A Pair of Readings in Santa Monica and Long Beach

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Peace Press - 1

(Photograph by Dinah Berland)

Traffic on the 405 freeway yesterday was every bit as bad as one might dread. One of the major problems of living and working in Long Beach is that I am often a three hour round trip away from attending any reading, and the task of driving to and from a reading I am part of is hardly less dispiriting. The reading itself at the Peace Press exhibition at Arena One Gallery in Santa Monica was a genuine pleasure, however.

Dinah Berland, the curator of the reading, had proposed to have the poets read in reverse alphabetical order, but Julia Stein was unable to make the event, so I led off the reading with a couple of poems that I don’t read that often: “The Big World and the Small World” (from Penetralia, 1984), and “Terrorism: The View from Century City,” which was published in the L.A. Weekly in the late 1980s when Deborah Drooz was the poetry editor. Her acceptance of that poem remains one of the more gratifying moments in my writing life. I also read “Complexities,” which had been featured on the Santa Monica bus system in the late 1980s for their poetry on the buses program, and “Slow Shoes,” which was published in Thoughtful Outlaw. Memoirist Deborah Lott followed me with a profoundly moving account of being at the Ambassador Hotel the night that Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. Michael C. Ford, whose book of poems The World Is a Suburb of Los Angeles, stands out as one of the ten best books of poems I published through Momentum Press, read as mellifluously as ever. His voice never seems to age or in any way lose its ability to pivot on the precisely illuminating syllable. Dinah Berland, the organizer of the reading, read ekphrastic poems that were not as explicitly political as the writing of the first three readers, but which pointed to the essential presence of the stranger’s gaze as the fundamental acceptance that makes politics possible. The surprise of the afternoon was Rhiannon McGaven’s presentation. The vocalization of her poems illuminated the room with their undulating cadences. Not to be mistaken for a slam poet, McGaven’s poems feature a mature diction for someone so young, and it is most likely the case that her poems will swirl with grace on the page, too. It would seem that she has been on tour quite a bit, but this was my first hearing of her writing, and I look forward to reading her debut volume of poems.

Arena One - 1A

Arena One - 2A

(From left to right: Bob Zaugh, Rhiannon McGaven, Doborah Lott, Bill Mohr, Dinah Berland, Michael C. Ford)

(Photographs by Linda Fry)

Bob Zaugh, as one of the founding spokespeople and prime instigators of Peace Press as a social, cultural, and literary force in Los Angeles, opened and closed the reading with brief remarks, and he received much deserved applause for all of his commitment to making this entire exhibit as well as reading possible. The most heartfelt applause in the course of the afternoon was most certainly for Gary Tyler, whose release two months ago from Angola prison, after over 40 years incarceration for a murder that he did not commit, was facilitated by Peace Press. Gary spoke to a small group of the audience in the dispersed conversations after the poetry reading, and his calm eloquence was a privilege to witness. He will be speaking at length at Arena One on July 1st, the final day of the exhibit.

Managing to get back through even more daunting traffic on the way back to Long Beach, it turned out that we were not late to the late afternoon/early evening reading at Gatsby Books, where Suzanne Lummis, Elena Karina Byrne, Richard Garcia, Charles Harper Webb, and Cynthia A. Briano read their poems. The four best poems were Lummis’s “The Lost Poem,” which was incredibly hilarious, Byrne’s “Richard Tuttle Behind Richard Tuttle,” the title piece of Richard Garcia’s latest collection of prose poems, Porridge, and a poem by Briano whose title I can’t remember but which I did mention to her afterwards as a poem with a gorgeous logic to its images. Briano’s soprano voice gave her poems a vigorous lilt, but there was a deeper register to the poems that made me wish that they could be recorded both now and at some future point decades from now when age has deepened her register. If one could mix those tapes, one would have a duet worth listening to repeatedly. One of the poems that Webb read seemed to be a revision of an e-mail scam satire that I remember hearing in 2010 at the Avenue 50 gallery. It was funny then, and even funnier now, and should help his forthcoming book of poems rebound from the slough of Brain Camp.

