Long Beach State’s Gerald Locklin, Bukowski’s drinking pal, left a lasting mark on writing — and writers
A Cal State Long Beach classroom, 1985 or so. Gerald Locklin looks every bit his nickname “Bear,” with bushy salt-and-pepper hair and beard, thick glasses, rumpled polo shirt, jeans and Birkenstocks with socks. He leans heavily on the lectern, and opens class the way he always did, asking in his Rochester accent, “What’s haaappening?”
A conversation would commence. See any good movies? Concerts? How about that Lakers game? It would segue into talk about the stories students were writing. Maybe a Locklin lecture, covering a sweep of literary history from Beowulf to Barthelme, to give context to a new work being studied, in a discussion that was scholarly and fascinating and fun. All in 50 minutes.
As English professor, writer, editor and literary ambassador, Locklin helped transform the campus where he taught for 42 years into a place for writers and Long Beach into one of the country’s poetry hubs.
He was one of the more important and prolific American poets of the last half-century, whose companionable approach to the mundane and the consequential mirrored his classroom style.
Alongside the fiction and poetry of Charles Bukowski, his old drinking pal, Locklin’s deceptively simple, witty writing helped shape and propagate a democratizing literature associated with the West Coast style. His brand of verse was foundational to the Long Beach school of poetry and an offshoot known as Stand Up Poetry.
As one of Locklin’s students back in the 1980s, I remember him as a singularly gifted teacher, an enduring friend and one of the brightest and funniest people I’ve ever met.
Since his death this year of COVID-19 complications at 79, his old colleagues, former students and friends — many of them professors, writers or both — have recalled Locklin as one who opened doors, or gave an early nudge that made all the difference.
“Anywhere he went, he wanted to pull as many people up with him as he could,” Pittsburgh-area writer Dave Newman told me.
He wrote forewords and blurbs and letters by the dozen, shared publishing contacts, marked up manuscripts, left long phone messages of advice, relentlessly promoted and encouraged.
“I think all of us owe him a debt,” Long Beach poet Donna Hilbert said. “I mean, he certainly got me started in poetry.”
Said Fred Voss, another noted Long Beach writer: “At a time when I was really out there, paddling around in my kayak, all alone in the water, he was like a big ship that came and took me on board.”
Locklin liked to begin a poetry reading by singing, often the famous tenor aria from “Pagliacci,” delivered in a deep baritone.
As Locklin was no Caruso, it was sure to elicit howls of delight. Yet he belted out his solo with an earnest vigor, as if he were playing La Scala.
He’d cap the show off by acting out “Tap Dancing Lessons,” a poem about his childhood hoofing, bringing down the house with a bell step — airborne and clicking heels, whether in his hefty younger years or fragile older ones.
In between the song and dance, he’d read poems in a similar mode: an intersection of high art and low humor, amusing yet serious, endearing in their self-effacement.
Locklin followed a path blazed by Bukowski from literary-underground star and stalwart to wider appeal and acclaim. But whereas Bukowski embraced his role as writer of the anti-canon, Locklin was a blend of tradition and iconoclasm: a rebel among academics and an academic among rebels.
Alvin recalls his long friendship with Gerald Locklin and the night in the 1970s the Long Beach State professor-poet let him teach class.
Using his nicknames “Toad” and “Bear,” his alter ego Jimmy Abbey or even “Gerald Locklin,” he cast himself as the beer-drinking, woman-chasing antihero of his stories and verse. Across a sprawling output of more than 150 books and 3,000 poems, Locklin created an autobiographical study that could be at once enlightening and entertaining — and excruciatingly candid, showing others and himself in the harshest light.
As his poetry model Edward Field once noted, Locklin wrote about “everything”: drinking (for), drugs (against), Hemingway (for), feminism (against), sex, fatherhood, adultery, marital bliss, marital agony, music, art, a young daughter’s “poop” fixation, travel, cats, the Hollywood Bowl, the Jazz Bakery, iceberg lettuce, French’s mustard and his beloved Lakers and Yankees.
Reading Locklin, said Newman, “you can start seeing everything as a poem. From the table, to what your wife said, to what your kids say, to a painting on the wall ... suddenly they all seem to fit into these poetic forms that Gerry dreamed up for the last 50 years.”
Locklin’s 1984 novella, “The Case of the Missing Blue Volkswagen,” invented the genre of the “novella in flash,” in the view of Mt. San Antonio College professor-writer John Brantingham. It is one of several Locklin books in translation.
Hemingway was Locklin’s north star, but he drew inspiration too from what he called “the readable postmodernists,” Bukowski and Field especially. Field, now 97, said he and Locklin “shared certain informalities, that poetry shouldn’t be beyond human understanding and feelings.”
