White Privilege and Black Rage

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

White Privilege and Black Rage: The Cases of Michael Slager and Dylann Roof

In late July, the columnist Charles Blow posted an article entitled “Incandescent with Rage.” As I read it, I recollected an article written by the late poet Wanda Coleman in which she recounted her youthful sojourn into the fringes of African-American radical resistance, and how she resisted that temptation and went on to become a major voice in American poetry. Of her many literary contributions, one of the foremost would be her critique of the fault line of racial identity in American social life. In registering the daily seismic twitching and convulsions of white privilege’s arrogance, Coleman challenged the complacency of much of the apolitical lyricism of mainstream verse. As a poet and cultural worker, I remain very grateful that Wanda Coleman made the choice she did, though her account of youthful desperation continues to haunt me.

The degree to which white privilege feels itself entitled to a pass for its transgressions can be seen in the reaction to First Lady Michelle Obama’s recent comment at the Democratic National Convention on the use of slave labor to build the White House. White privilege is inherently defensive about its unearned status, or rather should I say that its status derives from the appropriated earnings of others. Let it never be forgotten that the phrase “self-made man” was coined by a man who owned slaves.

One could take Michelle Obama’s reminder a bit further, though. Not only did the construction of the White House involve the use of slave labor, but one of the alcoholic beverages served over the decades in the White House has turned out to contain a pedigree of exploited human life, too. I call your attention to an exceptionally interesting account of the history of whiskey in the United States, and of the brand Jack Daniels, in particular, that appeared in the NY Times. (Unfortunately, I cannot seem to create a viable link to the article, but if you type “Nearis Green” and “Jack Daniels” and “Clay Risen” along with the date June 25, 2016, you should be able to locate the article.

The erasure of enslaved labor from the narrative of this country’s liquidity is a long-standing grievance that will always need the vigilance of annotators to redress. With enough reminders, it is possible that in a half century a more respectful history will be familiar to the grandchildren of the millennial generation. It is not enough, however, to simply acknowledge the contribution of African-American labor to American prosperity in books and academic articles. Justice will only be attained when the casual knowledge of citizens is comprehensive enough to have that knowledge at immediate recall.

Is it unjust to have to wait so long to have one’s place in a narrative properly recognized and honored? Yes, it is unjust, and to forestall that reckoning mocks the dignity that should be bestowed on all our forebears who empowered the commonwealth; but that injustice is nothing compared to the life-and-death crisis now reaching the full height of absurdity. The ever increasing degree to which African-Americans are being targeted by police is pulverizing social life in this nation, and immediate requital is urgently needed.

When Charles Blow wrote “I am at the screaming place” in his article, “Incandescent with Rage,” I marveled that he was able to keep the volume of his voice to that level. At what other level should his voice be when one considers that the police officer who was videotaped shooting Walter Scott on April 4, 2015 has still not gone to trial? Your eyes are not deceiving you: today is August 23, 2016. A videotape of police officer Michael Slager shooting Walter Scott in the back, as Scott ran away from Slager, was recorded over 16 months ago, and yet Mr. Slager’s trial has yet to start. (Mr. Scott is said to have been pulled over for a non-functioning brake light.) But that delay is not the screaming point. Rather, consider that Mr. Slager is now out on bail and enjoying the creature comforts of his home. How is that possible, you might ask?

And this is the point at which this pandemic has its most caustic instance of irony.

It appears to be the case that Mr. Slager’s trial has been delayed because the state has an even more egregious case to bring to trial, that of Dylann Roof for the cold-blooded slaughter of nine African-American men and women with whom he had first joined in a prayer service at a church. The reports I have read indicate that Mr. Slager’s lawyers have been able to argue that Mr. Roof’s trial has caused Mr. Slager to be unfairly detained for an unreasonable amount of time while waiting for his trial, and this appeal has been successful.

None of us can change the outcome of Mr. Slager’s appeal, but we can ask questions that provide a larger context for this case. Let us consider the reverse of this case. Let us imagine that Mr. Scott had killed the police officer after being stopped for a minor vehicle infraction, and let us also posit that another African-American had recently committed an egregious set of crimes. For the sake of argument, let us cite the infamous Richmond, Virginia spree murders of Ray Dandridge, Ricky Ray, and Ashley Baskerville. Suppose the trial of Dandridge and Ray required a prolong preparation that forestalled any other major trial? Does anyone – and I mean anyone at all – even for a second really believe that Mr. Scott would be granted bail and be allowed to savor the comforts of home because it was taking too long to bring his case to court? You can imagine the furor, and it would make the demonization of Willie Horton in 1988 look like an ad campaign for a truth and reconciliation panel. “Cop Killer Goes Home Free,” would no doubt be the mildest of the headlines. Everybody with the least knowledge of electoral politics knows that any judge who granted Mr. Scott that kind of leniency would almost certainly be subjected to a recall petition. It would be career suicide. No such outcry has fallen on the judge who granted bail to Mr. Slager.

Instead, it is the case that Mr. Slager is at home while he awaits trial, a luxury he is afforded because of the heinous attack of another white man on the African-American community. Mr. Scott’s family, on the other hand, also waits at home, instead of already having sat in court and watched the man who shot Mr. Scott in the back forced to come to terms with what was videotaped. The wait that Mr. Scott’s family must endure is nowhere mentioned in these news accounts.

