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James Cushing: California Poets Part 5, Four Poems

James Cushing

December 22nd, 2022

California Poets: Part V

James Cushing

Four Poems

On the Side of a Hill Above a Large City

I open the book at random to section three. I read in it for an hour, then walk around this neighborhood, its houses and its trees. The book and the trees share a thesis regarding the triumph of memory, but the paved street keeps its simple counsel under the sun and wind.

I feel my feet on asphalt, and a breeze around my face and ears, a breeze too new to remember. Now that father and mother have gone, I notice what they took from the landscape with them, but I must search for missing buildings behind a heavy blue curtain.

The curtain’s fabric is the residue of an argument between thieves. Which phase of a theft is better, the early or the late? I made a list, you made a list, the lists themselves made lists, again I open the book to find an erased spot where my name would have fit in your list.

Who took it away? How long, for that matter, has the loud clock hidden inside your list been silent? That clock was once our home. Its minute and hour hands were downstairs and upstairs, where we slept, and its tick was the scary basement. But then the rooms

took on the odors of stale lilies and a candle having just gone out, and no, we can stay no longer, we must leave, we must run and return.

The Tumbling of Pebbles

Authorities tried explaining thunder, what it was expressing when it exploded above the slag. I would sneak away to the place of mute roses, sit with you in a glimmering border, and listen to our favorite ales ferment. Why were we never caught?

We changed and listened to [our favorite] algorithms in our reincarnation schoolroom clubhouse, we ran or slouched toward the claws of algebra, the sleepy hour’s best-loved dribble subscription.

Nonsense syllables always indicated the doors we were to use, and the sequences. Nucleus here, presentiment there! We showed authorities some thorns, not one of them asked us to ache for ourselves — one coach actually placed a preposition there.

So that had changed but he only said the early bits of sentences, placing nouns here and here. When that coach got caught up in his lecture, we nodded our heads in our gym clothes, trying to account for ourselves.

Afternoon classes? Mine was always a dream subject, where sentences backed into our regular school clothes and knew what they were expressing. My friends and I heard little of what they said, only that they had seen us there in the music room, in a glass booth, bragging that we had never been caught.

The People-Mover

You wore a tight red hat, and said it was a gift. I gave it a secret name I never told you. You added up the sober candles behind your portrait, kept the number to yourself. Instead of guessing, I tapped on the bell you had given me, the one with a private name.

The bell-ringers played, one bell, one note at a time, for a long, perplexing moment. The world did not object.

We have somehow inherited this unreadably blank mess, you and I.

More and more, I see our problems as personal and historical, both, and I feel guilty being here with you. Do you want to leave? Shall I? But we climbed past and into the situation which came dressed as our return to the heaven we fell from, long ago.

Gliding Among You

The character the actor played has died, and he can play no other. It took him three long hours to chase down his dog through the woods. At last, he saw the animal, got his attention with a treat, tackled him, clipped his leash to the dog’s collar. He ran through backyards to his suburban home, placed the dog feet first on the kitchen floor. He heard a gong and a cymbal, looked into the living room.

The character he played lay there in a coffin. Its narrowness forced him to look back at the dog with a new, terrible empathy: he was plain gray, the dog was orange paisley. In his pocket, his phone was a quiet barrel of hailstones. Candle smells overcame the room. He heard the click of his own thoughts finding shape inside him.

The character he played could not hear his heartbeat. Candles continued to burn in the room, as they had burned since the middle of the previous century, when the dog first slipped the leash and ran into underbrush fast as a bobcat, and the boy ran in after him, ground noisy with dead leaves, the fall sky a threatening linen, every tree a scary officer.


August 23rd, 2023

California Poets Interview Series:

James Cushing, Poet, Editor, Artist

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: It would make sense to begin with Cahuenga Press, which was founded by a group of poets in the Los Angeles area. Can you speak about your role in the foundational undertaking, along with some general perspectives on how it all started?

JC: In the fall of 1989, poets Harry E. Northup and Holly Prado Northup decided to begin a poet-owned, nonprofit press, and asked me, Cecilia Woloch, and Phoebe MacAdams Ozuna if we would like to come on board. I agreed enthusiastically. Our first meeting took place in a Russian restaurant on Cahuenga Blvd in Hollywood. We agreed on a name and a mission statement: “Our common goal is to create fine books of poetry by poets whose work we admire and respect; to make poetry actual in the world in ways which honor both individual creative freedom and cooperative support.” We also agreed that each member would contribute money to a press fund, which would be used for design and printing costs. We published our first title in 1991, and found that a rhythm of approximately one book per year was most comfortable. So far, we have published 28 books.

DG: What has changed over the years and in what capacity are you currently involved with the press?

