“I still love the idea that poetry comes out of a lived life.”
Linda Gregg, was the winner of the 2009 Jackson Poetry Prize. Sponsored by Poets & Writers, Inc., the fifty-thousand dollar prize is intended to honor an American poet of exceptional talent who deserves greater recognition. Poets and Writers asked Gregg to offer her thoughts on what the prize has meant to her. This is her vivid account of how some people have lived on it.
When I was kicked out of my family home at seventeen and moved from the country to San Francisco to get an education in English literature and creative writing, I already knew I was going to spend my life being a poet. I worked as a maid in a five-story mansion in Pacific Heights. After that, things got importantly wonderful. I met Jack Gilbert and Robert Duncan, who were my teachers. I moved to Haight-Ashbury and watched the flower children create a world. And then the Beats returned as themselves and as our mentors. I was in the right place at the right time.
I was more like the Beats because they were serious about poetry. It was among these people that I learned how poets survive.
This was San Francisco in the sixties. There was no real winter, and food and apartments didn’t cost much. Some poets had jobs. Jack Spicer had a job. Some poets’ wives worked for the household’s money. Each poet was different, but I want to tell you what I learned.
Time was more important than money.
Life was more important than poetry.
Poetry helped you experience your life.
Poetry was not a profession, although Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley were wonderful teachers.
People were interested in Buddhism and nature. I thought I was nature.
People made bookshelves out of orange crates.
We were reading the latest books by William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound.
We were told there was a writing school in Iowa.
We knew there were poets in the East. We thought they were formalists.
We were beginning to read poetry in translation from all over the world—Lorca, ancient Chinese writers, Mandelstam, Ritsos, and Pavese were among the most important to me.
Some poets didn’t want to be famous. Or if they did, it meant something very different from what it does today. I think Jack Spicer wanted the world to find him.
We went to avant-garde films that started at midnight.
We went to hear Janis Joplin.
Jack Gilbert had a poetry group in our apartment on Oak Street. I learned to live with what Jack called moderate poverty. We went on peace marches. Walked under tall eucalyptus trees.
Everybody was different. I chose this way: Time over money. Jack won five thousand dollars from the Guggenheim Foundation. The police threw tear gas on the streets. With the money we lived on Greek islands and in Europe for five years. In a shepherd’s house on a mountain. In a condemned building in Copenhagen.
The world has changed. I have taught in many universities in order to make a living. But I still love the idea that poetry comes out of a lived life. For me, time and place make a difference. It is not too hard for me to write a good poem. But to have the chance to write a great poem asks for everything.
This award from the Jackson family under the auspices of Poets & Writers has given me the chance to try for this life again.
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