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Ginsberg thought I was an airhead, Vonnegut said I was 'loose'

After UCSD I took a job selling at Rancho Olds in Kearny Mesa

The writer (left) posing in Ojai Valley with UCSD friends after hearing philosopher Krishnamurti.
The writer (left) posing in Ojai Valley with UCSD friends after hearing philosopher Krishnamurti.

I hesitate to admit this, but much of my writing is rooted in dreams. Before your eyes roll back in your head and you start struggling with whether or not to feign interest — you know, the way you do when someone starts breathlessly relating the crazy dream they had last night in all its interminable, incomprehensible detail — let me explain. As an English Lit major at UCSD in the early ‘80s, I jotted down both dreams and nightmares and used them as frameworks for short stories, poetry, flash prose, and even a few creative nonfiction shorts. I used — and still use — imagery from dreams as cornerstones during construction. When I’m someone else in a dream, I scribble down what I see through a stranger’s eyes. I keep editing to a minimum until the piece coalesces. I avoid tricky interpretations. The reader should have the opportunity to interpret without an implied author hovering overhead.

And while harvesting dreams made me feel as though I were cheating, imaginatively speaking — other students had sweated over their work for weeks, while I produced fresh pieces daily — the professors were generally impressed by my originality, and never quizzed me about process. While Allen Ginsberg’s buddy Jerome Rothenberg was a visiting instructor, he appreciated my story about Galileo going blind while charting the moon. I didn’t mind blending genres like horror and surrealism if that made the work compelling. I recall one about Darcy, my girlfriend, feeding a half-man/half-fish pages she had ripped from my imagined chapbook. He was perched on a big round bed with purple sheets. He wiggled his fins and said “Fun, fun, fun” before grabbing her. Darcy resisted, at first. But in no time, they were rolling around on the bed like high school lovers. Darcy disliked it. She thought I was revealing intimate details.

It’s not like dream-based writing doesn’t require work. To begin with, there is the discipline of documentation. If I fail to write down a memorable dream immediately, it flies out the window and flutters away like a disoriented homing pigeon, lost forever. Whenever you snag something captivating, either through your conscious mind or the subconscious, don’t let it loose. Document it. I write everything down in a journal on my nightstand. If you suffer from writer’s cramp, share it with your partner during donuts and coffee. Sometimes that sharing can brand it on your long-term memory.

There are other sorts of dreams: the kind that never leave us, waking or sleeping, the kind that embody our desires. Why was I considering a master’s in creative writing? Why indeed. I’d just received my undergrad degree at UCSD and was sick of taking classes, especially since it was a six-year journey crossing the finishing line. And the time had come for me to buckle down and work. I took a job selling cars at Rancho Olds in Kearny Mesa, in part because Barry, my big brother, was numero uno at Mike Salta Pontiac in Honolulu and was raking in the big bucks. I figured if I could sell half as many cars as he did, I’d be happy.

But I also knew, deep down, that it would be a false happiness. I’d been in love with writing since I was seven, when I sent my mother a letter from Moloka’i to Boston In that letter, I wrote about manure, dung beetles, and the ranch hand burning a dead horse. Gramma hated how my parents took separate vacations every summer, with my father putting in overtime at his Honolulu office while my mother frolicked in Beantown. But it gave me the impetus to write.

I lugged my dream and my passion for creation into the Olds dealership, where I yakked with fellow salesmen about writing. Usually, their eyes glazed over. Few of them read. Most picked up copies of The San Diego Reader only for coupons, or to check on dates for future events. I was the only college grad on the lot, except for the owner’s son. I tried journaling at the dealership, but that didn’t work, because you had to keep your eyes trained on the rows of new and used cars in a constant quest for ups. At least that part wasn’t so bad; I loved turning on the jets to beat rivals to the customers. The manager kept an eye out for the most aggressive and rewarded them with demos and cash bonuses. The salesmen who were too shy or too lazy to pursue buyers vanished within 48 hours. There was a minimum wage safety net but, if you failed to exceed that with commissions, you were marked for termination. I converted my love for writing into a desire to win at sales, and it seemed to work, because I was top dog my first month. I would break the ice with shoppers by talking about growing up in Hawaii, including stories about my old man fighting in the South Pacific during World War II. I also weaved in tales about Gramma’s life as a pioneer woman on Moloka’i. She’d been the first woman on the island to drive cattle for a living. I converted the shoppers into an audience — and at the same time, the telling and re-telling of family histories fused those stories to my soul.

Barry congratulated me on my sales ability, suggesting that one day, I’d open my own “sled lot” of used cars and make a fortune. But big bro’s praise made me feel hollow. I scolded myself for not doing something more important, an occupation that truly mattered. I wondered if I might be better off pursuing an advanced degree. My father suggested I apply to law school because I had written above average essays at UCSD, and he wanted me to do something practical with my life before I became a beach bum. He saw car sales as temporary, and a career best suited for the uneducated. I resisted. I disliked law, medicine, accounting, and teaching. Politics was a hotbed for crooks. As for the arts, I was lousy at most. I couldn’t paint, draw, sing, act, or play the guitar. I lacked the patience needed for photography and film. All I could do was write.

