Search Results for: tracks

“TRACKS” — poems by Lynn McGee

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

TRACKS: Poems by Lynn McGee (Broadstone Books, 2019)

The New York subway system has recently been rebuked for its disruptive service far more than its inured administrative personnel are used to, and I am glad that I don’t have to depend on it to get to and from campuses in the New York City area, as I did back in the Fall of 2005, when I was working at Nassau Community College in Garden City (on Long Island); St. John’s in Queens; and Rutgers in New Jersey. That was a tough semester, and I had little time for anything other than teaching and sending off several dozen applications for work elsewhere.

The subway system in NYC, as well as the rail system that serves the “larger metropolitan area,” is a form of public participatory theater in which the riders and the workers are usually acting with a “less is more” approach. Tamped down emotions, no matter how intensely felt, are revealed obliquely, as if for a movie camera in which the director has called for a long close-up of one’s face. An awareness of this context can heighten a reader’s appreciation of Langston’s Hughes’s depiction of social space on the subway in Montage of a Dream Deferred. Along with Hughes’s book-length poem, in fact, McGee’s Tracks is the one of the best books to read after revisiting Blake’s “London,” the poem that establishes the template for the modern poet in the ever-accelerating urban milieu.

Many great poets and fiction writers (from Hart Crane to James Baldwin) have made use of the subway to heighten the subjective tension of their poems and stories, but few creative writers have made it the crucial trope of an entire book. NYC-based poet Lynn McGee’s TRACKS undertakes the challenge of recording some of her chance encounters on the subway system; her skill in doing so could easily be under-appreciated. For the most part, the diction is pared down; the line-breaks stay focused on enabling the reader to absorb her “depth of field” approach. These are poems that remind me of Robert Bresson’s films, and there is little in the way of higher praise that I could offer.

One outcome of reading these poems is their implicit reminder of the vicissitudes of others as they ride beside us. “Tracks” are also what is made by animals, including us, as we move across the ground. McGee’s personal losses, including that of a sister who died from a brain aneurism, are not of course visible to any of the people she takes note of on her subway trips, and yet it is the very tension between that the visibility of others in this book, and the hidden theater of her own personal sorrow that gives these poems an imaginative trajectory: the “tracks” delineate a cartography of a city as both as both one’s most intimate companion and most unappeasable antagonist.

This book of poems will not make you want to move to New York City, in the way that Frank O’Hara’s, Ted Berrigan’s, or Eileen Myles’s poems might prove alluring. Instead, you will find yourself looking around at all the ways you move about in any given day, and no longer regard the ordinary as too familiar to record in precise and evocative language. We might think of ourselves as not needing a reminder about the imaginative resources available in our daily movements, but McGree’s Tracks demonstrates that we overlook that which deserves our close attention far more frequently than we believe.

McGee’s book is available through SMALL PRESS DISTRIBUTION ( or through her publisher, Broadstone Books.

“Sticking It to the Man: Revolution and Counter-Culture” (PM Press; Australia)

Sunday, October 27, 2019

“If it’s not popular, it’s not culture.”
— Motto of the Popular Culture Association

Five years ago, the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB) published an article I had written about Los Angeles-based novelist and poet, Joseph Hansen, who was one of the co-founders of the half-century old Beyond Baroque Poetry Workshop. I had written the article as a response to a request from one of its editors, Zach Mann, who had first become familiar with Hansen’s writing in one of my graduate seminars. The article remains an essential complement to the commentary in my literary history, HOLDOUTS: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance 1948-1992 (University of Iowa Press).

I am pleased to report that the article on Hansen will be reprinted in a volume to be published in December in Australia, “Sticking It to the Man: Revolution and Counter-Culture.” Here is the ordering information. One can purchase an e-Book version, too.

“Sticking It to the Man: Revolution and Counterculture”
SKU: 9781629635248
Editors: Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre
Publisher: PM Press
ISBN: 9781629635248
Published: 12/2019
Format: Paperback
Size: 8 x 10
Page count: 336
Subjects: History-Pop Culture/Literature-History and Criticism

Sticking It to the Man tracks the ways in which the changing politics and culture of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s were reflected in pulp and popular fiction in the United States, the UK, and Australia. Featuring more than three hundred full-color covers, the book includes in-depth author interviews, illustrated biographies, articles, and reviews from more than two dozen popular culture critics and scholars.”

“These are the novels that provided us with our guiltiest reading pleasures of the mid-to-late Twentieth Century. They are reviewed by the critics who understand them best, and who give us lively insights into the historical and social forces in play as they were being written.”
—Ann Bannon, author of The Beebo Brinker Chronicles

“The Affinity School”: A conversation with poet Lynn McGee

9/1/19 (A palindrome of time)

Lynn McGee and I recently exchanged a set of questions about each other’s latest volumes of poetry, and the ensuring conversation has just been published.

Methods and Materials: The Sojourns of Affinities

As a “sneak preview,” I present our opening queries:

Lynn McGee: When I opened the padded envelope with The Headwaters of Nirvana: Reassembled Poems, I stood at the kitchen counter reading almost the entire book. I’m thinking now of the pivots and line breaks in “Vallejo,” the precise unfolding of images in “Eye Chart for an Orbiting Space Station.” Of course, I recognize many of the poems, like “Rules for Building a Labyrinth,” which you set into a letterpress pamphlet in the nineties. I also noticed some familiar poems aren’t in this new book, like the one about a roommate who leaves broken glass on the kitchen floor. I know your editors selected the poems for this collection. Did their choices surprise you? What are your thoughts on how to assemble a collection of poetry?