Quartet - Gatsby - 1

(from left to right: Sean Richard Moor, Suzanne Lummis, Charles Harper Webb, Cynthia A. Briano, Richard Garcia, Elena Karina Byrne, and Bill Mohr)

Quartet Gatsby - 2

(Photographs at Gatsby by Linda Fry)

Robin Myers, Poet-Translator: CONFLATIONS/Almagama

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Robin Myers, Poet-Translator: CONFLATIONS/Almagam

“Si tengo con qué escribir, sé que voy a detenerme a poner atención, a buscar entender cómo las cosas que me rodean se hablan entre sí.” — Robin Myers

Undergraduate students in creative writing often ask me about attending a MFA program. Since I myself do not have a MFA and often find myself in opposition to the constricted poetics that has dominated the Association of Writing Programs the past half-century, I am hardly the best person to go to for advice. I certainly encourage students to get the training that they feel is most appropriate for their talents and career goals. It’s important, for instance, for students to realize that the MFA is essentially a union card. It entitles one to apprenticeship status in the “brain factory,” which is to say that a person with a MFA can get teaching work at a college. Many MFA students who have attended CSULB have gone on to teach in the region’s community colleges, and a few have even taught at the four-year schools. Not only do they teach, but they continue writing, and several have gone on to publish novels and a fair amount of poetry. The success of the students is not surprising, given the quality of the MFA faculty. The other three poets who teach in the MFA program at CSULB (in seniority order, Charles Harper Webb, Patty Seyburn, and David Hernandez) all have national reputations; the fiction faculty includes two writers who have won N.E.A. creative writing fellowships. A student would be very hard pressed to find a better creative writing faculty at a public college, or many private colleges for that matter.

Any there other options, though? While it does require both aptitude and courage, one option is to empower oneself with thorough knowledge of a second language and to work as a translator. One young American poet who has done that is Robin Myers, who lives and works in Mexico City. She does not have a M.F.A., but she has developed something far more beneficial in the past several years; she has found a community of poets in Mexico whose commitment and knowledge of the art of poetry have enabled her to grow as a poet. Ultimately, one of the weaknesses of MFA programs in general is that they create networks and not communities. In undertaking this alternative course of maturing as a writer, Robin Myers has made herself part of a community which her affirmation of, in turn, has embraced her creative work.

Myers has just had her first book of poems, CONFLATIONS/Almagam, published in a bilingual edition in Mexico. I had the privilege of reading many of the poems in this book two years ago when the manuscript was still being finalized, and this collection deserves to be recognized as a superb debut by a poet who has just turned 30 years old. While this book might be difficult to obtain in the United States, you can find an interview with her that was published yesterday in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

Her interviewer, Daniel Saldaña París, is an essayist, poet and novelist. Among Strange Victims was just published this month by Coffee House Press; it is his first novel to appear in the United States.

Here is the catalogue copy for Robin Myers’s book:

Amalgama / Conflations
Robin Myers
Amalgama, la palabra, está definida en el diccionario como la unión o mezcla de cosas de naturaleza contraria o distinta. Y eso es justamente Amalgama, el libro: un inventario que Robin Myers levanta para luego recordar no sólo las cosas en sí, sino la sensación de asombro al encontrarlas todas juntas. Con una sensibilidad poco común, la poeta observa el mundo y va recogiendo lo que encuentra para darle después un lugar a través del lenguaje. “Si tengo con qué escribir”, dice Myers, “sé que voy a detenerme a poner atención, a buscar entender cómo las cosas que me rodean se hablan entre sí”.

Wading in Translation’s Waters: Tracy K. Smith, U.S. Poet Laureate

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Wading in the Waters of Translation: The New Poet Laureate of the United States

This summer, for the first time, I am teaching in a summer session at CSU Long Beach. In previous years, I primarily worked up at Idyllwild Arts, where I taught a fiction writing class to teenagers. Some of my students included Sara Wintz and Julia Glassman. I retired from that job after twenty consecutive summers; it was one of the best parts of my life. During the second half of my annual residency there, I had the good fortune to be able to meet an intriguing mix of poets, many of whom were up and coming figures who were not yet well known. Natasha Trethewey and Terrance Hayes were both featured poets at Idyllwild. I have no doubt that if Cecilia Woloch could have continued to run the festival, the nation’s new poet laureate, Tracy K. Smith, would have read there, too.

