poet, publisher, teacher, and author of These Mirrors Prove It
Holly Prado is a touchstone in the constantly evolving Los Angeles literary scene. She's a poet, a visionary, a teacher, a wife and mother, a publisher, and an inspiration to both past and future generations of writers who attend her workshops and classes.
Whenever Holly's name is mentioned by a friend, fellow poet, former student, or admirer, the same reaction occurs; the speaker's posture straightens, and then a smile appears. These respectful and affectionate gestures remind me that one can feel her presence even when she is miles away - and that can certainly be discerned in her writing. Holly's work spans over three decades, most recently her compilation These Mirrors Prove It: Selected Poems and Prose, 1973-2000 (2004 Cahuenga Press), which chronicles the development of Holly's unparalleled poetic vision. Holly's work represents and exemplifies the best qualities that modern American poetry has to offer the rest of the world: a precise, organic, and mythic perspective.
Holly graciously took time out of her busy schedule to participate in this interview, and for that I thank her.
ML: When did you first realize you were a poet? What were those moments like for you when you wrote your first poem; the thoughts, the feelings, the process, and how does that differ from writing a poem today?
HP: Realizing I was a poet took many years. The first poem I remember writing was when I was ten years old. It was about the moon. So, without knowing it, I'd already found my attitude toward writing - a lunar, intuitive path. But I came from a Midwestern, middle-class family. No one was an artist of any kind. Artists were "nuts," as my father put it. I was in my early thirties before I really began writing seriously, choosing to live a creative life.
Of course, when I was ten years old, I had no idea what I was doing as a writer. Now when I write, I bring many years of inner reflection and craft to the page. It's much more pleasurable and rewarding to be consciously involved with my work than to be child-like, spontaneous and ignorant
ML: How much has poetry, for good or ill, determined the course of your life?
HP: Poetry has enriched my life enormously, and, yes, I do believe in fate, a destined course, although we certainly can choose to cooperate or not with that course. For good or ill? Writing – both poetry and prose – has always thrilled me. I've been lucky to find a small audience who's willing to read what I've written. That's wonderful. I'd write, though, no matter who did or didn't read my work. I love the creative act. I love the mystery of it and I love grammar, too.
The downside, I suppose, is the sacrifice of making a lot of money, being seen as a successful American who sells a popular product or owns a company. Although things have often been edgy in my life, financially, I've never yearned to have more than I do, or to accomplish anything other than what I've done.
It would be nice to get prestigious grants and awards; that's something which has always eluded me. But, still, I've gotten along fine without that sort of boost.
ML: In what ways have your Midwestern beginnings as well as your years as an Angeleno shaped you into the poet you have become?
HP: I carry the prairie of Nebraska in my blood and a Lakota spirit in my heart. The American buffalo, which I grew up with, is a guardian for me; I've written a lot about that. But – Los Angeles has been a true home, the place I've lived longer than anywhere else – 45 years now. The literary community in L.A. has been a great support and source of friendship. Without the people who care about poetry and non-commercial, creative writing in general, without those who share creative passions, it would be a struggle to keep my spirits up.
The natural world here – ocean, mountains, desert – and the drama of earthquakes, mudslides, brushfires – our neighborhood crows and possums – the plants, from simple geraniums to those exotic birds of paradise – all this feeds me and finds its way into my creative imagination.
Also, being an Anglo Saxon Midwesterner, I love the Latin warmth of Los Angeles. It's in the psyche of the city itself, and in our Spanish name: Los Angeles, the angels. I do feel angels here. Not all of them are helpful; some bring destruction. But so far I've been blessed. (The disasters I have experienced were shocks I've needed in order to move on in my life.)
ML: In Poets of the Non-Existent City: Los Angeles in the McCarthy Era (2002 University of New Mexico Press), there is a mention of your teacher Alvaro Cardona-Hine. How did his style and lyricism influence your own?
HP: Alvaro Cardona-Hine led a poetry workshop which I joined in 1970. He was from Costa Rica, had a Latino/Zen spirit which helped me accept the irrational source of much poetry. He and the other members of the group were instrumental in getting me to take myself seriously, to clean up my sloppy writing habits and to consider publishing at a time when I had no idea I could aim for that.
