June 29, 2004. 6:30. North Beach, San Francisco.
Eighty or so family, friends, coworkers, comrades and fellow poets gathered in front of O’Reilly’s Pub for a wake for poet Carol Tarlen. The Green Street Mortuary Band set the spirit for the night by playing “Solidarity Forever” and then leading the crowd, each member holding a red rose, through the main corridor of North Beach and concluding at the Beat hang out, Spec’s Adler Museum Café, where the band continued with some of Carol's favorite songs: “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Rebel Girl,” and the “International.” The wake continued in Spec’s where family, friends, and poets read Carol’s poetry, talked about her, and read poems about Carol. Poet Jack Hirschman said it was the best poet’s wake in North Beach since beat poet’s Bob Kaufman’s in 1986.
Carol, my good friend for 20 years, was a North Beach Emily Dickinson, publishing widely in magazines and anthologies but never putting out a full-length book. She was the contemporary poet I knew closest to Whitman or Neruda: from her white trash impoverished childhood to her MA in English from San Francisco State; from her being a poet/delegate on the S.F. Labor Council to her getting arrested repeatedly for feeding the hungry and homeless in front of San Francisco’s Civic Center.
She was a visionary poet like Blake, whose visions often reappear in her poems. In her poem “Believe in My Hands (Which Are Ending) for Cuban singer Silvio Rodriguez she talked about how the imagination “explodes into white carnations” and how she trusts in “the mystery of the future/which is always beginning.”
Her most well-known poem is “White Trash: An Autobiography” which was published in Calling Home: Working Class Women’s Writings, An Anthology (edited by Janet Zandy; Rutgers University Press). In the first section “1948: Dysentery in the First World” her family is living in a trailer in Salinas when her younger brother gets dysentery and is taken to the local hospital: “After two weeks the doctors told my mother/to take him home to die. /Instead she took him to a university medical center. /He was given antibiotics and lived.” Her father was a truck driver with narcolepsy, a disease that caused him to lose jobs, so the family was constantly moving around California until they settled in Fremont, in a blue-collar tract.
Carol herself was a diabetic since she was a teenager. After a short-lived marriage in Marin which resulted in two children, she moved to San Francisco, worked full-time as a secretary at UC San Francisco Medical Center while attending school at San Francisco State for six years to complete both her B.A. and M.A. “It was hard,” she said. “I never want to do it again. I was exhausted.” She devoted her weekends and summers to her two daughters who lived with their father in Marin.
In high school she was a voracious reading, devouring Dreiser, Steinbeck, Hemingway, James Farrell, Brecht, Clifford Odets. In junior college she acted in Theater of the Absurd plays, growing to like Beckett, Ionesco, and Edward Albee. On her own she read Valejo, Breton, and Neruda. She especially liked Breton’s idea about the imagination. The imagination is central to her poetry and her life. She survived the numbing jobs she worked her whole life partially through use of her imagination. For a short time she was on welfare, producing the enraged poem “Welfare Rights” how men, on finding out she was on welfare, would offer her money for sex. When she graduated with her M.A., she said, “There were no full-time teaching jobs in public school system or junior college system in San Francisco. They laid off tons of people in the late ‘70s.”
With diabetes, two children to help support, and no family back-up she couldn’t get hired as an adjunct professor without benefits or job security, so she kept working as a secretary in the medical school at UC San Francisco, ran the poetry reading series at the Coffee Gallery (now the Lost and Found) in North Beach, co-founded the fiction magazine Real Fiction. She assisted her husband David Joseph in editing his pioneering magazine Working Classics featuring working class literature in the late 1980s. She was active in her union AFSCME, holding office in her local and as a delegate SF Labor Council.
At the same time as Carol Tarlen was a union official in the 1980s she produced some spectacular poems about work such as “Today” celebrating having a day off with pay so she “sat in a bistro and drank absinthe/while Cesar Vallejo strolled past/praised the sun in its holiness, led a revolution ….” or a wonderful poem called “The Receptionist Sits at Her Desk and Hums ‘Solidarity Forever.’” She wrote some great poems to her two daughters.
Her first trip out of the country was to Nicaragua to witness firsthand the Sandinista Revolution. After the 1989 earthquake she spent several months traveling to Watsonville near Santa Cruz, California, where she helped feed agricultural workers and their families who had lost jobs and homes due to the earthquake’s destruction.