In Conversation with Maureen Owen
American poet, editor, and publisher Maureen Owen was born in Minnesota in 1943 and grew up on the racetrack circuit in California where her parents were horse trainers. She was an early participant in St. Mark’s Poetry Project in New York City, and Co-Director and Program Coordinator (1976–1980) serving on the Board of the Poetry Project and the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines as well—both as a member and as vice-chairperson. She was also the editor and publisher of Telephone Books and Telephone magazine which she began publishing and editing in the late sixties, and includes thirty individual poetry titles and nineteen issues of the magazine.
Maureen has taught courses in creative writing and research at the Edinboro University of Pennsylvania in 1999, as well as mentoring workshops at Swarthmore College and St. Joseph’s College in Connecticut. She also taught in the low-residency MFA Creative Writing Program at Naropa University in Colorado, and was editor-in-chief of Naropa’s on-line zine not enough night.
The author of almost a dozen poetry selections, including Zombie Notes (1985), Imaginary Income (1992), American Rush: Selected Poems (1998), Erosion’s Pull (2006), and the most recent Edges of Water (2013) from Chax Press, Maureen Owen was the recipient of the Before Columbus American Book Award (1985) and the 2011 Fund For Poetry Award among a handful of other honors and recognitions for her poetry. Maureen was also part of a collaborative group of poets, including Keith Kumasen Abbott, Michael Sowl, and Pat Nolan, writing hakai no renga (linked poetry) over a period of thirty years and known as the Miner School of Haikai Poets, examples of which were published in 2015 under the Nualláin House, Publishers imprint as Poetry For Sale.
Maureen Owen’s work has always been unique, and unusual in its look; the poem moves across the page mimicking a player piano roll in the way it triggers the synapses. To read her poems is to play her melody. She can be compared to Bonnie Raitt in that she has a strong confident voice with earthy overtones. In some poems she echoes that pervasive American folk style, the blues, and blends it with classical lament. Paul Hoover has said of her work, “Astonishing things quietly occur” while Andrei Codrescu notes “Her exuberant style and tremendous energy shine in her strongly feminist works.”
Maureen Owen currently makes her home in Denver, Colorado. This interview was leisurely conducted and composed over a period of 6 months via emailed exchanges with Pat Nolan.
Do you remember your first book of poems?
Of course! Adventures in Poetry, Larry Fagin’s press, brought out the first book of my work, Country Rush in 1973. It was mimeo with a stunning cover and original drawings by Yvonne Jacquette. When I first saw Yvonne’s drawings for the book I felt as though she had magically pulled the images straight out of my head. She had captured images that resonated to an unbelievable degree with the poems. Her drawings were the very objects that I had been looking at that summer in Minnesota on my uncle’s farm. Starkly focusing on one telephone pole against an infinite sky or one corner of a barn roof pushing into infinite space, it was cosmic!
I remember the poetry magazine, Big Deal 5, was a special issue of your work. I might have even owned a copy or someone I knew had a copy. One section was titled the No Travel Journals. It was a nice presentation with a big picture of you on the cover. Offset, right? Not mimeographed. Were most of those poems written during your time in New York City or were some from your experiences on the West Coast and in Japan?
Big deal 5: The Poetry of Maureen Owen presents two “books.” The first is titled: a brass choir approaches the burial ground or “From the arms of one man into the arms of another.” Published in 1977, that says it exactly. The second half was a reprint of the No Travels Journal. The marvelous Charlie Plymell had published the No Travels Journal at Cherry Valley Editions. His was a gorgeous production. Hugh Kepets created the wrap around cover and inside drawings, architectural and stunning! The 500 copies were gone fairly fast. Barbara Barracks at Big Deal offered to give it more exposure by reprinting the text in Big Deal #5. She didn’t have the funds to include Hugh’s drawings so we added photos of me as a kid on the farm to both “books.”
The edition was produced offset and with a cover photo by Josely Carvalho, an amazing photographer and silk screen artist who had a little studio at St Marks Church below the rectory.
A world of fabulous creative people!
The No Travels Journal was written in New York City and during a summer visiting my Uncle Bud in Minnesota on the farm. All my New York City pals had been and were traveling to exotic geographies and feeling left stateside, I decided to write a No Travels Journal.
