California Soul: The Poetry of Mike Meraz
Mike Meraz interviewed by Richard Kovitch.
“The visible aggregate of the whole of Los Angeles churns so confusingly that it induces little more than illusionary stereotypes or self-serving caricatures — if in reality it is ever seen at all. What is this place? Even knowing where to focus, to find a starting point, is not easy, for perhaps more than any other place, Los Angeles is everywhere.”
– Edward W. Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion Of Space in Critical Social Theory (1989)
“Los Angeles is home.” – Mike Meraz, poet.
LA is difficult to define. From one perspective it has imposed itself on Western culture more than any other city in the late-20th Century, not least via Hollywood’s relentless culture industry. From another it’s the American Dream at its most elusive — an economy that’s poor health was, until very recently, evoking parallels with Greece’s fiscal freefall, the roads notoriously crumbling; the dramatic social chasms widening between the gated communities of Beverly Hills, Brentwood, and Santa Monica, and the ghettos of Compton, Pomona and Inglewood. As Mike Davis observed in City Of Quartz (1990), “No metropolis has ever been more loved or more hated than the City Of Angels. To its official boosters, ‘Los Angeles brings it all together’. To its detractors, LA is a sunlit mortuary where ‘you can rot without feeling it'”.
When I ask the LA poet Mike Meraz to suggest five words to describe Los Angeles he offers, “driven, self-centered, shallow, artificial, crowded.” But then he continues; “I have a love/hate relationship with L.A. I love the city and all of the opportunities it has to offer. But there is a greed and consumerism in L.A that I can’t stand. There is literally a strip mall on every corner. There are sometimes three corporate supermarkets in a 2-mile stretch. What you drive is your status symbol, which is complete bullshit.”
Sprawl, more than anything, defines LA. The space between objects and people possesses an occult intensity and haunts the city’s greatest fiction — Raymond Chandler’s “red winds” that cause “every booze party to end in a fight”; Vincent Bugliosi’s canyons where it is “so quiet you could almost hear the sound of ice rattling in the cocktail shakers”; Bret Easton Ellis’s freeways where “people are afraid to merge”. It’s why buildings in LA — motels, diners, drugstores — hold such a grip on the imagination. In other cities these buildings blur into the tightly knitted fabric of urban life. In LA they’re conspicuous outposts, places you move between, refuge from the all-conquering freeways.
Meraz’s poems seek to close the distance between people. “When someone reads my work, they can know I am writing to them. I think a lot of this is due to my lack of social skills. I am very shy in social situations. If I am in a group I am one of those people who try to blend in with the wall. I don’t want to be noticed.” He has been writing for over a decade, mostly based in Los Angeles, though there was a four-year hiatus spent in post-Katrina New Orleans (“People come to L.A. to succeed; you go to New Orleans to party and escape,” he tells me.) His work is collected in his new book 43 (2014), published by Epic Rites Press. He describes it as “a retrospective, spanning from my childhood to my adult years.”
This claim is reflected in 43’s high hit rate. There is no filler. Every line counts. Meraz’s style is startling in its immediacy, as intimate as it is stark. “The best marksmen need one shot,” he jokes. “My poems could be prose with line breaks. I don’t write typical verse in the academic sense. My poems are very plain speaking; everyday language but with rhythm and flow. You could probably take the line breaks out of my poems and call it prose. But I think it works better with the line breaks.”
Meraz maps the geography of the human heart primarily, yet the city always lurks in the background — the deli where he works, the local supermarket, the launderette, barely furnished low-rent apartments. The protagonists that drift through his work are fascinating; you get the impression Meraz has lived every word. Take for example, the extraordinary prose poem, “Mono” in which he fondly remembers a “good-hearted drug dealer” who, despite being a hardened criminal would always leave his door open in case Mike “wanted to talk”. Or the “Laundromat Girls” that transfix him as he waits in the parking lot — “hair, hips, eyes, lips, bodies, breasts“ — but whose come-on eye lid flutters he resists (“I am too shy to approach any of them. It is my only saving grace”).
“I can only write from experience,” he confirms. “I really don’t have a great imagination to ‘think up’ poems. So I need to write from my life. It allows the poems to be more authentic.” And the women who feature in his poems? What do they think of how they’re portrayed? “I never tell a girl, ‘I wrote a poem about you.’ I’d feel weird doing that. A lot of the women in my poems probably don’t know. I don’t mention names. I don’t tell women I am dating I write poems or I am a writer. I just do it privately.”
