Back in early May, Marlene Cullen, host of The Write Spot blog, invited me to appear as a guest blogger, and then a couple of days later, she promised a review of my new book of poetry, Body on the Wall.
It was in the first days of publicity for the book, before its official release on May 15, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity. My understanding had been that Marlene herself would write the review. Right before it was scheduled to appear, I ran into an unknown woman at the all-day Redwood Writers Conference in Santa Rosa. She approached me and said, “I just finished reading your book, and I loved it,” then went on in glowing terms. I was completely startled, since I had no idea how my book had come into her hands – then she explained that Marlene had given my poetry to her for review. Her name was Kathy Myers. I barely heard her compliments, because I was so stunned. It was my first encounter with an unknown reader – the first time my book had gone into the home of someone not related to me in any way — and here she was, responding to it solely on its own merit, not because of who I was, or what our connections were. It was both an odd sensation, and an absolute head rush. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself.
Marlene had yet another surprise for me. Not only had she passed on my book to Kathy Myers; she had also handed it off to an old friend, a poet named Joanna McClure, thinking she might like to say a few words. When the final review came out on May 2, it contained comments from Marlene, Kathy, and Joanna – a wonderful combination, that left me feeling quite spoiled with the unanticipated attention.
Here is the real magic. Joanna McClure, it turns out, is one of the original San Francisco Beat poets. As Marlene told me, she was there at the historic first reading of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, along with her husband (now ex) Beat poet Michael McClure. Joanna, in her magnanimity, wrote these words about my little book : “I enjoyed reading Michelle Wing’s poetry – full of her rich and varied multicultural life – its sensual pleasures as well as its dark depths.” But, beyond that, in a truly generous act, one poet to another, she asked Marlene to bring me a present. Joanna McClure gave me a signed and dedicated copy of her 1974 limited edition chapbook, Wolf Eyes, which of course I devoured immediately. (The volume is available in a later edition.)
The poems are elegant in their simplicity, beautiful, with a Zen quality. They are rich in California landscape, set at Sea Ranch, Tassajara, and then further abroad to Tucson, and Alaska. There are caustic environmental poems, such as “U.N. Environmental Conference,” that are as timely today as when written forty years ago. The wolf poems, though, are my favorite, especially the final verse in the collection, “The Phone Call,” which ends “It was quiet./ It was// Like meeting the wolf.”
I had never read much Beat poetry before. But here’s a funny connection. Redwood Writers, the professional writers group I am a part of, a branch of the California Writers club, produced its first poetry anthology this year. It was released at that same conference at the end of April, the one where I ran into Kathy Myers. Titled And the Beats Go On, the anthology was themed as a tribute to Beat poetry, with sections for On the Road (Jack Kerouac), Rip Rap (Gary Snyder), Howling (Allen Ginsberg), Imagination (Diane di Prima), City Lights (Lawrence Ferlinghetti) and the Dharma Bums (the Zen lunatics).
Last summer, I had wanted to contribute to the anthology, but wasn’t quite sure where to dive in. So, in an attempt to brush up on my Beat knowledge, I went to my favorite local bookstore, Levin & Co. in Healdsburg, and asked for a recommendation. Aaron suggested The Portable Beat Reader edited by Ann Charters, and as I thumbed through it, I had to agree. It seemed to have everyone in it. I ended up composing a poem that landed in the City Lights section called “Show Me the Sun,” an ode to San Francisco.
Now, faced with this new Beat poet name, I again went to my bookshelf, and pulled out my Portable Beat Reader. Michael McClure’s name was there. But Joanna McClure’s name was nowhere to be found. It didn’t make sense. I knew she had been writing then, and continuously since. I was perplexed.
Soon after, I was working on another project. I am the public relations director for Redwood Writers, and part of that job entails preparing flyers and press releases for the speakers who come to address the club. Our speaker coordinator sent me some information about an upcoming presenter named Brenda Knight, who will be talking about insider secrets to navigating a book deal in September. She had sent along her photo and biographical material. As I scanned over it, something caught my eye. She was an author, and among her list of books was this title: Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution. I immediately went to amazon.com to look it up – and, you guessed it – Joanna McClure is in this volume, along with many, many others.
So here she sits, this poet, on my desk, in the form of a signed chapbook, Wolf Eyes. And now, I find, she released a full-length book of her collected poems in 2013, Catching Light: Collected Poems of Joanna McClure. I have a feeling I am supposed to own that volume, too.
I used to call such chains of events serendipitous, where I seem to be led from one clue to the next. But I have decided that this is an inadequate description. I now believe that my entire forest is littered with bread-crumb trails, all of them leading somewhere magical. All I have to do is pay attention.