Both No Travels and A brass choir orbited around breaking up with one love and finding another.
How and when did you conceive of yourself as a writer, a poet?
I was reading an interview with Merce Cunningham where he says it’s difficult for him to talk about dance. Difficult because of its evanescence. He compares ideas on dance, and dance itself, to water. And how that very fluidity makes dance intangible. He’s not talking about the quality of dance, but about its nature.
I feel the same way about poetry. Poetry saved my life. And so it came to me out of nature. The grain fields of wheat, flax, soybeans, corn, the groves, the animals wild and tame, pigs and chickens, cows, the horses, farm dogs and cats. The smell of granary bins full of just harvested grain, the yellow dried straw of the stubble fields, sweet timothy and alfalfa hay, acres of blue-eyed flax. Running behind my uncle’s plow, my bare feet in the cool just turned damp rich black earth. The prairie gulls swarming around and over us, landing on the tractor and my uncle’s shoulders. I was awash in all of it and the Irish and the hilarious stories the farmers told as they drank coffee in each other’s kitchens.
Where is this idyllic childhood landscape that you remember so passionately and with such detail?
I didn’t know “poetry” then, I only knew myself in the world, a Minnesota earth of great flat prairie and farmland. One afternoon, I was nine or ten, pulling things from the precarious attic where if you stepped off a beam you would crash through the ceiling of the kitchen and land on the linoleum or the chipped enamel kitchen table or worse the burning stovetop. And where I was told never to enter for that reason. When I found a pamphlet of four pages with an Irish song printed in it. It rhymed, the notes gave it rhythm, the words jigged up from the page, and I knew instantly I’d found it. I didn’t know what it was called yet, or how much of it there was, but I knew this was my wormhole, this was me, this was how I could make sense, be in the world.
I found my intrinsic self that afternoon or it found me. Or we were both drawn together like two separate halves of one whole. One minute I was foraging aimlessly and the next I had a path and a mission. So I melded with the nature of poetry, without really knowing what it was. I melded with the intangible, the truly indefinable, the fleeting train whistle in the dusk. And that was how I came to poetry. Not through lessons, or lectures, or teachers, or children’s books. Not through theory, or form, or organized direction, or academia. Poetry’s very nature took me in.
Not to be too romantic about it, but there is a sound, a song that rises out of the rich black soil there. It’s in the tall oats swishing in the wind. It’s in the flax blossoms blue-eyed as the sky. It’s in the wild ditch grass swaying. And it’s in the joking and stories the farm neighbors share. In my work stories or abstractions of narratives intersect and meander through a similar remote landscape, negotiating a right to be there.
I see a relationship between your childhood pleasures in hearing old tales well told with the actualization of this kind of oral word play as the text to a song. You must have tried to recapture or renew that experience. How did you go about doing that?
Definitely the connection between the evolving versions in Irish storytelling and the often sung, oral origins of poetry, has given me the meter of my lyric. My use of spacing phrases, words, bits or snippets, or hanging a single word after a long space as though a lone granary or grove of trees suddenly appearing, isolated and interesting, in a vast endless expanse of flax and corn fields, springing out of that great flat prairie, is in the Minnesota geography of my blood. To me the page is a landscape, my lines are gravel roads or open pasture, and the words pop like silos into that space. In my work I use that space to slow time and focus on the single word as object. Language as head-on as singular objects in a landscape.
As a sophisticated adult you must have crossed many esthetic and formal bridges to end up where you did as a thoroughly modern poet. How does one go from “little house on the prairie” to “little apartment in Manhattan”?
Though I returned to the farm for a number of summers, my mother had remarried taking my brother and I to California. My grandfather had raised the big, powerful draft horses until the tractor came in and that with the depression and drought caused him and my grandmother to lose their original farm with its beautiful house and barns. My great aunt Annie, his sister, owned a rundown, shabby farmstead which she gave to my mother’s family and that was where my mother and her siblings grew up and where I entered the picture. My grandfather still continued to raise some horses and my mother and her brother Pat grew into amazing horseback riders. My uncle Pat was 14 years old during the depression when he hopped a train to California and its racetracks and with his young boy size became a jockey.
