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Paul Lieber: California Poets Part 5, Five Poems

Paul Lieber

December 22nd, 2022

California Poets: Part V

Paul Lieber

Five Poems

Photo, p. 340 Skyline of lower Manhattan, February 5, 1965, from the Empire State Building before the World Trade Center was built A BLOODY MONDRIAN IN THE BODY An overview of Fifth Avenue: An artery. A spine. The streets: the nerve center, that tutored, fueled my steps as I marched among the crowd cutting through the night, through my youth, not knowing I was taking notes.

Photo, p. 75 Hasidic men with traditional fur felt hats at Crown Heights gathering. THEN IT BECAME A SZECHUAN CAFÉ There’s a line of Hasidic men with fur-felt hats with no date at the bottom of the photo; they’ve remained in the same garb for centuries, the same unbending beliefs and the mystery encased in the Torah – the mystery of the mystery in the mystery. They could argue among themselves and God, hats in place and payos growing. I might as well be Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, an atheist among them, an infidel who gobbles Gefilte fish, lox, knaidlach, potato kugel and challah. I’d follow them into that cafeteria on East Broadway. I’d follow them into Friedman’s on Canal and bite into blitzes at another table. I’d eat kasha varnishkes with eggs and listen to them argue forever from across the divide.

Photo p. 118 Finger cymbals on Fifth Avenue By Hare Krishna Aug 2, 1969 BREEZE They might show up on your street, swaying in a trance beyond the grip of self. They catch you on any corner and serenade and I too would like to be enclosed in a song: a place without all the asking and reaching. I might shave my head, tap a drum or shake a cymbal; let the breeze run up my robe. Let years roll on as we orbit, never thinking of fame, mental institutions, the cower of my mother. Just the encasement, the breathing.

Photo, p. 237 Claes Oldenburg digging a coffin- sized “Hole” measured to exact specification, then closing it up, in Central Park, October 1, 1967, behind the Metropolitan Museum near the Egyptian obelisk. GASPS He measures it in a suit and tie then seals it. I see a man standing in the hole and Claes with a ruler. He buries space in a casket: perhaps a cluster of memories, perhaps time itself. In Venice, CA he created a pair of binoculars, blown-up at least two stories. I run across his misplaced sockets and electric plugs; those oversized out-of-place objects shake my brain like a castanet. Remember when my son was chided by a guard for skating in the Cubist section of the museum.

Photos, p.6 Top: Allen Ginsberg in front of Judson Memorial Church, March 29, 1964. Bottom: Gregory Corso in a marathon Reading for Andrei Voznesensky at The Village Theatre, May 18, 1967 AND WE RETURNED TO OUR ESPRESSOS Allen looking as if he wants something from me, to arrive at a similar conclusion. He is impatient. “Aren’t I right,” he seems to say but I don’t budge. I am sold on my convictions. “First thought, best thought.” And there is Gregory reading into the microphone at the Village Theatre focusing on what’s in front of him, thickening each word with a luscious Brooklyn inflection and when I met him at Café Trieste in San Francisco he invited me to smoke a joint. After the third inhale he asked if I thought Allen was a better poet than he. I replied you’re my favorite. He repeated do you think Allen is better? I answered: “Is an elm tree better than a meadow? Is a deer better than a buffalo?” Gregory said, “Don’t get cute.” And then: “It’s not right that I am poor.”


November 8th, 2023

California Poets Interview Series:

Paul Lieber, Poet, Actor, Radio Show Host

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: You’ve acted on and off Broadway, and also done films. What are the challenges and rewards of each artform, and which do you prefer?

PL: I am hesitant to call them separate art forms because from an acting point of view there is more in common—or shall I say they are the same in their essentials. What are the essentials? The circumstances in which characters find themselves. That does not change, be it the stage or film or TV. If you are grieving the loss of a loved one, it is fundamentally the same on stage or film. The adjustment is technical. “Grieve louder on stage!”

My preference is for the part not the medium. A challenging, intriguing character will be attractive to me on stage or in film. I love both.

DG: As an actor, do you approach your poems, first, from the perspective of how they might be performed, or do the textual elements retain primacy?

PL: The audience is not my focus in either poetry or stage. My focus is where the poem or character comes from. What is their essence? What inspired it, what compelled me to write: an idea, an image, a place, a hurt, an event, etc. My hope is the reader/audience will relate to it. I have to say that the response of the audience when performing on stage can invigorate the performance.

DG: During your days on Broadway, you had the fortune of meeting Tennessee Williams. What was the meeting like?

PL: I wrote a poem about that. It more or less speaks for itself. However, I was excited. As an actor, he was THE AMERICAN PLAYWRIGHT. He was in the stratosphere, combining poetry, plot, and vivid, complex moving characters. His probing into the shadows of human nature, along with human pettiness, separated him from the rest. His writing was sublime. When he asked me to kiss him, I didn’t think anything of it. It was part of the honor of meeting him. The kiss was a token of respect, maybe reverence.


Photo, p.158 Tennessee Williams at the American Academy, May 23, 1969

Tennessee Williams looks to his left; our eyes shift to the right. The gaze of a skeptic. Is he glancing at Ruth Stephen or beyond? His tie swerves. Uneven creases on his forehead, his left cheek in shadow. It’s the side of the cheek I kissed…oh, no, it was the left side of the neck. When I told him I acted in his plays, he asked, “Where, in class?” I said yes and then Tennessee asked, “Why the hair?” My friend Wally explained: “Paul is in the play Lenny.” Tennessee turned his head slightly, said, ”Kiss me,” pointing to the spot; I aimed my lips for Laura, for Tom, for Blanche…her wounds, for Amanda; I planted the kiss for Stanley, for Brick and that click he welcomed when he drank. I kissed him for the Bronx I deserted but like St. Louis for Tom we were both drawn back. I kissed him because he asked me. I kissed him for a play he hadn’t written yet.