* * *
Lynn, I’d like to talk about the title of your new collection. While the cover art reinforces the image of public transportation, the word “tracks” also has the common association of physical footprints. In your poem, “Sign,” the opening image is of your perilous trudge through snow and ice, “feet deep in the prints of those who gone / before me.” On a literary level, one could think of any poet’s work as walking in a similar manner. Are there any particular poets who influenced this project?

* * *

I hope you find our answers to these and subsequent questions as tantalizing as I did upon re-reading this collaborative interview. I want to thank Lynn McGee for all her work on this project.

Lynn McGee is the author of the poetry collections Tracks (Broadstone Books, 2019); Sober Cooking (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2016), and two award-winning poetry chapbooks: Heirloom Bulldog (Bright Hill Press, 2015) and Bonanza (Slapering Hol Press, 1997). Her poems are forthcoming or appeared recently in The Tampa Review, Lavender Review, The American Journal of Poetry, Potomac Review, The American Poetry Review and Southern Poetry Review. McGee earned an MFA in Poetry at Columbia University, taught writing at private and public colleges and led poetry workshops in NYC public schools. A 2015 Nominee for the Best of the Net award, McGee received a Recognition Award from the NYC Literacy Center, and Heart of the Center Award from the NYC LGBT Center. Today she is a communications manager at Borough of Manhattan Community College, The City University of New York.

Bill Mohr is the author of The Headwaters of Nirvana / Los Manantiales del Nirvana, a bilingual collection of poetry from What Books/Glass Table Collective, 2019. An internationally recognized poet whose work has been translated into Croatian, Italian, Japanese and Spanish, Mohr authored Hold Outs,The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance, 1948-1992 (University of Iowa Press, 2011). He holds a Ph.D. in Literature from the University of California, San Diego and is a professor at California State University, Long Beach. Editor and publisher of Momentum Press, 1974-1988, his own poems, prose poems, and non-fiction essays have appeared in dozens of magazines, including Antioch Review; Blue Collar Review; Caliban On-Line; Miramar; Santa Monica Review; Sonora Review; Blue Mesa Review; Spot Lit; Skidrow Penthouse; and ZYZZYVA. His many anthology appearances and on-line reprints include POETRY DAILY; all three editions of Stand Up Poetry; as well as volumes such as Grand Passion; Wide Awake; and Coiled Serpent. His stand-alone volumes of poetry include Hidden Proofs (1982); Penetralia (1984); Bittersweet Kaleidscope (2006) and a bilingual volume published in Mexico, Pruebas Ocultas (Bonobos Editores, 2015). Mohr’s critical commentary, articles, and reviews have been published in Chicago Review; William Carlos Williams Review; Journal of Beat Studies; New Review of Literature; OR; IdeAs (Idees d’Amerique); and the Los Angeles Review of Books. His academic awards include a Visiting Scholar residency at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, as well as awards from the Huntington Library in San Marino.

Best Books of Poetry in 2018: Long List

Saturday, December 22, 2018

“If This Is Paradise, Why Are We Still Driving”

I have written in this blog about the Search Engine Generation and its relation to “The Information Age.” Lists have certainly proliferated as a form meant to shape how the “hunter-gatherers” of social media perceive their urban environment and strive to include their aspirations within ongoing legal disputes about identity, right, and obligations. (I owe the notion of the transmogrification of clusters of electronically embedded individuals into “hunter-gatherers” to Brooks Roddan, who wrote about it in his blog.) Books and lists of books are a minor part of that confluence, but no matter how minor a role books might be reduced to, they will persist; if books were to vanish — like some species whose evisceration left no wisp of a fossil record — I suspect that someone would “invent” them all over again. And I don’t mean something read on a digital screen, but words printed on paper, cut into pages, and bound in a way as to pose upright on a shelf. In part, this intervention derives from a public ambition: no matter how minor a skill literacy might seem, given its paltry rewards, those who band together to reinforce the poetics of literate consciousness can have an unexpected influence. As I have noted in papers I have presented at various academic conferences, Donald Allen’s anthology did more than serve as an ignition point for “post-modern” poetry. It also announced that a new front had been opened in the civil rights movement, in particular in regards to homosexuality and drug use.

One can see this impetus again in the prevalence of independent presses in the list of recommended books of poetry on the website, Entropy. Although long established publishers such as New Directions, Penguin, Milkweed, Graywolf, and Omnidawn make appearances on Entropy’s list, Entropy’s chorus is permeated by enterprises such as Timeless Infinite Light; University of Hell Press; and Entre Rios Books. Entropy’s list is compiled from suggestions by a large group of its reviewers, and I have serious doubts that every reviewer who contributed to the list has read all the books on the list. I myself only recognize a minority of the poets whose books are on Entropy’s list; on the other hand, the lists drawn up by gatekeeper reviewers such as Dan Chiasson, Elizabeth Lund, David Orr, Adam Morgan, and Michael Robbins have more familiar names, and
here is a list of books I concur with these readers as deserving our sustained attention:

American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes (Penguin) EL

Ghost Of by Siana Khoi Nguyen (Omnidawn)

Monument: Poems New and Selected by Natasha Trethewey (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

For an Ineffable Metrics of the Desert by Mostafa Nissabouri, Edited by Guy Bennett, Translated by Guy Bennett, Pierre Joris, Addie Leak and Teresa Villa-Ignacio (Otis Books/Seismicity Editions)

Wade in the Water – Tracy K. Smith (Graywolf)

Autobiography of Death by Kim Jyesoon (Tranlated by Don Mee Choi) (New Directions)

At Your Feet by Ana Cristina Cesar, edited by Katrina Dodson (translated by Brenda Hillman and Helen Hillman) (Parlor Press)