By the time I came along my grandfather had passed away and my grandmother, my mother, her brother, my uncle Bud, and my aunt Monica had turned the place into a very functional small farm. In those days our place was too far from a town to have electricity, phone service, or running water. We had a well and hauled water and our evening lights were oil lamps.
Years later through her brother Pat, my mother met my stepfather who belonged to a racetrack family from South Dakota who also had gone to California. So we left the farm in Minnesota for the west coast. We moved often, following the racetrack fair circuit in the late spring and summers, and usually wintering near Santa Anita Race Track in Southern California. I always read voraciously, painted, and scribbled my poems. Besides poetry I believe I read every book about horses and dogs in the Duarte Public Library.
So you’re a California transplant and you grew up as an equestrian, some might even say a “cowgirl.” Your rather nomadic existence must have required that you entertain yourself. I mean when you weren’t horseback riding.
My mother’s daughter, I loved horses and grew up with plenty of opportunity to ride with our racetrack life. During one of our many moves all my paintings got left or fell off the top of the car where my stepfather tied things. After that I gravitated more to language and writing, but I feel my poetry will always be grounded in painting. In using the page as a stretched canvas where description and placement and the word with both meaning and physical presence reign.
You appear to have avoided drinking the English Major kool-aid that so many American poets imbibe. Was it your intent to study literature at the university or were you an undeclared major? What was your formal and informal education?
A year with the Jesuits at Seattle University freed my soul. I went to Seattle University to study with the Jesuits in the hopes of resolving a religious crisis that had been consuming me for most of my teenage years. The Jesuits proved to be the most honest and forthcoming teachers and questioners dedicated to a religious practice that I had ever met. I rinsed my soul searching in their discourses, class lectures, private talks, and pragmatic examples and left the church.
Then I returned to San Francisco and enrolled in San Francisco State where I avoided writing classes and instead, wandered the city, finding City lights Bookstore and the Beat Poets. I felt strongly that I shouldn’t enter into an English major. I felt extremely protective of my writing and concerned that I protect it from academic influence. I studied languages and anthropology at San Francisco State and searched the bookstores and streets for poetry. I didn’t know anyone. Our family was in dire straits. My stepfather had literally disappeared into alcoholism. I went to school days and worked from midnight to 8 a.m. at Western Union to help support our family. The exhausting pace took its toll.
Through a high school friend, Jim Bearden, back in Monrovia, whose brother turned out to be the poet David Bearden, I discovered a host of cool poets and happening writers including, Neal Cassidy, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Charlie Plymell and Lauren Owen. I really had no idea how fortunate I was then, to be in that time and place, watching rough presentations of early Stan Brakage movies in apartment gatherings; listening to Neal run his fast talking hustler spins to con a few dollars or some grass; hanging and discoursing around that oak table, with all the apt shades drawn in secrecy, as a joint passed from writer to writer.
Your association with the Beat poets in San Francisco, in particular David Bearden and Charlie Plymell, must have made for some pretty heady times.
As I mentioned I met David Bearden through his brother, my good friend from high school, Jim Bearden. Jim was an incredible artist who could draw flawlessly. He was still living in southern California, but he made a trip to San Francisco to visit his brother and to see me. We went over to David and Judy’s and he introduced me to his brother who also wrote poetry. It was also my first introduction to a Bohemian “pad.” They were the coolest people and we got on immediately. At that point in time I didn’t know who anyone was. I was just elated to be meeting other poets and writers. On another visit Charlie Plymell dropped over to discuss his printing ventures and on another Neal Cassady came in talking non-stop hustling Charlie for some cash and or grass. Neal reminded me of all the hustlers I’d grown up with on the race track, but his rushing steady stream of words strung together out-languaged any of them. Subsequently I became acquainted with Lauren Owen, Alan Russo, Roxie Powell, Bob Branaman, Richard White. The building David and Judy lived in, which I think was on Fell St in San Francisco and near to Charley’s, was home to a bunch of these folks. Lauren lived in that same building and there was a tall guy with glasses whose apartment we all met in to smoke grass. I’m not sure, can’t recall his name. Those were paranoid days. He would pull all the shades down before we lit up. Grass was fairly sacred and not abundant. We would pass a joint around the table and maybe do a second one. The first reading I ever heard was Richard Brautigan reading in a bookstore, I think City Lights. I marched in Civil Rights demonstrations, was arrested in a car dealership sit in, spent a short night in jail and a lengthy trial. At the end of it, my interest in Zen Buddhism stirring, I sailed for Japan on the Sakura Maru with Lauren Owen, pregnant with my first child.
