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Kim Dower: California Poets Part 5, Three Poems

Kim Dower

December 22nd, 2022

California Poets: Part V

Kim Dower

Three Poems

“You must be joking, I never eat breakfast,”

said Michael Caine in “Get Carter,” chest bare, lighting up in bed, a cold-blooded killer, the morning after a one night stand, a “roll in the hay” as my mother’s friend used to say. I wanted to be that woman lying next to him under the covers black mascara streaked down my cheeks, wild hair, our legs entwined, seconds away from the men with guns breaking down the door. Why do we like these tough guys? Million dollar question for the Million Dollar Movie which I’d watch every Saturday night on the little black & white when my parents were asleep. “Love with the Proper Stranger,” Natalie Wood gets pregnant by Steve McQueen, he marries her, does the “right thing,” and at fourteen I fantasized about going too far in an old Corvette somewhere in Brooklyn or Queens with a guy who looked like Steve McQueen. My mother was relieved we lived in Manhattan, no cars for her to worry about, no tunnels or bridges, no back seats, just the Broadway Bus where nothing much can happen except you might see someone get on with a bullet hole in his shoulder like I did going home from 57th Street after a “date” with a boy I didn’t know. We went to see “Prudence and the Pill,” I was embarrassed, he was unappealing, and then on the bus a man with blood dripping from underneath his coat. I used to wonder what a “roll in the hay” might be like with a murderer. Would he tell me he never ate breakfast, would he tell me why he killed? Michael Caine went after the men who murdered his brother. Makes sense, I guess. Revenge is popular. If someone set fire to my house, I would find them. I would borrow a gun. Everyone, it seems, has one. I would pull the trigger on an empty stomach. I never eat breakfast either.

Gift Cabinet

Hot and muggy this August morning in LA and I wake with my hair damp, matted on the back of my neck, falls uninspired onto my shoulders. I recall how my mother would lift my hair up, darling, get your hair off your neck, she’d brush and pull it so tight into a ponytail my temples would crack. The rubber band she used was red, the one that had wrapped the celery, no scrunchies back then. I never liked her to touch my hair, unlike other daughters who may have craved that sort of attention, hair so thick and long it felt intimate, mine alone, keep your hands off. As I sit at my table this airless Saturday, a small package is tossed into the front yard. It’s from Nancy, an old friend in the Bay, hair heavier, more complicated than mine. I wonder if she’s feeling hot, too, those fires raging not far from where she lives, if she’s pulled her hair away from her face, if her mother got too involved like mine did. Not much, I think, can change the direction of this day, but inside the box is a Rainbow Maker, a colorful little machine with a crystal that promises to create “beautiful rainbows that move around the room.” She found it in her gift cabinet, thought of me. Once in a great while, something like this might happen. It’s all it takes to bring back breathable air.

—From I Wore This Dress Today for You, Mom, Red Hen Press, 2022

After the Rain

After the rain relents, this sun feels nice on my back, reminds me that although the dead are gone, the way we think of them can change. It’s always pouring in heaven, my mother tells me. She comes to me in the middle of the night, tells me there’s a cloud burst every day, takes us by surprise, she says, so many of us outside playing golf, backgammon, floating in the Infinity Pool. She’s lying. Making all this heaven shit up. I’m not even sure she’s in heaven. Here on earth my mother would embellish her stories: add a robbery, lover, trip to Africa. She never went to Africa, though she had many lovers, and was robbed a couple of times. Listen, the sun on my back feels nice. Why can’t I just leave it that way?

—From I Wore This Dress Today for You, Mom, Red Hen Press, 2022


California Poets Interview Series:

Kim Dower, Poet, Former West Hollywood Poet Laureate (2016-2018)

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: From 2016-2018, you were the Poet Laureate of West Hollywood, a dynamic, culturally rich city. Can you talk about this period, some of the work you wrote, and also your experiences in general related to serving this city?

KD: I loved everything about being West Hollywood’s City Poet Laureate and the opportunities it afforded me, one of which was to teach a Saturday morning poetry workshop at the West Hollywood Library, a gorgeous facility facing the hills. Five years after my “service” was complete, I still teach there and I’m still grateful to know the interesting people who sign up. During my time as Poet Laureate I became aware of how many people really don’t care or know much about poetry, but if you introduce it to them in a fun and entertaining way they are immediately drawn to its magic and able to appreciate the joy poetry brings. In 2017 I took on an ambitious project. I went around the city visiting shops, parks, bars—to our wonderful bookstore, Book Soup on Sunset Blvd, to the yogurt shop, library, and collected lines from over 100 WeHo residents and visitors. (Basically, I asked strangers to answer one of three prompts). I then wove their lines together into a collaborative poem entitled, I Sing the Body West Hollywood, an homage to Walt Whitman. he City of West Hollywood created posters of the poem which they sent to libraries and schools, and displayed them on bus shelters. They also commissioned a visual artist to create public art banners based on the poem, and it was even turned into an animated video for which I narrated!