During my UCSD days, I’d rubbed elbows with visiting writers by assisting the University Events Office with airport-to-school shuttles. These artists had left marks on the world, and I wanted to do that, too. Perhaps I thought their abilities with the pen would pass to me through osmosis. Some were famous. Others clung to the fringes of fame. Members of the Beat Generation were considered gods by undergrads. Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs were the Big Three, but some of the Beats’ shine rubbed off on those who had crossed paths with them, people like Ed Dorn and Robert Creeley. The Black Mountain poets were respected on campus, even if they did not share the same rung on the literary ladder as William Carlos Williams or Sylvia Plath.

Kirby and Darcy at Del Mar Beach in the early 80s.

Famous or otherwise, the writers and poets I shuttled rode shotgun in my Honda Z600 coupe, a pint-sized hatchback powered by a two-cylinder motorcycle engine. I drove it like a sports car up Interstate 5, switching lanes and weaving between vehicles that seemed the size of tanks. Outrider poet Anne Waldman kept her eyes shut. The Beat-adjacent Gary Snyder chewed gum nervously.

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Occasionally, UEO slipped me some cash for entertainment, a few shekels to treat our guests to drinks and chips. I drove Snyder straight to Bali Hai on Shelter Island, where we shot tequila. Ginsberg thought I was an airhead; he told me to hunt down some pot pronto and was curious if I had any Asian pals he could meet. “Chinese or Japanese?” I asked. “Japanese,” Ginsberg requested. I waited for Tell Me a Riddle author Tillie Olson while she shopped for a sympathy card at the airport gift shop. Hunter S. Thompson guzzled Wild Turkey from a chrome flask on our way to his gig at Revelle Cafeteria. He belched as he stumbled through campus, and confessed he was low on ammo. I gave him a tour of The Hump, a grassy knoll offering a bird’s-eye-view of the quad. “Get some ‘shrooms,” he said.

The writers kept coming. Bobbie Louise Hawkins thanked me with a signed copy of Frenchy and Cuban Pete and rambled on about her lovelorn life with Creeley. I got a pep talk from Kurt Vonnegut on our drive back to Lindbergh Field;he told me that I reminded him of John Irving, his former student. Vonnegut said he saw me making it as a writer. “You’re loose, Kirby,” he said, “and that’s a good thing. John was loose, too.” Did Vonnegut mean I seemed relaxed and spontaneous? He hadn’t read a single word I’d written. Maybe he’d observed my joie de vivre after I announced I was going for a dip in his pool after checking him into the swanky La Valencia Hotel in La Jolla. I had swan-dived into the deep end, surfaced, and watched Vonnegut circle the pool, wringing his hands. After about ten circles, he’d flopped down on a lounge chair, lit a Pall Mall, and blown smoke through his nose.

He reminded me of a trial attorney about to present his case to the jury. I suggested we indulge in Black Russians before sunset. His sold-out “So You Want To Be a Writer” talk was scheduled for seven sharp at the gym, and I figured a few drinks might relax him. I was right. Vonnegut avoided an attack of his dreaded Flop Sweat that occasionally derailed him at speaking engagements. His talk inspired me. He emphasized the importance of writing simple sentences, developing a consistent voice, and having the guts to cut out superfluous rants. Hearing him, I wanted to be a writer more than ever. He answered questions thoughtfully. His jokes sent waves of laughter through the sea of fans.

The only glitch came after he was finished, when the adoring crowd swelled up and swept toward the stage for signatures. They pushed and pushed. Hands waved copies of Slaughterhouse-Five, Palm Sunday, and Cat’s Cradle. All those bodies pressed in and pinned Vonnegut against the second-floor railing. I knew a few more pushes would shove him over that railing and down two floors to the blacktop. I picked out the six biggest guys I could find wearing yellow Crowd Control shirts and had them form a protective half-circle between Vonnegut and the advancing mob. “Push!” I told them. We had enough muscle to move the crowd back a few feet. I saw an opening and grabbed Vonnegut’s forearm. I snuck him through a corridor and out an open door, and we scrambled down two flights of steps. We were alone in the night air. I was breathing hard. So was Vonnegut. We were like teammates who’d somehow snuck through a hoard of would-be tacklers to reach the open field. “Let’s get whiskey, brother,” he told me. “I know just the place,” I replied. I’d read that Vonnegut liked dimly lit bars with lounge seating and drove him to Bully’s in Bird Rock.

Vonnegut (left) said he saw me (right) making it as a writer. “You’re loose, Kirby,” he said, “and that’s a good thing.

That was then, this was now. The days at Rancho Olds dragged on. Darcy said I seemed depressed. On the lot, I filled up balloons off the helium tank and tethered their strings to windshield wipers, side-view mirrors, and antennae. Once, I played the chivalrous knight and left the showroom to help a woman change a flat tire. I searched for distractions, encouraging a salesman who had worked as an Elvis impersonator to croon “You Ain’t Nothin’ But A Hound Dog” a cappella.

