You were friends with famed food writer M.F.K. Fisher and Julia
Child. Were Child and Fisher close? Did they have different
perspectives on cooking?
I can never say enough good things about Mary Frances and Julia. Their
presence in my life altered it in ways that came as a complete surprise
to me. Here were two food icons who embraced a person who knew nothing about food except how to eat it. Life works backwards sometimes and their friendship came to me way before my ability to cook came to me. I still marvel at the dynamic. They were close friends, knew each other in France and Juliawould often visit Mary Frances in Glen Ellen. Both had a marvelous mind, fertile, and always probing, and engaging as hell. They bothsteered away from shop talk; it was actually not easy getting them to talk aboutfood. Julia loved long discourses on politics and international affairs (she hadserved in the OSS), the state of education, fashion, the environment. She loved to gossip and was not above breaking wind, regardless of where. I used to get a kick out of that. She also had the most peculiar habit of throwing things on the
floor (newspapers and magazines, napkins, table crumbs) after she wasfinished with them. She was made for television, a real comedienne in a league, I think, with Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett. Mary Frances had
a keen wit, too, but she did not go in for t.v. exposure, though she had
been given many chances at it. She was more subdued, less a performer than Julia. She introduced me to a world I never thought I would know and people like James Baldwin, Isaac Stern, Molly O'Neill, James Beard, Rosemary Manell, Vincent Price and of course, Julia.
I miss them both terribly. They changed my Life.
I find food very evocative and worthy of scholarly attention. I wrote a
thesis on food in Henry Roth's fiction, and we all know about Proust's
little cake. Does food play a role in your own work?
Your thesis is a marvel of craftsmanship and research and I had
such a good time reading it! Food plays less of a role
in my poems than it does in my non-fiction. I agree with you 100%
that it is an amazing and important metaphor for more universal
topics such as health, comfort, love. I LOVE to eat. Some people
can take food or leave it. But I live to eat. And my weight is proof!
Yikes! The doctor just told me that in three years, I have gained
40 lbs. Can you say "Macy's Parade helium balloon"? JOKE. LAFF.
You contemplated being a priest, but you felt spiritually bankrupt with your experience with the church. What happened?
You found poetry as a sort of spiritual elixir. Explain.
I was raised strict Catholic, by nuns and priests, and fell hook,
line and sinker for the whole schtick. I was just the other night
watching again "The Sound of Music" and it struck me how
very different my spiritual beliefs are now compared to how they
were when I was a "good, little Catholic boy" and worshipped
the church and all its teachings. I used to say Mass in my room
using a cup, a tissue for the burse, a blanket for the chasuble. My
faith was strong. But when some very serious crises hit, and I turned
to the church for help, guidance, trust, it (they) let me down hard.
I woke up. Through friendships with Allen Ginsberg at that time,
and other Beat writers, also through exposure to other religions, I was
opened up to more spiritual ways of thinking and being. I think
God wants spiritual fruits, not religious nuts. I changed. And
I am glad I did.
Big Table Publishing published your poetry book; " Alone in the Open:
Buddhist, Beat and Otherwise"-- tell us a bit about the collection.
I wanted to fashion a group of poems that speak to the universal
question, "What do you do when confronted with loss, pain,
disappointment, tragedy?" Events we all experience. In using
language to heal myself, I am told I found a way to heal others.
People who read the book tell me they have gained insight
and hope from it for themselves. The poems incorporate Catholic,
Buddhist, Judaic and Muslim concepts but their satisfaction lies beyond
all of that. The work does seem to be coming from somewhere
outside of me. My dreams are filled with poems,
fully realized. I feel I am a pen and The Divine
is the writer. I do pray a lot. I try to practice gratefulness.
Life can be hard. But it is much harder if you don't believe
in something, even if it is not a traditional form of worship.
Writing is my religion. Writing is what has saved me from
myself and my demons.
You write movie reviews for the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square,
Cambridge. I of course loved Pauline Kael's interviews--what makes for a good movie review?
I LOVED Kael, too, and wish we would hear more about her
in this post-Kael age. Who is writing good reviews nowadays?
Can you think of anyone? I said previously that writing has
saved me but an equal thanks has to go to movies. If it weren't
for movies, I don't think I could live. No hyperbole! My sister,
Diane, estimates I have seen at least 2000 movies in the last
couple of years. I think you have to love the art of films in order to
write a good review. You have to be able to watch recognized
masterpieces but you have to love celluloid so much, you
can also sit through something like "Santa Claus Conquers
the Martians" and enjoy it for what it is -- which is garbage
but someone thought enough of it to make it so it deserves
to be watched, too! My favorite reviews are of movies where
the dialogue is perfect or near-perfect: movies like "The
Philadelphia Story" or "Wonder Boys" or "All About Eve"
or "Amadeus" or "Julia" where not one line rings false. Those reviews
are easiest for me to write because as a writer, my ear is overjoyed.
For me, movies are as aural as they are visual. I have to hear
the director's intent. A movie has to sing!