Cancer taught poet and novelist Charles Entrekin how to amble. One would hardly think this veteran of the Bay Area poetry scene would need to learn how to "lean and loafe" as Walt Whitman instructed. But, for someone who has written and published poems and fiction, launched writing groups and publications, developed a college creative writing program, supported family and started several businesses, the terrible disease contributed one great wisdom: one must slow down and listen to the birds.
In 2008, just as he was finishing his novel, Red Mountain, Birmingham, Alabama, 1965, he visited his doctor complaining of a sore throat. A high white-cell count put him on close watch and soon after he was diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia. CLL is classed as an "indolent" form of cancer, but eventually Entrekin required chemotherapy.
The treatment thwarted his plans to tour and promote the book he had promised himself he would write. Red Mountain is an "historical memoir rendered as fiction," he explains, and tells the story of his first wife who committed suicide after attempting to "strike out on her own." She was exploring her sexual identity at a time, and in a cultural milieu that could not tolerate differences. Entrekin wanted to explore how she was "brought low by the culture that we lived in," the Deep South during the heat of the Civil Rights movement.
The poet’s venture into novel writing came after many years of writing and publishing poetry and short stories. In the late 1960s, Entrekin was one of many talented, creative and adventurous young men and women who had been drawn to California and the San Francisco Bay Area. Arriving in 1969 from Birmingham, by way of earning a graduate degree at the University of Montana, Missoula, and after checking out New York, Entrekin found himself smack-dab in the center of the counter-culture in Berkeley which touched nearly every aspect of people’s lives with its optimistic emphasis on personal expression, liberation, and social responsibility. Entrekin says he felt the Bay Area was home, "this was where I wanted to be."
Although Entrekin had studied with Richard Hugo in Montana, it was the writing and recordings of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas that had the biggest impact on him. He recalls listening to Thomas’ orations while a student, and trying to emulate the performance style of the great bard. The importance of language’s musicality, of rhythm and aural structure were locked into his nascent poetic brain, and Entrekin says that as a writer--especially while giving a reading--"the sound plays a big role in my sense of what a poem should be doing." Curiously, his Southern accent sometimes returns when he is doing poetry readings, as though the rhythms and sounds he heard growing up still lurk just below the surface of his Yankified speech.
Most poets who have been in the Bay Area poetry community for more than two days have heard of Entrekin or worked with him. For over 20 years he was managing editor of the Berkeley Poets Cooperative (BPC) and the Berkeley Poets Workshop & Press (BPW&P). Currently, he is editor of Hip Pocket Press and publishes two online magazines.
BPC and BPW&P existed from 1969 through 1990; they were formed by Entrekin along with Tom O’Rourke, Maggie Entrekin, Ted Fleischman, Robert Gerstenlauer, Michael Perna, Rodham Tulloss, Chuck Cohen, Bruce Boston, Rona Spalten, Bruce Hawkins, Anne Hawkins, Maribelle Freeman, Clive Matson, and others. The group began to publish their own books, working at first with a Berkeley printer that happened to have the Weather Underground for a client; when the poets returned to print a second issue, the printer had pulled up stakes and the building was emptied out. As was done in those days, they decided to form a collective and learn how to print and publish books on their own. They eventually became "pretty well formalized" with a post office box, a bank account, and rules of operation. Its legacy is 30 copies of their magazine, Berkeley Poets Cooperative, and 38 literary chapbooks by its members.
The collective’s first "thimble of fame" came in 1976 when the New York Times Magazine’s published a piece on BPW&P by Kenneth Lamott. The workshop was quintessentially Berkeley and of its time, attracting the media to take a closer look at the Bay Area‘s small-press publishing and poetry boom. At the time, the group met at Entrekin’s home and when the article came out, he arrived home to find his yard “full of people trying to get into my house.“
Lucy Lang Day (at right) recalls meeting Entrekin when she joined the Cooperative in 1972. "Besides being a wonderful poet and prose writer,” Day says, Entrekin “is someone who does not give up." Prior to his marriage to poet Gail Entrekin, he had experienced the death of a spouse, single parenthood, and divorce from artist Maggie Entrekin. "None of this discouraged him from trying love and marriage a third time and starting a new family." Day also remembers that he began his novel, in the early 1970s and "reworked it until it became the masterpiece Red Mountain."
For most of his life, Entrekin has been a publisher and teacher, discovering and nurturing many Bay Area poets. After the article in the NY Times Magazine, Entrekin was asked to launch a creative writing program at John F. Kennedy University in Orinda where he helped students publish, Tunnel Road, a literary journal.
Entrekin has lived mostly in the East Bay, although for a few years he and Gail (at left and below) were settled in Nevada City. They recently returned to the San Francisco Bay Area to be closer to medical facilities and their families, settling in a beautiful home on an Orinda hillside where they are surrounded by art and books, green foliage, a mini-orchard, and birdfeeders. And, no, it wasn’t poetry or even teaching that purchased the house; for years, Entrekin has also been an entrepreneur, setting up and running computer and Internet start-up businesses. He realized years ago that if he wanted to have a car and raise a family, he would need to earn a decent living; he has long been able to ride the crest of the digital revolution that has centered in this area.
While recovering from cancer and its grueling therapies, Entrekin finds that his energy is still greatly affected. "The chemo takes you as close to death as possible without killing you, then lets you get back up." It leaves the body to cope with finding a return to normal activities and patterns of living. While he was ill, he didn‘t do much writing and for the few years before his diagnosis, he had been more focused on writing fiction. The transition back to writing poetry has been more difficult than the transition from writing poetry to fiction.
