An Academic Walks Next Door to the VA

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Academic Walks Next Door to the VA

My father was a career enlisted man in the U.S. navy, and my mother also served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II. My father died in late September, 1994, but my mother is still alive. She is somewhat frail, though certainly capable of conversation. This past summer, for instance, we discussed the meaning of the word “balmy” and spoke of the various regions in the world with occasional climates to which that word might apply.

My mother is currently living in a skilled nursing facility (SNF) about a fifteen minute walk away from where I live in Long Beach, and I suppose one could say that I have chosen to write about her tonight because I have just come back from visiting her there. I brought her a ripe avocado and one of her favorite cookies to eat, but she was too full from dinner to consume more than a fourth of the cookie. Her appetite had been faltering in recent months, so I am heartened that she seems to recovering it enough in the past week so that she is eating three times a day.

Being responsible for and monitoring the care of an elderly parent can be an overwhelming task, and certainly the next few months are going to be even more challenging than this past summer. Of my mother’s six children, I am the only one living in the vicinity of her current residence. It gave me a boost of solidarity, therefore, to get a message from the poet Garrett Hongo this afternoon that included a photograph of him with his mother. I don’t spend much time with poets my age these days, and it was reassuring to see a poet I have known for a long time also helping a parent along the same road, the one that leads (as he put it) to the River of Heaven.

This afternoon, the contingent part of that road led me once again to the VA center on Seventh Street in Long Beach. The VA is right next to the CSULB campus, so I am able to park at work and just walk over. I felt very fortunate this afternoon. Several people, one named Tim and the other Monique, were exceptionally helpful in helping me move my mother’s paperwork along. There were a couple other people, whose names I didn’t manage to record, who also were helpful. On behalf of my mother, I want to thank the VA for the assistance they are giving her. Being a Navy brat was a difficult way to grow up, but seeing my mother get this assistance helps compensate for those hardships.

Getting my mother assistance, including her benefits as a WWII veteran, during the past three years has involved keeping copies of all her service related documents, including her honorable discharge.
One detail, however, almost eluded my search. Fortunately, my mother can still recall her mother’s maiden name. Most of the time, when the VA asks that question of a veteran, they are not expecting a name to be cited that was exchanged for a husband’s surname well over a century ago. In fact, the name the VA had on its records for my mother’s mother’s maiden name was wrong, and it was satisfying to get that tiny part of her record corrected.

As I walked back to my car on the CSULB campus, I thought to myself how few of my fellow faculty ever have the need to walk onto this adjacent institution. I must admit that one of the factors in my discomfort with academic culture has to do with my upbringing in the military and the sometimes contradictory virtues its discipline fuses into a sense of duty and honor. While I wish it were otherwise, I don’t think it’s possible for my fellow academics to understand how much it shaped me, or how that shape will always make me a stranger in their midst.

Edward Albee (1928-2016): A Master of Audacious Protest

Friday, September 16, 2016

Edward Albee (1928-2016): A Master of Audacious Protest

When I was young, it was not unheard of for a young person to say, “I want to be a playwright.” In fact, the decision to focus on writing for the theater was a far more practical one than aspiring to be a poet sixty years ago. Back then, playwrights held a far more esteemed position within contemporary American culture. Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams were legends by the mid-1950s, and reading plays by the great European playwrights was considered an ordinary part of a liberal arts education. As I pointed out in my book, “Holdouts: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance 1948-1992,” theater supplied far more momentum to the avant-garde in the 1960s and early 1970s than poetry. It wasn’t even a contest.

Edward Albee, who died today, did not begin as a playwright, however. He started as a poet and then turned to theater. In both of these cultural endeavors, Albee knew all too well how a comprehensive fashion show is hard at work; his advice about the stance that both playwrights and poets should take about this fashion show should be fervently adhered to: “Actually, the final evaluation of a play has nothing to do with immediate audience or critical response. The playwright, along with any writer, composer, painter in this society, has got to have a terribly private view of his own value, of his own work. He’s got to listen to his own voice primarily. He’s got to watch out for fads, for what might be called the critical aesthetics.”

In demonstrating the level of vigilance needed not to succumb to fads, Albee taught us how theater is the quintessential laboratory for discovering “the temper of the time, what is being tolerated, what is being permitted.” It is in protesting those limits that writers distinguish themselves in the manner that Albee sorted them into: “Good writers define reality; bad ones merely restate.” (Tweeted by Ryan Adams). Great writers transmogrify those definitions of reality, and Albee belongs to that cluster of superb visionaries.