But no matter what I tried, I grew sick of that new car smell, and avoided test-driving the Oldsmobiles that had just rolled off the massive delivery trucks. Cars without histories bored me. I loved the beaters, those high mileage trade-ins that had locked in the odors of former owners — and their pets. Selling used cars became my thing, and I had fun with the customers. I told the children of a PB couple that gold doubloons had been hidden inside a used Volvo, and they scoured the back seat during our test drive. Fred Dean, the former defensive end for the Chargers, parked his jacked-up Nova out on the curb and wanted to test drive a red 1973 Stingray. He floored it on the 805 as I dug my fingernails into the dash. Upon returning to the dealership, fans spotted their long-lost hero and pulled over. The curb outside Rancho Olds was bumper to bumper and I waved at the showroom. Salesmen charged out. But the only things the locals wanted were Fred Dean autographs and the chance to see his Super Bowl ring.

It felt as though my literary aspirations were on life support. I started a journal. My first entry was “Kung Yee Fat Choy,” a nightmare about Mr. Fong having his lung removed on New Year’s Eve: “I’m waiting for that cold edge to razor cherry blossoms out of me. I’ve become a harvest of flowers, for doctors.”

My mother asked why I never wrote about the car lot. I told her that day might come, although I knew sales and creative writing rarely mixed. I felt I should get more serious, so I bought an IBM Selectric II off a Hillcrest chiropractor for $99, one with a willow-green casing freckled with rust spots. I moved a stack of magazines off my desk to make room for it, and fantasized about that first manuscript. I slid open the window and spotted the shingled roof of the Mission Bay Visitors’ Center and the mobile home park behind it. The breeze kicked up, carrying with it the stench of outboard exhaust, kelp, and stagnant mud. My golden retriever howled from the backyard — I was late for our daily walk down to De Anza Cove.

Darcy designed the cover of Champagne Eyes: Madonna’s eyes hovering over the twilight cityscape of New York. The sky was webbed with searchlight beams. I hand-colored the covers to give the books a personal touch.

I grabbed a wooden chair and stuck it in front of the Selectric, believing the Great American Novel would pour out of me like rain gushing from a spout. Nothing came. I leaned back in the chair. Still nada. I tapped a few keys for exercise. Over the next two hours, not a single word registered on my onionskin paper. I shook my head. I was a fraud, a self-deceiver, and a poseur like one of those espresso-sippers out in front of the Pannikin on Girard Avenue. I revisited the Selectric every night after work for a week, sitting and waiting for the muse until twilight fireworks lit up the sky over SeaWorld. Still nothing. Eventually, during an explosive grand finale on a Saturday night, something bled out onto the onionskin: POETRY. Actually, it was prose poetry, since it lacked linear structure, but there was plenty of rhyme and above average imagery. The theme was lost love:

Love From A Distance

He loved her but she married another man and moved to another island. He often drove to the cliffs and stared out at the hump across the channel. He ran into her on her island. She’d been married two months and worked at the car rental. When she passed him his keys, their hands touched and there was a moment where anything was possible. Then she told him she was expecting a baby. He hadn’t noticed the bump at first but now he did. He asked for directions to his hotel. The highway skirted a pineapple field that stretched to the horizon. He was tempted to stop but the fruit was too small and green. As he drove east, he prayed the baby would never be born.

More prose poetry spilled onto the pages. I noticed a feeble attempt to balance humor with pathos, and cursed myself for mixing metaphors. My dialogue sucked. But flash fiction and poetry did seem to come naturally, so I kept going. I bought books by Rimbaud and Kafka at the Blue Door Bookstore in Hillcrest. I considered the life of Brownie, my grandmother, who died alone. She’d been a Waikiki girl all her life but chased a World War I vet to Moloka’i, motivated by his promise they’d marry if she could adapt to the rigors of country life. She hated remote Moloka’i Ranch but stuck it out, learning to shear sheep and to drive cattle.

I felt it was my duty to write as much about her as I possibly could from my string of thirteen straight summers on her ranch. I crafted a rambling stream-of-consciousness monologue meant for her ears only. Catarina Wright, her mother, had insisted that Brownie’s son Harold remain with her at the family home in Kaimuki because of the poor schools on Moloka’i. I contemplated the shame she must have felt for not raising my father, the kind that breeds such a wicked self-loathing it sends agony bone deep.

I stapled together my best verse and stuffed the manuscript in a big envelope addressed to SFSU’s Creative Writing Program. I knew theat workshop competition on the graduate level would drive me to become the best writer I could possibly be. And I needed a break from sales. I was often too exhausted to write. Darcy told me I needed “total immersion.” I felt important mailing work to mags such as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The Atlantic. I was going to make it as an artist, just as Vonnegut had predicted. But my SASEs boomeranged back, carrying with them those poisonous rejection slips. I knew it was considered cool for struggling writers to plaster rejections all over their walls. I didn’t. I opened SASE mail on Clairemont Drive, ripped up the slips, and tossed them in the trash before retreating inside.

