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More Menebroker

paths tw

Paths painting by Nolan Winkler

“We have never grown up from magic—just away.” Ann Menebroker

I recently wrote a piece about my friend Ann Menebroker, the fine poet who died recently at the age of eighty. In response, I received a number of communiqués from people who wanted to read more snippets from Annie’s letters, so I present them here with one of Annie’s poems.

March 2009: I loved the artwork of your friend Marco Donner. In this one, the young Madonna is separated from her child, who is way above her. She looks enraptured and the child looks like a girl…so perhaps that’s what it is…an elevated perception of adult/child, of the specialness of birth, of new beginnings, of innocence. Of the female influence, which is supposedly less wild and warlike than the male. And I could be crazy.

July 2007: I have been writing a little and think I have amassed some eleven or so new poems. Of course they must sit around and I must go back to them after the glow of genius has faded. Ha!

July 2006: If we get to come back once we finish a round on earth, I want to come back flooded with the joy of music, voice, instruments, all of it! Soaked up like gas on a rag, blazing like a Bic lighter starting up the fire. I want to learn harmony and notes and how to put those notes and that harmony together. All of it, baby!

My only two “lovers through the mail” boyfriends are a crazy drunk writer/musician/broke/ill health guy in New Mexico, and a crazy artist/poet trying to quit smoking pot friend in Australia. Their letters, the flirting, all of it, I love! Being with them would be a disaster.

February 2004: I am very bad about rewriting. I am one of the sloppier poets, one who accepts the gift too easily, rips into it, pops out the gift, throws the tissue and ribbons aside! What I edit, I edit as I’m writing in that powerful flow of creativity. I need to work on my editing skills, not to be so easily content. I have had a poem I thought “hot stuff” get cool comments from fine critics to remind me of this!

I treat poems like lovers, caught up in the passion. I know passion cools.

June 2002: I went to Nevada City and spent the night with my daughter Sue and her husband Kevin. We went to a barbecue of a young poet up there. It turned out there were a lot of males and only 3 women, Sue, myself, and another gal well into her fifties. So we got flirted with, which was most fun! A young man kissed me with barbecue sauce on his lips, and an older man hugged and kissed me. Then I left and went safely with Sue and Kevin to their home. I felt like a kid! I’ve been telling all of my women friends about being kissed. God, I’m silly.

It seems lately that I need a little male attention, which hasn’t been the case in a lot of years. So I have to watch it and stay away from them (in any romantic sense, that is.)

No sense messing up a perfectly satisfying life!

January 2004: I’m getting another book out. But don’t worry, no need to buy it. I’ll send you a copy. You’ve seen most of the poems. Many of them are in my previous collections of poetry. They are all from The Wormwood Review. The publisher, up in Grass Valley, came upon them, some 57 or so, and asked me if he could put them in a collection. I said, hmmm, ok. He sent me the book to proof. I just got it. I hadn’t seen some of those poems in years! They are full of my life, my history. They have that “tough gal” feel to some of them. It will be titled Tiny Bites, the Wormwood Poems of Ann Menebroker.

March 2006: And here I am, loving it downtown. The other night I was awakened by all of this noise, as if the two men upstairs (landlord and his partner) were either having very violent sex or were murdering each other. It went on and I got up and looked out the windows, but saw nothing. The next morning my landlord told me that some drunk had tried to kick down the wooden gate at my end, and there was a huge disturbance, police were called, so I was way off!

Stealing Lorca

A fat-paged book in sepia cover

with a young Garcia smiling from

the flat memory of who he was, is

left on the front seat of the old Mercury

Cougar that belonged to her mother

who was more porcupine than cat.

She still pulls quills from her child’s heart plant.

Who did Lorca love? His mother sent

an omelet to the prison where his

rhetoric and fame, his love of handsome

men, brought him. Did he eat this

meal his frightened mother sent?

He smoked loaned cigarettes and cried

the cry of fear and death.

Her mother died at home in her own bed.

Lorca died near a group of olive trees

in the hot season, dramatic bullets

for his final act. Sex is forgotten.

I am really going to die.

Someone stole the book when she

went into the store for a tub of margarine.

This Is Your life. Candid Camera.

