Last week, I interviewed Rae Armantrout, the University of California, San Diego professor who won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry this year. She had more to say about her work and growing up in San Diego.
On describing her early life growing up in Allied Gardens — a neighborhood near San Diego State — as “an example of the pathology of ‘Middle-America’ at mid-century”:
I was talking about what it was like to grow up, especially for a girl, in the 1950s, and especially in East San Diego, where everything was very homogenous. When I grew up in Allied Gardens, it was working class, all-white, and it was far away from anything. I didn’t see La Jolla until I was 18.
There was this kind of mindset that we associate with some of the middle of the country. That red-state Bible Belt mentality seemed to be very much a part of San Diego when I was growing up.
There was a lot of immigration from the southern middle west. My mother was from Southern Missouri, and she also lived in the panhandle of Texas for a while. She wasn’t exactly an Okie, but there were a lot of Okie types who ended up in San Diego.
My mother was a fundamentalist. I don’t know how atypical she was, but I had a sense that there were a lot of people like that. She didn’t believe in evolution. I remember when I was 12 we had a quarrel over evolution. I had pictures from an encyclopedia: “Look! There are stages of development.”
(Armantrout was raised in a housing tract built for veterans returning from World War II. Her father was a Navy sailor, and her mother managed McFarland’s and See’s candy stores in the North Park area.)
How does San Diego affect your work?
The local trees, plants and flowers come into my work, just because whatever I see tends to get into my work. There are a lot of palm trees and junipers.
Also, someone once said that there’s often a sense of just seeing something in passing in my work. I don’t know if that’s very true, but a critic said it’s a very Southern California thing, where you see something for a minute when you’re driving past it, you go, “That was strange, what was that?”
Also, in San Diego we’re in the backyard of the military, but we’re also this happy-faced tourist place. There’s a kind of irony that’s implicit there that is stimulating to my work.
On the “language school” of poetry, which she helped found:
Back in the late 1970s and early ’80s, I was one of a group of young poets in the Bay Area who were doing certain types of experiments, and there was a parallel group in New York. One way you could describe what we were doing was that instead of taking language for granted as something that could unproblematically describe the world, we thought of language as something that wasn’t pure and transparent.
We do a lot of reflecting on what we hear and see. I’ll do a double-take on a common phrase, a cliché, something that I hear a newscaster say, and I’ll wonder what does that really mean, what’s behind that?