Interview by Wiley Saichek
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Toni Stern enjoyed a highly productive collaboration with singer-songwriter Carole King. Stern wrote the lyrics for several of King’s songs of the late ’60s and early ’70s, most notably “It’s Too Late,” for the album Tapestry. The album has sold more than 25 million copies worldwide, and received numerous industry awards. In 2012, Tapestry was honored with inclusion in the National Recording Registry to be preserved by the Library of Congress; in 2013, King played “It’s Too Late” at the White House. That song and Stern’s “Where You Lead” feature in the Broadway hit Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. “Where You Lead” is also the theme song for the acclaimed television series Gilmore Girls. Stern’s music has been recorded by numerous artists throughout the years.
As Close as I Can is her second volume of poetry. She lives with her family in Santa Ynez, California. Her website is https://www.tonistern.com
These poems, written over the last three to four years, continue to explore the recurring themes of family, place, language, and self. There are stories in As Close as I Can that have followed me my entire life. It’s been a cathartic experience, examining, through poetry, the emotional and formative impact those experiences have had on me.
What are your favorite poems in As Close as I Can?
I’m fond of “State of Emergency” and “As Close as I Can.” They surprise me. I’m especially fond, too, of some of the shorter poems: “Self Portraits,” “Pyrolysis,” “The Paved Road,” “Everything is Singing.” I enjoy their directness and economy. My favorite poem though, is always the next one. The one I’ve yet to write.
Wet, your first volume of poetry was well received. What has been the most rewarding part of the publication process so far? The most challenging part?
Working with my editor, Trish Reynales, was divine. I loved the few readings I did. I especially loved the laughter. I discovered I’m an unapologetic ham. The most challenging part is explaining myself outside the medium of poetry.
What made you decide to release the poems in As Close as I Can and Wet in book formats? Will any of these poems become songs?
After having written a hundred or so poems, I decided I wanted to create a chapbook-size book; something that looked beautiful and fit happily in the hands. It was a very tactile desire. The poems were never intended as songs.
When did you begin writing? Did you initially decide to write “straight” poetry and transition into music, or was music always the goal?
Music was always the goal. Carole King was my very first reader. She was looking for a new writing partner after her divorce from lyricist Gerry Goffin. I’d recently written four lyrics and sent them to my friend and producer, Bert Schneider, who, during a meeting with Carole, showed her what I’d written. I was a complete unknown. You might say I started at the top. I didn’t even know if the lyrics I created could be fashioned into song. I think it speaks to Carole’s prescience that she chose to work only with me, an opportunity I am forever grateful for. I was twenty-three years old.
How do you structure your work day? Do you work in an office.
I work at the dining room table. I get down to it early, especially if I’m working on a poem I’ve already begun. I can’t sit still for long, so I also work standing at the banquette. Vera, my Jack Russell terrier, often lays on the table, beside my laptop, overseeing my efforts.
You are also an artist. When did you begin painting?
I began painting in the early nineties. I wanted to know, if possible, what it felt like to paint something wonderful. I painted myself off my feet for twenty years. I made pilgrimages to New York city twice a year, for several years, to work at the Art Students League with master Knox Martin. Painting has informed me more than any other art form about the creative process and the commitment it requires.
What advice do you have for aspiring poets and songwriters?
Read and listen to the best. Only the best. If you have something to say, say it. Keep your chops up. Art is noble and necessary. It is akin to love.
What are you working on now?
My next book. The poems are structured very differently. They’re story-poems, in paragraph form. The autobiographical “I,” evident in my last two books is absent. It’s very engaging territory.