Feeld by jos Charles (Milkweed)

Lo Terciario / The Tertiary Raquel Salas Rivera (Timeless Infinite Light)

City of the Future by Sesshu Foster (Kaya Press)

New Poems of Native Nations edited by Heid E. Erdich (Graywolf)

Like by A. E. Stallings (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)

Baby, I Don’t Care by Chelsey Minnis (Wave)

Surge by Etel Adnan (Nightboat)

Be With by Forrest Gander (New Directions)

I do wonder, however, how an outstanding book of poetry such as Brendan Lorber’s If This Is Paradise, Why Are We Still Driving did not make a single one of these lists. I want to make it clear that in nominating Lorber’s book as the collection that most renewed my imagination this year that I have no personal connection with him whatsoever. I have never met him, or talked with him; in fact, I had never heard of him until I noticed his listing on SPD’s catalogue intrigued me enough to order it.

Lorber worked on the poems that appear If This Is Paradise,… for 20 years, and that patience no doubt accounts for book’s captivating sinuousness. What I can’t figure out is why others seem to have shunned this book. Of course, maybe other critics didn’t deliberately neglect it. I wish I could have public assurances from all of the above named critics that they inexplicably somehow missed this book, or that they actually read Lorber’s book and consciously rejected it as inferior to the books they nominated. One way or another, it would be good to know. I’m not convinced, however, that they did read it. It’s just a hunch, but books are just as subject to misfortune as any human life.

How else to explain the absence of books from these lists by poets who do fall within the domain of my acquaintances or friends? Surely the above critics read at least two of the following titles:

Wobble by Rae Armantrout (Wesleyan)
Strata by Ewa Chrusciel (Omnidawn)
Another Way to Play: Poems 1960-2017 by Michael Lally (Seven Stories)
Sidebend World by Charles Harper Webb (University of Pittsburgh)
Shell Game by Jordan Davis (Edge Books)

In truth, I wouldn’t bet much money on it. I suspect that not a single critic, who contributed to or compiled the lists I have referred to, read more than one of the books I have just nominated. l hope you don’t let their preferences hinder your interest in encountering poets who deserve standing room only audiences. It was, in fact, a pleasure to see that Michael Lally received that kind of reception at Beyond Baroque recently.

In the faint hope that my blog might nudge someone who in turn would nudge someone, who in turn etc., I would like to nominate two books in advance as worthy of these critics’ consideration: Tracks by Lynn McGee (Broadstone Books, January 15, 2019); and Every Ravening Thing by Marsha de la O, which is scheduled to be published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in April, 2019.

I fear, though, that it is no more likely that they will read this pair of books than it is likely that they got around to reading the following books in 2017:

The Zoo at Night by Susan Gubernat
Enter Here by Alexis Rhone Fancher
Barbie Chang by Victoria Chang

Verbal assurances will not suffice. I understand that it’s impossible to publish a review on every worthy book, but casual claims will not suffice to verify familiarity with these books. An e-mail in which they wrote at least one friend and commented on at least a pair of these books would serve far better in establishing that West Coast poets are getting a fair hearing. Until then, the incredibly minimal presence of poets based in Southern California from the lists of prominent critics elsewhere leaves me seriously skeptical as to the comprehensive scope of their annual reading. I am grateful that Sesshu Foster is getting his much deserved recognition, but that is such a token gesture towards this region as to be laughable.

“The Ancients Did Not Think of Themselves as Ancient.”

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Several years ago I discovered the website, which keeps me up to date on the latest explorations of Mars and other planets, as well as recent hunches about the origins of the universe. Today, I saw the following posting in which researchers are speculating about the astronomical purposes of cave art:

Prehistoric cave art suggests ancient use of complex astronomy

Reinterpretations of cave art have been part of the discourse of avant-garde poetry for several decades, primarily due to the extended labor of one of the most important poet-editor-translators of the past half-century, Clayton Eshleman, who has led the way in contemporary poetry in exploring the imaginative implications of cave art for contemporary civilizations.

You can read an interview with Clayton Eshleman, published in 2009, at:

A short review of Juniper Fuse appeared in the New Yorker (March 14, 2004):

Finally, should you wish to have an aural equivalent of a quick palate-cleansing, here is a soundtrack you might enjoy. Perhaps “the ancients,” with ears less deafened by electronically magnified soundtracks, could hear a version of this as a Winter Solstice approached.

Listen as Saturn and its moon interact

“Lady Bird”: Winesburg, Ohio Palimpsest

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Note: For some inexplicable reason that I cannot fully account for (other than end of the semester exhaustion), an earlier version of this post entitled itself as “Lady Day” instead “Lady Bird.” Perhaps it reflected an aversion to the name chosen by the lead character. I have to confess that the entire time I was watching the film I kept asking myself why a young woman would choose a name that evokes a presidency mired in one of the saddest chapters in U.S. history. Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson (1912-2007) stood by and watched her husband and his political cronies empower Pentagon bureaucrats to go forth and drop more tonnage of bombs on Vietnam than were dropped in Europe in World War II. Ironically, in terms of the film, when “Lady Bird” visits the grandmother of another character, she sees a poster of Ronald Reagan in the old woman’s home, and says, “You’re kidding?” I feel the same way about the protagonist’s name.

A.J. Urquidi, the fine young poet who wrote to point out my gaffe, responded to the above comment with the following observation: “I sensed a political dread underpinning quite a few scenes. Ultimately, the film’s protagonist wants to be called Lady Bird as she fetishizes objects and concepts that sound “cool” even though she doesn’t know their true meaning or history. Since she begins every interaction/moral lesson in a state of ignorance/complicity, maybe her abandonment of the “Lady Bird” moniker by the time she starts her new adult life symbolizes the fulfillment of emotional maturity needed to move beyond the connotations of First Lady Johnson’s bad name (much like the maturity reached by the protagonist of Winesburg).”

