Alexis Rhone Fancher on Margaret Tynes Fairley’s Poetry

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

“Don’t let the civility of a bygone century deceive you. Upon first reading, these poems to nature, gathered by season, highlight the surface transparency of Margaret Tynes Fairley’s work. All are beautifully crafted gems. All celebrate nature in her capricious glory. Yet on closer examination, each of these complex, exquisite poems contains facets somewhat off; the natural world, its order gone slightly awry. The human enters the equation, sometimes with joy, but often with heartbreak. Underneath the natural order: disorder. Even chaos. ‘The dark conspiracy of spruce.’ And below that, ‘a hint of insurrection;’ below that, a knowing calm. The earth’s pull, a centering, as the years swirl around the recurrent themes of birth, death, and renewal. Fairley, ‘dressed in motley,’ ‘playing the fool,’ delves into a nature so profound that it takes on and explores a chameleon persona – lover, sister, protector, and yes, beloved mother.

“Margaret Tynes Fairley transcends the centuries with poems lyrical yet terse and biting enough to satisfy the 21st century sensibilities in each of us.”

– Alexis Rhone Fancher, author of State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies, poetry editor, Cultural Weekly

Both Alexis and I drove up from the South Bay area to Beyond Baroque this past Sunday to celebrate the publication of Fairley’s collection poems, The Years Wear the Seasons, by Bambaz Press. Alexis drove from San Pedro with the smoothest flow of traffic that one could hope for; and Linda and I were equally fortunate. All three of us were exceptionally impressed by the passionate renditions of Fairley’s poems by her granddaughter, Rose, who works as a nurse in North Carolina.

I was also pleased to meet Matthew Hetznecker, who had a book entitled A.S. for sale, which was published four years ago. I have just begun to read its quartet of short prose installations: “Loose Ends”; “Ties That Bind”; “Laced”; “Knots.” The titles seem reticent to admit the subtle rambunctiousness of Hetznecker’s notations. His writing reminds me of the kind of work that George Drury Smith was seeking — and having a hard time finding — when he started his literary magazine, Beyond Baroque, a half century ago. Sometimes one must wait a long time for the right antecedent to show up.

A Reading to Honor the Poetry of Margaret Tynes Fairley

Saturday, March 18, 2018

The Years Wear The Seasons - BLOG

A number of years ago, one of the poets I most admire, Robert Mezey, worked assiduously to get the poems of Virginia Hamilton Adair into wider circulation. Ants on the Melon, Adair’s debut collection, was published in 1996, when she was 83 years old.

The poet and editor Bambi Here, whose imprint is Bambaz Press, has just published a book worthy to be set alongside Adair’s volume. The Year Wears the Seasons, by Margaret Tynes Fairley (1902-1986) is a collection of poems that contains some of the most exquisite lyrical poems to have been written in the 20th century. In drawing upon the metrical traditions of English poetry, Fairley makes it look easy to write in this manner. What impresses me the most, in fact, is how Fairley could be said to ride her lines like a jockey who trusts her mount. Her touch on the reins is light, but precise.

There is indeed a tendency, especially on the part of inexperienced readers, to tense up when they hear the word “prosody.” Indeed, it is a word that can strike fear all too quickly into even experienced readers, as if the traditional use of meter transformed a reader into astronaut being dared to double-down on Hopkins’s sprung rhythm, and that some black hole of spondaic immersion hunches on its throne at the edge of a galaxy, waiting to pull you into its inescapable gravity.

Relax! Fairley has no desire to have you do anything other than begin to appreciate your own inner rhythms.

“The whole wide orchestra of earth gives sound
To each who tunes his fiddle simply
On his holy ground.”
(“Why Should We Seek to Do it All”)

No doubt this reassurance will not suffice, and there will be readers who first start reading Kay Ryan or Marilyn Hacker in hopes of making their prosodic muscles loose and nimble enough again to savor the swirl of Fairley’s dancing syllables. If you truly feel that ill at ease, however, I am not sure that any poet could accommodate your anxiety. At that point, I can only recommend that you go back to the best of Thomas Hardy or renew your acquaintance with that forgotten classic of English poetry, “The Listeners,” by Walter de la Mare.

For those who feel at home in reading a poet with subtle metrical dexterity that turns away all pretense about its use, however, then Fairley’s book has some memorable poems to share with you immediately: “The Question”; “Come look –“; and “Bodies Touch.” In particular, I would like to praise Fairley’s “Although Unasked,” which is a poem that deserves to be set aside the minor masterpiece of Janet Lewis’s marvelous “Baby Goat.” Rarely does metrical nuance embrace a set of images with so much forthright tenderness.

Only the new=born calf
Is real and intimate as hand.
He couldn’t wait for warmer days.
This was his hour, he learned to stand,
When other creatures shivered in some hole.
He had no time or chance to know
If there was room or even shelter from the cold.
The star that brands his knobby head
Is clear and soft and shining white;
Although, unasked, he came to birth
On this the coldest winter night.

On Sunday, March 19, starting at 12:30 p.m., Beyond Baroque will host a reading to celebrate the publication of The Year Wears the Seasons. Along with members of Fairley’s family, both Alexis Rhone Fancher and I plan on being there to read a few of her poems. We hope you can join us.

Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center
681 Venice Blvd.
Venice, CA 90291

Websignature - two

— Bill Mohr

Past Lives: Poet, Editor, Publisher, Continuation School Teacher, and the Beat

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Although I am working on new poems and thinking about which of my past academic talks I should begin revising in hopes of publication, the challenge of setting aside time to make those endeavors my sole concern remains as complicated as ever. A year and a half ago, one of the members of Beyond Baroque’s Board of Trustees asked me to join the Board, a move that I can hardly afford to undertake on a financial level, let alone how much time that requires. Even during times when the GDP of the United States indicates the system’s general economic stability, non-profit arts organizations must negotiate and bargain with a culture that did not particularly want them to last more than a decade or two. To attain the half-century mark is no small achievement, but Beyond Baroque is hardly assured of a sufficient budget for its future programming.

