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Bill Harding: California Poets Part 7, Three Poems

Bill Harding

July 1st, 2024

California Poets: Part VII

Bill Harding

Three Poems

Two Days in Cape May


The last time here, as a raw teenager and a night

of partying,  he had lost his car. His search

for the rusting  black bug-eyed two-seater

had come up empty.  The police filed

a stolen car report. Two hours later,

they had their man: his best friend,

who had taken the keys

as a precaution.


On Medicare now, he shifts in the backseat

of a hybrid that silently winds at 3 mph

past uniformed officers on each corner, signaling

a route through the same city. The driver

— another high school buddy — has found a way

to join a funeral procession . Must be for a cop.  

Maybe  the same one who had shouted insults

all those years ago, angry at college kids

who invaded his town and couldn't hold their beer.

That crew-cut deputy had hunted and pecked

on an old Remington, unaware of a leaking pen

staining the breast pocket of his summer whites.

The driver cranes left and right, hoping

to find an unblocked street:  "How do you

gracefully exit one of these things?" 


A held-in laugh explodes over the backseat,

like vomit.


An hour later, at some new café, staring

into lukewarm coffee, he remembered

it had been overcast and blustery

that day back then, too.

Magical Mystery Tour, Day 3


So maybe that's how

to walk on water:  stand up

on a paddle board.

And Then I Didn't Write. . .


     (found ideas unlikely to be fleshed out.)


Trial of Man Accused of Kidnapping Wrong Person

   Profile of an inept criminal.


   Flash Fiction?

                        from a newspaper headline (Star-Ledger)


The Mad Hatter as a Woman in a Yellow Bonnet

   Sets up a tea table on front lawns, complete with dolls

as guests. Stays 10 minutes, packs up, pushes her Vons cart

like a baby carriage.


   Possible short story.

                        from a Neighborhood Watch post


Babe Ruth Shot My Dog

    Summer, 1923: as told by my grandmother's brother,

Emilio, to anyone in Paterson, NJ who would listen.


    Novella: crime story structure.

    note: a young Lou Costello appears in this.

                        boy + dog + baseball + nostalgia


Penile Fracture and Other Minor Complaints





July 16th, 2024

California Poets Interview Series:

Bill Harding, Poet, Fiction Writer, Editor

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: Let’s begin from the very beginning. You came to California in 1969 to fly for the Navy and you completed quite the number of combat missions. How did you embark on this path and were you already writing poetry at that point?


BH: The very beginning for me was Paterson, New Jersey, specifically the Riverside Section that was predominantly Italian then (my mother was a First Generation American). That small area figured in two of my novels and which I still write about in short stories that appear in the Paterson Literary Review.

Music and poetry were constantly in the air during my childhood, in two languages and in several dialects of each language. My decision to enlist in 1968 was for selfish reasons: I thought if I chose the military program with the longest training period (Naval Aviation), the Vietnam War would be over before I could see combat. It’s almost comical how very wrong I was about that. But my fighter squadron experiences changed me—I learned how to be part of something, and how selfishness was a liability.

I was much more into music in those days—jazz and standards—with a union card and paying gigs since my teenage years. Writing was too much of a mystery back then to be any sort of reality.

DG: In addition to poetry, you’ve also written novels and a children’s book. Do you enjoy poems that try to tell stories and should writers of fiction aim to use language in more musical ways?


BH: I wrote novels, short stories, and screenplays before poetry, so it’s no surprise I write narrative poems, where the story is either the main thing or the route to the main thing. In any form, good writing is, I think, choosing the right word to do the work. For me, the rhythm and the sound of the words can be similar to melody and tone in music, so every once in a while I write something that sounds right to me. Even rarer, I write something that opens me up to places I had no intention of going. That feeling is its own reward.

DG: Music has always been near and dear to you. For twenty or so years you played in a jazz band across Southern California. How did this impact your writing and did you write more or less prolifically during this time?


BH: Music has been my romance, even now, after I’ve stopped performing publicly (I consider myself no longer fit for human consumption). It’s been a refuge for me, especially during the period I spent writing screenplays that kept getting optioned but never made, even when Academy Award-winning actors and directors got on board (Jon Avildsen, Jack Palance). The highs and lows of that time helped propel me to work with brilliant young musicians who made me look a lot better than I really was, and it gave me back the immediacy of music—when you get on the other side of what you playing, so that you simultaneously hear it the same way the audience does. That nudged me toward poetry, which I had not previously considered, because poetry was (is) pretty much a non-paying gig.