I’ve Got A Secret. Survival.

A goddamned book! It wasn’t even hers.

A man’s whole life stolen twice.

Ann Menebroker December 2002

 

More of Ann Menebroker’s poems can be found on the worldwide web.

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Ann Menebroker

flora tw

Flora painting by Nolan WInkler

“the two figures, male and female, are naked and gracefully huge. their raised right feet begin a dance that never continues.” Ann Menebroker

I moved to Sacramento in 1980. I was thirty-one and experiencing a bit of success with my writing. I bought a piano and an old house in a quiet neighborhood and thus began my fifteen-year residency in that river town. I still own the piano and play her every day.

Immediately upon settling in Sacramento, I got involved in the vibrant poetry scene, though I was not a poet, and my first new friends there were poets, one of them Ann Menebroker. Known as Annie to her many pals, I met her when she was forty-four, a beautiful charming woman, shy and brave, funny and deeply serious—a humble and brilliant maker of poems. She died a week ago at the age of eighty. I got the news from our mutual friend Martha Ann, and I have been crying off and on since.

Annie was never anointed by academia, but she published over twenty books of poetry and her poems appeared in dozens of poetry magazines all over America. She was revered by hundreds of poets and is, to my mind, one of our greatest unknowns—unknown in the sense of never being ballyhooed by the grand poohbas of the American literary scene. Her poems were consistently good and often great. She was highly self-critical, but knew she had a gift and continued writing poems until the end of her life.

Annie was poor and for many years lived in a tiny house on an alley. She cleaned houses, worked in art galleries, and for a decade or so was averse to reading in public, a phobia she eventually got over, thank goodness. We began to correspond via the post office while I still lived in Sacramento, though we lived but a few miles apart—we enjoyed keeping up with each other in that old-fashioned way.

One of my favorite memories of Annie was a poetry reading she gave at Luna’s, a Sacramento eatery. Somebody on the bill with Annie brought along an electric piano, and when it was Annie’s turn to read she asked me to accompany her. I stood behind her playing ever so sparingly to not interfere with her marvelous words, and she seemed to subtly sing her lines to the quiet music, her voice deep and warm.

When I moved from Sacramento to Berkeley in 1995, our correspondence accelerated and today I possess a big box full of letters from Annie along with many of her published works. Most amazing to me was that she had this same scale of correspondence with dozens of other people, mostly poets. She made the news of her daily life, no matter how mundane, into delightful impromptu poetry.

In 1991 Annie wrote, “I have never thought anyone would truly be interested in who I was, as I figure I’m just another female bloke who has gone through life, ass-end first, often, in my struggles to grow wiser.

“I was child-like in the 50s and 60s and 70s and 80s. I may be growing up in the 90s. I drank and partied with poets by night, and tried to maintain this image of the better parent by day. I probably mixed both worlds to my disadvantage, often. The odd thing is, Todd, as wild as I considered myself, my kids have this image of the very good, caring mother. I hope that’s true. But I was pretty weak and confused.”

In 2003 she typed, “I do not like writing longhand. I used the typewriter as a teenager to write letters, and that—my dear—was so many years ago!

“My thoughts somehow run, where my body sits and lies! I feel I am someone else when I am working on a keyboard. That I exist in a more favorable disguise as a person of knowledge and wit and strength.

“Take away my keys and you take away my engine of existence! I am nothing!”

In 2004 she wrote, “A man on the street moved me, and also nearly intimidated me. I gave him $5. I had $11 in my wallet. I’d come to the grocery store and paid for my groceries with a check. He had spoken to me on my way in, and I liked something in his being, his voice. He practically demanded me to give him $5, but not in an intruding way. So I did. And he got all strange. He wanted to talk and talk and talk to this older woman who was suddenly talking to him and giving him $5. He wanted to write something to me, but couldn’t find any paper. He wanted to hug me and/or kiss me. I kept smiling and saying No, no, it’s fine. Please, may your day go well. We talked in the spirit of the street and he insisted on grabbing my cart and walking with me to my car to put my groceries in the trunk. I thought he would never leave and I wasn’t afraid, but people were staring at us and I was afraid they would insult him by asking me if I was being ‘bothered.’