DG: What’s one venue in West Hollywood you love to read your work in, and why?

KD: The City of West Hollywood’s Arts Division hosts a series called WeHo Reads and many events are held at the City’s Council Chambers/Public Meeting Room downstairs from the West Hollywood Library. I’ve read there a few times, once “in conversation” with Richard Blanco and once with Eloise Klein Healy. It’s a beautiful venue—large auditorium, great acoustics, and always a receptive, engaged, enthusiastic audience.

DG: It’s been your honor to be featured on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac ten times, most recently on July 28th, 2021, with a wonderful poem called “It’s Wednesday, Not Thursday.” What’s your personal favorite out of the ten that appeared, and why?

KD: Yes, my honor, indeed. It’s always a thrill to hear Mr. Keillor read one of my poems. I love how he interprets them. I can’t say which of the ten is my favorite because each one he chooses instantly becomes my favorite! I will say that the poems he’s selected over the years are poems I still like—and ones that show my best work. He enjoys my sense of humor! I will always be grateful to him for the attention he’s brought to my work and for introducing me to so many other incredible poems and poets. I’ve often received emails of gratitude and solicitations from editors the day he runs one of my poems. I’m most proud of this—one of the emails I received after he ran “Bottled Water:”

From an 8th grade English teacher in Michigan:

Our 8th grade Advanced English class read your poem, “Bottled Water” today, as part of our study of narrative poetry. We had a lively discussion about the poem—and whether it was intended to be comical and sarcastic or if the bottled water selection actually was intended to be stressful for the narrator. One of our students shared her own experience with anxiety and said she can relate to the feeling of too many choices. There were also questions raised about whether the poem was metaphorical. Would you be willing to respond to us and let us know what mood or tone you intended when you wrote the poem? Also, the 8th graders wonder what bottled water you prefer.

Thank you, 8th Grade poets from Hudsonville, Michigan

I cried reading that. Just the fact that my poem, written at lunch during a busy work day (though revised 100 times) was being discussed in this way by 8th graders because an inspired teacher in Michigan read The Writer’s Almanac that morning was a miracle to me. I ended up talking with her class over the phone. It’s one of the most important and special poetry experiences I’ve ever had.

DG: Let’s talk more generally. You were born in New York, studied at Emerson College, then moved to LA. To say you’ve come a long way is an understatement. What have been the biggest challenges but also the accomplishments you cherish most?

KD: Speaking only about professional/work challenges and accomplishments, rather than personal ones, I would say my ability to finally, successfully merge my business self with my poet self has been my biggest challenge and accomplishment. I’m convinced that growing up in New York City infused me with energy, clarity and ambition that carried me for decades. Leaving Boston—my college years, early poetry writing and teaching Creative Writing years—to move to Los Angeles in my twenties with no guarantees except for good weather was certainly a challenge, but didn’t feel like one. It was much easier back then. Cheap rents. Lots of jobs. No internet to make you feel “less than.” The challenge and accomplishment I cherish most is in mid-life having the stamina, desire and ability to continue earning a living as a literary publicist, (which I still do) but at the same time dive back into my life as a poet—resume the focus and commitment to write each day, go to a poetry workshop every Saturday morning (for ten years), travel to literary festivals, send my poems out, open up to the community of poets, relearn, get back to the craft, immerse myself. That was the challenge. The accomplishment was publishing five collections with one on the way and having the great pleasure of teaching again.

DG: You have an upcoming collection, What She Wants, set to be released by Red Hen Press in 2025. Red Hen has been a big supporter of your work throughout the years, having published five of your collections. Can you speak about how the press has impacted the literary scene of not only LA, but California and the nation in general? In addition, without giving anything away, what can we expect from this new collection?

KD: In this terrifying, narrowing, sad world of publishing where only the bottom line counts and the most important criteria for publishing a book is how many copies (units!) the author’s previous book has sold, what their “platform” is, how many fans do they have on Instagram, Red Hen Press remains committed to discovering “voices,” to publishing authors and poets who have something original and impactful to say, committed to unique work that readers will enjoy. Their impact on the literary scene is that Red Hen is more than just a publishing company—one that still cares about literature—but they are also a community, bringing writers and poets together to do events, readings, having conversations with one another. I’ll always be grateful to Kate Gale and Mark Cull for publishing my work and for welcoming me into a community of other writers. Regarding the “subject” of my new collection – it’s quite different from my previous one that explored mothers and motherhood. The subtitle of What She Wants is Poems on Obsession, Desire, Despair, Euphoria. That’s what you can expect from this new collection! Obsessive love has never been so much fun!

DG: You’ve taught two fascinating workshops, Poetry and Memory, and Poetry and Dreaming. Memory and dreaming are sometimes at odds, as memory fades gradually, and dreams are often impossible to remember. Can you speak briefly about the workshops and some of the interesting pieces that participants produced?

