July 1, 2014

A CONVERSATION WITH RON KOERTGE

Pasadena, California
July 3, 2013

Ron Koertge teaches at Hamline University in their low-residency MFA program for Children’s Writing. A prolific writer, he has published widely in such seminal magazines as Kayak and Poetry Now. Sumac Press issued The Father Poems in 1973, which was followed by many more books of poetry including Fever (Red Hen Press, 2007), Indigo (Red Hen Press, 2009), and Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses (Candlewick Press, 2012). He is a contributor to many anthologies, such as Billy Collins’ Poetry 180 and Kirby & Hamby’s Seriously Funny. Koertge also writes fiction for teenagers, including many novels-in-verse: The Brimstone Journals, Stoner & Spaz, Strays, Shakespeare Bats Cleanup, and Shakespeare Makes the Playoffs. All were honored by the American Library Association and two received PEN awards. He is the recipient of grants from the NEA and the California Arts Council, and has poems in two volumes of Best American Poetry. His newest collection is The Ogre’s Wife. He lives in South Pasadena, California.
ronkoertge.com

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GREEN: Okay, let’s officially start. It’s July 3rd at Ron … how do you say it, Koertge?

KOERTGE: KUR-chee. But nobody really knows. It’s an old German name and it should rhyme with Goethe if it’s pronounced right, but who’s going to do that? So the name was anglicized over and over and over. It is not a pretty name. [Green laughs] I have that problem about my name, how difficult it is to pronounce.

GREEN: Well, Tim Green’s pretty easy. [laughs] So we’re here at your house, which—I have to mention, it’s where Halloween was filmed—

KOERTGE: One of the scenes from Halloween, where Jamie Lee Curtis comes down the stairs and walks around holding a pumpkin and sits on this little concrete stool. Nothing indoors. And we didn’t know when we moved here—

GREEN: Oh, really? You just happened to find out? When the people showed up …

KOERTGE: [laughter obscures] … holding pumpkins, holy crap! We had two choices—my wife’s nicer than I am, in general. The whole enterprise made me cranky at first. And then I thought, that isn’t going to get me anyplace; I may as well just embrace it. So Bianca got a picture of Jamie Lee Curtis and the phony pumpkins and invited people to use them, and I’ve gotten into that.

GREEN: You grew up in Illinois, and then Arizona for grad school—how did you end up here; what drew you?

KOERTGE: Well, you know Gerry Locklin? Gerry and I were in grad school together. So he got a job for one year at Cal State LA and then he moved to Cal State Long Beach. Well, while he was at Cal State LA, his office mate—her husband was the head of the department at PCC, and she casually mentioned to Gerry that her husband was looking for a teacher. I wrote to him—his name was Woody Olson—and he said, “You know this isn’t really a job search, but if you come out to see your friend, call me.” Well, you know, I left that night. [both laugh] Because I didn’t have a job. And I didn’t know what a good job it was. It was just so serendipitous. I interviewed casually with a guy named Frank Hammond and he called that night and offered me the job. 

GREEN: Wow. And you taught all sorts of things, right? Composition, literature …

KOERTGE: I taught everything. When I was a young teacher I wanted to teach the classics and Shakespeare and stuff. Then I got a little older and wiser and I started to like teaching remedial composition—one, because it was easy and I’m lazy, and I had time to write; I wasn’t knocking myself out reading Pope’s Essay on Man or anything. But I really started to like teaching basic composition. I could go in there and they couldn’t write—much less a graceful sentence, they couldn’t write a real sentence. I can go in, I can teach them in a traditional way, subject, verbs, what a preposition is used for. And what you had to go through is the first four or five weeks—I was older then, I’d be 50 when I started this—and I go in and I was their worst nightmare. I was the mostly bald, fairly old white guy, and I had African-American students, I had Hispanic students, I had students in and out of jail, in and out of the army, and these were some tough customers. The first few weeks are hard and then I convince them that traditional writing, called college writing, was like another language. And the joke that I used, which you’re welcome to use or not, is I would tell them, “I don’t want you going to one of your parties saying ‘To whom does this AK-47 belong?’” [Green laughs] 

This classroom situation was not Edenic, it wasn’t a picnic, but mostly, they got it. And it was so funny because I roamed the room and I sat by them and I would make physical contact; I would go from student to student, work on these little paragraphs, and they’d say to me, “Jesus Christ, this fucking comma’s killing me,” and I’d say, “Yeah, I know, it’s hard,” and, “Here’s what you do; you can maybe move this verb around.” So I loved the last decade of teaching—I always like teaching, but I loved the last eight or ten years. I taught remedial writing and a poetry writing workshop at night. It was just gravy. It was really nice.

GREEN: That’s great. Did you like teaching poetry too?

KOERTGE: I did, I did. And you know what, I went in there one night—I always went in on Monday night—and I went in there, and I don’t know why this happened, my ego had a hard-on or something, but my ego said, “Welcome to English-8, Writing Poetry.” Then my ego asked, “How many of you came to work with me?” And not a hand. [both laugh] And so I rallied, you know, and I said, “Let’s just see what we’ve got,” and I started. My reputation didn’t make any difference to them; they weren’t impressed by that. They liked it that I published, when I showed them the books, but they usually asked, “How much money did you make from those?”

