from A Conversation with M.L. Liebler


[Note: The following is excerpted from a 25-page interview, which appears in full in Rattle #36.]

FOX: So, why did you go to poetry?

LIEBLER: Well, I went to poetry not accidentally but not knowing. My story is different probably than many of the people you’ve talked to. Here’s what I remember. When I was seven I would scribble things down in my school books, on the big lined paper. And I don’t want to give the impression that I was a child prodigy and this was genius stuff. I had no idea. I come from a working class family, and education in a working class family is respected and it’s a good thing, but it’s not the top priority. The top priority for old school working class is that you grow up and get a job and provide for your family. So that’s kind of the aesthetic I was raised in, and it doesn’t necessarily put a lot of emphasis on academic or intellectual stuff. For example, in our house my grandmother—I was raised by my grandparents—my grandmother and grandfather never read poetry. I didn’t ever think to even ask them that, but they probably couldn’t tell you a poet, not even Whitman. However, my grandmother—who was actually, in hindsight, pretty young for a grandmother, meaning she was like 41—really liked Elvis Presley. So I was listening to Elvis Presley at the age of four on a regular basis. And she bought me Elvis’s Gold Hits record and I played it and played it, and Grandma loved it. We’d go to the movies and see the Elvis movies. So that kind of culture was big—other than “The Wonderful World of Disney” on Sunday nights, too, and of course Ed Sullivan. When I’m in the second grade, I start scribbling stuff. It’s—you guys know, being poets and writers—it’s in there; you can’t do anything about it. But I had no idea, and I would get in trouble for it. They would call my grandmother and say, “He scribbles, and we don’t know what it is, but he’s scribbling again, so you pay for the book.”

FOX: [laughs] So you were scribbling in the books.

LIEBLER: In books, and on anything. But having no clue—I know this sounds bizarre, but it’s the truth. When I got to the fifth grade I was doing this all the time, scribbling on paper and notebooks and so on. I remember having a big textbook, an English textbook that had a pelican on a post in the ocean, and when I opened that book I noticed that it had things in it that had a lot of white space around them. When I saw that, I thought, “That’s kind of what I’m scribbling. What I’m scribbling in a sense is, it has a lot of white space around it.” So at that point, that’s when I was first able to say, “Oh, it’s a poem.” Maybe I saw “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe in that book, and I thought, “Well, that must be what I’m doing, so it’s a poem. Now, what’s that? I don’t know what that is.” I didn’t read poems. In fact, you guys probably say “poh-um”; in Detroit we say “pomes.” [Fox laughs] Maybe you already noticed that. So, at that point I knew that’s what I was doing, so at least I had a reference, and I kept doing that. And remember, too, this was the beginning of the shift in our culture, because Kennedy’s assassinated. And I’m already a music devotee, but early Elvis was really exciting to me. Then when they kind of wanted to soften Elvis’s image, that’s when the Bobby Rydells and the Fabians came out. That was kind of boring to me. I did like Dion’s “Ruby Baby.” But most of it, “Hey Paula” and stuff like that—that was goofy. I have a story about this I wrote later, but I was really wanting something different, and right at that moment, here come the Beatles. So that was really an eye-opener too. Now Grandma wasn’t necessarily a Beatles devotee initially; She didn’t care one way or the other, but this opened my eyes to a lot of things. When we watched them on the Ed Sullivan show, which everybody here but Tim—and probably you didn’t; did you see them?

DAVEEN: Of course.

LIEBLER: Okay, I thought you were too young.

FOX: She looks younger than she is.

DAVEEN: Five years older than you, I believe.

LIEBLER: Really?

DAVEEN: From what I just figured out.

LIEBLER: Okay. So, when I saw them—this is true, again; now it all sounds like a fairytale I guess—I saw them on the black and white television screen, and remember when they first came on, people didn’t know who was who. What everybody did remember was there was a guy named Ringo, because that was so unusual. In fact, I tell my students—because I teach the Beatles now—I tell my students that back in those early days Ringo was the most popular Beatle, and they’re kind of like, “Really?!” And it was probably because he looked a little different and his name was Ringo. And when I saw the guy on the right side of the screen, I looked at him and I was really digging it, and I said, “I don’t know who that guy is, but whoever he is, I want some of that. I want to understand that.” And it turned out, it was John Lennon.

