Thursday, January 19, 2012
Linda Larson: A Poet Who Writes What She Loves and Loves What She Writes.
Interview with Doug Holder
Linda Larson has been a journalist, poet, writing teacher, and a writing student in the course of her career. One thing she likes about the role of a poet is that she gets to write about what she loves. And it is evident in her body of work that she has a deep love for her subjects and the craft of writing.
Linda Larson was born and educated in the Midwest, and spent many a childhood summer in Mississippi. She graduated with an M.A. from the Writing Seminars at John Hopkins University in 1970. While in Mississippi she worked as a feature writer for the Capitol Reporterr and The Jackson Advocate. She relocated to the Boston area and for five years she served as an editor and contributor to Spare Change News-- a homeless paper based in Cambridge. In 2007, she published her first book of poetry Washing the Stones ( Ibbetson Street Press).
I talked with Larson on my Somerville Community Access TV Show: Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.
Doug Holder: So you were a reporter for a couple of newspapers down South. Did your experience as a journalist prepare you for poetry?
Linda Larson: Like with poetry, when you are a journalist you try to find something to write about that is of interest to you--what matters to you. When you write a story--like a poem--you want to start with a gripping image. Basically my poems are stories. I learned how to tell a good story as a reporter.
One thing about poetry is that you get to write about what you love, not about what you are assigned--and that is how it all begins...
DH: The noted critic Irene Koronas quoted Picasso in a recent review of your book: " All art is a lie." Is your work a lie?
LL: This means to me don't be afraid to tell the truth even if you have to lie. 9 out of 10 people who have read Mississippi Poems believe they are autobiographical to the letter! That all these things happened. These are my stories but stories are one thing and a life is something else. I am baffled that people think you are a homeless woman, a grandmother of a soldier, etc... Sometimes you need to embellish--you need powerful imagery--to make the point in your poem.
DH: You make no bones about it--you have suffered from mental illness. Plath and Sexton did as well--and they sort of brought a romance to it. Do you find anything romantic about it?
LL: Do I find anything romantic about mental illness? Well, sure. When you are psychotic it is really good practice for constructing your own reality. In the midst of psychosis you really can't write coherently--but you can mine your experience after the fact. I don't write as well on medication. I can write better off it. But I can't function without medication.
But overall I don't think there is much romance attached to mental illness. And there is nothing romantic about killing yourself--like Plath and Sexton did.
DH: Can you talk a bit about your editorship of Spare Change News--the Boston area homeless newspaper?
LL: When I started with Spare Change I was writing pieces about homelessness, cocaine, etc... One day I went to the offices in Harvard Square to get some papers to sell when someone in the office said: "You are the new editor." I guess they liked my writing! I cracked up with laughter then, but they were serious. That was in 1997 and I worked there to 2002. I was glad to dedicate myself to something more than myself.
DH: In your collection Mississippi Poems you have an appreciation of the beauty of the state. Most of us think of its ugliness: its poverty, its civil rights history, etc... How do you explain your different take on this?
I was very fortunate that my aunts, uncles and cousins thought children were great creations. They thought they should be loved, cherished, and indeed I was loved there. When I was back North with my family I didn't feel as loved. So this is how I came to love Mississippi. When I was older I found out what was going on there--incredible injustice, violence-I didn't understand this when I was younger. Later I taught school there and wrote for two newspapers down South. I was in the middle of all this when I was a feature writer for the Jackson Reporter- an all black newspaper. I was the only white writer. My once loving family down there hated me for this.
**Linda Larson is currently working on a third collection and resides in Cambridge, Mass with her husband.
She moved into the other half of the duplex
I owned on the colored side as it was called then
Of Fortification Street-
Where Grant had broken through the Confederate lines
And turned Jackson, Mississippi,
With her she brought
All of two trash bags.
Her hair looked like the
Nest of a magpie
Done up in platinum blonde.
But she showed up alone,
And she was
I couldn’t bring myself
To turn her away.
She kept to herself.
Got up in the morning,
Dressed neatly under that banshee hair-don’t.
Never brought groceries home.
Parked in the side lot
Was littered with soda cans and
Fast food wrappers.
She carried brown paper bags into the house
Clinking like liquor bottles.
Never brought any out.
One day she came over,
Knocked at my door,
Classifieds in hand.