JC: Cecilia Woloch’s international travel schedule (she spends much of each year running workshops in Europe) forced her to leave the press in 2002, and the COVID pandemic moved our book-release parties and reading events onto Zoom. But by far the biggest change in the press occurred in 2019, when Holly Prado Northup died, age 81, of a brief illness. It is impossible to “replace” Holly, so we haven’t. However, we have added a fourth member, Jeanette Clough, and I’m currently helping her with the editing of her in-progress manuscript, which we hope to have out in 2024.

DG: How do your efforts in publishing involve your own work as a poet and what are some of your favorite titles that Cahuenga has published?

JC: Writing a letter and sending a letter, while usually related in time, differ in essence — one is private, the other public. That distinction provides me with a useful metaphor in thinking about my work as a poet and my efforts as a member of the Press. When I write a poem, I want to “load every rift with ore,” looking at each line as literature and putting in as much thought/feeling/meaning as I can. (That goes double for the revision process, even if that involves taking out rather than putting in.) But when I’m proofreading a MS for publication, I’m looking at each line only as a sequence of letters, spaces, and punctuation marks, making sure there aren’t any embarrassing mistakes.

I’m proud of every Cahuenga Press book, but let me mention four, in order of their appearance in the world: Dreaming the Garden by Ann Stanford (2000), the last MS by this neglected master of mid-20th-century American poetry; These Mirrors Prove It (2004), a generous collection of Holly Prado’s poetry and prose; The Large Economy of the Beautiful: New and Selected Poems (2016) by Phoebe MacAdams, longtime intimate of the Lower East Side and Bolinas poetry scenes; and Love Poem to MPTF (2020) by Harry E. Northup, a profound meditation on nature, aging, and loss. (“MPTF” = Motion Picture and Television Fund, a home for retired film-industry professionals in Woodland Hills, where Holly and Harry were living when she died; he lives there now and produces a weekly poetry-reading show on Zoom that draws poets from all over the USA.)

DG: Your unwavering devotion to this state can’t be questioned. Since the early ‘80s you’ve not only written here, but also done a great deal to promote the writing of others—both through live poetry radio programs and also by teaching. Can you talk about some of your fondest friendships, memorable reading experiences/events, and most fruitful collaborations?

JC: “Since the early 80s”? Wait a minute! My first published poem appeared in my San Fernando Valley high-school literary magazine in 1969. Furthermore, my mother, my maternal grandfather, and his father were born in the state, which makes me a fourth-generation Californian. But to answer your question…

Fondest friendships in poetry? Other than members of Cahuenga Press, I’ve had the great joy to become close with poets from whose work I continue to learn, among them Amy Gerstler, Holaday Mason, Sarah Maclay, Gail Wronsky, Mariano Zaro, David Trinidad, David St. John, and two West Coast giants who have passed on: Wanda Coleman and Lee Hickman. Also, I have had the great fortune of helping some genuinely gifted students. If you read contemporary poets, keep an eye out for Maddie Mori, L. I. Henley, and Jonathan Maule.

My most memorable readings include being featured at LACMA at a series Laurel Ann Bogen directed, touring a string of Napa wineries with Michael C. Ford, and giving unannounced 45-second “guerrilla poetry bursts” on college nights at a San Luis Obispo rock disco. Imagine a mid-90s dancefloor full of horny young people: the manager gives a signal, the DJ slows down the Prince record to zero, houselights down, a finger-spotlight hits me, I’m wearing something weird, I dramatically recite a short (35sec max) poem, the spot goes out, houselights return, and the DJ cranks Prince back up. What just happened?!? People loved it, but the place kept losing money and had to close.

I did a reading on Zoom earlier this year in which I was, for the first time, on the same bill with my daughter Iris, a truly gifted poet. That was the best.

My most fruitful collaborations, both in poetry, art, and life, have been with Celeste Goyer, my beloved partner for the last nine years. We’ve written a whole book’s worth of collaborative poems that aren’t like anything else I’ve ever seen.

DG: For over 30 years, you taught writing and literature at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, retiring in 2020. Along with this, you served as the city’s Poet Laureate, from 2008-2010. What responsibilities did the latter position entail, and did serving a community influence your writing?

JC: My answer to this question will most likely disappoint you. At no point during my 2008-2010 tenure did anyone in charge of choosing Poets Laureate (from the city, county, or state) ever inform me what responsibilities or duties or expectations, if any, came with the title.

