Berkeley poet draws on life and locale for inspiration

Lindy Hough, author of Wild Horses, Wild Dreams

For a period of about three years, Lindy Hough spent an inordinate amount of time at Saul’s Restaurant on Shattuck Avenue.

On many Thursdays, she arrived around 5 pm, shortly after her duties as the co-publisher of North Atlantic Books ended for the day. She sat at a table, eating and observing, until 7:30 pm, when Play Café, a group of professional playwrights, got together.

But the time Hough spent at the deli was not idle. It was a chance for her to examine those around her and wonder about their lives. The musings ended up as “Thursday Night at Saul’s,” one of the new poems in Wild Horses, Wild Dreams, which was released this spring as part of North Atlantic Books’ Io Poetry series.

Wild Horses, Wild Dreams is a retrospective of Hough’s 40 years as a poet and draws on works from her previous four poetry books as well as introducing 28 new poems. The book showcases Hough’s evolution from a young mother in her early 20s to an accomplished figure in the publishing industry, one who has contemplated rural life, the dynamics of a college town, dreams, dance, and religion in its many forms, including Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism.

“I view the collection as very memoir-like, moving from place to place, from Vermont to California, coming of age as a writer and a thinker,” Hough said recently from her summer home on a small island in Maine.  “That’s what this book is about.”

Poetry has been a central force for Hough throughout her whole life, although she also writes fiction, plays, and non-fiction. She published her first poem at 11 in the poetry page of the Denver Post’s Sunday magazine. Her father was the paper’s poetry editor, but there was no nepotism involved; Hough used an assumed name when she submitted her poem.

“I have always seen writing as the main thing in my life,” said Hough. “That hasn’t changed since college. Writing has been my main identity.”

When Hough was a student at Smith College in 1965, she and Richard Grossinger (an Amherst student and her future husband) and some friends founded Io, a literary journal that combined poetry, prose, and non-fiction. The journal, which Hough and Grossinger were not sure would ever see a second issue, became an influential, nationally-recognized magazine that reflected the evolving counter culture. Ray Bradbury wrote an introduction for the journal’s inaugural edition. Stephen King, then a student at the University of Maine, published his first piece in Io. (He wasn’t famous at the time, but the $3.50 issue of Io eventually became a collector’s item, according to Grossinger.) The magazine, which received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, also showcased the work of many noted poets including Robert Duncan, Robert Creely, Denise Levertov and Gary Snyder.

Richard Grossinger and Lindy Hough

Hough and Grossinger eventually felt hampered by Io’s magazine format and in 1974 formed North Atlantic Books, which has become a leading publisher of alternative health, martial arts, and spiritual titles.

In 1977, Hough and Grossinger moved North Atlantic Books to the East Bay, and its headquarters ranged from houses in Oakland, Berkeley, and Richmond – essentially wherever the couple and their two children, Robin and Miranda, were living. One of the more notable headquarters was an unusual house on Woolsey Street in the Elmwood district. The previous owner, Mario Tejada, the proprietor of La Fiesta Mexican Restaurant on Telegraph, had installed an indoor swimming pool in the house. Hough and Grossinger had other ideas for the room.

“To his dismay, we covered his prize pool, albeit thrown together by amateur illegal (in all ways) carpenters and plumbers san codes or permits, with a wood floor to make a thousand-square-foot warehouse,” wrote Grossinger on his website. “His beloved adjoining cocktail-party room, refurbished with desks and file cabinets along the wall, became our office.”

The press is now located on Martin Luther King near Dwight.

For many years Hough juggled parenting, teaching, studying for a PhD, and publishing duties with writing. She continued to work on her poetry, although she said the period was not “public.” Hough grew more and more interested in prose poems and using various points of view, as well as dialogue, in her work.

North Atlantic started a new imprint, the Io Poetry Series, but when one poet’s collection wasn’t ready in time for the proposed publishing date, Hough’s colleagues urged her to publish a retrospective collection. Hough then went about the surprisingly difficult task of selecting just 20 poems from each of her four previous poetry books and adding new ones as well.

“The process of going through the four books was hard because you are very fond of the poems and you were trying to make something coherent,” said Hough, who retired from North Atlantic Books in July 2010. “You were trying to make an arc. It was a fascinating thing to do, but it was really hard.”