And now for the main event:

The Art Theater on Fourth Street in Long Beach is a throwback to the days before the television industry and its successors caused the average cinema outlet to shrink to the size of the average vintage clothing store. I’m not sure how the place manages to stay open, other than its owners enjoy having an expensive hobby. Quite frequently, there are less than a half-dozen people at a screening, which makes it slightly awkward when something is laugh out loud funny and you end up hearing your amusement going for a roller coaster ride in hundreds of unmuffled cubic feet.

Lady Bird certainly has its funny moments, and enough poignancy to make it appeal to those who vote for the culture industry’s annual awards. No one, though, on the critical side seems to have noticed one of the most obvious debts the story owes: Sherwood Anderson’s one-hit wonder, Winesburg, Ohio. I teach the book as frequently as I can at CSU Long Beach, especially since it is no longer required reading in high school. The switch from a male protagonist in Winesburg to a female protagonist in Lady Bird is matched by a parallel switch in the parental figures: in Winesburg, the father is strong and the mother is weak. In Lady Bird, the mother upbraids the daughter relentlessly; the father is the one who wants his offspring to escape.

The desire to leave a “small” town is an old device for a bildungsroman. In fact, one wants to hand the heroine of Lady Bird a copy of Lucian’s autobiographical sketch, “My Dream,” in which he portrays himself as a youngster who regards the pragmatic approach of parental guidance as dead-end futility. Attuned to such a classic impulse as the desire to want more than others believe you are capable of, the lead actress does a fine job of oscillating between her revulsion at other’s self-imposed limits and a slightly incredulous naivete in terms of romance. It’s a layered role, since it involves more than a touch of the picaresque. As one critic observed, the picaro all too often succumbs to the temptation to lie, and “Lady Bird” as a young woman learns its consequences. Finally, I would note that one slight problem with the film is that the actress seems too old for her role, although her adamant commitment to her part overcomes that disparity.

It is harder for the setting to make up for its supposed deficiency. Sacramento, in 2002, hardly seems like “the sticks.” Granted, it undoubtedly has its class divisions. “Lady Bird,” as the heroine calls herself (in the manner that a very young girl bestows the name of “Tandy” on herself in Winesburg), chafes under the humiliations of coming from “the wrong side of the tracks.” But is coming from the wrong side of the tracks in Sacramento really as much a disadvantage as coming from a similar standing in Bakersfield or Hanford, California? Or Imperial Beach, in 1965?

I can empathize with “Lady Bird,” though she seemed not to be aware of how lucky she was to have a counselor at school to talk to about going to college. Maybe the counselor was condescending, but at least someone thought she was capable of going to college. No one said a word to me about applying to a college when I was in high school. When I got my high school diploma, my name was not on the list of graduates who had received a scholarship to go to college. I had not applied for one. No one at my high school thought that I merited such assistance. If I had to describe myself as someone in Lady Birdy, I was much closer to “Lady Bird”‘s overweight sidekick, who of course is not invited to the prom.

Instead of a community college, though, I ended up at a small Catholic college in Moraga, California. How I ended up going to St. Mary’s College for a year and a half is one of those inexplicable somersaults in a life for which fate and free will alone cannot account. In retrospect, both “Lady Bird” and I had a prophet at work in a writer whose masterpiece deserves far more attention than it gets these days.

“Our Country Seems So Far Away” by Harry E. Northup

Our Country Seems So Far Away

Our country washes itself with grief
Our country celebrates division
Our country brags about class
Our country continues war indefinitely
Our country refuses to cross the aisle
Our country right or wrong or left behind
Our country scolds minor rock throwers
Our country the church of middle ages
Our country chips away at Mount Rushmore
Our country jumps off Pikes Peak into the Royal Gorge
Our country does not cross the Continental Divide
Our country says John Milton who, Edmund Spenser who
Our country builds railroad tracks over its pastoral poets
Our country denies horizons, clean rivers
Our country never misses a chance to go abroad & destroy
Our country kills civilians abroad & at home
Our country washes its football jersey with blood of the flag
Our country crosses borders with drones
Our country celebrates a vision of cruelty
Our country cut a cross in the heart of death

9 29 17
Harry E. Northup

Magra Books: To Italy and Back

Chalkboard August Harmony
(Chalkboard near Fourth Street and Temple Avenue, Long Beach, CA)

August 27, 2017

Paul Vangelisti and John McBride were among the most productive editors and publishers of the golden age of small press publishing in the 1970s. The proliferation of MFA programs since 1980 has unfortunately all but erased recent literary history: how MFA program were barely worth mentioning to the majority of those committed to a life as a poet in the mid-1970s. The notion of a “career” as a poet back then was laughable. The production of books and magazines on an antinomian basis was quite serious, however; in fact, that’s all that mattered.

Vangelisti and McBride not only published dozens of books through their imprint, Red Hill Press, but also over two dozen issues of Invisible City, a magazine that deserves to have its entire print run issued in a single full-length volume. The magazine came out on newspaper-size sheets of paper, and although the paper stock is of very high quality, any scholar having to work with two or ore issues at the same time can find the process of notating comparisons a bit cumbersome. It’s a project that a university press (such as the University of California press) should undertake at some point, although it may unfortunately have to wait until the copyright to the poems expires. Fortunately, on the whole, the poems that appeared in Invisible City are exceptional examples of writing that will still hold up in another half-century.