I fought back by organizing my poems and flashes into a manuscript and self-publishing a 30-page chapbook titled Champagne Eyes. Darcy designed the cover: Madonna’s eyes hovering over the twilight cityscape of New York. The sky was webbed with searchlight beams. I hand-colored the covers to give the books a personal touch. The first piece was a flash written from the perspective of a Tijuana flower vendor I’d seen a hundred feet south of the turnstile entryway:

The Roses Are Fifteen

Your purchase? Fifteen red long stems roped by white string. You bought at noon, at the border where roses grow like weeds with many thorns, thorns threatening your hands in this desert heat. Roses struggle out of the dust of my land, senoritã, and I pick these weeds because you buy them instead of the flowers on your side. You want the discount. But there is trouble with my blossoms—they wilt after you pass the checkpoint. Your guard waved you home after smelling their innocence in your hands, but my roses die even as you drive because my sweat was not enough to keep them alive. Buds droop in clumps, refusing life beyond the border. Thorns are stilettos on the stems, blades jutting from twisted frames. My supply? Over forty bunches. You took the biggest. I said it looked like a dozen, take them. I lied. I let you have the extras because I knew you would be happy with a bargain. You made the deal. I only hoped the thorns would not cut badly, you waiting patiently for the buds to open, you not believing a newborn could die in your arms with no warning at all. You must watch surrendering petals drip off the buds: they bleed across the table and spill, staining your floor. You purchased my flowers. Now live with them as their romance drains. My roses seduced and deceived you. Careful not to wound yourself as you pull fifteen stems from the dead water, one by one.

I donated a signed copy of Champagne Eyes to UCSD’s Special Collections, figuring I’d contributed in a small way to literature while making my name available to searchers at Central Library. I took another ten copies to the Blue Door Bookstore and placed them on the back poetry shelf beside other self-published chaps. My price was $3.95, of which the Prufrockian clerk said I’d receive 60% of sale proceeds. I made frequent pilgrimages to check on my book and, upon discovering two had been sold, I bounded out of the store with renewed hope. Hemingway and James Joyce had self-published their early work too, so I was in good company. I felt giddy driving home, knowing that somewhere, strangers were reading my work.

I checked out a biography of William Burroughs and grew fascinated with his Cut-Up Technique. Then I did the unimaginable: I took a straight edge to my clunky prose and sliced the pages into quarters. I rearranged quarter pages, juxtaposing lines in a quest for narrative structure and jolting language. Much was nonsensical and often ludicrous. But I did unearth fresh imagery, bizarre linkage, and tangential thought. The Cut-Ups’ endless possibilities loosened me up; maybe Vonnegut would have been pleased. I discovered the power of verbs, and how overusing adjectives bogs down voice. Jewels emerged. I selected an emerald and crafted “New Jersey Suburbs at Dusk,” the sort of flash piece Hemmingway stuck between stories in his coming-of-age classic In Our Time. But I avoided minimalism, and instead drilled down into suburban ennui by comparing garage sale shoppers to museum visitors and suggesting that teen boys became their fathers when faced with fear. Burroughs had taught me that there were other ways of producing art besides relying on dreamscapes, experience, and childhood memories. (He was also a big fan of drug-induced visions, but I wasn’t about to to run all over town searching for that first fix.)

Anne Rice, SFSU’s Creative Writing Chair, read my manuscript. So did Stan, her husband. I was fortunate that Stan was a fellow poet. Their response letter arrived the day before Thanksgiving. I sat in front of the Selectric and ripped it open, accidentally tearing the school’s seal. Despite the fact I had not published a single poem in a literary review or magazine, Anne informed me that I was to begin my writing journey in San Francisco two weeks after Christmas. My golden barked. I knew my old man would swear I was nuts. I had three grand in savings.

I phoned Darcy. She said I owed it to myself to pursue my dream and that she would drive up to San Francisco with me. I sat in front of my Selectric and tapped a random key. It jumped, staining the paper with an X. Brownie entered my thoughts. She was riding her mare Jetty down the dirt road, humming “Oh My Darling, Clementine.” Jetty pranced. Brownie saw me and tipped her wide-brimmed lauhala hat. “I remember most everything, Gramma,” I whispered, “and I can write it all down.”

I stuck out my hands, extending them over the keyboard. My fingers dropped until the tips touched the letters. The keys began to sing. I wrote about Brownie at 16 on the Waikiki Boardwalk. She was heading for the coconut palm shack that marked the Outrigger Canoe Club. She prayed she’d cross paths with her girlhood crush — and maybe her future husband.

KIRBY MICHAEL WRIGHT is a novelist, journalist, short story writer, poet, playwright, and screenplay writer. He has published over 500 works in literary reviews and magazines worldwide. His plays have been performed in New York at Manhattan Rep and The Secret Theatre. Wright’s screenplays have won the Chautauqua International Film Festival, the Honolulu Film Awards, the Headline International Film Festival, the California Film Awards, and the Mexico International Film Festival. The Queen of Moloka’i, his true story adventure, is based on the life and times of his Hawaiian grandmother. He lives in Vista.