“Congratulations,” said the Mayor in his official announcement at the City Council meeting, and the City Council members all applauded as I said “thank you” and bowed, but that was as far as it went. I contacted a nearby high school to sound out the possibility of putting on some Poets-In-the-Schools-styled workshops there, but they didn’t understand what I was talking about, and had no money for such things in any case. I was asked to judge a few contests, which I did; my photo appeared on the front page the San Luis Obispo Tribune, and I edited a few April poetry features for that daily paper (poems by children, poems by adults, haiku); I wrote many poems, most of which are collected in The Magician’s Union (Cahuenga Press, 2014). And one evening, a tipsy young man came up to me on the street in downtown San Luis Obispo and said “Hey, man! Aren’t you the Poet Laureate? Come here” — and he took me over to where his (sober, embarrassed) girlfriend was standing and said “This dude’s the Poet Laureate! He’s gonna recite a poem for us!” I gave them Blake’s “Ah, Sunflower!” which I had memorized decades before, just in case such a situation arose. I still knew it.

In other words, my Laureateship was a classic example of small-town American surrealism.

DG: You’ve worked in a city—Los Angeles—that, in many ways, is unrivaled. And yet, your daughter, Iris Cushing, is a firmly established poet in New York. Can you speak about the different poetic scenes/landscapes? What happens in LA that you wish happened in NY, and conversely, what do you admire about NY that you wish we would see more of in LA?

JC: I know something about the general New York / New England vibe — despite my California heritage, I grew up in Westport CT, moving with my family to LA at age 13. However, most of what I know about today’s New York poetry scene comes from what Iris tells me and what I’ve learned from David Trinidad. Both lived in the city for 10+ years, both have MFA degrees from well-known schools, and David wrote an entire book about his New York experience, Notes on a Past Life (BlazeVOX, 2016).

I hope this doesn’t sound simplistic, but my sense is that the NY scene tilts toward the competitive and the LA scene tilts toward the cooperative. Part of that has to do with the basic organization of the two cities. NY is vertical, old, and cramped, and high-low physical distinctions in buildings are analogous to social class distinctions. NY always tells you who and where you are. LA is horizontal, new, and semi-arid, so the hot dry spaces expand, and distinctions melt or fade. LA always tells you you can reinvent yourself.

The strengths of NY poetry? An enormous history (Whitman, Crane, Williams, Ginsberg, Ashbery, O’Hara), an unshakable commitment to high standards of literacy in the European manner. Weaknesses? Uptightness, academic timidity.

The strengths of LA poetry? A smaller but no less vital history (McGrath, Meyers, Stanford, Bukowski, Coleman, Hickman), openness to new and diverse voices caused partly by proximity to Latinx and Eastern languages and modes of thought. Weaknesses? Sloppiness, narcissism.

These are broad generalizations, of course, and there are exceptions to all of them.

DG: To what extent have you influenced your daughter’s work and what influence has she had on your aesthetic?

JC: I thought Iris could answer this question better than I could, so I emailed it to her on 8/21/2023, and the next day she responded.

“My Dad read me poetry when I was a child growing up. I have many vivid memories of being totally mesmerized listening to him read the work of Elizabeth Bishop, William Blake, Keats, William Carlos Williams. He was a poet, and many of his friends were poets, and I grew up thinking of being a poet as a beautiful, liberating vocation. He also took me to poetry readings at places like Beyond Baroque in LA. When I was a teenager, I actually remember thinking in a sort of surface way that poets took themselves too seriously, that giving a poetry reading was a ridiculously sincere undertaking. But under the surface of teenage rebellion, I was transfixed by the language and the ritual of the whole thing. In high school, at night before going to sleep, I read my Dad’s poems and started to read a lot of other poets — Poe, Plath, Frank O’Hara — and poetry became my refuge, my way of connecting to something outside my small-town suburban world. Writing poems felt like the most natural and necessary thing to me, and that necessity only increased when I became an adult. But I think I have my Dad to thank for showing me that a life of poetry was a good, worthwhile, noble life.” (Email communication, 8/22/2023)

There’s only thing I would add to her statement. In 1999, when she was 16, the two of us went to MOCA in downtown LA to see “In Memory of My Feelings: Frank O’Hara and American Art,” a substantial installation-exhibit of O’Hara-related art, films, and collaborations, curated by Russell Ferguson. Iris told me later that this exposure to O’Hara and his milieu was “a watershed moment for the teenage me.”

In terms of her specific influence on me, I think that’s not for me to say. “My aesthetic,” after all, was largely formed in the years before she was born. I have read Iris’ published poems with great pleasure, because they are real poems, distinctive and surprising, and any real poem, having been read, stays in the mind and causes things to happen. That’s the “influencing situation,” and every poem I write must be affected in some way by it, but that’s true of all of us and everything we read, isn’t it? I’ll always read poets whose work she recommends, because our tastes align most of the time. And I’ll never forget a remark she made to me once when she lived in New York: she said she did not consider poetry to be an event in her life — she considered her life to be an event in poetry.

