The only real danger in asking a poet to write someone’s biography is that the tale may be told more poetically than it was lived. Unless he’s been asked to write about Carolyn Mary Kleefeld, a horsed untethered, a bird uncaged; a Magdalen, an Isadora Duncan, a Salvador Dali or maybe his mistress; a woman who hears her own melody, who moves to her own rhythms, who paints with a bright palette, who loves hard and loses harder, and still she rises to swim in her coastal pool and dance and splash paint across a canvas and think about the ones she loves. Besides, she, too writes poetry.
When Welsh poet Peter Thabit Jones was invited to write “The Fathomless Tides of the Heart,” a biography of Kleefeld, a longtime resident of Big Sur who had become his friend, he’d already known and loved her for 11 years. Having arrived on the Peninsula on behalf of a literary event organized by his publisher, at Monterey Peninsula College, he met Kleefeld there and she invited him to stay at her cliffside cabin in Big Sur.
Jones, who lives in his native Wales, where he taught creative writing and literature courses at Swansea University from which he retired in 2015, has returned to Kleefeld’s cabin, as a poet in residence, for 11 summers. Typically he comes to write, to craft poetry in a place that both inspires and unleashes his words. More recently, it was to write and then release Kleefeld’s biography.
“The invitation to write the biography came straight out of the blue,” said Thabit Jones, “but I met with Carolyn and her dearest friend, Patricia Holt and we worked out some ideas. The day after, Carolyn produced a heavy bag, filled with her journals. What better way, I thought, to get into a subject’s mind than through her journals?”
A day later, while poring through the pages of Kleefeld’s heart and mind, Thabit Jones began making notes. A few days hence, he was headed back to Wales. He worked at the airport and during his flight. Once home, he started building a skeletal synopsis of his subject’s life, frequently returning to her journals, where he read a chapter on a lover’s inspiration and one on fashion illustrator and designer, interior designer and sculptor Edmund Kara, who had lived on the Big Sur coast and had died in 2001, leaving behind such vibrant impressions, it was as if he’d never quite left.
Thabit Jones scoured books both about and by Kleefeld, finding the title of her biography from a line of her own, “The Fathomless Tides of the Heart,” and he realized, in that line, how much better he was coming to know his friend.
“A biographer can always quote from one’s poems and writing,” he said, “but I, writing at the breakfast table is not the poet. I wanted to bring the lady to the breakfast table, the subject, whose journals were very honest and open and give her to the reader.”
Some chapters warranted extra thought and exploration; others seemed obvious, like Kleefeld’s growing-up years in Malibu, her developing creativity in Big Sur, which has played a big role in her identity and vision as a poet and an artist. Thabit Jones enjoyed writing about her friendship with Edmund Kara and also with author, musician, psychotherapist Laura Huxley, wife of prolific author and philosopher Aldous Huxley, who lost her husband early but lived a dynamic 96 years right up until her passing in 2007.
“As the chapters unfolded,” he said, “I found the need to distill a lot of information. At the end of the day, you can’t include it all, particularly when a life has generated so much worth exploring. I really wanted to create something that would ignite intrigue about her artistry, her life, sending readers to Carolyn’s books, her own poetry.”
Man behind the pen
Born in Swansea, Wales in 1951, to what he understands as a shadowy background, Peter Thabit Jones was raised by his grandparents in an age when people didn’t say much. He always felt a bit like the cuckoo in the nest and thus blessed to find himself a writer.
He is the author of 16 books, all with an international reach, and he has traveled the world to share them. He was commissioned to write three libretti for operas, each of which was introduced through world premieres. His poetry has been translated into more than 22 languages.
“I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed the research, the writing, the reading,” he said. “And I’ve always been particularly interested in the counterculture, particularly in the ‘60s, even in Wales, but I was always in tune with American culture.”
Which is part of why Thabit Jones has always felt drawn to Carolyn Mary Kleefeld. Her life, from a very early age, he discovered, has always had a creative calling. Determined to answer that calling, she has spent her life as a creative, an artist, a poet. He finds that fascinating and the ink with which he wrote her biography.
“Everyone handed the journals of Carolyn Mary Kleefeld would have written a different book, come up with a different message,” he said. “I think the writing in this book has my voice in it at times; I realize chapters like the one on Big Sur inspire a poetic quality and the danger always with a poet is writing prose not to become too poetic. I’ve been doing it so long, it slips out.”
Having read the book, a friend of Thabit Jones, also a poet, joined him on a walk. He said, “I like that you concentrated on Carolyn as a creative. The fact that I’m a poet as well, I can hear the poet’s voice in this, but it enables me to understand aspects of her as a poet, as well.”
“The Fathomless Tides of the Heart,” published in May by Cross-Cultural Communications & The Seventh Quarry Press, is available at The Henry Miller Library and at The Phoenix Shop at Nepenthe, both in Big Sur, as well as though Amazon.