Linda Norton on Laughing with the Best Talkers in the World

Linda Norton on Laughing with the Best Talkers in the World

An interview with Linda Norton, from The Write Stuff series:

Linda Norton grew up in Boston. She lived in Brooklyn for many years and moved to California with her little daughter in 1995. At the University of California Press, Linda published books in many fields and started the New California Poetry series. She’s worked in book publishing, bookstores, and libraries since she was 16 years old. She’s also been a waitress (at Italian wedding banquets on Boston’s South Shore, at Atticus in New Haven, and at Lois the Pie Queen in Oakland). Her book, The Public Gardens: Poems and History (Pressed Wafer, 2011; introduction by Fanny Howe), was a finalist for an LA Times Book Prize in poetry (though the book is half prose). Her next book, Wite-Out: Love and Work, will be published late in 2017. She is also working on a third book, a memoir and history called Dark White. Work from those manuscripts has appeared or is forthcoming in magazines and anthologies including New American Writing, Colorado Review, Hanging Loose, Berkeley Poetry Review, Amerarcana, and Spuyten Duyvil’s Resist Much Obey Little. Two of her recent poems in Fourteen Hills have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her collages have appeared on the covers of books, anthologies, and in magazines (most recently, Lapham’s Quarterly), and have been exhibited at the Dock Arts Centre in Ireland courtesy of a cultural grant from the U. S. Embassy in Dublin. Linda works in the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. She has been an artist in residence at the Millay Colony, the Lannan Foundation at Marfa, and the Tyrone Guthrie Center in Ireland. In 2014 Linda received a Creative Work Fund award for work on a project about incarceration, families, and Oakland.

When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?

I read and I research; I cut and paste; I write. And I’m a mother. I feed people.

What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?

How to be white, or dark white, or whatever I am, in a racist country.

And how to be someone’s darling, instead of the oldest child in the big, dangerous family I left long ago.

If someone said I want to do what do you do, what advice would you have for them?

Pay attention. Go to the library. Write by hand in a notebook. Love. Be hard on yourself. Forgive yourself. Dance.

Also, tape things up over your desk:

Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide. (D. W. Winnicott)


I had no idea I was going to write this. (David Grossman)

Then show up and see what happens.

Do you consider yourself successful? Why?

Yes, because of my children. I think they respect me, and I hope I have earned that respect and trust. And yes, because my book is in libraries, and because strangers write to me about it, and I’m glad we are all a little less lonely because of books.

And no, for more personal reasons that I can’t explain here.

When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?

“What Love” and “One Nation Under a Groove,” and Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” Eddie Murphy’s “Celebrity Hot Tub.” John Coltrane and Red Garland, “Slow Dance” (2:39) Dilla, Love It Here. And this little boy dancing sean-nos in the parlor while his daddy cheers him on.

Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?

My father’s mother and her mother, Irish women from County Kerry. (“Favorite” might not be the right word, though.) My father’s mother was an unmarried immigrant and servant when she gave birth to him during the Great Depression; her mother died young in the asylum for the lunatic poor in Killarney. Hard lives. I never knew them. But I’ve been researching their history for twenty years. I have visited Ireland three times in the last three years and I think I’ve finally found the way to write about why their stories, and the gaps in their stories, matter so much to me.

Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?

Shirley Chisholm (“Unbought and un-bossed”) and Bernadette Devlin, an Irish socialist. I also admired saints who had visions, like Bernadette in the grotto. It seemed democratic that anyone could pay attention; anyone could see. I wanted, more than anything in the world, to learn how to be brave and good.

Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.

I have a tube of lipstick with me and I apply it while checking my reflection in the blade of my camping knife. I look at the trees and long for streets. I re-read my beloved Walden and remind myself that Thoreau wasn’t really in the wilderness—he could go home whenever he needed clean clothes or a woman’s help or company.

What’s wrong with society today?

Racism, greed, a lack of understanding of American history. Misogyny. Lies. An unfinished, barely-begun Civil Rights revolution.

What is your fondest memory?

Being a mother. So much happiness.

Walks in public parks and gardens in Boston, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Oxford and London, Rome, Dublin, Washington, DC, Paris, Portland, and Oakland and San Francisco.

Hundreds of summer days and nights at beaches in and around Boston—Carson Beach, Tenean, Wessagusset, Nantasket, Gunrock, and down the Cape and on Martha’s Vineyard.

The years 1983-1986—a love story and a miraculous reprieve that ended with my brother’s death from AIDS at age 24.

A three-story dance party in Fort Greene in 1990 (a housequake).

Serendipitous and/or informative or sexy encounters in public places (at least since my thirties, when I stopped being too shy to look strangers in the eye). And listening to “Sounds of Sinatra” in Brooklyn while making dinner on Saturday nights.

And playing with children, all children.

What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?

Truth and reconciliation, and reparations for the slave trade and Jim Crow and the confinement and murder of Black people in America.

I would also like to see a whole generation of children born to women who want them and can keep them safe from war and can afford to feed them. An end to rape and poverty. What would the world be like after one generation like that?

When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do?


What are you working on right now?

I’m finishing another round of revisions on Wite-Out, my second book, a hybrid of poetry and memoir like my first book. And I’m working on my third book, currently called Dark White. And I would like to start a new series of collages and small paintings, more abstract than the last series of fifty pieces that I made from found photographs.

What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?

Eileen Myles’ prose (especially as it relates to class, the Boston-New York axis, and feminism) inspires me. Charles Reznikoff’s poetry and C. D. Wright’s One with Others and One Big Self. Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony and God, too. Dermot Healy, Nuala O’Faolain, James Baldwin, and Gwendolyn Brooks (especially her novel Maud Martha). John Keene’s Counternarratives is a model of research, imagination, integrity.

Alice Childress’s A Short Walk, Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants, Akhil Sharma’s Family Life, and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance are some of my favorite novels.

If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?

The cost of real estate/rent. The decline of the Black population in Oakland. I hate to see Oakland turn into the hipster Brooklyn I left in 1995.

A night on the town: what does that mean to you?

Wearing a little black dress and pretty shoes and dancing to Prince. Or sitting in the snug in Cryan’s pub in Ireland, listening to a session, drinking Powers, and laughing with the best talkers in the world.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?

A young white woman named Muffin (she was wearing a name tag) shining the shoes of an old Black man in the Peachtree mall in Atlanta in 1989.

What are some of your favorite smells?

Eucalyptus, fog, and Meyer lemon (I can’t believe I live in a place where sweet lemons grow), and the smells of my childhood in Boston: the brine of the Atlantic; lilacs and basilico; the scent of wet pavement on a hot day in Boston right after someone opens the fire hydrant.

If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?

A trip with Isabel and Roland. A month in Sicily, where my mother’s parents were born, and a night in Tunisia.

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