GREEN: Did they want to get published too?

KOERTGE: Oh, absolutely. And for many of them—Dorianne Laux said this about Oregon I think when she was up there—I was just in their way; their attitude was, “This nitpicking about half-rhyme is driving me crazy.” But in the main, it was such a heterogeneous group, you know, older, gay, lesbian, African-American, Hispanic, white, and at least one eighteen-year-old who’s baked every night. But we almost always had a great time. I still hear from them. 

GREEN: Do you think poetry can be taught to anybody, or do you think there’s some innate trait that makes a poet?

KOERTGE: I’ve answered this before, but I always like to answer things in different ways, because I don’t want to hear myself be boring to myself. [both laugh] So this answer is, yeah sure. I think anybody can write a sonnet because it’s formulaic, but I can tell the people who have a little gift. And I can tell the smaller gift from the larger gift, because people who are gifted, they just really started to sing, and the other ones are just kind of—remember the old Fred Astaire … you’re not old enough, the old Fred Astaire dance studio and they’d have the—

GREEN: Footprints …

KOERTGE: Yeah, and anybody could follow the footprints, but somebody with a little gift has a sense of when to half-rhyme “love” and bother with “dove.”

GREEN: So do you think that gift is musical, like the sense of—

KOERTGE: I do think it’s musical. If I were a musician, and I’m far from being one, I would have a really good ear, because I’ve got it for poetry and I’ve got it for prose.

GREEN: I know you write a lot of different styles—sestinas and sonnets. Is that something you set out to do? Like when you sit down and write a poem, do you say, “I want to write a sestina today?”

KOERTGE: Some days I do. I’m a—I’m almost less than blue collar, I’m like no collar. My parents were really, really, really poor. I mean, we were living in—I was born in 1940, so in 1948 or so, I’ll bet we were living on $9,000 a year. My mom worked, even as a child. So, you know, I come from that background where everybody worked. So I write every day.

GREEN: Seven days a week?

KOERTGE: Seven days a week. Holidays. I try to write when I’m sick, but I kind of can’t. If there’s a point, it’s that my mind churns at night. My wife goes to work at eight; she’s a counselor at PCC, and I’m by myself with that useless cat over there. So Buddy and I go upstairs and if my mind’s been churning then I’m going to work on something and if not, I’ll take a form and I’ll try that.

GREEN: So those are kind of exercises to …

KOERTGE: They’re kind of exercises. I don’t know if this is interesting to the interview or not, but I write fiction for middle grade—

GREEN: Yeah, definitely, I want to talk about that.

KOERTGE: Yeah, middle grade readers and teenagers, and some of it is kind of transgressive, not the middle grade so much. But I wrote two books, one called Shakespeare Bats Cleanup and Shakespeare Makes the Playoffs. And Shakespeare’s a kid, a fourteen-year-old boy, who loves baseball and poetry. Over the course of those two middle-grade novels, I got to use every form of poetry known to man, because my narrator had a girlfriend and they would trade poems. And I wrote the sestina and I wrote the villanelle and I wrote the haiku and I wrote the sonnet and I wrote the pastoral; the two kids just worked their way through, like going down the menu in a restaurant. So if I hadn’t had the practice on these days when my mind wasn’t churning, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. And although I love writing poetry, those novels were worth $30,000 each.

GREEN: Really? Wow.

KOERTGE: Lot of money for “poetry.”

GREEN: How is the reception for having a verse novel for young adults? That’s not something young adults come across very often. 

KOERTGE: It is probably my most well-known book, except for Stoner & Spaz, which every kid likes. They can’t keep it in the libraries because kids steal it [Green laughs] and the libraries don’t have any money so they don’t re-buy it. Those two Shakespeare books of mine are very popular novels. 

GREEN: Do you think the kids—

KOERTGE: They like them because they’re short.

GREEN: [laughs] Yeah. Do you think they notice or care about the forms, or do you think that’s just incidental and it’s something they’re only absorbing subconsciously?

KOERTGE: You know, it depends on who their teacher is. If they’re like a theme or content teacher, it’s the story, but if they want to teach some poetry, that’s possible, too. Teachers are really good to young adult writers. I’ll get like 30 letters in one big envelope from the teachers, and students write me, you know, “Dear Mr. Koertge …” and they say great things: “Thank God this was so short,” or “You probably aren’t the best poet I’ve ever read, but these are pretty good.” [Green laughs] They’re just so fucking honest! [laughs] And I write them back.

GREEN: What age level is this?

KOERTGE: The age level is probably fourteen through fifteen. And the myth—if not the myth then the accepted wisdom—is that kids read two years ahead of their own age, so if you’re twelve you’ll read about fourteen- or fifteen-year-olds, something like that. Stoner & Spaz, which is so profane, full of dope references, obviously—maybe sixteen and up. 

GREEN: Do teachers teach these books in their classes?

KOERTGE: They don’t teach Stoner & Spaz very often [laughs], but they do teach the Shakespeare books. I wrote a book named Strays about a foster kid; it’s a story that gets taught a lot, but teachers use it like an adjunct to a block on What’s It Like To Be Different—as in what would it be like to be in the foster care system? And the funny thing is, I made all that stuff up. I never do research.

