19 questions with George Stanley
by rob mclennan
George Stanley was born into an Irish Catholic family in San Francisco in 1934. He attended Jesuit-run St. Ignatius High School, where he read Latin and Greek, and began to write poetry and to drink. The Jesuits also dispelled some of the fear of sin and hell laid on him by the nuns in grammar school.
In 1952-53 he attended the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. San Francisco had been for him a city of parishes; he had rarely been north of California Street. It was in Salt Lake City that he first encountered a Bohemian milieu, which consisted, he says, of anyone who was not a Mormon.
In 1953, back in San Francisco and broke, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, in order to escape family and psychiatrist. After his discharge in 1956, he returned to San Francisco, and spent a year at the University of California in Berkeley. One Saturday night in February, 1957, seeking the real Bohemia, he wandered up Grant Avenue to a bar called “The Place”, and there met Jack Spicer. He showed Spicer a poem, “Pablito at the Corrida,” and Spicer invited him to join his Magic Workshop, which he had just begun teaching at the San Francisco Public Library. There Stanley met Robert Duncan. Spicer and Duncan became his mentors. In San Francisco he also met Stan Persky, Robin Blaser, Joanne Kyger, and others.
In 1960-61, Stanley lived in New York, where he met LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and Joel Oppenheimer. After he returned to San Francisco, he attended San Francisco State College. There he met James Liddy, visiting from Ireland, who introduced him to the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh, and this meeting led him back to his Irish heritage.
In 1971, following Blaser and Persky, he moved to Vancouver, not so much fleeing the Vietnam War, but because, for him, the real San Francisco had died. He thought of Vancouver as just another West Coast city, not another country, and indeed the distinction is historically blurred. He worked at temporary jobs in bookstores and warehouses until, in 1976, through Persky, he was hired to teach English at Northwest Community College in Terrace, 500 miles north of Vancouver. It was in Terrace that he discovered that he was living in Canada. He lived in Terrace for fifteen years. Terrace, he says, was his second Rome.
In the ’90s he returned to Vancouver, taught for eleven more years at Capilano College, and then decided to retire because, as he puts it, the students and he were no longer taking each other seriously.
1 – How did your first chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first chapbook (The Love Root, White Rabbit 1958) was ephemeral. Just a few pages of mostly pretentious verse – i don’t even have a copy of it any more. It was the second chapbook (Tete Rouge/Pony Express Riders, White Rabbit 1963) and the third (Flowers, White Rabbit 1965) that immediately gave me a readership in San Francisco and beyond, and were a mark of my recognition as a poet by the older poets (Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan), as well as by Joe Dunn and Graham Mackintosh, the principals in White Rabbit Press.
My most recent work (“After Desire” [The Capilano Review 3.14] ) is intensely personal. This marks a shift from much of the poetry I had been writing over the previous three decades, where my aim was to understand the world — in particular, how capitalism works, first in Terrace BC (“Gentle Northern Summer”), where being so new to the community I could see it more objectively, with less distortion than familiarity would have brought. Later I wrote poems (“San Francisco’s Gone”) to understand the history of the city and of my family, especially my parents, who were both born there.
2 – How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
In third year high school (grade 11) my English teacher required all his students to write poems. At the end of the term he took three of us aside — me, my friend Manuel, and a boy named John. He told the three of us that we had talent as poets. (Actually only two of us had talent; Manuel was writing John’s poems for money.)
More than once I have tried fiction but could not master the middle ground, middle distance. For me everything was either cosmic or closeup.
3 – How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
All (or most of) the above.
Sometimes I’m not aware I’ve even started a poem; it’s just a phrase in a notebook that starts something a week or more later. In fact, I think this is what usually happens. And when I set down a few lines (or maybe paragraphs — prose poetry) what results may be a single poem but quite often it’s the first section of a serial poem.
Once I know I’ve got going on a poem I usually stick with it, and if it’s a serial poem I may be writing for several months (e.g., the first draft of “After Desire,” May ’07 – January ’08). And the writing may go fast or slow but the idea stays in my mind.
First drafts can persist through a lot of minor revisions — or the poem can get longer or shorter. Once in a while a poem is sheer dictation. I was having lunch at the Pink Panther cafe in Veracruz when a poem (“Veracruz”) began to unreel in my mind. I finished lunch, walked back to my hotel, and wrote it down. There were just a few very minor changes later.
However, after all the drafts and revisions the poem may turn out to be crap, and nothing can be done because all the variations that might have saved it have already been tried and rejected.
