Recent Work By Terry Wolverton

 

Terry Wolverton: Douglas, I first spoke with you about the dis•articulations project at the opening for “Oasis,” an art exhibition at Descanso Gardens in which poets and artists made work that responded to the landscape. I described to you how each month I was asking a different Los Angeles poet to collaborate with me on a series of exchanges that would result in new poems by both of us. The process was this: We would each find four poetry prompts in the media (print, broadcast or social), something we did not generate. We would exchange those prompts and use them to do four different segments of “fevered writing” (timed writing, without specific intention, a word spill for 3 minutes.) Then we would exchange the fevered writing, and write new poems using the words given to us by the other. So your poem would be comprised of words I had given you; my poem would be comprised of words you had given me. We didn’t have to use every word we were given, but we couldn’t add any words.

I remember feeling shy about asking whether you might consider participating, and was over-the-moon thrilled when you said you would. What made you decide to say yes?

 

Douglas Kearney: We’ve known each other for a minute, Terry, and I remember fondly our discussion about your adaptation of Embers for opera. I think it gave us an insight into each other’s ways of approaching language. At the time of your invitation, if I recall correctly, I had been kind of off-the-grid, locally. Holed up. It was a good way to get back out with someone I respect but hadn’t worked with in a creative capacity for some time.

I mentioned at a Dis•Articulations reading that I connected the approach to sample chopping—like say, Bob James’ “Nautilus” as sampled by 9th Wonder on “Murray’s Revenge.” Were you drawing the project frame from any particular aesthetic traditions?

Janky Mojo

By Terry Wolverton

Poem

I came in with janky mojo,
head peppered with hard thoughts,
face painted with Kaiju’s blood,
skeleton in a spooky suit.

Who was that vampire in a red cape,
its song tracing through my pulse,
heckling my impatient choices,
talking shit about God?

When did I become a cold machine
that breathes frost and coughs dust?
My bone cage jumps
in the attic of my disappointment.

Tundra

By Terry Wolverton

Poem

Tundra, come in from the cold. Sit down
by firelight of this last world and thaw
your aching bones. If you remember
any stories, tell them now, before
the room dissolves and flows into sea.

Oceans overwhelm their shores and land
is all awash. Soon evolution
will run backward; we’ll be aquatic
once more. Tundra, you’re a pretty word
printed in waterlogged books. Tundra,

you’re the name of my unborn daughter.
You’re a faint lullaby I whisper
in my lover’s ear at night. Tundra,
you’re the straw harp I play in heaven.
Lay your frigid cheek against my lap;

let me strum you to sleep. Your strings
slice the tips of my fingers; speckles
of ice sprinkle out, glint on crimson
cloth. This is how I know you’ve entered
my heart, Tundra, with your frosted light.


Terry insists we meet at her Kundalini Yoga studio, Golden Bridge Yoga in Hollywood.  She’s kind enough to treat me to a Yogi Tea before we perform 108 sit ups as part of the yoga class, which is taught by a turbaned, bearded man dressed entirely in white.  Terry is also in white from head to toe, minus the turban.  She says, of the missing headdress, “It makes my brain feel too claustrophobic.”

“Why yoga,” I wonder after class, “when we’re here to talk about writing?”  I have to admit I feel more energetic after all that breathing.  Without realizing it, I’ve given Terry the perfect entrée.

“These days,” she begins, “my yoga and meditation practice are integral to my writing.  When I started publishing in the 1970s, my intentions were more political; I was writing about my life as a woman and a lesbian from a feminist perspective.  I wanted people to confront the oppression of women and lesbians and gays in very visceral ways.”

“So,” I interject, “an example might be a poem like “Safe Sex” [from Black Slip] in which you say:

‘Since childhood
in the brightly lit bathroom
while your father said
there, like that, like that, ooo
and the fat worm curdled in your hand
you could never get
clean enough for jesus after that’?