One of the people in the group was Ameen Alwan. He's still a friend, after all these years. He's a professional gardener. When I was going through a divorce, he started a garden in my back yard. He just came over and did it one afternoon before I got home. It was a godsend, a way to help me understand how to grow things, how to respect and nurture plants which could feed me or offer me beauty. And I began to use a lot of nature imagery I hadn't used before in my poems, out of gratitude for what I learned in that garden.
ML: What has been the most difficult obstacle in the journey that shaped your poetic vision, and what has been your greatest encouragement?
HP: Most difficult obstacle? Myself, of course: the Inner Critic, the Doubter. Yet my greatest encouragement has also come from an inner self who longs for a life of self-examination, who loves study and real work, who isn't afraid of doing what's asked of her by The Muse – even if the demand makes no sense to begin with. The meaning does come clear as the writing unfolds.
ML: What advice would you give to a writer who wanted to explore, and then acquire the ability to connect with nature and mythos on the level you have achieved?
HP: Advice about connecting with mythos and nature? Look within yourself, identify your own passions and conflicts, see where those are reflected in the world's mythology and in whatever kind of nature you're most deeply attracted to. Watch your dreams. Read and read. Keep a journal/ writer's notebook that's a secret, so you're free to explore fearlessly everything about yourself and about life. Be alert to everyday symbolism and metaphor. Be attentive.
ML: What is it like to be married to another poet (Harry Northup)? How does sharing your life with someone who practices the same art you do affect your poetry/writing?
HP: Harry and I fell in love because of poetry. He and I have always shared our devotion to that, but we've never tried to influence each other's writing. He knows what he needs to do; I know how to approach my own work. We don't agree about everything. But we cheer each other on.
Cahuenga Press was Harry's inspiration. The press is now about to publish its fifteenth book, Harry's Red Snow Fence. Along with Phoebe MacAdams and James Cushing, we've managed to put poetry into the world in a way we're proud of. Harry and I work at home on the press. Again, we don't always agree, but we get things done. Both of us like to make our ideas actual in the world, and we're willing to put energy into doing that. We don't sit around making up grandiose schemes we can't carry out.
ML: Diane DiPrima said of your book Esperanza: Poems for Orpheus (1998 Cahuenga Press): "These poems hold a sweet ripeness, a vast dark promise; poetry will heal us, heal our world. From grief, the music. We come back to it, There is no other way." How does your poetry, or poetry in general "heal the world" as Ms. DiPrima states?
HP: How does poetry heal the world? Mysteriously, the creative act enters the collective psyche, whether the outer world is aware of it or not. I believe this helps to counter violence, injustice, war. But we need more and more people to participate in creative efforts of the deepest kind – this is a moment in history when each of us has to be heroic. Extroverted acts of heroism matter, but the use of the imagination, the poetic soul, is much more valuable to the world than we usually think. Poetry isn't an escape; it's an engagement with the human potential to heal through ever-increasing consciousness.
ML: These Mirrors Prove It: Selected Poems and Prose, 1970-2003 (2004 Cahuenga Press), in my experience, is an indispensable collection of poetry and prose. Can you share some of the details of its inception, the editorial process, and the coming together of the final manuscript? What are your thoughts when you hold the book in your hands and read its contents?
HP: About These Mirrors Prove It: Because this is a selection of thirty years worth of writing (1970 – 2003), I had many, many choices to make. I started at the beginning with writing I'd done in Alvaro's workshop. Over two years, I sorted through all my work until I was up to date. The process was slower than I'd thought it would be because it was powerfully emotional for me. I'd expected it to be simply, "This goes in; this doesn't," but I re-lived my creative and personal history as I re-read everything I'd written. So, I couldn't do a lot all at once; I had to give myself time to absorb what I was feeling.
My decision to organize the book chronologically made sense and gave me a framework to fill. I think it's an easy way for a reader to enter the work, too. I'm still happy with that.