A German shepherd?
A female spayed?
Would it be okay?
The poor pitiful thing.
What would a good shampooing and brushing do?
A trip to the beauty shop was what she needed,
A spot of lipstick,
Not a dog.
All alone she was,
Not even a pretend ring.
Her legs and arms stick thin,
I said yes…
She would have to keep it outside.
She brought the dog home
In early June
The sorriest looking dog I had ever seen.
She’s been on a chain her whole life
She apologized for the dog, now
Skulking low to the ground,
Head turned sideways,
Anticipating a blow…
She dragged it up the steps
She’ll be all right
I am going to call her Tess.
What was her name before?
She didn’t have one.
She was just chained up outside in their back yard.
They just wanted her gone.
I’ll tie her up in the yard.
She said obligingly.
It appears to me she’s done enough
Time at the end of a chain.
My tenant gave me a grateful smile before
Hauling the dog into her half of the duplex.
Moments later they reappeared,
Tess bravely adorned in red leash and collar,
Her mistress in a white sunhat pulled over
That hair’s nest, a great improvement.
But Tess didn’t know how to walk on a leash.
To walk her was hard, sweaty work for the girl.
On one of those walks, up towards
The white side of busy Fortification,
Stopping to buy a soda,
Or sitting on someone’s steps to cool off,
He must have spotted her
Taking a breather along West Fortification Street.
It was hot as Hades,
Almost the fourth of July,
Close enough so fireworks could be heard
Off and on in the neighborhood.
My main concern was keeping cool.
I turned the AC on in the bedroom
And put on my housecoat.
It was time for The Price Is Right.
And then I heard shots fired
Not cherry bombs,
The shots were
Coming from my front door,
Then into the living room.
I am no fool.
I keep a loaded handgun in my nightstand,
My brother’s doing.
So I snatched up my gun and started shooting back.
The shooter hadn’t figured that the person,
The woman, who lived there would have a gun and
Be able to shoot back,
Like the coward he was
I got a good look at him.
He was white and wore a Bull Durham cap.
I knew right away he had miscalculated
Which side of the duplex she lived in.
Tess was moaning a low feral moan
Through the screen door.
Whatever her name was,
Stood silent and completely still.
She knew she had to go.
Like a marionette
She headed to her car empty-handed,
Not even a toothbrush.
I went to my Bible and gave her
Four one hundred dollar bills and four twenties.
“Don’t worry about the damn dog;
I will take care of Tess.”
I cannot tell when white folks are pale or just white.
She looked gray.
Grabbed my hand and kissed it,
Held it to her cheek,
Started her car and took off.
When the rent was due
And she hadn’t contacted me,
I went inside for the first time.
It was neat and clean and empty.
She had been sleeping
On a pile of neatly folded blankets and clothes.
What I had heard clinking were pieces of pottery,
Not like any pottery I’d ever seen.
Glistening and strange,
More varieties than a body could dream up
Or want or wish for,
Some I could figure out a use for,
Some I couldn’t.
I started out with good intentions.
I would pick up some corn-husk tamales
On Farish Street and walk the dog at the same time.
There I was dragging Tess by her leash and of a sudden
I jerked her up to where I was standing.
I took the leash off.
Go on now, Tess.
Time to find another friend.
Tess wouldn’t budge,
Wouldn’t even look at me.
So I gave her a shove.
She still cowered beside me.
I kicked in her direction,
Raised my voice.
Still wouldn’t move.
I hollered at her and
Tried to hit her with my open hand.
Then with the leash.
Kicked at her again
And missed again.
Raised my hand to her
Off she ran.
Again it’s early summer time,
This time a scorcher.
I have plugged my fan in,
Set it outside to blow on me
As I sit on the porch.
Even so my scalp is wet with sweat.
I am still working nights,
Going to the same job.
Still not part of a couple,
Sitting and reading the Clarion Ledger,
Locally known as the Carrion Dredger.
On the front page,
A photo of a dog,
A shepherd with a plastic bucket over its head
Held by two
Police officers caught in the act
Of removing the bucket.
The cutline reads:
This dog nicknamed Bucket Head
By the children in this Jackson neighborhood
Has eluded capture for many months
Surviving only by the kindness of families
Who over the winter put out food for her.