The imposition of justice delayed on Mr. Scott’s family combined with Mr. Slager’s current residential status is what is meant by white privilege – smug, complacent, self-entitled privilege that does not pause to question its ideological sources – and why Charles Blow’s scream has yet to hit its most embattled timbre.

“Music for Airports”: Brian Eno and 512 Hill Street, Ocean Park, CA

Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports” and Ocean Park, California

Back in the mid-1970s, I was living in an apartment in Ocean Park, California on Hill Street. I had originally moved into the neighborhood in early 1973, and ended up living in that same apartment for 20 years. With my 70th birthday only 15 months away, it’s doubtful I’ll ever have such a long stretch of residential stability. I still have dreams of walking around in that apartment, and the dream-time is as real as this keyboard feels to my fingertips, typing these words. Indeed, more palpable. My life as the editor and publisher of Momentum Press took place entirely within my occupancy of that space, and there isn’t a memory of all that publishing that is not intertwined with its pair of upstairs bedrooms. Over the years, I had a number of roommates, the most famous of which was Nick DeNucci.

I got more than a frequently anthologized poem out of my co-habitation with Nick, however. After HIDDEN PROOFS came out, I got a phone call from a stranger one afternoon. “Are you Bill Mohr?” “Yes.” “Did you really know a fellow named Nick DeNucci?” When I admitted, somewhat reluctantly, that he had indeed been a real life roommate, and not just a character in a poem, the person calling me shared his experience of knowing Nick DeNucci. Nick had been a musician, and he had swooped in and out of number of other lives rather briefly. In the case of Brooks Roddan, the person calling me, the brief encounter did not even involve meeting him face to face. According to Brooks, Nick knew Brooks’s roommate, and had occasionally borrowed his roommate’s car to get to a gig. Unfortunately, on one particular night, that car was not available, but Brooks happened to have an extra car parked in front of their place, and the roommate lent DeNucci Brooks’s vehicle, which didn’t surface again for a couple of weeks, when it was found wrapped around a telephone pole on Vermont Avenue.

Instant commiseration! Brooks and I felt bonded immediately, and I am grateful to the auspicious fate that has kept us loyal, dear friends. I would think of him as a profound friend, in fact, even if we were never to spend any time in the same physical space again. I doubt that will happen, but I believe there is an intimacy each of us finds in our artistic solitude that is similar to the intimacy of our friendship.

The intimacy of this imaginative friendship also involves experiences that have no originating attribution. I have no recollection, for instance, of who encouraged me to buy Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports.” All I I remember is standing at the kitchen sink, doing the breakfast dishes, and listening to that album one or twice a week for about a month. It was as close to some profound communion with the Eternal Pulse of Being as I will ever come. A winter month, overcast, and there were many slightly damp mornings, and rainy nights. As I ran hot water over each clean plate and bowl, I could feel the cool grey from the Pacific Ocean just eight blocks away from back door.

I had not yet begun reading the poets associated with the Language movement., but in the middle of the next decade I would write a piece that was absolutely grounded in the poetics of “Music for Airports.” Thanks to Rod Bradley and the sculptor Mineko Grimmer, you can see a performance of the poem I wrote out of my meditations on Eno’s music.


The Blue Cut Fire and the Wheel of Mutability

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Blue Cut Fire and the Wheel of Mutability

The most recent post centered on water, but the pre-Socratic philosophers must be afoot in Southern California, because fire is the chief element at work right now. The Blue Cut fire in San Bernardino County has burned over 35,000 acres, at last report, which would roughly be equivalent to an area seven times the size of the City of Santa Monica. When I first learned of the outbreak and spread of this conflagration, I immediately thought of the proximity of the Love Art Gallery to the heat perimeter. According to a message from Hye Sook Park, the Love Art Gallery is still intact. From looking at maps posted on-line, however, it appears that the fire came within less than five miles, if not closer, to the gallery.

If one is an artist and writer in Southern California, it is difficult not to have had the annual fire season affect some part of one’s life. Those who have been following my blog since its inception will recollect that a major fire broke out in the mountains around Idyllwild less than six months after my first post; the town had to be evacuated, and almost everybody left, except for the brave owner of Gary’s Deli, who kept his place open in order to feed the fire crews on the front line.

Idyllwild is typical of many mountain communities in Southern California in being extremely vulnerable; the longer the area goes without a fire, the more devastating the embarkation is likely to be, once ignited. The close calls come with a price: Idyllwild still mourns the death of firefighter Captain Mark Loutzenhiser, in the Esperanza fire of October, 2006.

In thinking back, in fact, of the decade during which Cecilia Woloch ran the Idyllwild Poetry Festival, it is quite remarkable that not once did that festival get interrupted by a mandatory evacuation. Not every arts organization has been as lucky. Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, just outside of Temecula, had all of its venerable cabins burnt down in a fire in the late spring of 2004. It has been partially rebuilt, but nothing can replace the inspiring quaintness of the original setting, which I was fortunate enough to spend a couple months at during the winter of 1997.

And fire affects individual artists: perhaps fire spared the Love Art Gallery because it had already helped itself to enough of the art produced by one of its exhibitors. One thing I did not mention in my review of Hye Sook Park’s show at the Love Art Gallery (see “The Fall of St. Paula,” April 13, 2015) was that she had lost an immense amount of work in a studio fire about four years ago. The storage shed that contained dozens of her canvases somehow caught on fire and destroyed years of work. I am grateful to learn of the survival of the Love Art Gallery and look forward to seeing more of Hye Sook Park’s new paintings, which affirm the work yet to be done as always already being made vivid by the indestructibility of the joy of creation.