As well as being a prolific and internationally recognized poet, Vangelisti is an inveterate publisher. At Otis College of Art and Design, he founded Seismicity Editions, as well as a pair of magazines, New Review of Literature and OR magazine. He will be retiring from Otis at the end of this coming academic year, but he has already launched another publishing project. Magra Books is a chapbook project, printed in Italy, that will come out on a steady basis as a quartet of chapbooks. In any given increment, all four will have the same color stocks for their covers. The first quartet had a pale blue; the second, a quietly luscious orange that teased the shadows cast by a nearby embankment of red clay.

The poets featured in each set will be familiar to readers of Invisible City and OR magazines. You can find out more information about this project at the website for Magra Books:

FIRST QUARTET (January, 2017)
Martha Ronk — The Unfamiliar Familiar
Ray Di Palma — For a Curved Surface
Dennis Phillips — Desert Sequence
Marcus Valerius Martialis — Epigrams (translated, with an afterthought, by Art Beck)

Of this quarter, I would especially recommend Beck’s translations of Martial’s epigrams. Beck’s “afterthought” is hardly as casual as the word usually connotes; as an epistolary poem, it uses the cumulative tone of the translated epigrams as a surfer uses an ocean swell, and the resulting glide initiates us as honorary members of his extended family.

Many poets associated with Los Angeles don’t actually write that much about living here, but Martha Ronk embeds herself in this city with quiet candor and rueful compassion for everyone who must endure the casuistries of daily life here. In examining “loss, its flannelly familiarity,” Ronk explores some of the same insinuating wrinkles that bunch up around the domesticated ordinariness of the partially suburban. Her poems in this collection remind me of Dick Barnes’s collaborations with Judy Fiskin. Indeed, “The Unfamiliar Familiar” contains a sequence of poems about photographs of houses, so there might be an influence. In any case, “Twilight Tracks House #3” is one of those rare poems where the rhythm and the images left me hungry to absorb the poem entirely, which is to say that I longed to memorize this elegaic aubade to the keen pitch of having its syllables roll around in my consciousness like sated lovers about to be aroused again. Ronk’s chapbook concludes with poems I remember seeing recently published: a set of homages to Raymond Chandler’s classic novels about Los Angeles.

The late Ray Di Palma’s writing consistently contributed to the dialogue in Los Angeles and on the West Coast from the early 1970s onwards through his appearance in Vangelisti’s sequence of magazines, starting with Invisible City. This chapbook is a fine example of a collage call-and-response between the epigrammatic titles and sardonic clarification.

Dennis Phillips has been writing long poems for a half-century. Of all the poets I’ve ever met in Los Angeles, he is the one who most benefits from having his poems heard with as much duration as possible. As if to urge us to do so, the poems in Desert Sequence are assigned to a quintet of voices, the first of which acknowledges in a prose poem that this chapbook is part of a larger project, Mappa Mundi.
“Here. Hold this open for a long minute because we both know it’s about to go away.
If this is a map then all maps are maps of the world and any sentence is a narrative, but:”
In Phillips’s absorption of the desert’s map in the conjunctions that follow, we are given important cautionary reminders about the cartography of the imagination.

Gillian ConoleyPreparing One’s Consciousness for the Avatar
Robert Crosson — The Price of Lemons: Or; Some of the Worst Movies Ever Made
Corrado Costa — The Dodo or The School for Night
Paul Vangelisti and William Xerra — Toodle-oo

I have to confess that I’ve always had some hesitations about Conoley’s poems. While moments in her poems have usually caught my attention, some aspect of her associative logic would inevitably throw me off course. Perhaps, finally, I am beginning to acclimate myself to her distinctive cadences. Oddly enough, it isn’t the title poem of her chapbook that delivers this entryway, but rather “Life on Earth” and “The Right to Be Forgotten.” If I were putting together an anthology of outstanding recent poems, this pair would easily make my short list.

Robert Crosson’s memoir of his life as a young aspiring actor and modest success is one of the most charming and candidly droll accounts of being an artistic ephebe in the early 1950s. It’s the perfect counter-balance to read, after watching your favorite film noir.

Corrado Costa’s Th Dodoreminds me of Ionesco’s early plays, and in all the right ways.

One of the most remarkable qualities of Toodle-oo‘s meditative lyricism (or should I say “its lyrical meditation”) is that it refuses to make the least effort to seduce the reader. To no avail, for I could not help but succumb to the primary gravitational force of the poem: the candor of the immediate. In identifying that factor, it’s crucial not to confuse “the immediate” with “spontaneity” — that trompe l’oeil of mid-century avant-garde nostalgia for some Dionysian avatar. This poem follows much more subtle, actual scents, and as I read, I breathed deeply, slowly, releasing the agitation of my ordinary day.

The “Easy” (a.k.a. “less difficult”) Poetry of Southern California

PART TWO: Charles Harper Webb and the “Easy” (a.k.a. “less difficult”) Poetry of Southern California

Starting in the late 1990s, the Idyllwild Poetry Festival had a decade-long run as one of the best events of that kind in the United States. Under the exceptionally fine management of its co-founders, Artistic Director Cecilia Woloch and legendary civil rights activist and college president John Maguire, the huge outdoor stage at the Idyllwild School for the Arts accommodated both a small jazz ensemble and a half-dozen poets at the same time; poets and musicians directed by Marshall Hawkins alternated with precisely timed presentations. Gently undulating parachutes strung above the grassy slope of the amphitheater enabled the venue itself to amplify the advantages of the mild summer weather at 5500 feet in altitude. It was indeed an idyllic setting.

