Archive for the ‘About Carol Tarlen’ Category

Marxism and Margaritas, by Marcus Duskin

July 6, 2009

I get to the rally late.  The procession of signs and crosses down Mission Street has ended, and the crowd dutifully gathers around the public address system for the obligatory speeches.  Today we are listening to “testimonials” by the victims of US government policy during the Reagan years in Central America. 

The atmosphere is somber, even though most of us are glad old Bonzo is gone.  We’d spent a good part of the week making Reagan jokes and rehashing some of his most famous quotes like “You’ve seen one redwood you’ve seen them all” or “Facts are stupid things.”  A friend held a party to celebrate the passing of the Great Communicator and the jokes about Bonzo and Ronnie and Nancy and their sordid lives continued.  I brought my guitar and sang Malvina Reynold’s song “Boraxo”, conjuring up images of Reagan the actor, Reagan the cowboy, Reagan the butcher of People’s Park. 

“It’s all right, it’s all right
When you’re righteous it’s all right
Though you have you hands in blood up to the elbows
You can always wash them clean with Boraxo. “

I wanted to come to this rally and sing Boraxo too and a couple of parodies my partner Christy had written, but Christy tells me it’s the wrong occasion, this is a mock funeral for Reagan’s victims.  So I just show up, standing at the edge of the crowd, watching the rally and the people watching the rally.  I see a few familiar faces in the crowd, listening to the speeches and holding up signs and crosses.  A friend asks me to hold up his sign for a minute – it’s painted red and blue on a white background and says “Reagan the Great Communicator” with “Communicator” crossed out and the word “Liar” written over it.  I try to hold up the sign but I get frustrated with the wind blowing it around and return it.  The speeches, as usual, do not interest me.  Feigning tiredness, I sit down on a little concrete bench near the entrance to the BART station. 

I remember being asked if I considered myself an activist.  Or perhaps someone called me an activist, identifying me with my affinity for left wing politics?  No, I don’t consider myself an activist (we used to say “cadre” in the Party).  Sure, I’ve been showing up again in recent years, singing and playing the old protest songs when someone’s invited me to.  Otherwise I haven’t cared much.  In the years since I gave up on being “cadre” I haven’t found anything to replace the all-encompassing movement that was PLP, the Progressive Labor Party, the Party of the working class, the Party of the future of humanity. 

My life as a revolutionary communist ended 22 years ago when I failed to show up at the club meeting.  That day I deliberately arrived late and, instead of ringing the bell, I put a note through the mail slot saying I can’t do it anymore.  I’m too unhappy, I’m too conflicted.  I’m supposed to be a good communist but I’m in a bad relationship and I smoke dope and I sneak into porno movies and I didn’t sell any Challenges again this week and I’m tired of you all asking me why not.  So I officially quit that day, then hung around for three more years as a “fellow traveler” because I still believed, hanging out on the edge like I’m hanging out now.  I put together an agit-prop theatre group with another comrade who seemed on the edge too, but we were told our theatre was a “weakness” because we forgot to put a big red flag in at the end of our play and tell our audience that the only solution was communist revolution, like they do at the end of the articles in Challenge.  No, we didn’t forget, comrades, we were trying to be creative, and the Peking Opera ending didn’t cut it for us anymore. 

So I left for good.  Now here I am 22 years later and, well what do you know, I’m still sitting over on the edge.  I distract myself, watching the bums and the moms with kids and the dope dealers.  Then up strolls Carol Tarlen, who I haven’t seen in a few years.  I figured she was still around, though I had put her in the “drifting away” category.  I had heard that she and her partner David had joined a cadre organization, the “League of Revolutionaries for a New America”, formerly the “Communist Labor Party”.  Jack Hirschman, San Francisco’s poet laureate, is a leading member of the group in San Francisco, and it seems that he’s recruited quite a number of fellow poets.  I surmised that Carol had given in to her inherent cynicism by joining this formation and removing herself from more mundane causes, like the unionizing campaigns that were happening at UCSF a couple years ago when we both worked there.  I had met here at a union rally in front of the hospital and was looking for a fellow left winger to help me make sense of the reform trade union movement that I was (yeah that’s right) peripherally involved in at work.  But at the rally Carol told me it was all a waste of time.  It wasn’t what I wanted to hear and since that time I lost touch with her. 