Bathos stalks Meraz’s world too. Despite the darkness he explores, the tone is often lightened by a sardonic wit. “You have to laugh at this world, or it’ll drive you mad.” Though he adds the disclaimer, “I don’t go to comedy clubs.”
At its best this blend of underworld and sex, wit and simplicity combine in Meraz’s most effective pieces. For example:
too many women over the years
have told me how pretty my eyes are.
“oh, how pretty your eyes are,”
they would say.
then they would proceed to scoop them
out of my eye sockets
and play with them.
“oh,” they would say,
“they are so blue and round.”
“My poems definitely have a bit of the underworld in them,” he acknowledges. “I have been around users of heroin and crystal meth and it was never a good situation. A girl I was living with for a few years was a heroin addict. I tried to get her off during the time I was with her, as she wanted to stop, but she never did. And the last time I saw her she had a needle in her back pocket. It seems a lot of the women I fall in love with have been associated with drugs. Maybe I am one of those sorry guys who try to ‘save’ women. I don’t know.”
When Meraz left LA in the mid-00s, he traded it for New Orleans. He found a city “more devilish and sinister than LA can ever be.”
“Moving to New Orleans was a miraculous thing. I spent four years there, from 2008 to 2012. I lived in a little shotgun house on the border of the French Quarter about four blocks from Bourbon Street that gave me access to everything ‘New Orleans.’ The environment is beautiful there, you feel like you are living on a movie set. I always felt a bit of magic in that city.”
New Orleans proved fertile ground for his imagination. “The city you are in does affect your work,” he confirms. His New Orleans-penned poems are haunted by the bustle of the markets (“you take sadness, and feed it with grits and butter”); the voodoo rhythms of the city (“the odd women of the world come to New Orleans”). In this sense his body of work shares a commonality with John Rechy’s seminal City Of Night (1963), a novel that paints equally vivid portraits of Los Angeles (“where the sun gives up and sinks into the black, black sea”) as it does New Orleans (“a ghost city”). In Meraz’s poem, “resistance: at the corner market,” he reaffirms the presence of community (“I walked in for a snack, not expecting a lesson in sainthood”). In “The World Needs New Orleans” (published in his 2012 collection, The Art Of Work) he relishes the fact “in front of the bars, the sign does not read, ‘Happy hour’, but ‘Lost Dog. See bartender inside'”.
Elaborating on New Orleans, Meraz is keen to remind me he lived in the City post-Katrina. “I didn’t see much of the aftermath [of Katrina, 2005], mainly due to being in the French Quarter. There are a lot of outlying areas of New Orleans that still have effects of the devastation. But I didn’t go into the ghettos too much. I asked people about Katrina and I heard a lot of horror stories. I think innately that city is heartbroken. Katrina just added to it.”
His poem “Ode To Caroline” is dedicated to a woman he knew who rode her bike through the city every day even though she was dying of leukemia. “I ride my bike through the streets of New Orleans even though I am weightless….”
Meraz returned to LA in 2012. Given that he lives in a city synonymous with the visual image, it’s telling that Meraz resists publishing photographs of himself. “I let people think what they want. That’s why my poems lack detail. People can use their imagination to fill in the spaces. I am building them a house to live in for a few minutes or seconds. They can decorate it however they want.”
“I don’t tell my co-workers I write. I don’t tell people when I first meet them. If they find out later, that’s cool, but I don’t go around telling people, ‘I’m a poet.’ A lot of people online know I write. I think that’s where a lot of my readers come from.”
Despite a rich literary heritage LA is not a city popularly associated with poetry; Bukowski is its most obvious laureate, but soon after the trail runs cold. Meraz confirms this. “I really don’t associate personally with a lot of writers, except online. In my personal life, there are only the women I hang out with, my co-workers, and my family.”
But this is the business end of poetry; Meraz has little time for networking. His commitment remains to the work. “Writing, intrinsically, is a solitary business. And that’s one of the things I love about it. I don’t need anyone to write, just a laptop and me.” He pauses, before confiding. “I am still trying to write that sentence that will solve everything.”
Mike Meraz’s 43 (2014) is published by Epic Rites Press. Photography by kind permission: G. Santerno.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Kovitch is a writer and director based in London whose work has won awards in Europe and the US. He has been published by Clinicality Press and is currently developing several screenplays and a photography project.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 20th, 2014.