Barbara LaMorticella: a woman of her words

From her Mime Troupe days to "Talking Earth," the Portland poet has been a potent force for writers. Now Soapstone gives her Bread & Roses.

On a recent Monday night a familiar voice returned to the airwaves of Talking Earth, KBOO community radio’s long-running interview show about poets and other writers and reading aloud. The voice was soft and conversational, confiding, helpful, gently guiding the talk into topics not usually considered on modern American radio: the structure of a poem, the ways that words and lives braid together, the themes that define a poet’s career. Five years after her last turn in the interviewing booth, Barbara LaMorticella was talking with her friend and fellow poet Judith Barrington about life and loss and language and Barrington’s newest book of poetry, Long Love.

LaMorticella, who has interviewed hundreds of writers on KBOO beginning in the 1980s, had taken a break from the studio for personal reasons. She was caring for her husband of 56 years, Robert (Roberto), who died last year, and the Talking Earth interview was something of a reemergence into public life. That fact was delivered with an exclamation point a few mornings later when I met in a Southeast Portland bakery with Ruth Gundle of Soapstone, the women’s literary organization, which has named LaMorticella the first recipient of its biannual Soapstone Bread and Roses Award. Meant to honor a woman writer who has created opportunities for other writers and helped sustain the writing culture in Northwest Oregon and Southwest Washington, the award, which includes a $500 check, will be presented at a private luncheon on March 8, which not coincidentally is International Women’s Day. “We wanted to honor women who’d been here over the long haul, who’d been mainstays of the literary community,” Gundle said. “Barbara was the obvious choice.”

Two days after talking with Gundle I met with LaMorticella in a Northeast Portland coffee shop near her daughter’s house, and there was that voice again: warm, earnest, smart, almost always with a touch of humor near the surface. It reminded me that although we usually read poetry and therefore think of it as a literary art, it is also oral and musical, and so ideally attuned to live performance or the radio dial. “Poetry is an audible art. Or should be,” LaMorticella commented. “When I finish a poem I always read it out loud. And if it doesn’t work out loud, I change it.”

*

Barbara LaMoricella, up close.

In the KBOO studio LaMorticella took the long view of a life in words, going back to Barrington’s childhood in Brighton-on-the-Sea, England, and surprising her audience with stark revelations delivered in the most congenial of tones, underlining without having to say so directly that personal history shapes a writer’s art. Barrington was born in wartime, she informed her listeners, “… into a bombing raid, and … you were born into a world which in one poem you said, ‘This is the world I came in, and I have to learn to love it.’”

Despite LaMorticella and Barrington’s easy familiarity, what transpired was no late-night talk show chitchat. A velvet hammer was coming down, taking the conversation into the quietly urgent depths of memory and experience where art begins. LaMorticella talked with Barrington about “the trauma of a little girl getting blown up, or a little boy getting blown up by a grenade when you were a child.” She discussed the forms of love that arise in Barrington’s poems: for the sensuality of horses and the English seaside landscape, “the love of your mother, who drowned at sea when you were just a teen-ager.” She talked about Barrington’s abiding relationship with Gundle, who has been her partner since 1979.

Every poet, LaMorticella commented, has recurring themes, “essential chords in the music that the poet is playing.” Barrington responded, “Right. They’re sort of like spirals. You think you’re done with it, and then you circle back and take it another layer.” Barrington, who has gone through her own health crisis and is recovering from a heart attack, read from her recent poem The Language of Tomorrow, a poem about hospitals and illness and growing old and companionship: “Who but you will wonder with me, ‘What next?’”

*

WHEN I MET WITH LAMORTICELLA SHE WAS MOVING slowly and with a cane, the result of a recent hip surgery and with a second surgery, on the other hip, still to be scheduled. But her mind and wit moved nimbly through ideas and time. “I always liked poetry,” she said. “I remember having long, long conversations in high school about e.e. cummings, T.S. Eliot.” Later she took a poetry class at San Francisco State University from Stan Rice, the Vampire Chronicles novelist Anne Rice’s husband, and a two-week workshop with Robert Bly, and later yet, in Oregon, with William Stafford.

