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Talk Poetry to Me
Kevin Berger | February 4, 2008
Does Kim Addonizio, acclaimed siren of the drinking class, have to be so bad to be so good?
It's a warm spring night, and Kim Addonizio is telling me about having sex with men in smoky bars with scary clown paintings on the walls. We're sitting in a booth in the 3300 Club, a bar in the outer Mission with campy paintings of naked Polynesian women on the walls. Addonizio, who turns 50 in July, is so open about her wayward life that it's almost unnerving. But never for a moment do you hear a note of regret in her voice. She saves that for her poems. Actually, we're talking about one of her poems, "One-Night Stands," right now. It starts with a jolt:
Those men I fucked when I was drunk,
I can't even see their faces anymore.
The poet calms down, her vision returns, and with it her pursuit of love:
There are people we're meant
to lose, moments that rinse off.
And there are still nights I lie awake
with the pulse, the throb,
that says Let's go
somewhere and watch the moon rise
over three rows of bottles and a cash register.
A woman in an apron approaches Addonizio. "I love your work; it's fabulous," she says, probably with more force than she intended. Clearly, she's nervous. Her name is Dion Drislane, and she runs her own catering business. She just dropped in for a drink after work. "I always thought poetry was just bad punctuation until I read yours," she continues. "It's so real and cuts to the heart. I read it over and over. I like The Philosopher's Club, I like Jimmy & Rita"—Addonizio's first two books—"but I especially like Tell Me. It's my favorite. I can't put it down. It's a page-turner. When I'm sick, I sit in bed and memorize it."
Addonizio blushes. She's not sure how to respond. "That's very cool, thanks, thanks a lot," she says. Drislane walks out of the bar and Addonizio looks at me like she's just found a $100 bill on the street. "Wow," she says.
It is pretty amazing, no doubt about it. The odds that someone would recognize a poet in public have got to be a million to one. I mean, origami has a higher profile in American culture than poetry.
In the poetry world, though, Addonizio is a rock star, the Chrissie Hynde of iambic pentameter—especially in San Francisco, where poetry really does constitute the soul of the city. Ever since Allen Ginsberg performed his legendary poem "Howl" at a makeshift art gallery in the Marina district in 1955, San Francisco has been to poetry what Hollywood is to the movies. These days, the City Lights bookstore, stomping ground of the Beats—Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, Michael McClure—is an obligatory stop on just about every tourist's itinerary.
Steven ("Kush") Kushner, the Bay Area's unofficial poetry archivist, takes a more international view. "San Francisco is the Paris of the world's poetry scenes," he says. Which I guess would make Addonizio our Baudelaire, who after all did once write, "One must always be drunk."
For two decades, Addonizio has performed her intoxicating poems in a congeries of Bay Area bookstores, cafés, bars, and galleries. Joyce Jenkins, editor and publisher of Poetry Flash, the review and calendar at the heart of the local poetry scene for 25 years, treasures Addonizio as the city's voice of sex and sensuality. "The openness of Kim's poetry is classic San Francisco energy," she says. "Can you think of a writer with such frank sexuality who's somewhere else?"
Addonizio also has a sterling national reputation. In 1990, based on a handful of poems, she won the first of two $20,000 fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. Tell Me, which includes "One-Night Stands," was a National Book Awards finalist in 2000.
"Kim is Shakespearean," says Dana Gioia, the current NEA chairman, who has long been one of the country's most influential poetry critics. "She creates poems that are both exuberant and have gorgeous musical shapes. Not many contemporary poets have her range. She really is emerging as one of the top poets of her generation."
She is also rising out of the poetry underground for the first time in her career. Released earlier this year, her fourth book of poems, What Is This Thing Called Love, marks her debut with a mainstream publisher. And it's a testament to how smoothly her poems go down with people who don't normally read poetry that Entertainment Weekly gave the book a plug in April.
Addonizio has also been branching into prose and this spring won first place in the annual fiction award given by the Mississippi Review, whose judges included ace novelist Frederick Barthelme. She is also among a handful of writers, including Joyce Carol Oates, Jane Smiley, and T.C. Boyle, to have had a story published in the new online journal Narrative Magazine.
In person, Addonizio is by turns bold and self-deprecating, caustic and coy. "If I were a surfer, I'd be about to catch a really big wave," she says. In fact, hanging out with her is a revelation. Stereotypes about poetry vanish into the ether.
You know: Poets are dour men who live in barren flats in the Mission district and give readings in dusty bookstores about the red sun rising over Nicaragua and the Sandinistas gathering in the mountains and oh, dreary, dreary, dreary. They are wispy women who live in Point Reyes and trace the gossamer trail of falling leaves in language that feathers your noble emotions. They are brilliant professors from Berkeley who arrange words in fascinating stanzas that you read and go, "Um, what?"