This weekend has been one of the highlights of the spring season. Funded completely out of his own pocket, S.A. Griffin has organized a celebration of the Beat movement, which concludes tomorrow evening with a musical performance by David Amram. Yesterday afternoon, I gave a talk on Venice West, and then moderated a panel at which two of the original members of that community recalled their experiences in considerable detail. Frank T. Rios Joseph Patton, and Gayle Davis talked with each other in an honest manner about the glorious sense of freedom that Venice West exuded along with the eventual confinements of drug addiction. Paton acknowledged that Rios has pulled him out of addiction. Rios, in turn, credited the Poem with saving his life.

Fortunately, UCLA had sent out a camera and a one-man crew to record this conversation, so future scholars of Venice West will understand how much visual art mattered to this scene. It was a pleasure to hear the work of Don Martin and Saul White cited so frequently. I am not certain when the tape will be available for viewing, but I hope that someday it can be posted on-line so that scholars and students have easy access to it.

Oddly enough, Venice West often gets summed up by a quick reference to a handful of poets, and yet the conversation yesterday barely got around to discussing John Thomas, and William Margolis was not mentioned at all. Margolis, who was a close friend of Bob Kaufman’s when he lived in San Francisco, is hardly neglected this weekend, though. He is the subject of a documentary film by Don Rothenberg that will be shown today from 3:30 to 4:00 p.m. There will also be a discussion of the Beat and Buddhism with Marc Olmsted, who was also read with Steve Silberman and Tate Swindell in a segment on Gay Beat writing (4:30 – 6 p.m.).

Considering how skittish L.A. residents can be about a rain storm finally showing up after months of a renewed drought, the audiences have been surprisingly large enough to make this festival of the Beat a satisfying occasion and more than worth S.A. Griffin’s extended efforts in putting it all together. Paul Vangelisti, for instance, was supposed to be part of the panel on Venice West, but a dead battery kept him tethered at home. He told me, however, that 30 people had shown up for his reading with Neeli Cherkovski.
About three dozen poets will have read their poetry or talked about the Beat and the Neo-beat by the time David Amram gives a musical performance tomorrow night (Monday, at 9:30 p.m. I truly wish that I had enough time to have been at all the events of this festival. I regret especially not being able to attend the opening ceremonies featuring Frank T. Rios and George Herms, as well as the “Women of the Beat Generation Reading.” I would have loved to have heard Yama Lake, Larry Lake’s son, read, too, as well Marc Olmsted. In addition, Michael C. Ford and Will Alexander were giving talks.

One of the highlights of this festival, however, was probably the “Punk & Beat reading” by Linda J. ALbertano, Iris Berry, Jack Brewer, Michael Lane Bruner, S.A. Griffin, Doug Knott, and A. Razor. All I can say is that I want an extended encore presentation at a time that allows me to absorb the full ramifications of these lifetimes of contumacious poetics.

It was perhaps appropriate that I began the day by meeting with Pedro Paulo Araujo, who is working on a short animated film based on the final two stanzas of Leland Hickman’s poem, “The Hidden.” That poem was one of ten “Elements” that was published in Hickman’s Great Slave Lake Suite in 1980. I met with Pedro at 10:00 a.m. at Portfolio Coffeehouse in Long Beach to discuss Hickman’s poetry in general and that poem in particular. I gave him a copy of “Lee Sr. Falls to the Floor,” which Lee had written in the mid-1960s, as a means of providing some background for Lee’s life-long wrestling with the sudden death of his father. Pedro became interested in Lee’s poetry because his film company is working on digitizing the audio tapes of readings at Beyond Baroque. One recent tape he worked on was a reading Lee gave with Barrett Watten in 1984, on one of the coldest nights that anyone in Venice could recall. The audience was very small – maybe about eight people – and almost all of us at one point or another had to get up and walk around the read area of the folding chairs in order to warm up. We were bundled up in sweaters and jackets, but it wasn’t enough. Still, it was one of the best readings I ever attended.

Before heading off to my meeting with Pedro, I took a quick look at the first set of galleys for my forthcoming book from What Books. The typeface seems on the comfortable and familiar side, and perhaps that will work out for the best. The poems, which appear in both English and Spanish, are varied enough in their shapeliness that a more unusual typeface might prove distracting. I’ve waited a long time for this book and can’t wait to send my closest friends a copy.

Finally, I want to mention how much I appreciated seeing Carolyn Rios at yesterday’s event at Beyond Baroque. I worked with Carolyn’s students at Venice Continuation High School for several years (1989-1996). Most of the time I was an artist-in-residence funded by the Cultural Affairs Department of the City of Los Angeles. The CPITS (California Poets in the Schools) program had largely lost its impetus, at least in Southern California, by the mid-1980s, and I had turn to other sources for support in order to teach poetry to young people. Although I worked at other continuation high schools, too, Venice Continuation High holds a special place in my heart. I guess I have indeed aged, though. Carolyn at first did not recognize me, even though we were in Beyond Baroque’s lobby for several minutes before we happened to start talking to each other. On the other hand, until she took off her beret, I did not recognize her, either. Once memory had adjusted to present perception, though, we both felt as young as ever.

Caliban; KYSO; and Rae Armantrout

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Larry Smith has posted the latest edition of Caliban Chronicles, which is emphatically worth reading at this turning point in our country’s history. It is perhaps more than a little ironic that the heroic evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940 is being recounted in a major film right now. One might watch this film and be lulled into believing that World War II settled the matter of fascist government as an acceptable form of civilized social rule once and for all. Not so. Like an insidious, implacable virus, fascism has returned. Do not be deceived by the seemingly benign familiarity of its current malefactors. They are intent on imposing a firm, remorseless dictatorship on the American people that will be every bit as ruthless as that exacted on the people of Iraq subsequent to the American invasion. The prisons for those who resist will be administered by the same rule-book. Unless we act now in a vigilant manner, our fate will approach a precipice that will allow very little room to maneuver. Acting now, though, is not a matter of all work and no celebration. Larry Smith calls for us to affirm a balance in our lives in which joy also has time to cavort.

One of the very best magazines in the country right now, KYSO (Knock Your Socks Off) has just published its ninth issue. Clare MacQueen has kept this project going for five years now, and her roster of writers is growing more familiar with each issue. She is one of the five best editors to have emerged in the independent press movement in the past two decades. In particular, she has championed micro-fiction, transgressive poetry, and hybrids of those genres.