I was exceptionally pleased yesterday evening to check the news after I finished teaching my four-hour class to find out about the appointment of Tracy K. Smith as our nation’s poet laureate. In large part, I found myself applauding this announcement because her writing has demonstrated a capacity to be of relevance to readers in another country. With a fair amount of vehemence, I have previously written in this blog about the fashionable provinciality of much of American poetry, and how little of it merits translation into another language. Tracy K. Smith, I am happy to report, is an exception to this stultifying condition. Life in Mars, for instance, has been translated as a stand-alone volume into Spanish (Vida en Marte). If anyone were to ask me what establishes her as worthy of the honor of being U.S. poet laureate, it is not the Pulitzer Prize, for Pulitzer Prize books do not necessarily get translated into another major language. I was not surprised, therefore, to learn of her appointment; three years ago, when I saw that her book had waded into the waters of translation and emerged transfigured, I knew that she was most certainly on her way to something special.
Life on Mars – Spanish 1

I have included links to an interview with Carolyn Kellogg at the L.A. Times, as well as links to a few of her poems, including the title poem of a book that will appear in 2018.







Peace Press Poetry Reading – June 17

Saturday, June 10, 2017

I was sitting at my desk this morning, reviewing some applications by writers who live outside of California for grants from the state they live in, and suddenly realized that I should double-check the date of the Peace Press poetry reading. I grabbed the catalogue for the art exhibition at the Arena One Gallery, and much to my surprise, the catalogue’s first page listed Saturday, June 10th, as the date of the reading. “Huh?” I thought. I was certain that the reading was on the 17th, but I’ve made mistakes about this kind of thing before, and so I quickly checked e-mails. According to every e-mail from Dinah Berland, the organizer of the reading, the date of this reading is Saturday, June 17th, a week from today. Her Facebook posting about this event also lists June 17.

The Poets and Poet-Publishers of Peace Press
Saturday, June 17
2 – 4 p.m.
Arena One Gallery
3026 Airport Avenue
Santa Monica, CA 90405

Readers: Dinah Berland, Michael C. Ford, Deborah Lott, Bill Mohr, Julia Stein, and Rhiannon McGavin.

THE ART OF THE COOKS OF PEACE PRESS is sponsored by the Ash Grove Music Foundation, and is partially underwritten by the Irene B. Wolt Lifetime Trust, and Anonymous. It should also be noted that this art exhibition came about in response to the multi-site exhibition project of the Getty Trust entitled “Pacific Standard Time.” According to the catalogue, “The Arts of the Cooks of Peace Press” was proposed too late in the organizational process of “PST” to be included in that project. Nevertheless, this exhibit demonstrates that the show continues to generate a legacy.

I myself have been invited to be part of this poetry reading not as a poet whose book was printed by Peace Press, but because as the editor and publisher of Momentum Press, I chose Peace Press to be the printer for three of my most important titles: Holly Prado’s Feasts, James Krusoe’s Small Pianos, and Leland Hickman’s Tiresias I:9:B Great Slave Lake Suite. Jim Krusoe might well have been the person who pointed me toward Peace Press, since he had had a chapbook entitled Ju-Ju printed at Peace Press at least a year before I hauled the paste-up board for Feasts to Culver City with the help of my Suzuki Twin-500 motorcycle. In the case of Holly’s book, I was a complete neophyte in terms of publishing, and without the reassuring assistance of the workers at Peace Press, especially Bob Zaugh and Bonnie Mettler, I never would have been able to bring out my first significant publication as an editor/publisher.

As recounted in HOLDOUTS: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance 1948-1882, the typesetting portion of producing these books was done at NewComp Graphics at Beyond Baroque, and both books were done on machines that had no memory discs to expedite revisions. It was a process of keystroke by keystroke composition, and given that both books were not by any means a standard-format for prose or poetry, it was an arduous challenge to get both books to the printer. Given these struggles and my ambitions to make the work of these poets known beyond Los Angeles, it was very important to me that both of these books look as good as possible; and to this day, I read the books not just for the resonant music of the text, but for the way that the poetry on the page was printed by Peace Press with such sympathetic care as to make it completely absorbable.


