Oral Histories

Interview of Deena Metzger

Novelist, poet, essayist, and teacher.
Interviews not in a series, part two
Biographical Note:
Novelist, poet, essayist, and teacher.
Collings, Jane
Metzger, Deena
Persons Present:
Metzger and Collings.
Place Conducted:
Metzger's home in Topanga, California.
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Library’s Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by Jane Collings, principal editor and interviewer, UCLA Center for Oral History Research; Ph.D., Critical Studies in Film and Television, UCLA.
Processing of Interview:
The transcript is a verbatim transcription of the recording. It was transcribed by a professional transcribing agency using a list of proper names and specialized terminology supplied by the interviewer. Metzger was then given an opportunity to review the transcript and made a few corrections and additions. Those corrections were entered into the text without further editing or review on the part of the Center for Oral History Research staff.
13.25 hrs.
Interviewee Retained Copyright
Early life in Seagate--A warm sense of community and friendship with women--Metzger's parents' interest in Yiddish culture, particularly theater--Parents' background--Father's enthusiasm for publishing poetry and literature--Mother's generosity in sharing food with neighbors--Political and arts conversations at home--Political climate at time of Metzger's birth--Joanna Macy's exercise asking people to meditate on their birth year and place--A consistency in the political concerns that have motivated Metzger--Parents' sense of political consciousness--A politically active community in Seagate--An early memory of seeing a spirit--A monolingual Yiddish speaker until formal schooling--Makes friends with the neighborhood "security guard"--Pursuits and hobbies as a child--Mother's abilities as a seamstress--Parents’ hopes for Metzger--Metzger's abilities as a scholar--The demographics of Seagate--Civic groups in Seagate grouped along class lines--Religious breakdown within Jewish communities in Seagate--Father starts a short-lived Yiddish studies children's class--Friday night cultural and political discussions at the Metzger home led by Metzger's father--A fourth-grade friend's remark starts Metzger thinking about college--Attends Brandeis University--A love affair while at college--Parent's refusal to allow Metzger to continue at Brandeis--Light shows in the sixties--The importance of bringing politics into one's work during the sixties--Metzger's matrix for deciding what to review for the L.A. Free Press--The Vietnam War protest staged at La Cienega Boulevard art galleries--Poetry readings and teach-ins against the war--More on selecting what to cover at the L.A. Free Press--L.A. as a site of political radicalism--The Century City anti-war protest in 1968--FBI infiltration of the Century City protest--The particular character of the culture of the left in L.A.--Sense of optimism that it was possible to effect social change in the sixties--The sense of alarm brought on by the nuclear age and its dangers--Sense of insecurity about abilities as a teacher--Teaching philosophy--Breaks up a student fight on campus--Ethnic and racial makeup of Metzger's community college classes--Metzger's curriculum--Metzger writes a teacher's bill of rights--Teaching in the context of the Vietnam War--The start of Copper Canyon Press--Police brutality at the Sunset Boulevard riots against the war--Metzger engages a policeman beating a young man--The optimism of the age--Flavio Cabral's reaction to being kicked by a policeman at the riot
Moves to L.A. to get married--Meets Barbara Meyerhoff--Introduced to early music by Ruth and Sam Adams--Finds Meyerhoff to be of like mind--Future husband, Reed Metzger--Begins work as a social worker in South Los Angeles--Political activism--Sense of Los Angeles as a place for re-invention--Activism in favor of disarmament--Organizes write-in anti-nuclear presidential candidate--A busy life encompassing politics, art, and motherhood--Conducts therapy with adults whose parents had been blacklisted--Meets Anais Nin in 1964--Publishes a review of Nin's Collage for the L.A. Free Press--A first encounter with Nin grows into a deep friendship--Nin's encouragement of Metzger's writing--Nin's devotion to the feminine voice--Running errands with Nin in Los Angeles--A visit to Arthur Miller's home when Nin and Miller exchange each other’s letters to retain what they had each written--Metzger's belief that the life of the writer must be of a piece with the work--Visits Julio Cortazar to determine whether he is resonant with the stories he had written--A handwritten and illustrated special edition book by Henry Miller and Bezalel Schatz's into the night life, a gift from Anais Nin--Metzger's sense from early on that as a woman she had full agency, was not in need of feminist thought per se--Begins to write for the L.A. Free Press--A deep friendship with Nin, rather than a mentor/mentee relationship--Nin's advice to Metzger on writing--Meyerhoff's interpretation of Metzger's dream--Nin's concern that Metzger would go "too far" in the "reality of the imagination"--Antonin Artaud--Metzger's current work with dream interpretation--Metzger's dare healing circles--More on meeting Barbara Meyerhoff--Work at L.A. Free Press brings Metzger into direct contact with the ferment in Los Angeles in the late sixties--Husband's leftist political values--The environment of ferment in the political and artistic culture in L.A. in the sixties--Anais Nin's efforts to get Carlos Castaneda's book The Teachings of Don Juan published--Barbara Meyerhoff's work--Metzger's initial sense of "difference" between indigenous culture and her own shifts into a sense of alignment--Metzger's lifelong commitment to social justice and social change--Sense that humanity needs spiritual help to fix the mess we've made--Idle No More--An academic freedom case involving Metzger at Los Angeles Valley College that centers on the notion of intent and pornography--The involvement of politicians Kenneth Washington, Jerry Brown and Mike Antonovich in the academic freedom case--Crafting the legal argument to make it a landmark academic freedom case--Attorney David Finkel--More on crafting the legal argument--Surveillance of Metzger affects her life--Strategies for the trial--A Saturday Night Live spoof of the trial--Outcome of the trial--Media coverage of the trial.
