Time is a Worn Thread
An Interview with Edward Mycue
by Bryan R. Monte
During May 2013, Bryan Monte conducted an e-mail interview with poet, Edward Mycue. His books include Damage Within the Community (1973), Root Route & Range: The Song Returns (1979), The Singing Man My Father Gave Me, (1980), Torn Star (1985), Edward (1986), Nightboats (2000), Mindwalking (2008) I Am A Fact Not A Fiction (2009) and Song of San Francisco (2012) among others. Mycue has been published in magazines in the US, the UK, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, India, Japan, Russia, Brazil, Argentina and Africa, and his papers were acquired in 2011 by the Yale Beinecke Library.
Mycue was born in Niagara Falls, New York, in 1937 and moved with his family to Dallas, Texas in 1948. In 1950s he attended North Texas State before going to Boston University on a Lowell Fellowship. While in Boston he also worked for WGBH and was a MacDowell Colony Fellow. In 1961 he worked for the Peace Corps in Ghana, then for the Department of Health Education and Welfare first in the Southwestern US from 1962-65 and then in Washington DC from 1965-68. In the late 1960s Mycue lived in the Netherlands, Germany and France before moving to San Francisco in 1970.
Bryan Monte: You moved to San Francisco in the early 1970s, where you have lived ever since. What was San Francisco like then?
Edward Mycue: I arrived in San Francisco in the Haight at Haight and Masonic Streets on June 1, 1970. It was just after a big shootout between rival bike gangs at the Magnolia Thunderpussy Café on the opposite corner the night before. There were bullet holes in the second-floor flat windows where I lived with my sister, Margo Mycue, the booker for the New Shakespeare Company—San Francisco. We had just come up with the Company from Los Angeles.
BM: What did you do in San Francisco?
EM: I booked the Company on its travels across the country.
BM: And what was the Haight like—after the bikers left?
EM: It was a pretty busy, dozy, buzzy place. I lived with actors, artists and sculptors in a two-floor flat.
BM: You met a lot of writers in San Francisco, also didn’t you?
BM: Who were some of these writers?
EM: Within months I met George Oppen, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robert Duncan and Jess Collins. George and Mary Oppen became most dear to me. George got me onto Lawrence Fixel’s group that met in his living room monthly that included Jack Gilbert, Laura Ulewicz, Shirley Kaufman, Ray Carver, Nanos Valaoritis, Morton Marcus, and Lennart Bruce. Josephine Miles and Harold Norse and others swung by too. I soon also met Paul Mariah, Tillie Olson and Jim Watson-Grove. But before any of these, I met Stephen Vincent at the open readings on Upper Grant in North Beach at The Coffee Gallery. And, within a year, I met my lover, partner, friend, Richard Steger, a painter a few years younger than me.
BM: Wow, what a list! I remember Josephine Miles reading at Berkeley when I was a student and Robert Duncan, once or twice at the Newspace Gallery on Valencia Street just before I went to Brown. Who were some of the poets outside of San Francisco who influenced you?
EM: Laura Riding, Gertrude Stein, William Butler Yeats, Richard Hugo, Ann Stanford, Elizabeth Jennings (UK), Charles Olson, May Swenson, Philip Larkin, Basil Bunting, Lorca, Brecht, Montale, Valery and many others.
BM: That’s also quite a list.
EM: It’s hard to choose. It changes.
BM: What were some of the literary things you did in San Francisco after meeting or studying the writers mentioned above?
EM: I “curated” (as is said nowadays) a reading series at Panjandrum Press in what has come to be termed “The Duboce Triangle” within the Castro, Market, and Church Streets area and, later in the decade, I attended one at the Grand Piano on Haight Street, where my sister, Jane Mycue, cooked.
BM: In the early 80s, you were also active in a gay men’s writing group run by Robert Gluck out of the back of Small Press Traffic Bookshop on 24th Street. That’s how I met you. I think there were the three of us, (you, me and Gluck), plus Kevin Killian, Richard Linker, Paul Shimasaki and David Steinberg. Is there anyone I forgot?
EM: Roberto Friedman, Bruce Boone and maybe Roberto Bedoya.
BM: Tell me a little bit about Lawrence Fixel’s group. I know he played a great part in your development as a poet. What was his modus operandi as a workshop teacher?
EM: He came up with what I call Fixel’s law for poets and writers; four simple injunctions about writing that are: 1. begin where you are; 2. learn from the material; 3. believe in the process; 4. become your own reader.
BM: Could you explain a bit more about the role of process in your poetry?
EM: My work, as I have seen (it) from the start, is more (a) weaving of a tapestry of different threads and themes that recur in all our lives. I create and earn my own vocabulary and alphabet to enter into again and again as I mix and remix the cannibal/ pirate motifs (motives). Paul Valery explains in The Art of Poetry how a true artist proceeds: “A work of art is never necessarily finished, for he who makes it is never complete.”
BM: I think your poem, “Time is a Worn Thread”, which was published in AQ4, especially reflects your ars poetica.