For those who want to visit:
Love Art Studio
15551 Cajon Blvd.
San Bernardino, CA 92407
(909) 576-5773

The Governance of Drought

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Governance of Drought: California, the Illusion of Plenitude, and the Presidential Election

The University of California, Davis maintains a website on which one can track the levels of water in California’s reservoir system. You can reach the most pertinent graph by scrolling down and noticing a rectangle on the right hand side marked “Reservoir Conditions.”


To say the portion of each reservoir’s rectangle that was filled in with blue was on the low side, back in February, 2016, is to understate the emergency that California faced after five years of harrowing drought. February itself had not brought predicted rains; instead, record heat had punished Southern California, and it appeared as if further rationing might be in store. For the record, here are reservoir levels on February 18: Shasta was only at 57% of capacity; Lake Oroville at 49 percent of capacity; Folsom at 64 percent of capacity, and Trinity at 33% of capacity. These levels, as a whole, were a full 25 percent below the historical average.

Fortunately, March brought enough substantial rainfall that the reservoirs returned to adequate levels to draw upon during this summer. The aquifers of the Central Valley, however, remain seriously depleted, and complete recovery is unlikely at any time in the foreseeable future. As is well known, the reservoirs depend to a great extent not upon direct rainfall, but upon the flow of water from snowmelt in the mountains. It wasn’t until the first couple days of May, therefore, that the largest reservoirs topped off at the highest levels in quite some time:
Shasta Reservoir was at 93 percent of capacity;
Lake Oroville was at 96 percent of capacity;
Folsom Lake was at 86 percent of capacity;
Trinity Lake was at only 58 percent of capacity, however.

In the three and a half months since that high water mark, these four reservoirs have been drained at a fairly steady rate. As of midnight, August 15, here are the capacity levels of the above quartet:
Shasta: 73%
Lake Oroville – 58%
Folsom Lake – 39%
Trinity – 45%

As one can see, Lake Oroville has had its contents put to work at a rate that bespeaks an unwarranted confidence in the winter to come; or should I say, the winters to come. It is unlikely that the storms we will have this coming winter will be even half as generous as the past winter. How is it then that Lake Oroville can plummet with so little concern about replenishment?

(I would insert an “update” note into this post, at 2:41 p.m. The Los Angeles Times, about a half-hour after I posted this blog entry, published an article by Matt Stevens about the lifting of water restrictions: http://fw.to/mh5PFyZ)

I would note that a trio of much smaller reservoirs further south along the Sierra Nevada, and more directly in line with the Central Valley’s pipelines, remains at more or less the same levels as they achieved in late spring, so obviously they are being held in reserve, should the ferocity of the drought prove to be planning a counter-attack on this illusion of plenitude during the coming winter.

In devouring the water at Lake Oroville this summer, one wonders if the people in charge realize that we still have at least two and a half months to go before we get the first storms of the 2016-2017 rainy season. That is, of course, if such storms actually show up. The past five years might be simply a foretaste of a challenging century in this nation’s most populous state.

One question relevant to the current presidential campaign involves these reservoirs, in fact. Hillary Clinton has spoken of an unprecedented investment in the nation’s infrastructure. Water is the crucial component of the Western half of the United States, and if Clinton wants to increase confidence in her ability to manage the coming water crisis, then it would behoove her to post some specific agenda plans on her website. I understand why it is unlikely that she (or VP nominee Kaine) will campaign much in person in California. That does not excuse not having already met with Governor Brown and other governors of the Western states and not having that dialogue’s outcome posted for public comment.

This leads me to today’s suggestion. What is needed at this point is not more debates between the presidential candidates, but a public meeting, at least three hours in length, at which each presidential candidate is in charge of a group of governors (no less than three, no more than five) discussing a major environmental issue and the direction that regulations should move in. It is time for the water levels of the reservoirs that are on display at the UC Davis website to stop being treated like polls of candidate preferences. First up, and then down, and let’s hope they rise again. Let the reality of ground level conditions be addressed in a thoughtful manner by those who aspire to determine the quality of our lives and of the environments we leave to our progeny. No more vague proposals about infrastructure, in other words!

Though I doubt that my suggestion will be enacted, I would suggest that if such a publicly broadcast meeting did take place, people would see that Hillary Clinton is the most qualified presidential candidate to be at a conference table in a meeting with oil company executives who want to increase fracking, alongside environmental representatives who are sitting to the other side of Governor Brown’s elbow. This is a dialogue, based on a grasp of ecological imperatives and acquisitive economics, that the American people deserve to hear. Please, we don’t need more rallies and fund raisers, but instead deserve the chance to see actual portrayals of governance. Yes, it would be make-believe, but no more make-believe than the promises we are asked to endorse with our votes.

Trump’s Margin of Manafort Error

Trump’s Margin of Manafort Error

According to a poll taken last week, and cited in the New York Times this morning, Donald Trump has achieved an inverse one-percent rating. This is to say that whereas the term “one percent” has by now largely conflated itself with the disparity between wealth and working people, Trump’s one percent in this instance refers to his level of support in African-American communities. If his ability to finance his own campaign in the GOP primaries indicates his exceptional ranking within American wealth holders, his inability to recognize wealth as anything but the prerogative of white people has led to his extraordinary unpopularity within even conservative factions of African-Americans voters.

