Austin Straus on Poets Cafe

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

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Biographical Information—Austin Straus

AustinStrausAustin Straus was born in June 1939 in Brooklyn, New York. He has lived in Southern California since 1978. His poems and illustrations have appeared in numerous literary magazines and anthologies, including Alcatraz 3, The Maverick Poets, Men of Our Time, New Letters, Plainsong, Stand Up Poetry, and This Sporting Life, among many others. He is an accomplished painter, printmaker, and book artist with work in several private collections, including The Ruth & Marvin Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry. His one-of-kind books combine poetry and graphics and are in many art collections throughout California and elsewhere. He frequently, informally, exhibits prints, drawings and paintings in conjunction with readings. As the host of Pacific Radio’s The Poetry Connexion, he directed the show on KPFK from October 1981 through June of 1996 with co-host Wanda Coleman. Drunk with Light, a book of poems, was published by Red Hen Press in 2002. Intensifications, his second book from Red Hen appeared in 2010. The Love Project, A Marriage Made in Poetry, poems written by himself and his wife of 32 years, Wanda Coleman, also from Red Hen, was published in 2014, after Coleman’s death. He continues his life-long exploration of visual poetry with paintings, collages and unique books.


Pictures of You

The thing is to paint as if no other
painter ever existed.


You break no Kodaks, so camera
friendly, the lens loves you.

Painting is another story…you are
variegated, light and dark browns
tinged with ochres, reds, oranges, siennas,
umbers, maroons and salmons, all blended,
everything but green and blue!  What you wear
changes your skin tone, and where you sit
and how you hold yourself, look up, down,
sideways and your expression, sad, meditative,
thoughtful, worried, calm, delighted,
and is it sunny or shady or rainy, and
what’s the atmosphere, the barometric pressure,
humidity…the very air and light change you,
my brown/black, Indian red, multi-colored,
multi-brained, multi-sensed multiple, my
million women in one, my elusive, changeable,
unpindownable, ever unpredictable, highly
unpaintable you.


No one ever saw an apple before
or that mountain

and I never saw you, try now
to see you as if no one
has ever seen you, see you new,
from every possible angle and
nuance, real and surreal, flat,
round and cubed, collaged and
montaged, in shadow and light, color
or black and white, etched, sketched
and painted, in delicate pencil,
charcoal and pastels, or hard, linear,
contoured, barely seen or superreal,
totally, to all your levels, with all
the depths, complexity, truth and care
you have always deserved…


The Love Project, A Marriage Made in Poetry
(Red Hen Press, 2014)

Blink of an eye / ideas and people connect / in haiku

The following article appeared in the Press-Enterprise, Sunday, December 6, 2015.

When my grandmother’s hearing had grown too poor for the telephone, we started exchanging letters. Once a month—on the same day as the Edison bill—I’d receive a handwritten letter, pressed firmly with a retired schoolteacher’s perfect cursive, yellowed paper cut neatly from the same ancient notebook. Family gossip, news of my father, the weather back east, details of her various ailments.

She’d close every letter with a haiku. It was both a hobby of hers, and a nod to my odd profession. Her last was probably her best:

snow-covered sundial
to tell time again

I imagined her as the sundial, snowed in by age, her bed long-since moved to the living room so she wouldn’t have to negotiate the stairs, waiting patiently for whatever spring might come in whatever existence might come next.

When I had a moment, I’d tap out a hasty reply, glancing out at the palm trees on Ventura Boulevard from my office window, and close with a responding haiku.

it’s December too
in California
the crickets shout!

There was a joy to the haiku that I’ve only recently come to understand. Easy to write but impossible to master, they never grow old. You can write them in the car stuck in traffic, or plop them easily at the end of a newspaper article. Haiku are so simple they can be simultaneously silly and profound, and that contrast has kept them fresh for centuries.

Most often my grandmother’s haiku would offer a shift in mood, adding levity or perspective or clarity to the information that the letter had shared.

lost my other shoe—
now even the right
isn’t left

Almost a decade later, I still remember many of them fondly, and they always embody my grandmother’s quietly sarcastic personality.

More recently, I interviewed Richard Gilbert, a haiku scholar at Kumamoto University in Japan. He described with great enthusiasm the beloved space haiku holds within Japanese culture. With a total population of 130 million, it’s estimated that 12 million attend a regular haiku group. Witty celebrities compose haiku-like senryu live on TV.

Haiku itself descends from a party game, so it should be no surprise that they’re fun to write. At the kukai, as it was called, friends would gather around a bottle of saké, taking turns composing lines on a chosen topic. Class boundaries and social conventions dissolved as participants adopted pen names, many of them humorous. Bashō was named after the banana tree outside of his hut.

Listening to Gilbert tell it, haiku as a social act sounds like so much fun that I can’t help wishing we made it a part of our culture in the West. An outlet for playfulness and creativity and face-to-face interaction, haiku embody much of what we seem to be lacking in the age of smartphones and Facebook.

So let’s start now. Why not cap off your annual holiday letter with a summary haiku? Turn a family dinner into your own kukai, composing short poems about the season.

Before you start, it’s important to know what haiku are and what they aren’t. No other form of poetry is so misunderstood. Haiku are not three-line poems of five, then seven, then five syllables. Counting syllables doesn’t make any sense in Japanese, which is divided into units of time and not sound. You can think of traditional haiku as three lines that are short, then long, then short in duration, but even that generality isn’t an important rule in modern haiku.

The heart of a haiku is really the kireji, the cutting word, which is almost a form of punctuation that divides the poem in two. In English we might use a dash or colon—this division separates the first image from the last, creating a comparison that can be evocative or uncanny. The best example is Bashō’s famous frog:

old pond—
frog jumps in
the sound of water

That dash is the kireji, and it signifies a complete cut in time and space. The haiku presents one image, an old pond, and then another isolated image, the frog jumping into the sound of water. How the two images relate to each other is left up to the reader—and it’s that interactive, connective leap that stirs our thoughts and emotions. This is one of the many things Bashō meant when he said, haiku jiyu, or “Haiku is for freedom.”

Much more goes into classical haiku, but this is all you need to know to write decent modern haiku in English. Don’t count syllables, just count images or ideas: There should be two.

watching football
my keyboard
almost silent

To learn more about the history of haiku, you can find my interview with Richard Gilbert in issue #47 of Rattle, or read his translations of contemporary Japanese haiku poets at his website.

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.