The formal lyricism in his first poetry collection, “Sunset Beach” (1967), suggests a different poet Locklin might have become. Though he never abandoned the style, he tended toward the short, playful poem in free verse, mixing the lofty and prosaic, laced with droll observation and rife with the absurdity of modern-day life — his, especially.
In “Where Have You Gone, T.S. Eliot?” he invokes Eliot’s “Four Quartets”:
“In the aerobics room, / Going nowhere on my treadmill, / While watching a beefy colleague / Climb stairs while remaining in place, / It occurs to me that maybe / What we have instead of / St. John of the Cross, / The dark night of the soul, / And the subsequent ascent of Mount Carmel, / Is the stepmaster machine.”
A Locklin poem “looked effortless,” said professor-poet Tricia Cherin, “and that was the art.”
His consciously masculine worldview, however, at times descended into chauvinism. “He came to see gender as a sort of battlefield,” said his son, Long Beach State professor-poet Zachary Locklin. And he concluded, as he titled one poem, “The Women Have Won.”
Racist slang and stereotyping tarnish some early writing. Moreover, the sheer volume of his work has a diluting effect.
Yet “at his best, he was an extraordinary poet,” said David Caddy, editor of the British journal Tears in the Fence.
“It’s amazing, his creativity and stamina,” said Joshua Bodwell, Godine/Black Sparrow Press editorial director. “The story of the American ‘small press movement’ ... can’t be written without a big fat section on Gerald Locklin.”
Locklin grew up an Irish Catholic in Rochester, N.Y., in the 1940s and ’50s. He headed west at the dawn of the Kennedy era, evolving into the shaggy-haired, hard-drinking libertine that would animate his poetry and fiction. But he never strayed from the academic path. He was just 23 when he earned his doctorate from the University of Arizona.
After teaching a year at Cal State L.A., Locklin moved in 1965 to Long Beach State. A thriving literary community took shape, and “Gerry was the sun around which everything rotated,” said poet Charles Webb, a longtime colleague.
What Field saw in Long Beach impelled him to compile an influential anthology, “A Geography of Poets” (1979), highlighting the country’s underappreciated poetry scenes. “And, of course, Long Beach was the most important,” Field said.
“It was so alive,” said Eileen Klink, chair of the Long Beach State English department. The mission, she said, was to teach that poetry “shouldn’t be this esoteric thing, it should be part of people’s lives.”
Poetry readings around town were popular, beyond the usual literary crowd. Locklin helped arrange campus readings by Bukowski, Allen Ginsberg and others. And he famously gathered after class with students and faculty at local dive bars, notably the Reno Room and the 49er Tavern, which played a starring role in Locklin’s writing.
“I think about sitting on a barstool with a pitcher of beer next to Gerry and talking about everything from the worst movie ever made, ‘Hot Rods to Hell,’ to discussing Joyce,” said retired Cal State Fullerton professor David Cherin, Tricia’s husband and Locklin’s former student and close friend.
Out of the Long Beach scene grew a movement Webb championed known as Stand Up Poetry, which helped popularize performance poetry in the 1990s and has influenced West Coast writing since. Inspired by an essay Locklin co-wrote about Field and their kind of poem, Stand Up placed a premium on clarity, honesty, humor and performability.
In the classroom, the literary spirit was epitomized by Locklin’s casual, “What’s happening?” approach. “The idea was to engage the students without any kind of pedagogical trickery,” Klink said. “It was, ‘I’m here, I’m interested.’”
And “he knew literature upside-down,” said Rafael “Ray” Zepeda, his ex-student, longtime colleague and frequent coauthor.
Tricia Cherin, a Cal State Dominguez Hills English professor emeritus, was an undeclared major when she first encountered Locklin’s banter and guided tour of literature. “It was so wonderful, I walked down the hill and declared myself an English major,” she said.
Before Dave Alvin co-founded the legendary L.A. rock band the Blasters and became an admired songwriter and guitarist, he’d considered himself “a dumbbell student.” But from his first American lit class with Locklin, he said, “I could feel the little gray cells kicking in, you know? It was like, ‘Hello! I can think!’”
Alvin explained: “Gerald Locklin was one of the few teachers in my life that took me seriously. … He really loved bringing things out of his students that maybe his students didn’t know were in them. Because of that, I felt like I didn’t want to disappoint him.”
Meanwhile, Locklin’s reputation as a poet had grown with the “mimeo revolution” of little magazines and small presses. Along with Bukowski and Ron Koertge, Locklin’s friend from his Arizona postgrad days, Locklin attracted a devoted readership in the Wormwood Review, one of the biggest of the little magazines.
Bukowski, Locklin and Koertge “were almost like a rock ‘n’ roll band in terms of their poetics,” Long Beach State professor-writer Bill Mohr said.