Finally, it is a personal pleasure to post a link to an interview with Rae Armantrout, a poet born in the same year as I was (1947) and who also briefly studied with the same teacher I had at San Diego State University, Glover Davis. Rae Armantrout is indeed one of very best poets of the Baby Boomer generation, and I have long admired her work. I think back on a meal at a restaurant in Ocean Park I shared with Ron Silliman and Rae Ron had come down from San Francisco to give a talk and reding at Beyond Baroque, which was also attended by Lee Hickman. Ocean Park had not yet gentrified, and eating at a restaurant within walking distance of my apartment on Hill Street gave his weekend’s presentations a celebratory touch. There was a sense of lively humor, in part because my girlfriend at the time, Cathay, was not particularly interested in poetry and had no stake in literary jostling. She primarily read mysteries, and it was thanks to her that I began to read Raymond Chandler seriously. Oddly enough, I had read Ross MadDonald lin the mid-1970s, but skipped right back to my usual fare of novels without moving on to Chandler. Cathay, Ron, and Rae seemed both to enjoy Cathay’s push-back wit. As we ate our pasta, the discussion hardly hid the fact that Ron, Rae, and I were all ambitious for our work, although we did not necessarily expect any larger recognition than what we were then receiving.

We would not eat together again until Ron gave a reading in San Diego while I was a graduate student. We had by then achieved more acclaim, but Ron had not yet published The Alphabet; Rae was still working as an adjunct; and I was a teaching assistant over the age of 50, which is to say that the odds were heavily against me getting a tenure-track job. Rae was not that much more optimistic. A literary life is not feasible if one is easily discouraged or given to stultifying self-reproach.

In thinking fondly, therefore, with retrospective appreciation of that meal in Ocean Park, and all that Ron, Rae, and I have done since then (and how it has not been easy), I post this link of Rae being interviewed at the Library of Congress. All three of us are fortunate enough to still be ambitious for our work.

Beyond Baroque Celebrates the Deep State of the Beat Mind

Sunday, March 4, 2018

BEYOND BEAT at BEYOND BAROQUE: “It’s not a generation. It’s a state of mind.” — Diane Di Prima

I drove up to Venice yesterday afternoon to attend George Drury Smith’s talk about his life before he founded Beyond Baroque in 1968. There was also a meeting of a half-dozen members of the Board of Trustees to discuss a major event in November. When I walked into the main lobby, the first thing I saw was a flyer for this coming week’s celebration of Beat inspired poetry, music, and art. Organized by S.A. Griffin, who was one of the editors of The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, “Beyond Beat” is a five-day crash course in a literary movement that is well over 60 years old. Contrary to the claims of the Language and post-avant poets, Beat poetics is still an active principle in contemporary American poetry and therefore constitutes the eldest surviving movement of literate consciousness in the United States.

The entire program can be found at:

“Beyond Beat” starts on Thursday, March 8 and runs through Monday, March 12th. Poets, performers, and presenters include Frank T. Rios, Will Alexander, Phoebe MacAdams, Paul Vangelisti, Brian Chidester, David Amran, Linda J. Albertao, Jack Brewer, Eve Brandstein, Pegarty Long, Laurel Ann Bogen, Rich Ferguson, Lorraine Perrotta, Michael C. Ford, Marc Olmsted, Gayle Davis, Joseph Patton, and Neeli Cherkovski.

I will be giving a talk on Venice West on Saturday, March 10, at 1:00 p.m. and moderating a panel from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m.

Beyond Baroque
681 Venice Blvd.
Venice, CA 90291

Beyond Beat: March 8 – 12, 2018
Organized by S.A. Griffin

Cross-Strokes — Reviewed by Mike (The Poet) Sonksen

March 3, 2018

I wish to thank David Lau and Cal Bedient for giving me permission to reprint Mike (The Poet) Sonksen’s review of Cross-Strokes: Poetry between Los Angeles and San Francisco (Seismicity Editions/Otis College of Art and Design). The review was first published in Bedient’s and Lau’s magazine, Lana Turner.

Lana Turner Blog
(front cover design of Cross-Strokes by Bill Mohr)

Cross-Strokes: A Reunion Party of Poets
by Mike Sonksen
(Originally published in Lana Turner, January 2017)

As much as this era is defined by division – even in the Poetry world – most poets and writers share far more commonalities than differences, even if they are from different regions. Such complex similarities and unities in difference are highlighted in Cross-Strokes, a recent California poetry anthology published by Otis Books/Seismicity Editions. Subtitled, “Poetry between Los Angeles and San Francisco,” the collection is comprised of 35 poets and many specters of comparison. Many of the voices are well known writers like Kenneth Rexroth, Francisco X. Alarcón, Nathaniel Mackey, former San Francisco Poet Laureate Alejandro Murguia, David Meltzer, Jack Hirschman, Jack Spicer, Lewis MacAdams and Paul Vangelisti. There are also lesser-known but nonetheless skilled writers like Bruce Boyd, Michelle T. Clinton, S.A. Griffin, Richard Garcia, Phoebe MacAdams and Kevin Opstedal. Cross-Strokes spotlights these unfamiliar and mysterious poets, revealing strengths that rival their well-known counterparts. Edited by Neeli Cherkovski and Bill Mohr, the anthology was a five-year project that goes a long way to show that Los Angeles and the Bay Area have much more in common than some of their respective poets would sometimes like to admit.

The collection is bookended by essays from each of the editors. Neeli Cherkovski’s brief “Preface” explicates their selection process and the ethos of the anthology. “Cross-Strokes extends the idea of an anthology based on geography. There have been many regional anthologies before, usually centered in major cities, but this one is more rare, more of an oddity.” He explains the commonalities between the two regions and their shared poetic history dating back to the Spanish past, the rapid growth in the early 20th Century along with the spirit of the Beat poets in both North Beach, San Francisco and Venice West. The book chronicles poets from locations immediately adjacent to Los Angeles and the Bay Area such as Bolinas, Berkeley, Cal State L.A., Long Beach, Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara. Collectively, the 35 poets in this collection go a long way towards mapping West Coast poetic history.

