All photographs courtesy of Chip Livingston.
In 1994, the internationally acclaimed fiction writer Lucia Berlin met the New York School poet and librettist Kenward Elmslie at Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program, where they were both visiting writers. “We just clicked,” Berlin said in a 2002 interview. “We cut through right away into each other’s deep feelings. It was like falling in love, or going back to your childhood best friend in first grade, that kind of really pure friendship.”
That friendship developed through a faithful and frequent correspondence, a literary exchange of about two letters per week over the course of a decade. Lucia was living in Boulder, Colorado, and later in Los Angeles; Kenward was dividing his time between New York City and Calais, Vermont. Despite the distance between them, the two writers came to depend on their intimate friendship and deeply valued their correspondence.
In the following letters dated between May 28 and August 5, 2000, Lucia and Kenward discuss a New York production of Kenward’s musical play, Postcards on Parade, and the books each was working on at the time: Lucia’s memoir, Welcome Home, and Kenward’s fourteenth poetry collection, Blast from the Past, which he wanted to dedicate to Lucia. They write about the books they’re reading, Lucia’s recent move to a trailer park, and the thrilling poetic visuals she sees from her windows.
May 28, 2000
It was good to hear your voice. I truly don’t like the telephone, and when my newfangled phone died I didn’t call you still again. I hadn’t known you were involved again with new and improved Postcards, was worried that you had gone to NY because of health problems. Glad to hear that you are fine. The new Postcards sounds promising and fun.
I’m still exhausted unpacking, but I like my new place more each day. And night. There are peepers and crickets and mosquitos here, just like in the country. Many ditches and streams run through it. Trains run through it too, mostly in the middle of the night. Many residents say this is the only bad part about living here. I love trains, the sound makes me happy and I go right back to sleep, dream of dear Anna [Karenina].
Doesn’t bother me either that the back of my place is on 30th, a busy street. The air conditioner masks the noise … I turn it off because that noise gets to me. This evening I went outside to sit under the huge cottonwood in my yard. Three black stretch limousines passed by. What could that be? A funeral? A sweepstakes winner? They had a hard time making the turn at the corner. My Mexican neighbor’s sons all come for dinner next door so there were about five pickups that made it a tight squeeze. The man and woman are my age, and are from Juárez, so we’ve had great talks about El Paso and Juárez, present day and in the forties. The trolley, the El Minuto café, et cetera. He was using an electric saw a few days ago and I asked if he would lop off the top of an oak bookcase… too tall for my place. He not only sawed it off but carefully put the top board on, gluing and sanding it. They are all barbecuing and playing (not loudly) Mexican music.
I feel very at home here. I have truly hated Boulder yuppiness and new age–ness, bad art and bookstores.
Later: I unpacked a few more boxes and came into my bedroom. Whoa, out the window, up and down 30th it looked like Christo1 had been here. Orange mesh draped all along both sides of the street for as far as I could see. Then metal constructions started to grow up, with platforms and ladders. Sort of the Pompidou museum right outside my window. I don’t have TV now. No cable, would have to get saucers and et cetera. Too busy to read the local paper … so didn’t remember the Bolder Boulder Memorial Day race, Huge race. Thousands and thousands, famous Africans and Mexican Indians, plus all able-bodied Boulderites. Wheelchairs too.
I filled my [oxygen] tank and went out to see what was up. They were the TV crew and race officials. They’ll be right outside MY window at 5 A.M. to set up. The starting gun will go off at 7:30!
I take this as a good omen. Surely I’m in the right place at the right time, since 5 A.M. is when I get up anyway. Imagine. Thousands of people at the start of the run, only fifteen feet from my bed! It is so awful it makes me happy. Too many people at once has kept me from ever once watching the yearly activity. But it is very different when you are Participating in the event.
Next night: Too tired to write, and long letter must be tiring to read. The race was fantastic. Delightful. Gun shots went off every twenty minutes, with new bunches. Over forty thousand people. I watched, between unpacking, for Hours. Lovely sense of many people enjoying something together, Like opera or baseball.
