Selected Poems 2021, Topanga, California, Part 2, April 16

Flavia PotenzaBy Flavia Potenza      April 16, 2021

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Selected Poems 2021, Topanga, California, Part 2, April 16
Under the Capsized Boat We Fly New & Selected Poems by Gail Wronsky | In conversation with Flavia Potenza Forty years is a milestone for Topanga poet Gail Wronsky, who says the fact that she is a poet at all is just luck. Gail Wronsky and her husband, author Chuck Rosenthal, live in a classic Topanga house that makes you want to explore every nook and cranny that hold, hide, and display a lifetime of memories. Every bit must have a story behind it…or in Wronsky’s case, probably a poem. Climbing up to the second floor, the din of the Boulevard below fades, somewhat alleviated by a view of the mountains across the way rising from the creek, softened further by an untamed mélange of greenery held at bay by tall wooden fences. We settle in at the table with a view to discuss her latest book of poetry, “Under the Capsized Boat We Fly,” a compilation of eight books of poetry written over 40 years. to “The first poem in the book is called ’23,’” Wronsky explains. “I wrote it when I was 23. That’s where it started for this book.” She discovered Leonora Carrington’s works in a youth bookstore and a weird little book called “The Oval Lady,” that changed the way she wrote. “When I read it, it had little illustrations that she made; she was an artist and a writer and it just blew me away. She’s a surrealist and a feminist and was a major influence. I considered myself a surrealist for a while. She was my hero. She died in her 90s and I regret I never met her.” Wronsky dedicates 13 pages to her in the first chapter.
PHOTO BY TY COLE Gail Wronsky, author, poet
“I always wrote,” Wronsky said. “It was just what I did. It wasn’t until I was in college that I found out that you could actually be a poet. There were classes you could take and there were poets that actually taught them! This was a revelation, and it still didn’t occur to me that it could be me. I majored in English, graduated from the University of Virginia and was clueless about what I was going to do. I tried and tried and tried to get all these jobs,” she said, “but I ended up being a waitress. I hated it.”

That’s when luck appeared in the guise of a phone call from her poetry teacher, who said, “Hey, do you want to go to graduate school?” Wronsky said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, there’s this wealthy person who died and left all this money for creative writing scholarships to our MFA program. Do you want one?”

“That was luck. I said yes. Anything beats being a waitress. I was so tired, and I was in Richmond, Virginia. It was the south, and there were all these men…. I went to graduate school and that was the career path.”

The MFA, Wronsky recalls, “was the terminal degree for poets at the time. That’s all you needed. You could graduate and get a job teaching in a year. I thought, ‘Great!’” When she received her MFA, however, the rules changed and there were no jobs for people with MFAs, but by then, she knew what she wanted to do—teach poetry and be a poet. Thanks to another teacher, who landed a job in Utah, he hired her, and she earned her Ph.D. in Utah.
On vacation with her daughter, Marlena Rosenthal, at Big Sur
“I just loved the west.”

In 1978, Loyola Marymount hired not only her but her husband, and they moved to L.A. and eventually to Topanga.

“That was just amazing, really, really good luck, so we stayed.”

What made them stay? “Everything. The trees, the birds, the lifestyle, the ocean, all of that every day is part of my life. And people I can relate to. I guess, after all these years, I am a typical Topangan. Every time Chuck and I were frustrated with the job, we thought about moving somewhere else. I couldn’t do it. Especially when we made it to Topanga.

Wronsky’s journey to Topanga was one thing, but it was time to tap into the teacher and see why this was the time to take stock and establish this milestone of 40 years of work.
Wronsky, circa 1980, with one of her favorite authors, Walt Whitman
“When I looked back, I saw there are all these books that have accumulated over the years. The process of going through and picking the poems for this book was a good thing for me to do. First of all, it was fun. I’ve gotten to the age now where I don’t hate everything I’ve ever done. I was able to enjoy the poems and pick the ones that still held up that I like a lot. It’s a fire in the belly kind of thing for me. I still care deeply about the art form. I read I it. I teach it. I write it.”

“I think part of the reason people think they don’t like poetry is they were taught poorly. It’s not to blame teachers—teachers are heroes—but I think a lot of teachers haven’t been trained how to teach poetry, so they ask, ‘What does this poem mean,’ which is the wrong question. Since poetry is language, we expect it should communicate some idea and it doesn’t necessarily, so people think they don’t have the right answer.”

“To me poetry is an art form. You don’t go to a museum and look at a Jackson Pollack and ask, ‘What does that mean?’ People are always doing that with poetry. To me, it’s about giving you an experience. My students are having an experience when they’re writing the poem, they’re recreating an experience they might have had in their life and putting it into a shape that launches it into the world.”
Wronsky with her husband, author Chuck Rosenthal
She suggests two organizations: WriteGirl, where Amanda Gorman got her start in L.A. Founder Keren Taylor pairs girls in Junior High school with established writers, where they show their work and get feedback. ( The other is, founded by Diane Luby Lane. The program has high school kids read classic poetry, Dickinson, Whitman, Shakespeare, and each time they meet they have to recite a classic poem and write their own poems.

Wronsky has taught and observed them: “These kids get up there and they are rapping Emily Dickinson! Then they do their own poems. She suggests that poetry may be having a resurgence.

“Amanda Gorman, when she delivered her poem at President Biden’s inauguration, is fabulous for poetry. She was just what the country needed at that moment. She was exactly right and, yes, poetry can do that. The more poetry has a public face like that, it’s better for the art form.”

Infinity, Topanga

The jasmine by my studio is flowering—
Oh simple life on the surface of the planet.
My writing limbo trembles before it.

Then the other plants begin to waken
And the ground perks up.

I am a madwoman, living
In the midst of such profound activity—
And such greenness.

Let love take its chances here.
Let love shimmer and mark time
In this sweet mill of days.

We existed here
Where the owl swayed on top of the
Swaying cypress tree.

What did we want from each other?
To die having said it all—
To win having lost it all—

One fragile about-face from the stars.

The Main Attraction

Wordsworth’s “intimations” ode,
Then, is not only a poem, but, among
other things a parable about poetry.
—Cleanth Brooks

How now
come see the tiny cow
it’s only two-and-a-half inches tall

used to be a professional pall-bearer
at the ant farm
then it lost that leg

come on and seeit

it does a great imitation of Mae West
you know
swaying a little bit top heavy
why don’t you come up and see it

I bet it could get a college degree
in being cute
and knowing what’s what

Why just the other day
it looked at me like it know’d
what I said to Brenda last night
which was:

Quit crying bitch
that little cow
needs us to be brave


In the sweet time of my first age,
wishing to speak,
I confessed in the meadow
by a stone. I talked of everything:
how I loved him;
how my hair in the lamplight looked
red and surreal;
how I took pleasure in the distant
deaths; how I daily fled
the belling of my womg; continue
to love him; and my little speech
about the necessary emptiness;
(how murder is mor meaningful
than other deaths); my vanity
about a certain orchid gown; god,
and how I drown in the orchid night
for love of him …

The she, the stone,
to her ghostly form quickly
returning, made me, alas,
an almost live and frightened woman.

(It was as if a swarm of
crystal insects,
trying somehow to speak,
got tangled
in a cloud of gauze.)

This is how I met her.
This is how I met my muse.
Flavia Potenza
      April 16, 2021

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