Break On Through (To the Other Side) — An Interview with Poets Café’s Lois P. Jones

Millicent Bórges Accardi, Interviews Editor
Break On Through (To the Other Side)
Poets Café’s Lois P. Jones
Since 2003, Poets Café has brought KPFK radio listeners stimulating poetry and conversation from some of the most celebrated (and non-celebrated) poets locally and from around the world.
The poet Lois P. Jones (who joined the show in 2008) is one of three rotating hosts (the others are Jaimes Palacio and Myrenna Ogbu). Some of Lois’s guests have included Julian Sands (actor in The Killing Fields and A Room With A View); Neil deGrasse Tyson (astrophysicist and Director of the Hayden Planetarum); Neil Aitken (editor of Boxcar Poetry Review); Peggy Dobreer, author of 64 Ways to Practice Nonviolence; Matthew Silverman (editor of Blue Lyra Review); Timothy Green (editor of Rattle); Tony Barnstone, author of Tongue of War; Annie Reiner (poet and daughter of Carl Reiner, Melissa Studdard (author of Six Weeks to Yehidah); Hilda Weiss (documentary film maker of the Los Angeles poetry scene); Kath Abela Wilson (founder of Poets on Site) and Mariano Zaro (author of Where From/Desde Donde and Poems of Erosion/Poemas de la erosion).
Poets Café is the brainchild of producer Marlena Bond who has worked with and for KPFK for over a decade. Jones’ guests not only include poets, but also educators, visual artists, actors, musicians, a psychotherapist, a musicologist, ex-gang members, a classical musician, filmmakers, an Iraqi soldier, translators, poetry editors and publishers who also happen to write poetry.
In this interview for Poets Quarterly, Jones shares her creative process as host, describing how she got her start on radio, a few of her most fascinating guests, as well as the history of this innovative poetry show.
Poets Café airs the second, fourth and fifth Wednesdays of the month at 8:30 p.m. PST, 90.7 FM and live stream on the KPFK website.
MBA: What’s the history of Poets Café?
LPJ: [The public radio station] KPFK has had a long affair with arts and culture in its 50 plus year history. Some of our current programs include Bibliocracy, From The Vault, L.A. Theatre Works, Pacifica Performance Showcase, and one of my favorites, the long running Global Village which features an eclectic blend of international music. It also has a strong history of showcasing poetry, with Poet’s Café’s predecessor, The Poetry Connexion, hosted by Wanda Coleman and Austin Straus from 1981-1996.
Poets Café’s producer, Marlena Bond, created the show in 2003. It emerged as a playful counterpoint to the usual academic Q&A a la “café” style, with local poets who could share their poetry and stories in casual conversation. M.C. Bruce (Mark), the witty legal squire, poet and musician, and [producer] Bond’s vision set the tone for other hosts to follow.
MBA: Who has been your dream guest?
LPJ: I have to say my dream guest was Julian Sands. This comes from a desire to meet an actor who had always been a favorite ever since I saw him in the Edwardian era romance, A Room with a View. That was 1985, and there wasn’t a girl who did not fall for the quirky George Emerson.