June 28, 2000
The stabile home fotos are DEE-lish, so comfy, you all the way, love seats everywhichaway, art on the floor, which is where I leave it, sometimes. Very home-minded today, as there’s a Lady Party in the house. Pauline Camp, huge bod, erratic flesh flow, unsunned tallowy skin tone, prizefighter cauliflower nose, squinchy eyes, enormous misshapen ears, mouth down-turned, down-trodden—quite a beauty in a survivalist way, to my eyes. An Original, she’s doing summer cleanup volunteerism with Patty Padgett, who is barefoot, much to Pauline’s recurrent amazement and not-so-hidden shock. Harold, Pauline’s hubby, and I have formed a bewildered, helpless male cabal, in the thrall of this empowerment that old-fashioned “real” women are supreme at—Cleaning Up Menfolk Muss.
I’ve been in a reading-reading-reading mode, a pattern of adolescence, when all I did just about was read, that solo occupation that replenished me, offered luscious and reliable escape, and, though narrative was the hook, I did respond to the twists of language. My favorite rerun this summer so far has been A Handful of Dust.2
I grew to loathe [Stendhal’s] The Red & The Black. Fell for a Colette shortie, The Other One, and the standard Frenchy trio: wife, mistress, drippy boulevard playwright–hubby philanderer they both care for and decide to share. They’re so fond of each other, jealousy isn’t a problem. I got jealous at the theater world details: dress rehearsal, the performers, the routine I feel exiled from.
So adroit. Plus a [Marguerite] Yourcenar historical fiction novella, spare and gorgeous. Between novels, I dip into you to see how your stuff holds up, which it does, all the way—that Gothic Romance slays me, how it refracts out into politics, power plays. Beautiful and natural, nothing forced or gussied up, doomed feudal grandeur dealt with simply via virginal eyes.
Yesterday, raced through a Graham Greene potboiler I wearied of—suspense, yes, but not nearly as gripping as his true-life safari through the unmapped interior of Liberia, so terrific made me lust for more Greene.
Switchover to Harold, who has plunked himself down by my desk, rattles on whatever I’m doing at the processor.
HAROLD: “So I picked up a new belt, only charged me four dollars, now I’m going to eat dinner. Down to the last set now—then we’ll have some sharp blades. Got rid of the rubbish. This spring I got rid of it. I have a rubbish man comes right to the door, all the stuff the girls throwed away from the storage. He’ll get rid of it, he won’t mind, got one of those big crushers, pushes it right up, then when it’s full, gets rid of it. We’ll go eat some dinner, then this afternoon get the rest of the mowing done down there. The peonies are really growing, three bunches of lupinia. You never know, never know what’ll happen, but it’s been a good year for flowers.”
Glad flecks of happy dust have fallen on you off that great Swizzle Stick in The Sky. Hope the flecks continue steadily, now you’re resettled. Congrats from your boondocks pen-beau—and a Happy Fourth!
Time to see what the Ladies are up to in the house.
July 24, 2000
David and the boys left last night after a truly wonderful visit. I need to say how grateful and happy I am. Any mother whose children love her is blessed, an alcoholic mother is in a state of grace. I know I was a “good” mother, loving and responsible, before I drank, and when I drank I never physically or verbally hurt my sons, but certainly scared them, made them embarrassed and ashamed and worried… could have killed them driving and burning down house, et cetera. Took many years of reconstruction, more for me to believe they really forgave me than for them to do so. David especially … who, once when I was going to kill myself, with Antabuse and gin, left, saying, “Go for it. It’s the most decent thing to do.”
He and the boys, Nico and Truman, were so loving to me. We had fun, laughed, goofed off, explored, talked and talked, swam, played miniature golf, et cetera.