(from left to right: Michael C. Ford; Dinah Berland; Bill Mohr

Peace Press: The Art of Its Cooks (Arena One Gallery)

Monday, June 5, 2017

For 20 years, Peace Press functioned as a collective of political and social dissidents, and their steadfast devotion to the ideals of the Bill of Rights assisted thousands of people devoted to radical alternatives in the American economy. Stalked by the FBI in its early years, and no doubt subject to continued monitoring once Reagan became President, Peace Press is fondly remembered by many who protested inequity in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

As a tribute to all those who took the risk of working for causes that were not popular then, and are still not popular, Arena One Gallery in Santa Monica is sponsoring an exhibit of artists who worked in one capacity or another for Peace Press. Working in a print shop involves tasks that require more physical effort than one might expect, and certainly working on your feet can itself build up an appetite by mid-day. If an army marches on its belly, so do those opposed to that militarism. Since artists needed jobs after they graduated from places such as California Institute of the Arts, they found a ready-made job in Peace Press’s kitchen. I confess that the title of this exhibit confused me slightly at first. I didn’t realize that I was supposed to take it literally. One normally associates cooks with restaurants, but in this case the restaurant was the noon-time, in-house menu that was provided by a series of artists whose day job was cooking for the workers at the press.

There is a catalogue that reproduces several pieces of work on exhibit by each of the artists, along with a short statement by the artists, who include Nancy Youdelman, Jan Martin, Maud Simmons, Henry Kline, Carol Kaufman, Christina Schlesinger, Anni Siegel, Linda Shelp, and Steve Volpin. My four favorite pieces in the show were Anni Siegel’s “Evening Caryatids,” Linda Shlep’s “Golden Eyes,” Maud Simmons’s “Dreaming in Color 2,” and Carol Kaufman’s “Untitled” pieces. I especially regret that I didn’t get to spend enough time on my first visit to this galley with Kaufman’s work, which intrigued me for the way her pieces seemed to echo Agnes Martin. Nancy Youdelman’s pieces were also more complex than my first glance remitted. Her dresses had a sculptural quality, in that they seemed sufficiently “embroidered” with a cobblestone collage of buttons and other tiny mounds of shiny convections such that there was a hint of the effect of a bas-relief. I would be remiss in finishing this brief commentary if I did not emphasize how much Anni Siegel’s work impressed me. “Evening Caryatids” has a tone of dignified exuberance to its composition, both in color and in the undertones of the colors, that made the centered angle dividing one side of an ancient temple from another balance the gravitational pull of the centuries encased in the stone. The passage of time, in all its organic momentum, revealed itself in the deceptively inorganic pulse of the mineral world out of which the caryatids surfaced.

There will be a poetry reading with Michael C. Ford, Dinah Berland, and Julia Stein on Saturday, June 17th, at 2:00 p.m., and I look forward to a more extended visit.

June 3 – July 1, 2017
Area one Gallery
3026 Airport Avenue
Santa Monica, CA 90405

Terence Davies’s Biopic of Emily Dickinson’s Immeasurable Solitude

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Terence Davies Biopic of Emily Dickinson’s Immeasurable Solitude:
A Quiet Film that Quells the Passion of Dickinson’s Fascicles

Biopics of writers can prove to be even more treacherous than biographies. The latter has the advantage of including a great deal of minor detail. The mosaic of a life, within the trajectory of a published literary narrative, enables the chronicler to intermingle the events of the writer’s age with the daily circumstances of an author’s imaginary projects. The resulting textures enable us to understand the combination of “predestination and contingency” that make up a life, according to Robert Bresson.

Biopics, on the other hand, must compress a life into a few hours of images. In one of the opening scenes in A Quiet Passion, Emily Dickinson claims that she seeks a “compression of truth” in her poems. Terence Davies’s film falls far short of achieving an insightful compression worthy of its subject. On the whole, in fact, Mr. Davies’s account of Dickinson’s life misses the point: it’s not her life that should have been the subject of his film, but the life of her poems. “Dare you see a soul at white heat?” Despite being well-intentioned, the film misses not only the white heat of the poems, but the soundless, incandescent dots that encompass the life that produced those poems.

