INTRO: I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Aleta George, journalist, and the author of Ina Coolbrith—The Bittersweet Song of California’s First Poet Laureate. I had written a chapter about Ina in my own book, Chronicles of Old San Francisco which is how Aleta and I connected initially at BAIPA, so I already knew quite a bit about her life. But with 11 years of research, Aleta has written THE book on Coolbrith—the most comprehensive, accurate, and enjoyable—and I wager it will remain so for a long time.
Q: Aleta, please introduce your book.
A: From the beginning my goal was not so much to have it be a comprehensive biography but I wanted to tell Ina’s epic story. I wanted to present her as truly as I learned to see her and as true to the story as I saw it. There was another biography published in 1974— an extremely useful book and the first biography of Ina—but it lost some of the sense of her story. I wanted my book to be a story. I did try to move it along, like with a plot line. From Linda Watanabe-McFerrin I learned to create a plotline and I followed it the whole time.
Q: How did the plot line work?
A: At each step it helped me figure out, when Ina faced a challenge what was her response, her action? For example, her husband tried to kill her. Her response was she divorced him and moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
Q: How did Ina affect San Francisco and U.S. history?
A: Essentially Ina affected history because she saw poetry as something lofty and held it to a high ideal. She believed in California as a muse.
Q: How was Ina a woman of her time?
A: She was affected by the culture she was raised with. When she was living a literary life in San Francisco and working part-time at the English School and helping to run a household, she was still publishing a poem in every issue of The Overland Monthly, so she was connected to the literary world and she was building a literary career. Then when her sister became ill and died and her mother was an invalid and all her colleagues went off to Europe, she made a choice to get a full-time job as Oakland’s first public librarian and support her family. That choice was affected by the fact that she was a woman in her time and her religion—she was a raised as a Mormon. It probably wasn’t even a question. Whereas poet Joaquin Miller had a daughter that he put on Ina’s doorstep and he went off to build his career in Europe. Bret Harte left his wife and kids and moved to Europe.
Q: How was Ina a woman ahead of her time?
A: She was the primary breadwinner for her family. She was outspoken. When her husband was abusive and tried to kill her, she divorced him, which was rare in those days. She changed her name to Coolbrith and moved to San Francisco and even though she was beautiful and had suitors, she chose not to re-marry. Also, she stood up to her cousin, Joseph S. Smith, son of the founder of the Latter Day Saints Church, when they were both 16 years old, and he proposed to take her as a wife. She had witnessed polygamy and didn’t believe in it. He told her she should believe in polygamy or she would be banned and not get into heaven. She basically told him “Hell no” in her letters. Her sister’s and mother’s letters to him are different; they are meek and sound like the nineteenth century. He became the sixth president of the LDS church and had five wives and 43 children.
Q: I’ve often thought about what it would be like to be a biographer.
A: I didn’t set out to be a biographer but as the research expanded along with Ina’s story, it happened.
Q: Are you a poet?
A: I wrote poetry in high school but I don’t consider myself a poet. Like as I look out the window right now and it’s raining and I see things like the wisteria turning yellow, my urge to capture that doesn’t come out as poetry. I’m not a poet but I’m fascinated by poets and the art form.
Q: Tell us about Ina’s poetry.
A: A lot of it is difficult to read because it’s old. I decided it was respectful to memorize some of her poems and be able to recite them because that’s what people did then. Everybody could recite a poem. They would sit around in a parlor and recite and talk about poetry. I spent a lot of time with Ina’s poetry and I don’t like all of it but there are poems that I like very, very much and I think that she was a beautiful poet. People have told me that her poems were meant to be heard. When I gave a talk to the Ina Coolbrith Circle—and some of them are pretty familiar with her poetry—one of the board members came up to me and said, “I really love hearing you read her poetry because any poet comes alive if you have a good reader.”
Q: Tell us about the Ina Coolbrith Circle.
A: It was formed in 1919 and still meets today and has an awards banquet. Members were supportive of my book and the ICC gave me a grant.
Q: What drew you to Ina?