Along with hundreds of other writers, I owe Albee more than a nod of gratitude: he was one of the writers whose work helped wake me out of the stupor of the military industrial complex in which I had spent my childhood and adolescence. By the time I first read him, in the fall of 1966, he was already a superstar among the young playwrights. His one-act plays, “The Zoo Story” and “The Sandbox,” transfixed me when I first read them. I had the good fortune to act in a school workshop production of “The Sandbox” at Southwestern Community College in the spring of 1967, and this distant memory flutters within me as I find myself caring for 94 year old mother. And how can one overstate the extent to which the monologue of the story of Jerry and the Dog reverberated as a model for many young playwrights throughout the 1960s and 1970s? The monologues in Sam Shepard’s one-act plays, for instance, can hardly be studied apart from this progenitor. Albee most certainly redefined my reality; my own trajectory in shifting from theater to poetry could not have happened without that initial impetus to which the surplus of Albee’s corrosive writing made an enormous contribution.

I have continued to read Albee’s work throughout all the years in which I primarily have devoted myself to poetry; and cannot imagine my poetics having developed in their peculiar manner, in fact, without having had the guidance of Albee’s ear for the theatrical puncture point. In the entire history of theater, less than fifty playwrights have equaled his capacity for a shimmering clarity of self-examination made visible in imaginary people. Even more rare is how tirelessly the dialogue he coaxed out of his characters can coil and recoil within a stage’s “empty space.” He made the performance of a private vision an occasion of public urgency. In Albee’s case, I remember in particular a production of “Seascape” that I saw in Century City. The theater itself no longer exists, but the theater of my memory glows, and I remain spellbound.

One of the aspects of theater that makes the experience precious is its singularity: productions cannot be revisited like novels; yet that only makes one cling more closely to theater’s oscillating essence. Theater is the most porous art: it must be absorbed straight through the skin of one’s consciousness. This instantaneous envelopment marked Albee’s theatrical instincts. Even in plays that some regard as his minor work, his audacious imagination magnified the possibilities of what hides under the surface of contingency.

I have no doubt that Albee knew, in his final years, how much difference he made in the lives of so many writers whose work he never read a page of. What better reward can any writer hope for? Surely these are the unseen bouquets at any memorial service his friends will gather for in the days to come.

(See my blog entry on February 23, 2014 for a review of a production of Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” by the California Repertory Company.)

This blog entry, originally written on the day of Albee’s death, has been revised on Sunday morning, September 17.

Post-Flaneur Poet: “I Want a Job” by Carol Ellis

Thursday, September 15, 2016: I WANT A JOB – Carol Ellis (Finishing Line Press, 2014)

“Post-Flaneur Poet”: “I Want a Job” by Carol Ellis

Back when I was just getting this blog underway, in the late spring of 2013, I wrote a brief comment on Oriana Ivy’s prize-winning chapbook, April Snow (Thursday, June 20). Finishing Line Press did a very handsome job on the printing of Ms. Ivy’s collection, and I have over a half-dozen other chapbooks from the same press with production values at least within the same range as April Snow. One has to wonder what happened to their sense of pride in the dismal job done on Carol Ellis’s very fine collection, I WANT A JOB. The printing looks no better than photocopying done on a machine that is running low on toner, and the small type only increases the text’s smudgy quality. Ellis deserved a far more substantial effort put into the publication of her writing.

Ellis, who now lives in Portland, Oregon, was born in Detroit and educated at the University of Iowa. After getting a Ph.D., with a dissertation on James Wright, she has (in her own words) “been around the academic block.” In punching the adjunct second-hand clock, with all of its constrictions on one’s own time to write, she somehow has enabled her imagination to sustain itself; the variety of tones in the poems and prose poems in her first book suggests that this collection barely serves as a representative presentation of that self-determination.
Chapbooks tend to be fallible collections; they all too often present a false sense of familiarity with the featured poet. In

Ellis’s collection, one has a sense of three or four poems missing between each individual selection. I have never read a full-length manuscript by Ellis, so I confess that this is sheer guesswork, but rarely have encountered a first chapbook of poems that hinted at a substantial reservoir of other work awaiting revelation. As for the form of that undisclosed work, it is an equal guess as to how much of it might be prose poetry. Of the 25 poems in I WANT A JOB, 15 are prose poems, but Ellis is at ease in both arrangements, so the 60-40 proportion remains at the level of conjectural contingency. One could argue that the collection opens and closes with a prose poem; that simply reflects mathematical odds.

