“Communion is important to me/ I find it with my wife, my son/ my family, in writing poetry/ acting, reading poetry, watching/ movies & with a few creative people…communication requires depth/ mystery, respect, a listening to one/ another,” actor-turned-poet Harry Northup writes in his poem “past periphery.”
Northup – a genuine man with bright, blue eyes that crinkle when he laughs, and a warm, gentle smile – attempted to establish communion once again last Thursday in a guest appearance at close friend and fellow poet James Cushing’s modern poetry class.
He is hailed as the “poet laureate of east Hollywood,” though Northup humbly demurred that his wife, Holly Prado Northup, also a poet, is more deserving of this title.
The 66-year-old proved to be a unique finale to the quarter, providing a rare classroom opportunity for students to ask questions about his poetry, which students have been studying, and the creative process in general.
Northup’s road to acting and, ultimately, poetry, is a complexly simple one: He was born in Amarillo, Texas, in 1940, but primarily grew up in Sidney, Neb. His childhood was spent playing baseball and basketball, acting in plays and just keeping out of trouble, he said. After a three-year stint in the Navy and two years at the Nebraska State Teacher’s College, Northup “romantically” took off for New York City at the age of 22 with little more than a suit and tie to pursue a (fairly successful) career in acting.
“First of all, I’m thankful that I’ve been able to make a modest living as an actor. I’ve been in some great films with some great directors,” he said.
Some of those great films include “Taxi Driver,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Philadelphia,” “Beloved,” “Brokedown Palace” and 2004’s remake of “The Manchurian Candidate.” He has worked with both Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme.
Relationships with Scorsese and Demme, as well as other directors, have nourished and built up Northup’s own creativity, often leading him to draw from his own experiences in the process.
“In ‘Taxi Driver’ I played a cabbie, and when I was going to college, I actually drove a cab for 10 months,” Northup said. “When we were rehearsing, Martin Scorsese would get us (Peter Boyle and me, he wouldn’t include De Niro) together at his suite at the St. Regis…Peter Boyle would start improvising, telling stories that he had written, but I would always come up with something better because I had been a cabbie.”
From 1963 to 1967, Northup studied method acting – a type of acting that relies on actors conjuring up real experiences and their associated emotions for on-stage (or on-screen) roles – under top acting teacher Frank Cosaro, which gave him both valuable career skills and valuable knowledge.
“It was a real education. (After acting school), I would go to the New York public library and sit and just read. I remember I was living in a real dingy hotel…but I’d go to the public library and read every play that I could. I’d go see every play that I could. I’d read theater history. I really educated myself,” Northup said.
Method acting ultimately led him to poetry. In 1966, at the age of 26, fellow acting student Lee Hickman introduced Northup to poetry; at the time, two off-Broadway jobs had fallen through and the emotions from this had to come out. Poetry has been a passion of his ever since.
“In method acting you learn that memory is bound up with the senses. (In a scene from ‘The Grapes of Wrath’) Tom Jones is sitting under a tree and then his uncle comes along. So I just recreated a time in my life from when I was in the Navy, and the sun was beaming down on me after I had been standing there for four hours. And that just relaxed me. That was a learning point for me, to just relax and simplify. And to just use a real-life experience and then allow the emotion to take me where it may,” Northup said.
“If you don’t draw from your experience in acting, then you end up imitating other people’s work. And the same thing happens in poetry,” he said. “I try to go back in time to an experience, say, perhaps with my father. I’ll be writing something about my father…And then the emotion is in the beginning, the middle, and the end of the poem. It’s like an arch. When it finishes, that’s the end of the poem.”
In a way, he occupies a very unique position, straddling the line between famous, big name actors and the average man. And like other moderns, such as William Carlos Williams, his work has given him a perspective that few can bring to their poetry.
Last year, Northup published his ninth book, “Red Snow Fence,” on his small, independent poet’s cooperative, Cahuenga Press. Founded in 1989 with six other poets, including his wife, Holly Prado Northup, and Cushing, “(their) common goal is to create fine books of poetry by poets whose work (they) admire and respect; to make poetry actual in the world in ways which honor both individual creative freedom and cooperative support,” Prado Northup wrote in the group’s mission statement.
Written in diary-like form, Northup’s poetry focuses on “(things) happening in time, at a specific time, place, with real people in them, not imaginary constructs. (They show) just a human person, in this case a man, writing about his life, firsthand experiences and images.
“My poetry is a procession. It has always been a journey…What I’m trying to do in my own work -well, it all goes back to Wordsworth. And Wordsworth said that what he does is show the growth of the poet’s mind,” Northup said. “And that’s, in a way, the beginning – or at least an important essence – of modern poetry: the subjectivity or the way the mind works. Each one of us should value how each one of our minds work, and the way we see things.”
To accomplish this, he said, he tries to be the same person on the page that he is on the inside, and to put, as Wordsworth said, his mind on the page.
“I always feel that the mark of a good poet, and that’s what I strive to be, is putting my mind (and my emotions) on the page. To be honest, so that at least you know that I’m not lying to you, that I’m not trying to be something that I’m not. It heals my soul. And it gives me order in the midst of chaos,” Northup said.
He does this by “writing about what (he) actually sees” and experiences, and not focusing merely on big, abstract themes.
“Try this sometime…we’ll get together with some poets, and people start talking about this big poet or that big poet or some big thing or this or that. And there’s all these big ideas just floating around, and finally, I’ll go like this, ‘What did you do today?’ And all of a sudden we are just in the moment, in the present,” he said.
“You can just feel the relief, everyone coming back to normal…You always want to have these big ideas to write a poem. But sometimes I’ll sit and write about what my cats did – the real. It always kind of centers me in the here and now,” Northup said.
For the time being, Northup will continue to constantly capture his experiences – whether they concern matrimonial bliss, his beloved cats or existential observations and ponderings made while riding the buses of east Los Angeles. He jots it all down in the limited space provided by his plain 70-page, college-ruled blue Mead notepad.
“I think it’s important, too, to say ‘Hey, I’m a human being. This is where I live. This is who I live with. These are the things that are important to me,’” he said.
“Two hundred years from now, (I want) somebody to look back and say, ‘This is the way this person lived his or her life.’ As opposed to living vicariously through Jack Nickleson, Jodie Foster, as beautiful and great as they are.
“(Poetry) gives you a value, too – (reaffirming) that your life is important, that you have self-esteem, and that you respect yourself and others,” Northup said.