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Cathy Colman: California Poets Part 7, Three Poems


Cathy Colman


July 1st, 2024

California Poets: Part VII

Cathy Colman

Three Poems




AN ARS POETICA: A KIND OF GRAVITY,

 

which they call the weak force, even though, unseen, it seems

strong as hell to me. Quiet, curved like

tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow

 

 

I can’t even lift my legs out of

their cement blocks & stagger into the bathroom where

all my pills live in their bottles––the pills that make little haikus when

I pour them out, take them in tercets or couplets

 

from their cotton nests & gravity cannot stop me.

                        People, like me, who live at sea level, age less quickly

than those in the mountains because time

 

slows down as it gets closer to Earth’s mass.

                                                Like my body’s partially calved glacier.

 

The only place where time stops is on the edge of a black hole. Where

the dead live. Inside it,

gravity’s so strong that no light can escape––

 

Outside it, Poetry’s primary illusion is breath &

I find myself in

a poem that steps through a war zone & the poem,

             fighting the grave, lets

some of that pain, even a stranger’s pain, finally go




WHEN SUDDENLY /

 there is a lamplike brightness / inside me

                                                    ––Paul Celan

 

In the picture, my great-aunt Augusta looks lost

in fog, sitting at her vanity mirror in which you can

watch her take down her long mahogany hair that

 

was coiled all day. A Baroness, she married

a German Baron, seven years before WWII.

At the wedding, her eyes were the color

 

of winter in Hamburg. Now she wears a flamingo

and cream silk dressing gown which looks like the meaning

of gorgeous. On the vanity table, an ivory comb and pearl-backed

 

brush. The many perfume bottles together make

a small transparent city that could easily smash.

Small silver jars contain salves and scented oils for

 

her skin, which must be borrowed moonlight. She brushes her hair

and static snaps and jumps, tiny fireworks in the large boudoir, one

photograph of my great-uncle beside the unmade bed. A man with

 

a stiff moustache, bright hair, and what might be

brass buttons on his uniform. Whenever she wakes

she never looks at his likeness: either because they have

 

unraveled or because she holds him in a shelf of space

inside herself. She hears the footsteps of her

maid outside the door. My great-aunt twists

 

her body around just as her Nazi maid murders her

for being a Jew. But from her life, ninety years ago,

there is no picture.




MY FATHER SURVIVES WORLD WAR II

 

A telegram arrives

 

            from 1944, informing us                     of my father’s              death

 

in the Army Air Corps, but I haven’t             

 

been born yet.

 

Feast your eyes on this,

 my father says,                       as he flies

 

away.  The fastball pitch

stops                in mid-air

 

like breath.

 

And as he leaves, my mother becomes           bird,

 

flapping after him,                  all the way to              Japan.

 

 

Will I ever get back

to that future October’s           extra hour

 

 

when she was dead and not dead

like Schrödinger’s cat?           Why a cat? Why

 

my mother?                 When you look at her,                         she dies.

 

The terrible silence of her shoes on

 

the hospital chair.



Interview


July 24th, 2024

California Poets Interview Series:

Cathy Colman, Poet, Educator, Editor

interviewed by David Garyan



DG: You began studying at Berkeley in 1969—the height of the counterculture movement, in which you were quite active. Can you talk a bit about those early days and whether you see any parallels with what’s happening today?


CC: It was an exhilarating and dangerous time. Boys from my high school who had low draft card numbers hanged themselves or escaped to Canada. At U.C. Berkeley we marched for Women’s Rights, Civil Rights, and drew inspiration from the amazing activists who gave speeches on campus: African-American Angela Davis, The Black Panthers, and Abby Hoffman, one of the founders of the “Yippies” (Youth International Party) a leader in the anti-war protests but also fighting for the environment, health coverage for all, and an end to homelessness.  There was Flower Power as the media coined it when people put flowers in the ends of the National Guard’s guns. But, also the atmosphere—the incredible musicians who came—Crosby, Stills and Nash, Santana, The Rolling Stones, Joan Baez, Big Brother and the Holding Company---all in one night. We’d wait all day outside Winterland in San Francisco to get a ticket, passing joints and Bota bags full of wine. There was, for that moment in time, an actuality that whatever our race, class, or religion was, we were of one mind. One family. And the air was electric with our energies. It truly was a giant love fest. Yes, “Free love, sex, and drugs” were there for the taking but we had more serious business: we were ready to throw ourselves against the war machine, and were beaten and tear-gassed by The National Guard. I truly believe we helped to end the war. Not just us, but students all over America: four of whom were shot while protesting at Kent State.