But to begin, she and Robert were early members of the liberatingly creative political theater company the San Francisco Mime Troupe, from 1965 through 1968. “MEEM Troupe,” she said. “We called it the Meem Troupe. And that’s because Ronnie Davis, who was the founder, studied with Marcel Marceau, so it was the Meem Troupe.” Later, she added, after she and Robert had left and after what she termed an insurrection in which Davis was kicked out of the company, the pronunciation became “mime.”

At the Mime Troupe, Barbara acted and wrote plays; Robert was an actor and puppet maker. For a while she was the company’s secretary: “I think I got $50 a week, and that was more than anybody.” She wrote a puppet play, What’s That, a Head? with Peter Berg; she appeared in a film in which, as writer Jeffrey St. Clair recalls in a CounterPunch story, she “gave birth to a watermelon”; she acted semi-nude in one of the troupe’s first huge hits, the satirical and controversial volley against racism A Minstrel Show, or Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel, which was performed in blackface by a company of black and white actors and toured the country, leading to a string of cancellations, protests, and arrests. “On the basis of that,” she recalled with a laugh, “I got my picture in Playboy magazine.”

She and Robert were deeply involved in the radical Bay Area politics of the 1960s in other ways, too: “We were founders of the Diggers with Peter Coyote, me and my husband.” The Diggers, named after a 17th century English group that advocated a society with no private property, were a community-action group that put on shows and free parties with music by the likes of the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane and also operated free stores in San Francisco, where people could leave things or take them, “and we gave out free food in Golden Gate Park.” The Diggers and the Mime Troupe had a lot of crossover: Coyote, who would go on to a highly successful movie and stage career, was a Mime Troupe actor, too.

Poster for San Francisco Mime Troupe’s popular and controversial 1967 satire “The Minstrel Show, or Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel,” in which Barbara LaMorticella performed.

There was pressure among San Francisco’s creative radicals to leave the city and spread the movement, and in ’67 or ’68 Barbara and Robert moved north to Point Reyes in Marin County. “It was pretty grim,” she recalled. “Pretty grim.” The local sheriff’s daughter, she said, had run off with a hippie, “and he hated hippies.” He let them know it, with a campaign of harassments. So did a lot of locals, including their farmer neighbor, who would circle their property at night, shining lights their way.

So they packed up and left again, heading first to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, which didn’t feel right, and then back into Oregon, where they drove east on Highway 30, their truck loaded so full, she recalled, that it was riding about two inches off the road: “I remember driving through a town and the sign said, ‘Scappoose, Oregon,’ and I burst out laughing. What were we doing in Scappoose, Oregon?”

They didn’t get much farther. Down the road a bit a cop pulled them over for driving too slowly, so they veered off the highway and onto Logie Trail, where their truck got stuck. With some trepidation, recalling their Point Reyes experience, they worked their way toward an isolated nearby house. “Robert had hair out like this,” LaMorticella said, holding her hands out from the sides of her head, “and I was pregnant.” They knocked on the door, and a man said, “Come on in.”

The man was a Portland fireman named Joe Satchell. Barbara noticed that a copy of The New Radicals, a book she’d worked on in San Francisco and whose own work was mentioned in the introduction, was lying on the coffee table. “Joe was a wonderful man,” she recalled. “He graduated from Reed College. He was in Gary Snyder’s class.”

Satchell owned several pieces of property on the hill which the family matriarch had picked up for relative pennies during the Depression. The LaMorticellas camped in an empty cement-block house owned by the Satchells that they fixed up and lived in free for five years. They then bought a piece of undeveloped property across the road that two of the Satchell sisters owned. Their place, 1,200 feet up in the hills west of Portland, had a small cabin and no running water. They raised their children there. Barbara lives there still. (These days, she noted wryly, the area’s littered with mansions, and “we’re a little bit of Dogpatch.”)