Wanderlust along the Shores

The transitory life of poets often requires being nomadic; thus the independent and restless spirit of West Coast poets. As Cherkovski declares, “This book is a gathering of many voices — poets of the same terrain walking many roads.” Mohr reaffirms the defining temperament of the book in his concluding essay, where he writes: “While both Los Angeles and San Francisco possess a radiant charisma distinctive unto themselves, the West Coast is even more powerful in exerting its subtle wanderlust along its shores.” Though there are a number of poets in the book that have been loosely affiliated with the Beat Generation group of poets, the anthology is an eclectic selection of aesthetic styles from the San Francisco Renaissance, avant-garde Surrealists to street poets.

One of the quintessential poets in the anthology is David Meltzer, who has associated with several of the movements noted above. Connected to the Bay Area for the last 55 years, he first arrived on the West Coast, where he landed in Hollywood. “I relocated to Hollywood when I was 16,” Meltzer told me last year. “I was exiled from Brooklyn. Took a sabbatical from high school and worked at an open air newsstand on Western & Hollywood Blvd. Saved by movies, jazz, the library, I remember going regularly to the Highland/Hollywood newsstand and saw my first City Lights book — Ferlinghetti’s Pictures of a Gone World which knocked my funky sweat socks off.” A few years later in 1957, Meltzer moved to the Bay Area and by 1960, he was the youngest contributor to Donald Allen’s anthology, New American Poetry. His poem, “The Veil,” in the anthology deftly meditates on the difference, “between what’s called heart / and the real evil.”

Overlapping Identity

Organized alphabetically, the first poet in the anthology is Francisco X. Alarcón, who passed away shortly after the text was published. Born in Southern California in 1954, Alarcón was close comrades with current National Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera dating back to their time together at Stanford in the Bay Area in the late 1970s. Six of Alarcón’s poems are included, three of which are also translated into Spanish as well as printed in English. In the poem, “Poor Poets,” Alarcón laments the plight of financially impoverished poets who,

courteous as ever
they ask empty
park benches
for permission to sit
nobody knows
not even they
why wings sprout
on their shoulders
maybe one day
they’ll finally use
that key they carry
forever in their pocket.

In the following poems, “From the Other Side of Night,” “Of Dark Love,” “Mestizo,” and the “X in My Name,” Alarcón meditates on overlapping identity in Aztlan and North America. These overlapping layers are a signature theme in his career and also connect to this anthology’s efforts to juxtapose competing narratives of geography.

The next poet, Bruce Boyd, “Zen poet of Venice West” studied in San Francisco with Robert Duncan in San Francisco. Participant in the San Francisco Renaissance, he later came back down to Venice and serving as one of the figureheads of the Venice West cadre. Boyd’s well-known “Venice Recalled” appears here and captures the urgency and excitement of the Venice movement where, “a new poem was something / the making, something / that asked to be shared at once.” This piece is explicated in great detail by Mohr in his 2011 monograph, Hold Outs: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance, 1948-1992. In this earlier book, Mohr writes that, “Boyd’s oscillation between San Francisco and Venice is yet another piece of the mosaic in which poets on the West Coast are using the entire stretch of the territory to test out possibilities of parallel community.” Mohr goes on to explain how, “The poem is closer in its lyric strategy and central theme to Wallace Stevens’s ‘Of Modern Poetry’ than to avant-garde experiment.” This poem was published in Donald Allen’s 1960 anthology, New American Poetry. Boyd mysteriously disappeared never to be seen again after 1969.

From Bukowski to Multicultural Poetry

Born in Santa Monica, Cherkovski has engaged deeply in West Coast Poetry since his early 20s when he co-edited both a magazine and an anthology in the early 1970s. Cherkovski and Charles Bukowski’s Laugh Literary and Man the Hunting Guns appeared just before 1971’s Anthology of L.A. Poets, co-edited this time with Bukowski and Paul Vangelisti. Cherkovski, who moved to the Bay Area in the mid-1970s, has an extensive oeuvre including poetry and several literary biographies: Ferlinghetti: A Biography, Whitman’s Wild Children and Bukowski: A Life. In the Bukowski biography, Cherkovski shares many stories of his journeys across Los Angeles with the “Dirty Old Man.” Among his four poems included in Cross-Strokes, “To the Poet at Twenty,” echoes sentiments Cherkovski must have heard from Bukowski: ‘you will not stay young / your sound will deepen.”

Michelle T. Clinton made big waves in the Southern California poetry scene during the 1980s and 90s with her published poetry, spoken word recordings, anthologies she edited and her Beyond Baroque poetry workshops. Clinton co-edited Invocation L.A. in 1989 along with Sesshu Foster and Naomi Quiñonez. This collection, subtitled, “Urban Multicultural Poetry,” was a groundbreaking book that went along way to demonstrate the range of poetry being produced in Los Angeles in the late 1980s. Clinton’s workshops are where writers like the late great Michele Serros and Pam Ward started their ascendancy into literary Los Angeles. Moreover, Clinton’s 1992 spoken word recording “Black Angeles,” on New Alliance Records with Wanda Coleman remains a watershed moment in Los Angeles poetry.

In “Manifesting the Rush/How to Hang,” Clinton offers a litany of ways to survive and thrive in the big city with an edgy, tongue-in-cheek tone that still holds up 30 years after she wrote it. Clinton advises, “Laugh at everything you can” and concludes, “Never sleep with anybody crazier than you. Unless you up for a wild ride. Keep your hands cupped over your heart. Do not fall in love.” Though she has been a less active writer over the last two decades, she was so influential during the apex of her career that her work still resonates.

San Francisco plays a role here. City resident Sharon Doubiago was born in Los Angeles and she is one of several poets in the collection to study at Cal State L.A. Over the last 50 years, poet-professors there-Thomas McGrath, Henri Coulette, Timothy Steele and Lauri Ramey-have mentored young bards. In addition to being a poet, Doubiago is an award-winning fiction writer. Her poems, “100 Memories I Don’t Remember,” and “Abalone,” discuss the Los Angeles River and Terminal Island within their complex narratives. The San Francisco-born poet Richard Garcia’s clever sestina, “Dreaming of Sheena,” along with two other poems-“Their Words,” and “Naked City”- possess an irreverent tone and clever wordplay. The latter begins, “She was the kind of gal who would look elegant/even if she was wearing nothing but handcuffs.” Garcia’s subtle poetic humor is another pervasive trope in Cross-Strokes.