Before cancer, Entrekin said he had felt few limitations. He had even been planning a sequel to his first novel. "I used to think that if I wanted to do something, I just had to set my mind on it and do it." He no longer believes he holds all the reins to his life. "I have had to learn to surrender," he says. To help cope with the experience, he has been studying Buddhist philosophy and practicing meditation with his wife. Gail has been marvelous, he says; he has been amazed at her "willingness to identify with my struggle," to the point where she shaved her head when he underwent chemotherapy.
The couple have a partnership that appears to function on many levels. In addition to her support of Charles throughout his illness, Gail is a co-publisher of Hip Pocket Press and two on-line journals: Canary, a quarterly environmental poetry magazine, is mostly Gail’s bailiwick; Charles edits Sisyphus which is devoted to longer, philosophical and pragmatic essays about nature and the environment, pieces that "would probably never find publication otherwise." A recent issue focused on health-care, and Entrekin is currently working on an issue about urban planning.
Hip Pocket Press recently published Nevada City poet and teacher Molly Fisk’s latest book, The More Difficult Beauty. Hip Pocket is constantly looking for new talent, says Entrekin, "but we are very choosy." They follow the submission requirements long ago set out in the Berkeley Poets Workshop and only consider writers who have published in their online magazines or whose work they are otherwise familiar with.
An anthology of new and selected work by Entrekin is in the works and will be published by Poetry Matrix Press in 2011. Visit Entrekin online at www.charlesentrekin.com.
Entrekin on the Poetry Zeitgeist
"The poetry scene is so big that it lacks a little in discrimination. Everybody is happy to get published and read their own material," says Entrekin, but he fears that it is only poets who are reading poetry. He recalls that when the Berkeley Poets Workshop & Press was at its height, many people--other than poets--bought books of poetry and attended readings. He’s not sure that is still the case.
"There is a kind of echo chamber," he says. The scene now is "much more inward-facing" and is in danger of becoming "inbred and irrelevant to the wider culture." He says he is overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of poets and poetry publications.
Comparing the scenes between the communities of Nevada City and the San Francisco area, Entrekin notes that in the foothills there is only one public radio station and one poetry reading series where everyone shows up. "There’s lots of talent there," but not so much competition for attention that exists in the San Francisco region.
Entrekin is excited to see the work of publishers like Sixteen Rivers Press who are doing a lot to promote good literature. "An influential scene needs more depth." Entrekin appreciates the "good job" that Poetry Flash does with its series at Moe’s Books in Berkeley and Diesel in Oakland and also likes the readings at Café Nefeli and Pegasus Books in downtown Berkeley. He notes that writing groups are "making a huge difference in building a market for poetry," as they reflect the fact that "a lot of people are paying attention to language."
With his feet in both the literary and computer worlds, Entrekin thinks that "the print world and online world are finding their reasons for each other." The online world is great for information and "flash," as photos add color and excitement to writing; the print world, as he sees it, will move into more serious and less-transient publications. Entrekin recommends Gently Read Literature, a website promoting high-quality writing through thoughtful reviews. "There are lots and lots of good online magazines," he says.
Entrekin recalls that when Chilean poet Pablo Neruda walked between villages, that he would meet people who could recite long passages of his verse. This came from his commitment to his own craft, which made his poems memorable, but also to a culture that valued poetry. In our "instantaneous" world of television, Internet, Twitter, Facebook, etc., Entrekin is concerned that poets are seeking a more immediate gratification to their words and performances, and perhaps not putting their energies into making art.
BOOKS BY CHARLES ENTREKIN
Red Mountain, Birmingham, Alabama, 1965 (El Leon Literary Arts, Thomas Farber Publisher, Berkeley, CA: 2008).
In This Hour (Berkeley Poets Workshop & Press, Berkeley, California: 1990).
Casting for the Cutthroat & Other Poems (Berkeley Poets Workshop & Press, Berkeley, California: 1980; and previously by Thunder City Press, Birmingham, Alabama: 1977)
All Pieces of a Legacy (Berkeley Poets Workshop & Press, Berkeley, California: 1975).
POEMS BY CHARLES ENTREKIN
Joie de Vivre
This is salamander weather.
In early morning rain
I stoop down
to little red dragons
who seem to dream
in slow motion
the way home.
As they high step together
over the wet walkway,
I feel light headed,
want to join in
follow an ancient call
I know how to go.
Too small to lift a pitch fork full from
below, I would climb up top and catch each throw,
mid-air, then guide and drop the load in one motion,
until the wagon would hold no more.
Then coming out of the dust from the back four acres
I'd be atop the hay, barely able to breathe in the heat,
yet lying back in the wet of my own sweat, almost complete.
And when we passed beneath the big pear tree
there in the middle of my grandfather's pasture,
I knew how it would be:
I would stick out my hand and
take the pear straight out of the air,
without effort; it would come to me
because it belonged to me.
I hadn't yet guessed how things could go wrong,
or how it might be to be left alone, or that one
could lose badly and go down at the end
like my mother, shaking and defeated.
I was, in that moment, simply there
watching my cousins and uncles in the distance, shimmering
in the hot air like mirages in black rubber boots,
with pitch forks in hand,
and when I took my first dusty bite,
it was like my first
sinking deep into a woman's body,
almost overwhelming, and I could feel
the pear's juice sinking into me
as I lay there in the hay-scented air, adrift
and becoming everything around me,
until suddenly I laughed out loud
what the laughter was about
as it poured out of me
at the top of the tree-high stack
while the future waited,
and I was carried on the harvest to the barn.
Causes Jannie Dresser Supports