EE: What prompted you to write your first poem?
LAB: Well, I was a freshman at USC. I was seventeen years
old, away from home for the first time...and filled with angst. Extreme
angst. I hate to admit it, but I read a book by Rod McKuen. Yes,
it's true. Anyway, I thought if HE could write poetry and get it
published, well, maybe I could write a poem.
EE: And you did.
LAB: And I did. I wrote something called "Remember Us".
It was a riff on the old Gladiator Salute...you know, "We who are
about to die salute you", etc. I had a crush on my French professor
at the time, and one morning I was sitting in class...this was my
first major crush when I was in college, you understand...and he was
walking around the room, lecturing. I had left the poem on the seat
beside me, and as he walked past me he saw the poem, picked it up,
and read it.
EE: Oh, my God...
LAB: No, no...wait. He liked it! He really liked it. And so
I was extremely gratified, and decided to keep writing. I got a
lot of attention. People were reading my poems...in retrospect, I
suspect they were just being kind; I was probably not very good
yet. No, I definitely wasn't very good then. But I was encouraged,
and I believed what they had to say. So I got this idea in my head
that I was a poet. And then, towards the end of my freshman year,
THE BELL JAR was published. And poetry suddenly became very attractive
to me because I got caught up in the Sylvia Plath bit. She was a
very bad influence on a lot of young women, at that time.
EE: Bad influence...how?
LAB: Oh, they all thought it was romantic to go kill yourself
in a garret in London, and become a famous dead poet, etc. At about
this time, I was walking around campus, brooding over this sort
of thing and I saw a sign which said that the Academy of American
Poets was having a contest. I applied - I don't know what I was
thinking, but I applied. And, I'll be damned...I won!
EE: Which was the poem that won the award?
LAB: The poem was called "Les Chiffres". It was a very stylized
discussion of the middle class. Kind of a political thing. I was
the first freshman ever to have won that award. Now that I think
about it, it was rather remarkable that I came up with that poem
at the age of seventeen. And so I decided that I was going to be
a poet, from that moment on. Naturally, I didn't understand that
this was not the easiest thing to do. I mean, I thought, "Of COURSE
I'll be a poet!" I was pretty lucky, I guess, that my dream came
true, because it would have been damned unpleasant if it hadn't.
EE: Is it important for poets, or anyone who works with
language, to read other people's work? And to read the classics
as well as contemporary works? I can't tell you how often I've heard
someone say "Oh, man, I don't want to go to the bother of reading
all that old stuff...I want to be original."
LAB: Oh, you CANNOT be a writer without reading what other
writers have written! You need to have context for your own work;
you need to find writers you admire to use for role models, or that
inspire you to write in your own way; you need to read to know what
the state of the art is. (Chuckling) What you are up against.
EE: I'm often surprised by what pops up in contemporary
music; people think they have escaped from the classics, and yet
two years ago, a group...the Counting Crows...did a song based on HENDERSON
AND THE RAIN KING. And I thought, "What's this? Nobody reads Saul
Bellow anymore!" But someone had. I really liked that song.
LAB: I heard a song on the radio the other day: someone
was doing a riff from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock". "I've
measured out my life in coffee spoons", went the lyric, and I yelled,
"Whoa! Somebody's reading...T. S. Eliot's made it into the pop culture!"
EE: So people ARE reading. How do you go about deciding
what you're going to read, given all the stuff that's being published
these days? You end up with stacks of books to the ceiling...I mean,
LOOK at this apartment.
LAB: Ha! I keep running out of bookshelves. Well, you start
out with people you like, first, then you "discover" new ones. Sometimes
I'll just go and stand in the middle of a bookstore, perhaps in
front of the poetry section....and I'll pick out whatever appeals
to me, open it up, and browse. If I like what I've read, I'll buy
the book. Also, I subscribe to poetry and literary magazines...different
ones, every couple of years... and if a poet's work stands out, I'll
look for work by that poet. You really have to support other writers.