KD: Memory may gradually fade, but you’d be amazed at which memories remain crystal clear. A family vacation, for example. Ah, those memories stuffed in the back seat of the car eating bags of Cheetos remain ripe for eternity! I always say (to myself and to my students) that one’s poems are not necessarily autobiographical though readers always want to presume they are. Take one specific memory and run with it. Embellish. Lie. But the memory (that awful car ride) is where the emotion is and it can really propel that poem. The details of a poem can be made up, but the emotion must be authentic. For Poetry & Memory, for example, I’ll ask my students to take 5 minutes of automatic writing (not lifting their pen or editing as they write) and describe a cake from childhood. The results are fascinating. A cake from childhood. We all remember one and the drama surrounding it.

For Poetry & Dreaming I ask participants to keep a sleep journal for two weeks before the class and jot down whatever images they can remember. It might just be a line or two. “I was leaning against the wall inside a dark building, trying to hide from the lion as he ran down the hall.” The students bring in their journals and read some of their lines aloud. I ask that everyone listen carefully and jot down lines that intrigue them and write a poem using the lines they’ve written down. The results are amazing! A collaborative poem using lines from other people’s dreams.

DG: One of the project dearest to you has been I Wore This Dress Today For You, Mom, an anthology of poems that The San Diego Union-Tribune has called “a brilliant, meditative examination of maternity and motherhood.” Two questions: When and how did you start thinking about the project and how has motherhood, throughout the years, affected your own writing?

KD: After publishing four collections over a period of about 13 years, I realized that some of my most memorable and meaningful poems, the ones people enjoy and relate to the most, were my poems about my own mother—growing up with her and her decline from dementia, as well as my poems about being a mother. I thought it would be interesting to pull all my “motherhood” related poems out of the various books, put them in a sequence along with the newer unpublished ones, and create one collection with a beginning, middle and end telling a story of Motherhood. I wondered if this sort of collection would bring more readers in—not just poetry lovers, but people who didn’t really read poetry regularly. It did. It resonated. Of course motherhood has affected my own writing, but the poems in this collection were written after my son left for college on the other side of the country. His leaving and my missing him was a great part of what brought me back to writing. Longing for him, filling the void of being an “everyday mother” and suddenly looking back on the years and recording them as if they were new. His leaving stirred many emotions and also freed me to write poems that had been stacking up for years. My writing was, more accurately, affected by the loss of motherhood. Though, as we all know, the time of packing lunchboxes will end, but being a mother will not.

DG: From 1996 to 2011 you worked for Larry Flynt as his personal and book publicist. Your article in The LA Times, “Appreciation: Why working with Larry Flynt was an endless adrenaline rush — and an education,” paints quite a different picture than what someone who knows nothing about him might expect. Everything worth knowing for those who read the news is in the article, except for the one burning question every poet wants to know: Did he admire poetry?

KD: Interesting association: Motherhood to Larry Flynt! Do you really think that’s the one burning question every poet wants to know? Because if so, here’s the answer: NO! Second to his passion for protecting First Amendment Rights, Larry Flynt admired money. If something didn’t make any money he pretty much didn’t admire it. No interest. I was still working with him when my first book, Air Kissing On Mars was published. I remember bringing an inscribed copy for him when I went to meet him for lunch at the Four Seasons Hotel. In pink felt tip pen I had written: Dear Mr. Flynt—read these poems and learn something! Love, Kim. He didn’t open the book. Probably never saw the inscription. I handed it to him. He held it in his shaky hand, looked at it for a long time. The cover is fabulous, by the way, very sexy and evocative. He stared at it. Put it down. This make any money? he asked me with his signature drawl. It’s poetry, Larry. No money, I told him. He put his hand on top of the book and slid it to the other side of the table.

That was it. That was all. I hope the server grabbed it and took it home. Or some famous guest staying at the hotel.

DG: What are you reading at the moment?

Re-reading Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems (for the 100th time), Matthew Zapruder’s wonderful Story of a Poem, and a fascinating book called The Sullivanians: Sex, Psychotherapy, and the Wild Live of an American Commune about a cult of people in the 60’s on the Upper West Side of Manhattan—exactly the time and place where I grew up. Trying to figure out if I went to school with any of those kids!

Author Bio:

Kim Dower, Former City Poet Laureate of West Hollywood, has published five highly acclaimed collections of poetry, including the Gold Ippy Award winning collection Sunbathing on Tyrone Power’s Grave. Her newest collection, the bestselling I Wore This Dress Today for You, Mom was an Eric Hoffer Book Award finalist. Red Hen Press will be publishing her upcoming book, What She Wants, in February, 2025. Widely anthologized, Kim teaches writing workshops for Antioch University, the West Hollywood Library, and the UCLA Writer’s Extension.


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