Partners in Truth and Beauty: Charles Potts
interviewed by Christopher Luna
Being from the East Coast, I was initially unaware that Charles Potts was a key figure in Berkeley, CA during the tumultuous 1960s and contributed greatly to West Coast literature through various publications such as Litmus and the Temple Bookstore. He has published many of the best writers in the region, and his two-part memoir Valga Krusa is a heroic recollection of his experiences in California during an especially fertile era in poetic history.
I first encountered Charles at the Burning Word poetry festival on Whidbey Island. I didn’t know what to make of him at first. He dressed like a businessman, and wore a sly smile. But he was very easy to talk to, and straightforward, a quality that not many Northwest denizens share. Over time Charles came to be a trusted friend and mentor.
What I admire about Charles’s poetry is its ability to be profound and erudite while also populist. His poetry is both accessible as well as challenging. You may need to do some additional studying to fully appreciate some of the content in his work, but you will never feel as if you are being talked down to. I can think of no other writer who blends the intellectual and the street so seamlessly.
I invited Charles to be a featured reader at the Ghost Town Poetry Open Mic, and he immediately charmed the Vancouver poetry community with his dry wit and spot-on Bukowski impression. My reading series is “all ages and uncensored,” and I noticed that the twenty-something poets who brought great energy to the open mic gravitated toward Charles.
Because he had traveled from Walla Walla, Charles stayed at my apartment, and I enjoyed our conversations about poetry and the particular challenges of being an emcee. There was so much to talk about, and we did. I learned a lot from Charles in that short visit, and felt like the proverbial torch had been passed from one emcee to another. As interest in the Ghost Town Poetry open mic continued to grow, I attempted to step up my game, finding ways to make it an even better experience for the new and emerging writers I served.
Not long after his visit, Charles sent us a box filled with copies of his book Kiot, which is a selection of his early poems. I was moved by his generosity. Local poet and artist Alex Birkett later tossed copies of the book to people from the rooftop of a house during a party. This is how the love of poetry is kept alive.
Charles Potts and Christopher Luna
perform together at Bill Shively's place in Newberg, Oregon
August 5, 2011
Photo by Toni Partington
Although he continues to write and publish, Potts considers himself to be semi-retired from poetry. He recently published Edward Smith’s Truth Has Fallen in the Street, Dan Raphael’s Impulse & Warp: The Selected 20th Century Poems, and an excellent little book by Jeremy Gaulke entitled what the master does not speak of, which also features Gaulke’s haunting illustrations.
According to Dan Raphael, “Charles is an amazing poet/writer (read Kiot and Valga Krusa) and human being. A gun-toting, yoga-posing, formerly crazy, landlord & bibliophile; a man of strong convictions and a wide open, generous heart. I often have doubts about the value of my work, but knowing that Charles likes it, means it must be worthy.”
Jeremy Gaulke told me that working with Charles was a great experience: “Charles Potts has been my friend, publisher, and mentor for almost ten years. His artistic nurturing and generosity provided me with me the resources and environment to learn and grow as a poet and artist in ways I don't think very many young writers get a chance to [enjoy]. Charles gave what I was doing when I was young a sense of purpose and urgency that no one had before. As a poet his intensity and depth is right up my alley.
“We bonded initially over Charles Olson. Some of his work has been compared to Olson, and I don't disagree, but the work that is most compelling to me are his love poems. Not romantic love poems but poems driven by and written on human love. Poems like ‘A Rite to the Body,’ ‘Searching for Mitsuhiro,’ ‘The Hearth’ get at these rudimentary and wonderful human truths, seemingly effortlessly, without perfume or pretension, just love.
“The first time I met him he walked me around his bookstore summoning poems relating to the conversation from the books scattered around us. I found this was just the way he talks. If there is poetry at hand it always finds its way into the conversation.
“Charles is important. This country is hard on poets. He is one of the many great writers of the 20/21st centuries whose work and efforts as a publisher have gone under-appreciated. My hope is that more people get access to him. That his passion for and faith in language will rub off on them.”
Charles Potts reads from his work
at Bill Shively's place in Newberg, Oregon
Photograph by Mary Slocum
Here is a bio which represents a mere sampling of the work of several decades: Recent Charles Potts books include a reprint of Valga Krusa in two volumes, The Yellow Christ and Laffing Water from Green Panda Press; The Portable Potts and Inside Idaho from West End Press; Kiot: Selected Early Poems 1963-1977, Lost River Mountain, & Slash and Burn with Robert McNealy from Blue Begonia Press; a reprint of Little Lord Shiva: The Berkeley Poems, 1968, from Glass Eye Books; Nature Lovers from Pleasure Boat Studio; and Across the North Pacific from Slough Press in College Station, Texas.