The poems in the second half of I WANT A JOB are especially noteworthy, and one in particular glows like a lyric translated from some obscure language into yet another language, before finding its unexpectedly perfected by this manumission from a long meditation. “First It Was Hot and Then It Was Dark” is not at all a typical poem, and part of its aura of tender supplication derives from the candid depiction of existential solitude in many of the accompanying poems. “Hot/Dark,” however, can more than stand on its own merits; it shimmers with tones of both restraint and an overflowing suffusion of the completely incomplete.

All this time trying hard to be alive,
the earth famously gone. Nothing to think
because one was thinking.

First it was hot and then it was dark.
She took off her sweater, turned on a light,
thought past the point of thinking.

Was there ever such a world repeated,
the entire place entirely too interesting
and entirely too forgotten?

This is one of those occasions in reading a collection of poems where one can do little else but put the book down, walk away, and challenge oneself to answer that question. A good place to begin would be to work on translating it into another language, for surely such a distillation of human consciousness can only be fully apprehended if reflected in the mirror of another concise diction and syntax.

Most likely, in fact, readers will find themselves putting this book aside after reading two or three pieces and giving themselves a chance to absorb sudden little bursts of sideways illumination. Ellis’s poetry is different enough from the fashion show of American poetry that it will take several readings to begin absorbing its whispered defiance of a lifetime of erasure. Ellis quotes James Tate’s poem, “Consumed”: “you are the stranger who gets stranger by the hour” in a poem entitled “Leaving Portland.” Ellis savors this transmogrification as a chance to help the reader apprehend the undercurrents of daily life, of how the visits to a plant nursery (“Getting Around Women”) or library (“The Book of Dad”) or bookstore (“Divinia Comedia”) or farmer’s market (“Repetition”) contain the rebuke of forestalled epiphanies. Her strategy is not that of a flaneur, however, for she is only too aware of how others thoughtlessly diminish one’s efforts to nourish the compassion of simple dignity (“Whore, Driving”).

In not flinching when confronted with this depleting pattern, this poet exhibits more courage than she will ever be given credit for. She’s not the only one, of course, of whom this can be said, but she is one of the few poets who understands the full measure of the imbalance.

“my future appears in leaves – the goodbye that does not think – the end of thinking – so I try to think more now – in the short space remaining – in the space allowed – but rather think about the sun and how right now it has the frightening power of a god – never underestimate a god – pray for mercy – gather nerve as one gathers flowers – the chuckling frogs – tucked into steep sides and the hard ache of a tall bird coming to find them.”
(”Frog Chuckle”)

Other poems by Carol Ellis can be found at:

Earth by Carol Ellis

Her Dance

https://panoplyzine.com/the-walnut-and-the-rosemary-carol-ellis/

https://www.inknode.com/carolellis

The Southern California Poetry Festival

Saturday, September 10, 2016

THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA POETRY FESTIVAL — Long Beach Renews Its Compact with Poetry

I have lived and worked in Long Beach, California the past ten years, and while there are a few local reading series, such as the one at Gatsby Books and another recent start-up by liz gonzalez, I usually have to head north to Beyond Baroque or the Armand Hammer to attend a reading. Due to my workload at CSU Long Beach, however, and the age of the vehicle I drive, I have a limited amount of time I can spend on the road. Fortunately, in recent years, I have been able to use my position as a member of the English Department at CSU Long Beach to bring over a dozen poets to campus, and I am grateful for the generosity of these poets in accepting a very minimal honorarium.

This weekend, though, the Southern California Poetry Festival is taking place in Long Beach, and I hear that the event is sold out for both days. I myself wish that I could have attended at least one or two of the events, but putting in a request for a ticket has been at the bottom of my “to do” list. With the exception of a lovely, but all too brief visit with Larry and Nancy Goldstein, and the dozen or so hours given to self-contemplation during the UCLA Oral History interviews conducted by Jane Collings, this past summer was devoted to improving the living situation of my 94-year-old mother. The past eight weeks have been especially consumed with that task, and there is no indication of a let-up in the challenges posed by her deterioration. My mother may well recuperate and regain her footing to enjoy the upcoming birth of her first great-grandchild, but I suspect the hard work of being among the very old is even more daunting than she anticipated.