FOX: Whoa.

LIEBLER: And then they said “John Lennon” and remember “Sorry girls, he’s married” and that little thing on the Ed Sullivan show. Somehow he just stuck out to me even in those initial few minutes of seeing them, because that was the first time we saw them, actually. So, at any rate, now I know I’m doing poetry; I’m into the Beatles heavy; I’m into the whole British invasion thing; and the two things are running parallel for me. So now I’m getting my education essentially from the Beatles. As they move through different phases and they mention and reference different things in their songs and their songs become more sophisticated I’m kind of studying that. I’m not really a bookworm kind of guy, but I was studying that stuff. As time went on, they would even, later, mention Chairman Mao—I’m at the library: “What’s that?” They would mention communism or something: “What’s that?” “Back in the USSR”: “What’s the USSR, what’s that?” So I was really kind of growing intellectually along with that, and knowing I was writing poetry. So by the time I get into junior high school I know that’s what I’m doing, and again, it’s not good, but I’m reflecting in some kind of primitive poetry. And I saved everything—I’ve never looked at it; I put it in boxes and duct taped it, and I don’t want to see it, especially now. But I saved everything, never threw anything out. I tell my students that: “Never throw anything out.” So, I was probably—I know I was—was writing about kind of popular cultural things: music; civil rights was on my radar…not being working class because whatever you are, you don’t necessarily think that’s what you are; you don’t know what you are until later in hindsight. I knew at the time—where we lived in St. Clair Shores, at the time we moved there, was mostly a white collar community. I know most dads look like Fred MacMurray going to work, or Ozzie Nelson. [Fox laughs] They all had ties, which was very unusual. My grandfather got in an old beat up jalopy and drove to the plant early in the morning with a lunch bucket. I remember that. And I have a newer poem about that, as a matter of fact, and it’s going to be the title of the next book. So I’m starting to write about this, and now in December of 1965, two doors down, the neighbor boy who was a high school student and our newspaper boy—and this is hindsight, but his dad was a Marine, so as soon as he graduated high school, he signed up for the Marines. Well, he was killed in Vietnam. December 10th, I think, of ‘65. And everybody knew the kid, and it was like, “Wow, what’s that, and what’s Vietnam? What is that?” And I was very close to my grandmother, and his mother never really recovered from that, and I observed that. And then she died a couple of years later, and the word in the neighborhood was that she died of a broken heart. That just stayed with me. So, now I know I’m investigating Vietnam and of course it’s escalating and the culture’s changing and the music’s changing and all that stuff. And I know I’m writing more as I move toward the latter part of my junior high experience. I’m moving toward writing politically charged poetry and I’m becoming very political as a young kid. I become very interested in politics, especially the counter-cultural stuff—like the Students for a Democratic Society, this is making sense to me, and I did go to protests against the war in Vietnam. There happened to be, in our neck of the woods, a tank arsenal, and there were always protests there that were being led by the SDS and other groups like that, and I actually would go to them. I couldn’t really get my high school friends to go. They thought I was kind of crazy. And I thought, “We’re all kind of into this culture; we’re listening to this music, we’re participating in so many levels of it. Why don’t you get at part of it too?” In fact, I remember one of those guys at the time called me a “radical bunny rabbit.” I’m not sure what that meant. But I would always say, “Come on, come on, they’re having a…”—a war moratorium in ‘69—“Come on, we gotta wear these bands!” And then it would be like I did and nobody else did, and then the teachers are like, “What’s wrong with you?” Some of them I’m still friends with. One guy was a young teacher then and he became very interested and would talk to me quite a bit. He would prod me—he was a young teacher; at that time he was probably 24 or something, and he would taunt me a little bit by questioning my mind about these issues of the Vietnam War and civil rights and the moratorium. It was good for me, and he was a good teacher. So I’m writing these poems, I’m still doing that, and now I know I’m a poet. Whatever that is, I know that’s what I’m doing. I also then get interested in—probably in a subtle way in my mind, making the transition, I start writing for the school newspaper. And I start doing the rock and roll column and I do political opinions stuff—for the times; Well, the John Birch Society, which was around then—now we call them the Tea Party—and you can keep that in the interview—the Tea Party is the John Birch Society. Well, one kid in my class, his mother and dad were part of the John Birch Society and he must have gone home with the newspaper and showed it to them and so they were making—“Our schools are supporting the decadence of Open City; sex, drugs. And this guy is at the center of it because he wrote this editorial”—

FOX: Meaning you.

LIEBLER: Me. So I started getting these threats at home, because back in those days our phone numbers were listed—mine ain’t anymore but back in those days everybody was. We even had party lines, as you can probably remember. At any rate, I would get these calls: “Stop writing that stuff!” [hang up noise] “We’re gonna get you!” [hang up noise] And then they started making hay in the public school system–and I just referenced the guy last night at the performance, Gordon Dressel because he was on the city council. Any way, Dressel came to my support, as did this older priest—I wasn’t Catholic then; I’ve since converted to Catholicism, (but not because of this)—anyway, this older, respected Catholic priest in St. Clair Shores and Dressel both spoke out on my behalf. And after it became a news article and then these two went public with it, it just kind of petered out and went away. For my high school Spring Break, while most kids in the Midwest go to Florida I went to New York. And that was a real eye-opening experience. I was 17. We get in New York; we’re there a couple of weeks. I got to go to the Film Noirs which was a dream, and see all of this cultural stuff. And I was writing about it, and I was a poet, and I knew that. So I still continued running a parallel with poetry and politics. So as soon as I turned 18—that was the first year 18-year-olds could vote—I ran for precinct delegate.

Actually that was another weird story. They came through the community college and passed out a survey and it was various things like “Who do you want for President?” “Who would you support?” I put “Abbie Hoffman, Vice President – Jerry Rubin,” [Fox laughs] whatever. And so the people who did these surveys from the Student Democratic Council or something like that, they immediately called me and said, “You gotta run for precinct delegate.” Remember, I’m kind of anti-establishment just by nature so running for democratic precinct delegate—I mean, that would be like giving in to the man. But I wait it out and they talk me into it. I was supporting McGovern. And we did a clever thing where we disguised it; we said I was “uncommitted” but I was really committed to McGovern. Somebody else was committed to Wallace. So they were out. And I won by default by this large number of votes. So then I became involved in party politics at that time and continued that road going to the conventions and things like that. I took of course the loss of McGovern, his presidency, very hard, very hard.

A couple of years after that—again, now, from this working class family—I’m working at Sears and Roebuck as a janitor and we decide to organize, to bring a union into Sears. In hindsight, this is insane [Fox laughs], but at the time, it seemed like, “Yeah, we can do this!” But we weren’t kowtowing to the union and we had some fights with them. But anyway, the election was set and we got the ballots signed and the company, of course, they were pushing, pushing, pushing on the people who worked there not to vote for the union. In the end it was something like 300 employees voted against it and like six for it. It was really bad. I took that really hard. That was a time, too, though, my grandfather understood, because he was part of the 1937 sit-down strike at Dodge Main. I remember my grandmother saying—I should also mention this: my grandmother always thought that if I could get a job at Sears, which she loved and thought was the greatest store in the world, I’d be set. I don’t think they even knew what college was. I was going to it and they knew it, but I don’t think they understood what that was. But Sears? And also they would always throw Uncle Andy into the equation, and Uncle Andy had worked his way up from being a garbage slinger to like the crew chief in Detroit—the garbage men. So they said, “If you can end up like Uncle Andy, you’re gonna be set up for life.” Sears? Even better; that’s a step up the class ladder. Well, I worked at Sears, so my grandmother was like, “Oh, I don’t know if you should jeopardize that job at Sears!” My grandfather—I distinctly remember him saying, “This is serious business!” That was the first time—because he was really not an activist or anything. He was part of the ‘37 sit down but only because he believed that was right. He wasn’t the leader of it; he was just there with 10,000 other men, participating in that. So I just started college at this point. I knew I was going to be a poet and I’m writing a lot of poetry. I get into a creative writing class because someone said that’s what I needed to do. And I met with this professor who ended up becoming my mentor. And the first thing he said—we had little meetings at the beginning of the semester—and he said, “What poets do you read?” And I said, “Read? I don’t read poets. I’m a poet! I write!” [Fox laughs] He goes, “You’re an idiot!” I go, “Well, what do you mean? I’m writing poetry!” He goes, “You can’t write anything until you start reading.” So he drew up a list of things. And I really hadn’t read books before that much. I’d read, as I still tell my students, two and a half books that I remember in my school years. One was called Yellow Eyes and it was about a mountain lion. The other one was The Day Lincoln Was Shot; it was part of a reading. And I read half of The Mysterious Island before I got bored. So that was it until I ran into this guy and he says, “Who are you reading?” I was listening to Bob Dylan over and over and over, and the Beatles, but I couldn’t really name poets. I never really read or studied Shakespeare or anything. So he drew up a list and I had to start reading. My book collection started growing at that point. Now it’s like probably all of yours; it’s insane.

FOX: Yep.

LIEBLER: My wife knows that. Now I just kind of pitch ‘em in a box and take them to the used bookstore and say, “I don’t want any money; just give them a humane death,” because there’s too many. But at that time—I remember this little library, this little shelf in my room that my grandfather had put up there and it was maybe three feet long with two shelves and it was starting to fill up with these books. That was my entire collection at that point. And they were Shakespeare plays and some of Dylan Thomas and some of the stuff that he had written that was essential to start to read. Well, he was right, of course. My poetry did start to get more dimensional. And this was at a community college, and that’s why I have such great respect for community colleges, because the one I went to was the greatest. I’ll show you how great it was. A guy we used to go to the protests with, a professor in political science, was always getting his head knocked in and arrested with the rest of us. He was the head of the SDS when he was in college and so forth. He’s that community college’s president now.

FOX: Whoa.

LIEBLER: And we put poetry events on together nowadays. We do big poetry festivals. So that’s another little story, but he always had an army sack hanging over his shoulder and a green army coat for the protests and now he’s the freaking president of this college. But we had this wonderful English department and staff. We had two major artists in residence, a great local poet heading creative writing. And the poetry people in the English department were friends with a lot of the counterculture artists. So we had readings at the time—we didn’t quite understand it, but Allen Ginsberg read there, Ed Sanders read there. Bukowski used to come all the time.

FOX: Oh really?

LIEBLER: Yeah, he had a good friend in Detroit, and this is before most people had heard of him—now he’s a big cult hero, but then nobody had really heard of him much. But we were into him because these teachers had turned us on to his stuff. And he would come to this college at that time for a plane ticket, a place to stay and all the booze he could drink. [Fox laughs] That’s all he wanted. Forget the honorarium. And he came a few times, and he would do these readings—you guys probably have seen him too. He did these readings that were just so intense. And here we are, 18, going “Holy crap, man. Wow.” I remember one poem I’ll always remember, and I thought, “Whatever that moment is in the poetry, I want to get to that in my own writing.” And he just looked up at everybody and he goes [gravelly voice], “You want to know what love is, kids? It’s sleeping with a woman after you pissed the bed.” [Fox laughs] And I thought, “Wow. Wow. I don’t know if I want to do that, but wow.” [all laugh] And there was something deep in there. It was like, “Whoa.” Then he read some poem about that, written out here in L.A. which I could have never imagined ever seeing in my lifetime. So that was part of it too: “Wow, what’s that like? This guy lives in the post office, and all the things he writes about.” But we were able to get that kind of experience at our community college-unbelievable…

from Rattle #36, Winter 2011

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