An Interview with Poet Toni Stern
Monday, February 2, 2015
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Santa Ynez resident Toni Stern enjoyed a highly productive collaboration with singer/songwriter Carole King, most notably “It’s Too Late” for the album Tapestry. Wet is her first book of poetry.
Like you, I’ve written both poetry and song lyrics. I think it’s harder to write a good lyric than a good poem. Would you agree? Billions of people listen to music, few people look to poetry for enrichment. Poetry is a completely different kind of inquiry than songwriting. Poems, as a rule, don’t have a chorus, and that makes a huge difference in tone. Great poetry is often most interested in the mind unfolding. Great songs typically are thematic.
Most of the poems in your new book are in free verse rather than in the regular rhyme and meter of formal verse. Was that a conscious decision on your part? The rhythm of the words dictates the form the poem takes. I never know what I’m going to write before I write it. I did not sit down, the afternoon I wrote “It’s Too Late,” and say to myself, “I want to write a breakup song.”
“It’s Too Late” is a fairly melancholy song, and yet many of the poems in Wet are quite funny. Can you talk about your sense of humor and how it plays out in your poetry? I’m glad you think some of the poems are funny. I do, too. That just happens. It’s difficult for me to talk about myself as if I understand who I am. I have a sense of humor and a sense of melancholy, I suppose. Notice, though, by the third verse of “It’s Too Late,” things are looking up.
While you were born and raised in the Miracle Mile area of Los Angeles, when you were 13, your family moved to the Sunset Strip. I attended Hollywood High School. My mother managed a tony apartment building on the corner of Sunset and Sweetzer during the late ‘50s, until the early ‘80s. The Sunset Strip morphed during that time just as the culture did. It was an exciting transition. I enjoyed a tremendous amount of freedom as a child, and the Strip was my backyard. I lived with my mother at the Sunset Lanai until I was 20, when I moved to Laurel Canyon.
In “Housekeeping,” the opening poem in Wet, you write: “I have a keen interest / in the debris / that builds up / in the house, / especially / on the floor.” To what extent is that an aesthetic statement? I guess I’m interested in how the debris of our lives might become the material for poetry. You might say everything is a metaphor when looked at a certain way. I noticed that dry mopping is a pleasurable experience for me and began writing about it, with no idea where, if anywhere, the poem was going. The poem taught me something about myself, specifically, “the pressure I feel to create something artful.”
You’re also a painter. What’s the connection between painting and poetry? They are both terrific venues for a creative mind.