I personally found Japan to be totally exotic, a real culture shock. How was your introduction to Japanese culture and was it what you expected? How long did you live there?
Lauren and I arrived in Japan in the Spring of 1965. We sailed from San Francisco into the port of Yokohama. We had little funds and so traveled third class in the lower decks of the Sakura Maru. A quite wonderful turn of events, as we found all our fellow third class passengers were Japanese. We felt like we were already in Japan. At night we watched Japanese movies in Japanese. Monster movies were popular and I saw Mothra for the first time. We didn’t speak Japanese, but had our little dictionaries of most frequently used phrases and practiced and listened to all this new culture around us. I loved being on a ship out in the middle of the ocean. It was an incredible feeling of freedom, as though by having lost sight of land, the rules and laws of the land no longer applied. We did spend a couple of wild days and nights as the ship rolled and rocked in the tail of a typhoon. Impossible to sleep as one had to hold on to something to keep from hurling across the floor.
Our plan was to hitchhike across Japan on our meager funds. When we docked in Yokohoma, we pulled on our backpacks and set out. We spent the first night sleeping in a cemetery overlooking the city. The large, chunky grave structures like little houses felt cozy and protective so unlike cemeteries in America. Setting out the next morning we discovered the Japanese had no idea what hitchhiking was. They would pick us up out of curiousity occasionally, but mostly we walked or took short train rides. Japanese English teachers would invite us into their homes and to come and speak to their students, many of whom in the more remote towns had never heard an English speaker. They were wonderfully kind and excited. Our purpose was to visit various Zen temples and discuss satori with the Roshis of the temples. Laughter at our intellectual approach seemed to be the lesson they tried to pass onto us.
And so we traipsed across Japan, sleeping in bamboo forests and in lovely futons on spotless tatami when we were invited for a night. It was amazing to be in a culture where the people thought so differently than we did. Not just that they thought different thoughts, but that their whole process of thought seemed to come from a different source. The richness of tradition and fabrics and festivals, festive dinners where the diners recited haikus as they passed the sake cup, futons hanging on bamboo clothesline poles, the very air pulsed deepness and surprise. But there were parallels too. In Japan a kind of Zen of Order prevailed that was familiar to me from my days on the racetrack and it’s meticulous raked and dampened shed rows, tack rooms lush with the aroma of saddle soaped leather and from my years of Minnesota farmland its fields and crops aligned in perfect symmetry and displayed in perfect patterns of geography. In the Japanese countryside the people we met were friendly farmers full of country kindness just like those back home.
We traveled extensively and lived for a time in the port city of Tokushima and then in the small village of Ikeda, both on Shikoku, staying for two and a half years. Our two sons were born there, Ulysses in the small village of Ikeda and Patrick in Tokyo at the Railway Hospital. Giving birth to my two boys in a foreign country allowed me to take part in a more intimate side of Japan. The experience more visceral, more physical, I settled into the culture, my bare feet on the tatami, Ombu, carrying my children on my back, chewing food up for them instead of buying baby food, and experiencing a populous who truly love children. The Japanese delighted in their babies, in all children, their Zenness of letting children be children and truly not being angered at them. I didn’t realize until I returned to America how much the general mood of my own country didn’t really like children. Despite plenty of Americans being loving of kids, the larger theme, the presence that one lived in was one that instead of learning from children the great feeling that prevailed was one that found children irritating. Having gone to Japan before I had children and then having lived in a culture that revered children, I was in fact in culture shock up on returning!
In Japan I gathered. I took notes. I scribbled ideas for works. My babies kept me busy and I was immersing myself in Japan. Only fragments of poems survive in my work from this period, but a wealth of change and process flow from it into every word I write to this day.
The last six months we moved back to Tokyo to raise money to return home as we had extended our two month visas to the absolute limit of times one could. In Tokyo we taught English at a business school run by a Korean fellow. There we met ex-pats and wanderers from countries far and wide, many of whom, though they were teaching English, could hardly speak it.