Robert, who had worked in a factory when he and Barbara were first married and living in Chicago Heights, trained to be a welder in Oregon under CETA, President Johnson’s Comprehensive Employment Training Act. “He had to make a ruckus when he applied, because the screener told him he was too smart to be a welder,” Barbara recalled. “He worked the rest of his life as a welder – first a shipyard welder, then a welder in the Carpenters Union. In his 60s he was working as a pile buck driver, probably the oldest in the world.”  Robert used his time between jobs to do sculpture, garden, and work in his shop. Barbara, meanwhile, settled into a career as a medical transcriber, and took time to write.

She had done readings of her work when she was still in San Francisco, but now she began to take her poetry seriously, as her primary art. “Poetry, I thought, you could do in solitude, and in harsh circumstances. I figured we’d always be poor, because we were both artists and I’d never make any money being a poet.”

LaMorticella went public as a poet and supporter of poets almost by accident. She’d been writing, and took part in the Portland Poetry Festival in 1972, and a couple of years later, she recalled, someone at the Willamette Bridge underground newspaper “wrote a story saying that poetry was elitist bullshit.” She wrote a letter in response, arguing, in the words of a Soapstone statement, “that the nature of poetry is not elite, but is an art that is both vital and unkillable.” To almost everyone’s surprise, Marty Cohen, head of the Portland Poetry Festival, then asked her to edit the Portland Poetry Festival anthology.

Many more-established poets, mostly men, were furious. They complained bitterly that “some woman from Scappoose” had got the job. “I just was not in the club,” she recalled. Then she added that the feminist community, led by Barrington and Gundle, “came to my defense. They have always supported me.”

From that point, LaMorticella became deeply involved in the Oregon writing community, as an editor, an arranger of readings, a radio interviewer. She published books and won awards. She’s been a finalist for an Oregon Book Award. “There was 15 or 20 years when I did 12 to 15 readings a year,” she said.

“I met Barbara in the mid-70s when she and Judith Barrington and I read together at a Portland Poetry Festival event in the park blocks by PSU,” fellow poet Leanne Grabel told Soapstone. “Barbara was cawing. Caw. Caw. I couldn’t believe it. I adored it. Her writing is uncompromised, political, teeming with heart, soul, ethics – everything we are holding onto for dear life in these horrible times of DT.”

In the same statement, former Oregon poet laureate Paulann Petersen added: “The archives of Talking Earth are a history of poetry in Portland during the last 40 or more years! Year after year after year – thanks to Talking Earth – the voices of poets went out into the city, finding listeners, finding people who hungered to hear what speaks to us in that language of us at our best. Year after year after year, Barbara carted equipment to campuses and cafes and halls so she could record poets’ readings, so she could create a record of the life of poetry in Portland, Oregon. And as she did that, she became an essential element of that life.”

Kathleen Worley, the veteran Portland actor and director and a Soapstone board member, added in an email exchange: “All her work has been done on a volunteer basis, which makes her a true model citizen of the literary world.”

Through it all, LaMorticella has been shaping poetry of uncommon clarity and acuteness, and she hasn’t left her political involvement behind, either in her life or her writing. She spent years working on the issue of single-payer health insurance. And her poetry can be, in its own way, as pointed as those old Mime Troupe shows. “It’s a balancing act, isn’t it?” she said. “I want to be politically active.”

How to do that without making didactic art?

She smiled conspiratorially and leaned forward: “Pablo Neruda wrote, to be successful, political poetry has to be as passionate as love poetry.”

*

Interior of the Soapstone retreat cabin in the Coast Range. This is part of architect Will Martin’s original structure; Soapstone tore down rotted parts of his cabin but kept this and added to it on the sides. Photo courtesy of Soapstone

IF LAMORTICELLA AND BARRINGTON ARE REEMERGING from hard times, so, in a sense, has Soapstone, the organization that is sponsoring the Bread and Roses Award. Gundle, the group’s administrator, gave me a rundown on the group’s history. It began with the purpose of providing women’s writing retreats on a 22-plus acre property it bought in 1991 in the Oregon Coast Range, inland from Nehalem. The property is both rustic and pristine, a rich salmon-spawning area with no invasive species, and a plentitude of wildlife: “this very lovely, expansive piece of property that had a year-round creek running through it.”