Jones and Julian Sands

In between filming around Europe, Julian was performing the highly successful one-man show “A Celebration of Harold Pinter.” Not many people were aware that Pinter was a poet in addition to his award-winning plays. He and Julian had gotten quite close before Pinter passed.
When Pinter lost his voice due to lung cancer, it was Julian who performed his poetry at a benefit. Julian and his good friend John Malkovitch worked together to form the basis for the show, with personal anecdotes and reflections drawn from his work with Pinter as well as Pinter’s own poetry. Malkovitch directed the performance, and it made a real splash, winning acclaim in the U.S. and in theaters abroad.
When Julian arrived (for the Poets Café interview), he had just run a marathon. He was dressed in running shorts and Jersey and smelled fresh from the farm (laughs). He even made fun of himself. He was just as I had anticipated: charming, quick-minded and full of that delicious dry British humor and confidence which comes from a lifetime of performing.
MBA: Any surprises?
LPJ: His great love of poetry. His knowledge of the classics and passion for sharing. Any actor who takes Tennyson along on treks into the mountains to read to fellow travelers has got my vote.
To prepare, I watched his interview with Charlie Rose, the documentary, Working with Pinter, and a great YouTube video which caught an early incarnation of the stage performance. I also studied Pinter’s poetry.
Even with all of my preparation, Julian is a very free being. He likes things loose and authentic, so I let him run with whatever he found interesting while attempting to maintain a locus which would touch on his relationship with Pinter.
MBA: How did you happen to become a radio host?
LPJ: It began with an interview in 2007. My name was one of several referred by poet and actress, Helene Cardona as a potential guest for Poets Café. I was asked by Marlena to submit my work. Since I didn’t have a book at the time, I sent in ten poems and shortly afterward received an okay to move forward.
It wasn’t until a few months later when the show aired that I heard myself for the first time. Several persons commented on the quality of my voice. I was surprised! I felt a warmth and intimacy which seemed to transmit to the listener. I sent a copy of the program on CD to my mother who was in her late 80’s at the time. She left me a voicemail: “Nancy played that ‘record’ of you speaking. You have such a beautiful voice, honey. I wanted to thank you for everything and for all the poems.” Shortly after that, in a Chicago February, my mother slipped and fell and died some 24 hours later. That is the last voicemail I have of her.
I thought I might ask if I could try my hand at co-hosting. I co-hosted three shows and then received my first assignment, to interview east coast poet, Chris Crittenden.
I began to research the subject of interview by reading Martin Perlich’s The Art of the Interview. Chris was a perfect guest for my first-time flutters as he was kind and humble. I loved his sensual, darkly ecstatic poems of nature so it was easy to be engaged. Marlena is patient and supportive with a true willingness to experiment. Poets Café is her baby and one of her many contributions to KPFK.

MBA: Can you list a few notable poets you have interviewed?