In addition to Potts’s work as a poet, he is a publisher of books by thirty other poets through Tsunami Inc. and Litmus Inc., the editor/publisher of Litmus and The Temple magazines. He recently donated his literary archive to the Merrill-Cazier Library at Utah State University in Logan, Utah, where he frequently goes to teach and read. Potts has been publishing since 1963.
One cannot order Charles’s books, but he invites those interested to contact him at PO Box 100 Walla Walla, WA 99362-0204. According to Charles, “I'm not being snobbish [about my books], they are in cartons in storage. If anybody wants a bunch all they have to do is send me an address and some postage money. This is beyond commerce. I am doing some guerilla marketing of Valga Krusa this spring. A couple dozen young writers in Logan, Utah are reading it for their summer project, and then I will read there in September. The same goes for the books I have published. I still have copies of Klipschutz, Stephen Thomas, the anthology, etc.”
Recently, Charles Potts has turned his attention to raising appaloosas.
Christopher Luna: When and why did you begin raising appaloosas?
Charles Potts: I grew up with appaloosa horses on a ranch in Idaho and sold the ones that belonged to me in 1960 and used the money to pay college expenses. I didn’t own another appaloosa until 2008, forty-eight years later. Appaloosas have wonderful dispositions, are easily trainable, average saddle horses in size, and I am fascinated by their genetics.
The LP mutation which gives them their spots was a one-time event, tens of thousands of years ago. I have a spotted mare who might have been the model for some of the cave paintings in France. How these genes for spots are transferred from one generation to the next is a subject for full length books. I try to cross unrelated lines of foundation appaloosas to deepen and expand the gene pool.
When did you begin writing?
I began writing in 1962, short stories, and published my first poem in 1963, age 19.
Who were your earliest influences?
Dostoyevsky. I was a student of and was mentored by Edward Dorn starting in 1963.
Can you characterize the differences in the poetry that was being written in the Sixties and the poetry that is being written today? How is the scene different?
The Sixties was a dynamic period for poetry. There were a lot of instructive squabbles going on in poetry, instructive for young poets such as myself. For example, the contentiousness between Philip Whalen and Charles Olson. The dynamic relationship between Edward Dorn and LeRoi Jones. The larger quarrel of the new poetry with the academics, who though dead never seem to quite go away. And the enormous block of original efforts captured in some way by Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry: 1945-1960. This wedge protects to some degree those of us who’ve come after from the ravages of the truly irrelevant “poetry” baled and shipped in America.
If there is a dynamic difference of opinion about poetry in the present time, I don’t know of it. Yes, there is the wasted breath of the new formalists, the continuing timidity of the academic community, [and] the proliferation of electronically transmitted poetry, but it doesn’t seem to add up to much to me.
Charles Potts in Berkeley, CA 1968
It is possible that the Sixties only seemed dynamic to me because I was immersed in poetry most of the time. When I got married and my immersion was less, the dynamism disappeared. For example, if you get more than twenty feet off a campus, you would be hard pressed to find anybody who has read even one poem by Ezra Pound or Whitman. This culture exists essentially without poetry. Poets actually operate in some small fraction one tenth of one tenth of one percent of this culture. Two orders of magnitude away from actually mattering. How do I know this? I have spent the last thirty years in the business community, the political community, upon which poetry has zero effect and might as well be non-existent.
How did Charles Olson’s call to base the line on the breath rather than syllables in his essay “Projective Verse” change the way you approached writing poetry? How else did his work and ideas impact you?
It would be an extensive challenge to tease out all the pertinent differences between the way I use to feel and respond to Charles Olson and the way those feelings have morphed over the years. I have written about a 16,000 word monograph in six or seven brief essays on Charles Olson, the only poet I will ever write so much about. That may be a clue as to how important he is. (Only one section of my monograph on Olson has been published, in Square One, edited by Jennifer Dorn at the University of Colorado, so if intrepid young publishers feel like pissing a lot of people off, get in touch.)
Olson’s mistakes are more interesting than the successes of all but a half dozen other poets of the 20th century. The thing I remember most vividly of “Projective Verse” was the Instanter idea that poetry has to move rapidly from one thing to another, if not in a straight line, then at least it can’t just sit tight and rest on its laurels.