In an attempt to portray itself as engaged in fair reporting, the Times parenthetically reminds its readers of any poll’s margin of error, which it notes might improve the results to reflect African-American support of Trump as possibly being as high as two and a half or three percent. I would suggest that Times neglected to mention that there is another way that that margin of error could operate. It is just as likely the case that Trump’s support among African-American voters is only .0001. I mention that the poll’s margin of error could work the other way — in a manner subtracting from the already mouth-dropping dismal digit — because I suspect that the one percent of African-Americans who responded positively to the poll on Trump misunderstood the question. Trust me on this: give any group of one hundred people a question to answer, and at least one person will turn in a response that does not accurately reflect their actual beliefs or analysis.

But why should a poll in African-American communities matter to Trump’s supporters? He could poll zero with all communities of color and it would not in the least matter to him or to Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager. Especially to Manafort, who would probably not flinch if he went back in time and was offered a chance to massage the public image of Adolph Hitler in 1933. In fact, offered enough money, Manafort might even accept the job in 1943. Why not? Is such retrospective speculation truly an ad hominem attack? Manafort has worked for Ferdinand Marcos and Victor F. Yanukovych, and with these two character references, he most certainly qualifies for a trial hot balloon fantasy of dallying with other dictators.

It cannot be said often enough: the fear that Trump aspires to imposing a dictatorial agenda on the United States is not an outlandish case of liberal paranoia. Mr. Manafort’s association with deposed elements in the Ukraine may or may not have required him to register as a foreign agent with the United States Justice Department, but American voters need to register the threat that such an individual would pose to every amendment but the second one, should the candidate he serves be elected in November.

Whether the allegations implied by the NY Times’ article about possible links between Mr. Manafort and records of cash payments in the Ukraine are true is not really my concern here. What I want made public is the actual amount of money paid to Mr. Manafort in legally cashed checks. That Mr. Manafort would willingly work for such individuals as Ferdinand Marcos and Mr. Yanukovych is the most disturbing issue, and PDFs of the checks he cashed should be posted on-line right now. If Trump wants to wait until after the third debate to release his taxes, I’m willing to wait. Manafort’s books are surely not being audited, and I see no reason why he should not give us immediate and unconditional access to his tax returns.

It is not fun to vote out of revulsion and loathing, but this time it is unavoidable. Elections are not fun; they are not about awarding public office to someone you “like” or “want to spend time with.” In a little over a dozen weeks, American voters will decide whether Mr. Manafort will be awarded the post of Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense in February, 2017. And if you think I’m exaggerating the nature of what’s at stake here, just remember what happened in the aftermath of the 2000 election.

I don’t care what polls say about Hillary Clinton’s lead. If we don’t keep the pressure on, and remind people what will happen if Trump wins, then we will lose every social gain that has been achieved since the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., Bobby Kennedy, and Harvey Milk. If America is to be “great again,” let it be the greatness of reinforcing diversity they dreamed of.

On the Fiction and Poetry of Marge Piercy

Sunday, August 14, 2016

When the Insight of the Theme Is Less than the Sum of the Sentences: Marge Piercy and the Need to Write Less (and Better)

I first read Marge Piercy’s poems back in 1969, when I bought a copy of Breaking Camp at the UCLA Bookstore. Piercy was much younger than Philip Levine, whose Not This Pig had also been published by Wesleyan University Press the year before. I had purchased Levine’s book in large part because Glover Davis, his former student, had brought Levine to San Diego State to give a reading. It’s possible that Piercy’s book caught my attention because she, too, was born in Detroit and emphasized working-class themes of a struggle to keep one’s imagination intact in the face of numbing labor. In truth, though, despite the fact that I have been intermittently reading her poetry ever since, I have to confess that I would be hard pressed to name a specific poem of hers that I admire. I still buy her books, though, because there is something I admire about her gritty persistence. She is better known as a novelist than as a poet, though, so I will start with that portion of her body of writing.

I find myself writing about Piercy today because I have given myself a couple of hours of respite from the travail of assisting my 94 year old mother as she slips into dementia, and decided to work on my bookshelves, which are more chaotically organized than ever. One of the books I pulled off was Sex Wars: A Novel of Gilded Age New York, which was published in the middle of the last decade. Perhaps the coinciding hand of historical events guided my hand to the shelf with that book, for one of its primary characters is Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for President. Unlike Hillary Clinton, Woodhull faced an overwhelming number of obstacles in converting her candidacy into an electoral victory, not the least of which was her inability to vote for herself, since suffrage for women was still decades in the offing.

I wish I could say that Sex Wars is worth reading, but as I browsed its paragraphs, I recollected that I had had a similar problem with other novels by Piercy that I have looked at in the past. Her sentences, as sentences, are just not very interesting. I suppose it is the case that many readers don’t care about the quality of a writer’s sentences, but I fear that remaining silent in the face of mediocrity carries more of a penalty than I want to be held accountable for. I have no doubt that her readership will call me a male chauvinist snob and an academic elitist, but before any of the readers of this blog join in their assessment, I ask merely one question: why is it that I have no hesitation in calling P.D. James a major novelist of the 20th century? My indifference to Piercy’s writing is not an issue of the gender of the author. P.D. James writes marvelous sentences, one after another, and the cadences of her narratives are alluring and ooze wisdom and wit. I am not worthy to touch the ribbon of her typewriter. In the limited time I have on this planet, I want to spend as much of it as possible reading only work that has earned my attention to every syllable. It’s all in the coil and recoil of one’s sentences, and I do not want to settle for anything less. Nor am I alone in this. In saying all this, I do want to add that it gives no pleasure to write such a grouchy critique. But what can one do when what I call the Charles Dickens’ Syndrome is so actively sedating the very consciousness that imaginative sentences are meant to revivify?

