LINGUISTIC ALCHEMY: AN EVENING WITH LAUREL ANN BOGEN

Laurel Ann Bogen – poet, mentor, and all-around word witch (Sun in Aries, Moon in Cancer, Sagittarius Rising), is rarely at home, being a creature of multiple tasks and titles. For this reason I became, some three years ago, the nominal guardian of her cat: a large, mild-mannered orange tabby, innocuously christened “Little Guy Bogen”.
Being Little Guy’s adoptive parent entitles me to visit Laurel at regular intervals for dinner, which I am only too pleased to do, as her culinary abilities are as extraordinary as her poetry. One Saturday evening towards the end of May, as Laurel was devising one of her deliciously esoteric meals, she invited me to participate (for dinner with Laurel is generally an interactive affair) AND agreed to a concurrent interview.
This was impossible to resist. Arriving late, I surrendered my offering (a friendly red wine), and received, simultaneously, a warm hug and an enormous clove of fresh garlic. With my little tape machine perched precariously on top of the refrigerator, we each selected the sharpest knives we could find and got right down to potatoes, garlic and questions. As we sat down to eat, Laurel finally launched onto the subject of writing as the arcane and magical art that, in her hands, it has always been.

Laruel Ann Bogen & Little Guy Bogen

Laurel Ann Bogen & Little Guy Bogen

EE: What prompted you to write your first poem?

LAB: Well, I was a freshman at USC. I was seventeen years old, away from home for the first time…and filled with angst. Extreme angst. I hate to admit it, but I read a book by Rod McKuen. Yes, it’s true. Anyway, I thought if HE could write poetry and get it published, well, maybe I could write a poem.

EE: And you did.

LAB: And I did. I wrote something called “Remember Us”. It was a riff on the old Gladiator Salute…you know, “We who are about to die salute you”, etc. I had a crush on my French professor at the time, and one morning I was sitting in class…this was my first major crush when I was in college, you understand…and he was walking around the room, lecturing. I had left the poem on the seat beside me, and as he walked past me he saw the poem, picked it up, and read it.

EE: Oh, my God…

LAB: No, no…wait. He liked it! He really liked it. And so I was extremely gratified, and decided to keep writing. I got a lot of attention. People were reading my poems…in retrospect, I suspect they were just being kind; I was probably not very good yet. No, I definitely wasn’t very good then. But I was encouraged, and I believed what they had to say. So I got this idea in my head that I was a poet. And then, towards the end of my freshman year, THE BELL JAR was published. And poetry suddenly became very attractive to me because I got caught up in the Sylvia Plath bit. She was a very bad influence on a lot of young women, at that time.

EE: Bad influence…how?

LAB: Oh, they all thought it was romantic to go kill yourself in a garret in London, and become a famous dead poet, etc. At about this time, I was walking around campus, brooding over this sort of thing and I saw a sign which said that the Academy of American Poets was having a contest. I applied – I don’t know what I was thinking, but I applied. And, I’ll be damned…I won!

EE: Which was the poem that won the award?

LAB: The poem was called “Les Chiffres”. It was a very stylized discussion of the middle class. Kind of a political thing. I was the first freshman ever to have won that award. Now that I think about it, it was rather remarkable that I came up with that poem at the age of seventeen. And so I decided that I was going to be a poet, from that moment on. Naturally, I didn’t understand that this was not the easiest thing to do. I mean, I thought, “Of COURSE I’ll be a poet!” I was pretty lucky, I guess, that my dream came true, because it would have been damned unpleasant if it hadn’t. (Laughs)

EE: Is it important for poets, or anyone who works with language, to read other people’s work? And to read the classics as well as contemporary works? I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard someone say “Oh, man, I don’t want to go to the bother of reading all that old stuff…I want to be original.”

LAB: Oh, you CANNOT be a writer without reading what other writers have written! You need to have context for your own work; you need to find writers you admire to use for role models, or that inspire you to write in your own way; you need to read to know what the state of the art is. (Chuckling) What you are up against. 

EE: I’m often surprised by what pops up in contemporary music; people think they have escaped from the classics, and yet two years ago, a group…the Counting Crows…did a song based on HENDERSON AND THE RAIN KING. And I thought, “What’s this? Nobody reads Saul Bellow anymore!” But someone had. I really liked that song.