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The writer (left) posing in Ojai Valley with UCSD friends after hearing philosopher Krishnamurti.
The writer (left) posing in Ojai Valley with UCSD friends after hearing philosopher Krishnamurti.

I hesitate to admit this, but much of my writing is rooted in dreams. Before your eyes roll back in your head and you start struggling with whether or not to feign interest — you know, the way you do when someone starts breathlessly relating the crazy dream they had last night in all its interminable, incomprehensible detail — let me explain. As an English Lit major at UCSD in the early ‘80s, I jotted down both dreams and nightmares and used them as frameworks for short stories, poetry, flash prose, and even a few creative nonfiction shorts. I used — and still use — imagery from dreams as cornerstones during construction. When I’m someone else in a dream, I scribble down what I see through a stranger’s eyes. I keep editing to a minimum until the piece coalesces. I avoid tricky interpretations. The reader should have the opportunity to interpret without an implied author hovering overhead.

And while harvesting dreams made me feel as though I were cheating, imaginatively speaking — other students had sweated over their work for weeks, while I produced fresh pieces daily — the professors were generally impressed by my originality, and never quizzed me about process. While Allen Ginsberg’s buddy Jerome Rothenberg was a visiting instructor, he appreciated my story about Galileo going blind while charting the moon. I didn’t mind blending genres like horror and surrealism if that made the work compelling. I recall one about Darcy, my girlfriend, feeding a half-man/half-fish pages she had ripped from my imagined chapbook. He was perched on a big round bed with purple sheets. He wiggled his fins and said “Fun, fun, fun” before grabbing her. Darcy resisted, at first. But in no time, they were rolling around on the bed like high school lovers. Darcy disliked it. She thought I was revealing intimate details.

It’s not like dream-based writing doesn’t require work. To begin with, there is the discipline of documentation. If I fail to write down a memorable dream immediately, it flies out the window and flutters away like a disoriented homing pigeon, lost forever. Whenever you snag something captivating, either through your conscious mind or the subconscious, don’t let it loose. Document it. I write everything down in a journal on my nightstand. If you suffer from writer’s cramp, share it with your partner during donuts and coffee. Sometimes that sharing can brand it on your long-term memory.

There are other sorts of dreams: the kind that never leave us, waking or sleeping, the kind that embody our desires. Why was I considering a master’s in creative writing? Why indeed. I’d just received my undergrad degree at UCSD and was sick of taking classes, especially since it was a six-year journey crossing the finishing line. And the time had come for me to buckle down and work. I took a job selling cars at Rancho Olds in Kearny Mesa, in part because Barry, my big brother, was numero uno at Mike Salta Pontiac in Honolulu and was raking in the big bucks. I figured if I could sell half as many cars as he did, I’d be happy.

But I also knew, deep down, that it would be a false happiness. I’d been in love with writing since I was seven, when I sent my mother a letter from Moloka’i to Boston In that letter, I wrote about manure, dung beetles, and the ranch hand burning a dead horse. Gramma hated how my parents took separate vacations every summer, with my father putting in overtime at his Honolulu office while my mother frolicked in Beantown. But it gave me the impetus to write.

I lugged my dream and my passion for creation into the Olds dealership, where I yakked with fellow salesmen about writing. Usually, their eyes glazed over. Few of them read. Most picked up copies of The San Diego Reader only for coupons, or to check on dates for future events. I was the only college grad on the lot, except for the owner’s son. I tried journaling at the dealership, but that didn’t work, because you had to keep your eyes trained on the rows of new and used cars in a constant quest for ups. At least that part wasn’t so bad; I loved turning on the jets to beat rivals to the customers. The manager kept an eye out for the most aggressive and rewarded them with demos and cash bonuses. The salesmen who were too shy or too lazy to pursue buyers vanished within 48 hours. There was a minimum wage safety net but, if you failed to exceed that with commissions, you were marked for termination. I converted my love for writing into a desire to win at sales, and it seemed to work, because I was top dog my first month. I would break the ice with shoppers by talking about growing up in Hawaii, including stories about my old man fighting in the South Pacific during World War II. I also weaved in tales about Gramma’s life as a pioneer woman on Moloka’i. She’d been the first woman on the island to drive cattle for a living. I converted the shoppers into an audience — and at the same time, the telling and re-telling of family histories fused those stories to my soul.

Barry congratulated me on my sales ability, suggesting that one day, I’d open my own “sled lot” of used cars and make a fortune. But big bro’s praise made me feel hollow. I scolded myself for not doing something more important, an occupation that truly mattered. I wondered if I might be better off pursuing an advanced degree. My father suggested I apply to law school because I had written above average essays at UCSD, and he wanted me to do something practical with my life before I became a beach bum. He saw car sales as temporary, and a career best suited for the uneducated. I resisted. I disliked law, medicine, accounting, and teaching. Politics was a hotbed for crooks. As for the arts, I was lousy at most. I couldn’t paint, draw, sing, act, or play the guitar. I lacked the patience needed for photography and film. All I could do was write.