Addonizio is none of these things. Her poems are house parties with the doors thrown open, people holding bottles of tequila in their hands, saying, "Come on in."
Give me the lover who yanks open the door
of his house and presses me to the wall
in the dim hallway, and keeps me there until I'm drenched
and shaking, whose kisses arrive by the boatload
At the same time, she can slink away to a back room, get quiet on you, and emerge with reflections about the transpired night that leave you trembling.
How many nights have I lain here like this, feverish with plans,
with fears, with the last sentence someone spoke, still trying to finish
a conversation already over?
Not all is lost, though. In rare moods, she concedes there really is a town called Hope. In "Stolen Moments," from What Is This Thing Called Love, she quietly avers, "Love's / merciless, the way it travels in / and keeps emitting light."
Read Addonizio long enough and you will begin to wonder if anyone really can drink that much, have that much sex, feel that desperate, feel that exulted. On the one hand, "what you see is what you get," says Dorianne Laux, Addonizio's close friend, an acclaimed poet and a creative writing professor at the University of Oregon. "Kim's spirit is definitely in the poems. It's not a persona." On the other hand, says Susan Browne, also one of Addonizio's friends, who has taught English for 19 years at Diablo Valley College, "Kim's an extremely disciplined writer. There's no way you can drink as much as she does in her poems, fuck around with that many men, and still have the energy to write the way she does."
Of course, both versions are true. Addonizio is that rare writer who makes her living solely by the skin of her art, outside the groves of academe, and free of the crummy jobs she held for decades, like fry cook at the Sea Witch restaurant in Ghirardelli Square. But make no mistake about it, mass quantities of sex and isolation, love and sorrow have shaped her poetry all along the way.
In her own consummately bohemian way, Addonizio embodies everyone who's come of age in San Francisco, and she fashioned a life for herself, made it up on the spot, like an artist. She grew up in a big house in Bethesda, Maryland, a wealthy suburb of Washington, D.C. Her name at the time was actually Kim Addie. As all the kids on her block knew, her dad was Bob Addie, the great sportswriter for the Washington Post. A first-generation Italian who was raised in New York City, he dropped the Addonizio "so he could be more American," she says.
The quintessential American newspaperman—hard-drinking, streetwise—Addie covered horse racing, boxing, and the hapless Washington Senators baseball team for decades. Addonizio says she likes baseball today because it reminds her of running around in the press box with her four brothers in what is now Washington's RFK Stadium.
"He was a poet in many ways, my father was," she says. "He had a really romantic sensibility. People always said he was the sportswriter who wrote from the fan's perspective."
Addonizio's father wasn't the most famous sports figure in the family, though. That was her mother, Pauline Betz, a charismatic tennis champion who was on the cover of Time in 1946. During the forties, Betz won four singles titles in what is now called the U.S. Open, and Wimbledon on her first try. "The First Lady of Tennis," as Time christened her, was known for her "terrifying determination" to win rather than her artistic strokes.
With her strawberry blond hair, the green-eyed tennis star, who liked to be called Bobbie, was also a glowing socialite. She hobnobbed with movie stars like Robert Taylor at the Beverly Hills Club and celebrated her 27th birthday at a Swiss resort with heiress Barbara Hutton. During dinner at their home in Los Angeles, Betz's mother served vegetables in Pauline's sterling silver trophies.
"I didn't grow up with any kind of art," Addonizio states. "I grew up with sports. We had 14 televisions in our house. And all of them were tuned to sports. Sometimes I would walk into the kitchen and turn off the TV and come back five minutes later and it would be on again. I would walk from room to room going, ‘Who turned on the TV?' There was always a football game on in my childhood. I mean, I went to Walt Whitman High School and didn't even know who he was."
As a teenager, Addonizio taught tennis at the Betz-Taylor Tennis Camp, run by her mom, as did her brothers. Good thing they could entertain themselves, she says, because her mother was often away at tournaments and her father was on the road with the Senators: "It was like being raised by wolves," she says.
Home alone, she had to fend off her mentally unstable older brother, Rusty, who used to beat her up. Minatory images of him wielding bottles and knives turn up in her work. "I grew up as someone who felt helpless and unseen," she says. "When I would go to my parents and say, ‘Rusty broke a bottle over my head, dragged me out of bed by one arm, and beat the shit out of me, I can't live here anymore, you gotta do something,' their response was, ‘We can't control him; stay out of his way.'"