A: I was writing an article on the Farallon Islands egg wars. Researching that time period I came across Bret Harte, Charles Warren Stoddard, and Joaquin Miller—all these colorful characters and Ina was right in the center. Writers called her “the pearl of all our tribes” and “the sweetest singer in all of California” and sought out her opinions on their writings. I wondered, who is the woman, and I started poking around research libraries and found out that all her letters are at the Bancroft Library. As I learned more and more about her it seemed crazy to me that nobody knew about her and I thought her story needed to be out there. And I kept thinking, what little girl who’s growing up in California knows that the state’s first Poet Laureate was a woman? Do they learn that in school? She was California’s most beloved poet for 50 years and I thought it was crazy that she was forgotten.
Q: What did you love about Ina?
A: She was really kind. She was non-judgmental about things like her best friend Charles Warren Stoddard was gay. She was frustrated with Joaquin Miller for leaving his daughter with her and not paying what he should have for Ina to raise her but not judgmental. I also love that she believed in art and creativity.
Q: What bothered you about Ina?
A: When I was first getting to know her and reading all her letters it bothered me that she complained to her friends about her health, and her lot in life. I wanted her to be the hero of my story. My reaction was “Just do something. Come on. Make it happen. Change!” Her complaining frustrated me, but as I got to know her more, I became aware of the 100-year difference in the culture and the position of women in her society. Today we’re still talking about fighting for equal pay and gender discrimination and opening up top paying jobs for women.
I started viewing her choices as either being the best choice in the face of a lot of bad choices or coming from a place of strength. I tried to remember that she was a flesh and blood person who had faults. That’s from advice of James Huston who died and was a really great California writer and my advisor at the Squaw Community of Writers. He said, “Don’t try to make her perfect. Keep her a human being and she’ll be more interesting to readers.” He also said, “Don’t worry what people are saying about her. Keep going in the vein that you’re going and you will be the expert on Ina Coolbrith.”
Q: You structured the book in a non-linear way—not always telling Ina’s story directly from birth to death. That seems a more difficult writing path. Why did you make that choice?
A: The most non-linear part of the book is her origin story—the section that describes Ina’s Mormon background. That was the hardest section to figure out. Once that section’s done the book progresses straight-forwardly in a linear way except for telling some back story. I think in workshopping it and talking to other writers I was encouraged that I didn’t have to go from A to B in telling Ina’s story. You read so much advice and you just have to follow your intuition.
Q: I know there’s a story behind the book’s cover. Tell about us that.
A: It’s a long story but I’ll keep it short. The painting on the cover was by William Keith, an early, well-respected California landscape painter who had a successful career and is in museums and collected today. He and Ina were friends and I believe that Ina inspired his painting. The tall brunette woman in the painting carries a laurel wreath. He titled the painting With a Wreath of Laurel with quotations around it meaning it was a published poem. Ina wrote a poem called With a Wreath of Laurel after she and Joaquin Miller went to Sausalito together and picked laurel leaves for a crown for the grave of Lord Byron, her favorite poet, in England.
Q: Eenah or Eyenah: How did you decide how Coolbrith pronounced her name?
A: There are two camps. I’d always assumed that it was pronounced Eyenah and then I went to a presentation at the Ina Coolbrith Circle where a noted historian called her Eenah. Afterwards, one of the board members, David Alpaugh, who’d been supportive of this project, said to me, “I wish you would settle this once and for all.” So I took that as a challenge. The ICC and the Oakland Library have always called her Eyenah so it has institutional history. I searched in letters and tried to find if anyone was still alive or if there was a family member that knew but couldn’t find anything definitive.
Then David said, “Maybe you can find a poem that used her name in a rhyme scheme.” A lot of people wrote poems about her, especially on Ina Coolbrith day. So I looked and I finally found a poem in her scrapbook at the Oakland Public Library. The rhyme scheme—I don’t have it in front of me—was like “Eyenah Coolbrith has hair of spun blah, blah, blah” and “I have hair of blah, blah, blah; the whole poem went like that. That convinced David who said, “No poet would write, “Eenah has something” and “I have this.” So we thought this was definitive and I wrote an Op Ed piece in the San Francisco Chronicle. But there are professors and others who continue to believe it’s pronounced Eenah since her full, original name was Josephine.
