'Poets Are Born, Not Paid' : Award-Winning Writers Fear for Future of the Art

Avalos is a member of the Times editorial staff

As a teen-ager growing up in Baltimore, Arthur Vogelsang wrote poetry every day. Now 42, Vogelsang has become a distinguished American poet. He has gained the admiration of his colleagues.

Vogelsang, of North Hollywood, is one of 51 American poets to win a 1985 Fellowship for Creative Writers from the National Endowment for the Arts--and one of three from the Los Angeles area. The others are Robert Mezey of Claremont and James A. Krusoe of Santa Monica.

They will each receive a grant of $20,000 to write, research and travel.

"Poets are born, not paid," someone once said. There is some truth to that. Few poets can live on the money their books make. So most poets, American poets in particular, often take on other jobs to support their passion. While Vogelsang, Mezey and Krusoe are grateful for the money that fellowships and second occupations bring, they find themselves concerned that they not sell out their art.

A Vicious Circle

Vogelsang said there exists "a vicious circle" in the world of modern American poetry. Sitting under skylights in the contemporary suburban home he shares with his wife, Judy, and two cats, his blond hair tousled, Vogelsang said, "Most poets in this country lead a very solid kind of existence--very bourgeois. They aren't mad artists. I don't know how good that is for their art. I have my doubts.

"Most poets have to support themselves by being teachers," Vogelsang said, "so if a poet writes the kind of poetry that gets accepted by the universities, then it is easier for him to get a job teaching it. If a poet behaves and writes like Allen Ginsberg, there is less of a chance of that, even if that poet is very talented."

As a result, he said, "Poetry which is supposed to be wild, exciting, strange, uplifting, even mysterious, often now is not these things.

"The kind of poetry many contemporary poets are writing is acceptable to academics, professors and so forth who teach in universities. With many poets, the main idea (in their writing) is to make sense, to be safe and to be accepted by the academics and by other poets. All of this has not been such a conscious calculation on anybody's part. It's just the way people are."

On the Front Line

Vogelsang has been an editor for 10 years with American Poetry Review, a prestigious journal in the trade. Although he taught literature and creative writing for a few years, he prefers editing.

"Editing is like being on the front line. It's more contemporary and there are not as many standards (as in teaching). You get raw material from aspiring writers, established writers . . . I find that more worthwhile and satisfying than teaching," he said.

Lest we forget, he added, "The main thing I do is write." His recent book of poetry, "A Planet" (Holt, Rinehart & Winston), was termed "one of the most refreshing of the year" by The Antioch Review

"I see my poetry as trying to join all of the things most of us want--peace with ourselves, harmony, love, adventure--with harsh realities within ourselves and harsh realities with living in the world today. What I like to believe is that poetry joins the two things, the harsh realities and the aspirations to grace."

This is the second time Vogelsang has won a National Endowment award. The first time was in 1976.

Robert Mezey, who lives in Claremont, agrees with Vogelsang that many American poets are bourgeois. He shrugs it off saying, "But that's true of lots of Americans. America is one large bourgeois society."

A Poet-in-Residence

Scholarly in appearance, Mezey just turned 50 and is a professor of English and poet-in-residence at Pomona College. He has taught there for eight years. His biggest worry seems to be that teaching takes far too much of his time away from writing.

"Teaching is hard work. I spend a lot of time at it. I think of myself as a conscientious teacher so it does not leave me a whole lot of time and energy for poetry."

It would appear Mezey is the epitome of Vogelsang's "bourgeois" professor-poet, having the comforts of a college professor--the stature, a private and spacious office on campus, job security. He admits his style of living is middle class but that his values are still rooted in his past.

"My consciousness is divided. I come from a working-class family, grew up during the Depression and the '40s when we were used to not having much. I'm still working class in many ways--in manners, in sympathies."

In 1968 Mezey made headlines when he was fired from Fresno State University. Outspoken views opposing American involvement in the Vietnam war and "repressive drug laws which were damaging students" led to his dismissal, Mezey said.

The case went to an appeals court where it was ruled Mezey did not have the right to serve beyond the one year his probationary teaching position required.

Had 'a Big Mouth'

"I had a big mouth," Mezey recalled. "Reagan was governor--that speaks volumes. Max Rafferty was . . . director of education." Claiming he was unofficially blacklisted, Mezey said he was unable to get a teaching job until 1973.

"For five years I scuffled. Got help from friends, did hack work, whatever it took to survive. It was a hard period. I lost a job. But other people lost a lot more, like their lives (in the Vietnam war)."

Mezey said the five years he did not teach were productive years nonetheless. "I wrote a lot."

The fellowship will allow Mezey to teach part time this year. He said he will also travel to New England to give readings at Dartmouth and Yale, but, "mostly I'm going to be in my office with the door locked trying to write poetry."

Even though he calls himself a "very opinionated person," Mezey does not mix politics with poetry. Mezey's poetry instead focuses on "what poets have been writing for half a million years," lamentations on love and lost love, change and mortality. He has had a dozen books published and is looking for a publisher for his newest manuscript.

"When we (other student poets) were young, we sat around griping about poetry not paying," 42-year-old James Krusoe said. "As I've gotten older, I've realized what a gift that is. There are so many other pressures we feel, at least there is not that financial pressure to write a best seller. You write because you really care about poetry."

Creative Writing Teacher

Krusoe teaches creative writing at Santa Monica College. Through the years he has also been a public health investigator for Los Angeles County, a house painter, hospital orderly and typesetter.

"To me it's important to do other things (than teaching), to suffer in other ways," he said.

Krusoe taught literature immediately after graduate school in Cleveland. He quit after two years, concluding he was not much smarter than his students who were his own age.

"Had I continued teaching, I would have been a lot less good a teacher and a lot less good a poet."

When he worked for the county in 1972, Krusoe was a drug counselor at the juvenile hall facilities in Sylmar.

"That was funny. I used to walk around in a sports jacket. Half of me was county and half of me was asking, what is this stuff? I'd tell these kids not to take drugs because they are bad. They would say they know that, then recount everything in their lives that was even worse. I'd say to myself, well maybe they should take drugs.

"The county made filmstrips that would make me sick--filmstrips on the theme 'life is fun' with kids going horseback riding and to Disneyland and Magic Mountain. They would show these to kids in the ghettos and ask, 'Don't you know life is fun?' "

Often Whimsical

Krusoe has had several books of poetry published, the most recent, "Jungle Girl" (Little Caesar Press). His poetry is written in non-traditional form, often whimsical in its free-verse style.

"I started out, I think, not a very talented writer," he said.

"I find out about my poems by reading to groups of people, strangers at public readings. I like to pay attention to how people are listening. If they're bored, I really do think that is my problem, not theirs. I don't think poetry should be boring or incomprehensible."

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