GREEN: Never, at all?

KOERTGE: Well, Wikipedia! And can we trust that? 

GREEN: Of course!

KOERTGE: Yeah, of course! I’ll tell you, the Stoner & Spaz story, when it was out—it’s ten years old now—so I’m doing a telephone interview with the BBC, and they’re in England and they’ve got some woman in Australia and they’ve got me and they’ve got a counselor for the physically disabled. And we talk about the book and the woman says to me, the counselor, “Well, Ron, you’ve really managed to make lemonade out of the lemon.” And I said, “Well, what lemon is that?” And she said, “Well, your disability.” And I said, “Oh, but I’m not disabled.” And she said, “Ron. Don’t be ashamed.” [both laugh] So I said, “Okay, I’ll just hobble over to the window and throw myself out.” 

GREEN: So how did you get into writing young adult novels? That was relatively recent, right?

KOERTGE: Well, no, I mean, I wish. I didn’t start until I was 40, so I’ve been doing it 33 years. But I got into it by failing. I wrote one novel for grown-ups—Norton published it—and it was a pretty good novel called The Boogeyman, and then I wrote two more. So I was really stoked about The Boogeyman; it was the beginning of my bright career. Three or four years later, two more novels—not a nibble. So I’m talking to a friend of mine named Merrill Joan Gerber who was then a young adult novelist. I was also divorced at the time and I was running around, I was drinking, I was chasing women, and just generally behaving badly. And she said to me, “You know, Ron, you’re such a child, you should write for adolescent boys.” [Green laughs] And instead of getting my feelings hurt, I thought, “Yeah, absolutely.” Because I’m just a smart-ass. So I went to this library [gestures across the street], to the young adult section, which I did not know existed, took out a couple of books, read them, and literally thought, “Fuck, I can do better than this.” And I could. I sat down and revised one of the failures of the grown-up novels, sent it to my agent, he sent it out, rejected once, taken a second time, and I’ve never had a rejection since.

GREEN: Wow. 

KOERTGE: That’s extraordinary. I don’t know if I believe in this stuff or not, but clearly I’m meant—I’m either meant to write for this age group, or I’ve just found a niche that suits me, I don’t know.

GREEN: Well, it seems like it. But what do you think about those adult novels, do you think they just didn’t have the lucky break? It’s so random …

KOERTGE: You know, Tim, I’m afraid that the first novel was like the story of everybody’s first novel. It was very autobiographical. I’m not a really smart person, but I’m glib, and I’m witty, so it was very funny. And I mean, I knew how to write. But I think that was the novel I had in me, but the other two: nada. Now this novel just knocked me out. [holds up Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake] You know this novel?

GREEN: No, I haven’t read it.

KOERTGE: Yeah, I really admire people like Aimee Bender. She’s so good that she’s just way out of my league. I’m happy to do what I can do.

GREEN: Well, that’s great. The first poem I read that really stuck to me of yours was that “Do You Have Advice for Those of Us Just Starting Out?” Just the irreverence of it, and the sense of joy at writing …

KOERTGE: That’s the one that ends in the library, isn’t it?

GREEN: Yeah, the little boy building stacks with the books that everybody else takes so seriously. What’s the seriousness of your writing? Can you be light and also be serious at the same time?

KOERTGE: I don’t know. I mean, a parfait is two different flavors—why can’t I be a parfait? Why can’t I be light and serious at the same time? But I am not a serious person. I don’t take hardly anything seriously. I’m kind of a chatterbox. The unkind word for clever is glib, and I am glib. Partly I have really a hard time taking things seriously, and I don’t suffer fools gladly. I see so much pretentiousness in the poetry world.

GREEN: Oh, definitely.

KOERTGE: Oh, for God’s sake. I mean, if I hear one more person read a poem like this: “Tonight. In the garden. My grandfather. And I. A pear tree.” Fuck, shoot me now. [Green laughs] 

GREEN: That reminds me of a poem I just read in your new book that’s coming out by the time this interview’s out.

KOERTGE: Ogre’s Wife.

GREEN: Yeah, Ogre’s Wife, the poem with the typos in the pretentious poems—you know, “The night was full of dorkness …” [both laugh] And that is the best part of it. 

KOERTGE: “The panting on the wall …” Yeah.

GREEN: Where do you think that pretentiousness comes from? Why do so many poets write like that?

KOERTGE: Let’s guess together, and I’m happy to do it, but most people think poetry is a serious art, and they take themselves seriously. And I don’t know, I was brought up on T.S. Eliot and Roethke and it didn’t influence me. Why would those guys tilt other people toward high seriousness? But don’t you see it everywhere? What do you think it is?

GREEN: Oh … I think people just learn what they think poetry is and they’re writing not for themselves but to publish, and so they’re modeling themselves after that style, and I think it just repeats itself.

KOERTGE: I think it does, because you and I know what’s called “the MFA poem”—you go to a program and all those fucking poems look the same.

GREEN: Yeah, exactly. And the thing is, the worst poems we get are from the Ph.D. professors—

KOERTGE: Oh, my God.

GREEN: And it’s just all like that—why would anybody want to read it?

KOERTGE: Or go to a reading and listen to it.

GREEN: Unless you want to be them, and then you see this person being held up and so you want to write like that person and then it just continues. 

