The March issue of Poetry magazine featured nine poems by Dorothea Grossman. It was the enigmatic poet’s first appearance in the magazine, and the overwhelmingly positive response to her work—both online and in print—compelled me to trek out West to visit Grossman at her Los Angeles apartment. Over coffee (mine) and Marlboro 100's (hers), Grossman and I talked about her life, her poetry, and her devotion to honesty. The following is an edited transcription of that conversation.
TN: Do you remember the first poem you ever read?
DG: You know, I can’t really remember which one it was, but I can tell you the circumstance was grade school. There was an English teacher named Cecil Richardson who loved poetry and used to read it aloud in class. He turned me onto it, but I can’t remember a poem specifically.
TN: This was in Philadelphia, where you grew up?
TN: Do you remember the first poem you ever wrote?
DG: Yeah, unfortunately.
TN: Was it around the same time?
DG: It seems to me it was earlier, but I’m not sure. Are you going to ask me to recite it?
DG: [laughs] Okay, good.
TN: Unless you want to.
DG: No, no. I’ll just tell you that it was called “The Moon.”
TN: Okay, well, that’s working within a fine tradition!
DG: Mine was not in that tradition.
TN: Was it a strange thing to be a poet or musician in your family? In your hometown?
DG: Yes, it was strange. I came from a good working-class Jewish family. And at that time, girls especially were not encouraged to pursue higher education. I think I was the first female in my family to go to college, so yeah, it was kind of weird.
TN: Did you study poetry in college?
DG: I was an English major, and I was lucky enough to be exposed to some really fine teachers. Gerald Stern, coincidentally, was one of my teachers.
TN: Have you kept in touch with him?
DG: Not really. I have a good friend who’s a fine poet in Philadelphia, Elaine Terranova, and she does keep in touch. We kind of lost touch, though.
TN: Do you think he remembers you? Would he have recognized your name in Poetry?
DG: I don’t know. It seems a little awkward to get in touch with him at this late of a date. He was the advisor to our literary magazine at Temple. He was great, a lot of fun. He let us get away with murder. I mean, it was the Fifties, and he wouldn’t let us print the word “fuck,” but he let us come very close.
TN: Listening to your CD with the improv trombonist, Call and Response, and reading your poems, there’s obviously a real connection between what you do and music. How did your idea of music evolve with your idea of poetry?
DG: I was always into music. I ‘m probably one of the last of a generation to grow up without TV. Growing up, I was a big radio fan. And I loved music. I just loved it. It’s always been part of my life. I pride myself in knowing the lyrics to a lot of obscure standard tunes. And of course my husband was a musician, a jazz musician, so the kinship with music just continued.
TN: How did this collaboration with the trombonist come about?
DG: That was so organic. It was really amazing. It was a complete accident. I mean, we knew each other because the community here of out musicians is very small and very close, but strangely both of us happened to be in Albuquerque about seven years ago. He had a gig with a band at a local club, and I was doing a reading in somebody’s house. I wasn’t doing anything with music at that time, but we were both houseguests there, and we were both on a local radio show, an NPR affiliate. We were both going to be interviewed, but about 10 minutes before we were supposed to go on, the guy in charge said, “I have an idea! Why doesn’t Dottie read a poem and then the band will jump in and play some improv!” I thought, “Oh, this is just horrible.” Corny and Beat Generation, all the stuff I really wanted to forget. But the band was so enthusiastic and so I said, “Okay, what the hell. It’s Albuquerque.” And as soon as we did it, it was like magic. It was so much fun. And so Michael and I continued to do it, and when we can afford it we get the other guys to help out.
TN: Do you feel like you’re more involved with the music community or the poetry community here in LA?
DG: More of my friends here are musicians. I think maybe because of the way I write or the way I choose to live, I haven’t been close to that many poets, though there’s a fine community here. It’s enormous. The standard joke about LA is that if you throw a penny you’ll hit a screenwriter, but my experience is that you’ll hit a poet. It’s amazing.
TN: Have there been poets here, or back in Philadelphia, that have encouraged or inspired you?