Pregnancy--Writes a first novel--Juggles motherhood, housework, graduate school, and activism--Concerns about radiation contamination and its effect on children--Metzger is driven to do anything she engages in superbly--Writes several articles of literary criticism--Learns confidence--Child care--Travels in a liberal social circle--Husband's expectations of a wife's role--Routine as a young mother--Conflicts with administrators of kids' school--The Wolf Boy--Concerns with precepts of the public educational system--First novels explore notions of multiple intelligence--Admires The White Bone--Metzger's prescient sense of her time--Metzger's writing style--Discovers Latin American literature, a watershed moment--Anais Nin's discovery of D.H. Lawrence--What Rough Beast--The L.A. Free Press--Ed Sanders--The counterculture allows for the discovery of new perspectives on society--The role of drugs in the counterculture--Light shows--In seeking material for reviews, looks for theatrical and literary pieces that reflect the political edge of the time--An art protest against the Vietnam War--Teach-ins against the war at universities--The excitement of art meeting culture at the time--The Pentagon Papers--A large antiwar protest in Century City in 1968--An FBI informant within the group--Cultural elements in L.A. that helped foster a political movement--More on the Free Press--The way that the Vietnam War and its aftermath changed culture--Metzger's surprise that she achieves an excellent score on a teaching credential exam--Trepidation in beginning teaching--Develops a teaching style and philosophy while at Los Angeles Valley College--Teaches an essay by John Paul Sartre on the notion of freedom--Publishes "A Teacher Bill of Rights"--The issue of college grades in relation to draft deferral--A student of Metzger's serves in Vietnam and is killed--Metzger's profound commitment to her students--Sam Hamill--The formation of Copper Canyon Press--The Sunset Strip riots.
Takes a job at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in 1964--Groundbreaking faculty at CalArts at that time--The opportunities to invent new courses at CalArts--Teaches a journal writing class at CalArts--The Los Angeles Valley College students as compared to the CalArts students--Memorable students at CalArts--Commitment to bringing valuable content to the students at L.A. Valley College--Structural difference between conduct of classes at CalArts and L.A. Valley College--The pedagogical universe at the Woman's Building--Metzger's profound engagement with the notion of a "women's culture"--Engagement with work by women writers--Seeks to identify female forms of writing--Finds particular meaning in the work of Virginia Woolf--Milan Kundera's Immortality--More on the forms of expression of women's culture--Structural confinements at CalArts—Womanhouse--The women who came to the Woman's Building--The impact of Womanhouse--The excitement of coming to do the writing program at the Woman's Building--The students and the work in the writing workshop at the Woman's Building--Metzger's dissertation on women's culture--Topics at consciousness raising sessions at the Woman's Building--Dearth of women writers in curriculum at that time--Anais Nin's response to the work at the Woman's Building--Nin's support of Metzger during the academic freedom case--The immense contribution of Judy Chicago--Tensions between heterosexual and gay communities at the Woman's Building--Suzanne Lacy--The secrecy surrounding rape, particularly at that time--Metzger's own rape experience at L.A. Valley College--The advent of rape crisis clinics in the United States--A panel on rape at the American Psychiatric Association--The opening up of discussion about taboo subjects--Navigating the transformative cultural experience within the context of motherhood and marriage--David Kunzle--Involvement with political struggle in Chile--Engagement with Latin American literature, politics, and culture--The coup in Chile, September 11, 1973--The Cuban missile crisis.