KOERTGE: Years ago—do you know Jack Grapes?

GREEN: Yeah, I took one of his workshops.

KOERTGE: Jack Grapes said to me, “You know, Ron,” he said, “You’re pretty good at this. You just don’t know how to play the game.” He said, “You’ve got to go to the readings of people who are above you at the moment. Let’s say you’re a B-list poet—you’ve got to go to the B+, the A- and the A readings,” he said, “and then those below you will come to your reading.” And I said, “I don’t want some B- son of a bitch coming to my reading.” [Green laughs] So I was never really good at so-called “playing the game.” 

GREEN: I feel the same way, and that’s kind of what Rattle’s all about, too; we do our own thing and ignore that whole hierarchy.

KOERTGE: Oh, Rattle’s very irreverent. I remember, when I was kind of in the mix more than I am now, people fretting over who would read at Beyond Baroque. So you go to Beyond Baroque and it’s this funky little house, wonderful sound system, and they put on so many fucking programs there’s about nine people in the audience every night. [Green laughs] What’s the anxiety level here about, you know? Because there are two kinds of poets: Those who like to write and those who like to have written. I like to write.

GREEN: What about the ones who like to have won awards? [laughs]

KOERTGE: Oh, there are those too. You know, I had an NEA and I was stunned when that came through, really stunned. And the rest of them—Guggenheim, no chance, Whiting, no chance. Dick Shelton told me once—he was at Arizona when I was; he’s a pretty good poet and a very decent guy. And he said to me, “You know, you’re never going to get anywhere if you just keep trying to be funny.” And I said, “That’s probably good advice.”

GREEN: But what’s the point of writing for the five people who judge the Guggenheim? 

KOERTGE: Actually tell me who they are and I’ll do it! [both laugh]

GREEN: It’s just something I’ve been trying to figure out for ten years!

KOERTGE: I know, I’ve been trying for 25 years.

GREEN: Most of your early books were poetry and then you dove into the young adult, but you still write the poetry. How do you decide what to write? 

KOERTGE: I’m an old Platonist, so I think I’m a doorway between the infinite and the finite. I just—this sounds like a little California woo-woo—but I just try to be the open door. I just try to really be available. And if I’m writing the young adult novels, then I really can’t write any poetry—my mind just, it works every night on its own. And writing fiction, I do four pages a day, every day. It doesn’t have to be good in the first draft. But I need something; I need 150 pages I can work with. So that’s all my mind wants to do. 

And my life is really simple. My wife and I get up at five, we have a walk together, you know, speed-walk, come back, maybe do a little yoga, she goes to work, I go to work, and four pages later I either go to the movies or I go to the races—I love the races. And I’m happy to see my wife when she comes home and we usually sit on the porch and have a drink and I could do that pretty much every day. It seems like a really sweet life to me. 

GREEN: And the writing—

KOERTGE: I’m done at noon. Punch in at eight … I need a lunch bucket and a thermos. [Green laughs] Yeah, when I get the four pages, I’m done. I mean, there are days I just can’t, but some days I get six pages. I love to turn out the product, I really do. I like to see things on paper, I’m not a theorist. My feeling is this: I don’t know why I have this gift, I don’t know where it came from, what God or gods, but I don’t think it should be disregarded; I think it should be paid attention to. So I read, of course, but—

GREEN: But it’s more fun to write.

KOERTGE: It’s more fun to write. Singers and musicians, they play and sing every day. Me too. I play and sing every day. 

GREEN: You mentioned—it must have been something I read, but you talk about the mysterious “something” that brought characters together for Stoner & Spaz

KOERTGE: Oh, my God. Yeah …

GREEN: Like they appeared in the same way. But what do you think that “something” is that brought them? 

KOERTGE: I don’t have any … I mean, it’s serendipity, or it’s an enormous blessing, a real gift from, I don’t know, Zeus or Yahweh, whomever you want to worship. You know the story?

GREEN: Yeah, but tell it for the readers …

KOERTGE: Well, I’d written this book, and I forget the title, it wasn’t Stoner & Spaz, it was, I don’t know, something else, and it was about a rich boy alienated from his peers by his wealth and he bumps into this stoner girl so you can guess what happens next: conflict/resolution. And I’m sitting up in the studio upstairs and I can see across to the library. A guy who works there, who has cerebral palsy, a guy whom I know, walked from his car to the bus, and I was thinking, “Oh gee, I wonder what if this kid in the book, what if he had CP?” And then I thought, “Oh, I don’t want to rewrite this.” [Green laughs] So that day or the next, I get in my car; I’m done writing and I’m on my way to the races and it’s a one way street so I’m at the corner of Carrows and the gas station and I stopped for a light. And some kid I had never seen before or after, a kid with CP, limps in front of my car and I just, I looked up and I said, “Fine.” Don’t show me another disabled kid! [both laugh] And I came home and I wrote eight or ten pages of the beginning, sent it to my editor, and she said, “Oh, this is much more interesting.” So she said, “Take some time with it and rewrite the book. Love, Liz.” Easy for her to say! But it was astonishing. 

GREEN: And do you think that actually came from anywhere, or …

KOERTGE: I have no idea. But what a coincidence.