The line-up in any given year at Idyllwild represented both the well-known and those who should have been more recognized. Several of the poets, in fact, whom Cecilia and John chose to read at Idylliwild became much more famous in the decade after their leadership of the festival ended. Terrance Hayes, Eloise Klein Healy, and Natasha Trethaway, for instance, all went on to receive major honors between 2007 and the present moment that no one could have foreseen back in the early days of the Festival. Other guest poets, such as Tom Lux, Carol Muske-Dukes, Yusef Komunyakaa, Billy Collins, and Galway Kinnell were already about as famous as they remain.

Among the regular poets who led workshops as well as took the main stage were Richard Garcia and Charles Harper Webb, both of whom were relative late bloomers in terms of mainstream recognition. While Webb, for instance, had published dozens of poems in little magazines through the 1970s and early 1980s, his first collection, Zinjanthropus Disease, was limited to a print run of 250 copies and published by Querencia Press in Seattle. It received a Wormwood Review Award, but little other notice, and was followed up by Everyday Outrages, published by a Los Angeles co-operative of poets, Red Wind Books, which also issued the first of three editions of an anthology of Stand Up poets. Three years later, Applezaba Press in Long Beach published A Weeb for All Seasons, which according to World Cat became his first book to end up on more than a score of library shelves.

Webb shifted gears at that point, and it would appear from a note in Shadow Ball that Edward Hirsch (“teacher extraordinaire, who got the train on the tracks”) played a role in his transformation, for beginning in 1997, Webb commenced a run of prize-winning volumes of poems that boosted him into the top two dozen of the most nationally recognized poets based in Southern California. A dozen years later, the University of Pittsburgh Press published Shadow Ball: New and Selected Poems, which gathered Webb’s best poems from five books published since the appearance of Reading the Water in 1997. One of the most remarkable aspects of Webb’s Shadow Ball, however, is the absence of any poems from his early books. That Webb achieved mainstream poetry validation as he hit middle age hardly makes him an exceptional case. One of the more recent poet laureates of the United States, the late Philip Levine, was equally slow to gain public notice as a poet. His second book (Not This Pig) was published in 1968, at the age of 40. In contrast with Webb, though, Levine’s first Selected Poems in 1984 included a half-dozen poems from On the Edge, which had been published when Levine was 35 years old. For a poet in mid-career to have no poems from a book published before the age of 40 in a “new and selected” volume is virtually unheard of.

There is yet one more puzzling absence from the book: no mention is made whatsoever of Webb’s editorial activity and his advocacy of Stand Up poetry, an attitude towards contemporary poetics that had achieved its initial critical mass in Los Angeles County in the late 1960s and early 1970s. By the time Webb arrived from the Northwest in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, the best known poets in this “school” were already appearing in national anthologies, such as Edward Field’s A Geography of Poets, a mass market paperback from Bantam Books that was meant to update and build upon the success of The Voice that Is Great Within Us, Hayden Carruth’s immensely successful compilation.

As I have pointed out before, Edward Field holds a distinctive position in American poetry: he is one of the few poets in Donald Allen’s 1960 anthology to go on, in turn, and edit an important anthology. Field’s introduction to A Geography of Poets would have served, in retrospect, as a good model for Donald Allen’s too brief and almost reticent commentary. Whereas Allen pointed to Venice West, in terms of Southern California’s presence in West Coast poetics, Field pointed to the southernmost environs of Los Angeles County as a bastion of canonical usurpation.
“Today, for example, there is a lively poetry scene around Long Beach, California, with its own magazines and small presses. Against the clean background of blue sky, a sea with tropical islands that are camouflaged oil derricks, beautiful blond people – the American Dream – poets like Charles Stetler, Ron Koertge, and Gerald Locklin are writing poems that are direct, funny, and often filthy. …Their vernacular style, sassy and jaded, is at the opposite pole from the issue-oriented, righteous poetry of the Bay Area to the north.” (page xxxix).

Published in 1979, A Geography of Poets provides the best context for Webb’s early development as a poet. The scene he undertook to champion by the end of the 1980s was already well in motion when he arrived in Los Angeles about the time Field’s anthology appeared. In point of fact, Field neglected some of the most significant contributors to the core ensemble of the Stand Up school. The absences of Jack Grapes and Bob Flanagan from Field’s anthology are major omissions, especially in light of Stetler’s minor contribution to the emergence of Stand Up.

By the mid-1980s, Webb had established himself sufficiently in Los Angeles to earn a spot in my second anthology, “Poetry Loves Poetry,” which I published in 1985, and like Field, Webb became one of the few poets to appear in an anthology and then go on to edit a collection in turn. Before his first, thin edition of Stand Up Poetry was published in 1990, however, the late Steve Kowit edited an anthology that reiterated Field’s commentary. Like A Geography of Poets, Kowit’s The Maverick Poets does not include Charles Harper Webb, but Kowit’s brief introduction to the collection (published in 1988) strikes many of the same notes that Webb will elaborate on in his introduction. Here is Kowit’s opening salvo:

“In 1980, Alex Scandalios and I decided to edit an anthology of “easy” poetry for his Willmore City Press. ‘Easy’ was Alex’s word for a kind of straight-on, anti-rhetorical poetry written in the mother tongue: colloquial, hard edged (sic) and feisty – a brand of poetry that was easy to read but not, he liked to remind us, easy to write. Much of the work he had in mind was inspired by Charles Bukowski, poet laureate of the disaffected, and was being published in off-beat poetry magazines like Nausea, Purr, Scree, Vagabond, and The Wormwood Review. It was an underground poetry that avoided the preciously self-conscious diction of mainstream verse on the one hand and the unrelenting incoherence of conventional avant-garde poetry on the other. It was gritty, raw, anecdotal, often funny, and seemed to us decidedly more interesting than the rather solemn stuff being touted by the respectable quarterlies. It was our contention that if the public had turned away from poetry, it was due not to the pernicious influence of television or the incompetence of schools or the technocratic bias of the culture, but simply to the fact that most of what was being published was ponderously obtuse and unrelievedly dull.” (page 1)

