Monday, February 6, 2012


I received an email the other day from a neighbor of a prominent contemporary poet who is a friend of mine. She (the neighbor) was also a poet, was coming to San Francisco, and was given my email address by my friend. We met for coffee in North Beach, had a wonderful conversation, and both made another poetry connection.

The inevitable question came up early: who are your influences? We shared some: Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, Gerald Stern, Larry Levis, Li-Young Lee, Malena Morling, Michael Waters. I added Spencer Reece, Suzanne Buffam, Adelia Prado, Stephen Dunn--some poets she didn't know. She added hers who were strangers to me.

Last night at a party I was introduced to a couple as a poet, by my domestic partner. The woman introduced the man as a poet, as well. We both objected--I responded with Robert Frost's quote about "poet" being a term ascribed to you by others, not one claimed by oneself, and he responded that all he did was write down sentences in lines--he "didn't believe in form." "Who is your favorite poet," he asked. I shuffled my feet and said something about the difficulty of narrowing it down, but that if I had to name one poet who had knocked my socks off, on most days it would probably be Larry Levis. Blank stare. "Ever heard of him?" I offered. "Nope." "He was a student of Philip Levine's--you know his work, right?" Can't say that I do. "He's our current poet laureate." I shifted, searching for common ground--"Of course, I guess all of us who write in the English language owe a debt to Walt Whitman, right?" He doesn't do it for me. I'm a Bukowski man myself, he proclaimed. "Oh," I said, "of course Buk influenced us all with his subject matter--he gave us all permission to write about whatever we wanted to write about." He agreed, went back to his original statement about not really writing poetry, but just putting sentences down, breaking them up into short lines with three or four words each--like Bukowski did. And that was that.

Thinking about these two encounters, I could write endlessly about their differences, but the one that sinks in most for me is how in the first one, we both took out paper and pencil and wrote down the names of poets we didn't know and the books that they wrote, for the purpose of expanding our reading. In the second one, neither of us walked away from the encounter with the intention of reading anyone or anything that the other offered--in my case because I've already read pretty much everything that Bukowski ever wrote, and in his case because he didn't give a flip of a page for any poet other than Bukowski, and probably never will.

Now in the cold dark of the midnight of night (3 AM), I am also thinking that none of us are completely honest about our "influences." What I mean is that the only ones we name are our heroes. If they were our only influences, shouldn't we be better writers (assuming they are/were better writers than we)? I don't think we've thought the question through; there are many writers who influence us by holding us back, just as there are many who help us improve. My parents, for example, wonderful people that they were, were terrible writers. My mother dropped out of high school, and my father never got past the fourth grade. But I've probably experienced more of their language than all the poets I've read put together. Quite an influence, but not one that has helped me win the Pulitzer. And what about all of those student papers and poems we've suffered through? And the horrible work of famous writers? Newspaper columns, magazine articles, movie dialogue, poetry recited at afternoon teas to celebrate national rose month. On and on.

The next time someone asks me who are my influences, I'm going to say that I'm not totally sure, but I'm working on overcoming most of them--here are some writers who are helping me do that...

In the mean time, what writers are helping you?