This is a book I'd wanted to do for quite awhile. I'm in my sixties. I'm at a stage in my life when I've done the major portion of my writing. This is a good time to gather my past and then let it go – a paradoxical process of taking in and releasing.
The cover photo is one my father took of me when I was ten years old (about the time I wrote that first poem). I wanted to honor his documenting of my childhood and of our family. He was a gifted photographer. And I wanted to recognize the girl who did know, inside herself, that she would have a writing life someday.
I love this book. I'm enormously grateful to Cahuenga Press, for the support I got from everybody. These Mirrors Prove It lays it all out – my strengths and my flaws. It's my grand experiment.
ML: Considering all you have written, what are three of your favorite poems, and why?
HP: Three favorite poems? All of my writing is meaningful to me in individual, distinct ways. I don't think in terms of favorites. One poem which comes to mind, though, is "The Tall, Upheaving One" from my book Esperanza: Poems for Orpheus (Cahuenga Press, 1998). It captures the mysterious quality of relationship between the actual and the invisible. This is a numinous place – between worlds – which is, I believe, where lyric poetry has its origins. Much of my work attempts to describe this place – that's especially true in Esperanza, I feel.
ML: How much has your role as a teacher affected your writing?
HP: Teaching has given me great gifts. I work with writers who are committed to their writing in ways that inspire me. The Tuesday workshops I teach at home have been going on for nearly thirty years. The Wednesday night group is newer, but has still been in place for a long time. I've been teaching a poetry writing class in the graduate writing program at USC for sixteen years. I never get tired of being part of people's creative development.
Teaching enlivens me. Some writers think teaching steals their creative life. Anyone who feels that way shouldn't be teaching. Teaching is sacred.
ML: Who are some of your favorite poets and novelists?
HP: Favorite poets and novelists: No one outshines Harry Northup. His clear-eyed honesty, his emotional accuracy, his understanding of powerful imagery are qualities we can all emulate in our poetry. Wallace Stevens was an early life-saving poet; I still read his work with deep love. Jean Valentine is a recent exciting discovery for me, although she's been writing for years. (We find what we need when we need it.) I'm a fan of Diane Wakoski's writing, too. I marvel at her ability to mythologize personal experience. And Larry Levis is in my pantheon of great poets. He doesn't get the attention he should.
Novelists: I usually read contemporary American writing. I'm a big Thomas Pynchon fan. I like Don DeLillo, too. There's a young fiction writer named Alicia Erian who's terrific. She has a short story collection out, and a new novel called Towelhead.
I read non-fiction a lot. I like personal essays. Personal writing of any kind. Right now, I'm reading Don't Try This at Home, which is a collection of essays by professional chefs about disasters they've had in restaurant kitchens. I love to cook. No failure I've ever had in my own kitchen can top the stories in this book – they're funny and revealing.
ML: Do you have any plans for another volume of poetry? If so, when will the next book be released, and what themes will you explore?
HP: Plans for another volume of poetry: Tebot Bach Press in Huntington Beach will bring out my Monkey Journal sometime this year. It's a year-long literary journal, both poetry and prose, which took its theme from the Chinese Lunar Year of the Monkey in 2004. The themes emerged from what was going on around me during the year – Harry's a prominent character; the death of the poet Paul Brooks is important; my learning T'ai Chi figures into things; and there are contemplations on love, my small garden, friends, the moon, birds, and, of course, the monkey of the title.
In 2005, I wrote a chapbook length book of poems called Branch, which renews an old theme of mine: the too-early death of my mother, and the loss of/redemption of the feminine soul. This wound and its healing always finds their way back to me.
Holly Prado, a legend in the Los Angeles literary community, has been writing and publishing for many years. Her work, which combines the personal and the mythic with evocative intensity, has appeared in more than a hundred publications and a dozen anthologies, both nationally and internationally. Her seventh book, Esperanza: Poems for Orpheus (Cahuenga Press, 1998), has been highly praised, particularly in The Women's Review of Books (Wellesley College) and The Chicago Review. In 1999, she received First Prize in the Los Angeles Poetry Festival's Fin de Millennium Awards. She teaches both privately and in the USC graduate writing program.