GREEN: And that happens with so many things, so many tiny moments that could change the entire direction of our lives.

KOERTGE: It really does. In this book Strays, this boy, he’s in foster care pretty much overnight; his parents are killed. And his parents had a pet shop; he’s been around animals all of his life. And I’m stuck in this book. He’s on the Gold Line; he’s suddenly in the foster home and he’s going back to his neighborhood because he’s all fucked up. And he sees a dog, a blind guy’s dog—and I ran up against this scene time and time again—and then one morning the dog turns and talks to him, and I thought, “Oh, yes,” and it just propelled me through the rest of the book. And I don’t know if those animals actually talk or if my narrator’s spirit is so crushed by the death of his parents that he’s constantly hallucinating. I don’t know. But geez I wrote funny lines coming out of this animal’s mouth! Really funny lines. So, I don’t know. But it happens to me a lot. Haven’t you ever been—you write?

GREEN: Yeah.

KOERTGE: Haven’t you been writing and you’re up against the bottom of a poem—I pick up a lot of other people’s poetry and eat it just while I’m working—and suddenly two or three things come together, the hair on your arms stands up, and you have a poem.

GREEN: Well, for me, it’s kind of like trying to get a kite to fly or something, and it catches the wind and then it’s its own thing, you know.

KOERTGE: That’s right. But sometimes you have to run a long way.

GREEN: Exactly. Or you throw it in the air and pretend it’s flying but it doesn’t work. [laughs]

KOERTGE: That’s a good simile. It is like trying to get a kite up. 

GREEN: Let’s talk about your feelings on websites and promotion. I read an article in The Wall Street Journal where you were mentioned saying that you don’t like having a website or a Twitter account.

KOERTGE: I don’t.

GREEN: But you have a website now.

KOERTGE: I do, and I have a Twitter account.

GREEN: Do you update it yourself?

KOERTGE: No. [both laugh] I have a guy. 

GREEN: So what do you think of that kind of social media?

KOERTGE: It just bores the shit out of me. I just think it’s a big suck ass waste of time and I cannot make myself get behind it. 

GREEN: Yeah. Well, it’s part of the whole game now. I think it’s the new game of marketing yourself, and part of the hierarchy. That was the old game; this is the new one of how many Twitter followers you can have. 

KOERTGE: I’m sure it is. And talk about a degradation of perfectly decent words: “Like.” And “friend.” I just find that offensive. I can’t do it. So, I’ve got a guy. [Green laughs] I don’t know how to post a picture on Twitter. I just don’t give much of a fuck. 

GREEN: But you did a blog tour—that’s what this article is about—you wrote for blogs; it seemed like you were enjoying it …

KOERTGE: Well, I paid for that, you know. My publicist set that up. It was an experiment. One of the books, I don’t remember which one, maybe it was one of the Shakespeare books—two women who were former Houghton editors started a publicity firm, so you pay them and they publicize for you, and they set up a blog tour. It’s hard to quantify those things, but when it was all over I couldn’t see any difference from sales or anything else. And the reason that I got behind the tour was, if I’m going to do it I’m going to do it as well as I can. It’s writing; I’m not going to write poorly. So I’m going to try to be witty. If somebody wants to give me ten minutes of their time, I don’t want to waste their time. But I’m not going to do it again.

GREEN: For me, it seems like just another way of giving art to people. 

KOERTGE: I agree. It’s just not my cup of oolong. [both laugh] I’ve had students who just literally said to me—like with the Minnesota program, the MFA students sent me packets of their work, and more than one has said, “I’m just so addicted to Facebook, I’m sorry this is late.” 

GREEN: [laughs] Wow. 

KOERTGE: You know, wake up! Come on. So I want the time that I want. I try to keep my big round head as empty as possible—I don’t watch television; I can’t read trash because it’s toxic for me, it infects me.

GREEN: It’s like picking up a dialect. 

KOERTGE: Oh, my God, yeah. And one of the reasons I love the races is, I go out there, it has nothing to do with writing. These guys I sit with—all of us in our 70s, and we’re just a bunch of—

GREEN: Are they writers, too?

KOERTGE: Oh, fuck no. One guy’s a surveyor for the city, one is a plumber. The thing is, I don’t know their last names and I’ve sat with them for 25 years. All we talk about is the horses, and it’s such a relief. So, like I said, I write, I do that. I’m glad to see the evening come. I like talking to my wife; I have friends like anybody else. 

GREEN: And you don’t think you need to go out and have a lot of different experiences to inspire your writing?

KOERTGE: I make shit up. I make it all up!

GREEN: [laughs] Where do you get your ideas, though?

KOERTGE: Oh, they come to me. I’m available. 

GREEN: Uh-huh. The open door.

KOERTGE: Students don’t understand that. They don’t make themselves available; they’re trying so hard. I mean, it’s like constipation—you try that hard, your butt hurts. Maybe don’t put that in the article.

GREEN: [laughs] We’re putting the whole thing in!

KOERTGE: I don’t care, great! Put it all in, let’s piss some people off. But they really do, they’re so anxious. I think, “Open the door and stand back.”

GREEN: Well, that’s another thing you see as an editor, the workshopped poem, where they just try to cram it in from every different angle and it becomes a big mess.

