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The Poetry Kit Interviews Larry Jaffe

Tell me about your background. Where were you born and brought up?

I was born in the Bronx, New York, in the shadow of Yankee Stadium. My family moved to Queens and then to an absurd town on Long Island with the unfortunate moniker of Plainview. And oh it was plain and vulgar in its sameness of gas stations strip malls and banks, one Burger Square (forerunner to MacDonald’s) and Jan’s kosher deli and a billion pizza places and Chinese restaurants. I grew up not liking any Chinese food but fortune cookies and spare ribs and egg rolls. I since have cultivated more selection than that. I was rather small throughout my school years graduating high school at 5’3” fortunately by my junior year in college I grew to 6’3” and then I dropped out to be a poet…

Wasn't that a rather sudden move for a kid?

I felt the calling of poet. I dont know how others respond to it, but I couldnt deny it, even though in later years I did - up until three years ago when it called again, and now I am answering the call. I wanted to write the poem of life, and school was just not doing it for me. I wanted to write all the time, not talk about it. I studied writers by reading - for me that was school. I read and still read voraciously - sometimes 2 to 3 books a week even with my schedule. Though I do have a weakness for hard boiled detective stories - so be forewarned.

Do you come from a literary family?

No not at all. I come from blue-collar roots. My father worked in a factory, eventually became foreman and then was able to buy into the company. But his sleeves were always rolled up and he was involved in the physical day-to-day operations. I guess that is how I write poetry from that viewpoint… sleeves rolled up and involved with life and hopefully relevant.

When did you start writing poetry?

Well I started writing when I was 10; I was mostly interested in journalism and especially sports writing. I was sports editor in junior high, high school and college and went to the school seminars at the Columbia School of Journalism. I really thought that journalism was going to be my career and especially in the late 60’s and early 70’s wrote for alternative media (we called them underground papers). But I was really bitten by poetry in my junior year in college it just seemed to flow from my veins. I had a girl friend (Joyce Jackson) and she introduced me to haiku specifically Basho. And I was there. I slaved at writing haiku, reducing my thoughts to 17 syllable bursts. I was 20 at the time. Prior to that I just dabbled in poetry. But then it became my passion.

Apart from Joyce Jackson and haiku, what were the books\events that most influenced your beginning as a writer?

You have to remember this was the late 60’s and therefore the war in Vietnam was a major influence to be speaking out.
Poetically, I found Leonard Cohen to be a true inspiration. His works completely intrigued me. I was also heavily influenced by Eldridge Cleaver, and James Baldwin I only wish that I had met Langston Hughes back then. I find him to be one of the premiere poets of this century, not just for his wordage but his content as well. There were of course heavy musical influences from Joan Baez and Bob Dylan to a series of blues artists that just got to me like Robert Johnson and Lightning Hopkins, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker and Bessie Smith. I was really hooked on the blues and wanted to write poetry like blues since I did not have much in the way of musical talent.
As an interesting side note I was so taken with the beat generation, that every Halloween I would dress up as a beatnik. I wanted to be one when I grew up but for the most part they were gone and hippies did not really take their place for me. In reality, it has taken until now for me to feel completely at home as a poet and not needing any movement or generational support to say so. Someone once told me that you needed to be 50 to be a real poet. You had to have lived and experienced life in order to truly poetize that. I suppose in my case that is true. For I felt my true voice emerge at 49 and then really kick into overdrive at 50. I am now really starting my career as a poet. I must admit I get a chuckle out of that.

Did you write only haiku in the beginning - or were there other forms and themes?

Right from the beginning I took to haiku. I don’t know whether it was the Japanese influences or the simplicity of thought. All I know is that I fell in love with the genre and its conciseness. So I wrote haiku and expanded from there. I found that poetry was essence and tried to hone down my words to their very brittle edges. I find that still works for me to this day. I like my words tight and full of metaphor and image and emotion. I am not into flowery.

How did you first go about getting your poems published?

As I said, I worked in the underground press, and my early works were published in that medium. I also made my own books by hand. You have to remember this was way before copy machines, and carbon paper was the only inexpensive way to make copies. So I would hand bind my books with ribbon or thread and give them to friends. I did not have a concept of chapbooks in those days. It just seemed a legitimate way to get my poems out. I also made up fliers with my poetry, creating a group of one called Guerilla Poets, and would put poetry under windshield wipers on cars, stuff it in mailboxes and even on the sides of buildings. Poetry was not a matter of books for me in those days. It was a matter of expression and impact. Quite frankly I still feel that way. The Internet has been an incredible advance on flyering my poetry.

To what extent do your ‘roots’ influence what you are writing now?

Interestingly enough, my roots have become more of an influence than I thought possible. I am kind of a rebel; I live in California when my family is all in New York. And I do mean all. But I am in the process of doing a multimedia CD called Jewish Soulfood. Which strongly draws on my family and roots. I found from doing much live poetry (notice I did not say spoken word or slam, but live poetry) that when I read poetry about my family, it created a bridge between peoples. They could relate to it, they understood the pathos and joy. So I wrote the book so to speak.

Do you have a 'day job', or do you live by your poetry?