But there she was, looking just a tad older, and as ascerbic as ever.  Sitting herself next to me, she began with a complaint that she had waited for a half hour for a bus that never came, there had been some sort of accident on Mission Street.  Then she looked around at the gathering.  Spotting a couple signs which had the endorsement “International Answer” she said conversationally “They’re anti-Semitic, don’t you know?”  That was the first surprise; I tried to get my mind around this statement and what it might mean exactly.  Well, I surmised, perhaps Carol has made a dramatic change to the right, she’s become an ardent Zionist, or maybe it has something to do with some sectarian position of the League of Revolutionaries?  On further clarification, it turned out she objected to IA’s exclusion of Israeli flags at their marches, even those held by peace marchers.  “They aren’t broad enough” she stated.  Then, after a perfunctory discussion about Trotskyist influences in the mass movement, I attempted to change the subject.

So, I said, are you still working with the League of Revolutionaries? “Oh, sure, I still am” she replied, “but it’s a terrible name for a group and I’m trying to get them to change it.  It’s so pretentious, don’t you think?”

Now here was something really different and quite out of my experience.  I imagined having been at that club meeting and saying “Yes, I am a committed Marxist-Leninist and I support the Party 100%, but don’t you think our name should be a little less pretentious?”  No, something like that never would have happened, and if it did I would have been criticized for being a bourgeois individualist and secretly the comrades would have all thought that I was insane.  Did the League of Revolutionaries tolerate this sort of opinionating from its members?  I doubted it.  It was more likely that they were like any other sectarian organization, only they couldn’t change Carol.

I lose interest completely in the demo and focus my attention on talking with Carol.  We talk about Reagan and Bush, Jr. and the upcoming election. “Such terrible men, I’ll vote for Kerry only because I have to, but John Edwards has a nice smile and Koosh (Dennis Kucinich) has a smidgen of vision, don’t you think?”  Then more about the League.  I hear another astounding comment “Many of our new members are religious”.  A Marxist-Leninist group accepting avowed Christians?  Now I really don’t know what to think. 

Christy comes up and says hello.  Carol mentions she wants to retire to Puerto Allegre, drink some margaritas, and toast the passing of Ronnie.  Off we go together.  The conversation continues along the same vein at the restaurant.  I get the sense that Carol is in recruitment mode, but her style is so unorthodox that I can’t tell when she’s spouting the Party line and when she’s talking about her own ideas.  She invites us to a League event, a party at Jack’s house.  “You’ll bring your guitar, of course” she says.  “Jack just loves to sing, don’t you know?”  She goes on chatting about the Christians “I’m an atheist but I get along with them just fine, they’re people just like me.”  She talks about a long-winded debate at the League’s convention on whether or not to use the word “hate” in a resolution.  I remember those debates in PL.  Most have to do with art and culture.  The Party leadership was uncomfortable with these debates and discouraged them, unless that is the “Party line”, the orthodoxy, was reenforced. 

The League, however, seems to be on a different track.  “People want new things brought in” says Carol.  “They want to listen to what you bring in.”  Perhaps, I think, that’s why the San Francisco chapter is comprised mostly of poets (and some pretty good ones I might add).  I’m amazed by the direction this whole discussion has taken, perhaps stimulated further by the pitcher of tequila mix in front of us.  I can’t say I’ve had much of a positive impression of the League up to now.  I’ve bought their paper a couple of times from Jack and nothing interested me much except for a good article about speculation in economics and Jack’s poetry.  The group even seemed to have some cult-like tendencies, with a somewhat mysterious charismatic leader named Nelson Peery, and their paper is full of articles written mostly by women in their 30s and 40s.  To me it’s a bit reminiscent of Sendero Luminoso without the Maoist rhetoric.  How is it that these San Francisco poets I know are into something like this?  Maybe the San Francisco chapter is different?  Christy and I did attend a League event a couple of years ago –a strange combination of political speechmaking (Matt Gonzalez, the newly elected Green on the Board of Supervisors, was the main attraction) and poetry reading.  Nothing anyone said that night related much to what anyone else said, and the whole thing went on way too long.  Well, maybe if you put a group of poets in charge of a cadre organization this is what you get.  Or perhaps the League of Revolutionaries for a New America really is like this, strictly orthodox in some respects but wildly creative in others, and tolerant of anyone and anything that wants to align with it?  Well, one thing is for certain: it would be hard for any party to maintain their orthodoxy if someone like Carol Tarlen was a member. 