This helps explain her sympathy for down-and-out characters. "I've just always been attracted to people who lack power because I lacked power as a child. I was physically abused, verbally abused, and got told all the time how ugly and stupid I was. What do you do with that other than try to counter it with some kind of creative response?"
To escape "the whole sick drama of my childhood," as she writes in her poem "Therapy," she moved out when she was 17 and lived around Washington, D.C. Not long afterward, she discovered her real last name. While visiting her maternal grandmother, she was reading the newspaper and came across an article about Hugh Addonizio, the notorious mayor of Newark in the 1960s. Longtime confrere of the New Jersey Mafia, imprisoned for extortion, he had just been released.
"My grandmother jabbed her long red lacquered nail at the paper and said, ‘Don't tell your father I told you, but that's your family!'" she says. The mobster politician was her father's cousin. Later, Kim legally changed her name to Addonizio. She liked the poetic ring of it and its echo of her Italian heritage.
In 1976, when Addonizio was 22, she gravitated to San Francisco. She wasn't looking to start a professional career, nor was she drawn by the mythic magnetism of the Beats. She was just looking for a fresh start in a beautiful area. For a couple of years, she disappeared into the city's demimonde and indulged in drugs, including heroin.
"I remember going up to hotel rooms on Sixth Street to score," she says. "Somebody would just put the needle in water, squirt it out, and pass it to the next person. Thank God this was before AIDS. When I finally did get an AIDS test, I checked everything about sex and drug use on the form. ‘Did that, did that.' But I was never a junkie. I had pretty much quit the stuff by the time AIDS came along in the eighties. Luckily for me."
Cleaning up her act a bit, she enrolled at San Francisco State University and studied music. She was a decent singer and serious flute player and was determined to become a musician. She fell in love with a piano player and moved into a Richmond district flat with him. One night while he was practicing, she sat alone upstairs in a dormer room. She picked up a stray book and started reading a poem by Sylvia Plath. At least she thinks it was by Plath; she can't remember. "I was sitting and reading and going, ‘What is this?' It totally took off the top of my head. Right there and then, I wanted to write something in response, write my version of that thing, whatever it was, in that poem."
She switched her major to creative writing and became as terrifyingly determined to master poetry as her mother had been to master her backhand. "I knew you had to work really hard to get good at it," she says. "Maybe it came from being a musician and knowing I had to practice scales three hours a day. So when it came to writing, I asked, ‘What's the discipline here? What do I have to do every day to get better?'"
Addonizio took a creative writing class from Frances Mayes, not yet famous for writing Under the Tuscan Sun, but thought the genteel teacher wasn't hard enough on her. She then fell under the wing of Stan Rice (now deceased), a beloved, influential professor and a fine poet in his own right. (His wife would go on to write a bunch of vampire novels.) Addonizio was thrilled that Rice read her drafts assiduously and told her when she sounded like she was auditioning for Hallmark and when she nailed some real emotional chords.
Her greatest encouragement, though, ultimately came from her father. "When I told him I was trying to write, he sent me letters saying, ‘Try to follow the music, try to follow the magic,'" she says. In 1981, Addonizio published her first poem. It appeared in SFSU's English department magazine, Alchemy. Not long afterward, her father had a stroke and she traveled to see him in Maryland.
"I remember going to his hospital room with my little copy of Alchemy," she says. "I said to him, ‘Dad, I just want you to know I published a poem in the school magazine.' So I read him my poem. And it was a pretty fucking decent poem. He was paralyzed all along the left side of his body and couldn't speak properly; only miscellaneous words would come out. When I was done reading, he raised himself up on his pillows, pointed a finger at me, and said, ‘Write!' Then he fell back on the pillows. It was an astonishing moment."
In 1982, the same year that her father died, Kim had her daughter, Aya, her only child. She had left the piano player and married her flute repairman, Aya's father, who would become a therapist who used Zen in his practice. A year later, Addonizio was a single mom, getting by on food stamps and "living close to the edge" in the Western Addition.
Around then, she met Laux, also a new poet. "I felt I had found a sister not only in poetry but in that our lives were heading in the same direction," Laux remembers. "Both of us were struggling with money, getting our daughters to day care, and we would say, ‘We're going to write our way out of this. We're going to find a way, through writing, to support ourselves.'"
For five years in the eighties, Addonizio worked as a bookkeeper at Express Auto Parts in the Tenderloin, right across the street from the Mitchell Brothers' porn palace. As a writer, she was finding her real voice by translating her drug and drinking experiences into her poems. And taking them to the streets.