Wild Horse, Wild Dreams came out in April and Hough has done a few readings on the east and west coasts. (She will be at Diesel Books in Oakland on November 13th at 3 pm) While summering in Maine, Hough is working on a video trailer for her book and is enjoying trying to translate her cerebral musings into something concrete.

She has had plenty of inspiration, though, and maybe a bit of help. Her daughter is Miranda July, whose book trailer for her collection of short stories, No One Belongs Here More Than You, went viral. July’s newest film, The Future, will be released in July. Miranda’s husband, Mike Mills, just released his film, Beginners. (Hough’s son, Robin Grossinger, lives in Berkeley and is a scientist at the San Francisco Estuary Institute.)

“There’s a science to it, and I have to learn very fast,” said Hough.

From Wild Horse, Wild Dreams:

Thursday Night at Saul’s

If you cry too much here
your dad will whisk you outside.
Even if you howl all the way
I don’t wanna go!

Be instead the twenty-year-olds,
secure and jaunty in their
social worlds, snug as
a nightie, held by arms
which also don’t always do
what they want

or be that eighty-year-old
doggedly eating his latkes & brisket,
trying to maintain a shred of dignity
his heart chipping into fragments that
wife hasn’t looked up from her Bible
or spoken in fifteen minutes

All the next meals will be the same.
In five years he won’t come here anymore
too many cans of soup in the fridge,
keys in the dog’s dish, everything misplaced,
including people. The x-rays show
a cottage cheese brain.

She went fast, though the four years
seemed like forever.
Now his friends try to get him here
with them: “C’mon, how about Saul’s?
You used to like that place.”
“Nope, sad associations,” he says brusquely,
telling them on the way to Solano
that after that night
he vowed never to go back.

It’s my fantasy that the waiter and manager
are lovers. They walk around
appraising the state of things,
but no, I see now he’s a new busboy
being trained by a waiter–“Clear table 7 next.”
We’re a grid. Their moves among our tables
deft and choreographed as a figure skater’s
long set–“8, 4 and 6.” His world is cleaning
and pouring water, bringing the initial pickle.

This is his start, a freshman at UC.
He will he stay on, outlast other staff,
buy out the owners. Ten years
& two other restaurants sees him
selling Saul’s, moving to Dubai.
His wife leaves him and marries the son of a Yemini
imam friendly with Al Qaeda. This Berkeley High
girl, a punk lesbian
when he first dated her
begins to wear the hijab, drops out of touch

He and his new wife move to London in their
last years. He thinks of Saul’s, his wild
crush on the energetic manager who first
told him a restaurant is a grid: 8, 4 and 6.
The amazing nights they churned in bed
amid calls from the manager’s initially frantic,
then deploring & sarcastic wife as
August fog blew wisps up to the hills
like something out of  “Vertigo.”
How the manager dropped him flat /broke his heart
when he said the square of the grid
he wanted to live in
was Palestine.

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  • Charles_Siegel

    “the press penetrated the mainstream with the publication of What Color
    is Your Parachute, the Richard Bolles’ job hunting book that has sold
    more than 10 million copies.”

    My immediate reaction was that What Color Is Your Parachute was published by Ten Speed Press, not North Atlantic.  I have confirmed that on Wikipedia, which says:

    What Color is Your Parachute? by Richard Nelson Bolles is a
    book for job-seekers that has been rewritten every year since 1970.[1] Bolles
    initially self-published the book (December 1, 1970), but it has now been
    commercially published since November 1972, by Ten Speed Press, in Berkeley,
    California.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_Color_is_Your_Parachute%3F

    Is there some connection between North Atlantic and Ten Speed?

  • http://francesdinkelspiel.com/ Frances Dinkelspiel

    Charles, you are right. For some reason I had that in my head and when I Googled the two together, they came up. It turns out it was a companion volume. I deleted the reference. Guess I have too many Berkeley publishers swimming around my head. Thanks for catching that.

  • http://berkeleyside.com Tracey Taylor

    This is Frances using Tracey’s computer. I posted here earlier but my response  didn’t show up. Thanks for pointing out the error, Charles. I had it in my mind that North Atlantic published Bolles’; book and when I Googled the two together they came up. But it was a sequel published by another Bolles, not the original book, I have deleted that sentence from the story. I guess I got two Berkeley publishers swimming around in my brain.