Despite the superb efforts of an outstanding cast, one only occasionally gets a glimpse of the mystic smoldering that inhabited Dickinson between 1860 and 1865, when her life was permeated with an enormous outpouring of poetry. A Quiet Passion in no way gives any sense of what it might mean for an individual to write hundreds of poems in a few short years. As I tell my students, she was producing a poem at the rate of one every three days, and often these were poems that would have been seem as supreme moments in an average poet’s life. To maintain this level of production is beyond the capacity of genius, which draws upon raw inspiration as much as rigorous intellectual calculation. Over the course of five years Dickinson performed as a vatic intermediary between some unfathomable Source and the language of her birth. Her translation of these diurnal elopements is perhaps beyond the capacity of our art to represent, and I suppose I should give Davies points for an earnest effort.

Nevertheless, Davies opts to provide comic relief rather than be faithful to the dominant tensions in Dickinson’s life. One can understand the temptation to provide a comic foil in a cinematic biography of an enigmatic poet. The Society for the Study of Oscar Wilde must be thoroughly enjoying this implicit homage to the master of the sardonic epigram. I can’t fault the dialogue as dialogue; it’s far better than the average play, but the caustic amusement generated by the conversations between Dickinson and her sister’s friend, Vryling Buffum, hardly compensates for the absence of T.W. Higginson and Helen Hunt Jackson from the account of Dickinson’s life. If the second half of A Quiet Passion begins to drag, it is in large part because we do not see Dickinson’s excruciating ambivalence about literary success. Helen Hunt Jackson pleaded for Dickinson to send a manuscript of poems to be published, and she demurred.

It is in the relationship between Dickinson and Jackson that one could have created a second half response to the cat-and-mouse pas de deux of Higginson and Dickinson in the first half. His famous rejection of her work does not deserve ignominy, but leaving it out almost defies the limits of credibility. Would one do a biopic of Arthur Rimbaud and leave out any mention of his letters to his former schoolmaster? Furthermore, I believe that the absence of Higginson and Jackson more or less cancels any dramatic possibility of explaining the fascicles.

A Quiet Passion depicts her creating fascicles on two occasions, but a person with only casual knowledge Dickinson will most likely have no idea of why Dickinson is being shown sewing pages together. On the first such occasion, we hear a voiceover reciting “I reckon – when I count at all –”, but there is no indication of what that poem might mean within the context of the fascicles. The fascicles themselves, it could be argued, become a refuge for Dickinson in which she can experience the entrance into the heaven of published poets. To show her reading the poems – after she has sewn the pages together – and then jotting down alternative words alongside some of her lines would have been to demonstrate the ongoing nature of her compositions, her openness to the recoiling of meaning within the arbitrariness of human life.

The choice of poems by Davies is quite peculiar. Poems that offer themselves as monologues practically begging for recitation, e.g., “I Felt a Funeral in my Brain,” are bypassed for minor work. It would be a little bit like shooting a biopic of Sylvia Plath and leaving out “Lady Lazarus.” Where are the extraordinary poems that reveal the hours spent in the garden, which is hardly employed for much more than a stage direction to enable Dickinson to spend some time along with Reverend Wadsworth, who is immediately importuned by Dickinson as to the value of her writing. If one wishes to demonstrate the confinement of Dickinson to an immurement of Personal Vision, then why not make use of “An Angle of a Landscape”?

The film concludes with the often reproduced photograph of ED as a young woman, along with her birth and death years. Call me a pendant, but the “cast” of her books should have preceded the actresses and actors roll-call. I would have like to have seen a bibliography of her volumes of poetry, concluding with the very recent Cristanne Miller’s Emily Dickinson’s Poems As She Preserved Them. In providing us access to Dickinson’s fascicles, Miller has done more pertinent and useful work on behalf of America’s greatest lyric poet than Davies’s atmospheric, scatter-shot film has any chance of accomplishing.

