Saturday, April 29, 2017
Tuesday, April 25, 2017
Photograph by Bill Mohr
(c) Copyright 2017 Bill Mohr
Sunday, April 23, 2017
Mise-en-scene: Bill Mohr
Photograph by Linda Fry
Copyright by Bill Mohr and Linda Fry 2017
Kevin Opstedal. CALIFORNIA REDEMPTION VALUE, University of New Orleans Press, 2011.
Kevin Opstedal — PACIFIC STANDARD TIME: New & Selected Poems. Edited by Noel Black and Julien Poirier. Brooklyn, New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2016
At the beginning of 2016, I posted an entry on the poetry of Kevin Opstedal entitled “The Poet Laureate of PCH.” That commentary focused on a set of chapbooks Opstedal has had published over the past couple of decades. Last summer, around August, Ugly Duckling Presse inquired about whether I would be interested in a review copy of Opstedal’s Pacific Standard Time: New & Selected Poems. “PST,” however, was not the first full-scale book in Opstedal’s ongoing saga of publication to arrive on Molino Avenue in Long Beach. My recollection is that a copy of California Redemption Value (“CRV”) had arrived shortly after my January post, so this past Fall found my desk being inhabited by two overlapping collections of “selected” poems by Opstedal.
It is difficult to recommend one of these volumes over the other, since both enable a reader to defamiliarize her or his usual habits of imaginative comprehension. This is to say that anyone who still believes in the consciousness-altering possibilities of reading needs to sit down with both these books and flense the preconditions that one has become all too comfortable with. A half-century ago, one would probably have been urged to imbibe various pharmaceuticals as a way to reconstructing reality. Opstedal’s poems offer the advantage of a much safer passage to renewed perceptions of the ordinary moment.
Lest one fear that some harrowing confrontation is in the offing, let me hasten to reassure you that Opstedal is not one of these visionary poets whose goal is to be your tutelary avatar. While his poems do possess, in fact, a peculiar seductive power, they exude a calm reassurance even in the midst of radiant uncertainty, and they do so with no sense of the writing being an effort to self-mythologize the author. This degree of equilibrium is different than that proposed by Walt Whitman’s shamanic aurora: “How quickly would the sunrise kill me / Could I not now and always send sunrise out of me.” Instead of turbulent pyrotechnics, Opstedal’s acrobatic centering takes place in slow motion, enabling your commitment as a reader to enfold itself with the palpable immanence of his imagery.
I wonder about the day, the way the sun climbs
inside its own radiance & warms the pavement
I think it’s akin to snorkeling but
just exactly how this can be so I’m not sure
This kind of reverent deferral represents yet one more extension of negative capability into an ecology of mutual recognition between environment and self. The next stanza both lures the speaker deeper into this particular chronotope and jolts him into a distant dimension: “waves strum a little pre-Cambrian / rhythm & blues.” Opstedal’s intermingling of the contemporary moment and evolutionary perspective suggests a transplanting of Charles Olson’s surveillance of Gloucester within a geological framework, and it does not take much perusing of Opstedal’s poetry to find another such instance:
The pier was all lit up
like Mortuary Day
the word on the street was
strung out along insect balconies
like drifting sand in the Paleolithic diorama
Olson, however, would never dream of titling his poems in a manner such as Opstedal does in the above two instances: “Performing Brain Surgery with a Crowbar” and “Meat Pie in Paradise,” respectively. The disjuncture between the sardonic titles and the lyrical renitence underscoring the verses themselves might well stem from Opstedal’s truculent skepticism about the immediate future of his native state: “Everything here is a natural disaster.” Rather than succumbing to a dystopic vision, however, Opstedal reinvigorates the potential of the planet to assist human beings in regaining access to its solemn spheres of wonder. If this sounds well nigh impossible within the intellectual and aesthetic currents of the present moment, I can only testify to the singular effervescence of Opstedal’s poetry. One can open Pacific Standard Time at random and find oneself gliding with the language’s undulations with an ease that belies the encompassing grip of the images. I can recall very few such instances of such “oneness” with the words on the page. Opstedal’s poems glow as if they have absorbed season after season of incandescence, and yet allow one to stare directly at the center of the vision without the least squint from too much glare. Get this book and start to live with it.
For a review of Pacific Standard Time as a prime instance of “surf noir,” I would highly recommend Mike Sonksen’s recent article (Feb. 7, 2017) in Entropy magazine; it is the best single appreciation of Opstedal’s poetry I have read by any poet-critic in the United States. Sonksen does a superb job of providing the contextual literary history of small press publishing relevant to Opstedal’s development as a poet alongside insightful commentary on the poems themselves.