DG: I know pretty much who my inspirations are, but my biggest encourager was probably my husband. He was an artist in his own field, and a really smart aesthetically sophisticated person. You know, my stuff—quite honestly, I never considered it until recently to be what you might call mainstream. I still don’t think it is, really, but I think there’s a niche now that didn’t always exist. I was pretty independent. I wasn’t really encouraged, but I didn’t much care. It’s not like I was hoping to make a living out of it.
TN: So if you finished a poem, would your first audience be your husband?
TN: Was he the same with his music?
DG: Pretty much.
TN: With writing, because you often don’t have a big audience, just having one person can be enough. Especially because, as you say, it’s not like you’re going to make a living out of it.
DG: There was no delusion about that.
TN: Have you had some interesting day jobs over the years?
DG: Nothing that was as much fun as being a poet! But I have had a variety of jobs. When you marry a musician, especially an avant-garde one, you understand that your life is going to consist of a lot of work.
I started out in social work, and I did a lot of it in the early Sixties, but I eventually felt burnt out and I fell back on my typing skills. My mother made me take typing, even though I was going to college, and I was glad because I got some office work, which wasn’t exactly thrilling but paid the bills and left me some energy for the stuff I really wanted to do. When we came to LA, the first job I got was for a memory institute. A guy who was a bit of a charlatan had this place—it’s still open, actually—a memory training course that he would teach on the weekends. So I worked as his office manager. The most fun job I’ve had in LA, I was registrar at a private school of architecture in Santa Monica. That was great. Southern California School of Architecture.
TN: Have you ever taught poetry?
DG: Oh no. I don’t know enough about poetry, for one thing, and I don’t think I’d be very good at it because I don’t have a lot to tell people.
TN: You mean about the way they should do something?
DG: It seems very presumptuous to me. It’s one thing to expose students to the tradition, but I seriously question the value of teaching how it should be. I don’t know, it’s a tricky question, but the short answer is: No, I’m not interested in teaching, and I’ve never done it.
TN: Did you know Allen Ginsberg?
DG: No. I mean, I met him on two occasions, and the quote I use in my press materials is something he wrote to me. I sent him my stuff because I loved him. I really did. And it took him a year to get back to me. I had forgotten all about it. And he wrote me this beautifully long letter and said all of these nice things. And then he said, “I’m listing some places that I think would appreciate your work,” and then he wrote out the names of the editors. And their addresses! That really killed me, that he gave me the addresses.
TN: And you had read his work and felt a connection?
DG: Oh yes. He freed us. He freed up the language, he freed up the meters, and there was emotion. Most of us wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.
TN: Do you feel like there’s any of that energy still here now?
DG: I want to think so. I’m sure there is, but that’s a good question. I mean, there’s fine poetry, but the emotional component . . . I don’t know. There must be.
TN: In your poems there’s a window that opens up into a sensory experience, and there is emotion that comes through, but it is very much under control. Is that what you’re pursuing?
DG: When it’s a serious poem, yeah. I don’t want it to be mushy. I want to be dignified, but I want to still get it across. Does that make sense?
TN: Yes. It does. Do you think you’re feeling as you’re writing, or do you write more to look back at feeling?
DG: I think if you’re bothering to write at all, you’re in the moment with the feeling that you’re trying to re-create. Otherwise, why would you bother? I mean, it’s hard. It’s really hard.
TN: Do you write a lot?
DG: It’s weird. I have peaks and valleys. Anything can set me off. The older I get, of course, memories set me off. And I think what I’m always striving for is to keep a balance. I have a lot of humor in my stuff, and that’s fine. There’s the more serious stuff, too, but I like to mix it up. When I read in public, it’s very important for me to stress that balance. I don’t want to be a stand-up comic, for God’s sake, but I also don’t want to be some wailing preacher.
Reading out loud has helped me enormously. I don’t know how, exactly, but when you hear your stuff, some of it just becomes very clear.
TN: So do you feel like you hear it in your head before you write it down, or do you write it down and then hear it?
