Pam Houston on Poets Cafe

The following interview of Pam Houston by Lois P. Jones originally aired on KPFK Los Angeles (reproduced with permission).

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Biographical Information—Pam Houston

Pam Houston’s most recent book is Contents May Have Shifted, published by W.W. Norton in 2012.  She is also the author of two collections of linked short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat, the novel, Sight Hound, and a collection of essays, A Little More About Me, all published by W.W. Norton.  Her stories have been selected for volumes of Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Awards, The 2013 Pushcart Prize, and Best American Short Stories of the Century.  She is the winner of the Western States Book Award, the WILLA award for contemporary fiction, The Evil Companions Literary Award and multiple teaching awards.  She is Professor of English at UC Davis, directs the literary nonprofit Writing By Writers and teaches in The Pacific University low residency MFA program. and at writer’s conferences around the country and the world.  She lives on a ranch at 9,000 feet in Colorado near the headwaters of the Rio Grande.


  1. Lhasa Tibet

At Drepung the monks are at morning prayer.  Mao’s face, ten times bigger than life, is stamped all over the giant stones of the fallen monastery and red writing covers the crumbling walls.  Tsering says the Red Guard knocked the stones over because the Buddha on them was smiling.  When no one is within listening distance I ask him if they are forced to leave Mao’s picture on the wall and he says, “No, we leave it there to remember.”

In the Housewives Room the lama says, “If you touch this stone you will be a good housewife.” and Hailey and I both take huge steps back. There is one temple we are not allowed into and when I ask Tsering why he says,  “Because women have a month, you understand what I mean?” and I do.

At the Sera Monastery we get to sit in on the Monk’s Debate where a hundred or so monks pair off, and one asks the question over and over and the other answers just as many times, all the while hitting himself in the arm with his own prayer beads, thereby sending good skyward and evil below.

Tsering keeps making eye contact with me like, let’s go, and I pretend not to see him because I want to sit in that courtyard for the rest of my life listening to the sounds of their voices that are really more like hyenas or snow geese, imagining all of the things I could be learning that afternoon if only I spoke Tibetan, could be hearing the questions and answers, could be learning what is big, or how is attachment, or why is the path to a valuable life.

Yesterday, on the way into town there was an overturned tractor-trailer (which here means a farm tractor hooked to an uncovered diesel engine with a flatbed on the back that hauls everything from people to animals to rocks to tumbleweed).  There was corn scattered all across the road, one man kneeling over another man who had one shoe on and one shoe off and looked dead.  The kneeling man had his hands over the dead man’s mouth and I wondered if he was feeling for breath, or holding his face together (literally) or if it was some Buddhist thing, like keeping his soul in there until the proper holy person arrived, and I thought, what happens now? and wondered if it was like Lat said it was in Laos, “You know this life?  It is nothing.”

Later, at the Fill Up The Room With Gold restaurant (for the first half of dinner we think Tsering is saying Fill Up The Room With Goats), eating momos and potato soup with cardamom and yak 15 ways, Denzing asks Hailey to sing the theme song from the Titanic.  We teach them to say, Go Broncos, and Tsering says, “I love Michael Jackson until he change his skin.”

Denzing runs outside to find an old person who can write our names for us in Tibetan.

I say, “Why are you guys so nice to us?”

Tsering says, “When you do something nice for somebody, it is just like walking around the temple.  It is just like saying a prayer.”

From Contents May Have Shifted (Norton, 2012)

Mary Kay Rummel on Poets Cafe

The following interview of Mary Kay Rummel by Lois P. Jones originally aired on KPFK Los Angeles (reproduced with permission).

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Biographical Information—Mary Kay Rummel


Mary Kay Rummel is the first Poet Laureate of Ventura County, California. The Lifeline Trembles, her seventh book of poetry, won the 2014 Blue Light Book Prize and was recently published by Blue Light Press of San Francisco. That press also published her previous book, What’s Left Is The Singing. Her first poetry book, This Body She’s Entered (1989) was a Minnesota Voices Award winner at New Rivers Press. Her poems recently won prizes poetry contests sponsored by Irish-American Crossroads of San Francisco and by Ventura County Writers’ Club and the Great River Shakespeare Festival sonnet competition. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, most recently in Nimrod, Pirene’s Fountain, Askew, Persimmon Tree, Miramar. Recent anthology publications include Creativity and Constraint (Wising Up Press), Amethyst and Agate: Poems of Lake Superior (Holy Cow! Press), A Bird Black As The Sun (Green Poet Press); Meditations on Divine Names (Moonrise Press); Woman in Metaphor (inspired by the paintings of Stephen Linsteadt) and River of Earth and Sky: Poems for the 21st Century by Blue Light Press. Often performing poetry with musicians, Mary Kay has read in many venues in the US and London. She is professor emerita from the University of Minnesota, Duluth  and she teaches at California State University, Channel Islands, dividing her time between Minneapolis and Ventura, CA.



If by truth you mean hands
shaping the vertebrae of stars

If by hands you mean oak branches
scratching the moon’s face

If by branches you mean that sickle moon
lying on its side as if asking

If by moon you mean pillow, expectant
as we, fingers laced, walk dim streets

If by pillow you mean feather words
the breath of fasting lovers

If by words you mean answers
where the moon tilts on its side,
like a burning blade

If by answer you mean bruised trees
clouds, lights of a far-off city, or the way
your finger slides into my closed fist

trembling the lifeline, the way
your palms resurrect my breasts.