Street Generation Not Beat Generation

The spirit of the streets cuts across the book. Bay Area-born S.A. Griffin, who came of age during the Punk Rock era and found his voice in the Los Angeles art community in the late 1970s and 80s, has four poems here. Titles alone give a sense of the ethos “I Choose Not to Believe in War Holy or Not,” and “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” which notes, “she was more beautiful/than I could have known at the time/Vietnam was waiting for me/rents were cheap & inflation/was just approaching upon the/landscape of our Yankee lexicon/if we only knew.” These days Griffin travels the country performing poetry with a 7-foot “bomb”-painted and filled with hundreds of poems.

A generation before he became the San Francisco Poet Laureate, the incendiary Jack Hirschman was a professor at UCLA, where he taught figures like Jim Morrison and Michael C. Ford during the 1960s. Hirschman was later fired for his political views, which included open encouragement for students burning draft cards. Before departing LA for San Francisco in 1973, he penned “The Burning of Los Angeles,” a canonical work poem of Southern California. (It features in Laurence Goldstein’s Poetry Los Angeles (2014)). The poem is one of the three Hirschman pieces in Cross-Strokes and it depicts the surreal and eerie atmosphere every Angeleno has experienced during fire season with the Santa Ana Winds. Hirschman begins: “Smelled her before the eyes saw her/going east from the sea on Sunset/got a whiff of her through the smog valved exhausts/nagging motor grind of the winding road/She was lining them up for miles at the pass/of the freeway under me.” Fire, in Hirschman’s characterization, is a powerful woman, a mesmerist and conjurer in the ecology of Los Angeles. The poem captures both 60s-era hillside and political fires in the Southern California imagination, their inducement of quasi-apocalyptic fear.
Hirschman’s vital work, which takes place at the intersection of politics and poetry, street and academy, began in concert with his youthful career in the latter; his exit from academia and his intensifying Marxist outlook across the decades have worked doggedly against the current. Hirschman’s poetry for the people is rooted in the streets; he has marked innumerable community poets on the West Coast. In an interview with David Meltzer (collected in San Francisco Beat: Talking with the Poets (City Lights, 2001)), Hirschman says, “I see a street generation rather than the Beat Generation. Poets like Bobby Kaufman and Jack Micheline are the ones I identify with.”

Stephen Kessler was one of the poets in Hirschman’s UCLA class in 1966 and the Los Angeles native eventually moved up to Santa Cruz for graduate study. Kessler emerged as editor of Alcatraz, which published Bukowski, Coleman and F.A. Nettelbeck. “Synchronicity” recalls a wandering writer Kessler met one day in Hirschman’s class. Later Kessler saw the nomadic poet hitchhiking up Highway 1: “The bridge of his disbelief was blown—/it got him going—/all the way into the city he spewed prophecy.” The other two Kessler poems, “Vallejo Remembers,” and “Chaos Theory,” participate in a similar fantastical irony. In “Chaos Theory,” Kessler exclaims, “Do the math. / It all adds up. Saul Bellow said so. / One is born under a deadline with no outline. / You open up the blank blue book for the final and let fly.” Such spontaneity is a central thread in Cross-Strokes.

Bolinas to Los Angeles

Lewis MacAdams, author of over 12 books of poetry, numerous articles, and a book on the Beat Generation and jazz, The Birth of the Cool, was one of the youngest members of the New York School before he pursued graduate studies with Charles Olson at the University of Buffalo. MacAdams left New York in 1970 and lived in Bolinas, California, from 1970 to 1980. During this time, MacAdams served for three years as the director of the Poetry Center at San Francisco State University and began working in environmental activism.

By the time he came to Los Angeles in 1980, MacAdams was very much an “eco-poet,” and this stance inevitably led him to start the Friends of the Los Angeles River in 1985-86. “The Soccer Field” reveals the man versus nature theme that MacAdams has indefatigably engaged through the course of his career. He contemplates the futility of curbing man’s restless pursuit of progress and development when he writes, “It’s like holding back the future with a string. / the hunger that is driving these people / is more powerful than an electronic battlefield.” MacAdams’ battlefield career he continues to this day. His collected poems, Dear Oxygen (2011), contains almost five decades of poems that grapple with the relationship between nature and the city.

Phoebe MacAdams, the ex-wife of MacAdams, now remarried and known as Phoebe Ozuna, is listed in the anthology as Phoebe MacAdams. The 25-year veteran English teacher at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights near East Los Angeles, she is also one of the co-founders of Cahuenga Press, a Los Angeles-based imprint. The first poem of hers here, “Happy Birthday Bolinas,” is dedicated to her longtime friend Joanne Kyger, icon of Bolinas poets. The following poems, “The Sounds of the City,” and “The Memory of Light,” combine candid observation with a transcendental tone. “I remember when the days unraveled / in tangles of children and chocolate / fierce daisies and bodhisattvas / when only the protection of / poetry stopped me at street corners / as our cars reeled out of control.” Each of Phoebe MacAdams’ poems in this collection pulse with the restless West Coast spirit.

The National Book Award winner Nathaniel Mackey follows Phoebe MacAdams. Mackey’s surrealist jazz poetics have brought him many book awards and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He taught at USC during the 1970s and then spent 31 years teaching at UC Santa Cruz until 2010. An excerpt of Mackey’s “Song of the Andoumboulou,” is included in the anthology. Mackey’s poetics play with paronomasia and sing syllables like a scat singer sings with a saxophone. Witness the poem’s opening: “Asked his name, he said,/’Stra, short for stranger.’/Sang it. Semisaid, semisung./’Stronjer?’ I asked, semisang,/half in jest. ‘Stronger,’/he/whatsaid back. Knotted/highness, loquat highness,/rope turned inward, tugged./Told he’d someday ascend.” Mackey employs assonance, alliteration and internal rhyme while he turns meaning inside out. He remains among the most progressive poets writing today.