You can't expect people to buy YOUR books if you don't buy theirs.
What comes around, goes around. I'd like to think someone would
do the same for me.
EE: You have come to be identified as an L.A. poet...
LAB: I've been reading and performing my poetry for over
thirty years in Los Angeles. After doing that for a long time, people
identify me with the place. And Los Angeles figures prominently
in many of my poems...the actual landscape of Los Angeles...
EE: The psychological, political AND geographical landscape!
The first poem I ever heard you read was "Detective Supremo", with
that wonderful line: "And suddenly/the bougainvillea greet you/
like a happy extortionist/and it's Cinco de Mayo/everywhere you
LAB: I still don't known how I came up with that. It's a
great line. In fact, that poem was a gift to me, it came out in
one fell swoop.
EE: You really cooked up a good one, that time. The whole
"Detective Supremo" series is sheer magic.
LAB: Just as cooking is a kind of alchemy, so are all creative
processes. Poetry is certainly alchemy. You take thought, random
thought, and you mix it up in your brain, and you turn it into something
else. You turn it into art. In cooking, you take raw ingredients,
you take things that are separate and distinct, you put them all
together and you come out with a cooked creation. You put all your
thoughts together, all your skill together, and you put all your
imagination together, and you come out with something magical...a
EE: How do you go about selecting those raw ingredients?
LAB: I tell my students: Anything you have ever experienced,
read, seen, heard, felt, tasted...can be fodder for a poem. I once
took a Biology class when I was in 11th grade, and there was a word
in that class - "subcutaneous" - that I never thought I'd never
use. Then, one day, I was writing this poem called "The New Year"
and all of a sudden, "subcutaneous" came up in my head - and it
was the PERFECT word for the poem. There I was, using a word from
my 11th grade Biology class, like this: "We lick the salt off our
bodies/can grind into subcutaneous wounds/can fill our throats with
humility..." I tell you, subcutaneous was THE word for THAT moment,
and if I had never taken that Biology class, that poem would have
never been written successfully. You'll be surprised. Weird pieces
of information that may seem immaterial at the time you encounter
them will become something you can use - in poetry, or in art, or
anything. Stimulation from each of your senses, and from all of
your experiences, are transformed within you, in an alchemical way,
into language. There is a state of mind you have to get to in order
to be really creative...it's a sort of openness, of letting go, that's
like saying: "All right! What's going to come to me?" And I see
things in pictures in my head. The first clear image that comes
to me is usually the first thing that I seize upon. It may or may
not be the image that I stick with, but once I've gotten a picture
in my mind, and I write it down, and go with it...see where it takes
me. Quite often, I don't know what the heck I'm writing about when
I first start, but as I progress, I go "Oooooooh!" You have to DISCOVER
things, in yourself and in your writing, especially at this stage.
You know, "No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader."
You have to be surprised by your own work. If you're bored by what
you've written, the reader's going to be bored, too.
EE: So in your estimation, writing...particularly the writing
of poetry...is not only an act of creativity, but a kind of magic.
There is a definition of magic somewhere that reads: "Magic is the
art and practice of causing change to occur in accordance with the
will of the magician."
LAB: If you're open to new possibilities, to transformative
experiences, you will find them...always. People...all people...want to
change, to be able to transform and to fulfill themselves. I like
to think they wish to fulfill themselves in a positive way. I think
if you can follow that restless spirit, it will take you to a kind
of discovery, which entails creativity.
EE: Let's say that I tackle the proverbial blank sheet of
paper, thinking I know what I want to write about. I sit there,
and try to write it...try to make it come out a specific way by sheer
force of will. And this doesn't seem to work for me. The poem seems
to have its own...will to live, or not.
LAB: It's like fishing. You cast out...and there's always
a certain amount of play between you and the poem...that is, the fish.
(Humms) You have to play that fish out before you can catch it.
A poem can only be "forced" to a small extent...a very small extent.
