Poet Gerald Locklin talks about his poetry, Plato, Bukowski, Blues & Jazz, and the music of language

"Bukowski’s writing emerged from experiences similar to those of the blues musicians: work, hunger, intoxication, sex, exhaustion, sadness, loss, despair, resignation, and sometimes, for a while, the illusion of success."

Gerald Locklin:  The affirmation of the male spirit

Gerald Locklin is an American poet who is a Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Long Beach and the poetry editor of Chiron Review. He taught at CSU, Long Beach from 1965 to 2007. He was a friend of Charles Bukowski, whom he first met in 1970, when he arranged for Bukowski to give a reading at CSU, Long Beach.

Whereas Bukowski was an avatar of the "Meat School" of poetry that flourished in the 1960s and '70s, Locklin was considered a "Stand-Up" poet. Despite being 20 years Bukowski's junior, they got along, despite the senior poet's aversion to "academics". Locklin wrote a memoir of that friendship, Charles Bukowski: A Sure Bet, that was published in 1995.

His first poem was published in Wormwood Review, which also published Bukowski. His first chapbook, Sunset Beach, was published in 1967. Locklin has published over 3,000 poems, works of fiction, reviews and articles that have appeared in numerous periodicals, he has published in excess of 125 books, chapbooks, and poetry broadsides. Gerald Locklin’s books so far in 2013 include, along with Deep Meanings, a collection of recent new poems from Presa Pressa and a novella trilogy from Spout Hill Press: The Case of the Missing Blue Volkswagen: Come Back, Bear, and Last Tango in Long Beach, a reprint of Gerald Locklin: New and Selected Poems (2008) from Silver Birch Press, and a single-story e-book of The Sun Also Rises in the Desert from Mendicant Bookworks. His writings are archived by the Special Collections of the CSULB library, and he is listed in the usual literary directories. Gerald continues to publish regularly. (Painting by Kristin Moro)

Interview by Michael Limnios

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas most frequently?

Any experience may trigger an inspiration, or none at all.  Ideas can sometimes arise seemingly from nowhere.  That’s why Plato felt the poet is just the channel of the poetry, not really the author of it.  The author is some unknown force outside of and above himself.  Plato may have been right.

What have you learned about yourself from your writing of your poems?

I learned that I was born to be a writer and a teacher—they are the only two occupations I was better than ordinary at.  I loved playing sports, but I got to a level beyond which I could not improve.  But if you are gifted with a non-physical ability such as writing, you can always continue to grow, expand, and improve.

"Poetry is not politics or religion or love or anything else. Those things are just excuse for the poem - which is a formal construct, just as music is. But like music, its forms are potentially limitless."

How would you characterize the philosophy of Gerry Locklin’s poetry?

Edward Field says that my major theme is the affirmation of the male spirit.  I think he may be right.  And Samuel Charters, the great expert on both Beat Poetry and Jazz, said that the secret of my poetry lies in the syntax of the sentences.  And I think that he is absolutely right.  Poetry is not politics or religion or love or anything else.  Those things are just excuse for the poem—which is a formal construct, just as music is.  But like music, its forms are potentially limitless.

Has your poetry changed greatly over the years or have your themes and techniques remained basically the same?  Have you embarked on new directions recently?

I’ve gone through many different stages in my poetry.  At one time, for instance, I wrote a lot about life in the bars, and now I write a lot about great paintings and fine jazz.  But I never quit writing about the things I’ve written about earlier in life:  sometimes just funny things that happen in the course of the day or evening.  Funny thoughts that occur to me.  Films that I’ve enjoyed.  Women, always.  Family, always.  Friends, always.  I try not to eliminate anything as a possible source for a poem.

What has been the relationship between music and poetry in your life and writing?

As I said, both are formal arrangements—in the case of music, they are arrangements of sounds, in ways such as rhythms and harmonies, traditional, improvisational, or experimental.  In the case of poetry, the arrangements are of words, which combine sounds and images and ideas and emotions.  And poems are also traditional, improvisational, and experimental.  I’ve written thousands of poems and had thousands of them published, so I’ve written many different types of poems.  And I’ve been exposed to thousands of poems, not only through my teaching and literary career, but through the doctoral studies that made my teaching possible.

I love great music of all kinds from all eras and so it’s always come naturally to write about music in my poetry, just as it comes naturally to me to use great paintings as starting points for poems.  The same with athletic events, for instance, or anything that intensifies the emotions.