Fortunately I was very ill a few weeks ago … maybe I wrote … lung infection and fever so was still feeling effects of heavy prednisone steroids. No Pain, no fatigue! I was able to keep up (on walker) walking the mall, trails past a million prairie dogs. Got a hole-in-two playing miniature golf! We found a skateboard ramp for Nico behind a Baptist Church. Sign said: GOD TOLD US TO BUILD THE APOCALYPSE! SKATEBOARD PARK. WEAR YOUR HELMET.
We swam every day. David barbecued (he is a chef). We ate lots of chocolate sundaes and junk food, watched baseball and Kung Fu movies. They loved my neighbors, the Luceros next door, spoke Spanish with them, and David smoked dope and drank Coronas. The boys met Joe, the Dakota Indian who lives down the street, and threw basketballs in his hoop. They played ball with the little boy next door, son of the retarded bucktoothed mother, daughter of Judith who says all these Indians and Mexicans are dope dealers. Really …
Yesterday the steroid was wearing off so when they went swimming I opted for a nap. Before they left David spoke to me so sweetly. How happy he was to see me swimming and stronger, here with good friends like Jenny and Ivan and Bobbie3 … and in great trailer, among good, real people, safe and sound. Big tears in our eyes and sweet hugs before they went off to swim. I went to sleep, woke up to “Ma! Ma! Grandma! You ok?”
The air conditioner had shorted out, wires caught on fire. The room was filled with smoke. I was fast asleep. Big to do, much to do. Fire put out, room aired out. Whew. No electricians to be found on a Sunday. One who said he could come on Overtime today for $100 extra which I can pay thanks to you, meanwhile no lights or air conditioner. VERY HOT Night. Read Martin Amis by candlelight. Hope battery holds up to print this. Duh. The printer is electric. Hope they fix it today and I can mail this tomorrow.
Fortunately the kids ate and drank everything in refrigerator except capers and horseradish.
Anyway we all calmed down and David said, “Well, Ma, I’m glad that you are relatively safe.” They were dressing for the trip when four police cars in high siren and at full speed came zooming down our little dirt road. Six cops got out, guns drawn. They put Indian Joe in handcuffs and into back seat. Then all six, with guns pointed, ran past my living room to the Luceros’ house next door.
This was the moment that I’ll remember all my life. My dear Nico, my soulmate and I are Completely attuned: We simultaneously burst into song. “Bad Boy! Bad Boy! Whatcha gonna do when they bust yo ass? Bad Boy! Bad Boy!” The theme song to COPS, a tawdry TV show that shows videos of real, ugly police in towns like Lubbock, Texas or Carlsbad, New Mexico, the criminals all with wavery faces.
They didn’t take anyone from the Lucero house, were looking for someone else. After they left, Nico and I laughed and hugged each other, so pleased by our identical response, which his father said was “Sicko! Have you guys no compassion?”
Other good news is that I have a story in my head. All I’ve got is where it will take place. On the Santa Isabel Grace Line ship between New York and Valparaiso. 30 days, 30 chapters.4 Details swimming around. This is the part of writing that I enjoy the most. Details appear like laundry in dryer window, fish in aquariums. God, I hope with better similes when the time comes!
All my love to you,
July 29, 2000
So glad to hear you had an action-packed visit, and the chance to sing a duet as a miscreant neighbor is carted off to the pokey. Awful quiet, by comparison, up here. My niece and her eccentric hubby stopped by a while back, for a two-nighter—a pleasure, as it rid me of my “transient” ID—a sort of I Don’t Live Here ennui. Next week, Steven Clay, the archive go-between/publisher of Cyberspace and Nite Soil, arrives for two nights, mostly to take a gander at the archives up here, which are due to be dispatched to San Diego,5 second and final shipment, come October. The first, from NYC basement, got Fed Xed, last week.
I’m rallying, high time, and, to my surprise, had enough new stuff to fill out a 96-pager, entitled, fairly firm cogitation, Blast From The Past.6 Some stories, I Remember stuff, poems. Some show stuff. The title song Steven & I launched at the Boulder Musee.7 I even stuck in the Harold monologue from the letter to you, but it didn’t have an End, really, so I took it out. No room.
