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Ron Koertge: California Poets Part 2, Three Poems

Ron Koertge

February 23rd, 2021

California Poets: Part II

Ron Koertge

Three Poems

“People Leave L.A. at a Record Pace

as Others Arrive with Hopes and Dreams”

In the parking lot of a truck stop

near Victorville,

a story about someone going

on a journey meets

a story about a stranger

coming to town.

“What’s it like down there?”

a blonde asks pointing west.

“The air’s like arsenic,” says

the handsome stranger.

Love is Strange

A hundred of my closest friends and I are working

on Earth Day. Shopping carts, Big Gulp cups,

tons of plastic, more than one mattress.

I’ve got graffiti duty. Gloves, safety glasses,

TSP in a five-gallon bucket.

All over the walls of the L.A. River :


“Love is Strange” plays in my head,

the great Mickey & Sylvia hit from the 50s.

Come here, lover boy.

They’re gone now, but this new kid has stepped

up to tell the world

about spray can love, clean sheets love, blast

furnace love under a swollen moon.

Mickey out here at night. Scrawling a valentine

Sylvia can’t help but see on her way to school.

No matter how hard I scrub, the letters show

a little. They’ll be here after Sylvia graduates,

after Mickey goes in the Army or doesn’t.

After they forget each other and a couple

in a red canoe enjoy the refurbished river,

him with a paddle, her thinking of last night,

one hand trailing in the cool water.

from The Secret Diaries of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Christmas eve 1817. I wonder about my father.

How big a fool have I been? I rarely feel well

and Percy is relentless. There are bats every night.

I am twenty years old and not unattractive.

An infant, the prospect of which frightened us both,

is buried in England. Percy sports about

with Claire Clairmont. Her name sticks in my throat.

Thomas Jefferson Hogg is attentive and relieves

my depression a little. His name disgusts me. I forgive

Percy. I do not want to be with me, either.

Byron limps about spouting poetry. The rain

is unrelenting. Everybody smells. Ghost stories

at night and in the morning Lake Geneva smooth

as a child’s forehead. Tonight Percy wants a sonnet

competition. Claire claps her hands like a ninny

in a book about ninnies. Horace Smith will compete

with Shelley. A gnat meets an eagle. A damp match

and a bolt of lightning. I am ordered to bring

paper and quills and plenty of wine. I am wary

of telling Percy my dream. He’s a poacher and a thief.

I fetch and carry. I bend low enough for the Hogg

to see more of my breasts. There in the fire

is a scene from my novel: terrified peasants

brandishing torches, a castle in flames.


September 26th, 2021

California Poets Interview Series:

Ron Koertge, Poet, Author of YA Fiction

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: In your work, you emphasize humor, directness, and the beauty of everyday experience—all things that make us human, and, yet, these are qualities which, paradoxically, so many academics who write poetry deem to be inferior to the grandeur of drama, elusiveness, and that dreaded mess called “complexity.” How do you respond to these challenges?

RK: What you’re referring to are only challenges if you look at them that way. I rarely if ever feel provoked to respond in any way except to write the poems that step up and say, “Me now, please.” Sometimes those poems are easy-going, sometimes mysterious, sometimes both. I’m not against complex until it turns to convoluted which morphs into impenetrable. I don’t mind something elusive but give up when the hunt takes me deep into the forest and suddenly there’s a witch’s house. And complex has its place but not for me if it calls for toil. I don’t do toil. People do find layers of meaning in some of my poems, but I would hope they are layers like Neapolitan ice cream: different flavors but all tasty.

DG: Along with a prolific and successful career as a poet, you’ve also written award-winning fiction for young adults. In what way are these genres similar and in what way are they different—does one directly influence the other or do you prefer to keep the thought-process separate?

RK: Fiction and Poetry usually get along, like pets that have grown up together. If I’m writing fiction, I do four pages a day, every day. Usually after those pages are done, and I’m back from the races about 4:30, I’ll pick up a rough draft of a poem and see if it wants to have a little chat. I was on sabbatical once from my teaching job. In the mornings, I labored at a novel; in the afternoons, I’d relax and hang out with some poems. I’ll bet you can guess which turned out to amount to something. There’s a story about W.H. Auden who had one place left in his workshop and two eager students. One said, “Pick me, please. I have things on my mind that could make a difference to nearly everybody.” The other guy said, “Gee, choose him. I just want to fool around with words.”

DG: Being a prolific writer who has written over twenty books, it would make sense to assume that inspiration, for you, comes as a result of dedication to the craft, rather than through the futile processes of awaiting the right moment. Has anything changed over the years, or do you basically follow the same schedule?

