of a Poet: Carol Tarlen (1943-2004)
29, 2004. 6:30. North Beach, San Francisco.
Eighty or so family, friends, coworkers, comrades and fellow
poets gathered in front of O'Reilly's Pub for a wake for poet
Carol Tarlen. The Green Street Mortuary Band set the spirit
for the night by playing "Solidarity Forever" and
then leading the crowd, each member holding a red rose, through
the main corridor of North Beach and concluding at the famous
Beat hang out, Spec's Adler Museum Café where the band
continued with some of Carols favorite songs: "When the
Saints Go Marching In," "Rebel Girl," and the
"International." The wake continued in Spec's where
family, friends, and poets read Carol's poetry, talked about
her, and read poems about Carol. Poet Jack Hirschman said
it was the best poet's wake in North Beach since beat poet's
Bob Kaufman's in 1986.
my good friend for 20 years, was a North Beach Emily Dickinson,
publishing widely in magazines and anthologies but never putting
out a full-length book. She was the contemporary poet I knew
closest to Whitman or Neruda: from her white trash impoverished
childhood to her MA in English from San Francisco State; from
her being a poet/delegate on the S.F. Labor Council to her
getting arrested repeatedly for feeding the hungry and homeless
in front of San Francisco's Civic Center.
most well-known poem is "White Trash: An Autobiography"
which was published in Calling Home: Working Class Women's
Writings, An Anthology (edited by Janet Zandy; Rutgers
University Press). In the first section "1948:
Dysentery in the First World" her family is
living in a trailer in Salinas when her younger brother gets
dysentery and is taken to the local hospital: "After
two weeks the doctors told my mother/to take him home to die.
/Instead she took him to a university medical center. /He
was given antibiotics and lived." Also, her father was
a truck driver with narcolepsy, a disease that caused him
to lose jobs, so the family was constantly moving around California
until they settled in Fremont, in a blue-collar tract.
herself was a diabetic since she was a teenager. After a short-lived
marriage in Marin which resulted in two children, she moved
to San Francisco, worked full-time as a secretary at UC San
Francisco Medical Center while attending school at San Francisco
State for six years to complete both her B.A. and M.A. "It
was hard," she said. "I never want to do it again.
I was exhausted." She devoted her weekends and summers
to her two daughters who lived with their father in Marin.
high school she was a voracious reader, devouring Dreiser,
Steinbeck, Hemingway, James Farrell, Brecht, Clifford Odets.
In junior college she acted in Theater of the Absurd plays,
growing to like Beckett, Ionesco, and Edward Albee. On her
own she read Vallejo, Breton, and Neruda. She especially liked
Breton's idea about the imagination. The imagination is central
to her poetry and her life. She survived the numbing jobs
she worked her whole life partially by using her imagination.
For a short time she was on welfare, producing the enraged
Rights" how men, on finding out she was on
welfare, would offer her money for sex. When she graduated
with her M.A., she said, "There were no full-time teaching
jobs in public school system or junior college system in San
Francisco. They laid off tons of people in the late '70s."
diabetes, two children to help support, and no family back-up
she couldn't get hired as an adjunct professor without benefits
or job security, so she kept working as a secretary in the
medical school at UC San Francisco, ran the poetry reading
series at the Coffee Gallery (now the Lost and Found) in North
Beach, co-founded the fiction magazine Real Fiction.
She assisted her husband David Joseph in editing his pioneering
magazine Working Classics featuring working class literature
in the late 1980s. She was active in her union AFSCME, holding
office in her local and as a delegate SF Labor Council.
the same time as Carol Tarlen was a union official in the
1980s she produced some spectacular poems about work such
celebrating having a day off with pay so she "sat in
a bistro and drank absinthe/while Cesar Vallejo strolled past/praised
the sun in its holiness, led a revolution
wrote another wonderful poem called "The
Receptionist Sits at Her Desk and Hums 'Solidarity Forever.'"
She wrote some great poems to her two daughters.
first trip out of the country was to Nicaragua to witness
firsthand the Sandinista Revolution. After the 1989 earthquake
she spent several months traveling to Watsonville near Santa
Cruz, California, where she helped feed agricultural workers
and their families who had lost jobs and homes due to the
wrote short prose pieces, one called "Nellie
Perkiss Speaks Her Mind" in the totally believable
voice of an elderly feisty Appalachian coal miner's wife.
When there were ferocious layoffs in factories in the 1980s,
she wrote "Work
Slows Down at the Plant" about a trapped husband,
fearful of losing his job, hitting his wife; the poem shows
compassion for both husband and wife. Her poems broke your
heart again and again.
