Poet Barbara LaMorticella on Finding our Deepest Authentic Voice

I was lucky enough to interview Poet Barbara LaMorticella for Reading Local, where the following transcript first appeared.

Barbara LaMorticella lives in the woods outside Portland, Oregon, and tries to see both the forest and the trees. Co-host of KBOO radio’s Talking Earth, she has given over 200 poetry readings. Her poems range freely from the personal to the social and political, from the world of nature to the world of the spirit. She was a founding member, actress and writer with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and her readings are often surprising, sometimes inspiring, and always entertaining. Her second collection of poems, Rain on Waterless Mountain, published by Dan Raphael’s 26 Books press, was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award, and she won the Stewart H. Holbrook Award for Outstanding Contribution to Oregon Literary Arts and was awarded the first Oregon Literary Arts fellowship for women writers. She will be reading at Joe’s Cellar in NW Portland on Tuesday, September 20th at 7:00PM.

Shawna Harch) What originally drew you to poetry? Was there a major turning point in your life that led you to where you are today?

Barbara LaMorticella) I loved poetry in high school, and had long discussions about it with friends. I was always interested in the expressive arts, and acted, directed and played music in school. The school considered me a brilliant student, but I dressed like a bohemian, didn’t like shopping, and was very much the black sheep of my family, which had great contempt for both arts and intellectual endeavors. I left home early, married at 19 and had a child at 20. My husband and I were founding members of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. We left San Francisco in the late 60s. I began writing poetry seriously after we moved to rural Marin County, as it seemed to me that that was an art that could be practiced with nothing but a tool to write with. I pretty much figured I would always be poor ― a calculation that has proven accurate! – and I felt poetry was an art that nothing could take away. I still think that, and see a boom in the writing of poetry as the economic world falls apart.

SH) Can you explain how and why you got involved with KBOO and The Talking Earth program?

BLM) Walt Curtis started Talking Earth, at first as a weekly show. He got tired of doing four shows a month and farmed half the month out to Doug Spangle and to Lois Lewis, a sweet black poet who has since died. When Doug’s job made it impossible for him to do the show any more, he asked me if I would like to.

At about this time, in 1986, I noticed a woman showing up at many of my poetry readings. I went out of my way to speak to her, as she was always alone and listening so attentively. Unbeknown to me, she was Kathleen Stephenson, a program director at KBOO. I never asked her about it, but I suspect she was auditioning me, as Doug had recommended me to take his place. When Lois couldn’t do her week any more, I took over that slot also, and from then on hosted half the Talking Earth shows.

SH) What are three things you learned from hosting this program?

BLM) The most important thing I’ve learned is how to really read a poem. I aim to present poems that represent the whole wide spectrum of poetry as it’s being written and read today, not just one genre or style, and not just poetry that I personally value the most. I read a lot of poetry for the show that I wouldn’t spontaneously pick out and read myself. I’ve found that I can enter and hear any poem that’s well-wrought. I’ve also learned that most poets are very happy to present their work. Whether or not they write poetry that combines image, experience, mind and heart in a way that I personally prefer, I’ve found that it makes me happy to interact with people who have done something that pleases them as much as writing a poem does.

SH) What is the most difficult part about being a poet?

BLM) In a culture that values money and material above all else, poetry is easy to scorn. Words are a poet’s chief material, and words are seemingly cheap. Poetry can’t be eaten, worn or looked at on the wall. Poets are not paid for their efforts. These are double-sided debits, as these very same factors help make poetry an important art. We need a counter to materialism, some way to measure worth besides money. We also need a channel for non-commercial vision. In a culture that proclaims the importance of the individual but beats the individual down and aims to drown the individual voice, poetry can provide a simple way of saying, “I am” and “We are.” But once people begin to try writing poetry, they run into another difficulty – that many of the voices and themes we carry in our head come from the commercial media. Some poets are able to play successfully with this, but others are simply unaware of it, and produce poetry that never gets beyond the level of contemporary cliché. It’s difficult for many of us to find our own deepest authentic voice.

SH) You received the first Oregon Literary Fellowship for women writers. Can you talk about the importance of this type of award and what receiving this fellowship meant to you?