Final Sidenote: As any scholar of Dickinson knows, it is the biography of the poems that becomes a posthumous drama worthy of a film. The familial quarrels over her literary remains have had a parallel, if slightly more subdued, set of head-on collisions amidst the defenders and detractors of her poetry. Do not mistake me here: it is surprising how many dismissive remarks have been made about her poetry in the past century. In particular, her prosodic ear has been subject to a smear campaign on a scale that no other major poet has ever had to endure. If I can live long enough, I wish to devote a whole chapter in a book on prosody and rhythm to Dickinson’s capacity for metrical nuance.

Short Walks

The second and third photographs are of the same chalkboard on Fourth Street (near Temple), in Long Beach, on different occasions.

Fuller Glass

I Love Hot Stuff

Fourth Street Chalkboard

Cactus Flower - 1

The Direct Election of the Next L.A. Poet Laureate

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Direct Election of the Next L.A. Poet Laureate

One of the things I intensely dislike about the entire process by which a poet laureate is chosen is the social hierarchy that its bureaucratic administration reinforces. It mimics the manner in which direct control of governmental decisions is ceded to an indirect system, a kind of Electoral College of Art. Let me put this bluntly: it is time for poets in Los Angeles to demand an election in those who care enough about poetry – and this includes those who read it as well as those who write it – have control over the choice. In fact, anyone who is a resident of Los Angeles should be able to vote, though I would guess that the majority of those who would end up voting would prove to be readers and writers of poetry.

Obviously, the ballot could become unwieldy, but I am certain that a combination of practices that make use of internet communication can easily solve this challenge. There should certainly be more minimum requirements in place for the poet laureate. I would be in favor of a combination of length of residency in Los Angeles in the years directly before the appointment and some form of literary activism that had a direct impact on a community as a way of establishing eligibility. Luis J. Rodriguez, for instance, moved back to Los Angeles before becoming poet laureate here, but when he did move back, his projects were focused on empowering the cultural scenes of this city. He would easily qualify under the combination of residency and activism. Needless to say, the first poet laureate, Eloise Klein Healy, would have qualified for the ballot, too.

In looking forward to the process of selecting the next poet laureate of Los Angeles two years from now, I can safely predict one thing: a large number of the semi-finalists will be poets who have been published by Red Hen Press. There were 18 semi-finalists in the pool that led up to the selection of the current poet laureate, Robin Coste Lewis. I have no doubt that several of those semi-finalists had been published by Kate Gale. If not, then something was very skewed in the Cultural Affairs Department. Red Hen’s backlist is a truly impressive accomplishment. Kate Gale, who is a fine poet herself, has made an enormous difference in making certain that the hard work done by poets in the 1970s and 1980s in Los Angeles continues to flourish. Here is a list of some of Red Hen’s authors who live and work in Los Angeles or in its pertinent adjacent cities:
Chris Abani
William Archila
Tony Barnstone
Laurel Ann Bogen
Jeanette Clough
Brendan Constantine
Kim Dower
Eloise Klein Healy
Charles Hood
Douglas Kearney
Ron Koertge
Douglas Manuel
Holaday Mason
Keith Antar Mason
Deena Metzger
Jim Natal
Austin Straus
Amy Uyematsu
Charles Harper Webb
Terry Wolverton
Gail Wronsky

I have to say that it would be gratifying to have the next poet laureate be someone who has been published by a press based in Los Angeles. The current poet laureate has spoken of the need for more attention to be paid to poets whose lives reflect the multitude of immigrant communities. William Archila has not been particularly prominent in the discussion so far, and yet I would encourage him to begin thinking about making himself a candidate who would certainly merit finalist status as much as such poets as Lynne Thompson, Suzanne Lummis, Marisela Norte, and Gail Wronsky.

So much of literary politics involves personal connections. I want to go on record, however, as saying that I have no recollection of ever meeting Archila other than on the pages of anthologies in which we have both appeared. In that regard, I would point both to Wide Awake, which was published by Beyond Baroque Foundation, as well as the anthology, Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes & Shifts of Los Angeles, which has an introduction by Luis J. Rodriguez and is published by Tia Chucha Press. (Oddly enough, Robin Coste Lewis does not have work in the latter anthology.)