“Echolocation,” a portion of my long poem “Barely Holding Distant Things Apart,” has just been published in issue #27 of CALIBAN magazine, edited by Larry Smith. While a print version of the title poem appeared in ASYLUM magazine, edited by Greg Boyd, the video version that includes the collaboration with sculptor Mineko Grimmer, is available on-line. Other contributors to this new issue of CALIBAN include Anthony Seidman, James Grabill, Ray Gonzalez, Cathie Sandstrom, Jeff Harrison, Guy R. Beining, Andrew Joron, Timothy Liu, Karen Garthe, Naomi Ruth Lowinsky, Gerald Vizenor, and George Kalamaras.
Wednesday, April 12, 2017
I came down with a bad head cold this past Friday evening, and was still sufficiently ill on Monday to have to cancel that day’s classes. One other unfortunate consequence of my illness is that I had to miss the memorial service for John Harris at Beyond Baroque this past Saturday. Even though I wasn’t there, however, I found an example of his impact on the larger community of poets, musicians, and artists as I tried to do a bit of research for a paper I’m working on about the early days of punk rock music in Los Angeles. Chris D., who edited an anthology in the mid-70s entitled Bongo Chalice, recollects seeing the first issue of Slash magazine in — you guessed it — Papa Bach Bookstore in 1977. It was completely John’s store by that point, and his choices shaped the entire zeitgeist that the store palpitated. I took a look at the clock on Saturday as I read Chris D.’s assessment of the store as “bohemian”: it was a few minutes past 5:00 p.m., and John’s memorial service would have been just wrapping up. I heard from Michael C. Ford a couple days ago that George Drury Smith spoke at the gathering and said that while Joseph Hansen provided the intellectual edge to the early days of the Wednesday night poetry workshop at Beyond Baroque, John Harris as its co-founder was the heart of the gathering. He was also its designated driver, in that Joe Hansen was like Ray Bradbury and refused to own or drive a car, and had held out against driving ever since coming of age in Los Angeles. If John had not provided Joe with a ride to the workshop, I doubt it would ever have sustained itself.
I suppose I should be grateful that my indisposition at least waited until Friday to make itself felt. Several weeks ago, Kim Dower, the poet laureate of West Hollywood, asked me to read with a half-dozen other poets at the West Hollywood Public Library and to write something on the theme of Sunset Strip, 1967. The reading was scheduled for Thursday, April 6, and by the morning of the day before I still hadn’t written anything. With only 36 hours left before the reading was to begin, I sat down and got to work on a sonnet, which I had to complete by mid-morning so that I could leave for campus. I got it done and was pleased enough with the effor that I dedicated it to Laurence Goldstein, whose Poetry Los Angeles is the best book around on the theme of this city as an omphalos of poetic inspiration.
The reading went very well and all the poets enjoyed reading with one of the most glamorous backdrops that any of us could ask for. I had no idea that we would be provided such as shimmering setting. I was delighted to see Audri Phillips in the audience, and the esteemed music critic Steve Hochman came up afterwards and introduced himself. There was some awkwardness at the end as the poets headed off to a small get-together about who could be there. If someone named Halley (who seemed as if she possessed a tender poetic spirit) is reading this, my profound apologies for your discomfort.
Group shot : https://www.flickr.com/photos/weho/33832596251/in/album-72157679206949583/
All photos: www.flickr.com/photos/weho/albums/72157679206949583
Saturday, April 1, 2017
More Secret Locations
I began working on a literary history of some of the communities of poets in Los Angeles County in the mid-1990s. I had no realization whatsoever how long this account and accompanying contextual analysis would take to complete. As I worked on the initial outline, however, worrying about the publication date was a luxury I could not afford, for it was primarily a project motivated by dire circumstances. After many years of making a living as a typesetter, I was unemployed and had no likelihood of ever finding work again in that occupation. One evening, in mid-November, 1995, I spotted a flyer on a lobby counter at Beyond Baroque. The Getty Research Institute was requesting applications from scholars and cultural workers who would contribute to a year-long seminar on Los Angeles. I set to work on a proposal that I spend two months doing research on the poets in Venice West, and turned it in on the last day of the application date. In mid-Spring, I received a special delivery notice that I had received one of the visiting scholar awards. It was a radical shift in my life, in that it led to a decision to engage in graduate study at UC San Diego, starting in 1997.