DG: If I’m lucky, I hear it in my head. That doesn’t happen very often. What usually happens is that I’ll get an idea and then take off from there. The initial idea often sounds great to me, and then it’s just slick.
TN: When you say an idea . . .
DG: A line.
TN: And then do you write it out by hand, or type it out?
DG: It depends on where I’m sitting [laughs]. If I’m at the computer, then I type it.
TN: In these poems in Poetry magazine, I get a real feeling for Los Angeles, an everyday awakening. They seem very grounded. . . .
DG: They’re very concrete, yes. Of all the poets I know, I’m the only one I know who listens to Top 40 radio. I don’t know if that clarifies anything, but that’s the balance I was talking about. I like being involved in pop culture. Not only do I enjoy it, but I think it brings something to my work.
TN: Do you think it’s because readers or listeners can identify more with what’s going on?
DG: You know, I’m not really concerned with what readers identify with. Well, I guess that’s not strictly true. In my vocabulary I’m aware that I want a simple word. But in terms of the content, it’s all about me. I can’t be more honest than that! If it feels right to me, I go with it. I was going to say I don’t care, but that’s not true. I do care. But the honesty is what’s important to me. We live in the world, and I feel like the Oscars are as important to me as the state of poetry.
TN: How did these poems in Poetry come about?
DG: I have no idea. [laughs] They were written over a period of time. I guess I have the dates somewhere. But I can honestly say each of them was inspired by some thought or fragment of a thought or a line. Or something that I must have felt at the moment was important to communicate. I’m a big believer in communication. I have an artist friend who did a project a couple years ago in which she assigned one word to each of her friends, and then she did something with it [laughs]. But the word she assigned to me was “communicate.” And I thought that was right. I liked that.
TN: And the poems are the best medium for this communication?
DG: It’s the only one I have. It’s the only one I’m good at.
TN: You are! You are good at it. It’s interesting, though, because you came to that conclusion without a lot of encouragement from outside sources. The poetry world didn’t tell you that you were good at it.
TN: So something else pushed you along, something inside you told you that you were good at it.
DG: Yes. Which I guess sounds very conceited, doesn’t it?
TN: I think it sounds great. Most people I know kept doing it because they got some positive reinforcement.
DG: It’s going to sound funny, but I think my husband was a great role model for me because he was extremely talented and very very passionate about his music, and it was very avant-garde, in the sense that he had a background in traditional jazz piano and he departed from it, and did a tabula rasa thing where he would just improvise from the word go. That takes an enormous amount of sophistication, taste, experience, what in Yiddish is called chutzpah. We were married for 34 years, so in a sense we grew up together. He didn’t care—I mean, at some level we all care if we’re totally rejected, but he knew better than to expect huge success at his choice in music, but it was his expression.
TN: He had a longer view of what he was doing.
DG: Yeah. I think that his model affected me in ways I’m just finding out. The confidence I have, for instance. I was never a particularly confident kid, but I watched him and saw that he was good with this, and I like him and respect him.
TN: Is the “you” in these poems most often your husband?
TN: Do you consider yourself a Los Angeles poet?
DG: Oh yes. Very much. It freed me, coming here. I was an East Coast kid. I didn’t come west until I was maybe 30, and it freed me up in so many ways. It was so good for me. This is a frontier, like it or not, and it broke down barriers for me to be here, and it made me think I could do anything. I started a series of poems called the Henny Youngman poems, and I never could have done something like that if I hadn’t left Philadelphia.
TN: Why is that?
DG: I’m not sure, but it has something to do with the freedom to do whatever the hell you want. People here, for better or worse, are very adventurous. Maybe because it’s the last stop!
There’s the Hollywood aspect, but nobody really takes that seriously. And even that is a given. Nobody is pretending that it’s anything but bullshit except the people involved in it, and they pretend to each other, and that doesn’t matter.
TN: So Hollywood, for you, is separate from Los Angeles?