The small Soapstone group bought it from the estate of the late Portland architect Will Martin, who among many other projects designed the city’s Pioneer Courthouse Square. They raised about $1.5 million. “That was a huge job,” Gundle said. “None of us were professional fundraisers. We were flying by the seat of our pants.”

With a tiny budget – never more than $50,000 a year – Soapstone relied on volunteer help; a lot of it: “Our idea was, in the late ’80s, early ’90s, it would be a community project.” That turned out to be a lot of work, with both women and men pitching in. Martin had built a house on the property, but it was rotting, so it was torn down and rebuilt. Soapstone volunteers added water purification and electricity. It took years. “It turned out to be much more work than we in our naïve minds had imagined,” Gundle said.

Still, they did it. And between 1998 and 2010, more than 375 women used the property for writing retreats. Among them were memoirist and novelist Cheryl Strayed, playwright EM Lewis, poets Barbara Lamb and Cecelia Hagen, journalists Luciana Lopez and Angie Chuang. LaMorticella was in residence for two weeks in the summer of 2004. “It was a new and wonderful experience for me to be in an atmosphere which so completely valued and supported writing,” she wrote afterwards. “I came away with a new dedication to the craft, with the beginning of a new book, and with pages of information about resources for writers gleaned from various publications on the shelves. Praise and thanks. The whole world has seemingly been hijacked by militarism and psychopathic thuggery. A writing retreat specifically for women, sustained by a women’s writing community, has never been more evidently necessary than now—a sheltered space wherein the seeds of new vision and new life might germinate, sprout and flower.”

But with a small budget and a working board without deep pockets (it currently includes Gundle, Barrington, Worley, poets Janice Gould and recent Oregon poet laureate Elizabeth Woody, small-press publisher Maureen Michelson, Nancy LaPaglia, Ann Dudley, Katharine Riker, and president Patricia Bollin) it was difficult to maintain.

“Finally, after much agony, we decided we had to sell the property and find some other way to support women writers,” Gundle said. The residencies stopped in 2010. The property sold in 2013, after a painstaking search for the right buyer. The North Coast Land Conservancy spent a year meticulously going over the property before deciding it should be preserved. Soapstone then provided the conservancy with a conservation easement which effectively locks it away from timber or other commercial uses. Then the task was to find a buyer willing to purchase it with those restrictions. “We could have sold it for a lot more,” Gundle said. “But I think that would’ve been soul-destroying for all of us. It would’ve been devastating.”

The sale of the property might easily have been the end of Soapstone. Instead, the board reinvented and redefined. “We got this second wind and decided, ‘We’ve got some money. We’ve got some time. We can do this’,” Gundle said. From the proceeds of the land sale the board donated a chunk to the Land Conservancy for its legal fund, then began to think about how it could fulfill its goals in the city rather than the woods.

What emerged was a multipronged program that includes:

  • providing small grants to people wanting to produce events to celebrate women writers (these have included the likes of a party in honor of what would’ve been Grace Paley’s 90th birthday and a memorial reading for Adrienne Rich);
  • a free biweekly newsletter of announcements of literary news and events, which Gundle prepares and which you can sign up to receive;
  • and, perhaps most significantly, a kind of free-university organization of study groups about specific women writers or books, which are led by women or men who simply want to teach that particular topic. Fees are kept low, and, for those who can’t afford it, waived. “It’s available to anybody,” Gundle said. “Whether you can afford the tiny fee or not, you’re welcome.” Groups have met to read and talk about, among others, Margaret Atwood, Virginia Woolf (led by Barrington), Alice Munro, Elizabeth Bishop, Maxine Kumin, Joy Williams, Jane Austen, Denise Levertov, Sylvia Plath, and Sappho and other Greek and Roman women poets.