LAB: I heard a song on the radio the other day: someone was doing a riff from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. “I’ve measured out my life in coffee spoons”, went the lyric, and I yelled, “Whoa! Somebody’s reading…T. S. Eliot’s made it into the pop culture!”

EE: So people ARE reading. How do you go about deciding what you’re going to read, given all the stuff that’s being published these days? You end up with stacks of books to the ceiling…I mean, LOOK at this apartment.

LAB: Ha! I keep running out of bookshelves. Well, you start out with people you like, first, then you “discover” new ones. Sometimes I’ll just go and stand in the middle of a bookstore, perhaps in front of the poetry section….and I’ll pick out whatever appeals to me, open it up, and browse. If I like what I’ve read, I’ll buy the book. Also, I subscribe to poetry and literary magazines…different ones, every couple of years… and if a poet’s work stands out, I’ll look for work by that poet. You really have to support other writers. You can’t expect people to buy YOUR books if you don’t buy theirs. What comes around, goes around. I’d like to think someone would do the same for me.

EE: You have come to be identified as an L.A. poet…

LAB: I’ve been reading and performing my poetry for over thirty years in Los Angeles. After doing that for a long time, people identify me with the place. And Los Angeles figures prominently in many of my poems…the actual landscape of Los Angeles…

EE: The psychological, political AND geographical landscape! The first poem I ever heard you read was “Detective Supremo”, with that wonderful line: “And suddenly/the bougainvillea greet you/ like a happy extortionist/and it’s Cinco de Mayo/everywhere you look.”

LAB: I still don’t known how I came up with that. It’s a great line. In fact, that poem was a gift to me, it came out in one fell swoop.

EE: You really cooked up a good one, that time. The whole “Detective Supremo” series is sheer magic.

LAB: Just as cooking is a kind of alchemy, so are all creative processes. Poetry is certainly alchemy. You take thought, random thought, and you mix it up in your brain, and you turn it into something else. You turn it into art. In cooking, you take raw ingredients, you take things that are separate and distinct, you put them all together and you come out with a cooked creation. You put all your thoughts together, all your skill together, and you put all your imagination together, and you come out with something magical…a poem.

EE: How do you go about selecting those raw ingredients.

LAB: I tell my students: Anything you have ever experienced, read, seen, heard, felt, tasted…can be fodder for a poem. I once took a Biology class when I was in 11th grade, and there was a word in that class – “subcutaneous” – that I never thought I’d never use. Then, one day, I was writing this poem called “The New Year” and all of a sudden, “subcutaneous” came up in my head – and it was the PERFECT word for the poem. There I was, using a word from my 11th grade Biology class, like this: “We lick the salt off our bodies/can grind into subcutaneous wounds/can fill our throats with humility…” I tell you, subcutaneous was THE word for THAT moment, and if I had never taken that Biology class, that poem would have never been written successfully. You’ll be surprised. Weird pieces of information that may seem immaterial at the time you encounter them will become something you can use – in poetry, or in art, or anything. Stimulation from each of your senses, and from all of your experiences, are transformed within you, in an alchemical way, into language. There is a state of mind you have to get to in order to be really creative…it’s a sort of openness, of letting go, that’s like saying: “All right! What’s going to come to me?” And I see things in pictures in my head. The first clear image that comes to me is usually the first thing that I seize upon. It may or may not be the image that I stick with, but once I’ve gotten a picture in my mind, and I write it down, and go with it…see where it takes me. Quite often, I don’t know what the heck I’m writing about when I first start, but as I progress, I go “Oooooooh!” You have to DISCOVER things, in yourself and in your writing, especially at this stage. You know, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” You have to be surprised by your own work. If you’re bored by what you’ve written, the reader’s going to be bored, too.

EE: So in your estimation, writing…particularly the writing of poetry…is not only an act of creativity, but a kind of magic. There is a definition of magic somewhere that reads: “Magic is the art and practice of causing change to occur in accordance with the will of the magician.”

LAB: If you’re open to new possibilities, to transformative experiences, you will find them…always. People…all people…want to change, to be able to transform and to fulfill themselves. I like to think they wish to fulfill themselves in a positive way. I think if you can follow that restless spirit, it will take you to a kind of discovery, which entails creativity.