Perhaps, of course, Piercy does not care whether she is remembered as a writer. She has had a career as a prolific writer, and she has continued to publish poetry as well as fiction. If she is satisfied, then I congratulate her on a life that has fulfilled her original impetus. Some of her best writing, in fact, in her most recent book of poetry, Made in Detroit, is about those days as a youthful writer. “Why did the palace of excess have cockroaches?” is a fine haibun in which youthful folly is mocked with rueful, disenchanted nostalgia, and “My Time in Better Dresses” decants the bittersweet discrepancies that branded one’s self-awareness from the days of one’s first job. On the whole, though, there are just too many poems with predictable or unsatisfying outcomes.

In thinking of Piercy’s writing, I suppose one might remember the distinction visual artists make between painters and illustrators, with the latter category not being particularly admired. Piercy does seem more like an illustrator, though when she is at her best, it is well done. In fact, better than well done. As a counterbalance, therefore, to the dismay I have reluctantly shared in today’s blog, I would like to end with the first stanza of “The Late Year,” in which the image lingers long after the words are read. To do that even once in a writer’s life is no small accomplishment. Piercy has done it more than once, of course. I just wish she had reached this level with more consistency.

I like Rosh Hashanah late,
when the leaves are half-burnt,
umber and scarlet, when sunset
marks the horizon with slow fire
and the black silhouettes
of migrating birds perch
on the wires davening.
(from “The Late Year”; Made in Detroit, page 93)

This is not as skillful or well rendered as Sylvia Plath’s “Black Rook in Rainy Weather” or Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” but it’s a like a small oil painting over in a quiet corner of a museum. I am grateful for the nearby chair and for the fact that the room is empty except for me. Maybe it doesn’t take my breath away, but it reminds me to breathe more slowly, and to be grateful for that breath. The rest of the poem is worth reading, too, and it will more than repay the time it took for you to find it.

(I wish to thank Bird & Beckett bookstore in San Francisco for having Piercy’s MADE IN DETROIT for sale on their shelves. It is always a pleasure to support such an enterprise.)

Ted Simmons and the Venice Poetry Company

A FORGOTTEN ANTHOLOGY OF EARLY 1970s L.A. POETRY: Ted Simmons and the Venice Poetry Company

Even though I only vaguely remember meeting Ted Simmons in the early 1970s, I have half-convinced myself that he was still doing some occasional typesetting work at Beyond Baroque’s New Comp Graphics in the mid-1970s. If anyone has a specific recollection of him, please write me at William.BillMohr@gmail.com. I doubt that I will ever work on another book-length literary history, but I will keep whatever notes are sent to me in an archive so that others can draw upon them.
I was young enough back then that anyone over 30 did seem old enough to belong to the swamp of middle age. That much more in poetry was going on in L.A. County than I suspected back in the early 1970s is evidenced by an anthology edited by Ted Simmons, which encompassed the readings that were proliferating in Los Angeles County at the time. The book itself had an unwieldy title, but Simmons wrote a brief introduction that complements Joseph Hansen’s memory of the first five years of Beyond Baroque’s history in yesterday’s post. I reprint Simmons’s justification for his book:

“The Venice Poetry Company’s series of readings held variously in Venice, Santa Monica, Hermosa Beach and San Pedro reached at times those Orphic heights that a righteous setting, an audience of sense & sensibility, and poets of talent – some of genius – might promise.

“Poetry reading, while ranked hindmost in this day and age (far below ballet, even chamber music) is foremost as an art form. It is equal to drama in its drama; equal to music in its music; equal to ballet in gesture; in toto, foremost. Yet most poetry readings fail, and the worst are dreadfully boring experiences. There isn’t much one can do about it either. Poets are not trained seals and so there is no real place for direction. Actors sometimes give readings but these too often are primarily a presentation of technique and trickery. The poetry gets lost. A good poetry reading is a happening. Once in a while the chemistry is just right and you have an explosion.

“As for this collection, I hope it contain ‘explosion,’ however what works on the stage does not necessarily work on the page so I have not attempted a literal transcription of the readings – “The Best From…” This is a surrogate, yielding to the facts, yet attempting to transmit some of the tension, spirit, and excitement of the Venice Poetry Company series….”
(Signed) Ted Simmons

(Note: The numbers between titles and the names of the poets indicate the page numbers of this volume.)

