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Life Force

Charles Bukowski rarely praised other writers, but of Gerald Locklin, he wrote: ”I have never been let down. I have been picked up, lifted up, tossed into that rare area: excellent writing, writing with verve, writing that laughs, writing that reads easy yet says something. That‘s a good package.“

Locklin, 59, recalls that it was his German publisher who asked Bukowski for the endorsement, which ran in the preface to Locklin’s The Case of the Missing Volkswagon and which later appeared in a book of Bukowski correspondence. ”I was thrilled by it,“ Locklin says quietly during an interview at his Long Beach home. ”It was very gratifying.“

Locklin didn‘t circulate the acclamation in the U.S. version of the book, nor has he often requested other friends to tout his work -- and he has published more than 80 titles to date. About his reluctance to solicit book-jacket praise from friends and admirers, he says: ”I never wanted people to think that their friendship didn’t matter to me. That all I wanted was to get some blurb from them. I was always afraid of looking like I was using their friendship.“

Nor has Locklin exploited the good words of his former students at Cal State Long Beach, where he has taught in the English department for over 30 years. Many of them have gone on to earn national reputations -- the late performance artist Bob Flanagan, South Coast Repertory‘s Jerry Patch, essayist D.J. Waldie and poet Lisa Glatt are among them -- but Locklin’s democratic spirit restrains him from listing these names himself because of the others he might overlook, and those who have chosen less public, but no less valuable, lives. Rocker, songwriter and poet Dave Alvin, who studied with Locklin in 1978-79, says he learned from his teacher that poems and songs deserve ”a sense of place and a sense of honesty when you bare your soul.“ Alvin is convinced that Locklin is ”our best poet in town, bar none.“

Since self-promotion has not been central to Locklin‘s career, his fans tend to be that small circle who frequent poetry readings at a Long Beach coffee bar or Beyond Baroque in Venice. Or they pick up Xeroxed and stapled magazines like Worm Wood Review, where its respected late editor, Marvin Malone, strategically placed Locklin’s poems directly before Bukowski‘s in every issue for years. More recently, Event Horizon of Palm Springs has published stories from A Simpler Time, A Simpler Place and The Hemingway Colloquium: The Poet Goes to Cuba in beautiful, well-designed editions that are finding their way to more bookstore shelves. Attention to Locklin’s work is steadily growing -- the (London) Times Literary Supplement championed his writing last year -- and it will be gaining added momentum in the next weeks.

Water Row Press, known for shining a light on numerous Beat writers, has just published Locklin‘s Candy Bars, a selection of his best short stories from the hard-to-find small presses. His seriocomic adventures of Jimmy Abbey, a Southern California academic and writer known for his fire-hazard office and risky personal life, are featured in the book along with other tales dating to the 1970s. Two years ago, Water Row published a handsome edition of his selected writings, Go West, Young Toad, edited by Mark Weber, that was received warmly.

Drawing yet more attention to Locklin, the American Literature Association (ALA) held its annual conference in Long Beach last month and devoted a panel of scholars to the author’s work. Tricia Cherin, a poet and administrator at Cal State Dominguez Hills, led the panel, which included Norman Friedman, the prominent e.e. cummings critic. And Locklin was there to respond.

”Gerry allows us to see everything under a widened poetic rubric,“ Cherin explains. ”He has widened what is acceptable under poetic practices. He is on brand-new terrain. His poems are deceptively simple, but we are working with icebergs here. Hemingway‘s iceberg theory is the mainstay of Gerry’s poetic practice: One-tenth is above and nine-tenths is below.“

In person, Locklin is reserved and a little more formal than his favored gray T-shirt and jeans. He keeps a pen slipped into the pocket T, but also a half-inch wad of paper. In his back pocket there are more notes, and he pulls them out as proof. They are poems and stories in process. He laughs at the idea that he files topics under body parts: ”love“ over his heart, ”the flesh“ behind his butt. There is something practical, too, about his portable organization system.

”You never want to sit down and have just a blank sheet in front of you and only an hour to write. You panic,“ he says, packing the notes away. ”You have to have the material so you can take it out and get started. You gather the ideas when they come to you.“

Some might see Locklin as kin to better-known Beat writers. But he isn‘t that easily classified. As poet Edward Field says, ”I’ll be damned if I know where he fits into the scheme of American poetry.“ Instead, as Field points out, Locklin writes about everything for almost everybody. Locklin‘s favorites, though, are the ones he has written about his children.

”They are the hardest to write, because they come out of the most deep and personal emotions,“ he says. ”There is nothing more important to you than your children, and you don’t want to get them wrong. You struggle so to get them exactly right. They are written with tears in your eyes.“

His poems also tell about his nights at the Jazz Bakery, women, his health (which spiraled downward in 1993), Abstract Expressionists, drinking, abstinence and his afternoon laps in the YMCA pool. He modestly says he is only familiar with topics like art and jazz, not an expert. Engaging his readers with a sly, perceptive intelligence, he can be traditionally poetic, dry, and complex like a Franz Kline brush stroke. But he can be funny, occasionally self-mocking, and as direct as a Roy Hargrove trumpet solo. Take this sample: ”he knew he was in serious troublewhen he caught himself rooting, on the tape delays,for teams that he already knew had lost.the next step would be betting on them.“

”For teachers and writers, ideas are in process,“ Locklin says. ”We don‘t walk around with a Decalogue written in stone. We are testing our ideas all the time.“ Life Force, his next collection of poems from Event Horizon, focuses on our hope for immortality. Locklin’s own health problems, which climaxed when blood clots made their way to his lungs and almost killed him in 1993, have ushered in a more practiced meditation on death, and the wish to live on through work, family and friends. His interest in biologist E.O. Wilson‘s latest book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, is yet another example of Locklin’s desire to continue expanding his poetic subjects.

”We are creatures of our evolution and DNA, mixed with our cultural experiences,“ he says, peering through his glasses. ”These new poems often celebrate what Dylan Thomas called ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flowerDrives my green age.’ The same life force that drives nature, drives us.“

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