KOERTGE: Yeah. You know the Billy Collins poem about workshops? It’s a great poem. In every stanza there’s stuff that you’ve seen before in workshops. He’s such a sweet-natured guy. But me, I would be nastier about it; I’d hurt somebody’s feelings.

GREEN: So how did you avoid those pitfalls as a workshop teacher? I see the problem with workshops as, there’s just twelve cooks in the kitchen and everybody wants to put their own spice in …

KOERTGE: Yeah, but that’s just a matter of—it’s almost like personal integrity; in a workshop you learn who not to listen to. For the finals I’d have everybody come in and talk to me, sometimes as much as a half an hour, and I would give up the last three classes and just take time with students. And I’m very frank with them at that point, and I would say something like, “I know that you value Francine,” for example, “but she has nothing to offer you. Don’t listen to her. That’s crazy.” And, “Your gift is this.” I could suss out, often, what a student was good at, and what direction he or she should take. Some should be formalists, and I would tell them that. Some probably shouldn’t write poetry; they should probably write what’s called creative non-fiction—they had a really long loose style but a real strong sense of narrative that would propel the story, and they were basically writing stories anyway and calling it poetry, so I would give them that advice. I was never mean, I don’t get paid to be mean, but I was always frank and most of the time they really took it well. I would hear ten years later—they would say, “You probably don’t remember me but …” and they would repeat things that I said to them. 

GREEN: Wow.

KOERTGE: Teaching was wonderful in that sense, to have an effect on somebody who doesn’t forget it, and have it be useful. I don’t think it gets better than that. 

GREEN: Do you miss it now or are you glad that you could retire …

KOERTGE: I don’t miss it; I don’t miss the PCC teaching. The Hamline thing, that MFA program, is satisfying. That’s enough for me. We meet twice a year—it’s cold as hell in January, but I like the students, I like the teachers. Their names won’t matter to you—Gary Schmidt, Jean Yang, Kate DiCamillo—but in that part of my business, you can’t be around better people. And the money’s not bad!

GREEN: Let’s talk about Shakespeare Bats Clean-up a little bit. Did you set out to write a baseball book?

KOERTGE: I did, and I’ll tell you why. This is one of those little—it isn’t as powerful as the Stoner & Spaz story, but my wife and I, we went to all of the Triple-A parks …

GREEN: Really? The entire country?

KOERTGE: Oh, no, no, in California. I’ve been to most of the racetracks in the country. A buddy I knew from New York and I do that. But my wife and I were up in the high desert—I forget the name of the park, but it’s up toward Victorville. And we were sitting, and watching the game, obviously, and there’s a father and son down by the third base dug-out, right, and the kid is writing something and the father keeps trying to make him stop writing. And I said to Bianca, “You know, I wonder if there isn’t a book in this.” And there was. Kid who loves baseball and he loves writing. 

GREEN: And the story is—didn’t he break his arm so he couldn’t play?

KOERTGE: He got mono. He couldn’t play for a while, he was sick, and so he began to write more, and his dad brought him a journal. And those are the kinds of—I’m going to give a lecture at Hamline called “Cartography as Character.” I make maps sometimes—

GREEN: Physical maps?

KOERTGE: Physical maps on a piece of paper, yeah. Like for Stoner & Spaz, which took place in South Pasadena, I made a real map. And in this lecture—we’re straying here, Tim, so bring me back if you can—in this lecture, I’m going to talk about how I wrote Stoner & Spaz and how I gave the city a different texture by making things up—like I put in a clapboard church that isn’t there, but was 125 years old, compared to the Catholic church where they spent millions of dollars, which should’ve gone to the poor.

GREEN: Of course.

KOERTGE: Yeah, Jesus. Compared to that. So even though I knew the little city, the map really helped. Like, for example, three houses away from where Ben lives, I made up a couple with a disabled child that the mother takes out in one of those wheelchair stroller things. That’s never in the novel. But I wanted Ben, when he left the house, to see another disabled boy or person, just to remind him that he’s in better shape than that.

GREEN: And it’s not in the novel? You don’t mention it whatsoever?

KOERTGE: Not at all. No. 

GREEN: It’s just in your head, this world that you’ve created.

KOERTGE: It’s all in my head. I’ve made up this new world. I made up different neighbors that he would see that aren’t in the novel. 

GREEN: Do you write this down on a map?

KOERTGE: Yeah, wait, I’ll show it to you. Here’s the map. [Koertge picks up a hand-drawn map from the table]

GREEN: Oh, so this is the town.

KOERTGE: This is the town. The Rialto is down there. Here’s where he just about lives because he loves movies so much. The Gilmans have the child and the $500 jogging stroller. The Martins are 70 years old; they never turned up in the novel. There’s a real group home there. There aren’t these bungalows, but that is where Colleen lives. And this is all the people who were in the bungalows: there’s a stripper, there’s a biker, and an itinerant preacher—and the itinerant preacher in my mind walks through this novel all the time ranting. But he’s not in the book.

GREEN: It’s not in the book.

KOERTGE: Not in the book, no. Here’s the hundred-year-old church. The library is right there. It just, it gave that book so much texture for me. 

GREEN: A lot of the poems in your books are written in persona. So many voices just pop off the page as someone different from you. Does that map-making play into how you develop those characters, or do the voices just speak to you?