DG: Apart from poetry, you’re also an accomplished artist. You’ve said that “making a drawing or a painting is like nothing else in life, a shout that remains silent, a chronology one sees all at once.” Can you speak about how your art informs your writing and what you think of ekphrastic poetry?

JC: Thank you for calling me “an accomplished artist.” I still stand by my quoted statement. You ask me two different questions.

  1. How my art informs my writing: I’m not sure it does. Actually, I’m not aware of any connection at all! Isn’t that funny? My visual art-making process, in its glorious wordless-ness, feels wholly separate from the act of reading or writing. Just yesterday, I finished a poem and a painting, but I felt no interior Venn diagram overlap between the two activities. Of course, they must be related to each other in some deep psychological ways with roots in my unconscious, but I’ve found that it does me no good to take an analytical approach to my own imaginative processes. Such an approach requires that I split myself into observing half and observed half, for one thing, and who wants to do that? Maybe my mind is protecting itself from such a split!

  2. What do I think of ekphrastic poetry? If I were to compile for you a “personal poetry playlist” of my 25 all-time favorite poems of the last 250 years, from early Romanticism to last week, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” “Musee de Beaux Arts,” “Pictures from Breughel,” “Why I Am Not a Painter,” “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” and “Poem (About the size of an old-style dollar bill)” would account for seven of them. Then we’d have to decide whether Songs of Innocence and Experience and the other illuminated Blake books are ekphrastic or sui-generis. I think you get the picture.

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

JC: Reading? More prose than poetry right now. I’m 160 pages into Michael Katz’s newly published translation of The Brothers Karamazov, and I find it marvelously readable. I’m also stepping my way a few pages at a time through Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.

What am I working on? As I mentioned, I just finished a poem and a painting yesterday (see below). My next poems, like my next paintings, haven’t started happening yet. I know nothing at all about them, and that’s just the way I like it. (It’s one way I apply Negative Capability.)

By the way, I know not all poets like working in the dark like that. Some of us embark consciously on “projects” involving a unifying theme or subject or “area of concern,” and while I totally respect that in principle, I just can’t do it. For me, every poem is its own special existential “area of concern,” with its own needs, its own size and weight, its own “register,” its own pace — you know what I’m getting at, right? The other problem is, if you have committed yourself to a unified project-idea, you have to write toward that idea, making sure the poems fit into it. That’s why there are weak passages in Four Quartets and The Bridge. I love both those poems, but every time I read them I have to skip over certain badly written parts, feeling sad that the obligation to “fit the idea” could derail even Eliot and Crane.

Behind the Screen

The houses on my avenue are brick. Yet a wooden cabin waits not far off, smoke still coming from nearby Joshua tree embers. A suddenly-appearing wall protects a woman gardening beneath it. Above the wall, a white balcony. A jar of cactus in the window. Behind the window, a bedroom, a photo of Gustav Mahler on the nightstand. The remnants of a microphone. A Jack of Spades. A pair of chimneys. Their syntax, when read left to right.

Each brick is a compound-complex popcorn-making machine. Looking in a mirror, your tangled eyes can’t help but see another face being projected onto yours. It’s a long white feather in a public park. A red 1959 Cadillac seen through shafts of afternoon sunlight. Andrew Jackson’s aggressive $20 bill face. A turquoise necklace in a eucalyptus grove. A snowy field, a slowly chugging plow. A drawer of blunt-point children’s scissors.

I feel my stomach tighten, I hear the clack and burr of their speech. These old grammars have left their doors and windows open; they have been analyzed, they have started drying brown in the strong sunny breeze.

Now we do always what we once did sometimes because new fears collect friends in the marketplace, where they drum on walls, busy with rhythm, aware of the nakedness inside their words and pictures. I move through the marketplace with pavement under me, though I am not over the pavement, and the skin I am always hiding from the crowd spills from my clothing like liquid. I can wait until it dries into its picture, or begin my return home — there was no third way. The road home felt the pains only roads feel, and my room held nothing but symptoms.

August 15/20, 2023

Author Bio:

James Cushing retired in 2020 after thirty-five years teaching literature and creative writing in San Luis Obispo, CA, where he served as the community’s poet laureate in 2008-2010. Cushing’s poems have appeared widely in print and online. His collections include The Length of an Afternoon, Undercurrent Blues, Pinocchio’s Revolution, The Magicians’ Union, Solace, and Tangled Hologram, all from Cahuenga Press in Los Angeles. He lives in Hollywood with poet-painter Celeste Goyer, with whom he frequently collaborates; his daughter is the New York based poet Iris Cushing.


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