In this text interview we discussed with Don Thompson his favorite moments as a writer and his advice to other writers. Then we discuss his Historical Narrative poem Local Color.
Portia Choi: Don, what were your most interesting moments as a poet?
Don Thompson: The moment of discovery when something comes from wherever it comes from. Winning the Sunken Garden Poetry Prize for Back Roads was memorable, reading with C.K. Williams to a thousand or so people. That led to a lot of good things.
PC: What would you like to share with other poets?
DP: Do the work; nothing else matters.
PC: What inspired you to write Local Color, a book length poem?
DT: It’s been something that’s been with me for many, many years. I originally wrote an unpublished novel in the 1970’s about a night watchman in the Kern County Museum interacting with people from the past. He was a young man back then. Now, of course, the watchman in Local Color is an old man. Some readers have suggested that I got the idea from the movie, “Night at the Museum”. But it actually goes back a long time. Anyway, I always wanted to write it. I also had an image of the first white settler here, Christian Bohna, standing on his porch watching the flooding Kern River flow by and realizing he was not going to make it. That was another beginning.
I like to write things other than a collection of free-standing poems. I like to write things that have shape to them, an over-arching unity perhaps. So this became a narrative, with some aspects of a novella. Then I realized that I would have to write notes to explain things to people who were not familiar with local history. I thought that would be boring and academic, but then it came to me to have a second character. So we have the night watchman and his old friend, the editor, who provides the background, but also disagrees with the night watchman—who may not always be reliable.
PC: Why did it take so long to write it?
DT: I finally got old enough. It’s a book about time—with a capital T—which isn’t a young person’s concern.
PC: What inspired you to write it in such a short time? I was amazed it took you only a year to write it.
DT: It was just one of those things. When you’re working on something urgent, you work on it every day. And it just accumulates. There was a certain voice that took over and spoke for itself. I did do a lot of research as I worked—quick and sloppy research because I wasn’t writing a history—and put it all together. Maybe it’s like jazz: the facts are a theme on which the night watchman improvises.
PC: I found the notes to be very helpful to see the historical perspective; to get to know the personalities.
DT: The idea is to have two characters interacting with each other. The night watchman is rather impulsive while the editor is more concerned with getting the facts straight. Even so, though many of the people are historical, others are imaginary, the Indian-hating preacher, for instance, although the massacre is based on a real event. Also, there are conflicting versions of some stories in the literature, so that makes the ultimate “reality” uncertain. And there are a couple of places where the editor just shakes his head and admits that the night watchman has made it all up.
PC: The poetry section was quite amazing. I especially liked the catalog of wildflowers, the numbers and varieties of them.
DT: I’m not a botanist. I was much more interested in the names and the sound of them and what they looked like.
PC: I recall twenty, thirty.
DT: They were all local, Kern County flowers.
PC: In reading Local Color, I noticed you wrote about well-known persons such as General Beale; but also about cultures like Yokuts, Chinese, and the African-Americans. What interested you to write about those that are sometimes overlooked?
DT: Oh, just because you are writing about this place and the history of it. All those ethnicities have always been here. Today, we have sixty some languages spoken locally. Incredible. The Native Americans were here originally, and they were squeezed out, the Yokut people. Baker hired them. African Americans arrived on the train, recruited as cotton pickers, and went on to do all kinds of things, even building successful businesses. The Asians, however, were not allowed to own property inside town, but amassed large parcels outside of town, and some became quite successful. So Bakersfield has always been varied, not just all sorts of whites and Hispanic people.The big shots are part of it, too. Miller and Lux, Tevis and Haggin and many others whom the night watchman couldn’t get into his story. He certainly doesn’t think those famous robber barons should be forgotten either. The Big Four were both remarkable achievers and shifty operators.
PC: The book includes famous mountain men and explorers as well as business men. There was Kit Carson…
DT: Yes. As a young man I was obsessed with those guys. I remember going out east of town and seeing the state historical moment commemorating Jedediah Smith’s passage through this area. Kit Carson was here and Fremont. Audubon’s son; the amazing Garces and Pedro Fages. On and on—all a part of our boring old Kern County.
PC: Would you read something from Local Color?
DT: This is about the Chinese and a local legend–the legend of the underground tunnels of Chinatown. Respectable historians deny it, but there was—is?—something down there. (Don reading from Local Color, listen to the audio of the excerpt below):
Old buildings razed and replaced,
most of their basements
filled in or paved over cutting off access,
you’d have to happen onto an entrance
poking around where no one belongs—
maybe in a derelict storefront
where you discover a door
with no hinges or knob, nailed shut
and painted like the wall;
crowbar it open and find
wooden stairs stepping down
into the dark
except for the creak as you descend
(or is that a blind albino cricket?)
with your Mag Lite beam
sweeping away the cobwebs of panic.
Does this museum have hidden stairs?
Lost in remodels and earthquake retrofits
or sealed on purpose—one of those
urban legend satanic cult cellars
we scoff at in public
but wonder about whenever someone prominent
comes off a bit too creepy.
But those Chinatown non-tunnels exist
if only as connecting passages
between vanished buildings,
still there like phantom pains
in an amputated limb—
once shortcuts to the next door neighbor
since in summer heat
the cool basements were like front porches;
or escape routes
for pimps and highbinders in the know,
clever as rats in a maze
when the cops kicked in the door upstairs.
So you could, conceivably,
find a way down into another world
to breathe air out of the past,
almost tomb air, trapped below us
for a hundred fifty years.
Imagine no petro-effluvia in it,
but the dust of horse manure;
no burnt rubber odor, but lamp oil
still clinging to uncertain walls
that could fall in on you at any second.
To stumble over rubble,
broken chairs and empty picture frames,
scrambled scrap lumber,
a gambling den’s safe, cracked,
and a ledger book
thicker than a family Bible,
not mildewed but bone dry,
its crumbling pages
crowded with minute ideograms.
You’d think a storm had blown
through those corridors,
but the only ill wind down there
is a breeze so hesitant
no instrument could measure it
and yet so relentless
that nothing has ever held back
its infinitely slow crawl. . .
DT: That breeze is time, of course. The whole book is about time.
PC: Why is water such an important image in Local Color?
DT: Water is what the valley is about. Trying to get it, control it, disperse it—has been the story of the valley. Colonel Baker digging the original ditches with Yokut labor. The water wars that went to the Supreme Court. The front part of the house we live in was originally the Miller-Lux land office when they were draining the wetlands. The Aqueduct flows by a couple of miles from us. Water is the issue where we live—in the San Joaquin. I wrote an epigram once that says: “Cut a farmer, he bleeds water/and binds the wound with borrowed money.”
PC: What did you learn about yourself and Kern County through the process of writing Local Color?
DT: I learned a lot of history, of course, which the night watchman shares in his slapdash way, despite the editor’s efforts to state the facts. But more importantly, I was reminded of just how rich and fascinating our past is, here in a region so often despised. And I was reminded of how much I love this place.
PC: Thank you very much for the interview