A favor. Can I codedicate this book to you. I got worried Loosha is an imposition, so I put Lucia and Pat—Pat being Patty Padgett, who is such a good daily round looker-after, daily walks, and so attuned to inner whirlings. She’s so smart, and compassionate, what a combo. And I guess every close tight marriage needs an outside chum for contrast. If I had my druthers, I’d finger you as Loosha. But let me know first if this is OK. I sent it out to a Mom and Pop kiddo operation in Tejas, Skanky Possum, nice folks. But they publish books without mass, and mine is hefty. So I may show it to my houseguest, Mr. Granary I call him, and see if he’ll take it on, and then send a more anorexic manuscript to the Kiddos—stuff that hit the cutting room floor, but it’s printable. Just didn’t fit in, this go around.
That’s terrif news, a story is coming to you, nothing beats organic blasts.
Time to eat health-giving broccoli for lunch. Your ebullient letter perked me up no end. Resilience, ah.
August 5, 2000
The now-married and shorn of hair and all sex-appeal postman took away my letter to you, so here is a late postscript. I may not be writing, but a lovely poem happened to me this morning. I took your letter and others out to the mailbox, turned on the sprinkler. Came inside for coffee, bagel and the paper. (I DID have rapid heart beatings climbing the few steps! I was happy to be able to write that in diary.)8
I watched the sun rise pink and apricot outside my window among fine old cottonwoods, maples and fruit trees. Walking in front of them, toward the opening to the street, was the oldest of the Vietnamese women. There are five generations of women, one granpa and one young married son, all in a trailer same size as mine. Even if all the women had their babies in their teens she is still a very old woman, late eighties, nineties. She is the one who grows the roses, burns incense in a brazier to keep the deer away. She wears either an old ornately embroidered yellow dress or a raggedy silk pants suit with frog fastened jacket. White hair in a bun. Tiny, maybe five feet, seventy pounds. There she was in the shabby green suit, gliding by my window, wearing a conical straw hat and thong sandals, carrying a long bamboo pole. I couldn’t have Heard her, but her walk was silent, as if she were on a conveyor belt. What made it so dream-like was that I saw her through the mist of the sprinkler … sort of a monsoon haze.
It was such a lovely moment that I wanted to put it in heart-machine diary but just wrote, “washed dishes, swept kitchen, scrubbed the tub.” Took the EKG machine back to the hospital and came home, utterly exhausted. We are having heat wave and pollution from mountain fires very bad. Even normal people advised to stay inside.
I sat down to catch my breath, and there came the old woman, past my windows, regal as ever. The pole was lying across her shoulders and hanging from either end were two plastic bags from Albertson’s Grocery.
1. Christo Vladimirov Javacheff, Bulgarian installation artist, 1935–2020.
2. Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust, Chapman and Hall, 1934.
3. Jenny Dorn, Ivan Suvanjieff, Bobbie Louise Hawkins.
4. At the time of this letter, Lucia was beginning to write her memoir of places she lived in, which became Welcome Home: A Memoir with Selected Photographs and Letters, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2018.
5. Granary Books publisher Steven Clay is helping Kenward collect his papers for archival storage at the University of California, San Diego.
6. Elmslie, Blast From The Past, Skanky Possum Press, 2000. Codedicated to Lucia and Pat Padgett.
7. Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art.
8. In a previous letter, Lucia had written about an EKG heart monitor diary she was filling out, but she hadn’t been experiencing any excitement or irregularities to include in the diary for the doctor.
Love, Loosha: The Letters of Lucia Berlin and Kenward Elmslie will be published November 1, 2022 by University of New Mexico Press.
Chip Livingston is the author of the poetry collections Crow-Blue, Crow-Black and Museum of False Starts and of the novel Owls Don’t Have to Mean Death, as well as a professor in the low-residency MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. He studied fiction with Lucia Berlin at the University of Colorado, Boulder, from 1996–1998, and was an assistant to Kenward Elmslie from 2002–2012.
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