Meets Sheila de Bretteville--The nature of women's culture--Metzger's parents’ pride in Metzger's accomplishments--Father's work as a writer, editor, and printer--A play, Not As Sleepwalkers, looks at extended family relationships--The "imprisonment" of women in suburban lives--The role of Yiddish culture in providing a voice for women--The counterculture's interest in mysticism and social structure in indigenous societies--Concerns about the economic and social situation of women--The power of consciousness raising--The backdrop of the Vietnam War protests--More on the power of consciousness raising--The power of support groups—Writing--Skin: Shadow, Silence; A Love Letter in the Form of a Novel--Experiments with form in Skin: Shadow, Silence--Metzger addresses issue of women's sexuality in her writing--A passage from the book that Metzger read at American Psychiatric Association meeting that deals with the issue of rape--The devastation of rape within society--A cancer diagnosis--The Book of Hags addresses the prevalence of cancer diagnoses among young women--Metzger observes the distress among young women in her classes--Sense of silence and repression causing cancer--Jobs open up for women who are prepared to function as men--More on concern with the issue of women's culture--Sense of the importance of healing the underlying condition that caused the cancer--The loss of wisdom traditions in American life--The valuable work of Alcoholics Anonymous in bringing forth a sense of common ills--More on Metzger's cancer diagnosis--Treatment options--The Center for the Healing Arts--Metzger's cancer treatment--The aftermath of the surgery--Metzger's chest tattoo--Problem women were having with breast implants--More on Metzger's chest tattoo--The cover for the book Tree is the famous poster of the tattoo--Kept two separate journals during the cancer journey.
Travels to Chile in 1972 with David Kunzle--Encounters book How to Read Donald Duck--The political climate in Chile during the Salvador Allende administration--Meets Ariel Dorfman--September 18th celebrations in Chile--Security concerns among people on the left leading up to the coup--Sense of optimism and hope in Chile during the Allende period--Metzger and Kunzle travel to Cuba with the political graphics show--Margaret Randall--The absence of racial prejudice in Cuba--Lisandro Otero's book--Censorship in Cuba--Attitudes toward homosexuality in Cuba--More on censorship in Cuba--High rate of literacy in Cuba and appreciation of literature--Metzger's travels prior to the Chile and Cuba trips--Metzger's sense of warmth in the socialism practiced in Chile and Cuba--The dour Russian advisors in Nicaragua in the eighties--Fears of an attempt on Allende's life--Dancing in the rain on September 18th--Metzger wishes to bring the warmth and concern for others that she perceives in Latin America to the Woman’s Building, as well as the sense of a broader context of suffering--The brilliant literature in Latin America: politically conscious and imaginative--Pablo Neruda's death--The elevator operators at the Havana Hilton--Grief in Cuba in response to the coup in Chile--Flies on a last flight out of Cuba after the Chilean coup--Chile with Poems and Guns: a film on the Chilean labor movement--Rumors of U.S. involvement in the coup--The fate of Charles Horman depicted in the film Missing--Production of the film Chile with Poems and Guns--Concerns about the fate of friends in the aftermath of the coup--Sense of profound personal sadness at the end of the movement in Chile--A persistent split in America between sensibilities of people and government policies--Metzger's efforts to bring Ariel Dorfman and his family to the United States--A fortuitous first introduction to writing from Latin America--Seeks to understand whether Julio Cortazar's writing speaks to his own experience or is a literary device--Cortazar's story "The Bestiary"--Meets Cortazar--Influence of Cortazar's sensibility on Metzger's work--Cortazar's dismay over the political climate in Latin America--Cortazar's death--Reviews a book of stories by Cortazar for the L.A. Weekly--Metzger's writing on Latin America--The Travelling Jewish Theatre--Play "Coming from a Great Distance" from the Traveling Jewish Theatre--A dream that presages Metzger's cancer diagnosis--Metzger's sense that cancer is silence--The re-visioning medicine initiative--Metzger's epiphany that speaking about spirit is all important in her life--The realization that spirit guides through story--How Metzger's work with indigenous communities led to this realization about the sacred in everyday life--The challenge of speaking publicly about the importance of spirit.
Works with Traveling Jewish Theatre--The play Dreams against the State--The Eleusinian Mysteries--Performing the Eleusinian Mysteries--The discovery of an artifact at the Eleusinian Mysteries site--Performs Dreams against the State at five hundred sites across the United States--The notion of "going underground"--Staging Dreams against the State--Moves to Topanga Canyon--Lives in a wilderness setting--A developing relationship with animals--The house in Topanga Canyon--Animal neighbors--Begins re-visioning medicine--Origin of the term "Tree" as a title for the book--The notion of cancer as a metaphor for the political landscape--The importance of indigenous cultures for Metzger's thinking--Enters psychoanalysis--Metzger's support of revolution in Nicaragua--Considers a trip to Nicaragua during the struggle--The healing possibilities of psychoanalysis--Problems with the field of psychology--The post-revolutionary climate in Nicaragua--A talk on personal disarmament at the United Nations conference on women in Nairobi--The impact of the inner life on political thought--Writes What Dinah Thought.
Metzger’s concept of personal disarmament--Impact of women’s movement on direction of writing--Visits Nazi death camps, which prompts writing The Other Hand--Circumstances leading up to writing Intimate Nature: The Bond Between Women and Animals--Travels to Africa and interacts with a group of elephants and with its leader, the “Elephant Ambassador”--Founds the Daré group based on experience in Africa--Activities at a typical Daré meeting--Daré participants--The importance to Metzger of the practice of sitting in council--Reasons participants attend Daré.