My sister, Joni, flew to the United States from her home in Israel about a month ago to lend considerable assistance, and this was her second trip here to help out since the late spring. Of our mother’s half-dozen offspring, we are the pair most currently involved as advocates of her care, as well as the ones most directly giving her solace and nurture. If my blog has lagged at times over the past three years, it is not just the need to give my students the attention they deserve that has caused my absence from posting. My mother has been steadily declining since about 2008, but she has stubbornly resisted acknowledging the encroaching fallibility of old age. She only gave up her driver’s license shortly after turning 90. She had driven over 70 years without ever getting in a single automobile accident, not even one caused by the egregious neglect of another driver. I have to give her high marks for quitting while she had a perfect record in that regard.

The closest I will get to the Southern California Poetry Festival, therefore, will be having Laurel Ann Bogen stay over tonight with Linda and me in Long Beach. Laurel arrived earlier this afternoon and has gone off to a movie with Linda to give me some time to read and prepare for classes. I just finished Faulkner’s “Spotted Horses,” which I will teach on Monday with the same pleasure with which I read it once again.

I especially regret not being able to hear Jax NTP read this weekend. Jax is a graduate of the CSULB MFA program and I have been delighted to see that she has continued to write and to start getting her work published in magazines such as Larry Smith’s on-line edition of Caliban magazine. I also would have enjoyed hearing the panel discussion on the Poetics of Southern California, featuring Marilyn Chin, Suzanne Lummis. Luis J. Rodriguez, and Ralph Angel, and moderated by David Ulin. In addition to Laurel Ann Bogen, other poets who will be reading this weekend include Gail Wronsky, Robin Coste Lewis, Mike Sonksen, Douglas Kearney, Griselda Suarez, Amy Uyematsu, Paisley Rekdal, Billy Burgos, Charles Harper Webb, Nicelle Davis, Frank X. Gaspar, Brendan Constantine, Sarah Vap, Judy Kronenfeld, and Amy Gerstler. The only scheduled poet who I have heard read before and whose work is not particularly interesting is Henri Cole. Any festival that can have such a high ratio of interesting, vital poets is a major success. I hope all who attend enjoy the weekend as much as I would have, should I have been free.

The Quirky Whimsicality of Andrei Codrescu

Sunday, September 4, 2016

UP LATE AND LATER ON: Andrei Codrescu’s So Recently Rent a World: New and Selected Poems 1968-2012
(Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press. 2012)

The two senior poetry critics whose careers have been based in academic discourse the past several decades are Marjorie Perloff and Helen Vendler. It is perhaps appropriate that they live on opposite sides of the country, for I am not certain that it would benefit the artistic ecology of any region to have this pair living even within tangential proximity. Vendler exudes the confidence of someone who believes that simply being part of the line of succession at an Ivy League college will automatically assure her of a place in the pantheon of important and cited critics well into the next century, and she might well be right in her self-assuredness. The “selfie” camera that Vendler holds up features an undefined future in the background that she believes she has shaped with her judgment. An autocratic diplomacy suffuses her regimen: that Jorie Graham deserves to remain one of the crucially influential figures in American poetry for the rest of this century is, from her point of view, not something to be questioned.

Fortunately, I live on the other side of the country, and have enjoyed bantering with Marjorie Perloff since the late 1970s, when she walked into a bookstore I was working at and made a joking comment about an anthology I had just published. I don’t think she was aware that I was behind the counter. Despite this inauspicious start, I have always respected Marjorie Perloff’s intellect and insights, and regard any occasion or topic on which she is writing or speaking as an opportunity to grow as a critic and working poet. I certainly have disagreed with her assessments on more than one occasion, in particular regarding some of the contemporary poets working in Los Angeles, but she has an ear for poetry far more attuned to a variety of poets in the United States than Vendler has ever demonstrated, and it’s a bit late in the game for Vendler to play catch up.

In reading and commenting on contemporary poetry, Perloff has especially distinguished herself in recognizing the importance of the Language poets; but that cluster of poets hardly represents her primary focus, nor does her ability to make use of their assumptions about language and social life tie her down to such an extent that she cannot rove elsewhere. It’s a rare talent that can write about Rae Armantrout for instance, and also give an accurate evaluation of a poet who would just as soon never have met a poet influenced by Language insurgency. A prime example of Perloff’s much more capacious list of subjects to comment on is Andrei Codrescu, one of many immigrant poets who began attaining recognition in the past century, a list that includes Olga Broumas, William Pillin, Armand Schwerner, and Charles Simic.