“When that poem was written in the early 1980s,” she says “few women were talking about the experience of being sexually molested by a family member.  That silence helped allow such behavior to be perpetuated.  Speaking up was a way to tell other women, ‘it didn’t only happen to you and it’s not your fault’ and to tell the perpetrators, ‘I won’t keep quiet about this.’”

“So what’s different now, and what does that have to with yoga?”

“Now I have this aspiration for my work to be uplifting, to produce a change in the consciousness of the reader,” she beams.

“Is that what you were up to in your book, Shadow and Praise?”

She purses her lips.  “I had assigned my poetry students [at Writers At Work] to write a series of linked poems.  They could be linked thematically, formally, through a narrative or by some other means of their own devising.  I started writing a series of kind of nonce sonnets (sonnets that follow some but not all of the formal rules) about shadows, various meanings of the word ‘shadow.’  They’re pretty dark poems and at the end I thought, ‘Oh, that’s just so me!’  I get sick of my own thought patterns sometimes!  So I gave myself the challenge of writing a series of praise poems.”  She laughs.  “I started out praising, I don’t know, sunlight and flowers, and they were SO BORING! Then one day I started writing a poem in praise of denial, something that isn’t ordinarily praised, and then things got interesting.  I further made the rule that whatever image ended a given praise poem, that image would be the next thing I would praise.  So I kept surprising myself, which is what I need to work.”

“So, did you create happier, more uplifting poems?” I ask her.  We’re driving in her 16-year-old Honda del Sol to her writing studio, Writers At Work, which she founded in 1997 and at which she teaches weekly workshops in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction.

With a sigh she says, “I said that was an aspiration.  I keep aspiring.  A lot of the praise poems are still dark, but we’re in a Dark Age.  Through my meditation, I’m cultivating the belief that everything that happens is for our benefit; our only job is to figure out how to make use of it to benefit ourselves.”

“Everything?” I ask skeptically.

“In retrospect I can see it clearly,” Terry answers.  “Break-ups that were devastating to me turned out later to bring huge growth and expansion to my life.  Jobs I didn’t get freed me up for better opportunities.  Even growing up in my alcoholic, incestuous family forced me to go on a journey of self-exploration that might never have happened if I’d grown up comfortable and secure.  The challenge is to remember that in the present when something doesn’t go the way I think it should.  But really, I’m lucky.  If my worst problem is things not going my way, I have no problems.”

We reach Writers At Work, a large open room situated above a hair salon in Silver Lake.  The walls are painted bright orange.  Two walls are mostly windows.  On another wall is a bulletin board featuring the covers of books published by her students over the years.  A big table dominates the space.

I change topics.  “You call yourself a literary artist, and you’ve published in several different genres—poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, drama.  What’s behind those choices?”

She grins wryly.  “It’s branding suicide!  I always tell my students, ‘if you want a writing career, don’t do it the way I’ve done it.’”  She laughs.  “I didn’t study writing in an MFA program.  I went to art school [the Feminist Studio Workshop, a two-year program at the Woman’s Building and the reason Terry moved to Los Angeles from Detroit, where she grew up.]  I worked alongside and collaborated with painters and sculptors and graphic designers and video artists.  Until my late 30s I worked primarily in performance art.  I gave that up to concentrate more on my writing.”

She offers me tea, then continues.  “So I have this restlessness in my work to always be doing new things.  I like to set challenges for myself, to learn to do what I don’t know how to do.  Even within a genre, like poetry, my process keeps changing and so does my work.”

“Right,” I say.  “Shadow and Praise is really different than Embers.”  In Embers she’s written [from “Witness”]:

“In my stepfather’s battered black Cadillac,
filled with the blue smoke of cigarettes,
we waited, idling, in silence
outside the state hospital for the insane.”

and in Shadow and Praise, her form has moved to prose paragraphs [from “In Praise of Pregnancy”]:

“Fifty-year-old mother-to-be, knocked up by my own exaggerated expectations, my greedy longings.  I will name this offspring Outrage, raise her to be an enemy of the state.  Scrambled from eggs long past their expiration date, she’ll have lidless eyes, cursed to see too much.  Nursed at my bitter trough, she’ll wear green and inherit my inability to whistle.”