BLM) This kind of recognition is very important for all artists, maybe particularly for me as an outsider artist, someone working and living outside the mainstream. It’s hard for someone not academically credentialed to be taken seriously as a poet.

In the late mid to late 70s, there was an openness and mingling in the literary community that hasn’t existed since. Poets from colleges, taverns, cafes and bookstores met, mingled and read at the Portland Poetry Festival. In 1975, because of a letter to the editor defending poetry that I wrote to an underground paper, I was asked to edit the Portland Poetry Festival Anthology. One male poet wrote a letter of complaint that the Festival had chosen an “unknown Scappoose woman” to edit rather than one of the fine established (male) poets around town! There was a lot of male posturing in those days, and my voice, the voice of a woman struggling to simultaneously raise children and find her own artistic ground, could easily have been buried in all the noise. Judith Barrington, Ruth Gundle, and a very active women’s community would not allow the burial, but for many years were the main supporters and promoters of my work. I was deeply honored to be chosen for the first women’s fellowship, and I think it acknowledges that still there is a territory of writing, traditionally overlooked or downgraded – although that is happily changing today– that women have entered more readily than men – writing about family and the struggles of the family. Again, I am happy to say that this is changing, with many enlightened male poets writing about family and children today.

Each of the three honors I have received from Literary Arts has had an enormous influence, validating and giving me an immediate credibility I might have had to struggle mightily to achieve otherwise. There are people in my immediate family and circle of friends who only began to take my poetry at all seriously when my second book was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. I’m still striving to live up to my Stewart Holbrook Award for outstanding contribution to Oregon Literary Arts! And the fellowship for Women Writers was a reminder that the roots of my writing are deep as motherhood and mammalian being.

SH) In your poem After. Life you write:

Poetry relies on the conviction there are
trapdoors in words where great changes can enter,
the words themselves turn to windows or doors big enough
for revolution, revelation, kisses or friends

The poet says she knows there is no afterlife
and then kisses life so thoroughly from top to bottom
there isn’t any room for

I absolutely love this. Can you expand on what you’re saying here?

BLM) I think the third stanza is quite literally true: witness the multi-billion dollar advertising industry, and also the efforts that any repressive society make to control language and thus to control thought. For many years the language of class analysis was banned in the US – if you even used a word like “working class, “ you were branded as a pinko or worse. The myth was that there were no classes in America – and I had quite sophisticated, educated people tell me that! Therefore, Americans were somewhat retarded in thinking about their true economic interests. I do think that words have a kind of alchemical power. Words can’t in themselves change things, but without words no constructive change can take place.

I wrote the fourth stanza after talking to the poet Dorianne Laux, who began her writing by scribbling notes on her breaks as a waitress. I don’t agree with Dorianne about the after-life, although I think whatever comes after will certainly not be “Barbara LaMorticella” – this particular being’s existence is a one-time shot. I don’t think you can really love life without also acknowledging, embracing in a sense, the idea that you will ultimately die.

The Buddhists say that the highest level of enlightenment is to step completely off the wheel of birth and death, and in being so equanimous about there being no after-life, it seemed to me Dorianne perhaps was already in this enlightened place. I personally like the Buddhist idea of sticking around on the wheel until every sentient being is enlightened!

Your question reminds me of a quote I read the other day by Alice B. Toklas, who said about Gertrude Stein: “Gertrude was really brilliant tonight! She said things that she won’t even begin to understand for ten years.” The stanza about the after-life is maybe a little ineffable, but I tried to say something about it…

SH) Have you seen the literary community in Oregon change since you’ve been here? If so, how?

BLM) The scene has changed enormously, and in many ways for the good. Poets tend to be cliquish and somewhat stratified, and I still regret the ending of the Portland Poetry Festival, which was a rare, wonderful and democratic mixing of all kinds of poets who performed and listened to each other. But the advent of the internet has gone a long way towards breaking the dominance of universities and a few big magazines and newspapers as arbiters of poetic value, and desktop publishing has made it much easier for poets to get their work out – big publishing houses will hardly even touch poetry now, as it is not economically viable. But more and more people are writing poetry, which is understandable given all the forces, economic and social, that aim to grind people down. My friend Andrea Drinard, who runs Paper Moon Books, tells me she’s noticed a big change in the past couple of years. She says that young people who come into the store head straight to the poetry section, a new phenomenon.