I start by mentioning Perloff’s review of Codrescu’s So Recently a World Rent a World because her assessment of his free verse prosody is exactly what my reaction was, a month or so ago, when I finally sat down with this collection:

“Codrescu … has never paid much attention to the niceties of line breaks or sound structures, and he seems to write his poems as quickly and easily as he does his NPR columns. Not every poem, consequently, is as fully realized as it might be. …. Line by line, these jokey poems are great fun to read, but they may not have much staying power.”

I appreciate being able to call up Perloff’s commentary because it sums much of the problem I have with Codrescu’s poetry. Anyone seeking to teach young poets about how enjambment in free verse poetry is the crucial factor in increasing the line’s dramatic and connotative power as well as its internal tension as a rhythmic unit would not be able to make significant use of the poems in So Recently Rent a World. What Perloff describes as the “niceties of line breaks” is a kind rebuke, and I suspect Codrescu has not often had this flaw pointed out before. Even if it had been, perhaps it would not have made any difference. Codrescu’s writing discharges, at a fairly steady pace, an anarchistic jauntiness that serves as his substitute for formal shapeliness, control, and dexterity. His attitude recalls Frank O’Hara’s “just keep running” advice: “do like me I say / keep talking” he advises young immigrants who approach him, asking “what should / we do with our accents” (“often after a public event”).

Codrescu has certainly kept talking, as evidenced by several long poems such as “not a pot to piss in” and “Comrade Past and Mister Present.” I confess I lost interest in his monologue long before these poems ended. Codrescu’s charm works most efficiently in short bursts, in poems such as “A Grammar” (on page 128) or “The Gap” (page 70), both of which share a theme that echoes a sort of existential variation on Zeno’s Paradox. A skeptical surrealist is at work in Codrescu’s imagination when he is at his best. “Wishes” begins: “I wish I could appear at will in your thoughts.” The final five lines bring the wish full circle:

I wish there were a way for many of these
futures to be known
by something other than their names”

By the need for them perhaps or
by their light”

The answer to this wish is one of the few poems that is worth quoting in its entirety, “Why Write” (page 136). If I can ever get permission to quote it, then I will someday insert it for the pleasure of my readers at this point in the commentary.

Finally, it perhaps is indicative of Codrescu’s limitations as a poet that there is no index of titles or first lines at the end of this 400 page volume. Unfortunately, such as index would tend to highlight the flatness in his work. There are enough interesting moments in this collection to make it worth perusing, but it was probably a good decision to leave out these indices. One doesn’t want a person to glance at something meant to highlight the alluring parts of a composition only to have a potential reader encounter mediocrity. Codrescu places himself in Charles Bukowski’s company, but Bukowski would never settle for the nondescript titles that head up all too many of Codrescu’s poems.

The Restoration of Dennis Cooper’s Blog

Friday, August 26, 2016

I have just received word that Google has restored all of Dennis Cooper’s data to him so that he can re-install his blog. Almost 5,000 people signed the petition in support of Dennis’s cause, and it was gratifying to see how the story became more public than those engaged in arbitrary censorship ever expected.

Now that this matter is settled, Dennis has become free to speak of what caused this debacle to occur. You can read it for yourself at:

https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=1114019298684536&id=214073142012494&pnref=story

I did hear about 10 days that things were beginning to move in a propitious direction, but it was implied that the good faith of negotiating required that nothing be revealed about the peculiarities of this odd juncture in Dennis Cooper’s literary work. Now that I have learned of some of the more salient aspects of the case, I must say that it reminds me of my first foray on Facebook. One day several years ago, I logged on and found my account disabled. I asked for an explanation. There was a complaint about your use of the account, I was told. When I asked for details about the alleged misuse, I received no answer whatsoever.

I still have no idea of what I could have done that would have justified having my Facebook account blotted out without any recourse. After a year or two, when enough people asked what had happened (“Weren’t we friends on Facebook?” more than a few acquaintances inquired via e-mail), I opened up another Facebook page, and slowly started adding friends again.

I was sorry to hear that Dennis is going to have to put a considerable amount of time into reconstructing his blog, post by post, in a manner requiring a lot of manual energy. At least, though, the material will be preserved for both current readers and those who explore his archives.

Bravo to all of us who joined this effort, but a special round of applause to those cited in the above entry by Dennis, including former Beyond Baroque artistic director Tosh Berman.

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.

“BARELY HOLDING DISTANT THINGS APART”

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.”

http://drought.ucdavis.edu
http://cdec.water.ca.gov/cdecapp/resapp/getResGraphsMain.action

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.