“poetry” is an odd and restricting term.
marianne moore (“i too detest it … but find in it … a place for the genuine.”)
william carlos williams (“men die every day for want of what is found there ….”)
avoid and don’t censor with the corset of “poetry.” just write.
grow into technique, your own vocabulary.
bang out your stuff.
get a move on.
time is a worn thread.
BM: You’ve published nine major poetry books in 40 years. What has been your favourite book, both in its content and its realization?
EM: That has never happened though it was partly achieved in 1973 with Damage Within the Community through Richard Steger’s artwork and vision for the book, Dennis Koran’s publishing and editing skills, typography imagined by master printer Martin Ilian, and myself exercising a discipline learned from Lawrence Fixel, George Oppen, Ann Stanford and Josephine Miles.
BM: What was one of your most problematic books?
EM: Song of San Francisco. It was in limbo for 26 years, from 1987 to 2012. In the early days there were many poems and it spread out over 100 pages. I got to view it as my “Bridge” in the sense of modelling it on Hart Crane’s swing line. Then, the times and my situation became grimmer. Everything melted away while ten pieces, more like hard, bloodless stones, remained by the mid-1990s. I sent it to Paul Green of Spectacular Diseases Press in Peterborough, Cambridge, England, who in the mid-90s published my chapbook, Because We Speak the Same Language. He offered to do it, but he wanted a special cover showing the usual San Francisco touristy highlights. I asked Richard Steger my painter, partner, spouse with whom I’ve teamed on books since the early ‘70s. Richard, however, never takes orders. And so that was a delay.
In 2000, I sent the group of ten to Paul Strangeland who published the Poetry Conspiracy monthly calendar with poems in the San Diego area, and he put them in that.
Then around 2010 or ’11 with Paul Green hitting 69 and losing his job there over in the UK and getting old, he wrote: “Let’s do it.” I responded: “Yes, let’s do it” on a 1937 postcard of the San Francisco Bay with a sketch of what the Bay Bridge was to look like. He responded that he wanted to use that card (on the cover). I didn’t see that it said in small print “San Francisco Queen City”—funny that! And odd because it’s Cincinnati, Ohio that has always been called the Queen City—that’s where my mom lived in her teens.
BM: We’ve just talked about your last book, let’s talk about the two that preceded it—Mindwalking, 1937-2007 (2008) I Am A Fact Not A Fiction (2009). I’m curious, how did you choose 61 poems from your hundreds if not thousands of poems that you’ve written for Mindwalking?
EM: Laura Beusoleil, the book’s publisher from Philos Press, chose the poems. I sent up fistfuls/manila envelopes of copies of poems to her that I raked up—at least a couple of hundreds. She wanted to choose, and that was just fine. When she decided, she asked me if I had others I wanted to include and she chose the order. I chose the title. And Richard chose the cover painting.
BM: Well, it’s a very impressive collection, a poetic, biographical retrospective of your life from your birth to 2007. Do you have any poems in this book that are particular favourites?
EM: “A Fight For Air” in six parts covering four pages in Mindwalking is part of my history beginning with a road trip from Niagara Falls to Dallas when I was eleven and ends when I’m 24. It also includes a speech, as if from a play, by my dad, a dream, and a summation. “San Francisco Bridge” describes what I saw on a hill in Oakland looking back over to San Francisco on a day trip. And “Always” is a meditation in the form of a psychological autobiography, written in one, formless exhalation.
BM: Your next book was a little bit different, your first e-book. What was your experience publishing it online?
EM: It was a nice experience because again I was among friends I respected, even loved. Jo-Anne Rosen asked me to do it. She had seen the zillions of my poems. Laura Beausoleil shuttled down from Lacey, Washington near Olympia (where she was the Olympia poet laureate) to help Jo-Anne. We knew each other also. Laura was admired by Larry Fixel and had done some work for him. I’ve known Laura since early 1970’s and she is a fine poet, grand storywriter, and artist of collages (we used them at Panjandrum Press for the readings series fliers and posters.)
Jo-Anne had wanted to establish a literary publishing arm to her enterprise (she had a commercial design business producing books, pamphlets, and fliers). I was to be her first in her literary choices where the writer didn’t have to pay. She chose 25 poems. I okayed it. She suggested the title, I Am A Fact Not A Fiction, from one of the poems.
BM: Would you like to publish another e-book in the future?
EM: Yes, I would like to have another.
BM: How did you come up with the sections of this e-book: “War/Peace”; “Life/Time/Memory”; “Histories”?
EM: Jo-Anne divided the book into three parts and she named them. She also already had images of Richard’s work and she and he decided the one to use for the cover.
BM: Do you think your poetry is becoming more self-reflective or do you see yourself moving outward with your poetry or are you doing both? In I Am A Fact Not A Fiction, for example, in “My Policeman,” you write about a man you knew in your 20s (I assume), who later killed himself in his 30s that you wrote about 30+ years later. In “Tale of Outlaws in the Commons” you retell your experience in the Peace Corps in the early 1960s.