As mentioned in the beginning of this essay, David Meltzer is a quintessential West Coast poet with deep roots in both the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Meltzer is one of the only scribes that intersected with both the Venice West writers and the cadre known as the San Francisco Renaissance. Meltzer’s most recent books have been published by City Lights and he taught for many years at the New College of California in San Francisco. Meltzer even released a few musical albums with a group of musicians in the 1960s and 70s. His jazz poem in the book, “The Veil,” reflects on, “the moment when nothing is left.”
The recent San Francisco Poet Laureate Alejandro Murguía grew up in Los Angeles and went to LA City College before moving up to the Bay Area like so many poets do. In 1976, when he was 26, Murguía became first director of the Mission Cultural Center in San Francisco’s legendary Mission District. His activism with youth and community issues around San Francisco as well as with the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua over the last three plus decades made him a popular choice for San Francisco’s sixth Poet Laureate in 2012. His prose poem in the anthology, “Caracas is Not Paris,” epitomizes his international awareness. In the work, Murguia recalls Cesar Vallejo’s time in Paris and his celebrated tome about that time of his life, Poemas Humanos: “My copy of Poemas Humanos so read and re-read and yet not a place mark on it, my dog-eared page, not one fold or wrinkle on it, but worn down at the spine from the many times it has been cracked open in Paris, Mexico City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, the pages yellowed, frail and brittle like our lives.”

Murguía is followed in the anthology by the venerated Beat poet Harold Norse who passed in 2009 at 93 years old. One of Norse’s poems in the anthology, “At the Cafe Trieste,” recalls the Golden Age of music of Ancient Greece and Rome and connects it to the spirit of North Beach, San Francisco. The poet asks: “Will the Golden Age ever come?/ Same faces throw up each generation,/ same races, emotions, struggles!/ all those centuries, those countries!/languages, songs, discontents!/They return here in San Francisco/as I sit in the Cafe Trieste.” Norse wants to remind us that, “this is the only Golden Age/there’ll ever be.”

Between Surf Surrealism and California Zen

Then there are lesser-known, mysterious writers tucked in like Kevin Opstedal. Venice-born, now forty-year Santa Cruz resident Opstedal leans on enchantment, a surf surrealism. In “Playa de los Muertos” his register is pure California, echoing a Jeff Spicoli like, “Once on a beach just north of Malibu I left my body for a while I think.” The next two poets following Opstedal are among the best known in the collection: Stuart Perkoff and Kenneth Rexroth. Perkoff is generally considered the poet laureate of the Venice West poets from the late 1950s until he passed in 1974 and Rexroth was a leading figure in the San Francisco Renaissance from the 1940s well into the 1960s. Perkoff’s poem, “Letter to Jack Hirschman,” asserts, “Let’s insist on vision / I will accept nothing less than miracles.” Perkoff’s career is mythical in many poetic circles for his spontaneity and carefree spirit. Both street and Beat, he wandered Venice exclaiming poetry and making trips up to San Francisco.

Rexroth, though associated with the Beats, was tersely influenced by Chinese and Japanese poetic sensibilities. His work exhibits more minimalism than many of his peers. Rexroth lived the last 14 years of his life in Santa Barbara while he taught at UC Santa Barbara after spending 41 years in San Francisco from 1927 to 1968. Much of Rexroth’s poetry has a Zen sensibility like the poem, “On Flower Wreath Hill,” included in Cross-Strokes. An excerpt epitomizes his ethos: “In the darkness every moment/Grows longer and longer, and/I feel as timeless as the/Two Thousand year old cypress.” The poet and professor Doren Robbins has a poem called, “Hummingbird.” “Bursting from his branch,” Robbins writes, in a spirit akin to Rexroth. “[H]e dipped all the way in,/the iridescent throat wet with honeysuckle juice./his wings so wild with motion/the untouched red blossoms/float backwards while he’s there.”

Seasonal change, economics, and the varied geography of California form a distinct pattern here. Joe Safdie’s sestina “September Song,” celebrates autumn in Bolinas. The two-part poem “The Poorhouse: Two Sonnets,” asks, “is it the third great depression / or the great recession?” He wonders about “the 1.7 million unemployed / whose benefits have been cut off.” Ellen Sander follows Safdie and she like Phoebe MacAdams was in Bolinas in the 1970s before coming to Los Angeles. In her poem, “Daybreakage,” she writes, “sea smoke upriver, streetlamp / dims, the very last star drowns / in something brighter.”
Aram Saroyan shares similarities with Lewis MacAdams in that he started as an early member of the New York School in the 1960s, lived in Bolinas during the 70s and made his way to L.A. in later years, teaching at USC. Saroyan’s poem, “The Moment,” contemplates the void and asks the question: “For in the end might not the beautiful be defined as whatever empties the mind, causing the seeing to become pure, mirror-like?”

Poetry of Place

Poetry of place is another key theme in this collection and two poets who explicitly address this are Standard Schaeffer and Michael Shepler. All five of Schaeffer’s pieces in the anthology cover California mountains, rivers and the desert. The first, “Water & Power,” is more of an overview on California ecology concluding that, “they came down ‘to see the elephant’ / on this burdened archipelago of bad options and enthusiasms.” Schaeffer’s other poems address the mountains near Death Valley, the city of Ojai, the Mojave Desert and the Los Angeles River. Michael Shepler, mentored by Henri Coulette at Cal State LA, is represented by poems addressing an apartment building on Santa Monica Boulevard and the Angels Flight Funicular Railway in Downtown Los Angeles. Though he is now up in the Bay Area, Shepler grew up in L.A. and was very active in Los Angeles poetry for many years.

Born in L.A. Jack Spicer’s short life produced groundbreaking works like his 1957 book, After Lorca and his 1965 collection, Language. There have been at least three posthumous collections of his and Spicer’s work has been rediscovered in a number of critical essays over the last decade. My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, published in 2008, was one of the Village Voice’s Best Books of 2008. His poem, “Apollo Sends Seven Nursery Rhymes to James Alexander,” juxtaposes Greek Mythology, chess, baseball and the La Brea Tar Pits amidst its seven segments. Spicer laments, “I died again and was reborn last night/That is the way we mirror people/Forgive me, I am a child of the mirror and not a child of the door.” Spicer merges the metaphysical with the commonplace to reveal what it means to be human.

