possible to actually make a living as an poet? Or is it, by necessity, an avocation?
Somehow, I'm not exactly sure how, I've managed to live a life in poetry. I'm
not really an academic -- I mean I only have a BA and my UCLA job is through Extension and only part time. And I'm also lucky that I have no family or children to support -- I don't think it would be possible for
me to live the life I have if I had children -- but somehow, I've managed to stay solvent and my head above water. I guess you just have to have faith and KNOW if you’re good, it's going to work out OK. But in the U.S. all poets have to have a day job, the trick
is to find one that won't kill your
spirit, and still write and live for poetry.
RD: Who do you draw inspiration from
these days? Got any high adventure planned?
Right now I am inspired by thinking about my father, who died last summer, and how he lived his life. He was Coach at
High School in
Los Angeles for many years and was a remarkable man -- I feel I was very lucky to have had him for
a father, even though we had problems between us for many years. I feel very
positive about things right now (a miracle for me) -- I've worked hard for a lot of years and I've given up many things (family,
marriage, financial security) to follow my somewhat precarious path. I feel like
everything I've done has prepared me for where I am now and I'm very excited about the LACMA job. I really want to build the series and make it one of the best in
Los Angeles -- if not in all
California. And for the first time, I feel like I am being treated with respect for my work (by
the people at the
Museum of Art) and myself. It's been like a dream for me -- to be able to do something for poets and poetry and the literary life
in L.A. I hope I can live
up to the challenge.
from THE BURNING (Red Wind Books 1991)...
IN PRAISE OF SPINSTERS
I am no cast-off
I am as bountiful as corn
my face turned towards the sun
I sing the praise of spinsters
who weave their hair
to make strong rope
who cast their dreams
to make fine pots
we are your mystery
the ones who slipped away
I celebrate what we are
clay sifting through fingers
harvesting the earth
Laurel Ann Bogen