EE: Let’s say that I tackle the proverbial blank sheet of paper, thinking I know what I want to write about. I sit there, and try to write it…try to make it come out a specific way by sheer force of will. And this doesn’t seem to work for me. The poem seems to have its own…will to live, or not.

LAB: It’s like fishing. You cast out…and there’s always a certain amount of play between you and the poem…that is, the fish. (Humms) You have to play that fish out before you can catch it. A poem can only be “forced” to a small extent…a very small extent. That’s because a good poem has a mind of its own, and it really wills itself to be written. I consider myself a sort of conduit, a sort of midwife, even, to my poems. Sometimes I turn a phrase or two that just boggle my mind, I have no idea where they come from.

EE: Sometimes the fish are in season, and sometimes they’re not.

LAB: That’s true. It takes a little bit of magic, I think. A little gift from the Gods.

EE: What do you do when the fish just aren’t biting?

LAB: Well, we’ve all had THAT experience. My problem is that sometimes I haven’t been able to force myself to sit down and prime that pump. When you can’t write well, you just have to write something – in fact, anything. If you can face the paper, just sit there until you come up with one page. You may hit sand for three weeks in a row, but maybe on the fourth week you’ll hit something, maybe sweet water, maybe gold. If you pursue it long enough, something good’s gonna come up. Unless you decide to just give it up entirely. (Laughs)

EE: So you have to be kinda careful what you prime your pump with, eh?

LAB: That’s right. You have to trust that you’ll put your best interests at heart, you know? I’ve sabotaged myself a lot for a lot of years until I realized that I was not doing myself much good, and that I had to take better care of myself (Slicing shallots). Thank God, I’ve been doing that, but I had some hard lessons to learn.

EE: What are some of the things that “prime that pump”? You’ve spoken before about reading, the importance of reading other poetry.

LAB: That’s a given. Reading other poetry is essential. Also, the arts in general….music. I play a lot of music when I write. Quite a bit of my early work was dependent upon what I was listening to when I was writing it. Artist’s books. Sculpture. If I can get my other senses working, sometimes I can come up with some pretty interesting metaphors. But visual arts, and music, are the two that really help me get into the writing frame of mind. Of course, you have to watch out for what you listen to! Classical of course is great. I like Vivaldi and Mahler and Tchaikovsky when I’m feeling the need to be swept away. I find Joni Mitchell is wonderful to listen to, Marianne Faithful, Tom Waits…Tom Waits: oooh boy, you can get some great stuff out of that.

EE: Wasn’t Tom Waits the man you wrote “Rat City” for? Your dark paean to Los Angeles at night? God, I love that poem. “It was a cold night/colder than a lover’s eye/when he tells you it’s no longer good…Saturday night, on the edge of a dream/in Rat City.” Talk about lyric….damn!

LAB: Yes, I wrote “Rat City” for Tom Waits. I used to know his limousine driver, and she got a copy of it to him. I later heard through the grapevine that he hung it up in his bathroom.

EE: Just to wrap up, how about a couple of those classically oddball interview questions?

LAB: Fire away.

EE: What’s your favorite word?

LAB: Okefenokee.

EE: WHAT?

LAB: (Sings, to the tune of “Frosty the Snowman” ) “O-kee-fen-o-kee/is my very favorite swamp…” I made that song up when I was about eight years old.

EE: And has THIS word turned up in a poem?

LAB: Not yet.

EE: If you were to become something other than a poet and teacher, what do you think you’d like to do?

LAB: I’d become a psychiatrist.

EE: And what would be your specialty?

LAB: I think I would like to work with creativity and madness, the fine line between the two…and how we can turn the one into the other. The creative force is very powerful; I think you could push someone over the edge. But I believe that creative action is healing. And I believe that it can heal madness. If you can transform all the negative energy – the fear, the pain, and the terror – and work with it, turn it into art…you will have done a truly heroic thing.

* * *

Needless to say, Laurel’s dinner was a work of peerless craftsmanship. We lingered over every bite, drank off the wine, and I didn’t get home until nearly one in the morning.

Upon my return, Little Guy Bogen wreathed my ankles in ardent and uncharacteristic recognition, and spent the rest of the night burrowed into the clothing I had worn while visiting his mistress’ apartment. It took me several days to get all of the clothing away from him, and I doubt this was due to his sudden partiality for garlic. Laurel Ann Bogen, as poet, friend and mentor is, by all accounts, and to all parties, unforgettable.