DG: Oh yeah. I’m not part of that culture. And it certainly is a culture all to itself. The good side of it, the part I identify with, is the freedom. There’s so much good art being made here in all media. There’s great painting. I met someone the other day at a party who is an advisor to the movie industry on World War II aircraft—people have these weird specialties here which I find totally fascinating—and this guy was telling stories that were just fascinating. That’s part of what I love about being here—and this guy’s an artist!
This town’s been good to me, though. I feel happy. I feel lucky to live here.
TN: And you live here without a car.
DG: I don’t drive. Which is probably good for humanity.
TN: Do you find it hard?
DG: No. I’ve made my life work for me. Everybody I know drives. Because of my back, I get a handicapped sticker and good discounts on transit and stuff. It kind of works for me.
TN: So you feel that this is your neighborhood?
DG: Of course. I mean, it’s the west side, which has a sort of bourgeois ring to it. It’s not hip. The west side is not hip; it’s not Hollywood, Silver Lake, or Echo Park. But it works for me.
TN: Your poems feel very controlled.
DG: Thank you. I take that as a great compliment.
TN: They seem very careful, but they don’t seem overmanaged.
DG: That’s also a compliment! Yeah, you know, you have to achieve that line.
TN: How do you decide when to break a line?
DG: I think it has to do with the way it sounds when it’s read out loud. That’s one way in which the reading has helped. It’s helped me clarify that. It’s as close to the cadences of your voice when you’re just reading something.
TN: But it’s not quite breath.
DG: No, not quite.
I gotta say about Poetry magazine, whoever did the editing, whether it was Christian or he had help or what, but I was so impressed with the editing decisions that were made.
TN: The selections?
DG: No, the actual editing. On one poem they took out some punctuation, and it was absolutely right to do that, and on the other they took out a line. And that, I mean . . .
TN: That’s bold.
DG: Yeah! I was a little upset, but then I looked at it and I thought, well, . . . It’s the one about breakfast, and the line they took out was “I spread fires and floods and pestilence / along with the daily news. . . .” And they said the daily news seemed extraneous. So they took it out. And it was right to take it out! It was good and humbling for me.
TN: Is there a certain time of day when poems happen more often?
DG: Oh no. I don’t worry about it. If it happens, it happens. The only thing I do worry about is that writing is sort of an index of my mental health. If a few weeks go by and I haven’t had an idea even, I get a little worried. Like I’m not focused.
TN: Is there any prose?
DG: No. Well, I’ve written some liner notes, but nothing else. I can’t embellish like that. I’m not inclined to. I’ve worked all my life, and so I’ve always tried to fit the writing into my day, so it had to be brief. Three stanzas is huge for me.
TN: Were there poets that you read—not met—that you felt like were talking to you and encouraging you?
TN: In the poems, not the prose?
DG: Oh yeah. Wow.
TN: So are there current or contemporary poets that you follow?
DG: Ted Kooser. Billy Collins. I feel comfortable knowing they exist. I feel a great kinship with them. My friend Elaine Terranova. Although we write differently, I just love her stuff. And when I’m in Philadelphia, we always try to do at least a reading together. In this interesting way, our stuff complements. I can see we’re growing apace.
TN: It sounds like you just need one person to feel like you’re working with and then you’re very much gratified.
DG: Yes. I don’t care that much, you know. I want to be happy for now. My life hasn’t always been great. I’m getting older, and I’m increasingly aware of that. I deplore all the clichés of that, and I don’t want to write about it in that way. That stuff is self-evident. When I was younger and more of a smart-ass, I used to say that I was just in it for the kicks, but now I really feel that I am.
But performing is another whole dimension. And I found out late in life that I love show business. I’m not even embarrassed to say it. I love making people feel good; and working with the trombonist, Michael, it’s a joy. You know, the world is going to hell, but in this little area we have a bit of control.
TN: Do you remember the first time that performing really clicked?
DG: It really clicked the first time I did it. I felt as if I’d been doing it all my life. Which maybe in a sense I had, in my marriage and my work. Who knows.
TN: For some people, there is a performance on the page.
DG: The development seems very organic. It’s no accident that I can’t shake these musicians loose. And I’m very lucky I can’t.