At the time, the city was rocking with readings by local poets of all aesthetic stripes. Colleges were churning out experimental poets who mounted their rebellion against sentimentality on theater stages like SoMa's always challenging New Langton Arts. Meanwhile, at Mission district hangouts like Café Babar, colloquial poets were building enthusiastic audiences of young women and men who loved sexy, brazen verse such as Addonizio's.
One of her boyfriends then was Steve Vender, formerly an amateur boxer, and a bartender at the Embers, a smoky dive (the one with the clown paintings) in the inner Sunset. It's now Pluto's, a space-theme diner. Addonizio modeled the male title character in Jimmy & Rita, her 1997 verse novel about the drug-fueled disintegration of a San Francisco couple, after Vender: he, a boxer from New Jersey; she, a Tenderloin masseuse and stripper. The book is dedicated to "V."
Also a former boxing journalist, Vender is now a private investigator in San Francisco, working for defense attorneys. "Kim was sexy and smart and funny and not afraid to take that walk down the dark side," he says, his fast and furious diction more Sopranos than James Gandolfini. "She was everything I was looking for in a woman."
He remembers going to one of Addonizio's readings in 1989 that took place at a Mission district art gallery. Onstage, she recited a story about being picked up by hitchhikers, getting high, and spending the night with them in a roadside motel. She told the story to the romantic strains of the French movie sound track A Man and a Woman, playing on a boom box. Nearby sat a pedestal with a vibrating dildo, ringed by a miniature tutu. Addonizio stripped off her shirt and her breasts were covered with shaving cream. If the hitchhikers in the motel would lick off the shaving cream, went her story, she would give them blow jobs.
"It was way out there," Vender says. But his favorite part was when San Francisco's famed longshoreman-writer, George Benet, who had gone to the reading with him, turned and said, cigar dangling from lips—Vender imitates the rickety Chicago accent of Studs Terkel—"You know, kid, your girlfriend's got a lot of balls."
Soon enough, Vender was out of the picture. In 1990, Addonizio went to a fund-raiser at the private school Synergy, which her daughter attended on a scholarship, and met Robert Specter, a photographer. "He looked over at me, our eyes met, the crowd parted, and we practically had sex in the bleachers that night, scandalizing the whole school," Addonizio says. Three months later she married Specter, and nine months after that they split. "There was a lot of jealousy, ambivalence, and drama—things were swirling around. I don't know, I have a real talent for complicating things," she explains. Or tries to explain. More convincingly, she says: "I self-destructed for two years."
Throughout the turmoil, Addonizio always held a job and made time for her daughter's homework and friends, for trips to the beach and parks. So please, she asks, don't think of her only as the barfly in her poems. "When Aya was in junior high, she said to me, ‘Mom, we're poor, right?' I said, ‘Well, honey, I don't make a lot of money, but it's OK, we're making it.' And she said, ‘How come we have such a good life?' I said, ‘It's because we know how to live.'"
Still, as the nineties drew to a close, Addonizio was mining her darkest places deeper than ever. Her romantic meltdowns eclipse her 1999 book of prose stories, In the Box Called Pleasure, notable for sex so explicit that even the done-it-all Vender says he "didn't understand what Kim was doing." One thing she was doing was reading Kathy Acker, the brilliant writer, feminist, and literary theorist whose experimental novels, such as Blood and Guts in High School, burn readers' neural networks free of hackneyed eroticism and reinvent sex on the page as the power and domain of women.
Yet Addonizio's tango in Acker's high heels stumbles. The raw emotions that define In the Box Called Pleasure are not ripe enough to be tasted by readers other than Addonizio herself. They lack the crisp language and inviting rhythms of her poetry. Nevertheless, she says, "Kathy Acker was very liberating for me. I realized that nothing I wrote could ever be as out there as what she did, and that was very freeing."
Effectively so, as Addonizio's next book, Tell Me, besides the National Book Awards nomination, received widespread acclaim from critics. Although it's perhaps Vender who gave it the highest praise. "I read Tell Me in City Lights the moment it came out," he says. "I read the whole thing standing up, and when I finished I ran to a pay phone and I said, ‘Baby, you used to be reposado, but now you're añejo.'" Just like Vender, Addonizio says, to compare her to grades of tequila.
As you might imagine, not everyone is high on Addonizio. One critic is Oakland's Jack Foley, a wonderful poet himself, who hosts a weekly poetry show on KPFA and writes a respected column for the online literary magazine Alsop Review. To him, Addonizio has added little to the legacy of San Francisco Beat poets Diane di Prima and Lenore Kandel, who, with far less acclaim than their famous male counterparts, Ginsberg and Kerouac, broke sexual and spiritual ground in poetry. While Addonizio has been praised for being honest about getting her thrills from one-night stands and shooting a gun, Foley says, "a man being ‘honest' in that way would stir up a hornet's nest—people are not interested in that kind of ‘honesty' coming from a man." The shock of her poems, he says, "comes simply from the fact that a woman is saying such things."