My work has always been connected to nature, to the physical world around us. Country Rush, my first book, from Adventures in Poetry Press, developed during a year of living in a remote cabin in Missouri. We picked wild asparagus and dandelion greens, hauled and heated water, no plumbing, a wood burning stove, a bathtub out in the yard by the cistern—it was a year of feeling one with the earth. I think growing up on a farm imports a lifelong consciousness of the importance of our ecosystem. You see firsthand how survival depends on caring for the soil, the water, the trees, the wildlife.
When I met you in 1979 at the Poetry Project, you had been living in New York City for about ten years then and were the Program Coordinator at the Project. You were also a single mother with two children. How did you become involved with the Poetry Project, and how did you manage to keep up your level of participation at the Project and as a writer while raising your two children?
I arrived in New York the summer of 1968 and having the good fortune to be with Lauren Owen who was one of the Tulsa poets, a group that included Ron Padgett, Joe Brainard, Ted Berrigan, and Dick Gallup, and mightily involved in the art and poetry community. It was through the good fortune of being with him that I landed in the fabulous New York poetry world. I immediately met the most insanely wonderful, greatest poets and writers, who have been the most important people in my life ever since. I was at a party at Peter Schjeldahl’s when the brutal attack on the Peaceful demonstrations in Chicago came on the TV.
We lived on 13th St between avenue B and C, just a short walk from the Poetry Project. For the first time in my life I found myself in the heart of an art and poetry community. I had two little boys, but I went to readings at the Project as often as possible, buying the boys lots of comic books to keep them happy during the reading. I started helping with the set up for the readings and various. I was producing my mimeo magazine, Telephone, and mimeo Telephone Books. When offered the job as coordinator I felt like I’d come home.
The boys were in school so that gave me daytime hours and for the evening readings and workshops Lauren and friends helped take care of them. On other nights I wrote after putting the children to bed until about 2 a.m. regularly. It was during this period that I began the years where I usually got about 4 or 5 hours sleep a night.
When you met me in 1979, I had completed that dance-like movement of “from the arms of one man into the arms of another” and had moved out of the city. Now I was training in on the Metro North and had a third son, but definitely help from my partner, Ted Mankovich, and local childcare. I’m sure I was sleep deprived in those years, but the zines and books and the Project overflowed with the most exciting poetry and swept me along.
In the late 60’s early 70’s the dearth of publishing opportunities for women poets unaffiliated with academic institutions motivated you to start your own publishing concern, Telephone Magazine and Telephone Books. Was there any single incident or moment that acted as a catalyst to start you on this enterprise?
Not so much a single catalyst as a sudden realization.
Anne [Waldman] was publishing the Project’s mimeo magazine, The World. I was meeting some terrific unpublished poets, so many of them women, and through The World was publishing great works, there were those not finding a way in. I wanted to give the women writers I was finding and that outlier community a voice. At readings I would be knocked off my chair by their stunning poems that were nowhere in print. It’s so incredible to discover poems that take your breath away. I’ve always craved making things, hands on, making collages and such. So naturally I thought I could create a magazine. I wanted it to be eclectic and open to all like the telephone book. So I christened it Telephone. Almost immediately I realized I would do books too. I would call the press Telephone Books! Once I put my idea out to myself, it felt the most natural thing of all.
So I asked Anne if I could use the Gestetner mimeo machine at the Project to do a magazine. In her typical utter generosity, she said “sure!” Of course I had no idea as to the process. Larry Fagin kindly gave me instruction on how to type a stencil: How to Type A Stencil 101. And Tom Veitch offered to teach me how to run the massive Gestetner, add ink, load the stencils, etc. Often, after I put the boys to bed with Lauren or a neighbor watching over them, I could be found working alone upstairs in the big, dark, spooky and haunted church, the loud clunking of the Gestetner echoing as I rolled out the copies. St Marks is notorious for being haunted by Peter Stuyvesant. It’s said you can hear his wooden leg smacking the floorboards after midnight. There alone, I heard his walking many a night as I cranked the big wheel on the mimeograph machine and turned out page after stunning page of glistening wet black letters that floated on the white paper.