Diane Frank on Poets Cafe

The following interview of Diane Frank by Lois P. Jones originally aired on KPFK Los Angeles (reproduced with permission).

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Biographical Information—Diane Frank

frankDiane Frank is an award-winning poet and author of six books of poems, including Swan Light, Entering the Word Temple, and The Winter Life of Shooting Stars. Her friends describe her as a harem of seven women in one very small body. She lives in San Francisco, where she dances, plays cello, and creates her life as an art form. Diane teaches at San Francisco State University and Dominican University. She leads workshops for young writers as a Poet in the School and directs the Blue Light Press On-line Poetry Workshop. Blackberries in the Dream House, her first novel, won the Chelson Award for Fiction and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her new novel, Yoga of the Impossible, was #3 on Amazon’s bestseller list for metaphysical fiction, and #1 on their Hot New Releases list. To schedule readings, book signings and workshops, and to invite her to speak to your book club, contact


Iowa Omen

Three hawks fly south
        as your voice trembles
                across the great plains.

Fields of sleeping cows
        a gentleness in the land.

Here is the omen:
        Sky splashed with aurora,
                blue stars, curtains of light.

The letters are gold
        on red silk –
                Japanese calligraphy.

If I had the right kind of ink
        I’d write them
                on your skin.

Poe and Poetic Discovery

Note: This article first appeared in the print edition of the Press-Enterprise on February 1, 2015, in the Inlandia Institute‘s weekly column.

If you spend enough time around poets, you’re bound to hear grandiose claims about self-discovery and poetic epiphany. And it’s true, our favorite poems tend to be surprising, even to ourselves. There are prosaic explanations for this: The best poems give voice to the unvoiced; they provide words for thoughts and feelings that we hadn’t before been able to describe. Saul Bellow famously said, when asked how it felt winning the Nobel Prize, “I don’t know. I haven’t written about it yet.” There is certainly a way in which words build a framework for understanding.

The movie What the Bleep Do We Know? relates an anecdote that, when Columbus first came to America, the natives literally couldn’t see his ships, because they had no mental concept of a ship that large. As sure as I am that the story is apocryphal, the poet in me wants to believe it—I’ve felt it myself: Every poem I’ve written that feels successful has taught me something about the world that I didn’t quite grasp when I started writing it. What if there were some truth to this notion of poetic epiphany?

Everyone is familiar with Edgar Allan Poe. But what you might not know Poe’s last work—which he considered to be his greatest—Eureka: A Prose Poem, not only presaged the Big Bang Theory by 80 years, but also provided the first recorded solution to Olbers’ Paradox.

Also called the Dark Sky Night Paradox, Heinrich Olbers described the problem of the relatively low brightness of the night sky in 1823. If the universe were infinite and eternal, as was commonly held at the time, then any line of sight would eventually hit the surface of a star—in other words, there would be so many stars in the sky that every point in the sky would be bright. In Eureka (1849), Poe explains it like this:

Were the succession of stars endless, then the background of the sky would present us a uniform luminosity, like that displayed by the Galaxy—since there could be absolutely no point, in all that background, at which would not exist a star. The only mode, therefore, in which, under such a state of affairs, we could comprehend the voids which our telescopes find in innumerable directions, would be by supposing the distance of the invisible background so immense that no ray from it has yet been able to reach us at all.

Poe is describing the concept of a bounded observable universe—light has a finite speed, and perhaps the universe just isn’t old enough for all of it to have reached us yet. He goes on to explain how the universe sprung from a “primordial particle”:

… one particle—a particle of one kind—of one character—of one nature—of one size—of one form—a particle, therefore, “without form and void”—a particle positively a particle at all points—a particle absolutely unique, individual, undivided …

The particle then expands outward by “divine volition,” a repulsive force that’s opposed to gravity. Once matter is expelled outward it begins to clump together due to gravity, forming the stars and galaxies we see today. Eventually, gravity draws all matter together to once again reform the primordial particle, resulting in an infinite series of big bangs, and a continuously expanding and collapsing universe. He even acknowledges our impossibly small place within it: “Our Galaxy is but one, and perhaps one of the most inconsiderable, of the clusters which go to the constitution of this ultimate …”

Keep in mind that Poe died 60 years before Edwin Hubble discovered that there were other galaxies beyond the Milky Way. Poe didn’t know about Einstein’s cosmological constant, or dark energy, or cosmic microwave background radiation; there was no WMAP of galactic clusters. But he was able to intuit one of the most fascinating theories of the century to follow him, using only a term he himself coined: “ratiocination.”

For Poe, ratiocination—an idea introduced in his detective stories—was a kind of imaginative reasoning, the ability of intuition to make sweeping connections between seemingly small and disparate details, a leap from all the might-have-beens to what probably is. It’s a counterfactual logic that’s able to reveal deeper truth.

For those bounded by logic, ratiocination is only accessible in dreams: the sewing machine, the structure of Benzene, DNA’s double helix were all discoveries said to have first appeared in sleep. But poets practice ratiocination every time we sit down in front of a blank page, often with only the faintest glimmerings of what we actually want to write about. Imaginative intuition is a daily practice.

So next time a poet tells you about some grand epiphany, consider (maybe) listening.