By Mary Getlein
Beachhead: How did you become a poet?
Mary Getlein: I don’t know – I just started writing things. I spent a lot of time watching poets perform at the church in Ocean Park. Then I met FrancEye Smith and watched her perform her poems – and she blew me away. Picture this: an old lady with long white hair, wearing these baggy pants and blouses, getting up before an audience and blowing them away. She definitely caught my attention. She had a beard of long white hairs, which she cultivated and she obviously “did not give a fuck” and I could definitely relate to that. You get to a certain age as a woman and realize you have to start telling the truth about things, because you’re tired of participating in the lies this country is addicted to.
BH: What would those lies be?
MG: Oh you know – “ask not what this country can do for you, ask what you can do for this country” – quote by JFK (like go to war?). He was shot and killed so they turned him into a martyr. But if he had lived, one of those days someone would have written a book that would have exposed some raw truth about him, instead.
BH: Such as?
MG: Oh, you know, Marilyn Monroe’s death, please? His involvement with having round-the-clock girls coming in and out of the White House, to service his out of control sex drive. Drugs? All the deals he had going . . . Corruption at the top. His ties to the Mafia, war machine, Cuba? Lie #2 – go to college and get a good job. If you can’t it’s your fault, you’re a loser – Capitalism! Our society tells us all these lies and expects us to live by them, and if we can’t, because just maybe all the cards are stacked against us, then they call us losers – it’s all your fault.
BH: Let’s get back to poetry.
BH: So who were your favorite poets when you were a child? Were you an avid reader?
MG: Oh yes, my head was always in a book. I loved to read because it was such an escape. I would get lost in books and take on the attributes of the books and try them out. I would try out the vocabulary of the books and freak out my older sister, using new swear words she hadn’t heard of yet.
BH: Did school help you to write poetry?
MG: No, school basically shut me down. School made me feel really stupid. I think I was dyslexic. I couldn’t concentrate. I was bored out of mind, pretty much. Just sleepwalked through school. You know Philomene Long said: a poet is someone who looks up at the sky a lot – watches the clouds a lot. That’s me – I’ve spent years in Venice, sitting on a bench and staring at the horizon of the ocean.
BH: How many years have you lived here?
MG: Since 1972. Forty-two years.
BH: So you’ve seen a lot of changes.
MG: Yup – but I love Venice. Venice is my spiritual home. It’s the first place I really felt was my home. And it will be my last. I love this place.
BH: Your favorite poems as a child?
MG: Emily Dickensen, Robert Louis Stevenson, A.A.Milne – I loved the Pooh stories. The usuals in an American Lit book. Then when I was a teenager I discovered Jack Kerouac – I read all his books. I loved how he got a forest ranger job and was trying to figure out how to live as cheaply as possible, so he could work on his books. At one point he was living on peanut butter and lettuce, and wine, of course. So then I moved on to the beat poets – loved them. I loved jazz – I was 17 and I was probably smarter then, than I am now in some ways. It was before I got involved in drugs and alcohol. So I was more myself. After drugs and alcohol, I had to get sober and deal with the wreckage of my past and it was hard. Plus I had a little girl to raise. But it all worked out. Now she is 28, I am 62, and we are closer than we have ever been. It’s all good. Anyway, I came to poetry late in the game. I started writing poetry in 2006. I came home from cleaning FrancEye’s apartment and I sat down, and wrote a poem about her and her place. Basically the poem wrote itself. And it was very strange, it had never happened to me before, writing a poem. And I mailed it into the Beachhead. And they published it! So that’s how I got into poetry.
Poetry, for me, is a postcard from your heart. For me, I have to mull over things, and think about them, and maybe a few lines will come to me and then I’ll think about them some more, and add something . . . Other times, the thing just writes itself. These are usually pretty good. It like bursts through the everyday shit – you know, like writing a grocery list and all of a sudden you start writing about something else.
BH: Do you still read a lot?
MG: Yup, still read a lot. I ride my bike around Venice and find free books in the Free Library boxes outside people’s houses. It’s so cool. You can read them and take them back. I learn a lot from novels, other poets, also detective stories. I used to read a lot of depressing books, but now I’m trying to find funny books, which help. I’m kind of tired of being depressed. The more you laugh, the more you can laugh.
BH: You were homeless for how many years?
MG: I was homeless from 1976 to 1984, plus here and there. I lived on the streets and will never forget it. You learn a LOT – anyway, I know a lot of people who are homeless and I regard them as my good friends. In 2006 I used to host meals down on the boardwalk and even though it’s been a long time, people still remember that. And I remember it too. It was fun and it felt good to do something concrete. I had to give it up, but other people are doing it now, so it’s all good.
BH: How do you like being part of the Beachhead?
MG: Oh, I really like it. It feels good to be a part of something and everyone on the staff has a good sense of humor, so there is a lot of laughter shared at the meetings. I was distributing Beachheads one day at Ralphs, and this weird guy came up to me and asked: “You’re not one of those ‘do-gooders’ are you?” And I said, “Yeah, I hope so.” I went home and thought about it, and realized I should have said, “so, what? I should be a do-badder?” I mean, we are putting out the alternative view to what’s happening in Venice today.
Real estate is the engine that drives this town. It always has. When I got here it was a hippie paradise. Rents were super low and no one wanted to live here. But the ocean was here, there was a lot of music here, people were into “doing their thing,” whatever that was. It was like going to the circus, everyday.
We know times have changed. But we are looking at the “human rights” side of a story. We are asking to have people treated with respect. Homeless people are not helped as much as they could be. The police are very mean to homeless people and actually drive people crazy. It’s very hard to be homeless and out on the street. People should try it sometime. If you spent one night out there, and watched how the police treat someone who basically has nothing – it would change your whole view of it. Be cold, be hungry, be scared for one cold night and see what it’s like.
BH: What is a poet?
MG: In the olden days of Greece, poets were paid by the government, or sponsored by rich people. Poets were respected and didn’t have to slave away at a day job and come home and try to write. Poets were oracles, telling people things that were going to come true. Poets were story tellers and people loved stories. Poetry is one of the arts, and most poets are struggling. Poets tell the story of life, the things in your life that are beautiful, and ugly, and happy, and sad.
BH: “This paper is a poem.” What does that mean?
MG: It means that the Beachhead prints poems, respects poems and holds poets in high regard. This paper is a poem, just like the sky is a poem. The poem and the sky are gifts and we receive them with love and joy. When people send us their poems, we receive them with respect and we try to be respectful of all writers.
BH: Thank you.
MG: No, thank you –
(Reprinted from the August 2011 Beachhead)
I thought I saw Franceye on the #3 bus.
I was at Venice and Lincoln,
Hey! I wanted to shout –
I’m writing poems now, like you –
She goes – yeah, I know, it’s fun, huh?
just relax and let it happen –
like they used to say about rape –
They thought that was funny or something –
– and I went in a bookstore yesterday –
by the AERO Theatre
and there was no computer in the whole place
and they were talking books, Franceye –
It ain’t over yet –
People still talk about books –
“told you so, didn’t I?”, she said
just try to enjoy it –
relax and poems will come right down to you
yeah, you’re a loner and you don’t talk so much –
but you’re thinking all the time –
and remember the universal answer to any annoying question –
don’t take any wooden nickels, kid
but where are you going Franceye?
I’m off to see the Wizard –
I’m chasing the Light, just like I did when I was
just do what suits you –
and the hell with the rest of it –
She was gone –
and I was on my way home.
By Mary Getlein