I have come to believe that the breath and the line connection is so much Irish blather. I think that line length is just as apt to be determined by the width of the paper on which you are writing. And further, the notion that “composition by field” refers only to an 8.5 by 11 sheet of paper is laughably restrictive. I’d rather think of field, as in the field of geography, or the field of alfalfa.
How did you meet Charles Bukowski?
I stopped to visit him after several exchanges of letters in 1967 on my way to Mexico. The subject matter of the meeting was to firm up plans I had to publish his book, Poems Written Before Jumping Out of an 8 Story Window. Litmus published that in 1968, the same year he started publishing with Black Sparrow.
What is the greatest misconception about his writing?
I'm temped to say that it is any good. I think Bukowski is a very great poet with a very narrow range. Since I like big wide ranges, only his great poems appeal to me. The rest of it is just typing.
One of your fellow writers from the Berkeley days who does not receive as much attention today as some writers of your generation is Richard Krech. How did you and Richard become friends? Could you tell us why you regard him as an important writer?
Richard and I became friends through our magazines The Avalanche and Litmus. He visited Seattle and we read together at The Last Exit on Brooklyn. He invited me to Berkeley, where he operated a dynamic reading series at the aptly named Shakespeare and Company Bookstore. Much of Richard Krech’s early career is recited in the Berkeley memoir, Valga Krusa.
As he puts it, after a 25.5 year line break he came back to poetry a few years ago. He is a criminal defense attorney with a Syrinx, a badly damaged back. In his younger days he traveled widely—Africa and Asia. He has a keen sense of the ironic, in such a new poem as “Rumors of Electricity,” which ends with a line like, “in some places, electricity isn’t even a rumor.” His knowing these things about the “3rd” world, where 25% of the entire world’s population lives without electricity, is sobering. How would the electronic puppets of the United States get by without electricity even for half a day, just for starters.
I published a selection of his poetry in the Seventies with Litmus Inc, The Incompleat Works of Richard Krech. There is no padding in his poetry. He has a truly original perspective. His poetry is often terse and very useful, as [is] his work on the Curtilage.
The following is an encomium that Charles Potts wrote for Richard Krech:
Reading Richard Krech’s At the End of Time is a trip through the ends of the earth, Timbuktu, Kandahar, to the center, The Curtilage, where he has found grace. His calm, rational insistence, “bound by the facts/like a poem is bound/by the physical world” takes us with him, a chest pocket view of the world he records and ennobles in the process. It is great to have Richard Krech back at the center of poetry, after a 25 year line break as a criminal defense attorney. His observations are as pertinent as ever. It took, among other things, Mullah Omar’s blowing up of the Buddha in Afghanistan, “The nihilist mutant theology of Omar…” to nudge his art back to life. From the 13 year old climbing a drain pipe, to the Syrinx afflicted man using his father’s cane, Richard Krech does some heavy lifting of the world up to where we can see it with our own eyes.
When did you first begin publishing other people’s work?
In 1966 Robert Serpa and I published an anthology of four poets, Do You Want to Be in Our Zoo Too? in Pocatello, Idaho. In 1967 I published the first seven issues of Litmus in Seattle. For the record we published a lot of female poets in those days: Zig Knoll, Dawn Statham, Jo Merrill, Karen Waring (Sykes).
How do you decide who to publish?
Well, you publish the best poetry you can get that nobody else is publishing. It helps to read something over a few times. On the other hand, instinct plays a role, too. Usually, if I don’t want to publish something the moment I first read or hear it, it is usually a mistake to talk yourself into it or let someone else talk you into it. Since there is so much writing available already, a poem has to have such confidence in itself that it is knocking on literature’s door; i.e. it will be so well- written and pertinent in its artistic and emotional particulars that it cries out to be re-read, over and over. That is literature.
Truth Has Fallen in the Street is remarkable. Please tell me more about your relationship with Edward Smith. How did you meet?
I am delighted that you can relate to Edward Smith. He enrolled in a class I was teaching at the Free University of Seattle in 1966, and by the third session was presenting not merely publishable work but great poetry. We had a profound friendship. He was born in China and was studying Chinese at [the University of Washington] when we met. His first published work appeared in Litmus in 1967. His loss to the world from bacterial infections related to a bout of the flu when he was only sixty-two years old in 2003 was a severe blow to me, as we had just gotten reacquainted in 2001 after a twenty-five year hiatus. I’m certain he would have written more great poetry, and there is at least one great poem lost to all of us that I heard him read one day in my Belltown apartment: “Cycle for at Least Three: On First Reading Charles Olson’s ‘Maximus at Dogtown.’”
What do you think makes Edward Smith’s work relevant today?