In the mid-1980s when mothers in Atlanta, Soweto, Argentina
and El Salvador were mourning their children being killed
she wrote "Cholo"
where she witnesses her daughter suffering in an inner city
high school in San Francisco. She teaches her own daughter
about politics by speaking of the women of "Atlanta/Soweto,
El Salvador, ask the mothers circling the plaza/ in Argentina.
They write history/with the photos of teenaged faces/they
hold to the sun which is not/blind to their witness."
She even becomes these women in the poem, standing in front
of a "locked gate./I am facing the silence and I am/crying
an Angel Glimpsed by Blake" she sees Blake's
angel in the face of a hungry man "in a worn, black suit
standing near the doorway of steel-/encased office
building." She was a visionary poet like Blake, whose
visions often reappear in her poems. In her poem "Believe
in My Hands (Which Are Ending) for Cuban singer
Silvio Rodriguez she talked about how the imagination "explodes
into white carnations" and how she trusts in "the
mystery of the future/which is always beginning."
She knew her roots: knew her ancestors were indentured Anglo
servants come from Britain to the U.S. She was a Quaker and
took me to the Quaker meeting hall south of Market Street.
She knew about the Diggers, those English landless peasant
communists who during the 1650s went to establish communes
on abandoned land. When Cromwell, servant of the rising bourgeoisie,
sent out troops, they decimated the Diggers who inspired a
group of young hippie anarchists during the 1960s to start
regular feedings to give food to runaway teenagers.
The S.F. Diggers inspired Food Not Bombs, which Carol joined
for ten years to feed the hungry in Civic Center, work for
which she was repeatedly arrested. After one arrest, Carol
wrote a prose piece about the prostitutes she met in jail,
her fellow human beings. She introduced me to radical English
culture of singer/song writers Billy Bragg and Leon Rousellon,
playing for me Rousellon's two great songs The Digger Song
(aka "The World Turned Upside Down") and "Bringing
the News from Nowhere" about William Morris. To paraphrase
Rousellon, she, like William Morris, came with a vision and
walked through the river of fire.
like Whitman, was a poet for democracy. During the Gilded
Age of the 1980s, 1990s and the 2000s, she wrote about the
working people who were increasingly smashed and pushed aside
and who have fought back with verve and passion. She was writing
a poetry necessary for America just as Whitman's poetry had
been necessary for the Gilded Age of the late 19th century.
To write such poetry, she adapted the poetics of the international
avant-garde of Breton, Vallejo, and Neruda just as Whitman
had adapted an international avant-garde poetics in an earlier
generation. She knew the people she was writing about: her
people, knew them in her bones. Her family. She was the warm
humane beating heart of the city of San Francisco.
had heart bypass surgery about the same time as Ferlinghetti
did--knew him from North Beach where they lived the last years
of her life--and compared notes with him about their surgeries.
She wrote a poem about her heart disease "Recovery
for the Red-Hearted Masses" answering Ginsberg's
'Howl" saying "I've seen the best chests of my generation
cracked and broken-Mario, Allen
." This poem is
also a marvelous evocation of the North Beach she so loved.
But her North Beach was made up of the working people like
the poor Chinese woman with fragile bones walking against
the hard wind.
attempts at having her work published in a full-length book
of poetry were repeatedly rejected, but she did have her work
circulated widely in magazines and anthologies. She was marginalized
in the Bay Area literary community for being working class.
As the years went by and her diabetes and heart disease worsened,
she lost her blonde beauty; in her fifties she walked stoop
shouldered, making her even more marginalized. She knew it.
Well, Whitman was marginalized. Dickinson was marginalized.
They knew it, too
worsening diabetes and heart disease, she retired from her
job in January 2005, and applied for disability, as her retirement
wasn't enough to live on. The insurance company turned her
down, knowing full well that 80% of applications for federal
disability are rejected. With her limited pension she couldn't
afford to move and had to live in a third-floor walk-up in
North Beach. Still, she remained active, going out daily to
meet friends and family, read at poetry events and take part
in demonstrations for the homeless and against the war in
Iraq. She had to daily walk up the stairs to her third-floor
walk-up, running out of breath on each landing as her heart
disease was getting worse. June 15 she died of a heart attack.
July 20 (Tuesday) 7:00 PM the free event "Words, Music,
War and Labor" (New College, San Francisco) which is
part of the 11th Annual 2004 San Francisco Labor Fest poets
Adam David Miller, Jack Hirschman, Alice Rogoff, Roland Carrillo,
read in an event held in the memory of Carol Tarlen. Her family
and poet friends are working to put out a full-length book
of her work.
published at http://californiawriter.blogspot.com