Life and Death of a Poet: Carol Tarlen (1943-2004) By Julie Stein

Life and Death of a Poet: Carol Tarlen (1943-2004) by Julie Stein June 29, 2004. 6:30. North Beach, San Francisco. Eighty or so family, friends, coworkers, comrades and fellow poets gathered in front of O’Reilly’s Pub for a wake for poet Carol Tarlen. The Green Street Mortuary Band set the spirit for the night by playing “Solidarity Forever” and then leading the crowd, each member holding a red rose, through the main corridor of North Beach and concluding at the famous Beat hang out, Spec’s Adler Museum Café where the band continued with some of Carols favorite songs: “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Rebel Girl,” and the “International.” The wake continued in Spec’s where family, friends, and poets read Carol’s poetry, talked about her, and read poems about Carol. Poet Jack Hirschman said it was the best poet’s wake in North Beach since beat poet’s Bob Kaufman’s in 1986. Carol, my good friend for 20 years, was a North Beach Emily Dickinson, publishing widely in magazines and anthologies but never putting out a full-length book. She was the contemporary poet I knew closest to Whitman or Neruda: from her white trash impoverished childhood to her MA in English from San Francisco State; from her being a poet/delegate on the S.F. Labor Council to her getting arrested repeatedly for feeding the hungry and homeless in front of San Francisco’s Civic Center.  

Carol, circa 1953

Carol, circa 1953

Her most well-known poem is “White Trash: An Autobiography” which was published in Calling Home: Working Class Women’s Writings, An Anthology (edited by Janet Zandy; Rutgers University Press). In the first section “1948: Dysentery in the First World” her family is living in a trailer in Salinas when her younger brother gets dysentery and is taken to the local hospital: “After two weeks the doctors told my mother/to take him home to die. /Instead she took him to a university medical center. /He was given antibiotics and lived.” Also, her father was a truck driver with narcolepsy, a disease that caused him to lose jobs, so the family was constantly moving around California until they settled in Fremont, in a blue-collar tract. Carol herself was a diabetic since she was a teenager. After a short-lived marriage in Marin which resulted in two children, she moved to San Francisco, worked full-time as a secretary at UC San Francisco Medical Center while attending school at San Francisco State for six years to complete both her B.A. and M.A. “It was hard,” she said. “I never want to do it again. I was exhausted.” She devoted her weekends and summers to her two daughters who lived with their father in Marin. In high school she was a voracious reader, devouring Dreiser, Steinbeck, Hemingway, James Farrell, Brecht, Clifford Odets. In junior college she acted in Theater of the Absurd plays, growing to like Beckett, Ionesco, and Edward Albee.




On her own she read Valejo, Breton, and Neruda. She especially liked Breton’s idea about the imagination. The imagination is central to her poetry and her life. She survived the numbing jobs she worked her whole life partially by using her imagination. For a short time she was on welfare, producing the enraged poem “Welfare Rights” how men, on finding out she was on welfare, would offer her money for sex. When she graduated with her M.A., she said, “There were no full-time teaching jobs in public school system or junior college system in San Francisco. They laid off tons of people in the late ‘70s.” With diabetes, two children to help support, and no family back-up she couldn’t get hired as an adjunct professor without benefits or job security, so she kept working as a secretary in the medical school at UC San Francisco, ran the poetry reading series at the Coffee Gallery (now the Lost and Found) in North Beach, co-founded the fiction magazine Real Fiction.