Although the anthologies that Kowit and I edited in the 1980s featured a considerable number of the same poets, I can hardly say that we shared the same analysis of the alleged plight of contemporary poetry. (It should be noted that Webb’s commentary in his essays is to a large extent extrapolated from Kowit’s stance.) In particular, the categorization of “conventional avant-garde poetry” as being grounded in “unrelenting incoherence” was an appalling oversimplification and remains an example of the egregiously uninformed attitude that served to undermine the thoughtful efforts of many equally maverick poets affiliated in some manner with the Language poets between 1970 and 1985.

Nevertheless, the overlap between Field’s, Kowit’s, and my anthology provides the best means for tracing Webb’s trajectory as a poet with a successful academic career. Here are the poets who appeared in both Kowit’s The Maverick Poets and “Poetry Loves Poetry”:
Laurel Ann Bogen
Charles Bukowski
Wanda Coleman
Jack Grapes
Ron Koertge
Gerald Locklin
Austin Straus

Webb includes all of these poets in the first edition of Stand Up Poetry: The Poetry of Los Angeles and Beyond, which he co-edited with Suzanne Lummis. Other poets who had appeared in “Poetry Loves Poetry” who are also included in Webb and Lummis’s anthology include Michael C. Ford, Eloise Klein Healy, Jim Kruose, as well as the editors (Webb and Lummis), and myself. In other words, 13 of the 22 poets in Webb’s anthology had already been clustered together in an anthology that was visible enough to be reviewed in the Los Angeles Times as well as the Bay Area’s Poetry Flash. Sharon Doubiago also wrote a long review of “Poetry Loves Poetry,” which appeared in Electrum magazine.

Despite the obvious overlap and despite the fact that my long introduction to “Poetry Loves Poetry” emphasizes how humor plays an unusually prominent role in poetry being written in Los Angeles, Webb completely ignores my anthology in his introduction. Given that he cites both Field’s and Kowit’s anthologies, this omission can hardly be accounted for as anything but a deliberate gesture meant to marginalize PLP‘s editorial complexity in addressing the heterogeneity of contemporary poetry. Heterogeneity, however, tends to make aspiring trend-setters uncomfortable. Diversity complicates any given situation, though anyone working with gene pools in an environmental context understands its importance.

The lack of any acknowledgement by Webb of the contribution of “Poetry Loves Poetry” to the evolution of a poetics largely associated with poets working in Los Angeles County hardly affects the impact that my collection had on catching a particular turning point in the region’s literary history. What interests me more at this point is how Webb represents a model for career success in the overgrowing field of MFA programs. Let there be no mistake made about the chasm that exists in American poetry right now: there are a huge number of aging poets who achieved fluency in their art well before the MFA programs started proliferating in the early 1980s; and there are a massive number of younger poets whose social context for writing poetry is almost completely embedded within the world of MFA programs. While Webb’s initial edition of his Stand Up anthology emphasized poets from the former cluster, the subsequent editions drew heavily upon the ranks of those who teach in MFA programs.

I don’t think this shift in the composition of contributors to his editions of Stand Up poetry is unrelated to the culmination of the article Webb published in The Writer’s Chronicle, which I addressed in the previous post. The longer I have thought about it, the more I have come to understand that Webb’s dislike of “difficult” poetry is not just an aesthetic preference, but umbrage about a loss of market share. “They have bet on the wrong horse,” Webb says, in reference to those who have committed themselves to “difficult” poetry.

What I don’t understand about Webb’s position is why one is supposed to bet on only one horse. Or only one stable of horses, as if a single trainer had the “whisperer” secrets that enabled one to claim the trophies of success. Am I truly expected to choose between reading only Thomas Lux or only Ron Silliman? Only Pattianne Rogers, Heather McHugh. and Natasha Trethewey, or only Rae Armantrout, Harryette Mullen, and Laura Mullen? I refuse, point-blank, to live that way or to encourage young readers of poetry to make such either-or selections. It would seem to lead to the kind of in-breeding that marks so many academic programs, with the result that many MFA programs have very little of the risk-taking, eclectic energy that marked the work of the contributors to “Poetry Loves Poetry.”

I suppose it is possible to live as a poet and be more concerned with career success than fostering a diversely empowered audience of readers. My lifelong experience of observing, either at a distance or close-up, the preferences of academically based poets is that they encourage homogeneity as a foundation for one’s personal claim to canonical representation. I choose to discourage others from taking that path. It is not a million M.F.A.s that are needed, but a million maverick readers of maverick poets. Potential readers of contemporary poetry are far more ready to begin turning pages than most contemporary poets give them credit for. It is not “easy” poetry or “less difficult” poetry that will increase the number of readers of poetry, but thoughtful poetry willing to answer the questions, “What’s at stake?” and “Who cares?” Whether Charles Harper Webb wants to admit it or not, both Language poets and poets who write long poems are frequently capable of answering those questions in a more interesting manner than those who settle for the safe bet of “less difficult” poems.

(Upcoming Post) PART THREE: The Intriguing Complexity of Charles Harper Webb’s “SHADOW BALL”

“What is an artist?”

“What is an artist?”