RK: I’m a blue-collar guy who just goes to work every day of the year and puts in the time. I don’t believe in writer’s block because I’m willing to write badly knowing I’ll either throw that stuff away or call my inner EMT guys to resuscitate it. Thus every moment is the right moment. I’ve had students who say they have to be somewhere special to write, usually in a cabin near a waterfall and a deer. Or they have to be in the mood. Or feel particularly well. Or be in love. None of those things matter to me. I remember listening to a young writer go on and on about his job and his parents and his girlfriends (note the plural) and when he finally took a breath and asked for some guidance I said, “Quit whining and go the fuck to work.” He was stunned. Did he think my advice would be in lilting iambic pentameter?

DG: The late Australian writer, James McAuley, once made a joke along these lines: “the good thing about America is that you can’t go to jail for your poetry; the bad thing about America is that you can’t go to jail for your poetry.” Is our country really that indifferent to the craft or is it simply the fact that a lot of it is just badly written and doesn’t capture the greater public’s interest?

RK: That’s a good joke and I know a variation. Question: What happens to someone who writes a poem advocating overthrowing the government? Answer: The poem gets published in a literary magazine. (Rim shot.) There was a fiery Salvadoran poet named Roque Dalton who when he was arrested hoped it was because of his poetry and very disappointed when he found out it wasn’t! I don’t think amateurish poems (aka badly written) turn the public away from poetry. On the contrary: easy-going poems that rhyme aren’t intimidating; they may be dewy-eyed with enough sweetness to make a diabetic pass out but they don’t make Readers feel bamboozled.

DG: It seems that the pandemic hasn’t made life easier for poets, especially those with a performative bent. Aside from doing fewer readings, which is certainly a negative, how can poets take advantage of this time in a positive way to offer both healing and entertainment, but also bring poetry to those who may have yet to discover its uplifting qualities? Are there such opportunities today, do you think, and what might they look like?

RK: You lost me at “uplifting qualities.” I don’t think it’s my job to bring poetry to anybody, much less uplift them like a bra with some serious steel underwiring. I write. There it is. Take it or leave it. I’m a kind of open door between the finite and the infinite. Remember how in Shakespeare there’s usually a loyal nurse who carries messages between the main characters? I’m that nurse. The go-between and liaison. I carry the message, usually a love note to my Readers. One of the reasons some people like my poems is because I’m a foe of hebetude. I’m the enemy of every stuffed shirt and poetic fathead. Not everyone likes a smarty pants, but those who do, know where to look. As far as my friends with a performativity bent go, they (and me, too) miss live readings. But in the past months I’ve read more often using Zoom than I did driving to bookstores in Larchmont and Santa Monica. My wife is on the board of Red Hen Press and the powers that be are selling nearly as many books with half the expense and rigmarole. The last Zoom reading I did had viewers from the UK and France, from New York and Montana.

DG: Your poem “Do You Have Any Advice For Those of Us Just Starting Out?” offers a humorous yet refreshing take on how to begin writing poetry: “Not surprisingly, libraries are a good place to write. / And the perfect place in a library is near an aisle / where a child a year or two old is playing as his / mother browses the ranks of the dead.” Much has changed, in the sense that COVID hasn’t helped libraries stay open, but many things have also remained the same, mainly because libraries were never that popular to begin with. Hence, would you rather be starting out today, when the opportunities to publish are both endless and yet also practically non-existent due to competition, or do you find it a fortune to have begun when you did, and why?

RK: I’m most likely lucky to start when I did, which is about half a century ago. Los Angeles was home to so many poets in the late 60s and early 70s! Locklin, Bukowski, Laurel Ann Bogen, Suzanne Lummis. Charles Webb, Dennis Cooper, Amy Gerstler, Wanda Coleman. The list goes on and on. Those years were catnip for me, a wise guy who liked to make people laugh and break their hearts, too.

DG: Who are some of the living writers you read with great pleasure today—are the qualities you look for in other people’s writing similar to your own, or do you look for something different?

RK: I read all over the place, and I’ll give anybody the benefit of the doubt for a poem or two. I’ll go back to Edward Field whom I read forty years ago. He was writing about movies and sex and quotidian stuff with such a light and modest touch, always gimlet-eyed and playful. Then I’ll read some car crash Language poets like Lyn Hejinian followed by Fatima Asghar who sometimes writes like she’s plugged directly into a wall socket.

DG: What are you working on at the moment?

I’m writing a lot of poems. A new book comes out from Red Hen Press in 2022, and I’m on the roster for another in 2025. All I have to do is stay alive. Fingers crossed, right?

Author Bio:

Ron Koertge is the current poet laureate of South Pasadena, California. Widely published and anthologized, he is a recent Pushcart Prize winner. His most recent book of poems is from the University of Pittsburgh Press: Yellow Moving Van.


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