Many of Locklin’s best poems debuted in Wormwood. “Requiem for Three Bar Guys” conveys a tavern conversation about a drinking pal who’d died and two on the brink:
“i know this isn’t much of an elegy. / but then again some poems exceed their subjects / and others, like this one, are doomed to fall short, / because for my money these guys are no less worthy / of remembrance than lycidas or thyrsis.” It concludes: “if I don’t write their requiem, / who the f— do you know that will?”
Locklin aspired most of all to what he called “emotional accuracy,” and could be ruthless in its pursuit. He wrote casually about “my wife” and “my girlfriend” as if every ordinary husband had both.
“Bobbie’s Cat” details a bitter marital feud, addressing his wife by name. It concludes: “now, out of nowheres, hemorrhoids. / at last, a literal, physical pain in the ass. / up to now / i’ve had to make do with you.”
Yet family, his seven children especially, was the subject of his most tender and lyrical verse.
In “My Daughter and the Firebird,” he writes: “when my daughter dances / her heart is in a chord / with that of the firebird.” It ends: “soon enough, the christmas log / will expire, but the firebird shall not. / soon enough, no doubt, so shall i, / but our love will live on in the firebird.”
I last saw Locklin in 2014. I was writing an article on Bukowski, so I had to interview Locklin, whose “Charles Bukowski: A Sure Bet” is an authoritative study and memoir. We met in his campus office, which he visited regularly in his emeritus days and where I hadn’t been in nearly 30 years.
Gone was the Bear, and in his place was a lean man, skinny even, though with a paunch that came with the years, nearly 73 at the time. His hair and beard were neatly trimmed and totally white. Locklin described this version of himself in a poem as “a starving Ambrose Bierce or some long-suffering, taller brother of Edgar Allan Poe.”
I would never have recognized him on the street — until he spoke, still in his distinctive Rochesterian. And speak he did, 150 minutes straight, funny and sharp as ever.
“My health is falling apart,” he said at one point, ticking off his multiplying ailments: blood clots in the lungs, destroyed rotator cuffs, and, that very day, a fresh melanoma diagnosis.
The lung problem, pulmonary emboli, had been dogging him for 20 years. It almost killed him in 1993, resulting in a harrowing hospital stay — and a book, “The Hospital Poems.”
It transformed his life. He lost 100 pounds, quit drinking, turned his swimming hobby into a regimen.
It changed his writing too. Locklin’s jazz and art poetry became a primary focus. His verse about paintings, known as ekphrastic poetry, redefined the genre.
Dementia joined Locklin’s roster of illnesses in his final years.
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He last resided at an assisted living facility in Huntington Beach. Given the pandemic, visitors and residents were separated by glass and spoke by phone. “I don’t think they meant it to be like a prison, but it was weird,” Zepeda said.
Long Beach State professor-poet Todd Fox, who visited regularly, said that on more than one occasion “he asked me to come break him out.”
Four days into the new year, Locklin was rushed to the Kaiser hospital in Irvine with pneumonia, and he tested positive for the coronavirus.
He died Jan. 17.
Tributes include a poem on the Rattle website by Long Beach State professor-writer Clint Margrave, “Toad Dies and Goes to Heaven.” Mimicking his ex-teacher’s style, he begins: “Nobody is more surprised than he is. / First of all, Toad doesn’t believe in heaven, / and secondly, even if he did, / he never expected to visit.” Finally, Locklin meets up with Bukowski, and they drink — “not to their health, but ours.”
When the pandemic ebbs enough to allow, Locklin’s family will gather to scatter his ashes at sea, somewhere off the coast of Long Beach.
In Locklin’s doctoral thesis on Nathanael West, another renegade California transplant, he noted the novelist’s fate as a literary “enigma,” which he cited for “the failure of his work to take its rightful place in the history of American literature.”
Six decades later, Locklin’s own work might be cast in a similar light. For all his influence, his lasting significance in American poetry is unsettled. His body of work is daunting in size, and some of his best books are out of print. Absent a well-curated, career-spanning volume of selected poems, his achievements may go underrecognized.
But for the many he guided and taught, Locklin’s legacy is beyond dispute.
“I owe him a debt which is really not repayable. My whole life would’ve been different except for Gerry Locklin’s influence.” — Charles Webb
“He’s the one who turned me into a poet, not the other way around. ... He’s woven literally through the fabric of my life.” — Ron Koertge
“I’m thankful that he just reached out his hand and he said, ‘You know, it’s not crowded at the top. C’mon, it’s only crowded at the bottom.’ Any success I have, I blame it on Gerry.” — Alexis Rhone Fancher, poet-photographer
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