During my UCSD days, I’d rubbed elbows with visiting writers by assisting the University Events Office with airport-to-school shuttles. These artists had left marks on the world, and I wanted to do that, too. Perhaps I thought their abilities with the pen would pass to me through osmosis. Some were famous. Others clung to the fringes of fame. Members of the Beat Generation were considered gods by undergrads. Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs were the Big Three, but some of the Beats’ shine rubbed off on those who had crossed paths with them, people like Ed Dorn and Robert Creeley. The Black Mountain poets were respected on campus, even if they did not share the same rung on the literary ladder as William Carlos Williams or Sylvia Plath.

Kirby and Darcy at Del Mar Beach in the early 80s.

Famous or otherwise, the writers and poets I shuttled rode shotgun in my Honda Z600 coupe, a pint-sized hatchback powered by a two-cylinder motorcycle engine. I drove it like a sports car up Interstate 5, switching lanes and weaving between vehicles that seemed the size of tanks. Outrider poet Anne Waldman kept her eyes shut. The Beat-adjacent Gary Snyder chewed gum nervously.

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Occasionally, UEO slipped me some cash for entertainment, a few shekels to treat our guests to drinks and chips. I drove Snyder straight to Bali Hai on Shelter Island, where we shot tequila. Ginsberg thought I was an airhead; he told me to hunt down some pot pronto and was curious if I had any Asian pals he could meet. “Chinese or Japanese?” I asked. “Japanese,” Ginsberg requested. I waited for Tell Me a Riddle author Tillie Olson while she shopped for a sympathy card at the airport gift shop. Hunter S. Thompson guzzled Wild Turkey from a chrome flask on our way to his gig at Revelle Cafeteria. He belched as he stumbled through campus, and confessed he was low on ammo. I gave him a tour of The Hump, a grassy knoll offering a bird’s-eye-view of the quad. “Get some ‘shrooms,” he said.

The writers kept coming. Bobbie Louise Hawkins thanked me with a signed copy of Frenchy and Cuban Pete and rambled on about her lovelorn life with Creeley. I got a pep talk from Kurt Vonnegut on our drive back to Lindbergh Field;he told me that I reminded him of John Irving, his former student. Vonnegut said he saw me making it as a writer. “You’re loose, Kirby,” he said, “and that’s a good thing. John was loose, too.” Did Vonnegut mean I seemed relaxed and spontaneous? He hadn’t read a single word I’d written. Maybe he’d observed my joie de vivre after I announced I was going for a dip in his pool after checking him into the swanky La Valencia Hotel in La Jolla. I had swan-dived into the deep end, surfaced, and watched Vonnegut circle the pool, wringing his hands. After about ten circles, he’d flopped down on a lounge chair, lit a Pall Mall, and blown smoke through his nose.

He reminded me of a trial attorney about to present his case to the jury. I suggested we indulge in Black Russians before sunset. His sold-out “So You Want To Be a Writer” talk was scheduled for seven sharp at the gym, and I figured a few drinks might relax him. I was right. Vonnegut avoided an attack of his dreaded Flop Sweat that occasionally derailed him at speaking engagements. His talk inspired me. He emphasized the importance of writing simple sentences, developing a consistent voice, and having the guts to cut out superfluous rants. Hearing him, I wanted to be a writer more than ever. He answered questions thoughtfully. His jokes sent waves of laughter through the sea of fans.

The only glitch came after he was finished, when the adoring crowd swelled up and swept toward the stage for signatures. They pushed and pushed. Hands waved copies of Slaughterhouse-Five, Palm Sunday, and Cat’s Cradle. All those bodies pressed in and pinned Vonnegut against the second-floor railing. I knew a few more pushes would shove him over that railing and down two floors to the blacktop. I picked out the six biggest guys I could find wearing yellow Crowd Control shirts and had them form a protective half-circle between Vonnegut and the advancing mob. “Push!” I told them. We had enough muscle to move the crowd back a few feet. I saw an opening and grabbed Vonnegut’s forearm. I snuck him through a corridor and out an open door, and we scrambled down two flights of steps. We were alone in the night air. I was breathing hard. So was Vonnegut. We were like teammates who’d somehow snuck through a hoard of would-be tacklers to reach the open field. “Let’s get whiskey, brother,” he told me. “I know just the place,” I replied. I’d read that Vonnegut liked dimly lit bars with lounge seating and drove him to Bully’s in Bird Rock.

Vonnegut (left) said he saw me (right) making it as a writer. “You’re loose, Kirby,” he said, “and that’s a good thing.

That was then, this was now. The days at Rancho Olds dragged on. Darcy said I seemed depressed. On the lot, I filled up balloons off the helium tank and tethered their strings to windshield wipers, side-view mirrors, and antennae. Once, I played the chivalrous knight and left the showroom to help a woman change a flat tire. I searched for distractions, encouraging a salesman who had worked as an Elvis impersonator to croon “You Ain’t Nothin’ But A Hound Dog” a cappella.