Q: What did you learn in addition to the subject matter from researching and writing the book?
A: The value of poetry in our world. For those of us who write and feel like we have something to say it’s so easy not to believe in ourselves. I learned from Ina that that we need to protect and cherish our belief in our creativity and voice no matter what form it takes. Whether we get paid to be a writer or are a famous writer or not. I spoke at the Ina Coolbrith Circle’s awards banquet last week from my heart: “I hope you protect and treasure your passion for poetry and that you believe in the need for it in our world.” I believe that I learned that from Ina.
Ina was a mentor to many poets. She encouraged Jack London, Isadora Duncan, and other school children when they came into the Oakland library where she was hired and worked for years as the city’s first librarian. At one point I realized, “She’s still a mentor because she’s mentoring me with the writing of this book.” Because she was my subject, she became my teacher in how to write a book.
I learned about early Mormon history, which I found fascinating and wanted to tell so many stories about that but when readers read them they told me they were too much so I removed them. I also enjoyed learning about early Los Angeles history. I learned about poetry in California and that it was a completely different thing than it is now. The state had hundreds of newspapers then and most ran a poem on the front page every day. Poetry was really popular. Miners in gold fields would have poetry slams in saloons. They didn’t call them that but that’s what they were doing. They were trying to best each other reciting poems with people drinking around them and voting in sweaty saloons. Even if they couldn’t write—and many were writing poetry—people memorized and recited poetry, including kids. It was woven into the culture.
Q: Tell us about the publishing and marketing part.
A: With non-fiction they say that you should sell it before you write it so at first I tried to find an agent and a traditional publisher.
I met with gatekeepers as most of us do and I didn’t get good agent responses. One person said “It’s an important story and book but not one that will make me any money,” which at least was honest. I met resistance to her poetry, her rank as a poet, her being seen as a full person, and my writing the book. It took a lot of time and work so I went back to writing the book. I did have interest from a good university press, which considered it for a year. When they said “no” it was nearing the hundredth anniversary of Ina’s being named California’ first Poet Laureate in June 2015. That, combined with each publisher necessitating a different book proposal and taking a few months to decide, along with my husband’s health issues, pushed me to take control and self-publish. I learned about BAIPA so I went and said, “help!” I joined and attended meetings and asked lots of questions.
Q: How has the marketing gone?
A: One of the best pieces of advice I got was from a BAIPA speaker named Amy, I believe. She had us visualize a marketing plan expanding like the map that opened every episode of Bonanza. The map catches fire in one small area and then eventually there’s a slow burn and then the whole map catches fire. That made a lot of sense to me. For Ina’s anniversary I decided to focus on the Bay Area. Now that her centennial is winding down I’m going to put together a list and reach out beyond the Bay Area and hopefully continue that slow burn.
Q: Having had four books published myself, I’m always curious to see where my books take me—to expected and unexpected places. Where has Ina taken you?
A: I’m not going to answer that question spiritually or emotionally, but physically. My husband and I took several train trips across the country because when Ina was 78 she moved to New York and came home for the summer and since the train tracks are basically the same I thought that would be fun. I went to Beckwourth Pass where Ina first came into California. While I was in New York I sought out the hotels that she lived in and I visited and then was able to write about a room she spoke in for the Poetry Society of America.
Early on I realized that to promote the book, I was going to have to speak about it and read her poetry out loud. So I found a wonderful little open mike poetry community, which was a good comfortable place to read and to be around poets. I brought Ina to this group, which was receptive and enabled me to practice reading and to get reactions to her poetry.
Q: What’s next?
A: To climb Mt. Ina Coolbrith which doesn’t have a trail. To see the gold mine her stepfather named after her. To continue to introduce people to Ina’s story. I also look forward to getting back to journalism and writing on other subjects. And I would like to write another book because I liked the experience.
You can learn more about Aleta, her book, and other writings at: aletageorge.blogspot.com
You can learn more about Gael Chandler at: joyoffilmediting.com