John Thomas was one of the most influential poets in the Venice West scene. Thomas also spent some time in the Bay Area during the early 1960s. Thomas passed in 2002 at 72 years old and by the time he passed, he was the patriarch and grand old man of the Venice Beat poets. His poem in the anthology, “Variations on the Decay of Satire,” reminds us that, “in these quiet times the samurai becomes the tea man,/builds temple gardens, floats plum blossoms/in a shallow bowl before the image.”

Otis College Professor, Paul Vangelisti career dates back to the early 1970s, when he co-edited the legendary literary magazine Invisible City. Though he did his undergraduate work at the University of San Francisco, he’s been in L.A. since 1968 when he came to USC to get his Masters. For four decades Vangelisti’s poetry has combined avant-garde sensibilities, surrealism, and humor. “Days Shadows Pass” exemplifies his mode: “Gardeners sport evening dress or overalls / for those who want to reassess anything / like postmodernism or modernism / so why keep practicing desolation?”

The Santa Monica-born Scott Wannberg grew up in Venice. Quasi-mythical, he went to college at San Francisco State University where he earned an M.A. in 1977 before moving back down to Los Angeles. For many years he was a book clerk and buyer at Dutton’s Books in Brentwood before they closed in 2008. As the years went on, Wannberg toured the United States and Canada with S.A. Griffin and their collective of poets, The Carma Bums from 1989 to 2009. Wannberg is the author of five books and he died before his time at 58 in 2011. His poetry bridges free jazz, the spirit of the Beats and the ethos of Punk Rock.
S.A. Griffin told me that the first time he heard Wannberg riff live accompanied by a musician in the early 1980s, he thought he found, “the source.” In 2015, Percival Press published a 306-page, posthumous collection, The Official Language of Yes. I met Wannberg on several occasions and recall his generous spirit. Standing over six feet three inches and close to 300 pounds, his poetry and charisma were as large as his physical appearance. Wannberg’s poem in the anthology is a segmented poem with 21 sections and it playfully ruminates on Dan White, the man who killed San Francisco Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978.

Wannberg simultaneously mocks Los Angeles Police Chief Darryl Gates as well as Dan White’s defense that twinkies made him kill the two men: “We don’t know why Dan White came to L.A./Darryl Gates said and kicked his foot against the moon/We don’t know why he came here/We most certainly don’t need him here/We have enough trouble with Twinkies as it is.” Nonetheless Wannberg notes, “I believe in the world./Come and sing./Against this cold night/light. Against this/street of fear. Come/and I will play my music/until they throw us out.” This poem captures Wannberg’s spirit and also that iconic time period and this episode of California history with the flair that only a skilled poet could.

Maw Shein Win studied at Cal State Long Beach in the 1980s and she is now the first Poet Laureate in El Cerrito, a city adjacent to Berkeley. Among her six poems in Cross-Strokes, “Cast Away” has her reader “on an island, the sand / and the land / where the pair / made a pact / to swim in separate / tides, trunks, / truncation, a vacation / now here, not here.” Win like the rest of the poets in the collection takes her readers on a journey through the human condition. Her meditation epitomizes the West Coast wanderlust all of these poets share in common.

A Reunion Party
In co-editor Bill Mohr’s concluding chapter, “A Reckoning of the Circumambulation of West Coast Poetry (1945-2015), Mohr pontificates on the unpredictable nature of an individual poet’s life. Mohr reaffirms the purpose of the anthology when he states, “The goal was simply to provide readers of contemporary poetry a glimpse at the circulation of poets on the fertile crescent of the West Coast and to disabuse the notion of static, immiscible communities in L.A. and San Francisco.” Mohr than clarifies further by writing, “While it remains the case that the majority of poets living in California identify either Los Angeles or San Francisco as an omphalos for their poetics, anyone truly familiar with both cities will greet this volume’s table of contents as a long forestalled reunion party.”

Cherkovski and Mohr have done a great service to the poetry community in putting this anthology together. Mohr addresses other factors to consider in future anthologies like San Diego poets and he also notes that a second edition of Cross-Strokes could include Juan Felipe Herrera, Suzanne Lummis, F.A. Nettelbeck and Susan Suntree. The book maps poets from Long Beach, Los Angeles, Venice, Santa Barbara, to Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Berkeley and Bolinas and the eclectic identities of these various bards range from street poets to academics, beat poets, surrealists and avant-garde leftists. Nonetheless, there is a unity in their differences and this is why this collection so aptly epitomizes the West Coast Spirit.

Burt Monro: “The World’s Fastest Indian” (Motorcycle)

Friday, March 2, 2018

“A miracle that all this speed waits in a lever for the pleasure of my hand.” — T.E. Lawrence, The Mint

It’s been quite a while since we’ve had any measurable amount of rain in Long Beach and I am grateful to be able to spend the morning at home, listening to its subtle rhythms. Last night, I took a little time off to watch “The World’s Fastest Indian,” which is a bio-pic about a land-speed enthusiast from New Zealand who set a record at Bonneville Salt Flats in the 1960s on his highly modified Indian motorcycle. Even though the film starred Anthony Hopkins as the film’s affable, eccentric hero, Burt Monroe, I had never heard of this particular film until now. As I watching it, I kept wondering how I had missed it. It certainly is not the case that the subject matter has never interested me. Though I have little time to devote to the subject now, I was intrigued by mechanical speed when I was young. I went out to the Ontario Speed Way, which has long since been demolished, back in the early 1970s, and saw the first instance in which a car did four consecutive laps at an average speed of 200 miles per hour. Even looking across the track, I could tell that that car was propelling itself faster than any other vehicle that day.

It turned out that the film had been first released in 2005, and its first showing in the U.S. was in February, 2006. I was rather busy at that point, teaching several classes at St. John’s University in Queens as well as teaching at Nassau Community College. In addition, I was on the cusp of being interviewed for the job I currently have at CSULB. No wonder this film pass unnoticed by someone who would have loved to have seen it on a big screen.

I suppose one could grouse about the nonchalant privileging of white male power. It is not fault of the character the film is based on that the motorcycle he mobilizes to honor “the gods of speed” is named in a flippant appropriation of indigenous people, but one wonders whether a Native American named Jake truly represents an encounter that happened in Monro’s sojourns in the United States.