"Plato felt the poet is just the channel of the poetry, not really the author of it.  The author is some unknown force outside of and above himself.  Plato may have been right." Photos by Alexis Rhone Fancher and Paul Wellman

How important was music in your life? How does music affect your mood and inspiration?

I was given records to listen to from a very young age, mainly classical music at that time, and I was taken to musical theater at an early age, on trips to New York City:  the Broadway stage productions, the famous actors and actresses.  I didn’t live in NYC. But I did live in New York State, the city of Rochester in what is called Upstate New York, across the Great Lakes from Canada.  Rochester was also the home of the Eastman School of Music and the George Eastman Museum of Photography and the University of Rochester.  Most of these things were founded and funded by the founder of Eastman Kodak Company, George Eastman.   So there were many opportunities for cultural exposure in my childhood, even though we were not a wealthy family—very working class, in fact.  I took piano lessons from second grade until the end of high school, but I was very mediocre at it.  I could read music well, but I didn’t understand harmony well enough to play by ear or to improvise.  But I could sit at the piano playing for long hours and enjoying it.  I quit playing the piano entirely, though, once I reached graduate school because I decided I should concentrate my time on things I was better than mediocre at, such as writing and reading and teaching literature.  And drinking.  I became an avid listener to music of all kinds—I just no longer played the piano myself.  I could still play if it weren’t for wearing bi-focal eyeglasses.  It’s too hard to read the sheet music and see the keys also while switching between those two types of lenses. 

But my definition or poetry is that it is the music of language, and just as there are limitless types of music, there are limitless types of poetry as well—the only thing they have in common is that they all have the characteristics of music in the sense of form.  Music is mathematical; poetry is linguistic.  Both are formal.

"The blues emerge from life’s most basic experiences, such as working and loving and losing and drinking and dying."  Portrait of Gerald Locklin by Henry Denander

Which has been the most interesting period in your life?

All the stages of life are interesting, but we seldom realize it at the time we are living through that particular stage.  Childhood, for instance:  Freud discovered how interesting and powerfully formative childhood is. As Wordsworth said, “The Child is Father of the Man.”  I’m 72 now and entering upon a stage of life that many would find less interesting.  But I find it intensely interesting—even the finitude of the years as we approach death intensifies this period of life.  Of course some try to run away from aging, but I hope to live it to the fullest for as long as I can . . . and all you need to do is look at the later poems of Bukowski or of William Butler Yeats to see that a poet can be at his very best at the end of his life.  It’s also a time when he should be passing along any knowledge or wisdom or insights or skills he has attained—to any who will listen at least.  The young often think they already know everything or are writing more wonderfully than anyone else ever has.  They may discover that they are writing the best that they themselves ever will, but they will also discover that there have been others whose works will be very hard to equal.  No one, for instance, has ever exceeded Bukowski himself as a Bukowskian poet.  Many have tried and failed.  I learned from his example, but I was twenty years  younger than he was, so we were alike in some ways  but different in many others.  That’s why I never had any desire to be “the next Bukowski.”  He was unique, as we all should be.

What do you think was the relationship of Blues to the poetry of Charles Bukowski?

The blues emerge from life’s most basic experiences, such as working and loving and losing and drinking and dying.  Bukowski’s writing emerged from experiences similar to those of the blues musicians: work, hunger, intoxication, sex, exhaustion, sadness, loss, despair, resignation, and sometimes, for a while, the illusion of success.  And just as what we write is highly influenced by the writers that we love to read, it is also influenced by the music we love to listen to.  The words of the great writers and the music of the great musicians become part of our consciousnesses, of our minds, of our brains and nervous systems—they are at play within us even when we are unaware of it.  I dance and sing at my poetry readings, and I dance in my skin at concerts. Bukowski was very eclectic in the types of music he listened to, but we all end up somewhere in our lives discovering the very best of whatever it is we love the most.

"The words of the great writers and the music of the great musicians become part of our consciousnesses, of our minds, of our brains and nervous systems - they are at play within us even when we are unaware of it."   Photo by Mark Sallivan

What's the legacy of Bukowski?  If he was speaking seriously to us, what do you think he would tell us?

He already told us on his tombstone:  “Don’t try!”  I guess he meant for us to let things come naturally, as they will if they are meant to.  I think he also meant for us not to try to piss on his ashes—or a curse will descend upon us.

Do you remember anything interesting from Hank’s records collection? How the music affects his mood?