But no matter what I tried, I grew sick of that new car smell, and avoided test-driving the Oldsmobiles that had just rolled off the massive delivery trucks. Cars without histories bored me. I loved the beaters, those high mileage trade-ins that had locked in the odors of former owners — and their pets. Selling used cars became my thing, and I had fun with the customers. I told the children of a PB couple that gold doubloons had been hidden inside a used Volvo, and they scoured the back seat during our test drive. Fred Dean, the former defensive end for the Chargers, parked his jacked-up Nova out on the curb and wanted to test drive a red 1973 Stingray. He floored it on the 805 as I dug my fingernails into the dash. Upon returning to the dealership, fans spotted their long-lost hero and pulled over. The curb outside Rancho Olds was bumper to bumper and I waved at the showroom. Salesmen charged out. But the only things the locals wanted were Fred Dean autographs and the chance to see his Super Bowl ring.

It felt as though my literary aspirations were on life support. I started a journal. My first entry was “Kung Yee Fat Choy,” a nightmare about Mr. Fong having his lung removed on New Year’s Eve: “I’m waiting for that cold edge to razor cherry blossoms out of me. I’ve become a harvest of flowers, for doctors.”

My mother asked why I never wrote about the car lot. I told her that day might come, although I knew sales and creative writing rarely mixed. I felt I should get more serious, so I bought an IBM Selectric II off a Hillcrest chiropractor for $99, one with a willow-green casing freckled with rust spots. I moved a stack of magazines off my desk to make room for it, and fantasized about that first manuscript. I slid open the window and spotted the shingled roof of the Mission Bay Visitors’ Center and the mobile home park behind it. The breeze kicked up, carrying with it the stench of outboard exhaust, kelp, and stagnant mud. My golden retriever howled from the backyard — I was late for our daily walk down to De Anza Cove.

Darcy designed the cover of Champagne Eyes: Madonna’s eyes hovering over the twilight cityscape of New York. The sky was webbed with searchlight beams. I hand-colored the covers to give the books a personal touch.

I grabbed a wooden chair and stuck it in front of the Selectric, believing the Great American Novel would pour out of me like rain gushing from a spout. Nothing came. I leaned back in the chair. Still nada. I tapped a few keys for exercise. Over the next two hours, not a single word registered on my onionskin paper. I shook my head. I was a fraud, a self-deceiver, and a poseur like one of those espresso-sippers out in front of the Pannikin on Girard Avenue. I revisited the Selectric every night after work for a week, sitting and waiting for the muse until twilight fireworks lit up the sky over SeaWorld. Still nothing. Eventually, during an explosive grand finale on a Saturday night, something bled out onto the onionskin: POETRY. Actually, it was prose poetry, since it lacked linear structure, but there was plenty of rhyme and above average imagery. The theme was lost love:

Love From A Distance

He loved her but she married another man and moved to another island. He often drove to the cliffs and stared out at the hump across the channel. He ran into her on her island. She’d been married two months and worked at the car rental. When she passed him his keys, their hands touched and there was a moment where anything was possible. Then she told him she was expecting a baby. He hadn’t noticed the bump at first but now he did. He asked for directions to his hotel. The highway skirted a pineapple field that stretched to the horizon. He was tempted to stop but the fruit was too small and green. As he drove east, he prayed the baby would never be born.

More prose poetry spilled onto the pages. I noticed a feeble attempt to balance humor with pathos, and cursed myself for mixing metaphors. My dialogue sucked. But flash fiction and poetry did seem to come naturally, so I kept going. I bought books by Rimbaud and Kafka at the Blue Door Bookstore in Hillcrest. I considered the life of Brownie, my grandmother, who died alone. She’d been a Waikiki girl all her life but chased a World War I vet to Moloka’i, motivated by his promise they’d marry if she could adapt to the rigors of country life. She hated remote Moloka’i Ranch but stuck it out, learning to shear sheep and to drive cattle.

I felt it was my duty to write as much about her as I possibly could from my string of thirteen straight summers on her ranch. I crafted a rambling stream-of-consciousness monologue meant for her ears only. Catarina Wright, her mother, had insisted that Brownie’s son Harold remain with her at the family home in Kaimuki because of the poor schools on Moloka’i. I contemplated the shame she must have felt for not raising my father, the kind that breeds such a wicked self-loathing it sends agony bone deep.

I stapled together my best verse and stuffed the manuscript in a big envelope addressed to SFSU’s Creative Writing Program. I knew theat workshop competition on the graduate level would drive me to become the best writer I could possibly be. And I needed a break from sales. I was often too exhausted to write. Darcy told me I needed “total immersion.” I felt important mailing work to mags such as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The Atlantic. I was going to make it as an artist, just as Vonnegut had predicted. But my SASEs boomeranged back, carrying with them those poisonous rejection slips. I knew it was considered cool for struggling writers to plaster rejections all over their walls. I didn’t. I opened SASE mail on Clairemont Drive, ripped up the slips, and tossed them in the trash before retreating inside.