Oh, don’t you know that I work to make a living through my poetry. You are banging on the door here… I ummm wanted more than anything to be a poet from all those tender years… making a living and raising a family as a poet did not seem to go together or so I thought and so family, etc. thought. I get very uncomfortable when I think about it. I think about the lost time and energy. However, I raised a family (two daughters and now two grandsons). But I did anguish for quite some time. I never could meld the commercialwith the aesthetic. So I pushed the aesthetic back and worked as a copywriter. Yes I was still a writer. But it was hard for me to write like that, simultaneously, I got great discipline and started to master the craft of writing. This has been a great help now as a poet. I don’t lack for words or inspiration. I rarely suffer from any kind of writer’s block (I hope I have not jinxed myself with that statement).

Can you describe your most effective working method? Do you wait for inspiration, or sit down every day with the intention of writing?

I sit down every day to write. I find inspiration everywhere I turn. Life is inspiration from the good to bad to ugly its all there and my job is to poetize it. I not only try and walk a mile in someone’s shoes but also try through my words to get others to walk that same mile, to feel the feelings, to see through someone else’s eyes.

How important to you are formal workshops, or getting the opinions of other poets about your work-in-progress?

I am not much of a workshop person. I once heard a tale of an ancient Chinese poet who after he finished a work would show it to the flower lady on the corner. If she liked it he would publish it. I guess I feel the same way. I don’t actively seek the opinions of other poets. I do seek the opinions and feelings of regular folks. I write for them, not other poets. So I have my flower ladies and I review my work with them.

To what extent if any do you collaborate with other artists?

Currently, there are no collaborations. I would like to at some point and there are a couple of poets that I have talked to about this. I am most interested in creating a poet’s round-table so we can discuss life and poetry. That would really mean much to me. I have several poets that we converse online together. But nothing where we meet in person and talk on a regular basis.
I think it is important to note that I host a weekly reading in Hollywood at the Moondog Café called PoeticLicense. We fill the house every week (about 70 people) and have anywhere from 25 to 30 poets read in the open mic plus a feature. It is a true community reading.

How do you decide that a poem is finished?

Hmmm good question. When it delivers the message taken from the mental concept that I have. And when it does it with the fewest words possible, retaining the rhythm and emotional impact. And then I show it to my flower ladies (of any gender) and if it hits them the way I want, then it is done.

Who do you write for? - Do you have a particular audience or person in mind, apart from your flower lady?

I write for regular folks, from blue-collar to parents to people who walk this earth. I write much poetry about social issues, from homeless to war. I write for people who care and for people with a little prodding will start to care.

Does poetry have to be ‘simple’ to get a hearing?

To me poetry is essence. That does not mean that the words are not layered with deeper meanings if you go through all the allegory and metaphor. But it is essence and in my mind essential parts of life. Sometimes it can be complex if you gently bring the reader into the folds. So to answer your question, no it does not have to be simple.

Which trends in modern poetry do you find most interesting?

I love that poetry is climbing from its Dark Ages and once again achieving legitimate art form status. I love that I can write poetry and instantly communicate it to thousands if not millions of people. What a blessing this is.

Does poetry have any influence outside poetry?

Very much so, I believe poetry is the soul, the spirit of society. It influences in profound even unknown ways. I have seen my work on illiteracy hung in a social workers office and the clients read it and cry, opening them up to getting educated. I have seen my work touch people, one woman who had cardiac surgery wrote to me thanking me for my poetry that it kept her alive. So yes it has major influence. In today’s society, I find it much easier to believe a poet than a reporter.

Do you see ‘performance poetry’ and ‘slam’ as sideshows or a return to the origins of poetry as storyteller and social conscience?

Hmmm jeez… well I am not a slam poet. But I have been to many slams, I have judged and help the Hollywood team. But it is just not my genre. I think it is good that it garners so much attention for poetry. As for performance poetry, I have to reiterate that the written word is most important to me. And then the written word well crafted and well read…well there is simply nothing like that. You have to understand as a host I see hundreds and hundreds of poets. Today’s live poetry scene is a most dramatic moment and of extreme importance. The people have a voice!

What use do you make of the Internet?

I make extensive use of the Internet. I was probably one of the first poets to have a web site online. I have been working on the Internet, professionally for a number of years now both in marketing and web site design.
My site is extensively visited averaging about 25,000 accesses a month. I have no layer between me and the reader. Just my poetry and them. I love it that way.

Is Internet publishing just a cheaper way of getting your poems seen by a wider audience, or is it liable to produce new kinds of poetry?

hmmm. I think the Internet is a medium that poets have been looking for for a millennia. Poetry communicates well on the Internet. There is no question in my mind that this is an incredible medium that allows me to communicate and broadcast my poetry to people. Will it produce new types of poetry, interactive works. Well that is already happening. I have a number of people that I write with in that fashion. It is not so much collaboration as it is creating this new genre of work. But to me poetry is and always will be an individual effort. Someone once said that being a poet is a lonely job. I agree.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am always updating my web site. I am about to go into the studio to record Jewish Soulfood. It will be published by Dead End Street publications and come out this fall. The CD will be multimedia with audio, video, graphics and text. I am very excited about it.

© Ted Slade, Larry Jaffe 1999