4 – Where doe a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a “book” from the very beginning?
I used to write when traveling, mainly because I thought I had to — I expected it of myself. I wrote on planes — to objectify the flight, so I could pretend it was only happening in my mind. I wrote a lot of Vancouver: A Poem on public transit. Now I write mostly at home — afternoons.
There’s always an overarching concept of a “book,” but also I sort of take it for granted that all the poems I’ve written over a particular period belong together and on that basis I give them a title. (Or my publisher, Rolf Maurer of New Star Books, gives the book a title, e.g., At Andy’s.)
5 – Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I enjoy doing readings, especially when I have a new poem to read.
6 – Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
What qualifies as theoretical concerns? Perhaps a belief in inspiration, the Muse, or as Spicer called it, “dictation” — that the poem comes from “outside” — at least outside the person’s conscious intentions.
I don’t have any questions prior to the poem, but a question can arise in the writing, as to what the poem is “saying.” Sometimes I have to think that through — help the poem come through. Other times just leave it unclear.
I don’t attach any meaning to “the current questions.”
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
When poets refer to public issues (politics, science, etc.) they have the same responsibility to truth as other writers.
8 – Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Apart from suggestions that my publisher might make about the overall organization of a book, no one but me edits my poems.
9 – What is the best piece of advice you’ve heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“Cheat at this game.” – Joe Dunn.
10 – What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
If I’m writing, I write in the afternoon. I start a typical day by checking my e-mail, the weather and news, then I usually read till noon.
11 – When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
If it’s stalled, I put it aside, and then very likely I don’t write for while. But sometimes a poem, even if it hasn’t gotten anywhere, stays in my mind as an idea and I may take it up again even years later. I don’t look for inspiration.
12 – What fragrance reminds you of home?
Not a fragrance, but a kind of day. It’s cool, the air is slightly misty, the sky is white (it’s never as foggy in Vancouver as it is in the western districts of San Francisco where I grew up).
13 – David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
My poems are seldom influenced by other art forms, and not so much by books either. The content of my work comes from life — my own personal experience and what I observe in the world.
14 – What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I don’t want to list direct influences — there are too many; however, there are some poets I think of as my patron saints or tutelary figures: Yeats, Baudelaire, Akhmatova.
Two Canadian poets have been especially important to me: Margaret Avison, for her magnanimous vision of the city; John Newlove, for the way he thinks in the poem.
Maybe the most important book I ever read, “for my life,” was Erik Erikson’s Childhood and Society, which freed me from the idea that the Freudian stages of child development were deterministic; there was some freedom. (“Man has but a little freedom; let him use it.” – St. Augustine.)
15 – What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?
There are things I would like to have done, like fathering a child or learning to speak another language fluently (I envy my brother’s Spanish). And there are things I would like not to have done, like joining the U.S. Army (I should have just left home). But there’s nothing else non-trivial I would like to do now.
16 – If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Well, my occupation was actually that of teacher. But what I really wanted to be is a writer. (“Poets are writers who don’t write” – Jean Cocteau.)
17 – What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
In 1956, after being discharged from the U.S. Army, I went back to school (University of California, Berkeley). In the spring of 1957 I met Jack Spicer in a bar in North Beach. A week or so later I showed him one of my poems (“Pablito at the Corrida”), and he invited me to join the Magic Workshop he was conducting at the S.F. Public Library. There I met Robert Duncan, and others. I wrote several more poems for the workshop (the poems in the chapbook Flowers) and they were well received.
What had happened was that for the first time elders (not that much elder, but they spoke with authority) had recognized something I had done as being of some value.
In the summer of 1957 I moved out of my parents’ home and into a hotel room on Broadway, in North Beach. Life for me was then hanging out at the bars with Spicer and other poets.
In the fall I returned to Berkeley, signed up for a full program of courses, bought all my textbooks, and walked down to Shattuck Avenue to get the “F” train back to San Francisco. I went into a coffee shop, ordered a coffee, and thought about what I was doing.
After about a half hour I left the coffee shop, walked back to the university, returned the textbooks, and withdrew from my courses. Then I took the train back to North Beach.
That isn’t the whole story. I had sexual issues I could deal with more easily in North Beach than in Berkeley. But it is the answer to why I chose to be a poet rather than get a B.A. — at that time. (I returned to college eleven years later.)
18 – What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Disgrace, by J. M. Coetzee.
The Blue Angel.
19 – What are you currently working on?
A new book of poems, the first part of which will be “After Desire.” I hope to finish it by 2013.
12 or 20 (second series) questions: