This interview with Jules Smith took place at Fred Voss' apartment in Long Beach, California, on Sunday 8 December 1996.
JS: Fred, could you first of all tell us about your early writing life?
FV Well, I seriously began writing when I was 26. I had spent about four years, since I dropped out of graduate school, working in a Hollywood restaurant, gasket factory, driving a delivery truck, and working in a steel mill as a steel cutter, then getting into the machine shop. For those four years I hadn't written, and I found that I became less and less happy shall we say, miserable, but didn't quite know why, and I didn't really seem to have a direction, a reason to live my life. Eventually I came to writing, and began to make a commitment, to change my life, and almost immediately found that that was what was wrong: avoiding writing. It turned out that it was the thing I could do.
JS: Yes, I did get the feeling that there was estrangement, some alienation at that stage of your life, and it occurs to me that there has something in common with writers who were important to you. I'm thinking here of Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski, but also the songwriter Jim Morrison of The Doors, in particular his song People are Strange. I was wondering if these writers works spoke to you very personally, regarding your own situation at the time.
FV: Those were three very big influences on my youth, my teenage years and my early twenties. I listened to The Doors, and Jim Morrison's alienation, his rebellion, his devotion to the art, the magic of his music and lyrics, then when I was 20 I read On the Road, and it all made a huge impression on me. The sense of freedom, a kind of poetic imagination, all that contrasting with my upbringing in suburbia, that extremely dull and confined sense that I had growing up. I read Bukowski when I was about 20 also, and read everything that I could find by him, everything in the library - Crucifix in a Deathhand and Fire Station, and all the Black Sparrow books that had been published, and I was immediately captivated by his way of overthrowing the restrictions of the narrow life we were expected to live back then.
JS: So these writers exhibited a kind of alienation, and also showed through their work a solution to that: that you could actually set things down and describe what was around you. You could begin to make sense of the world and put it in order. You didn't lust learn certain specific things from them, techniques and so on, but you basically learned, as aspiring writers do, that you could 'do it', set things down from your own standpoint.
FV: Yes, I found that out by the age of 26, when I began writing seriously. I made a commitment to the idea of setting down my view on paper, like these writers, to make sense of the world. I definitely needed to do that for myself. It was something I had to do. I was dying for not doing it, setting down my vision, my inner workings. I was lost until I did that. What you were saying about alienation, it seemed to cure that problem, giving me a rudder or something to guide me.
JS: I'd like to stay on your early writing life and ask you why it was that your first efforts came out in the form of short novels. I know that the last short novel that you wrote was called Goodstone Aircraft Company and the Acid. Why did you start in prose and then move onto poetry?
FV: I had always liked poetry, from an early age, and had tried to write it, but without success. I literally couldn’t write a line that made sense. What I wanted to do, what I had in my imagination, didn't transfer onto the paper. So I was frustrated that way. But I found I could write prose, and I just naturally extended it into short stories. I wrote seven short novels. I had a form of poetry in the novels, but it was in a prose form, and able to clearly communicate that way. Also with the characters, the dialogue, the action. I was saying things I wanted to say.
JS: That last novel gave you a territory, which led into the poems. Were you writing in that hammered down style of the poems by the time of that last novel?
FV: The scene and the subject matter of that last novel fed into the beginning of my poetry, and a lot of the ideas. The actual breakthrough, the change where I began writing poetry, was something separate. It was the death of my father. And six months later having my first poems come to me. the old stuff I used to write was from the Symbolists, and the Surrealist poets; I'd read a lot of that poetry. All of a sudden I used what I'd call juxtapositioning montage effects with a narrative that I'd developed in my novels. With the emotion of writing about my father's death, it all clicked and I wrote my first poem. It poured put of me. In fact I Just wrote line down at random, and when I rearranged them I found It made a narrative. And then I saw it: I could write a lot of poems about the machine shop because that was what I knew. I knew also that there was a lot I wanted to say about that.
JS: Yes. It seems to me that there is a parallel between your path to learning how to write with those of Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski, who both wrote prose before turning to verse. And both of them wrote verse which has a lot in common with their prose. At what stage in the construction of the book we now know as Goodstone did it occur to you that these individual poems actually formed a sequence. Individual poems which, taken together, encapsulate a world and tell stories inside that world?
FV: A lot of it had to do with The Wormwood Review, and its editor Marvin Malone, accepting more and more of these poems I was writing about the machine shop. Because he was so interested in them, I kept writing them. I felt instinctively that this was where I should go. Actually when I wrote the novel I got the sense of the machine shop as the world. When I'd written about the company and the machine shops, somehow that said a lot about the country, about larger issues of the society we live in, so when I came to writing the poems I just continued that. I was exploring as I wrote the poems, and I began to enter new territories, and get insights about them, and writing one would lead on to the next. It was like going on an exploration, but I had the sense that it all connected, that it was, as somebody said, a microcosm. I was making sense of the world as a whole through this concentrated area around me where I spent my life working.
JS: The poems in Goodstone draw power and intensity from their really exact observation of the characters around in the factory, their lives, their foibles and quirks.
FV: I think my writing about the machine shop and the people I met and spent a great deal of time with helped me to understand them, and understand myself in relation to them. And it helped me reconcile myself, made me much better able to accept the situation I was cast into. When you work more than forty hours per week with the same people at the same machines every day, it's a strangely intimate yet alienated sort of experience. You get intimate with these people and yet you don't know them at all. And you know a lot of things about them, to an extensive and detailed degree, more than you would choose to. (laughs) It's sort of like being stuck in an elevator with somebody for 2 or 3 hours, having to learn to get along with them, which can be a highly tense and challenging thing. (laughs) I found that humour had a lot of curative things in regard to that, I found ways to laugh, and that helped me adapt and cope when working with these people. It made me see I wasn't any better than them, and I was one of them. It turned my feeling of alienation to being at one with them. At the same time I was expressing a lot of things about how weird these people seemed to me
JS: A further strand to that is that as you read the sequence it's You and Them and then you increasingly identify that it's You and Them against the company. This company is fictional, though it's based on the machine shops in which you've worked...
FV: Several machine shops. I think that a lot of these poems have to do with knocking against this huge social structure that we're all thrown into. Things that you can't do anything about, yet have to deal with.
JS: I'd now like to ask you about your more recent work, which in some ways is an extension of your earlier, though it's generally not set inside a factory. It's work which, again, describes a particular social milieu and its characters, and at the same time encapsulates their context. Could you read a new poem entitled 'When All the Electric Lightbulbs In the World Won't Help'. (FV reads poem) The factor which sterns from the early work is that these characters are described exactly, without an overriding commentary by the author, and in a specific economic context. The workers in the aircraft factory were hanging on to their jobs, and had a reason for working, for being in the factory. But the area your work seems to have moved into is much more desperate. The homeless, people on benches, and those who have got homes and jobs but are afraid to make plans since these might easily be lost. Could you say something about that transition, and if you think there is a change in your work?
FV: There is... Was a change. The world that is inhabited has become harsher. The reason for that is directly related to my own experience, in the work environment and social environment all around me in the city I live in, the working people and their lives. We've gone through some bad economic times in the L.A. area. I was unemployed recently for a year and a half, which at the age of 40 is not as funny as it was at the age of 24. I Pretty much got a taste of The Depression: not as bad, but it was getting there. I am highly skilled, and I had a very difficult time finding work. I was surrounded by a lot of people who had an even tougher tine, because they had less skill or ability to look for a job. People who ended up on the streets who had once had jobs, who ended up virtually dead. And I felt at some points to be one or two steps away from being them, so this had a large, profound emotional impact on me, and has affected my writing, It's an extension of what I was doing, but it has gained a different tone. I still think my work poems are my strongest poems. Anyway, I'm still writing like the Goodstone sequence, but a lot of them have a more compassionate feeling because times are harsher.
JS: Can I ask you about the city you have lived in for most of your life, and certainly all of your life as a writer, Long Beach. It seems to me that this place is very socially mixed, and contains all kinds of contrasts, and elements which I feel feed directly into your work. Would you care to say something about the experience of living here, and how it may have affected your work?
FV: It's had a big impact. Long Beach is to a large extent a working class place, a large city though not as big as L.A. It's an old navy town, but the navy's mostly gone now. A port, shipyard, the aircraft plant, a lot of industry, with a lot of what I would call 'real life people'. Even the buildings seem to ooze out poetry, their colours, their old wood, the weird angles of their structures, the walls, the porches, and the people sitting out, hanging out, people walking around the streets, going in and out of bars, driving their half-broken-down cars with their possessions hanging out the windows. (laughs) It just inspires in me the desire to write. It has a human quality to it that I like.
JS: Yet even on your own doorstep there are black people, old people, who spend a lot of their lives going from bin to bin trying to find something to sell. It seems that this marginal environment does feed into your work. And it forms a natural territory for you. Your more recent poems see this.
FV: Being surrounded by these people, who roam the alleys looking through bins and dumpsters, looking for clothing and cans and bottles to recycle, to get some spare change, has definitely entered my soul or conscience. Having been so close to being one of them, I feel a connection, depicting an entire scene where you have - the people who do have jobs, the workshop that I've written about, and you have the people who did have jobs and are now on the street. And you have the people in the factories who are afraid that in a month or two they'll be on the street. They feel an immense pressure from their bosses because they are so afraid of losing their jobs. And then you have the fact that these jobs pay so little that you're in a state of poverty even with a roof over your head. It's a large segment of the population. The working people are feeling it; even if they are not out on the street they know they could be, and the company, the bosses, take advantage of this. So it's a part of what you were saying, people trying to cope under a system that is almost literally trying to kill them. (laughs) They are fighting for their survival. That's all around me in Long Beach, it's constantly in front of me.
JS: So you see Long Beach as a kind of huge social factory'?
FV: Yes, and the particular part of Long Beach I'm living in now is that; in a sense it is a social factory, a society of people who survive by working in factories and offices, different kinds of shops, and really often being on the edge of desperation. It strikes me as so strange, and so barbaric, that people are forced to live like this.
JS: Yes. Can I ask you to read some of these more recent poems, which are concerned with this.
JS I'd like to change tack now, and ask about your experience of readings. I know that you've given several successful readings in England, most notably at the Aldbrough Festival and in Hull. I'm interested that you are well known on the Long Beach poetry scene, having been involved for at least the last decade or so; but it seems as though your standing here is different from in England where - as a result of Goodstone - you are regarded in many quarters as being one of the leading West Coast poets. What is your experience of the reading scene here?
FV: Well, the reading scene that I've been a part of is essentially an underground scene, in that It's not sponsored by the top echelons of the poetry world, which is located in the University system and the academic world. So it's an underground or alternative poetry. In America, there's a divide between the more academically-accepted poets, and a group of alternative poets - the most famous of which would be Charles Bukowski -going back to the Beat tradition in San Francisco and in Southern California to some extent. It goes back more than 20 years, before I even started writing poetry. There were a lot of readings in bars and taverns, non-academic settings. I did a lot of readings in this place called 'Beneath Broadway, which was underneath an old downtown hotel. Bands played also, a bohemian, literally underground scene there, but it was a lot of fun And there was a nightclub in Long Beach called 'Bogart's', where they had rock bands. I read there once with Timothy Leary. I opened for Timothy Leary. (laughs) He was doing a series of one-man shows, where he'd talk to the audience. It's hard to explain what he did, but he would look up at the ceiling and start talking to God, calling him paranoid and asking why he was on such an ego trip, and so on. He would play with the audience. I feel that a lot of what he did was a come-on; he would say outrageous things which would make the audience hate him I remember when he was doing this, once he looked at me and winked. I got the feeling that a lot of it was a joke to him, kind of doing a psychological number or routine on the audience Of course he was brilliant in psychology, that's what he started out as, a psychologist at Harvard. I just happened to be on the same bill at 'Bogart's' Some of my poems were about drugs and LSD, and all of that had a big effect on California in the 1960s, and on a lot of people I knew: bikers and working people. I never went around advocating that people take acid, but I didn't mind appearing with him. I thought he was a brave man, maybe a little crazy, irresponsible. But that was an interesting reading.
JS: Can I ask you about your circle of friends, and various people who were on the Long Beach scene in the late 70s and 80s. whom you started to meet and interact with? I'd be interested to know some more about a friend of yours at that time, Bob de Laura. who actually died Can you say something about the kind of friendship you had, and the kind of work he did. And perhaps we could end with your poem in tribute to him, 'Finishing Touch', which came out in Pearl magazine.
FV: I first met Robert de Laura in the bar [The Rena Room] where the poets, and the everyday people of Long Beach, used to meet virtually every week. Gerry Locklin, Ray Zepeda, and others. Robert de Laura would come in and out of there, usually with his girlfriend Nicky Manning who also wrote poems. Usually Robert de Laura would hang around me. He was a real quiet guy. After five or ten minutes he would ask me if I could give him a cigarette, so I would. He was always out of money, but we would talk poetry. He drove a truck, delivering steel on a flatbed out of the port of Long Beach, and so we had that in common, we were both working people. We played pool. He was a real good pool player; he'd been known as something of a pool hustler in his day. He'd been around. I met him on and off like that for several years. Like I said, he'd bum cigarettes from me, and we'd talk and play pool. Then in 1986 I moved into another apartment that was near him and I just went over one day, and got to know him real well. I'd go over there quite regularly and we'd drink on his front porch. He'd have half pints of vodka and I'd drink beer. I'd started to write then, and he wrote a lot of excellent poetry. It mostly got published in Poetry LA, which was a good magazine for about 15 years.
Then his girlfriend Nicky Manning would come around; she from England originally. She wore a black leather jacket. She was pretty tough; she'd threaten to box anybody if she had to. (laughter) They kind of breaking up at the time, but she would still come around. His drinking was really destroying him, and there was nothing he could do about it. He lost his job, I saw him regularly for about a year after that, then he died. He died under the biggest tree in the park by the beach one night So, I still have his poems. Then Nicky Manning moved out of town. That was a special time, and he was really a fine poet. This is a poem I wrote about a year ago, about the time I was talking about, sitting on his porch. He wasn't able to write poetry anymore; he was polishing the last poems he had written to diamond perfection. His dedication to the end was shown there, even though he was dying. (FV reads 'Finishing Touch (for Robert de Laura)')
JS: That was great, Fred. Thanks