 

I do think there are similarities to now. We have vital marches, like Black Lives Matter, and protests for all the hate crimes and prejudice against marginalized people, but even if we hated what the government was doing in 1969, there was still a government, a democracy. There was a factual reality, even if there was “spin” from Washington, D.C.  There were still extant facts. But now the facts are intentionally blotted out by people who believe T**** ‘s lies and don’t see his insane lust for power (along with his coterie of cronies).

   

I actually think now is more similar to the years right before WWII when antisemitism was rampant here, in America, and Roosevelt didn’t want to get into the war for that reason. There were mobsters, like T**** who tried to wrest power. But now T**** wants to overthrow the government and become a dictator. And that’s what we have now. T*** , who has actually said that he’d shoot protestors in the street (I know the abuses of police but he’s talking about using the military for his crazy revenges), allow Putin to do whatever he wants, and that we would have a White Christian Nationalist Country—(in other words, the Third Reich). In 2017 boys and men took to the streets in Charlottesville, VA holding torches chanting “Jews will not replace us.” And “Into the ovens.”


This is relevant to writing in the sense that free speech, our very words, would not be our own if we lose our democracy.


DG: You then moved back to LA and began teaching poetry and fiction at UCLA Extension. Quite a number of students came through your classes. Who are some of the ones that went on to have fruitful writing careers?

    

CC: I only taught at UCLA for a short period of time as their Extension classes didn’t pay well, so I started my own “school”, Unleash the Writer Within, teaching fiction and poetry. I had beginning, intermediate and advanced workshops, Saturday one-day workshops, and one-on-ones where I helped people with whatever they were working on, from non-fiction to screenplays. After 35 years of teaching, I’d say I taught over 6,000 students. I do have an M.F.A. from San Francisco State University which had a fantastic writing program.

    

So many of my students went on to publish and win accolades and some were already known for one thing and came to class to learn how to write/do something else. Hal Ackerman, a prolific writer who is known for his prize-winning short stories, novels, and a play that won the William Saroyan Centennial Prize for Drama called “Prick” about his battle with prostate cancer; Tracy DeBrincat won a prize for Innovative Writing for her collection of stories The moon is cotton & she laugh all night, and prizes for her many novels. Andy Summers, of the rock band The Police, came to class and I helped him write One Train Later: A Memoir; Albert Walton, a brilliant painter and poet published the poetry book Uneven Music; Scott Frank, already a successful director and screenwriter (Get Shorty, Minority Report, so many films and recently the series The Queen’s Gambit) came to class and wrote a his debut novel, Shaker. There are too many successful former students to name here!


DG: For many years you were a script doctor for well-known screenwriters and were also Martin Scorsese’s personal assistant during Raging Bull. Can you talk about your work behind the scenes, the challenges that were inherent to this effort, and what you enjoyed most about it?


CC: My father worked in “the business” as a producer, so when we moved out here from NY I was behind the scenes a lot. As a young adult I was immune to any “glamor” movie and TV sets might have had. The actual experience of being on set is not at all exciting for those inured to celebrity and not involved directly with the production. I was lucky to work with A-list screenwriters like Ed Solomon, Scott Frank, Callie Khouri, director Daniel Petrie (Resurrection), and Becky Johnston (Seven Years in Tibet). Often the work required long hours and was physically taxing partially because the writers were under enormous pressure to meet deadlines, please producers, actors or studios. This was before directors, actors, etc. started their own companies and independent producers were able to get their projects funded. Some days we’d spend time figuring out where to place a bomb: in the coffee urn or the fireplace? Or if the star had clout, they’d want to change the genre: let’s say from a Yakusa (Japanese Mafia) adventure to a romantic comedy.


All the screenwriters I worked with were smart, professional and talented and their renumeration was high.  I really enjoyed working with them--some outlined, some paced and made up dialogue by repeating it out loud on the spot, and I helped them with whatever they needed, as by then I had read and done coverage for dozens of scripts. From the time I was twenty at Berkeley,  people were always giving me their writing to critique. I read the short story for the great Anne Rice before she turned it into the novel Interview With A Vampire. Back to the screenwriters—really the best part was getting to know them and remaining friends with them over the years. I was writing poetry and was more interested in literary things which I would try and insert into scripts whenever possible (not very successfully).