I did not hang around with Hank at his home or at his track, although I was certainly at his home on various occasions such as birthday and wedding celebrations and, finally, after his funeral.  But I was twenty years younger than he was, so he had his own life and friends and enthusiasms, I had mine, and we enjoyed our friendship mainly though letters and through our works.  I donated to the Locklin Collection, part of the Special Collections of the California State University, Long Beach, Library, the original copies of over fifty of his letters to me.  Also many of the research materials I used in writing about him are housed there, as well as boxes and more boxes of the poetry publications of the era in which I’ve lived.   Bukowski scholars and scholars of my own work and that of my contemporaries make frequent use of the CSULB Library’s resources.  The current curator of the Special Collections is Kristie French.   Another library of use in that regard is that of the University of Buffalo—now known as the State University of New York (SUNY) Buffalo.  The curator of its Poetry Collection for many years has been Dr. Michael Basinski.  He is also the editor of the book, Gerald Locklin:  A Critical Introduction.

Chris Franke, Gerald Locklin and Mark Weber, 1988  Kent, Ohio. Photo probably by Bill Polak

You have come to know great personalities.  Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

I was very moved by the support given to my work by Dr. Norman Friedman, the co-founder with the eminent psychiatrist, David Forrest, of the E. E. Cummings Society, and of Norman’s wife, Zelda.  I was honored that these eminent scholars would extend their friendship to me.  The Cummings Society continues to do so under the editorship of Michael Webster.

The greatest editor I’ve ever had was easily Marvin Malone, the legendary editor of The Wormwood Review, the best poetry magazine of my lifetime.

I met Allen Ginsberg once but we didn’t really have much in common.

Edward Field is the greatest poet of my lifetime and a friend since the early 1960s.  He will be 90 in another year or so and remains strongly youthful of spirit.

The great country-blues musician and songwriter, Dave Alvin, was a brilliant former student of mine and remains a close and loyal friend.  His brother, Phil Alvin, of the Blasters, taught mathematics here at Long Beach State for many years and I enjoyed his music and his intelligence greatly.

Wonderful poets with whom I am friends include Ron Koertge and Charles Webb and Mark Weber, and, when we were younger, Billy Collins.  A more recent poet, artist, jazz expert, and close friend is the highly talented Henry Denander, who lives sometimes in Sweden and sometimes on a Greek island.

Gerald Haslam is a close friend that I consider the best short story writer of my time and the best writer of books and essays related to the Central Valley of California.  He is the Steinbeck of our time and a great human being.

What do you miss most nowadays from the 1970s San Francisco bohemian era and Charles Bukowski?

I was never a part of the San Francisco scene, though I did get to know Lawrence Ferlinghetti at one time.  But Bukowski was really a Los Angeles writer, although City Lights did publish important works of his.  I was much closer to Bukowski in work and attitudes than to San Francisco, and we were both identified with Southern California, not SF.

"I love great music of all kinds from all eras and so it’s always come naturally to write about music in my poetry, just as it comes naturally to me to use great paintings as starting points for poems."

What is the best advice ever given you and what advice would you give to the new generation?

I think Ernest Hemingway and Edward Field both said in their own ways, “Don’t try to write masterpieces.”  That doesn’t mean that you can’t hope some of your work will one day be taken as such. It means don’t be a perfectionist—at least not on the first drafts. I tell my students that writing ideas will only come to you at times when you can’t write them down—such as when you’re driving a car or taking a shower—and that when you sit down to write on a blank sheet of paper no ideas will come to you.  So you have to write the ideas down before you forget them, so that you will have them to write about when you have the time.  I do not encourage them to use stimulants and depressants such as alcohol and drugs to supposedly aid their writing.  I drank heavily for thirty years, and I did manage to write a lot anyway, but I haven’t had a drink in twenty years and I still manage to write a lot.  But how my students decide to lead their lives is up to them.  I just wouldn’t want them to get mistaken ideas from my example.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of world? What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you?

I don’t think my hopes and fears will have any effect on the future of the world at all.  Like Tolstoy and Forster I pay more attention to those people and things in life that are close to me.  I laugh at my own jokes and I am touched by my love for my children and, I hope, their love for me.  And, for better or worse, I am still capable of falling in love.

What from your memories and things (books, records, photos etc.) would you put in a "time capsule"?

I’d put my whole life in the time/capsule on some kind of powerful micro-chip . . . and I’d let the future—if there is a future—decide if anything of my life is worth retaining . . . or if, perhaps, it had all been one grand delusion, and the sooner forgotten, the better.

Gerald Locklin - Official website

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