Carol and David

Carol and David



She assisted her husband David Joseph in editing his pioneering magazine Working Classics featuring working class literature in the late 1980s. She was active in her union AFSCME, holding office in her local and as a delegate SF Labor Council. At the same time as Carol Tarlen was a union official in the 1980s she produced some spectacular poems about work such as “Today” celebrating having a day off with pay so she “sat in a bistro and drank absinthe/while Cesar Vallejo strolled past/praised the sun in its holiness, led a revolution ….” She wrote another wonderful poem called “The Receptionist Sits at Her Desk and Hums ‘Solidarity Forever.’” She wrote some great poems to her two daughters. Her first trip out of the country was to Nicaragua to witness firsthand the Sandinista Revolution. After the 1989 earthquake she spent several months traveling to Watsonville near Santa Cruz, California, where she helped feed agricultural workers and their families who had lost jobs and homes due to the earthquake’s destruction. She wrote short prose pieces, one called “Nellie Perkiss Speaks Her Mind” in the totally believable voice of an elderly feisty Appalachian coal miner’s wife. When there were ferocious layoffs in factories in the 1980s, she wrote “Work Slows Down at the Plant” about a trapped husband, fearful of losing his job, hitting his wife; the poem shows compassion for both husband and wife. Her poems broke your heart again and again. In the mid-1980s when mothers in Atlanta, Soweto, Argentina and El Salvador were mourning their children being killed she wrote “Cholo” where she witnesses her daughter suffering in an inner city high school in San Francisco. She teaches her own daughter about politics by speaking of the women of “Atlanta/Soweto, El Salvador, ask the mothers circling the plaza/ in Argentina. They write history/with the photos of teenaged faces/they hold to the sun which is not/blind to their witness.” She even becomes these women in the poem, standing in front of a “locked gate./I am facing the silence and I am/crying your name.” In “As an Angel Glimpsed by Blake” she sees Blake’s angel in the face of a hungry man “in a worn, black suit … standing near the doorway of steel-/encased office building.” She was a visionary poet like Blake, whose visions often reappear in her poems. In her poem “Believe in My Hands (Which Are Ending) for Cuban singer Silvio Rodriguez she talked about how the imagination “explodes into white carnations” and how she trusts in “the mystery of the future/which is always beginning.” She knew her roots: knew her ancestors were indentured Anglo servants come form Britain to U.S. She was a Quaker and took me to the Quaker meeting hall south of Market Street. She knew about the Diggers, those English landless peasant communists who during the 1650s went to establish communes on abandoned land. When Cromwell, servant of the rising bourgeoisie, sent out troops, they decimated the Diggers who inspired a group of young hippie anarchists during the 1960s to start regular feedings to give food to runaway teenagers. The S.F. Diggers inspired Food Not Bombs, which Carol joined for ten years to feed the hungry in Civic Center, work for which she was repeatedly arrested. After one arrest, Carol wrote a prose piece about the prostitutes she met in jail, her fellow human beings. She introduced me to radical English culture of singer/song writers Billy Bragg and Leon Rousellon, playing for me Rousellon’s two great songs The Digger Song (aka “The World Turned Upside Down”) and “Bringing the News from Nowhere” about William Morris. To paraphrase Rousellon, she like William Morris came with a vision and walked through the river of fire. Carol like Whitman was a poet for democracy. During the Gilded Age of the 1980s, 1990s and the 2000s about the working people who were increasingly smashed and pushed aside and who have fought back with verve and passion, she was writing a poetry necessary for America just as Whitman’s poetry had been necessary for the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. To write such poetry, she adapted the poetics of the international avant-garde of Breton, Valejo, and Neruda just as Whitman had adapted an international avant-garde poetics in an earlier generation. She knew the people she was writing about: her people, knew them in her bones. Her family. She was the warm humane beating heart of the city of San Francisco. She had heart bypass surgery about the same time as Ferlinghetti did–knew him from North Beach where they lived the last years of her life–and compared notes with him about their surgeries. She wrote a poem about her heart disease “Recovery for the Red-Hearted Masses” answering Ginsberg’s ‘Howl” saying “I’ve seen the best chests of my generation cracked and broken—Mario, Allen….” This poem is also a marvelous evocation of the North Beach she so loved. But her North Beach was made up of the working people like the poor Chinese woman with fragile bones walking against the hard wind. Her attempts at having her work published in a full-length book of poetry were repeatedly rejected, but she did have her work circulated widely in magazines and anthologies. She was marginalized in the Bay Area literary community for being working class. As the years went by and her diabetes and heart disease worsened, she lost her blonde beauty; in her fifties she walked stoop shouldered, making her even more marginalized. She knew it. Well, Whitman was marginalized. Dickinson was marginalized. They knew it, too With worsening diabetes and heart disease, she retired from her job in January 2005, and applied for disability, as her retirement wasn’t enough to live on. The insurance company turned her down, knowing full well that 80% of applications for federal disability are rejected. With her limited pension she couldn’t afford to move and had to live in a third-floor walk-up in North Beach.


Carol and Kate

Carol and Kate



Still, she remained active, going out daily to meet friends and family, read at poetry events and take part in demonstrations for the homeless and against the war in Iraq. She had to daily walk up the stairs to her third-floor walk-up, running out of breath on each landing as her heart disease was getting worse. June 15 she died of a heart attack.. On July 10, Friday, 2009, 7:30, Modern Times bookstore, Valencia Street, San Francisco there will be a “Celebration of the Life and Work of Poet Carol Tarlen of the New Working Class of San Francisco.” I will be there along with other San Francisco poets reading her poems.


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