KOERTGE: The voices just speak to me. I would never make a map for a poem, or even a book of poems. I do it for the novels, but they’re different. And I’ve only been doing it—I didn’t do it for either of the Shakespeare books—I just sort of didn’t have to. But if I’m thinking that the book is too gossamer, too thin, then I want to get some texture, and the map will almost always do it. 

GREEN: There’s a sense when you’re writing that your head is creating this one little thing, whatever you’re looking at, that’s the eye of the writer, and nothing else exists, so having a textured reality, off-camera so to speak …

KOERTGE: It really is off-camera.

GREEN: Yeah, that’s interesting. Let me backtrack a little bit. How did you get into writing in the first place? When did you know that you wanted to become a writer?

KOERTGE: You know, I didn’t know that I wanted to become a writer. It was almost the only thing that I was any good at. In high school, I was an average looking kid, with an average looking girlfriend, and I played the average clarinet in the average band. But I had an encouraging high school teacher. When I went to college, the first two years were hard, and I’m not really bright, and so I struggled the first two years of college. But then I became an English major and it was better and it was easier for me and I could take creative writing classes. So I would be twenty by that time. When I took creative writing classes and I saw men, especially, interested in poetry, it knocked my socks off. Because in the little town that I’m from, Collinsville, if you were a man and you talked about poetry, somebody would just kick your ass all the way around the football field, because you were a faggot, you were gay, you were queerer than queer. So I went to U of I, which stunned me. I mean, I had fucking hayseeds in my hair; I was such a naïve person. I go to U of I and it’s halls of ivy—I mean, it’s a Big Ten college. So I get in these classes and there are these young men who take poetry seriously and I thought, “Holy crap.” And a teacher there also encouraged me. And when I went to grad school and met Gerry Locklin, he was an enormous influence on me. He took poetry seriously. He’s been pater familias to hundreds of students, and he was to me. I remember, he was writing then—they were called “little magazines” in those days; I didn’t know what an independent magazine was—and I think he showed me Marvin Malone’s Wormwood Review. And, you know, kind of like my story about reading an adult novel and saying, “Oh I could do that,” when I saw the poems in Wormwood Review I said to him, “These are great, they’re funny and they’re dirty.” And he said, “If you want to write a couple and show them to me …” And I wrote a parody of a D.H. Lawrence poem, and he said, “This is hilarious,” then he told me what to do, the self-addressed stamped envelope, and I just did it. I was thrilled; it was thrilling to have poems taken.

GREEN: It sounds like it’s just the thing that you’ve had the most fun with your whole life.

KOERTGE: It was something I enjoyed my whole life. I’ll tell you though, too, there was a little bit of a hanging-onto-a-life-preserver quality. I clung to writing poems, in a way, for something that would keep me afloat, because you can run with poets; you can run with other writers. When I came to L.A., it was a big community. I met Charles Webb, I met Suzanne Lummis, I met Dennis Cooper, I met Amy Gerstler. Amy’s a fucking genius, I love her work. And I was in the mix, you know, in the soup. So, it had meant a lot to me to be able to have something that people at readings thought was fun to listen to, thought was valuable. 

GREEN: Did you ever worry about how to make money?

KOERTGE: I had a teaching job.

GREEN: But before that, did you plan on, “I’m going to be a writer no matter what even if I have to live in the studio apartment in …”

KOERTGE: I never had those thoughts. Isn’t that funny? I don’t plan well, and I was—what’s the old phrase—at sixes and sevens, or between a rock and a hard place, or something—my last semester at graduate school. If I hadn’t gotten the PCC job by chance, I don’t know what I would’ve done. But I did. And I never thought like a writer, in the way that you said, which is, you know, I’ll do it no matter what. Remember I don’t take things seriously.

GREEN: You just couldn’t take it seriously?

KOERTGE: Couldn’t take it seriously. Did you know I wrote for television?

GREEN: No, I didn’t know that, actually. What did you write for?

KOERTGE: Hill Street Blues. Right at the end of the run.

GREEN: Oh, really? Wow.

KOERTGE: Yeah, what a complicated … I’ll try to make this really short.

GREEN: No, people will be interested.

KOERTGE: A trainer of thoroughbreds at Santa Anita turned up at my night poetry class. He’s a really interesting guy, really bright guy. I helped get him into law school in his 40s. So he and I became friends. He was the trainer for David Milch’s horses, David Milch the guy who ran Hill Street. David wanted Darrel to write something but Darrel was way too busy. Darrel took me into Mary Tyler Moore Studios when he talked to David. David wasn’t happy about that; he was really a volatile guy. But long story short, Darrel dropped out and I stayed on. And I stayed on because—those big series, they have the years mapped out, so he didn’t need me for that, and he had really good writers on staff, but what he needed were little bits and pieces. And I remember him saying to me, “Can you think of something we can do in the station? We’ve had a plumber come in, we’ve had a robot, we’ve had this, we’ve had that.” And I said “I’ll see what I can do.” So the new character those last years was—I forget her name, maybe Russo but I forget—the sexy cop, the woman. So I had this little bit where—I remember telling my wife this—they had like a ready-room, where the cops could get snacks and stuff. So my idea was that Russo, the sexy cop, would come over to the snack machine and whenever it saw her it would just ejaculate snacks [Green laughs] because she was so fucking hot. And anybody else, they just kept putting money in. The guy cops would see this happening and they would go try to get a candy bar and beat on it and swear at it. So I went into the Polo Lounge one Saturday or Sunday morning and pitched this thing to David, and it just killed him. He loved it. And on that, I got into that business.