DG: You founded Garden Oak Press and have done a great deal to promote other people’s poetry. Can you talk about the most rewarding aspects of this work along with the things that take up the most time?

BH: Every writer, even famous ones, always have that one book nobody seems to want. I founded Garden Oak Press to be the publisher who would take that book. It was a business model based on faith in the source—the writer. It was also a vehicle to launch the San Diego Poetry Annual—intended to unite the disparate groups in the San Diego region by collecting work from all of them so that poets would have a place to read each other. Within five years, I was publishing poetry collections by friends whose work I valued, including some, who had never had their work collected in book form. I found a sense of purpose in that.

The changes in publishing since my first novel came out in 1979 still have me spinning. That novel set me up for life: a Book-of-the-Month selection, movie and paperback and foreign rights sold, and enough to free me to live where and how I wanted. My second novel won the New Jersey Writer’s Award and my next novel was excerpted in the Italian-American Writers of New Jersey anthology that Maria Mazziotti Gillan (a native of that same Riverside Section of Paterson) put together a few years after she took over the Paterson Literary Review. It looked as though I would be a Mid-list Author—able to publish a book every couple of years for a decent advance. But the major publishing houses began consolidating, and the Mid-list disappeared.

My editor at Holt, Marian Wood, foresaw digital publishing, and knew the day would come when editors would no longer be meaningful. Fortunately, I had a wonderful agent (Richard Parks, first at Curtis Brown, then at his own firm), so I had ways forward in a number of areas—newspapers, magazines, screenplays, even an as-told to effort with a football great who was making a comeback (the late Lyle Alzado). All of this took place against the backdrop of the emergence of digital publishing, the dilution of major film studios, leading to the live-streaming from independents we now experience.

I got both the benefits and the shocks of all that, getting to work on my own stuff with talented directors like Graeme Clifford and living off option money. In reality, I’ve come to see it wasn’t that much different than in the glory days of monthly magazines that offered new outlets for short stories, which kept writers alive as markets changed. So I felt that becoming a publisher while I was still writing was a logical progression for me—a way to invest in and create opportunity for others while forging ahead with what interested me. The world may have turned inside-out, but it’s still open to wonder.

DG: In addition to Garden Oak Press, you’re the founding publisher of the San Diego Poetry Annual. On average how many submissions do you receive per year, are the readers the same or do they rotate, and are you aiming to publish mostly established or emerging writers?


BH: The original goal for the SDPA was to get 100 pages so that we could format as a trade paperback with a printed spine, which is necessary for librarians to place books on shelves—and the idea of donating copies to libraries was essential for permanence, so that writers decades down the road could have a public archive of what San Diego sounded like while they were growing up, or before they were born. We now publish over 325 poets every year—limiting them to one poem—in the main volume in English. We also publish a bilingual volume, with poems written in Spanish and translated into English, from 80 poets and translators. I think we’re the only poetry annual with a separate bilingual volume. Plus a separate volume for poems and drawings by pre-teen poets, ages 6 to 12, as the Kids! SDPA. We continue to donate the complete three-volume set to public and university libraries, so it’s hard to estimate who, other than the poets and their families, actually read the SDPA. Since we also offer a free PDF online each year of each volume, we probably reach thousands of readers each year, many of them new.

From the beginning, the SDPA was meant to be a depository from all over the region. It is not set up around a single editorial viewpoint. Instead, we use Regional Editors, whose geographic locations and whose tastes vary, so we have a variety of definitions of excellence. That produces diversity. We also hope to be a welcoming place, where noted poets (Chris Vannoy, Marge Piercy, Jan Beatty, Steve McDonald) can count on a home for their new work and where emerging poets can appear alongside them, and where new poets can get published for the first time. In that sense, I’ve come to see the SDPA as architecture—an actual place.

Prior to the COVID pandemic, we were completing the process of my turning over the SDPA to new leadership. Anthony Blacksher (known in spoken word circles as Ant Black) is the publisher now, with Michael Klam as the Associate Publisher and the Executive Editor. The staff of Regional Editors includes some of our finest poets (Robt O’Sullivan, Adrian Arancibia, Brandon Cesmat). Managing Editor Seretta Martin coordinates them. Olga Garcia, a brilliant poet originally from Mexico, edits the bilingual volume with Michael Klam. The KSDPA is handled by Ying Wu, herself a poet of note, and edited by Ameerah Holliday, who serves as the main volume’s Editorial Director.