VALLEJO (7) Charles Bukowski
PINE KNOB MONDO (8) John Thomas
THROW AWAY THE KEYS (8) Michael Horowitz
AMONG THE PEOPLE (11) Bill Jackson
THE LOS ANGELES TIMES (12) Jack Hirschman
TARZAN (12) Ronald Koertge
SOLDIER (14) Emmett Williams
FIRE SONNET (16) Ted Simmons
WAR GAME (16) Samuel A. Eisenstein
IT’s ALL IN THE BURNING (19) Charles Bukowksi
ONE DAY, 1971 (20) Alan Brilliant
THE TOAD (21) Gerald Locklin
LEAVES (22) Barba Margolis
TO VINCENT’S EAR, LISTENING (23) William J. Margolis
ZYKLUS (25) Jack Hirschman
WHO COMES (26) Helen Luster
ANGEL OF MERCY! (27) Eugene Redmond
AT THE CHECKOUT STAND (28) John Montgomery
DAGWOOD (29) Ron Koertge
TRAVEL (30) Marguerie Harris
GLAD DAY (32) Michael Horovitz
LA DOLCE VITA (35) Ted Simmons
GHETTO (36) Jack Hirschman
NOTES TOWARDS A HEADSTONE (38) Samuel A. Eisenstein
DUE ON TRACK 6 (38) Barba Margolis
THE BOMBING OF BERLIN (39) Charles Bukowksi
DUMPLING HILL (40) Gerald Locklin
THE WIND (41) Taliessin
LATE FOR SEASONS OF LOVE (42) William J. Margolis
AN ANCIENT GOD (42) Helen Luster
JERUSALEM LTD. (45) Jack Hirschman
EXHIBITIONIST (46) R. Tevis Boulware
POEM FOR FRIENDS (47) Quincy Troupe

In alphabetical order, here are the contemporary poets appearing in this volume: Hilary Ayer, Tevis Boulware, Alan Brilliant, Charles Bukowski, Samuel Eisenstein, Stuart Frieberg, Margarie Harris, Jack Hirschman, Michael Horowitz, Ron Koertge, Arthur Lerner, Gerald Locklin, Helen Luster, K. Curtis Lyle, William J. Margolis, Barba (Barbara) Margolis, Deena Metzger, John Montgomery, Eugene Richmond, Yu Suwa, Taliessin, John Thomas, David Valjalo, Quincy Troupe, and Emmett Williams. Plus one by Anonymous, who should be at the start of the list, I suppose, along with the Master of Ceremonies in Eternity, Po Chu-I (aka Bai Juyi).

If I had been far enough along to coordinate a reading series back in 1972, I would probably be happy to have the overwhelming majority of the poets in this volume read. In particular, one notes the blend of the Beat (John Montgomery, John Thomas, and William Margolis) along with the proto-Stand-Up (Bukowski, Koertge, Locklin); along with Watts Writers Workshop progeny Quincy Troupe and K. Curtis Lyle, and British beat poet Michael Horowitz, and feminist poet Deena Metzger. To have a Chilean poet in exile worked into the mix is even more intriguing. Some people may not recognize some of these names, but for the record let me remind you that John Montgomery was the real-life poet who appeared in Kerouac’s “BIG SUR,” and William J. Margolis was a close poet friend of Bob Kaufman, a major Beat poet who is still a neglected figure.

In point of fact, was there a reading series organized by anyone in San Francisco in 1971-1972 that would have featured such a set of poets? I am not trying to stir up the sibling rivalry between L.A. and S.F. that Neeli Cherkovski and I tried to reveal as a media-stoked publicity gimmick through our editorial collaboration in CROSS-STROKES: Poems between Los Angeles and San Francisco. On the other hand, so many people (especially in Northern California) have a fantasy of that region being always much more active in terms of poetry readings that it gets a bit tiresome. A little fact-checking research proves the case to be different than expected. Thanks to the cultural work of Ted Simmons, we have evidence of one more distinguished reading series in Los Angeles County than has previously been acknowledged.

Joseph Hansen and the Early Days of Beyond Baroque

Friday, August 12, 2016

Addendum to HOLDOUTS: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance 1948-1992

A couple weekends ago, I drove down to UC Irvine to meet with Dina Moinzedeh, a graduate student from France who is on the verge of completing a dissertation on Charles Bukowski. She asked me to take a look at the first chapter, and I spent over two and a half hours talking with her about it. In the draft I read, I noted that she cited my Holdouts a fair number of times, primarily to provide a literary context for Bukowski’s writing. If Holdouts devoted very little time to Bukowski’s writing, it was in part because I didn’t want newcomers to the history of communities of poets in Los Angeles to get a distorted understanding of the scenes by a disproportionate emphasis on his poems. It would have been more than appropriate, of course, to have included a 20 page overview of his poetry, since he is one of the major figures to come out of this particular region, and his international renown is continuing to expand, and I will have to write such an article in the near future in order to redress this omission. If I am overdue in writing on any writer, it is to my shame that I have put off this article so long. My focus, though, in Holdouts was on the contribution that Bukowski made as editor of a literary magazine and co-editor of Anthology of L.A. Poets (Red Hill Press, 1972).

One obstacle to including such a section on Bukowski’s poetry in Holdouts was that my original manuscript logged in at somewhere around 120,000 words, and the University of Iowa Press insisted on cutting it to 90,000 words, which effectively meant that every fourth page had to be deleted. (With a straight face, they added: “Keep the good stuff.”) Given that Holdouts was already too long, according to Iowa, one can understand how trying to squeeze in additional commentary on Bukowski was next to impossible. The compression of the penultimate draft of Holdouts required that an immense amount of relevant detail and evidence be eliminated; it should surprise no one when I mention that Paul Vangelisti recently said that my dissertation is better than the book. I’ll leave that to others to argue about, but the fact remains that not only did the book not incorporate key moments in the history of these communities, but my dissertation didn’t include them either.