“He said a few times, ‘Who are you?’ He said something else and told me never to forget, and I came home and was writing a letter to a woman poet down south, and told her [the thing I was never to forget] and she said, Annie, that’s a small poem. So I put it on top of a poem about winter I was working on but I’m not sure if the longer poem is any good, or that what I put on it makes sense. It was something silly, about the survival of a goose, what he said. I got it all mixed up. Does it matter? No.”

Several of Annie’s fine and inimitable poems can be found on the worldwide web.

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Poets and Artists

(This article appeared originally in the Anderson Valley Advertiser, March 2011)

“The poet’s only responsibility is to write fresh lines.” Charles Olson

With all due respect to the organization known as Poets & Writers, I have always felt that if there’s no poetry in the writing, who needs it? Oh, I suppose a Chemistry textbook needn’t be rife with lovely language, but in the best of worlds all writing would be touched by the writer’s experience of having read and appreciated great poetry and beautifully crafted prose.

I sold my first short story for actual dollars when I was twenty-five. The year was 1974 and the buyer was Cosmopolitan magazine. This was at the very end of the era when that historic magazine along with a few dozen other large-circulation magazines in America still published fiction. Eventually I would sell stories to teen magazines and men’s magazines, along with several more to Cosmo, as my agent called that trashy mag, but I assure you I wrote all my stories with The New Yorker and Esquire in mind. Alas, those lofty literary realms were off limits to the unwashed likes of me. But I’m getting ahead of myself, as I am wont to do.

That first story I sold was about a black female prizefighter who, through a series of bizarre events, gets a shot at fighting a top-ranked male welterweight boxer. Entitled Willow, the sale of this highly improbable tale allowed me to live for more than a year without having to resort to other means of employment. (They paid me a thousand dollars and my monthly nut for food and shelter was sixty bucks.) Freed from physical labor, I managed to complete two novels, a play, and a dozen short stories before my money ran out.

The rough pattern of my life since dropping out of college in 1969 had been to work for a time, save a few hundred dollars, take a few months off to write, go back to work, take a few months off to write, and so forth. I rented rooms in houses inhabited by several other people, or I would rent cheap garrets, and I ate hippie gruel and never dined out, so my overhead was extremely low. I did make my living as a gigging guitarist singer for a couple years, but that lifestyle left me with little energy or inspiration to write, so I went back to digging ditches. I persevered in this way until I was twenty-seven and came to a defining junction in my life: I decided to stop writing.

Why? My sale of a story to Cosmopolitan had failed to spawn further sales, and I knew if I worked full-time as a landscaper for a year I could make a down payment on a little house in Medford, Oregon, learn to operate a backhoe, get hitched, go fishing, and liberate my marvelous literary agent—the likes of whom will never be seen again on this planet—from trying to sell my unsaleable stuff. I had been writing my heart out since I was a young teen, and that writer’s heart was by then so badly bruised by continuous rejection that I simply couldn’t take it anymore.

For those first few weeks of not writing, I felt so deeply relieved I mistook my relief for happiness. When I came home from a hard day of planting trees and digging ditches, I would luxuriate in a hot bath and sigh with what I imagined was contentment that I was finally over my obsession. Why had I been so driven to share my stories with the world? What difference did it make? The world was full of books and stories. I didn’t need to add to the pile. The money was piling up in my savings account, I had time to socialize, date, goof around, live!

Then my boss got a state contract to landscape a freeway overpass, which meant my wage for the next two months would leap from five to ten dollars an hour! I would make what amounted to, in my world, a fortune! I contacted a realtor. Houses in Medford were dirt cheap in those days. Honey! Life was opening up. I was playing music again. I’d get a house, start a band, have fun on weekends, and keep making those steady dollars.

Then one Saturday morning, a few months after I’d hung up my writing spurs, I woke to a story telling just enough of itself to entice me to start writing the story down and… “No way,” I said to the unseen muse. “I’m over you, babe. I’m going fishing with Fred and then I’m going dancing with Lola and if I know Lola, and I do, then…”

But the story wouldn’t leave me alone. The fish weren’t biting, so I came home, got out paper and pen and…the phone rang.

