Alison Luterman on Owning up to Your Mistakes and Moving On

An interview with Alison Luterman, from The Write Stuff series over at SF Weekly:

Alison Luterman’s books of poems include The Largest Possible Life (Cleveland State University press), See How We Almost Fly (Pearl Editions), and Desire Zoo (Tia Chucha Press). She has published poems in The Sun MagazinePrairie SchoonerNimrodRattleThe Atlanta Review, and many other journals and anthologies. Two of her poems are included in Billy Collins Poetry 180 project at the Library of Congress. Her personal essays have appeared in SalonThe Sun MagazineThe L.A. ReviewThe New York Times’ Modern Love, and elsewhere. Five of her essays have been collected in the e-book Feral City, published at She has also written half a dozen plays, including a musical about kidney transplantation. She has taught and/or been poet-in-residence at New College in San Francisco, Holy Names College in Oakland, The Writing Salon in Berkeley, at Esalen and Omega Institutes, at the Great Mother Conference, and at various writing retreats all over the country. Check out her website for more information.

When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?

I usually say, “I teach creative writing” because saying “I’m a poet” sounds pretentious.

What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise? 

Being in the goodness of the present moment, rather than in all my stories about it.

If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them? 

Um…get a BFA in poetry, then go into VISTA and work with Haitian refugees for five years, write a zillion poems and some journalism, hitch-hike across Canada with a crazy French Communist who has a small drug problem, fall in love with a guy you meet at the Ashby Flea Market in Berkeley, years later marry him and move to California with him, then get divorced, work as an HIV test counselor, find a good friend who is also an accomplished poet and can mentor you, write a zillion more poems, plus a lot of personal essays, send out a ton of work and have the vast majority of it be rejected, start publishing in The Sun, write more poems, learn how to revise, write from your guts and heart and brain, grieve, dance, travel, heal, fall in love again, learn a few things the hard way, pass them on.

Do you consider yourself successful? Why?

Yes. See above. I was down quite a bit but I didn’t quit.

When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better? 

I’m usually better off going to the woods or a yoga class or swimming when I’m not doing well. Too much time in front of the computer makes me sadder/grumpier/more pissed off.

Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story? 

My favorite person on this earth is my father. He is not an ancestor yet, in the sense that he is still alive and well, and working, contributing, loving and nurturing his gi-normous family, as well as still being engaged professionally. He made good choices, and whenever he made a mistake, he owned up to it and moved on. I wish I were more like him.

Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?

When I was ten I read biographies of Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale, pioneering nurses. I admired their combination of adventure and service. I wanted to be a doctor or nurse who went to faraway places and healed people, the way Dr. Paul Farmer (the man who created Partners in Health) does now. He is my hero. Read Tracy Kidder’s excellent book Mountains Beyond Mountains. I also wanted to adopt a dozen children. I had their names all picked out.

Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal. 

Well, but let’s make it ideal. I am camped in a meadow, with a few people I dearly love, next to a pristine lake. We take pleasant day hikes, and we swim naked. One of us is an adept at mushroom hunting, and another of our number is a gourmet cook. We eat well, and in the evening, we have a campfire — I guess this is not California — and group singing. There are no ticks.

Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood. 

Next question please.

How much money do you have in your checking account? 

Next question please.

What’s wrong with society today? 

We can’t seem to figure out how to turn the Titanic around. We are looking straight at the huge iceberg of climate change, and yet we seem to lack the collective will, imagination, or courage to stop our race towards destruction. I include myself in the “we”. I haven’t been able to make major changes in my lifestyle yet either. Pretty soon, Reality is going to be making the changes for us.

Are you using any medications? If so, which ones? 

Artificial thyroid for an auto-immune disorder, and trazadone to help me sleep.

What is your fondest memory? 

Swimming naked in the Colorado River.

How many times do you fall in love each day? 

Three or four.

What would you like to see happen in your lifetime? 

An end to abject poverty and hunger. The reversal of man-made climate change. A resurgence of empathy, and compassion. Sane gun control laws in the U.S. Universal health care. An end to the persecution of sexual minorities — an end to religious fanaticism and fundamentalism.

What is art? Is it necessary? Why? 

Art is the impulse we all have within us towards grace, playfulness, elegance, and full self-expression. It is necessary to me, and to everyone I know, because it’s being human.

When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do? 

Swim naked in the Colorado River.

What are you working on right now? 

A new book of poems, a play, and a musical.

What kind of work would you like to do? 

I’d like to work for a theatre company like Steppenwolf in Chicago, writing plays and also acting in them, being a member of a company.

If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be? 

The traffic. Also, the rents are out of control, and it’s going to result in a lot of artists leaving the city. I know, that’s two things.

A night on the town: what does that mean to you? 

Getting together with a few good friends, eating out, seeing some great theatre. Or just a movie, an ice cream, and a bookstore browse with my honey. We’re pretty simple.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen? 

I’ve witnessed voodoun ceremonies where some very bizarre things happened.

What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars? 

I can write a poem in 50 words. And if I’m lucky, I can sell it for fifty dollars.

What are some of your favorite smells? 

Night-blooming jasmine, and a newborn baby’s head.

If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be? 

I would go to Nepal and visit the orphanage being run by Maggie Doyne, who is a heroine for our time. I would stay there for a year and work with her, and find a significant way to contribute.

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