That's because a good poem has a mind of its own, and it really
wills itself to be written. I consider myself a sort of conduit,
a sort of midwife, even, to my poems. Sometimes I turn a phrase
or two that just boggle my mind, I have no idea where they come
EE: Sometimes the fish are in season, and sometimes they're
LAB: That's true. It takes a little bit of magic, I think.
A little gift from the Gods.
EE: What do you do when the fish just aren't biting?
LAB: Well, we've all had THAT experience. My problem is
that sometimes I haven't been able to force myself to sit down and
prime that pump. When you can't write well, you just have to write
something - in fact, anything. If you can face the paper, just sit
there until you come up with one page. You may hit sand for three
weeks in a row, but maybe on the fourth week you'll hit something,
maybe sweet water, maybe gold. If you pursue it long enough, something
good's gonna come up. Unless you decide to just give it up entirely.
EE: So you have to be kinda careful what you prime your
pump with, eh?
LAB: That's right. You have to trust that you'll put your
best interests at heart, you know? I've sabotaged myself a lot for
a lot of years until I realized that I was not doing myself much
good, and that I had to take better care of myself (Slicing shallots).
Thank God, I've been doing that, but I had some hard lessons to
EE: What are some of the things that "prime that pump"?
You've spoken before about reading, the importance of reading other
LAB: That's a given. Reading other poetry is essential.
Also, the arts in general....music. I play a lot of music when I write.
Quite a bit of my early work was dependent upon what I was listening
to when I was writing it. Artist's books. Sculpture. If I can get
my other senses working, sometimes I can come up with some pretty
interesting metaphors. But visual arts, and music, are the two that
really help me get into the writing frame of mind. Of course, you
have to watch out for what you listen to! Classical of course is
great. I like Vivaldi and Mahler and Tchaikovsky when I'm feeling
the need to be swept away. I find Joni Mitchell is wonderful to
listen to, Marianne Faithful, Tom Waits...Tom Waits: oooh boy, you
can get some great stuff out of that.
EE: Wasn't Tom Waits the man you wrote "Rat City" for?
Your dark paean to Los Angeles at night? God, I love that poem.
"It was a cold night/colder than a lover's eye/when he tells you
it's no longer good...Saturday night, on the edge of a dream/in Rat
City." Talk about lyric....damn!
LAB: Yes, I wrote "Rat City" for Tom Waits. I used to know
his limousine driver, and she got a copy of it to him. I later heard
through the grapevine that he hung it up in his bathroom.
EE: Just to wrap up, how about a couple of those classically
oddball interview questions?
LAB: Fire away.
EE: What's your favorite word?
LAB: (Sings, to the tune of "Frosty the Snowman" ) "O-kee-fen-o-kee/is
my very favorite swamp..." I made that song up when I was about eight
EE: And has THIS word turned up in a poem?
LAB: Not yet.
EE: If you were to become something other than a poet and
teacher, what do you think you'd like to do?
LAB: I'd become a psychiatrist.
EE: And what would be your specialty?
LAB: I think I would like to work with creativity and madness,
the fine line between the two...and how we can turn the one into the
other. The creative force is very powerful; I think you could push
someone over the edge. But I believe that creative action is healing.
And I believe that it can heal madness. If you can transform all
the negative energy - the fear, the pain, and the terror - and work
with it, turn it into art...you will have done a truly heroic thing.
* * *
Needless to say, Laurel's dinner was a work of peerless craftsmanship.
We lingered over every bite, drank off the wine, and I didn't get
home until nearly one in the morning.
Upon my return, Little Guy Bogen wreathed my ankles in ardent and
uncharacteristic recognition, and spent the rest of the night burrowed
into the clothing I had worn while visiting his mistress' apartment.
It took me several days to get all of the clothing away from him,
and I doubt this was due to his sudden partiality for garlic. Laurel
Ann Bogen, as poet, friend and mentor is, by all accounts, and to
all parties, unforgettable.