Sandburg, Stevenson, Ginsberg, Brutus, Herbert and company.
My father was Carl Sandburg. My mother was Robert Louis Stevenson. I too am a poet, although mom always thought I’d be a singer. Must have been my way with “Just a Wee Doch an’ Doris.” Mom used to read to us from the works of the psalmists and the poems of Robert Burns. You couldn’t get a more balanced education. Love and loss, rage and revenge, seduction and praise – and that’s just from the psalms! Their music always held more sway over me than their content until the AIDS crisis, when “he showed his love to me when I was in a besieged city” took on new meaning.
Dad didn’t read to us kids, he recited to us from memory. His favorite, Robert Service, was, like my mom, a Scot turned vagabond. Dad would chant aloud in his craggy Chicago baritone from “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” — “A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon; / The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune….” How could you have such lively verse recited to you as a boy and not feel tended to?
The world shifted in my teens when mom passed in the South Seas and dad remarried, this time to Allen Ginsberg. God, what a loud, embarrassing stepmom! But would I ever have discovered Whitman or Blake without Allen who had urged me to give their radical beauty a chance? Allen had cool friends, too. Gregory Corso took me under his mad angel wings during that fragile period and I felt encouraged for the first time to write.
Until my first boyfriend came along: hypercritical, smarter than me, prettier than me, Arthur Rimbaud is a lesson I am still trying to get over, to learn from. I’m grateful for Paul Monette, my older stepbrother from Allen’s prior marriage to Elizabeth Bishop. We didn’t grow up together, but years later, Paul’s poetry would provide me with courage I had forgotten I’d had. Combine that with the good fortune of having had Dennis Brutus as an uncle who had taught me in my twenties that not all love poems are about love, that there are many types of exile, and whose recitation of the tortured Arthur Nortje has never left me: “Out of such haze, such loss, the luck of birth….”
All these poetic influences, poetic bloodlines, and I did not begin writing in earnest until was given an invitation to celebrate the quadrennial anniversary of George Herbert’s birth. Our kinship wasn’t clear to me, but after learning that, like myself, George was the seventh born of ten children, and the fifth born son of seven sons, I picked up his collection “The Temple” and I did read the poems of this inventive man; and after finishing “Love (3),” I did sit and write.