I have learned that William Archila is reading at the Pasadena Museum of California Art tomorrow, Friday, June 2nd. The reading, which will also include Douglas Manuel and Lisa C. Krueger, offers you a chance to hear someone who may well be poet laureate of Los Angeles in 2020. Especially if the poets and those who read poetry have a direct say in the matter.

Pasadena Museum of California Art
490 E. Union Street
Pasadena, CA 91101
Reading: 6 p.m.
Free admission.

The “Deep Bench” of L.A. Poetry

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The “Deep Bench” of L.A. Poetry

I received an e-mail from a poet in Los Angeles inquiring about the absence of several poets from either my list or Mike Sonksen’s list of potential candidates for the poet laureate position. No doubt about it: there are many obvious omissions and a couple that were not as obvious. I didn’t intend my list to be comprehensive, and I doubt that Mike did, either. For my part, in fact, I was concerned that it would seem like an endless recitation in which the value of each poet named began to cancel out the adjacencies. The reality is that there is a surplus of well-qualified poets. Well-qualified? Dare I say overqualified, given the pittance that the Cultural Affairs Department has allotted as a stipend for the position?

Certainly, one of the poets I left out would have every justification for turning down the position, even if he were to be unanimously petitioned to accept it. David St. John is one of the most honored poets of his generation, and he is consistently eloquent in speaking in a respectful and insightful manner about a large number of poets in Los Angeles. At this point, though, the only poet laureate position that I would nominate David for is the national post. While he has indeed made his home here in Los Angeles for the past 30 years, I really don’t believe it would be fair to ask him to undertake the amount of local work entailed in the position at this point in his life. I have long admired his writing. Here is a long review I wrote of his poetry over a quarter-century ago:


For much the same reason, I would also imagine that Carol Muske-Dukes is not a feasible candidate in that she has already been poet laureate of California. Along with David, she deserves the expectation of being in the conversation for the national position.

So exactly how deep a bench does L.A. poetry have? Any city that can boast the line-up of candidates I cited and leave out Lynne Thompson and Sarah Maclay ought to start its own Fulbright program in which poets are sponsored by the city to live for a year in another city and work with young poets there in some kind of community-based organization. Of course, this would cost much, much more than $10,000, and I am perfectly aware that my proposal goes beyond any possibility of ever happening. After all, this is a city in which $20,000,000 can be spent on a film that will only earn back a third of that amount, even when overseas residuals are counted, and the tax accountants shrug because somehow that film turned a profit, once the tax laws get factored in. How outrageous, therefore, for me to suggest a poet be paid $75,000 to work with poets over the course of a year? Nevertheless, I can’t think of two people I would rather have me represent me elsewhere, as well as in Los Angeles, as Lynne and Sarah.

Someone did ask me why I didn’t put myself on the list, given my efforts on behalf of the Los Angeles poetry scene the past several decades. I hope the following suffices for an explanation as a statement of self-exclusion:

I do not need to be named as a poet laureate of any locality or region to feel that I have accomplished a small portion of my hopes for the art of poetry in Los Angeles, the city in which I have found a multitude of companions devoted to this art. There has been a renaissance in poetry in Los Angeles since World War II that is now internationally recognized, and that alone suffices to gratify any personal ambitions I might still retain in the final stages of my life. As it stands, I have my hands full being a 69 year old college professor with responsibility for a 95 year old mother who is in the throes of dementia. Furthermore, I live and work in Long Beach, which technically makes me eligible, but being poet laureate would require me to put in at least 15 hours a week just driving my car to get to Los Angeles proper and fulfill the duties of the office. Quite frankly, I am tired enough as it is right now of driving in Los Angeles without taking on this job. Furthermore, there are many candidates whose poetry is far more visible and accessible.