The reading scene is hopping. It may be somewhat cliquish, but the cliques are open to anybody who shows up. Friendships are important. In any scene, people find their level – people who are really good at what they’re doing, whatever their schtick may be – are recognized. There are levels, and levels, and levels. In Constantine Cavafy’s poem, The First Step (after a poet complained that the ladder of poetry is exceedingly tall, that he had been writing for two years and only completed one work) Cavafy famously wrote:

Just to be on the first step/should make you happy and proud./Even this first step/is a long way above the ordinary world/To stand on this step/you must be in your own right/ a member of the city of ideas./And it’s a hard, unusual thing/to be enrolled as a citizen of that city./Its councils are full of Legislators/no charlatan can fool./To have reached this point is no small achievement:/what you’ve done already is a wonderful thing.

The universities of course still to a large part control the canon, but more important than the canon is living a life, and for those who practice it, poetry, like the practice of any art, adds a dimension of richness.

SH) What local publisher are you most interested in at the moment? Why?

BLM) Airlie Press, which is a local cooperative press, is innovative and interesting. And I cannot overpraise David Memmott, who works from LaGrande on a shoestring, runs Wordcraft of Oregon, which has published over 60 books by Oregon writers, ranging from poetry to science and speculative fiction. Ruth Gundle’s Eighth Mountain Press has been a fabulous boon to women writers. And I am very sorry that Eric Muller’s Traprook Books will stop publishing this year. Eric, like the all the publishers I’ve mentioned, has been dedicated to publishing to the point of personal sacrifice. Dan Raphael has published a wide variety of fine poetic voices in the past, and no doubt will again in the future when he’s no longer working on his bread job.

SH) Name two of your favorite Oregon-based authors. What do you like about them?

BLM) I can’t pick just two. There are many really good writers in Oregon, poets, novelists and essayists, some well and many little known. I’ll limit my reply only to poets, and only to a few who I feel are not only dedicated writers but have worked to build and foster Oregon’s literary community. William Stafford not only wrote great poetry but aimed to build community. Ursula LeGuin is not only a great writer, but has sought always to nourish the local community of writers in Portland. The Left Hand of Darkness is one of her finest books in my opinion. The wonderful feminist poet Judith Barrington, with her partner Ruth, has always worked to nourish a local and national literary community. Paulann Petersen is a fine poet who has been a marvelous Oregon Poet Laureate, traveling all over the state working to nourish and foster a poetic community. And two relative newcomers, Steve Williams and Constance Hall, are not only serious writers who run a lively and innovative reading series at In Other Words, but also offer free workshops and a free online poetry workshop that has members from around the world.

SH) What three books have had the greatest impact on you? Why?

BLM) When I left home at 16, walking six miles to the train station in the dark, I slipped James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man into my pocket. I identified with Stephen Dedalus’ emerging into being as an artist, though I’m not sure that I ever even finished it. Henry Miller wrote a whole book that was a mainly a list of the books in his life that he felt had most influenced him, although he freely admitted that he had never read many of them – the title alone was enough to influence him!

When I was 18, working at the Illinois State Psychiatric Institute at the height of the intense McCarthy anti-communist years, I checked out a book from the institute’s library called Studies in a Dying Culture, written by Christopher Caudwell, a Communist writer who was killed in the Spanish Civil War at age 30. As I read it, riding on the El in Chicago, I remember looking up and thinking, “Wow! This all makes sense to me. I must be a Communist! My God, people would be really horrified if they knew there was a Communist on this train.”

Later, in the 60’s, I was influenced by Robert Bly’s Leaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translations. Many of Bly’s words over the years have had the ability to set me vibrating like a tuning fork (William Stafford, a friend of Bly’s, once jokingly said something like, “Watch out for Bly… he influences people…). Someone once remarked about my earliest poetry, “It reads like Spanish poetry in English translation.” Bly’s words about the deep image, about surrealism, about the dryness of (then) contemporary English and American poetry, its lack of duende, heart, and gravitas compared to European poetry, struck deep chords and influenced my writing, as did his journeying into political poetry.

Image credit: James Honzik