EM: I don’t know about the self-reflection. Maybe. I’m old enough that that could be a natural development. But I am a storyteller in my poems usually with a language I have to make because most models aren’t adequate to my ‘story.’
BM: Let’s talk now about your last book again. What inspired you to write the series of poems or “Song Cycle” as Sean Carey refers to them in the introduction refers to them in Song of San Francisco?
EM: I wonder. I started the Song of San Francisco poems as a group: one day it began and one day, years later, it stopped. I didn’t have a title then. But the clouds of knowing were there. It started, then stopped.
BM: Did the AIDS epidemic inspire this cycle and/or something else? I say this because you tackle the big question, the meaning of life in your first poem, “The Song of Cities Like Viruses.” I will quote it in its entirety.
is survival about leaving a message of what works
accruing gradually out of a pool of variations
because up to now evolution has no message call waiting.
Do you see yourself as a survivor?
EM: It was a hard time. Yes, these were the AIDS years. As if they were book-ended by this and that other side of the world. I don’t see myself (as) a survivor, but I am here.
BM: What is your writing discipline like? How and when do you write? Do you write only when you feel inspired or do you follow a schedule? How often do you send work out to be published?
EM: I am always writing, even in exhausted reveries. I am better especially nowadays in the mornings. I write little parts often and gather them up when sometimes I get this energy too. Other times I am writing and there is a space and I hear parts of previously written pieces that seem to fit as if these themes went back in for further viewing from some other perspective. I write all the time.
BM: How often do you send work out to be published?
EM: I used to send poems out often, very often, and if as usual, they were returned, then I just sent them out again. I made mistakes on what I sent to magazines and strange how they took it. So I began to feel what a mag said it wanted wasn’t what they might take. So it I got that I just didn’t care what I sent to WHOM. The ‘whom’ wasn’t important to me – only what I sent was important because I had no belief in editors except just a few special ones. But some periods of hard work on poems and successes I felt, there would be a poem that seemed to come whole effortlessly and be good in a way that I could see its completeness and quality but not in a way that it was my effort and my poem.
I don’t have compulsions to scale a schedule ladder. I have sent out poems this last month (May 2013) five times. But in March, I only sent out once and maybe in January once.
BM: Some of your correspondence and publications were recently acquired and are being archived by Yale. How did that happen?
EM: Yale, through a middleman broker at Bolerium Books on Mission Street near 17th Street, took 110 boxes (some really big and crammed) and 10 more packages of odd and oversized objects including tubes and posters and artwork. I didn’t catalog things. I had to move, was disabled, and at the point of putting them all in a dumpster or two. A lot of stuff did go that way.
BM: What was in those boxes? What did they take?
EM: I am not sure what they have. About 7,000 books, mostly pamphlets, and slim volumes that I cared about I gave away to Friends of the San Francisco Library, to numerous little bookstores, and to thrift stores such as Out of the Closet, the Salvation Army, etc. I’d valued them as a collection of the five decades of writers I felt part of even when I didn’t care for their work. But they were from my time.
What went to Yale of mine was most of the 2,000 zine and mags and papers I’d published in, and this huge/jinormous group of rejection slips and letters. And all sorts of letters and stuff and I don’t know what else (I can’t pull up a visual picture). It was a trip that took a year and the local weekly, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, took this material to hold (as I couldn’t take it with me to where I was moving and I couldn’t find the money to store the stuff). The Bay Guardian had favorably reviewed my first book in 1973, Damage Within The Community, and from time to time published my poems, usually in the spots where advertising hadn’t been sold and thus, were so small you had to look really hard even when you knew a piece was supposed to be there.
Plus my sister, Margo, had been with the New Shakespeare Company—San Francisco and the San Francisco Mime Troupe after teaching at Santa Clara University in the 1960’s. (See how lucky I was.) Bolerium Books knew me from years before with my Wobbly friends and marginal political friends I was palsy with. So Yale, the rare book and MSS library part called the Beinecke, bought my stuff.
BM: Why do you think Yale was so interested in your particular collection?
EM: They used to do all the right-wing capitalist stuff and hadn’t taken any real people’s stuff and thus I lucked out because of the big hole they had. Plus, I was seen as some sort of old fag, maybe an überfag, since I was in the early gay liberation movement 40 plus years before and because before that I’d cut my teeth on the Civil Rights Movement causes and activities and that got me blackballed in some southwestern states when I worked for a federal government agency back when the world was just as bad but better camouflaged.
BM: What is your current project? What are you working on?
EM: My current project I began several months ago. It’s called Vanishing Point. It actually began two years ago when one of Richard’s nieces, who is in her late 20’s and a striving graphic designer, asked if I could send her something to use as a project. Then she changed jobs, etc., and hasn’t asked for more and I just got the oars and have kept going. After that I want to resurrect some poems that keep coming into my mind and haven’t been published in any book.
BM: Thank you for your time, Ed
EM: You’re welcome.