One person's pose, though, is another's cry from the heart. To Laux, Addonizio has indeed taken up the sexual torch of Plath and Anne Sexton. "Kim is writing in the voice of a woman who is very clear-eyed, honest, and tough," she says. "She is discussing female sexuality with a real ferocity and fervor. And that's not usual at all."
Addonizio shrugs off the argument that she's always chasing trendy themes. "I'm just running down the hole after my own rabbit," she says. The criticism that her work lacks artistic rigor, however, is another matter. "I continually get accused of being this artless, confessional blah, blah, blah. But only in poetry is eliciting a visceral response suspect. I would submit that's the first thing art wants to do! But no, in poetry, that's a suspect thing to do. Which says something about the sad state of contemporary poetry, right? ‘Omigod, I felt something, it must be bad! What's wrong with her? She's working from feelings. How naive.'"
In fact, Addonizio is driven by a relentless desire to perfect her craft. Her love for poetry and its traditional forms is on display in The Poet's Companion, an astute and personal how-to book that she wrote with Laux in 1997. It's the basis for her private workshops, for which she charges aspiring poets $320 for seven sessions. She also earns up to several thousand dollars a pop by appearing at poetry conferences around the country. (It's a modest living: Last year, she made $28,000.) She is a natural speaker who captures listeners with confidence and sarcasm, not to mention tattoos and metallic blue fingernail polish.
One morning, I watch her in action at the Bentley School in suburban Lafayette, where she is talking to 40 private-school teachers from around the Bay Area, advising them on how to get students excited about poetry. In the school's tiny library, Addonizio involves the teachers by having them pen lines to a poem that begins with the very Addonizion phrase: "At the all-night donut shop..."
Later she suggests they have their students tackle subjects they feel passionate about. "Have them set something in a bar," she says. The teachers laugh. "Right, your kids wouldn't be setting their poems in bars, would they?" In that case, "have them rewrite a Shakespearean sonnet as a rap song, something in their own language." She then recites from memory Shakespeare's "29th Sonnet"—"When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes / I all alone beweep my outcast state..."—and the teachers, along with the engaging lesson about the splendors of poetry, are getting a pretty good sense of the poet herself.
Similarly, it's Addonizio's fearless personality that inspires her workshop students. Diablo Valley College teacher Susan Browne claims that Addonizio alone has taught her to see the light. "She told me, ‘You need to wake up and realize there's a whole lot of people who are much better than you,'" Browne says. "That brought me to tears. I just didn't have enough discipline, enough toughness of mind and spirit. I wasn't going deep enough. Kim would always say, ‘Dig in!'" Browne, at age 50, had her first book of poems published earlier this year.
The truth is, Addonizio's bad-girl image does run only skin-deep, but not because her poems are superficial. For one thing, she's now having a jolly time poking fun at herself. In "This Poem Is in Recovery," she writes: "I'm not going to get drunk and take off my clothes / to sign my book for you..." For another, as her latest book reveals, she writes with a profound, emotional gravity about domestic life and its inevitable cycles: her daughter growing up, her mother dying.
Once at the top of the world in tennis, Addonizio's mother now lives alone in an assisted-care apartment complex in Maryland, suffering from Parkinson's disease. Addonizio, who often journeys back East to care for her, exposes the heart of those experiences in "Washing," from What Is This Thing Called Love. "I haul my mother up from the tub," the spare poem begins, and then recalls the days when the poet as a child used to watch her mother take a bath. When Addonizio gave her mother a copy of the book, she tore out "Washing." She thought the image of helplessness would be too distressing for her mother to read.
Today, Addonizio says she leads a "boring, domestic life." She has made peace with second ex-husband Specter, and two years ago they bought a house in West Oakland, where they live together; they haven't remarried. However, she won't be holding Tupperware parties anytime soon. On occasion she still hangs out with Vender; I met them one night at the Saloon in North Beach, where they were dancing to a raggedy blues band. And perish any thoughts that she is growing complacent. "It's the poet's job to live deeply," she says. "It's our job to walk with death every day. I drive down the streets, sit at stoplights, and I don't know what the person next to me is thinking, but I'm thinking, ‘It's all creation and destruction at every moment.' Then I catch myself and I go, ‘What the fuck is that about?' It's the artist's job to find out."