John Gardiner: The poet, performer and perfectionist at the heart of Laguna’s literary life

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

What happens when two language geeks get together at Zinc Cafe on a Thursday afternoon to talk poetry and prose, Shakespeare, the psychedelic sixties, Wallace Stegner’s plagiarism, and more? They swoon over sonnets, argue about punctuation, and get giddy when inventing phrases like “leering moon,” each of them deciding it’s about time the moon be taken to task.

Time spent with John Gardiner – dramatist, teacher, activist, and author of twelve collections of poetry – is like riding a literary tidal wave. At his core, John is a performer, and a perfectionist who has such a love of the written word that it’s hard not to hang on his every one. When John reads his poems aloud, which he loves to do, his voice is a melodic baritone, his language measured and precise, and his enthusiasm infectious. He can’t help himself from stopping every so often to say, “Let me read you another.”

And when he does you can only sit in awed silence, knowing something magical is happening, then and there.

Poetry in motion

“Poetry in an oral art form,” says John. “There’s the page poem and the stage poem. They both have to work.”

John has a voice made for radio and lyrics made for stage. He was trained in opera in an amphitheater in Maine, his tenor rich and deep.

“When you’re on stage you can dance, gyrate, and draw attention to yourself,” he says. “But then it has to work quietly on the page. It can’t be full of sound and fury.”

Making a show of Shakespeare

In addition to performing at local poetry readings, slams and workshops in Laguna Beach for the past two decades, John regularly tours in a music-infused Shakespearian show called “Shakespeare’s Fool.” He teamed up with Jason Feddy. Together they mix rock ’n roll music along with reggae and acoustic based tunes, performing ten songs and ten speeches from the Shakespeare canon.

Click on photo for a larger image

John Gardiner reads one of his poems

Shakespeare speaks to John. He has a deep appreciation for not only the language, but the sounds. “Shakespeare invented more than 1,800 words,” John tells me. “Maybe 2,500 words because he invented so many compound nouns.” This was a result of Shakespeare’s desire to avoid obvious rhymes, preferring pleasurable sounds to be subliminal. 

“He put syllable rhymes in the middle of the words, which resulted in a beautiful fluidity,” says John. “Much prettier than consonants and so subtle you’re not aware of it.”

Another technique Shakespeare favored was to use rhythm and meter to drop the endings of words, giving another meaning to the phrase. For example, “To be or not to be. That is the QUEST-ion.” The reader is hardly aware of it but, when read aloud, the emphasis is on the “quest.”

John’s lessons in Shakespeare are so spirited and enthusiastic, I couldn’t help becoming a renewed fan, going home to crack open a volume and re-read a few passages for myself.

From Bard to beards and back again

John took the drug culture of the 1960s seriously. Far more seriously than most Orange County conservatives were willing to give him credit for at the time, finding himself frequently harassed by the police. He was no stranger to hallucinogens. As he writes in his prose poem, “Just Another Strange Night in the 60s” (in which he describes a party in Floriston, Nevada): “Lots of trucks and VW vans out front, mud and ice on the front porch, rock climbing boots, beards, pony tails, granny dresses, patchouli, weed . . . and a bunch of people on varying elevated levels of externally stimulated and chemically altering psychic-cosmic buzzing caps of mind juice.”

Click on photo for a larger image

John’s books are available at Laguna Beach Books: He’s working on a third

But, like everything John does, he operated with intention. The drugs were used for a purpose, as opposed to recreation. “Sure, I took large amounts of acid, mescaline, peyote, etc.,” he said in a 2014 interview with the Los Angeles Times, “but I also had one foot firmly planted in the anti-war movement …The last thing in the world I wanted to do was go to the Sunset Strip and jump around elbow to elbow in what can be called a ‘60s acid-head monster mosh pit. That was too much confusion, and I had no interest in it.”

Everything about John is disciplined. He’s neat and particular. His coins are stacked on his desk, his poetry filed in three-ring binders, rewrites of each verse replacing old work, each binder placed chronologically on his shelves. “Writing is discipline,” he tells me. “Never write while you’re stoned.”

The many creative leaves on John’s family tree

John was born in Manhattan Beach in the 1940s. His father had been a fighter pilot in WWII, their relationship not always easy. As he wrote in a poem entitled “Fathers and Sons,” capturing a fictional dream about his father hunting him with a gun, “You missed me daddy-o, so I guess the fight’s still on.”

His parents had six children in less than eight years. John describes them as a “psychedelic Brady Bunch.” The creativity gene has deep roots in John’s family tree. His late brother, Bob Gardiner, was a multi-talented artist, animator, painter and more who won the Oscar for Best Animated Short in 1975 for the Claymation film “Closed Mondays.” Everyone in his family, John says, writes and reads.

He also says it was a matriarchal family, crediting the strength of the women for allowing him to become the male mascot for Laguna Beach’s own Women on Words. “I not only love women,” says John. “I like them.”

Angle of Repose revisited

John’s great-grandmother was Mary Hallock Foote, a renowned 19th and 20th century writer of the American old west. She was a prolific storyteller, writing novels, nonfiction, stories and correspondence. Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, for which he won the 1971 Pulitzer Prize, is based directly upon her personal correspondence. While Stegner gained her family’s permission to use an outline of her life on the promise he would disguise her, he used direct passages of her work without giving credit, an act that has tarnished his reputation in the literary community until today.

Click on photo for a larger image

John Gardiner’s constant companion, Maddy

Coyote spirit

John tells me his spirit animal is the coyote, reflected in his 2014 collection “Coyote Blues” and numerous references throughout his work. After spending some time with John, this makes sense. The coyote totem, I learn, is “strikingly paradoxical and hard to categorize.” The coyote’s symbolism is associated with a deep magic of life and creation. He’s a teacher of hidden wisdom with a sense of humor. Perfect for John.

From his poem “Coyote Talk #4”: 

“Two coyotes were greeted the same way we seem to greet

Everything natural, mystical, magical—

Kill it or pave it.

 

With billions of humans, who stands a chance?

Better to rise from this plane and let your wildness roam free.”

There’s long lament in John’s work, a wistfulness for times past and a certain disgust for where things have ended up. His passages echo the sadness of a fading history, the trampling of nature, the risk that technology will subsume creativity, that social media’s ceaseless noise will drown out the quiet beauty of the written word. John is the coyote. The seasoned man of infinite experience and quiet wisdom, standing at the door of a new generation and perhaps wanting to close it. He seems to see ahead to what’s coming for us, and still finds power in the written word, strength in Shakespeare, and beauty in the natural world.

The legacy of language

In looking across the long arc of John’s life, from the generations that came before him, to the brother he lost and the children he never had, there’s a legacy of language, the specific beauty of the creative mind. 

John tells me he regrets never becoming a father. But it strikes me, in poetry, the white space holds just as much meaning as the written word. There’s great power in what’s left unsaid, and beauty in the silence. 

It also seems, in a world weighed down by the burdens of overpopulation, maybe John leaves an even more important legacy behind.

I ask John what his greatest accomplishment has been, his proudest moment. He considers this for a while before saying, “I hope it hasn’t happened yet.” Another nod to the mystical magic of the great unknown.