Tom ran off the initial issue of Telephone magazine for me. It was a magic moment when the first pages rolled off the drum. It seemed both a miracle and a magic trick that all those typed stencils were working. I had done illustrations with a stylus, holding the stencils up against a window to trace the original. They appeared fully perfect. I was astounded.
I was meeting a number of artists on the Lower East Side as well as writers and so their cover art on various issues was a fabulous addition. The whole project was a community of creative artists and writers coming together. Once the magazine was run off, we collated the pages in the Parish Hall at St Marks. Everyone in the community was so fantastic. Vast numbers of contributors, artists, poets, friends, and family showed up to collate. We would have pizza, wine, and soda, pages would be gathered, and the sound of the stapler snapping them together would be ringing. Once in a while a section of pages or a cover would be collated upside down or the stapler would wound a finger and the blood of the poet would smear across a page.
All there would take copies to distribute.
Your experience in New York City at this time places you in an interesting historical context. Were you aware of the affiliation of poets that were later to be called the New York poets or the New York School?
It was a world filled with poets and artists the likes of which I had never dreamed possible. I didn’t think of the historical context. I lived utterly in the “now” of what was going on, being painted, being written. Hands on doing the work filled every day. I felt continually amazed and inspired and astonished at the magnitude of creative people gathered in one place in time. We were a movement of pure energy, individual extravagance, great courage and a raging belief in the works we were making. All totally committed to a new, bold, fresh, exciting direction.
Did you realize that what you were tapping into were hypnagogic hallucinations, that you were recording quasi dreams on the frontier between sleep and wakefulness when you were writing the poems that were eventually published as Zombie Notes?
Though a great fan of the surrealists and that quasi state between sleep and wakefulness, I didn’t intentionally set out to write in that form. Zombie Notes came about quite pragmatically. I had three children, a job, and all the rest. I tried to be the best mother possible and didn’t write until after I put the boys to bed. I would usually sit down at my typewriter about 10 pm and write until one or two am. Then I would get up at 6 to get the boys off to school or day care and go to work myself. This was my pattern day in and day out and I’m sure I was sleep deprived during those years. I would try to stay awake while writing, but would often drift in some nether state barely awake, not quite fully asleep.
I don’t think it was an official dream state as Bernadette (Mayer) or Loraine Niedecker draw from, but more a tangled exhaustion of thought. The title Zombie Notes perfectly described my state of mind. I seemed a zombie during those hours. I would often just catch myself up as my face fell toward the typewriter keys, saving my teeth from smashing at the last second, and then a line of poetry would stumble from my fingers.
When you say “I feel my poetry will always be grounded in painting. In using the page as a stretched canvas where description and placement and the word with both meaning and physical presence reign,” I sense an esthetic commonality with the collaborative efforts of artists and poets concurrent to your time in New York. Were you influenced at all by the art literature mix or was it just a happy accident that you shared a similar esthetic?
Having the fabulous mix of artists and writers working together in collaboration expanded all possibilities. And again, just to be in the midst of that powerful making of works, in that “now” happening all around you, conjured up an incredible release of experiment and support for that experiment. What an invite to freedom! Certainly this was not the first time art and text have mingled together on the page or canvas, but it was a push further out into that discovery of entanglement. It was a leap into a new mind chemistry of the elements of text and paint.
In love with both, I felt fully engaged in this common ground. I collaborated in individual works, in drawings and covers for my books, in Telephone magazine and books. But text set the stage for my poems. My painterly art was in the language now. I created the “picture” with description. I focused on the words creating more explosively the image than it could be set down in brush or pencil. Language had become my oils and acrylics. I was rowing toward my own sea.
Your most recent selection of poems, Edges of Water, was published by Chax Press in 2013. What projects, books, literary events are you currently engaged in? Are there plans for a selected or collected poems of Maureen Owen?
The poems I’ve selected to accompany our interview are from a manuscript in progress with the working title, Everything Turns on a Delicate Measure. I’m still in the thick of writing it. Possibly it could be a new and selected, but right now I see it more as a separate title. A selected or collected would be something to think about.
Maureen Owen Recent Work
New To The Society’s Shelves
Norman Schaefer, Lower Putah Song, The Alcuin Press, 2016
Alastair Johnston, Dreaming On The Edge, Oak Knoll Press, 2016
Daniel J. Demers, Old Wine And Food Stories, 2016