DG: You’re the executive producer and host of “Why Poetry?” a radio program on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles. The tagline is simple: “Where poets read their work and talk about their lives. It’s an attempt to demystify poetry and then mystify it again.” How has hosting the show and listening to poems changed the way you see poetry, and what are some of your favorite moments?

PL: My show “Why Poetry?” didn’t change the way I viewed poetry. Rather it gave me the chance to celebrate the lives and work of the poets. Poets don’t get, as you know, any financial remuneration and in many cases even recognition. As Philip Levine said to me, “It’s not my care that people don’t read poetry, it’s just my job to write it. Maybe it’s a calling.” That is not an exact quote. I loved his writing and would call Philip over a period of a year to get him on the show. On the phone we talked mostly about basketball. I was aware he didn’t want to talk academics—not that I was capable of that. I picked him up at his hotel and drove him to the studio. I remember every moment.

I asked every poet to give their definition of poetry.

Amy Gerstler paraphrased Emerson and I will paraphrase her. It goes something like every word was poetic at its inception: the energy, the sound—it all captured the object or feeling, or approximated it. So, in effect, we live in a museum or archaeological remnants of language, each word having been poetic.

I was excited about having several of the poets on the show. I was a fan. At times I couldn’t believe they were in front of me reading their work. These were poems I was familiar with.

DG: You’ve recently become interested in photography. By looking at photos and writing poems about them, you’ve been able, in your own words, to reclaim your history. This is a fascinating proposition because authors like Dickinson and Whitman were very suspicious of photos alone—in their view, pictures didn’t preserve anything. Rather, they erased the subject by replacing it with the photograph. How did you ultimately select which photos to write about it? Was it a systematic approach or more spontaneous?

PL: I like what you said about Dickinson and Whitman in relationship to photography. I might say the same thing about a poem referring to an experience. In a way it brackets it for me, as if I defined it, milked it, spelled it out, edited it, and there it is—frozen, in part, like a photo. It becomes a stretch to redefine the experience, to create a different narrative or meaning. “I have said it; this is the experience, lock, stock and barrel.”

For me looking at that particular book and using the photos as a prompt was spontaneous. I wrote one and it caught fire. Perhaps that’s an overstatement, but it did ignite both memory and imagination. My book, Slow Return, will be published in a few months by What Books Press. All the poems in the book have been inspired by the photos in “Anarchy, Protest & Rebellion.”

I have always been a fan of photography, from Weston, Arbus, Bresson, Adams, Stieglitz, etc.

DG: Actors can write consistently great poems, but with perhaps the exception of Shakespeare, poets make terrible actors. What role does poetry play for you? Is it about honesty—an act of confession? Or is it about representation—an honest confession about the external world?

PL: Someone once asked me how I define poetry and my answer was, “it is the most objective account of the subjective.” So what do I mean? Words can cover only so much ground in depicting our experience, perception, feeling, and even narrative about the world. Poetry attempts to go beyond the literal to make an attempt at depicting that approximation. Poetry measures with a creative accuracy that ordinary language doesn’t. And I guess this is what I try to do. Those photos stir something in me and the poem is an attempt to approximate that subjective experience.

DG: Los Angeles is a sprawling city, and you’ve been based there for a long time. Where are some of your favorite places to read, or literary places in general?

PL: Beyond Baroque has to be my favorite. I started going there probably 30 years ago when Bob Flanagan was the facilitator. This was after Tom Waits and Jim Morrison went but those iconic vibes were present. It was not an easy workshop. Members responded honestly to your work and some with an edge or explicit dissatisfaction. But most of the writing improved. I eventually became a facilitator of the workshop.

Midnight Special, a bookstore In Santa Monica, also had an open poetry workshop that was wonderful. Many of the poets I met there 30 years ago still meet in a salon once a month.

I am a grateful member.

Anyone was welcome to both Beyond Baroque and Midnight Special. It asked for a modest donation. This public aspect to both workshops was and is remarkable.

DG: When other poems are dense, opaque, and often indecipherably mechanic, yours are expansive, clear, and, welcomingly human. Can you elaborate a bit on your influences?

PL: Poets who have influenced me are: Garcia Lorca, Philip Levine, C. K. Williams, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Wisława Szymborska, B.H. Fairchild, Gregory Corso, and many others. The greatest influence on my aesthetics was my acting mentor, Mira Rostova. She believed, like so many others, that “less is more.” She was Montgomery Clift’s teacher, and he perhaps represents her work more than any other student of hers. His work is clear minimal and to the point. No self-indulgence. It all comes from the meaning of the script. I favor that in my writing and reading of poetry. I would often bring poems by other poets to read in class. Working on Strindberg, Williams, Shakespeare, and other playwrights enhanced my appreciation of poetry.

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

PG: Presently I am finalizing my draft of Slow Return which is soon to be published. I am also working on some poems inspired by my recent trip to Italy. Enclosed are a few photos taken in Venice and Naples.

Author Bio: Paul Lieber

Interrupted by the Sea, Paul’s second collection of poetry was published by What Books Press. His first collection, Chemical Tendencies, was published by Tebot Bach. He received an honorable mention in the Allen Ginsberg Contest. Three times nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Paul produced and hosted “Why Poetry” on Pacifica radio in LA. Paul’s poems have appeared in The Moth, N.Y. Quarterly, Patterson Review, Askew, Poemeleon, Alimentum, and many other journals and anthologies. He taught Poetry at Loyola Marymount University and facilitated the poetry workshop at Beyond Baroque, the oldest literary institute in Los Angeles. Paul works as an actor. He currently teaches acting at AMDA.


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