LPJ: Well to be honest, all poets I’ve interviewed are notable to me. If I am familiar with their work, then I come to a closer understanding and resonance with their creative élan.
One of my earliest interviews was with William O’Daly, poet and translator of Pablo Neruda’s last eight books for Copper Canyon. That was a rich and deeply emotional experience for me. It felt as if Neruda was somehow with us.
What I love about the process of interviewing is my exposure to so many different kinds of poetry. Neil Aitken’s brilliant song of exile, The Lost Country of Sight was one of the most breathtaking collections. Lana Hechtman Ayers is the ultimate storyteller. I loved her witty and wise red riding hood series. I can’t even think of the famous fable without considering her sexy fairy-tales-for-adults.
The Homeboy Poets, Hector Verdugo and Robert Juarez– students and employees of the Homeboy Industries and ex L.A. gang members were humble, sensitive and talented writers who came to share their stories. That was a thrill because I had never interviewed more than one person at a time.
with Cyrano
Playwright Stephen Sachs and actors Troy Kotsur and Paul Raci, two of the principals from Deaf West Theater for the newly-envisioned, Cyrano was a different kind of breakthrough, venturing outside the parameters of poetry. This interview was centered on one of my favorite plays, Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmund Rostand. Troy Kotsur (Cyrano), signed his answers as fellow hearing actor, Paul Raci (his confidant and brother in the play) translated verbally. I ended up transcribing the interview, which is on my archive site so the deaf community could enjoy the show too.
MBA: How do you prepare for an on air interview? What is your process?
LPJ: Often there is a particular book to focus on so we have the poet send this along with any loose poems they’d like to share. As I begin to read, an interview takes shape. Questions about specific poems and subjects arise quickly. I ask the poet about what is important to him or her to get on the air. It could be their latest book, a work in progress, or a specific project they are working on.
I know I won’t be able to ask everything, but I use this as an outline. Each show begins with an opening and ending poem. These poems bookend the show and make for a kind of aesthetic time capsule.
Sometimes, I hand pick poems to be read because they focus on a subject that may be interesting to discuss–whether it’s the story behind the poem, the technique, or narrative character of the work–every poem has a raison d’être and this is often the heart of what makes for, in my opinion, a good show.
MBA: Which poet were you MOST excited about?
LPJ: An unlikely guest for Poets Café was Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson. Dr. Tyson is one of the most celebrated astrophysicists today. He is also the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium (the ones who receive grief about the loss of Pluto as an official planet) and a research associate in the department of astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History.
I first learned of Neil when a friend shared a video of his interview by Stephen Colbert at the Montclair Academy. I’d never heard anyone speak of the cosmos with so much passion and in such a poetic light. When Colbert teased Neil about writing his own sonnets, he playfully deflected the question, but I knew he was a poet in the broadest definition and would make a great guest if he would agree.
Neil had a new book coming out on Norton entitled, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier. Little did I know there was a sonnet dedicated to the Challenger crew and a few other poetic surprises… Do not call Neil a poet! He is a “rhymer” by his own definition.
Not only did he give us two 30-minute interviews, his publisher donated books to the station for our fund drive. It was a sweet deal all around and Neil was the ultimate guest–one question and he was off and running. We were able to hit several interesting topics including the interrelationships between science and art and his ideas on what makes good poetry and some personal insights into the young man who met and was mentored by the great Carl Sagan. All this took place on a phone interview while he was traveling through New York state via train!
MBA: Why should readers of PQ tune into Poets Café?
Jones with Mariko Kitakubo
LPJ: Because live poetry can be brought straight into your living room via laptop or radio while you’re home multitasking. Because you can enter the world not only of future poets, like Tokyo-based, Mariko Kitakubo, who will perform her sublime tanka with accompanying traditional instruments, or the devastating beauty of Vietnamese writer, Teresa Mae Chuc’s poems of exile and renewal, you can also listen to past shows on the archive page housed on the editor of Rattle, Timothy Green’s blog. Because poets may discover new poets to love and non-poets will find a new way to connect with poetry in a casual, inviting format.
I wish I could speak about every guest, but you won’t let me (laughs). For me, what matters most is how the poet perceives the show once it’s aired. I want them to feel honored and happy. I never forget how much it meant to hear my poetry on the air for the first time.
MBA: If you could interview ANY poet who would it be?
LPJ: Without a doubt it would be Rainer Maria Rilke although he would likely not consent to an on-air interview, unless I were able to set him up in his ideal residency for as long as he liked (laughs).
That would be one of the most challenging opening questions. There’s a quote by Lee Siegel, writer and cultural critic:
We must understand one another or die. And we will never understand one another if we cannot understand the famous dead, those fragments of the past who sit half buried and gesturing to us on memory’s contested shores.
And this is why we return to them. To their wisdom. I know that any question I could hope to ask Rilke would seem painfully superficial.
Think about it. You’re given a chance to ask one question of Keats or Lorca or even Shakespeare. What can you possibly ask?
Oh, maybe I’d ask Lorca why he went to Granada instead of Mexico when he must have known the danger of returning to fascist terrain. But Rilke, I would give him the best possible introduction and let him read whatever he wanted and, if a question sprung forward spontaneously, I might ask. Any question seems to pale in the context of his prolific outpouring and a life dedicated to walking in the shadow of silence. I would just let him read, and then I’d take his hands and look him in the eyes and say thank you.

Lois P. Jones co-produces the long-running Moonday reading series in Los Angeles.  Publications include Narrative Magazine, American Poetry Journal, Eyewear, and Nassau Review–with upcoming work in Tupelo Quarterly and Pirene’s Fountain. New Yorker staff writer Dana Goodyear selected “Ouija” as Poem of the Year (2010). Her awards include the Tiferet Prize and the Liakoura Prize and her work is featured in The Tiferet Talk Interviews which also include Robert Pinsky and Julia Cameron. She is featured in the Arroyo Arts Collective for Poetry in the Windows (2014). Lois is Poetry Editor of Kyoto Journal