On the whole, though, this tale of individual determination has many masterful touches. An unusual degree of empathy for the story must have inspired the casting agents. No matter how brief the parts, the entire cast of the film contributes to a mosaic of affirmation.

I was grateful, too, that Rupert had deigned to return to stay with us for the evening.

Rupert the Wanderer and His New Green Collar

Saturday, February 24, 2018

About a year ago, two of our neighbors knocked on our door about 7 p.m. Jill was holding a large, though skinny, cat with long orange fur. “We found him on the corner, meowing, and obviously lost. Could you keep him for one night?”

One night turned into a year, during which Rupert (as the cat became known as to us, though I’m not sure he ever accepted the name) often demanded the right to be outside or inside according to his schedule. He was very affectionate and friendly, and we noticed that he like to “work” the neighborhood like a political operative. Quite the charmer. After we let him out in the morning, he tended to hustle down the block a couple of houses to wait for a young school girl to emerge from her house, knowing that she loved to pet him and provide him with additional treats. It didn’t seem to be much more than ordinary dry cat food, but he treated it as an homage befitting his stature as a newly empowered feline. “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” indeed.

It turned out that he was at least 11 years old. We took him to the vet, and an embedded chip was dated back in the middle of the last decade. Unfortunately, the registration had lapsed, and there was no way to trace Rupert’s history of companionship.

About a week ago, we let him out in the morning, and he didn’t come back in the evening. In fact, he didn’t return until noon the next next day. A pajama party, no doubt. Rupert had been fixed at some point, so it was a platonic rave in all likelihood, but we couldn’t help but wonder where he had dallied. The nights have been cold. He stayed with us with the following night, but then disappeared again for a whole night. This time he came back with a green collar, with a little bell attached.

While I feel very attached to Rupert by this point, I don’t feel possessive. Rupert comes, and Rupert goes. Thus saith and giveth Bast. On the other hand, I didn’t want Rupert’s new caretakers to think he was completely unaccounted for. So I typed up a note and attached it to a red collar I purchased at the store where I used to take Cordelia to get her baths. It touched me very much that one of the workers recognized me and remembered Cordelia.

Rupert has spent the past two nights at his new home, which is an apartment in a courtyard behind the apartment with his favorite young friend. The image that accompanies this post was taken on our front porch several months ago. Rupert was squeezed between the top of a sofa and front plate glass window. The picture always seemed to hint at a crystal ball. I only wish him the best of a content life.

Ron Ozuna’s Photographs of Bolsa Chica

Monday, February 19, 2018

Bird Photographs and Other Links

Ron Ozuna has been traversing California’s wetlands for several years and taking photographs of birds, and I am delighted to have gotten his permission to share links with his work. The other links in today’s post have been chosen out of variety of my reading and listening to music the past couple weeks. It’s a cold and windy morning here in Long Beach, California, and it is supposed to get much more chilly tonight. I only wish that some rain would arrive.

Stream 74 Sun Ra Albums Free Online: Decades of “Space Jazz” and Other Forms of Intergalactic, Afrofuturistic Musical Creativity

If you want to see more of Ron Ozuna’s avian advocacy, see the following links:

Ron Ozuna at MONO LAKE and elsewhere:


2016_05_15_0wens Lake

2016_05_17_Hahamongna Devils Gate Dam:

2016_05_19_Central Park & Library Huntington Beach:

Piute Pond (near Lancaster)

“Wichita Vortex Sutra” and the Valentine’s Day High School Massacre

February 15, 2018

“Language language almost all our language has been taxed by war.”

Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems is one of the dozen best first book of poems ever published in the United States. It is rare for a first book to have several poems that end up being frequently anthologized in the half-century following the book’s initial printing, and Ginsberg’s reputation will continue to derive not only from these reprinting, but from the sheer physical presence of his first book. I believe that over a million copies are in circulation, an impressive figure for any book, let alone a volume of poems.

As is the case with musicians, where one’s toughest audience is one’s fellow practitioners, poets often prefer the work of fellow poets that is less known than their most popular work. In Ginsberg’s case, “Wichita Vortex Sutra” is often cited as a favorite poem. I remember including a portion of it in an anti-war theatrical presentation I put together at the Burbage Theater in 1974. “WVS” was recently on display in a drawing by Dominic McGill at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. McGill’s conversion of Ginsberg’s text into a labyrinth of lines included a vortex of words pouring from the dark screen of a television set like an insidious transfusion of diabolical plasma. Given the exacerbated use of social media by politicians, especially as regards the obnoxious diplomacy of the White House, Ginsberg’s poem seems more relevant than ever. President Trump seems intent on making the Korean peninsula an even more devastating scene of carnage than Vietnam, and Trump’s use of language continues to tax our patience and the limits of our patriotism.

Trump’s reaction to the Valentine’s Day mass murder at a high school in Florida is an all too typical example of his inability to go beyond an obvious comment.

“”My prayers and condolences to the families of the victims of the terrible Florida shooting. No child, teacher or anyone else should ever feel unsafe in an American school. We are working closely with law enforcement on the terrible Florida school shooting.”

In this three sentence tweet, Trump ends two of them with the phrase “the terrible Florida school shooting.” Does he really believe that we are incapable of assessing the magnitude of this event unless he repeats the word “terrible”?

But of course what is truly terrible is that Trump’s “we” is not working with anyone to change the gun laws. Notice that Trump says nothing in the third sentence about how to make American schools safer. What was needed in his tweet was not a trite reference to the current employees of law enforcement, but a promise to advocate the enforcement of new laws regarding gun control.

Instead, Trump’s budget proposal reduces funds for background checks of those who wish to purchase weapons. He does not care about the safety of children and their teachers as anything other than a public pose.

I started my late afternoon class yesterday by telling students that I’ll never be able to watch Some Like It Hot again in quite the same way. Billy Wilder’s great film opens with a scene that invokes the infamous Valentine’s Day massacre of the Depression-Era gang wars in Chicago. No matter how much love, in the years ahead, comes into the lives of the families that endured Florida’s Valentine’s Day massacre first-hand, the anniversaries of this sentimental celebration will be horrifically imbrued with this memory and its cauterizing loss.