To give one instance of neglected material, it is the case that I do refer to Joseph Hansen’s articles about the Bridge and the early days of the Beyond Baroque workshop, but it’s a pity that neither the book nor the dissertation provided a big enough stage to cite the following:

“The Workshop had a crowd of taxi-drivers at that time – Ed Entin, Phil Taylor, Dennis Holt, as well as Barry (Simons). …. It was Dennis who arranged for us to read at Cal State Northridge after Venice Thirteen was published. The buildings seemed to me raw, and the sunlit library where we read had hundreds of books on the shelves that look untouched by human hands. The place was full. our outspoken language didn’t seem to offend anyone. Luis Campos, a delicately made man with a shy smile and a Spanish accent, drew laughs with his mordant view of plastic America, its fast food chains and hair spray commercials. So did John Harris’s “Deuteronomy Edition,” hacked from assorted sources – newspaper want ads, cooking columns, society pages, astrological forecasts, weather reports – and read by the entire crew. Luis’ tape recorder had awaken us to the possibilities in multi-voice poems.” (Bachy, issue number 10, page 139)

A group reading of a collage poem was just one small, but brightly colored rhomboid in the mosaic of community maturation for the poets of Los Angeles at that time, but it wasn’t an isolated instance. Rather, it was part of the trajectory that would lead to an entire day and evening given to the composition and reading of poems written by groups of us at Beyond Baroque in the mid-1970s. Jim Krusoe once said to me that one of his biggest regrets about those years is that he didn’t gather all the pages we wrote that day and keep them together in a folder. It certainly wasn’t the case that we didn’t like what we wrote. The collaborative event was a jovial occasion, but we regarded the day as being the equivalent of a jam session of musicians, and in our exuberance forgot what we were conscious of all along: something special was happening in Venice and Hollywood and many points in between, as well as to the north and south of this axis; and it deserved preservation. One can only sigh in wistful speculation. Few enough photographs exist of that time, and but even more tinged with regret is the fact that the amount of writing lost along the way is an aporia that will haunt the legend of those days each time the surviving archives are looked into by the scholars to come.

“URBAN TUMBLEWEED”: The Signature Fragrance of Harryette Mullen

Thursday, August 11, 2016

In the past three years, I have written about poetry, music, painting, theater, and politics. I don’t see these topics as being particularly separate subjects, but one thing I’ve learned from studying the careers of “successful” endeavors is that a “focus” on one particular subject or theme increases one’s chance for public recognition. It would seem to be the case that people prefer to know ahead of time what might be in store for them if they “tune in.”

Sorry to disappoint you, but I’m not interested in strict predictability. If I want to write about the problem of increasing the use of mass transit in Southern California one day, and then write about poetry the next, then I am going to do so. On the other hand, I may write about the current presidential election several days in a row; and readers who have dropped in for a while might wonder what happened to “Poetry Loves Poetry.” Let not anyone fret that I have decided to jettison poetry in hopes that a blog focused primarily on politics might increase my readership. I have recently begun to average 1,000 hits a day, but I have little interest in surpassing that figure.

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post on Jack Grapes’s new collection of haiku, I have chosen “URBAN TUMBLEWEED: Notes from a Tanka Diary” by Harryette Mullen, which was published three years ago by Greywolf Press; I confess that I didn’t know about it until I picked up a copy at the Graywolf Press exhibit booth at this past spring’s AWP convention in Los Angeles. The juxtaposition in my blog of two Los Angeles poets who are writing in forms primarily associated with Japanese poetry is a matter of coincidental acquisition. I had Mullen’s book on my nightstand when Grapes’s volume arrived in the mail, and they paired up together in the tidal shift of that stack of books, which also includes a superb collection of poems by Michael Hannon as well as a thick volume of Andrei Codrescu’s slightly whacky verse.

One tends to think of haiku and tanka as balancing acts of reconciliation. For both Grapes and Mullen, the gritty edges of the personal and impersonal within the turbulence of ever intensifying modernity generate a degree of uncertainty that makes Keats’ “negative capability” seem like a vacation cruise. Both poets mount a not-so-camouflaged challenge to their onlookers, though Mullen puts it the most bluntly:

When I am blazing ghost animated by motion
capture and you the wind inhaling words
then how on earth do you read me?

That tanka serves as an example of how Mullen makes existence crackle with its original temporality of displacement. Nor do things yield easily in her imagination to the pressures of metamorphosis. Here is the one “preceding” the one above (you’ll understand the scare quotes soon):

A green streak swooshed across the sky
with a shower of brilliant blue sparks. A boulder
hurled from heaven breaking apart in earth’s air.

There is an asymmetrical, bristling energy fusing the disintegration of things in Mullen’s poems. It is not quite violence operating an agent of a malevolent domain; rather, some alien subterfuge, awkwardly coming to age, is propelling the outer world that these tanka inhabit. Fortunately, Mullen’s tanka remind me to breathe deeply as a way of keeping my balance; perceive things as they are; and thereby dispel the seductive trance of nihilism. It may not be satori, but it’s close enough to do the job. Don’t expect a smooth ride, though: there’s an abrasive bounce to the inner gravity of Mullen’s peregrinations, and she spares no one in the journey, least of all herself.

There I went, leaving only my footprints.
Returning, I brought back nothing but
the dust that clings to the soles of a wanderer.

(One hears an echo here of Weldon Kees, whose poem “Back” is one of the great minor lyrics of the 20th century.)

