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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Poet Reflects on the Beauty of the Impermanent in Book That Has Its Roots in Malibu


Tai Carmen—Thaïs Carmen Albert—grew up on her family’s ranch in the Malibu hills with what she describes as an amazing menagerie of pet animals that included horses, goats, sheep, wild burros, parrots, chickens, ducks, rabbits, dogs and numerous cats.
She was a creative and imaginative child, and her parents, actors Edward Albert and Katherine Woodville Albert, encouraged her interest in writing and music.
Today Carmen lives in Oregon, where she is pursuing music and creative writing rather than the family tradition of acting.
Carmen, together with her husband John Wagner, is working on a new album, following the success of their band Sugar in Wartime’s first release, “Out of the Woods,” in 2007. She has also just completed her first book of poetry, “Pollen,” which is being published by Finishing Line Press.
The poetry in the collection is primarily autobiographic, ranging over the past 10 years of the poet’s life.
Many of the poems in “Pollen” are deeply rooted in Malibu. Several are filled with the raw pain of loss Carmen felt on the death of her father and grandfather.
Others, passionate or austerely beautiful, record gentler memories, like the piano that she received when she was 10 years old—a gift from her grandfather, actor Eddie Albert, that is still a tangible reminder of the bond they shared.
Carmen recently spoke with the Malibu Surfside News about her new book.
MSN: Would you like to share some thoughts on growing up in Malibu? Has it influenced your art?
Carmen: I was probably most influenced by the beauty of the natural landscape. My experience of growing up in Malibu wasn’t “life styles of the rich and famous.” I went to school in the Valley and we had a very modest home, built by a preacher in the sixties.
We lived so far off the beaten path it wasn’t even considered part of Malibu for a long time. So the Malibu I remember isn’t one of big houses or infinity pools, but one of the ocean, the peace and mystery of the tides; the canyons and the smell of creek water and shady chaparral; the wild mustard flowers that crack open in the spring and the heady atmosphere of wildfires and winds when the Santa Anas start to blow.
In short, I guess it provided me with a sort of bubble to grow up in, a place that preserved my sense of wonder, of the world being beautiful, for longer than perhaps the average child.
I guess it gave me a good reserve, so that when the bubble inevitably burst and I realized the world is in many ways a harsh and unforgiving place, I was still equipped with the ability to see that one poetic shimmer in a thing.
MSN: Tell us a little about the current chapter of your life.
Carmen: My husband and I moved to Portland about three years ago and it’s been very kind to us.
We run a recording studio in a converted barn on the outskirts of the city, which has been going strong for almost two years now. I’m working on my first novel and most days I write in the barn loft in my little writer’s nook while John records bands and the music fills our home.
MSN: What was the genesis of “Pollen” ?
Carmen: Some of the poems were written as far back as nine years ago, in college. Others take place after college, when my dad was sick. Still others were written in the aftermath of that, and there are some pieces I’ve written since getting married and moving to Oregon.
I picked the ones I felt had stood the test of time, as well as some more recent pieces I liked. From there I noticed a theme—cherishing impermanent beauty, mortality and a bit of the existential crisis, to be honest.
MSN: What is your process for writing poetry?
Carmen: Through habit, and natural tendencies, I guess, I’ve trained my mind to perceive the world in terms of language and description.
If I see something [that is] beautiful, or touching, or strange, my first thought is usually: how would I describe that? So when a particularly vivid line comes out of that train of thought, I jot it down, and from there a poem is often born.
After I’ve written it, I shelve it for at least three months for perspective, and then eventually get back to reading it with a fresh mind. If it still sings, it goes into the archives.
MSN: Because poetry is so much a channeling of the inner voice, it takes courage and maybe even a little recklessness to share it with the world. How do you feel on the eve of “Pollen’s” publication?
Carmen: Recklessness is the perfect word, and perhaps more accurate than courage. It definitely takes some inner pushing to put one’s inner workings out there as a product. One writes in solitary reverie and then comes the day when you’re to push the poems out of the nest, so to speak, and they’re no longer only yours, and you don’t know what will happen to them.
It’s a lot like having an art opening where your live and pulsing heart is the featured piece. It is scary. But then there is that exhilaration you feel when you’re scared and do it anyway.
MSN: Is writing poetry different from writing song lyrics?
Carmen: To me, poetry is a lot more elusive, a lot more subtle. There is more air and space in a poem. It’s almost like comparing watercolor to ink. Song lyrics are usually a lot more solid and straight forward.
If you say anything too whimsical or esoteric in a song, it’s liable to sound silly when you sing it. But a poem allows for that subtly. A poem is more patient. Songs drive towards more instant gratification, I think.
In a song you want your lyrics to be relatively nonspecific, for most songs, so that a person can listen in a happy mood and feel just as connected to the song as they feel listening to it in a sad mood. They can be in love or broken hearted and the song still gives them something because they see themselves in it.
Whereas poetry thrives on details and specificity. A general poem is usually not a very effective poem, but a song with general lyrics can be universal and very effective. It’s almost like, lyrically, a song is a mirror and a poem is a painting. Still, both require the creativity to work beyond ready-made phrases. Music of course is more forgiving of this, but the best songs say things in a fresh way, as do the best poems.
MSN: Do you have any other thoughts you would like to share?
Carmen: I once saw a bumper sticker that said, “Art Saves Lives,” and as risky as it can be to take advice off bumper stickers, I really felt that one summed it up.
Some of the poems were written as a way to process the grief I experienced losing my father, who I loved very much, at such an unexpectedly young age. He was fifty-five, and so full of life, we never expected such an early exit.
Many of the poems I wrote from that emotional space didn’t end up in the book (though several of them did) but whether they went on to be fully formed published poems or just sat in my desk amid other notes, writing them was cathartic.
Art is the great fire through which we can forge our most baffling pains and confusions. Labeling things is one of man’s most basic means of gaining some sense of control. It’s an illusion, of course, but not entirely: what we can name, we can better understand, and what we can understand, we can process. The same goes for any other kind of creative expression, not everyone gets the rush from language. An image or a sound is just as powerful.
Anything that takes that mess life dealt you and spins it in a new way where now you are the creator. It wasn’t just thrown at you any more, you’ve put your twist on it, made something of it, a pearl from sand.
More information on Carmen and her new book “Pollen,” which is currently being printed and is available for pre-order, can be found online at