I had never heard of the Darwin Awards before this past year, when recent recipients were announced. It’s given to people who do humanity the favor of removing themselves from the gene pool by doing something stupid. One of the all-time winners is the terrorist who mailed a letter-bomb and who thoughtfully inscribed his name and return address on the package. While he could have worked up a fictitious residence, I guess he wanted the recipient to be cognizant of who was getting the most pleasure out of the explosion in the instant it happened. However, the package got returned for insufficient postage and one can only assume that some very pressing matter distracted the terrorist from paying close attention to that day’s mail, since he opened his own thoroughly efficient device in a moment of undue haste.

Oddly enough, I remember a cartoon from a number of years ago that showed a terrorist working as an instructor in a suicide bomber school. He’s wearing a vest and has his hand on the detonator. “Watch carefully,” he says. “I’m only going to do this once.”
It seemed funnier at the time I first saw the cartoon. Writing a description of the cartoon, in fact, only leaves me feeling despondent about the contempt for human life that seems so prevalent. Why are the war machines still so well funded? People don’t put bumper stickers on their cars anymore. Back in the days when they did, one of my favorites was “It will be a great day when schools get all the money they need and the Pentagon has to hold a bake sale.” Or something close to that.


I’ve been reading Sarah Thornton’s 33 Artists in Three Acts as part of my on-going inquiry into the willingness of modern societies to fund ever more sophisticated weapons for combat. The key question that Thornton asks each of her subjects is: “What is an artist?” My guess is that unless a society is willing to devote enormous energy to coming up with an answer to that question, those of us who dislike warfare have little hope of human beings ever growing tired of hunting other human beings.

An artist is like a hunter, but the difference is in the simile itself and in the way an artist extends that simile, for the artist is not only tracking the unusual, but is leaving behind a record of her own tracks in doing so. In thinking of leaving footprints behind, I recall that the huge retrospective of Gabriel Orozco’s art at MOMA in New York City back in January, 2010 included what appeared to be a simple shoebox. Here are my notes from my visit to that exhibit, which I originally typed up as a letter to Stephen Motika:

I had more or less circled the entire main portion of the exhibit upstairs when I arrived at a shoe box on the floor, which seemed to be viewed as a prop by an unusually aggressive guard. He sidled up to a couple ahead of me and said, “You see the beauty in it?” and then scooted back a few steps. The man and the woman didn’t reply, but gazed at the shoebox, uncertain of whether to take advantage of the guard’s cue-line and move on to another piece or to challenge his dismissal quietly by lingering at the taped border of the sculpture.

As I studied the shoebox, the issue of sex and gender power in Orozco’s art only now became visible. The shoe box seemed to be a neutral signifier, but the size of the box was anything but neutral. It was far too big to have served as a box for women’s shoes. It was definitely a man’s shoe box, and when I read on the plaque on the wall that this particular piece was Orozco’s response at the big Italian biennial to being given a “closet-size” space to exhibit his work, I realized that the shoebox was far more than a sarcastic critique of the curators, but also an assertion of his “masculinity”: “I’m a big man,” the box seemed to say, in every sense of the word “big,” at which point sex impinges on gender.

At that point, I went back to the “bicycle sculpture,” which proved to be exactly what I remembered: men’s bicycles. I had liked this piece very much when I first saw it, and my admiration for it remains undiminished. For one thing, I didn’t think it was possible that someone would be able to take on using a bicycle as an armature for sculpture after Picasso had made such deft use of one, but Orozco’s piece more than beats him at his own game of modernist transformation. (The kickstand, in fact, evoked Eliot’s “still point of the turning world.”) Even with its pediment of retro aesthetics, however, the piece conveys the urgent pleasure of self-generated motion that is indifferent to physical condition. The age of the bicycles only makes them more attractive, although I wonder if that would have been true if they had not been men’s bicycles.

At a minimum, though, the bicycles were unambiguous in at least this point: while it would be possible to debate the “sex” of the shoebox (“Are you saying that no woman could ever have feet that big?”), the bicycle sculpture privileges masculine public mobility. I guess my question concerns what the response to the piece would be like if he had used bicycles conventionally designed for women; in fact, I wonder if he even considered that alternative. Somehow, I doubt it.
(Side-note interjection: Thornton mentions Orozco’s bicycle sculpture in passing, but makes no comment on the issue of the sculpture’s explicit gendering.)

At least one other piece was less subtle: the three large white balls encased in mesh, in a piece called “Seed,” for instance, were in full phallic display, with the mesh vertically poised in an ejaculatory state. This third piece I cite is a minor work and more of a footnote than thesis, but it serves to confirm the overall heft of Orozco’s work. The masculine inflections in Orozco’s work (at least in this exhibit) are not surprising as such; indeed, his ability to rearrange what we assume we’re familiar with seems rooted in a playfulness that is all too often squelched by patriarchal authority, and his response affirms his value as a transmitter of well-defined strength amidst temporal uncertainties.

In a letter sent to Kevin McNamara shortly after I sent my comments to Stephen, I noted that “my favorite portion of Orozco’s show was the large room, on one of the lower floors, filled with posters which revolved a set of colors (yellow, white, blue, red, if I remember correctly), according to a move on a chess board. I wish I could have spent more time there. In fact, I wouldn’t have minded at all being able to sit on a mat on the floor in that room with a small group of people engaged in some form of meditation. Or even chanting, quietly.”

My definition tonight (January 6, 2014): An artist is a person whose work within the realm of imagination removes them from the gene pool of imitation. Emily Dickinson is an artist because she is impossible to imitate. Ironically, an artist’s work serves as a termination point and as a primary discharge of continuity.