The most surprising part of reading Mullen’s book happened after I read the final entry and suddenly thought to myself – what if the book began here? What if there’s a secret chiasmic passageway in this labyrinth of castings? What if the entrance and exit share the possibility of retracing each other, in a kind of mirrored simultaneity? And so I began reading the book again, starting with the final tanka and working my way back to the first one. The sequence seemed to flow with more inner illumination when read in that reverse procession, though this might be just an idiosyncrasy that no one else will ever share.

I am not in any way suggesting that Mullen should have published this collection of tanka in reverse order. I rather like the undulant indeterminancy of this sequence, and how it loops in an affirmation of hard-won pleasure. No matter in which direction you start, upon picking up “URBAN TUMBLEWEED,” you won’t go wrong if you had back to Grapes’s haiku and enjoy the buoyancy of his sauntering wit as a way of easing back down to the wide road of your own life.

Finally, in this review, it should be noted that I have reversed the order of the tanka that appear on page 91 of “URBAN TUMBLEWEED,” and I hope that Harryette Mullen will accept this presentation as a genuine homage to her nimble imagination.

An Inside-Out Outsider: Jack Grapes and the Cherished Nouns of Stand Up Haiku

Monday, August 10, 2016

The Phantom Dwelling of an Inside-Out Outsider: Jack Grapes and the Cherished Nouns of Stand Up Haiku

“So much ink wasted on verbs. / Stand still — cherished nouns.”

When Jack Grapes sent me a copy of WIDE ROAD to the edge of the world: 301 haiku and One Long Essay: “A Windswept Spirit” a month or so ago, I was surprised by both the size of the book and the print run. It’s an odd size, around three inches high and four inches wide, but at an inch thick, it’s enough of a block of paper to shoulder its way onto your bookshelf. Well over two-thirds of its 600 plus pages are devoted to a long essay on haiku, which specialists might read in its entirety, but I am going to pass on it. For one thing, the type is just too small; moreover, a spot check of randomly selected passages did not rev up my curiosity enough to want to start at the beginning and read it all the way through. I must be getting more impatient in my old age than I ever realized: an uninteresting look at WC Williams’s classic poem about a red wheelbarrow was in itself almost enough to deter any further perusal of this long treatise. Fortunately, I did keep browsing and encountered another section about a haiku club established by Grapes with a fellow fifth grade student back when the Brooklyn Dodgers won their only World Series. Inspired by one of Issa’s lesser known haiku, the elementary school haiku club ended up naming itself “The Bats.” Though I recollect a chapbook by C.K. Williams devoted to translations of Issa’s haiku, he is still not known as well as he should be in the United States, and you will probably find at least one of his poems in Grapes’s essay that you had not previously encountered.
Writing shit about new snow
for the rich
is not art.
Perhaps Grapes published the essay in a limited edition book out of a distrust of the permanence of the electronic library. The recent case of Dennis Cooper’s on-line material being completely jettisoned by corporate overlords is a cautionary tale about the internet, and so I’m happy that Grapes has chosen the road less traveled on these days to preserve his meandering essay. Nevertheless, having invested so much time on this project, he should post it in larger print on some website posthaste, and I do mean larger print. Obviously, the advantage of public distribution on a website is that there isn’t any limit to an essay’s length, but the scroll bar is actually a tougher adjudicator of a reader’s attention span. Not only does it not take long to let up on that descending pressure point, but nothing about the experience rewards one on a sensory level with anything comparable to the solace of paper’s caress of a fingertip. In the case of this essay, I would still cast my lot with a much shorter essay on paper.

For those who love short poems and who still prefer an experience of reading embedded in print culture, then I would recommend a magazine that I wish Grapes had sent some of his haiku to before he published this collection. If any periodical would have proved hospitable to Grapes’s renewed devotion to haiku, it would be none other than Hummingbird, which is currently edited by CX Dillhunt. The saddle-stitched magazine was founded over twenty years ago by Phyllis Walsh, and it almost folded after she died, but it’s a tribute to the inspiring quality of her editing that her admiring readership refused to let it expire. For those who read Grapes’s haiku and wish they could receive some regular infusion of short poems, then I urge you to subscribe to this magazine:
7129 Lindfield Road
Madison, Wisconsin 53719

Until your first issue of HUMMINGBIRD arrives, I offer you several of my favorite haiku in “Wide Road”:

Circumcision day.
Little brother in his crib.
The bloody diaper.

Why is it five seven five?
Seven five seven
works just fine, if you ask me.

Okay pal, hands up
Gimme all your money, punk,
and your heartache, too.

The dialectic’s
undeniable power:

Once I was a dog.
No one was afraid of me.
I licked people’s hands.

I would be with you
if I could not be alone.
But I can. I can.

Where are we going?
Body outside of body
Mind inside of mind

We’re fresh in the grave
when the grim minister speaks:
blah blah blah blah blah

This last one I’ve cited is Grapes’s response to one of the haiku by Issa that he cites in his essay. Like Issa, Grapes is by his own account “an inside-out outsider.” As uneven as this book is, it still remains worth tracking down, and any serious library will want to have a copy on its shelves.

Jack will be reading along with other contributors (Meg Eden and Mari Werner) to recent issues of RATTLE poetry magazine on Sunday, August 14, at the La Canada/Flintridge Bookstore and Coffee House,
1010 Foothill Blvd, at 5pm.

His featured poem in the most recent issue of RATTLE is “Any Style,” and you can find it at: http://www.rattle.com/any-style-by-jack-grapes/