Twice a year since 2009, a group of poets have gathered in a quiet library on the grounds of the Old Mission. Poet laureates and award winners, locals and out-of-town visitors, poetry fans and novitiates come together to revel in the power of verse spoken aloud. The series quickly became a favorite — what’s not to like about a free literary gathering with refreshments, in a cozy setting, with a stipend for featured poets and broadsheets distributed to the public? This April, organizers Paul Fericano and Susan Blomstad have chosen three poets to feature at the biannual Mission Poetry Series: Santa Barbara-based Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Marsha de la O from Ventura, and Kurt Lipschutz — klipschutz for short — who’ll be visiting from San Francisco.
In his 2002 collection, Twilight of the Male Ego (Tsunami, Inc.), klipschutz established himself as a savvy comic, an incisive social observer with a flair for temporal and cultural collision. His new collection The Drawn & Quartered Moon, due out soon from Anvil Press, probes personal material, though not at the expense of pop-culture references (Spoiler alert: His father was Elvis’s doctor). In addition to writing poetry, klipschutz has an ongoing collaboration with singer/songwriter Chuck Prophet; they worked together closely on last year’s Temple Beautiful (Yep Roc Records), an album inspired by the city of San Francisco. Last week, klipschutz spoke to me about riding the train, writing song lyrics, and his love affair with the City by the Bay.
You’re originally from Southern California, but you’ve lived in San Francisco for 30 years now. What took you there, and what kept you there? Well, first I moved to Boulder to check out the school of disembodied poetics at Naropa. I guess I went to sit at the feet of the masters: Allen Ginsberg was there, and sometimes William Burroughs. It was sort of like going to Mount Olympus. I met my first wife in Boulder; she was working at a hot dog stand. She wanted to go back to school and become a physical therapist, so we moved to San Francisco to establish residency for her.
If you’ve got to be based somewhere, San Francisco is one of the great cities of the Earth. It kind of has everything: architecture, all forms of flora and fauna. You can be out at the Marin Headlands in this awe-inspiring scenario, and later the same evening you’re in a crazy bar that seems like it’s out of Star Wars. The ridiculous to the sublime, I guess.
San Francisco is the subject of Temple Beautiful, the album you cowrote with Chuck Prophet last year. How did that come together? Chuck and I have both lived here for approximately the same length of time. The city is great because there’s so much history, and it’s also a little bit containable, not like living in Greece, where you go back 2,000 years and that’s just scratching the surface.
Every collaboration is different, and to some extent every song is different, but we have a rhythm. We sit down in Chuck’s rehearsal space south of Market, and he’ll strum the guitar or play the piano or drums, and we’ll just kind of start talking and gossiping and waiting for lunch, which comes at 2 p.m. We work from 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Sometimes we have a good afternoon, sometimes we have a good morning. It’s not like I go into a trance, but something like that. There’s kind of a Pee-wee’s Playhouse aspect to it. I’m glad there’s nobody watching us. I’d be more than a little bit self-conscious. There’s absolute freedom within that realm. He’ll sing a line, and I’ll sing — with quotes around the word “sing” — a line, and then sometimes the lights go on, and you both know you have something good.
How is songwriting different from poetry? It takes a long time for things to reveal themselves — for a song to tell you what it wants to be. The big payoff is the chorus, and the title of the song. As Chuck never tires of reminding me, they’re not poems. It’s got to be concise, it has to bear repetition, and each word has to do more work or a different kind of work than the words of a poem because it’s coming out of someone’s mouth. You can reinvent a cliché with more success in a song — a well-placed cliché. We also write a lot of character songs — either about a character or from his perspective. To get things to sound natural in dialogue is pretty difficult to pull off.
In your song lyrics and your poetry there’s a common theme — a kind of cultural mash-up where you manage to invoke the ancient Greeks and Melrose Place in the same sentence. Tell me more about your writing process and how you capture all the threads together. Yeah, the poem you’re talking about [“On Undertaking the Odyssey at 42 Aboard the Coast Starlight Southbound”] is about reading The Odyssey on the Coast Starlight. I can’t get enough of that train; we’re taking it down to Santa Barbara.
It begins with something that sets you off, something that triggers you — assuming that you’re not doing something else, like working your day job or at dinner with your wife — assuming you’ve got the green light to write; for me it’s a matter of pulling out the pen and getting out of the way. The initial draft is something like automatic writing. I was reading that book on the train, and I was going to visit my parents, and it kind of all came together in one thought. I was trying to capture a feeling — a sudden epiphany about fathers and sons and parents and children. But after that first inspiration, a poem can take me years to finish. I wish that wasn’t the case, but they take as long as they take. I think the quality of cultural mash-up is an inheritance of modernism: Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. Modernism is a pastiche, a collision of things. In my case, I’m adding in a lot of popular culture.
Got any favorite sources for pop culture? You can’t avoid pop culture. I read the Huffington Post, and it’s not lost on me that the entertainment page and gossip are right there on the front cover. It’s like, do I want to be responsible and read about North Korea, or do I click here and read about the latest disaster with Kanye and Kim Kardashian? Some of it is kind of fun, and it’s also a little bit of a tragedy.
How do you make it work as a poet? Do you have a day job? There have been a lot of day jobs. I’ve worked as a factotum in law offices for most of my life. Right now I’m unemployed, and though I do have some income from the music, there’s a day of reckoning looming. On the one hand I’m fortunate to be unemployed, and on the other hand you’re living on a budget. I’ve always tried to work less in order to have more time. You can’t have it all. I don’t have a car; I have one pair of shoes (well, no, actually I have two pairs of shoes). I come from a time when people were antimaterialistic, when people actually had holes in the jeans from the jeans wearing out. I have no cell phone, no laptop. It’s a question of trading time for money. If you want time, you have to find some way to work less, and then use that time well.
Kurt Lipschutz will read at the Mission Poetry Series on Sunday, April 14, at 1 p.m., alongside poets Laure-Anne Bosselaar and Marsha de la O at the Mission Renewal Center on the grounds of the Mission. Call (805) 682-4713 x133 or visit sbpoetry.net.