Jack Grapes: Helping students recapture the joy of writing

Jack Grapes has worked with more than 2,000 authors in the past 30 years. He will deliver the keynote talk on Friday at the Central Coast Writers’ Conference.
Jack Grapes has worked with more than 2,000 authors in the past 30 years. He will deliver the keynote talk on Friday at the Central Coast Writers’ Conference. PHOTO BY ALEXIS FANCHER

Jack Grapes can trace his love of teaching back to childhood.

“I can’t remember when I wasn’t helping (my siblings) understand the finer quirks of English grammar, or the traps and trepidations of math,” he recalled. “In school, my classmates would ask me questions” instead of the instructor.

Today, Grapes is one of Southern California’s most respected writing teachers.

Grapes will deliver the keynote talk, “Digging Deep to Cultivate Your Inner Magic,” Friday at the Central Coast Writers’ Conference at Cuesta College. He’ll also offer two presentations Saturday on poetry and prose writing.

“These writers conferences are filled with people who are all there wanting to know the tricks of the trade — how to get published, get an agent, get a manager,” said Grapes, who’s published 13 books of poetry and a spoken word album. “As a keynote speaker, I want to remind them why they started writing in the first place.”

Born and raised in New Orleans, Grapes graduated from Tulane University with bachelor’s degrees in history and English and a master’s degree in theater. He moved to Los Angeles in his 20s to pursue an acting career.

Grapes has found some success in the theater — he wrote and starred in “Circle of Will,” a metaphysical comedy about William Shakespeare, and teamed up with Allan Yasnyi to pen “How Much Can a Grecian Urn.” But he’s better known for his contributions to the Los Angeles literary scene, starting in the 1960s with Bombshelter Press.

The publishing house, which grew out of the long-running Venice Poetry Workshop at Beyond Baroque Literary/Arts Center, has published 100 books by California poets.

In 1988, Grapes founded the Los Angeles Poets & Writers Collective, which sponsors readings, seminars, retreats, performances and publications. A year later, he started editing and publishing ONTHEBUS, a literary journal whose pages have featured poetry, prose and book reviews by thousands of international writers.

Grapes described the journal, hailed by Esquire magazine as one of the country’s best, as “very eclectic.”

“There’s a tremendous amount of poetry (being produced) that is accessible and alive,” he said. “I want to spread the gospel that poetry comes from the great heart, that it is beautiful, and that it will make you remember why you’re alive.”

Asked how he’s gotten involved in so many projects, Grapes said, “It usually starts with me sitting on the porch and going, ‘You know, it would be interesting to do this.’ The next thing I knew or know? I’m up to my neck in quicksand.”

Over the past 30 years, Grapes has worked with more than 2,000 authors through the UCLA Extension program, Beyond Baroque and private classes. He specializes in “Method writing,” a series of exercises culled from improvisation, Method acting and sports.

“They parallel the core truth of Method acting: to come from a very deep place, to be organic, to be true,” Grapes explained, referring to the school of dramatic thought inspired by Constantin Stanislavski and developed by Lee Strasberg.

“Your job as a Method actor is to deliver the truth of that text,” he added, while Method writers must create the text itself.

Ultimately, he said, he wants to help writers recapture the joy behind the creative process.

“We are going to be disappointed. We are not going to get published the way we want to,” Grapes said. “Don’t lose sight of the fact that that’s not the important thing.”