Soapstone has also funded events to celebrate International Women’s Day. “The events were a lot of fun, but they were also a lot of work,” Gundle said. So this year they’ve been replaced by the new Soapstone Bread and Roses Award.

Which leads us back to LaMorticella, the first recipient.

The creek running through the old writers’ retreat property, below the cabin. Photo courtesy of Soapstone

*

SITTING AT MY DESK AT HOME, I listen again to the KBOO Talking Earth episode with Barrington, which you can hear here. It’s an unlikely and enlightening thing, this hour on the airwaves of lively conversation about essential things. LaMorticella’s voice is balanced between humor and dead seriousness; gentleness and a determination to draw in words the edges of the structure of things; the shape and memory of the past; the rising expectation of unknown things.

It’s revealing to listen to a poet reading her own work, to hear the way she hears the music and intonation and clarity of it, the way it sounds in her own head and on her own tongue. Barrington’s voice, reading her poems and talking about them, is lush with the turn of language and also, a bit like the late novelist, poet and essayist Ursula Le Guin’s, elegant, clipped, precise, informed by a formidable intelligence and a determined grappling with experience. (LaMorticella will be returning to the Talking Earth studio once every two months; the next writer’s voice you can hear while she’s hosting will be poet and essayist Claudia F. Savage’s, on April 15.)

I didn’t think when I was talking with LaMorticella to ask her to read any of her poetry, and I’m sorry for that. I did ask if I could reprint a couple of her poems, which had been published at Talking Writing in 2014, that had particularly struck me, and she readily agreed. You can read them, preferably aloud, in your own voice:

Cracked

My mother’s face was cracked in two as she lay dying:
I hung in her left eye as if in a fisheye lens,
hung upside down wearing a wedding hat,
until her upwelling tear washed my reflection away.
But her right eye was somewhere else, already gone,
all the lovely green disappeared, the white like a cooked egg,
and in the center the pupil square as a TV.

It must have been a program of the ’40s or ’50s
playing on the black-and-white screen—
maybe one featuring an ice queen and a whore
or the Army General who’d said if you gave him enough bullets
and enough cigarettes, he would win any war.

On the home front all the women were tough
and free enough to smoke. The ads said,
“You’ve come a long way, baby.”
They got to keep the cigarettes, but not
the toughness after the men came home.

The men, as usual, got to keep the war.

When my father lay dying, they pumped gallons of war from him,
dirty war like rusty radiator fluid. With the last living breaths his
lungs drew, he asked, “Am I going to beat this, Doc?”

Then he said, “My squadron is looking for me,” and died.

*

On a Night Heavy with Water

“The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.” —Tony Hayward, BP CEO

Tell that to the great egrets and laughing gulls.
Whisper that to the blue herons,
the muskrat, the alligators.
Reassure the fishermen, the ladyfish.
Croon it to the burning whale.
Tell that to the sickened workers,
to their children and grandchildren.

The men on the beaches in clean slacks
tell flaming lies. Water, our mother, lies flaming
at the introitus of land and the sea.

In the season of heavy water,
a moving finger writes a message that dolphins
read, as they rise full length out of the water
to watch the world they live in
burn.

 

 

 

 

 

3 Responses.

  1. Fabulous article about a fabulous woman. Thank you, Bob Hicks.

  2. Maureen R Michelson says:

    Thank you for this fascinating and comprehensive article on Barbara Morticelli, Judith Barrington, Ruth Gundle, and the history of Soapstone. Bob Hicks has captured an essential chapter of women’s history, specifically in the Northwest, as reflected in the women’s poetry, writings, and the arts. The visions of these once young feminists who worked for a better, more peaceful world are now the wise women who must pass on their stories to inspire those who will follow.

    Bob Hicks has written a fine article toward that end. I’m inspired all over again. Thank you!

  3. Margaret Coe Clarke says:

    I was transported by your article about these courageous women, these weathered souls, and somewhat saddened about the sale of the coastal writer’s retreat.
    But the sadness feels like more whole than such a loss might inspire. These open souls live in a real and jagged world, to which they contribute their honest assessment.
    Thanks for this.

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