“I don’t exactly think of Embers as a poetry collection,” Terry gently contradicts.  “I meant to write a historical novel based on the life of my step-grandmother, but I eked out a few pages and it seemed so dull.  Then it occurred to me that using the vehicle of poetry—73 poems that function as ‘chapters’—I could convey the multiple versions of her life as well as all the aspects that were unknown.  But after writing narrative poetry for the 6 years I worked on Embers, I didn’t want to do that again for a long time, so I began exploring more lyric poems and then more fragmented and experimental structures.  The kind of poems that make people roll their eyes and say they don’t understand poetry!”

“How do you deal with that?”

“I try to get people to relax about it.  People are accustomed to reading for information, what theorists call efferent reading; they think they should walk away with a sound bite.  Poetry, especially experimental work, requires aesthetic reading, the ability to appreciate the choices of language, image, sound, visual structure and assemble a meaning for themselves, one that may be different for each reader.  I try to encourage people to trust themselves in whatever they take from a given poem.”

This seems to be a good time to ask her about her teaching.

“Numerologically, I’m a “5,” she responds.  “That means I was born to be a teacher.  When I was little I used to assemble my stuffed animals, take roll in a roll book, and offer little lessons. I’ve been teaching creative writing since the late 70s.  I love the opportunity to encourage people’s creativity and to impart skills to help them accomplish their goals.  I’m a Virgo, a natural problem solver, so I love to look at someone’s work and say, ‘Have you considered this?  What if you tried that?’ And I feel like I get to know the best part of people, the part that is inspired, that is trying to craft something to be the best it can possibly be.  That’s such an incredible level on which to interact with someone.”

“Somehow I think you might be a hard teacher,” I venture.

“If I’m hard it’s because I want people to achieve their excellence,” she says, unapologetically.  “If I want that more than the student does, she or he is going to find me hard.  I’m not going to applaud someone just for having a pulse.  I want them to be great.”

Before our conversation is over, she tells me she wants me to see her garden.  As we once more climb into the somewhat battered del Sol, I notice the bumper sticker: “May the longtime sun shine upon you.”  I recognize it as a line from the song we sang at the close of the yoga class.

The garden is as colorful and eclectic as Terry’s work—succulents beside native plants next to a wall of bougainvillea, adjacent to a vegetable plot where beets and peas reach toward the sun.  “I never make a plan,” she says with a tinge of regret.  “I just go to the nursery and buy what strikes me; I come home and try to find a spot for it.  It’s all impulsive and usually overcrowded.  But it makes me happy.”

“What’s next for you in your literary life?” I ask.

“I have a novel coming out this summer—Stealing Angel.  It’s kind of a spiritual thriller, about kidnapping a child and whether one can do the wrong thing for the right reasons.  And I’m collaborating with composer David Ornette Cherry on adapting Embers as a jazz opera.  I’m shopping a new book of poems and a collection of lyric essays—but getting published is even more challenging these days than when I was starting out!  And I have another novel with a complete first draft that is waiting for me to bring my attention back to it.”

My eyes widen a bit at the list, but she waves it away.  “I used to think that producing a lot of work would bring me happiness.  I know now that it doesn’t.  Connecting with the infinite in meditation, tending the garden, taking time to watch the moon rise, laughing with my partner—that’s the real source of joy.”

The sun is setting as we sit on her front porch, gazing out at the front garden.  A breeze stirs the wind chimes that hang from the roof.  Her white cat, Annie, jumps into her lap and licks her arm a few times before settling down.  It calls to mind a part of a new, unpublished poem she shared with me earlier this day, “Turtle Songs”:

We sing of the unseen, all that dwells
beneath, what the heart learns
on a moonless night