If I were to narrow down the list, therefore, here would have been my top ten for the selection process of 2017 (in alphabetical order):
Laurel Ann Bogen
Elena Byrne
Suzanne Lummis
Sarah Maclay
Harryette Mullen
Marisela Norte
Holly Prado
Lynne Thompson
Amy Uyematsu
Cecilia Woloch
Terry Wolverton
Gail Wronsky

Oh, did I just name 12? Well, as I said, there is an abundance of deserving poets who have walked the walk of being present over a long period of time in various communities in Los Angeles. Hmmm, all women. If that surprises (or even a tiny bit dismays you), then take a good look in the chauvinist mirror. OK, OK, I suppose I should include one man. Brendan Constantine makes it a baker’s dozen. In point of fact, Brendan would make one hell of a great poet laureate in L.A. Choosing him out of this list with a dozen women, though, would make everyone’s eyes roll high enough to break a glass ceiling. Sorry, Brendan, not this time around, unfortunately. But I’d be just as proud to point to you as poet laureate as any of the above.

As for the final choice, if Wanda Coleman were still alive, I think she would look over this list and be happy to spare the Mayor the effort of picking a laureate who has helped redefine the social meaning of a life in L.A. devoted to poetry (once again, thank you, Cary Nelson).

The Always Already Redefining of L.A. Poetry

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Always Already Redefining of L.A. Poetry


Jessica Ceballos has forwarded me an article by Mike Sonksen (aka Mike the Poet) which was recently published in Entropy magazine. Mike’s articles and reviews the past half-dozen years have in general been the most invigorating commentary on the current scenes in Los Angeles, and he has done his homework on the history of the city’s literary communities. I have to disagree with him, though, when he says that Robin Coste Lewis is “an excellent choice to carry on the work that Luis Rodriguez pioneered as poet laureate” and that “literary Los Angeles is thrilled with her appointment.” I can’t be thrilled with someone who demeans the work I’ve done for over 40 years.

There are several dozen poets I would have been thrilled to hear announced as the next poet laureate, and I named them when I wrote the Cultural Affairs Department and its laureate selection committee several months ago: Douglas Kearney, Sesshu Foster, Amy Uyematsu, Will Alexander, Gail Wronsky, Cecilia Woloch, Elena Byrne, Laurel Ann Bogen, Brian Kim Stefans, Ron Koertge, Charles H. Webb, Paul Vangelisti, Jack Grapes, Holly Prado, Harryette Mullen, Carol Muske-Dukes, Martha Ronk, and Suzanne Lummis.

My list of potential poet laureates reflected the long-standing relationship of these poets with the development of poetry scenes in Los Angeles, and it was not meant to be comprehensive. One could have assembled a list of the most likely potential finalists, though, by combining my list with those named in Mike’s article (December 9, 2016) that surveyed the field of potential candidates: https://www.kcet.org/arts-entertainment/the-rich-history-of-los-angeles-poetry-scene-who-will-be-the-2017-poet-laureate

In addition to many of the poets I listed, he pointed to Gloria Endedina Alvarez, Chiwan Choi, Brendan Constantine, Kamau Daaood, Peter J. Harris, Traci Kato-Kiriyama, Ruben Martinez, Marisela Norte, Pam Ward, and Terry Wolverton. Between Mike’s list and my list, one has a compilation of over two dozen poets with sustained continuity to the L.A. scenes. These poets have “always already” been redefining Los Angeles poetry as a multi-cultural phenomenon that reflects the contingencies of urban life and postmodern identity as it plays out in configurations of class, gender, and race. That Robin Coste Lewis did not appear in either list is perhaps a reflection of her dearth of community work as an activist in L.A. poetry scenes. Art is not a democracy, however, and she was chosen by the Mayor to be our representative public figure.

Back when I took what little money I had left over from my wages and “invested” in a magazine and small press that promoted the work of Wanda Coleman and Garrett Hongo, I envisioned a city that would have a flourishing set of poetry scenes. Thanks to the hard work of dozens and dozens of poets and cultural activists in Los Angeles who joined me in that effort in the past four decades, Ms. Lewis has at her disposal the resources of a diverse and crisis-tested region of poets. I look forward to learning of her specific plans as to how to strengthen the long-standing resistance of these poets to the “manufactured image of L.A.” First, though, she needs to do something she ought to have done before she applied to become poet laureate of Los Angeles: become articulately familiar in detail with the history of that resistance.