The first few years that I was in grad school were impatiently devoted to doing the coursework for a Ph.D., during which time I felt encouraged by the publication of A Secret Location on the Lower East Side. It was the kind of book that emanated a lifetime of passionate involvement in the underground publication of poetry in the two decades after Donald Allen’s anthology first appeared, and it bespoke the necessity of my own project, which I saw as a spoke on the Great Wheel of this compendium by authors/archivists, Steven Clay and Rodney Phillips. At the many points at which I felt discouraged, I thought of their book as proof that Holdouts was more than individual nostalgia for what L.A. Times book critic Robert Kirsch had called the “golden age” of Los Angeles poetry.
As was the case with Holdouts, in which I had to leave out vast amounts of information, A Secret Location was merely the first major sifting of the period under examination (1960-1980). In making the entire original book available for anyone with a computer and internet access to read, Steven Clay and Rodney Phillips have performed an extraordinary act of scholarly generosity. They have taken the project further, though, and added entries for other notable magazines and small press outfits, such as Abraxas, Extensions, Luna Bisonte Prods, New American Writing, Oink, Streets and Roads, Sugar Mountain, the, Tooth of Time Review, Grist, Long News in the Short Century, Sunshine, Unmuzzled Ox, Search for Tomorrow, and Tansy.
For those who missed the post a few days back, you can also listen to David Wilk’s recently posted interview with me as a way of hearing about some of the books that are mentioned in the checklist on this very personal instance of a Secret Location.
Sunday, March 26, 2017
“Going in Style”: The Politics of Masculine Critique
When Linda Fry, Laurel Ann Bogen, and I went to see “The Last Word” a week ago, the previews included the upcoming release of a remake, “Going in Style.” I was disappointed instantly. The original starred a trio of men, and the remake has recast it with three males. As much as I enjoyed the original film back in 1979. I equally remember my main problem with it. The story-line involves three old men who decide that the possible benefits of robbing banks would probably outweigh the penalties, given that none of them had much likelihood of serving even a small portion of any lengthy prison sentence. As a comic premise, it served its purpose, but let us consider that the majority of individuals who might entertain that option as a solution to their predicaments would most likely be women. Impoverished old women confined to bleak circumstances far outnumber men, and if the comic requires the unexpected, a trio of aging women would easily provide a multitude of punch-lines and gags using the same premise.
The gender shift I proposed in my critique of the first “Going in Style” did in fact show up in a middle-aged variant a year later. The success of “9 to 5,” which starred Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Dolly Parton, demonstrated that a comedy in which women took the law into their own hands was certainly a viable project. If one were to propose a remake, I would be more inclined to see this one in a theater rather than the upcoming release featuring Morgan Freeman, Alan Arkin, and Michael Caine.
However, given the patriarchal backlash in this country right now, it is not surprising that this remake of “Going in Style” blithely presents the crisis of masculinity as the bedrock for its antics. The context for this remake has been building for years. At the end of the last century, Susan Faludi’s Stiffed, for instance, examined the challenges that working men faced within the economics of gender. Nevertheless, to have three men react to the loss of their pensions by launching careers as senescent criminals only serves to distract us from the machinations of an aging baby boomer in the recent presidential election. Trump and his inner circle are giving us a new definition of “style” and they don’t intend the aftermath to be comic.
Friday, March 24, 2017
While many cultural activists bemoan the disappearance of independent bookstores, another important link in the chain of cultural transmission that has also become endangered in the past 15 years is the book distributor. One of the most important figures in this regard in the United States during the past half-century is David Wilk, who ran Inland Book Company after first launching a Midwest book distribution project called Truck. David got in touch recently and asked to interview me for his radio program, Writerscast. I was delighted to have a chance to talk and catch up with him as well as to answer his questions about Momentum Press and the other editors who were working alongside me in Los Angeles County in the 1970s and 1980s.
The interview was conducted by phone from my office on campus on a chilly Sunday afternoon. The office lacked heat, but the memories were warm. You can listen to our conversation at the following link:
Monday, March 20, 2017
What, then, is to be done?
First, remember what is already being done.
The Earth is circling the sun at 17,000 miles per hour. Sit with as much stillness as possible and feel this extraordinary speed. Imagine your spine as being in alignment with this “magic prison” of a planet being centered on its axis. Breathe with those alignments.
What would be the point of a social revolution that did not provide the wherewithal for each human being, fed and clothed sufficiently, to be able to do this for at least an half-hour several times a week?