I fought back by organizing my poems and flashes into a manuscript and self-publishing a 30-page chapbook titled Champagne Eyes. Darcy designed the cover: Madonna’s eyes hovering over the twilight cityscape of New York. The sky was webbed with searchlight beams. I hand-colored the covers to give the books a personal touch. The first piece was a flash written from the perspective of a Tijuana flower vendor I’d seen a hundred feet south of the turnstile entryway:

The Roses Are Fifteen

Your purchase? Fifteen red long stems roped by white string. You bought at noon, at the border where roses grow like weeds with many thorns, thorns threatening your hands in this desert heat. Roses struggle out of the dust of my land, senoritã, and I pick these weeds because you buy them instead of the flowers on your side. You want the discount. But there is trouble with my blossoms—they wilt after you pass the checkpoint. Your guard waved you home after smelling their innocence in your hands, but my roses die even as you drive because my sweat was not enough to keep them alive. Buds droop in clumps, refusing life beyond the border. Thorns are stilettos on the stems, blades jutting from twisted frames. My supply? Over forty bunches. You took the biggest. I said it looked like a dozen, take them. I lied. I let you have the extras because I knew you would be happy with a bargain. You made the deal. I only hoped the thorns would not cut badly, you waiting patiently for the buds to open, you not believing a newborn could die in your arms with no warning at all. You must watch surrendering petals drip off the buds: they bleed across the table and spill, staining your floor. You purchased my flowers. Now live with them as their romance drains. My roses seduced and deceived you. Careful not to wound yourself as you pull fifteen stems from the dead water, one by one.

I donated a signed copy of Champagne Eyes to UCSD’s Special Collections, figuring I’d contributed in a small way to literature while making my name available to searchers at Central Library. I took another ten copies to the Blue Door Bookstore and placed them on the back poetry shelf beside other self-published chaps. My price was $3.95, of which the Prufrockian clerk said I’d receive 60% of sale proceeds. I made frequent pilgrimages to check on my book and, upon discovering two had been sold, I bounded out of the store with renewed hope. Hemingway and James Joyce had self-published their early work too, so I was in good company. I felt giddy driving home, knowing that somewhere, strangers were reading my work.

I checked out a biography of William Burroughs and grew fascinated with his Cut-Up Technique. Then I did the unimaginable: I took a straight edge to my clunky prose and sliced the pages into quarters. I rearranged quarter pages, juxtaposing lines in a quest for narrative structure and jolting language. Much was nonsensical and often ludicrous. But I did unearth fresh imagery, bizarre linkage, and tangential thought. The Cut-Ups’ endless possibilities loosened me up; maybe Vonnegut would have been pleased. I discovered the power of verbs, and how overusing adjectives bogs down voice. Jewels emerged. I selected an emerald and crafted “New Jersey Suburbs at Dusk,” the sort of flash piece Hemmingway stuck between stories in his coming-of-age classic In Our Time. But I avoided minimalism, and instead drilled down into suburban ennui by comparing garage sale shoppers to museum visitors and suggesting that teen boys became their fathers when faced with fear. Burroughs had taught me that there were other ways of producing art besides relying on dreamscapes, experience, and childhood memories. (He was also a big fan of drug-induced visions, but I wasn’t about to to run all over town searching for that first fix.)

Anne Rice, SFSU’s Creative Writing Chair, read my manuscript. So did Stan, her husband. I was fortunate that Stan was a fellow poet. Their response letter arrived the day before Thanksgiving. I sat in front of the Selectric and ripped it open, accidentally tearing the school’s seal. Despite the fact I had not published a single poem in a literary review or magazine, Anne informed me that I was to begin my writing journey in San Francisco two weeks after Christmas. My golden barked. I knew my old man would swear I was nuts. I had three grand in savings.

I phoned Darcy. She said I owed it to myself to pursue my dream and that she would drive up to San Francisco with me. I sat in front of my Selectric and tapped a random key. It jumped, staining the paper with an X. Brownie entered my thoughts. She was riding her mare Jetty down the dirt road, humming “Oh My Darling, Clementine.” Jetty pranced. Brownie saw me and tipped her wide-brimmed lauhala hat. “I remember most everything, Gramma,” I whispered, “and I can write it all down.”

I stuck out my hands, extending them over the keyboard. My fingers dropped until the tips touched the letters. The keys began to sing. I wrote about Brownie at 16 on the Waikiki Boardwalk. She was heading for the coconut palm shack that marked the Outrigger Canoe Club. She prayed she’d cross paths with her girlhood crush — and maybe her future husband.

KIRBY MICHAEL WRIGHT is a novelist, journalist, short story writer, poet, playwright, and screenplay writer. He has published over 500 works in literary reviews and magazines worldwide. His plays have been performed in New York at Manhattan Rep and The Secret Theatre. Wright’s screenplays have won the Chautauqua International Film Festival, the Honolulu Film Awards, the Headline International Film Festival, the California Film Awards, and the Mexico International Film Festival. The Queen of Moloka’i, his true story adventure, is based on the life and times of his Hawaiian grandmother. He lives in Vista.

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