GREEN: Writing for TV is such a collaborative process, right—so did you write a certain scene every once in a while?

KOERTGE: He gave me a show of my own.

GREEN: Oh, really? I always imagined there’s a team, a room full of people …

KOERTGE: Well, there is, and this story is not over. I wasn’t really on the team. I did join the Writers Guild, and I was part of the mix, but I wasn’t in on the writing-room. I had my show, maybe six from the end—everybody knew the series was going to end. They burned through a lot of writers. So I wrote my show, and David helped me. He was very, very bright and enormously generous, and he gave me advice. Then I rewrote it, and I took it into him the final time and he was a really fast reader and he said, “This is terrific.” He said, “But I want you to know, it’s mine now.” You know, “It’s mine.” And I said, “Fine.” So it comes on TV—and I know when, somebody called me from the studio—and maybe less than half of mine was left, and what he had written was way better than what I had—and mine was good. He was just … that’s his reputation, just a fucking genius. He was more volatile before he got sick. He was in the hospital and that made him able to write the Jimmy Smitts dying episode which was just wonderful. And then I was talking to another guy—John Romano was working for Milch. He wrote a very good—do you know the movie The Third Miracle?

GREEN: No.

KOERTGE: You should rent The Third Miracle; it’s Romano’s movie. And I said to him when the series was over, “What do you think I should do?” because John was not crazy or coked up or anything of the sort; he was just a steady, stand-up guy. And he said “You know, Ron, you’re 46; that’s a little old to get into this business.” And he said, “Do you like to teach?” And I said, “Yeah.” He said, “You can write down the center of the page.” That’s a great phrase, isn’t it? He said, “You can do it, but it’s not going to be easy.” And I thought, “Boy, I don’t know.” And I’d made a bunch of money. But I’ve never been too impressed by money. I’ve always had enough. So I didn’t go on; I went back to teaching. I mean, isn’t that odd, though: the trainer, the horses, the poetry class, the Milch connection.

GREEN: Yeah. Well, those things, so much is chance; that’s just how the world works.

KOERTGE: How the world works. And the television job—I mean, friends of mine have a hundred scripts in their closet. They think I’m crazy. They said, “You joined the guild?” I said, “I had to join the guild, I didn’t want to join the guild!” I didn’t particularly. I had to. That’s why people—I give advice to students that they have to go out there; they can’t sit home. But if you do go out and get into parasitic networking shit—boy, that just makes me want to go up in the morning and write all by myself. Because you can feel yourself being used. They shake your hand and look over your shoulder at the next guy, and when they know you know somebody they want you to do them a favor, and it’s just, oh my God.

GREEN: It’s exhausting, too.

KOERTGE: It really is tiring, that’s a great word. I don’t have enough energy for that. I take a nap every day as it is.

GREEN: So what do you have in the works now? What are your plans for the next decade?

KOERTGE: I’ve got a book of flash fiction coming out from Red Hen a year from now. I’m kind of between things at the moment. I’ve made some mistakes and I don’t usually make mistakes. I wrote 80 pages of something that I thought might go to Liz Bicknell, my young adult editor, and every page was a different character’s name and the way he or she died. So everybody in the goddamn book is dead. [Green laughs] There’s no through line. What was I thinking! 

GREEN: Maybe you could have a cricket that’s always watching in the background …

KOERTGE: [laughs] Yeah, exactly. And then—I almost never do this, I did about a hundred pages of a book that—I liked some of it, I liked it enough to work on it, but I got into it and I thought, “Oh no, I’ve made a mistake.” I set it in another foster home with foster parents who are way too much like the ones in Strays; I know where this is going. So what I’ve got left from that is probably 25 pages. I’ve got to throw 75 away. So I’m kind of standing in the doorway at the moment with one leg out, right? Or my fly open. “I’m ready, I’m available!” [Green laughs] 

GREEN: It sounds like you just love writing and do whatever comes to you without worrying too much.

KOERTGE: I tend to do that. And like I said, without being in any sense of the word wealthy, I’ve always had enough money, so I never had to push to get the novel in to get the money to pay the bills. That’s never been necessary. So that’s like backdrop, like background. The money’s there, so I don’t have to worry about that.

GREEN: So it’s about noon—have you written your four pages yet? 

KOERTGE: I did two this morning, I had to go to the dentist, and I’ll do two after you leave. I’m not a good afternoon writer but I’ll drink some coffee or something. And actually what I’m writing now is worth a thousand dollars. It’s a short story for an anthology about secrets. And I’ll get those pages today, and then I’ll go stand in the doorway, you know, wearing an attractive outfit, see if I can’t get the muse to drop by for a little cuddle. [both laugh]

GREEN: That’s great. Thanks so much, Ron, really a pleasure.

KOERTGE: Oh, you’re welcome, thank you.

from Rattle #42, Winter 2013