I’m now relegated to the typesetting/formatting crew, working for Ameerah and following policy created by Ant and Michael.

DG: What are your favorite literary places in San Diego—bookstore, places to read, places to write, places to write about?


BH: I don’t get around much anymore. I live on a wildlife habitat I manage. It sits about an hour north of San Diego, and with growing traffic, a round-trip of over two hours gets increasingly less do-able for me.

I’m a fan of Bluestocking Books in the Hillcrest area, which used to host a summer reading for us each year. Coffee shops that used to be mainstays of literary activity are fewer, but still significant. Monthly, poet/artist Ted Washington hosts Palabra at Bread & Salt near the downtown area, Deborah Ramos hosts The Poetry Bench in Balboa Park, Sunny Rey of Poets Underground hosts with Anthony Azzarito at Queen Bee’s in North Park, Jim Moreno hosts at Spacebar in La Mesa, Robt O’Sullivan hosts at Escondido Arts Partnership Galley in Escondido, and there is a least one SDPA scheduled reading each month at a library throughout San Diego March through November. It’s a vibrant scene.

I do all my writing at home. There are weeks when I never leave the property. WiFi and the internet keep me in what passes for a loop. I’ve been writing more about the natural world I live in, especially the live oaks that dot the place. Red-tailed Hawks and quail by day, owls and bats by night, a great view of stars (Mt. Palomar is just over the hill) and of rabbits and squirrels (and the snakes and coyotes that feed on them), and a brutal first-hand experience with climate change.

DG: In an interview with (Re)vision you’ve said that you “don’t see being a writer as any different from being a plumber, teacher or doctor—or any honest work,” and in that sense “the role of the artist is community-centered, so reaching out is a necessary part of connecting the art to the community.” Are you pleased, at this stage, with the institutional support that San Diego is giving the writing community and what do you hope to see more of in the future?


BH: I always wanted to be a writer, but thought there was no way to make a living as one. I was almost right about that. I think I should have said that “writing isn’t any different” from any other honest work. I love writing, but I’m not a fan of being a writer—that has a cultural connotation that, while sometimes flattering, can be dishonest.

Two of my gurus—Jimmy Breslin and Jim Murray—made it a point to get out among their subject matter as a way of keeping their newspaper columns fresh. My mentor, Joseph Hansen, whose Dave Brandstetter mystery novels broke barriers, was also a terrific poet, and through research and travel, he practiced the same approach. Writing is the act of being involved in something to the extent that your personal identity/importance is secondary to what you are discovering. It’s a way of getting lost, then finding your way out.

Editing and publishing feel like writing, but they aren’t. They are corollaries to writing, just as teaching writing is. Bernard Malamud, who taught composition 101 for years, had the sense of being on vacation from writing during his classes, so he could come to his work refreshed. For decades, Maria Mazziotti Gillan wrote her poetry during the college and private workshops she led. Juan Felipe Herrera, who is an inventive artist, musician, historian, as well as a poet, led La Raza in San Diego and is still an activist who uses all of that, plus his Poet Laureate lab and teaching efforts, to feed his writing. It feels like my time as an editor, publisher, and typesetter is time off from writing, the same way cooking or ranch work is. That helps with focus, and builds discipline necessary for writing.

When I was playing competitive golf as a senior, I made a point of going out early, ahead of the mowers, to walk 9 holes, carrying my bag. Being out there alone in a natural setting fed my soul as a golfer—something I could tap into under tournament pressure by imaging a similar shot made on an empty course—and also created space and time for my writing to steep. Before that, I did some travel and sports photography for magazines and newspapers and found that finding the shot, even anticipating it, was a way to think in images. Both of those side interests, like music, helped me approach writing as a person, not as a writer.

I’ve been surprised by the generosity the San Diego community and its institutions have extended to the SDPA and its sponsoring non-profit. It’s the only time in my life that virtually no one has said “No” to me. I’m still in disbelief about that. When I think of the talented people who contribute to organizations we partner with—San Diego Writers, Ink, San Diego Writers Festival, San Diego Memoir Association, the SD Veterans Coalition, public libraries—I see promising days looking forward, at a time when we are threatened with division and unrest. Art can change us from within. I’m still betting it will.


DG: What would be your ideal second job as a writer?


BH: Every job is secondary to writing. I’ve been luckier than I deserved to be, so with very few exceptions, I’ve only done other things because I wanted to. And those other activities have fed my writing. They still do. Once you realize that writing also requires you to not write, so that you can maintain focus and regenerate yourself, finding something that interests you and, with luck, pays you a little, if not in money then in some other form, you can pick any job or no job at all—a hike works just as well.