“Where are you, boyfriend?”

“Lola?”

“You did say dinner and dancing, didn’t you? Well, Lola’s stomach is growling, and Lola’s clock says seven-fifteen.”

I’d been writing for seven hours without having the slightest sense of time passing. The table was piled with pages covered with writing. My writing.

I showered and shaved and spent some sort of an evening with Lola, but the sad truth was that all I could think about was that story. For though I only had a vague idea of what I’d written down, I knew it was, if you will forgive the cliché, why I was alive.

I came home the next morning (thank you, Lola, wherever you are), gathered up the pages and settled down to read them. And as I read, I realized that I couldn’t give up writing, and that I wasn’t going to buy a house and learn to operate a backhoe. No. I was going to take my fortune and go to New York and finally meet my literary agent who had worked her butt off for me for six years with only one story sold to show for her Herculean effort; and I would meet writers and artists and editors and directors and…see what I could see.

“A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.” Jean de La Fontaine

I subscribe to Buckminster Fuller’s belief that the universe is a mind-bogglingly intelligent and comprehensively and instantaneously reactive entity, and that she constantly and exquisitely responds with some sort of action to any and every action we take or don’t take.

So…on the Monday following my decision not to give up writing, my agent calls for the first time in six months to say she’s sold another of my stories, this one to Seventeen magazine (a whimsical tale entitled The Swami and the Surfer) and that the purchasing editor also wanted to commission me to write a Christmas story for them. I then described to my agent the story that had come to me on Saturday and she said with her delectable Georgia accent, “Dahlin’, I think Cosmo will snap that one right up.” And they did.

So I finished my two months of high-paying freeway landscaping and went off to the Big Apple to schmooze with my agent and, most importantly, to meet other writers as gone to their art as I. An old friend who was working as a Broadway rehearsal pianist put me up in his tiny apartment in an iffy part of Manhattan, and I spent a month there questing for others of my kind. And though I managed to meet dozens of writers, I didn’t meet a single one who was much interested in writing. They were all totally obsessed with money and trying to connect with people in power; everything else was irrelevant to them.

My friend the rehearsal pianist was also vocal coach to several working actors and so could get us into any play on or off Broadway absolutely free. Thus the main upshot of my stay in Manhattan was that I was badly bitten by the theater bug. Upon my return to Oregon, I felt I had to live in a city brimming with theater companies, so I moved to Seattle and spent the last of my fortune (eleven months) writing plays and trying to get someone, anyone, interested in them. Failing there, and down to my last few dollars, I contacted my former employer in Oregon and asked if he would take me back on his landscaping crew. He said he would be glad to.

And the very next day my agent called to say she had sold my first novel, Inside Moves, to Doubleday, for an advance of…drum roll, please…1500 dollars, minus her 10% commission. To make a very long story short, that novel eventually brought me a good deal of money from a big paperback sale and a movie sale that opened up a bloody Hollywood chapter of my life. But I digress.

So…in 1980 I moved to Sacramento and bought the only house I’ve ever owned and plowed through the Inside Moves money in a few short years of profligate waste and bad judgment. But here’s where I’m going with this. In Sacramento, I met the late great poet Quinton Duval, and through Q I met the visionary poet D.R.Wagner, and through D.R. I met the quietly awesome poet Ann Menebroker. Now aside from being unique and wonderfully eccentric artists, these three are what Kerouac called totally gone cats—gone to their poetry in the same way I get gone to my stories and plays—not for money, because there is no money in poetry, but because their poems come to them and won’t leave them alone until they write those poems down. Why do the poems come to them? Because the poems know that these people have surrendered entirely to why they were born.

A note to those who stuck up your noses and sniffed at my mention of Cosmopolitan magazine: Thirty years ago, at the height of the hullabaloo about my novel being made into a movie, I’m being interviewed on the radio and I mention I sold my first story to Cosmopolitan. The host snickers and says something like, “More and more cleavage every week. Yuck yuck.” Then he takes calls from listeners, and this gal with a fabulous Boston accent calls in and says, “I noted your contempt for Cosmopolitan, but let us never forget that Ernest Hemmingway published his first story therein as well.”

I’m guessing she was a poet.