Christy and I say our goodbyes to Carol with a promise to come to the event at Jack’s.  When I get home I feel moved to put the events of the day on paper.  Carol has got me thinking about my own history and where I am today, and I keep having flashbacks into my own past.  I go all the way back before my college days when I joined, before I even knew what “political” was, back to age 11, 5th Grade.  I am wandering on the playground of my school in the middle of the day, alone.  Why? Because I passed a “directions” test my teacher gave the class, and only me and no one else read all the directions and so saw through the trick.  Is this my fate, to be out on the edge looking in, as I was on that day and this day as well?  Or maybe this chance meeting with Carol has got me thinking that something else is possible, that it’s OK to be different but to also belong, to be part of the collective but not to forget that only an individual possesses a soul and, as the Bard said so poetically, “To thine own self be true.”

Carol Tarlen (1943-2004) by Jack Hirschman

July 4, 2009

Not only that, at 60, you were still too young to die,
Not only that, though a stunner in your twenties,
you walked hunched from years slaving over
as a secretary, bespectacled, no longer “comely,”
as another poet put it, maternal, even a bit dowdy-
looking, with a half-jaunty, half-slow step along
the sidewalk after work to meet Aggie at O’Reilly’s
for your favorite martini, a couple of sisters in the
sunlight that always seemed to find that stretch of Green Street.


Not that you weren’t a wild spender on techno-things
–a new computer and printer every year or so, one
having to step over wires at meetings in your little
studio pad on Grant Avenue,


But that you, Carol Tarlen,
who came from
and ferociously
adhered to
working class consciousness,
measuring everything
said and done
in relation to the slaving
and exploited masses
in their dream of liberation;


You who, living ironically
marginalized among
North Beach’s Beat
bohemians, anarchoids,
narcolepts and sundry
sundered egoes of
the great god Schiz,
wrote some of the most
centrally engaged,
embodied and revolutionary
poems of this generation,

and whose trust “in the
mystery of future”
is why there is no
death of you:  this isn’t a eulogy
but a celebration of another
great nourisher —chorosho!—
of the Internationale.

Which WILL be the human race.

“Which is always beginning.”

Letter To Carol, by Diana Rossi

July 4, 2009

June 27th, 2004


Dear Carol,


Tears came for you.


We were driving on Highway 4, going to the Antioch Water Park — a family outing for friendly Aya’s 7th birthday.  We drove past the Concord Naval Weapons Station Exit and then, after 2 weeks of justifying our estrangement, the tears came.  The tears came for you, Carol.  A flood of memory.  All those demonstrations together!  And words came too, like talking points to my aging 49 year-old memory bank — CISPES, Nicaragua, Brian Wilson, Carrie, JoAnne, The Contras, Civil Disobedience or Not, Billy Nessen, those red bandannas, and stolen railway spikes.


The hot Clayton hills, hot like your anger.


Carol, the flame of your anger could be useful at times.  It made you into a doer, an artist.  It was often intelligently on target.  But those other times, Carol.  You know what they are.  I am laying those to rest — with compassion, for you, for me, and for you and me.  May your energy, all that it is, burn into the hope of your beautiful  children, your beautiful Derek, your beautiful Kate. Oh, and how could I forget, your beautiful, angry words.


With Love,

Take Care,

See You on the Long Journey,



The Cocktail Hour, by Agneta Falk

July 4, 2009

                 In memory of Carol Tarlen

I can’t think of you without wanting
to reach for a glass to toast the revolution,
and then a toast to the new technology
or simply a toast to just being alive,
against all odds, as you would say.

You fighting woman
nose-diving into the latest film,
eating a hot dog on the corner
of Columbus and  Green Street,
spouting about one or another injustice.

You were America at its best,
down to the baseball roots.
The tobacco road without the nicotine.
Liking some of the fancy things
without being fancy.  Liking it simple.

Tongue on the trigger,
not missing a cue.
Sweet and sour all the way.
A basin full of rippling laughter
before & after the cocktail hour.

16 June, 2004

Ah, Yes, Carol Lives by Nellie Wong

May 4, 2009

Ah, yes, Carol lives
She smiles from her abode
knowing that the picket line thrives
that UPTE’s striking on May 6
against UC Berkeley
for an unfair labor practice
while the president scoops up
almost a million bucks a year
and UC runs with corporate legs
and typists and researchers
and techs and laundry workers
dig deeper except their pockets
are full of holes
Ah, Carol, we know that you’re
with the workers, holding up
your picket sign, chanting
“The people united
will never be defeated!”
The angels’ liberation front
is the place to be seen
and heard and meanwhile
we’ll grab a burrito and, yes,
a Margarita at Puerto Allegro,
we’ll carry on with paradise
on earth on May Day
and feast on our victories
won each minute, each hour,
each day knowing that our labor
counts, that you’ll sing, a voice
that flows a river of flowers
amid the tools in our hands


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

April 29, 2009

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.