DG: Let’s stay with the work analogy, which is interesting. Good teachers end up becoming that way because they’ve been taught well, and good engineers too—indeed the same goes for doctors. Being taught and working with people are natural, unquestionable elements of acquiring job skills. Yet many poets, and perhaps artists in general, seem to look down upon mentorship and tend not to get involved in anything but their own writing and success. Do you see that as ultimately the wrong recipe and how much emphasis do you place on the role of teaching?


BH: I would have been lost without mentors. In everything.

I grew up in a clan of artisans, each of them mentored by masters. My grandfather worked the dye box in a silk mill. My grandmother was a well-taught cook in the rustic Italian style—la cucina povera: the cuisine of poverty, which I practice today, recipes that any 12-year-old of her era would have learned how to prepare. There were steel workers, mechanics, and a handful who were mentored in public schools and college go on to become professionals—teachers, doctors, lawyers, librarians. I always felt that I was the first one in my family to be allowed to be an artist.

A brick layer can walk past his work on his way to the next job.  So can a carpenter. Every trade winds up being part of the artisan’s community. Art functions in much the same way—literally, when it is public, like statues and installations, and figuratively, when we learn to see the beauty in buildings, plumbing, that stone wall, someone’s garden.

My writing mentor, Joseph Hansen, gave me a vision I would never have discovered on my own. He knew the craft of writing and taught me that, be he also insisted that I write like me. He saw something in me he called “quirky.” I did not immediately take that as a compliment. Up to that point, I had been imitating others. So, for me, mentoring isn’t the same as teaching. It’s enrichment. The idea is to show someone—require someone—how to find her/his own way, using the same tools. There is no point to writing something that is already on the shelf. You have to write something that no one else could. The conceit embedded in that notion also fires the hope that maybe it can be done. Maybe you can construct something that is uniquely yours, even when it borrows from old themes and steals from greater talents. If you can, that’s what constitutes doing your best work.

I’d like to think that I’ve given a taste of mentorship to those I’ve worked with—but only a nudge, really. I don’t see myself as either a teacher or a mentor. Instead, I feel more like a flawed role model—a guy who’s tried his hand a lot of things (My joke is that I can’t hold a job.), all while dreaming or half-asleep, because I’m resting up for my next daily bout of writing. So even when I’m not succeeding on the page, I’m still happy. Maybe not exactly happy, but happy enough to show up tomorrow. That’s the real victory.


DG: What are you reading or working on at the moment?


BH: I read way too much poetry, way too much news, way too many interviews, listen to way too much music, see way too few short stories and novels, watch not enough new movies and almost no plays.

I find it remarkable that some of the people I read and listen to are actually friends (even family members!), people I have published and worked with, and that they are some of the finest poets, writers, and musicians  out there. That’s completely beyond anything I could have imagined as a child, even in dreams. I could be the luckiest person you will ever meet.

These days I go from working on nothing to juggling a handful of poems, a screenplay finally released from option that I’m thinking about turning into a novel, another novel in the same genre (Western), another comic novel I’ve been working on for 20 years, an approach to revitalizing the San Diego Book Awards which the non-profit (San Diego Entertainment and Arts Guild) has taken over to companion with the Steve Kowit Poetry Prize, and there are some live oaks, California pepper trees, and chaparral that need cutting back, trimming, and brush-mowing for the year-round fire season we now live in the middle of. It always feels like a full day.

Author Bio:

William Harry Harding has written four novels—Three Women and the River or The Englishman Who Forgot His Own Name (Lymer & Hart: 2018), and Rainbow, Young Hart, Mill Song, and a children’s book, Alvin’s Famous No-Horse—all from Henry Holt.  His poetry and Pushcart Prize-nominated short fiction have appeared in The Paterson Literary Review, Rattle, LIPS and the San Diego Poetry Annual. The publisher at Garden Oak Press, he chairs the San Diego Entertainment + Arts Guild (SDEAG), founded the San Diego Poetry Annual in 2005, and the Steve Kowit Poetry Prize in 2016.


Under the stage name Franco Z, he led the jazz band Z-BOP! at festivals and venues throughout Southern California for two decades.      


A member of ASCAP, the Writers Guild of America, West, The Author's Guild, and the Academy of American Poets, Bill came to San Diego in 1969 to fly for the Navy, completing over 200 combat missions in Fighter Squadron 92 aboard the aircraft carriers USS America and USS Constellation.


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