I expect Edward Smith’s work to remain relevant indefinitely. As I say in the introduction to his book, when a poet eschews forms, he or she has to stick to the subject. Smith had a classical education, Harvard, the Army, San Diego High, languages, and music. The artistic and emotional edge are there for use.
Smith’s “Transparent Always” is heartbreaking, critical of capitalism, bureaucracy, and the academy. It seems to ask what remains of us after we are gone. In “Life Ahead,” Smith suggests that love lives on in our poems. Do you think that poets seek immortality through their work, to leave a mark?
Edward was seeking to make a mark on the people most immediately around him. So much of his poetry involves the people in his life. It is not about abstractions, but how people come to grips with the demands made of them. Whether it gets to be immortal or not is up to how many other people can relate to it. The young poet Adam Perry, a fine writer, asked me in an agitated manner how he might become immortal in the literary sense. My reply was that it is simple: You have to write so well that the people can’t forget.
Tell me about your decision to publish Dan Raphael. How long have you known him? How would you assess his contribution to the craft?
I’d felt for a long time that the community needed a selection of Raphael’s work. I think he focuses so strongly on his subjects that they dissolve for him and he re-combines them in ways that are entirely original as far as my reading goes. The title of one of his books is instructive in that regard: Molecular Jam. I think once people unfamiliar with his style and results get familiar with it, his reputation will grow and last for a long time.
Another of your books that really impressed me was Jeremy Gaulke’s what the master does not speak of, a very dark look at our current condition that includes drawings by Gaulke. How did you meet Jeremy and what made you decide to publish him?
Gaulke is from Yakima and he was a student at the Temple School of Poetry in Walla Walla for a couple of years, used to manage the bookstore, and studied with me and Denis Mair. He, of coruse, had some beginnings before that with Dan Peters and Jim Bodeen in Yakima. He came to visit Walla Walla and liked the way it was put together, I guess. He too is original, and reasonably difficult in his later work, difficult that is for people who are used to the “Mr. Rogers School of Poetry” to appreciate.
Please tell me more about The Temple.
If by The Temple, you mean the magazine, it is in cold storage, last issue published in 2002, i.e. ten years ago. If by Temple you mean the building, it is now host to a dessert factory called The Colville Street Patisserie, and a vegan cafe called The Garden, and several other businesses.
How long did the Temple Bookstore operate?
The Temple bookstore was opened with a flourish with a reading by Klipschutz in 2002, and was open until 2005.
Charles Potts reads from his work
at Bill Shively's place in Newberg, Oregon
Photograph by Mary Slocum
What’s next for you? Have you been writing? Reading? Teaching?
I write all the time in a desultory fashion, rarely finish anything and am usually dissatisfied with it even if I do. I would like to think that if something I write isn’t at least as good as some of the best of the earlier work, then why bother publishing it. I have aspirations for a loosely organized group of poems with the subject matter of my horses, tentatively called The Stable Boy at Blue Creek. I’d guess there’s about an even chance I will never finish it.
I am not a fan of the crisis poetry is in, and has been for several hundred years, apparently. I don’t read much—magazines, some poetry.
I donated my literary archive to Utah State University in Logan, Utah, to the Merrill-Cazier Library there. The library bought my personal papers. For reasons I cannot explain, this library wound up with the materials from a boatload of materials that had been on display in New York. The theme of that display was "A Secret Location on the Lower East Side." I have not examined this collection but apparently it was large, and attempted to gather all the mimeo and other stuff from the 50s 60s 70s, etc: the American Advance guard in literature. So they have a good selection of contemporary materials, and it promises to grow.
I occasionally go there to read poems or talk about the archive (approximately 140 cartons of books, magazines, correspondence, videos, etc.) and consult with faculty and students. I taught a master class there in September 2011, for instance. It’s entirely possible that a reasonably large group of great poets may converge on USU at some point in the future, if financing can be reckoned with.
What is the single most important piece of advice that you could give someone who is just beginning to write poetry?
Don’t do it unless you absolutely have to. Poetry is a lousy career move. You have to be inspired, dedicated, and totally committed.
Please take a look at the previous interviews in Christopher Luna’s ongoing series, Partners In Truth and Beauty:
Derek Fenner, writer, artist and co-founder of Bootstrap Productions:
Ryan Gallagher, Bootstrap co-founder and Catullus translator:
Sage Cohen, author of Writing the Life Poetic and The Productive Writer:
Sean Patrick Hill, poet and author of The Imagined Field and Interstitial: http://christopherluna-poetry.blogspot.com/2011/09/partners-in-truth-and-beauty-september.html