At 21, I attended my first literary reading: Galway Kinnell at the Laguna Beach Public Library. I had graduated from college that June; it was August; I’d be moving to San Francisco that November. I don’t remember how I knew Kinnell was reading at the library. Orange County, California is not the most obvious place for a New York, Contemporary American poet to give a reading from his latest slim volumes of poems published by Knopf. Maybe Kinnell has a cousin in Laguna Beach, or an old lover.
If there is anywhere for lovers, it’s Laguna Beach, California, one of the most picturesque places in the world, as gorgeous – if not more so – than any coastal Italian city. However, Orange County’s milieu (if you can call it that) differs dramatically from Italy’s. In Italy, for example, a person can buy a great loaf of fresh, warm bread at nearly every corner. In Orange County, sure you can get a good loaf of bread, but you might have to drive from one end of the county to the other to find it.
Kinnell read to a small audience, and I was mesmerized by his voice, his cadences, his use of words and the way he put them together. I went to the reading alone, wrapped in one of my great, great, great, great grandmother’s Spanish shawls, an orange one embroidered with flowers -- pink, peach, lavender, yellow and green. The scarf is over 100 years old, so the colors are muted, the silk thin. And it’s huge, probably 5’x5’ in measurement. There are long, heavy silk fringes that hang down from the scarves' edges. With it wrapped around me, I felt braver than normal, so after the reading I approached Mr. Kinnell and told him I liked his poems. After I said it, I felt faint. He asked me if I was a poet. I said yes because I knew I was a poet, but rather than feeling proud about this, I felt embarrassed.
When I applied to graduate school a couple years later, I was accepted with fellowships at two places, Houston and NYU. Sharon Olds from NYU called me and said, “Galway really likes your poetry a lot. We hope you’ll come here. Where else have you applied?” I said, “Houston is flying me down next week.” I said, “I need money.” She said, “If you need money, then we can’t compete with Houston.” And that was true. So here I am.
Speaking of that: I’m reading at Poison Girl this coming Thursday, Jan. 25. Reading starts at 8:30. Poison Girl is a smoky bar. Be warned. I’m not sure what I’ll be reading, whether poetry or prose. Probably a little of both.