Working as Scorsese’s personal assistant was different. Perhaps it doesn’t need to be stated at this point that Marty is a genius auteur and he also must have been a voracious reader. His bookcase had books which only novelists or poets are interested in. Being a P.A. is always the lowest job in the hierarchy. In this case, although I ran out and got pizzas for everyone or presents for his daughter from a previous wife, there were other tasks that were more challenging—finding a film historian who had just a small length of film that was the logo from an early film company (it was a small plane that flew around the earth) or getting Marty a private tour of the King Tut exhibit. But what was remarkable about the job were the people who lived at or came through the house that Marty rented in Los Angeles. He liked to work at home so I lived at the house too. (whatever you’re thinking the answer is no). Scorsese was obsessed with three things—his fiancée-- the lovely Isabella Rossellini, movies and movie posters. Also living in the house was his bodyguard, Steven Prince, (sometimes known as the Prince of Darkness) an amazing raconteur, who had a silver suitcase full of guns. Steven was such an outrageously funny and wild story-teller Marty made a short film of Steven talking called An American Boy. Marty’s life had been threatened in Italy after he made The Last Temptation of Christ. The other people who lived in the house were his chef, Dan, who had been a mercenary in Angola, and Marty’s good friend Robbie Robertson (of The Band) and Marty’s renown rock documentary The Last Waltz. Robbie had temporarily split up with his wife, so he moved in.


There were always movies playing in the house: one in the screening room and one on the large TV in the master bedroom. We laughed a lot, did very few drugs and I vaguely remember we were listening to a loud passage of rock music when Marty yelled “This is where Bobby gets shot in the neck!” Isabella was there at times (daughter of Ingrid Bergman and director Roberto Rossellini) and one night I heard Steven say, “Bruce and Bob want to stop by.” (Springsteen and Dylan). I just missed Wim Wenders when my job was up and I heard Steven say, “The Germans are coming with their goats and their cheese”, at least I think that’s what he said.

  

DG: Many of your poems employ a sprawling form and long lines; other poems defy those conventions, for example, with compositions ranging from uniform couplets, tercets, to quatrains. Is form the primary concern or does it evolve organically as you write each specific piece?


CC: It most definitely evolves organically as I write each piece. 


DG: You formerly worked as a freelance reviewer for The New York Times Book Review. What were the books you were most excited about at the time and how do you feel about what’s written today?


CC: I reviewed novels, not poetry. But the novel that stands out in my memory was Cecile Pinada’s debut novel “Face” about a barber who rebuilt his own face after a disfiguring accident. Pinada, a wonderful Latina writer, went on to have a long, prize-winning career. I can’t really comment on the fiction being written now because I read way more poetry than fiction. There are more people writing poetry than ever before. Some of it is outstanding, and a lot of it reads more like diary entries.


DG: In 2015, you had the honor of being included in a list called “Indispensable Women Poets,” compiled by Quill’sEdge Press. Who are your favorite writers from that list and who are those that aren’t on it, but capture your attention even more?


CC: There are so many great poets that I love on this list, it’s difficult to name just a few, but I'll try: Sappho, Anna Ahkmatova, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Kay Ryan, Heather McHugh, Lucille Clifton, Patricia Smith, Sylvia Plath, Rita Dove, Wislawa Szymborska.


I wouldn’t say more, but equally: Elena Karina Byrne, Tracy K. Smith, Donna Prinzmetal, Judith Serin.


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


CC: I’m working on a new poetry book that weaves the personal and the political. I’ve broken through to the next level. It’s hard to explain but it is exciting! I’m also working on a memoir which uses an unusual and more creative form than traditional memoirs.



Author Bio:

Cathy Colman’s first book Borrowed Dress won the Felix Pollak Prize for Poetry from The University of Wisconsin Press, chosen by Mark Doty, and was on the The Los Angeles Times Bestseller List the first week of its release. Her recent collections are Beauty’s Tattoo and Time Crunch. Her poetry has appeared in many publications including The Colorado Review, Ploughshares, The Huffington Post, The Gettysburg Review, Prairie Schooner, Plume, The Southern Poetry Review, Barrow Street, The Los Angeles Review, and Writers on Writing (Putnam/ Tarcher). She has won The Browning Award for Poetry, The Ascher Montandon Award, judged by Campbell McGrath, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize eight times. She has been a free-lance reviewer for The New York Times Book Review. Her poetry has been translated into Italian, Russian, and Croatian.




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