Category Archives: Autobiography

The Garden City Horse Sculpture

Friday, December 8, 2017 (Feast of the Immaculate Conception)

The transition from graduate student to faculty is perhaps even harder than writing one’s dissertation, if only because the time allotted to turn one’s attention from the latter task to the former endeavor is so brief. No sooner had I finished defending my dissertation in the late spring, 2004 (and it was not a slam-dunk; not everyone on my committee believed that what I had written deserved their signature) and submitting a revised version to the graduate office at UCSD than I was heading to Idyllwild to teach for six weeks, and then back to San Diego to teach a summer extension course in poetry, all the while packing to head to Lynbrook, New York and teach English as a Second Language at Nassau Community College.

The drive from where Linda and I lived in Lynbrook to the NCCs campus was about nine miles on surface streets, and one day we ended up taking a different route. About three miles from the campus, we noticed a park with a statue of a horse and got out and took some photographs.

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“Welcome to the Village of Garden City” declares an oval sign, at a spot on its breastbone where a medallion might hang. NCC was in Garden City, a place I’d first heard of when I looked on the copyright pages of books published by Doubleday, and saw its headquarters listed as Garden City, New York. The company was located on Long Island for about three-quarters of a century (1910-1986) and I believe the building it occupied on Franklin Avenue is still in use.

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As a youth, I had not the slightest idea where Garden City might be, nor did I care. It seemed odd to me that a publishing company in New York wouldn’t be located in Manhattan itself, but with the exception of a half-dozen writers, Doubleday’s authors were never of much interest to me. That Doubleday found itself being packaged and repackaged as part of the corporate expansion into the cultural domain was hardly a surprise. I don’t know of many people who worry that its backlist might perish from the conversation (e.g., Form and Value in Modern Poetry (Doubleday Anchor) by R.P. Blackmur; or the poems and essays of Robert Graves).

Linda and I remember the statue of the horse with bemused affection, though. While we passed by that park just that once, the occasion in retrospect still seems more than a droll chance encounter. I suppose it might be thought of as kitsch, and yet is it any less appealing than the work of Jeff Koons? He should be so lucky as to have this piece of work to his credit.

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Alexandra Umlas and Randall Jarrell in RATTLE poetry magazine

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

At the start of the Fall semester, 1966, at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California, I was still 18 years old. I probably shouldn’t have started college until then, but the quirk of when I was born and my mother’s desire to get at least one of her four children off her hands for at least a few hours a day hustled me off to school at a young age. Unfortunately, I was very slow to mature physically, and not that much more agile on an intellectual level. Indeed, I would be leaving St. Mary’s Collge at the end of the semester. I wasn’t smart enough to deserve a scholarship, so I was attending Southwestern Community College by the Spring, 1967.

I did have a couple of very fine teachers that last semester, though. My French teacher changed my life, in fact. It’s a longer story that I have time to type up this morning, but the poets and writers I studied that semester in her class have remained inspirations all my life. Before we studied French poetry, though, she decided to show us examples of modern poetry in English, as a way of discussing figures of speech. One of the poems she showed us was Randall Jarrell’s “Death of a Ball-Turret Gunner.” The last line took my breath away, and in certain ways, I never looked back. I went on to write a paper, in French.on a poem by Jules LaForgue in her class. For those of you who might have, in some very small way, have appreciated any of my projects, she is the one who made the crucial difference in opening the door of this destiny.

This morning, one of my finest students – in truth, someone I regard as a peer in the art – had a poem published in rattle.com. I will leave it to you to find out how it feels as if I have come, once again, full circle.

https://www.rattle.com

November 28, 2017
“Touring the B-17 Bomber at the Palm Springs Air Museum” by Alexandra Umlas
Alexandra Umlas
TOURING THE B-17 BOMBER AT THE PALM SPRINGS AIR MUSEUM
a golden shovel after Randall Jarrell

“Substitute Teacher”

Saturday, November 4, 2017

“Put Your Ears On” was a poetry show on cable TV during the 1990s. “Substitute Teacher” is a prose monologue about the aspirations of an instructor who discusses his personal relationship with Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.”

A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from a friend of an old friend, Lenny Durso. She had run across a video of me and wrote a brief note of appreciation. I myself hadn’t viewed it recently, and her kind e-mail made me curious to screen it again. Watching this video this morning, I almost don’t recognize myself. Age perturbs gently, but its enfolding suction is relentless. Just a few years ago, I didn’t seem to be that much different. Now it would be impossible for me to perform “Substitute Teacher” and create quite the same effect. I would almost have to transcribe the tone of voice, and ease it down to a slightly slower, more wistful tone, in order to make this monologue work. Thirty-five years of adult life: “all is transformed: transformed utterly.”

I started “Put Your Ears On” as a television show on the Century Cable’s Public Access program. My first primary goal was to record Leland Hickman reading his poetry, and the programming developed from there in much the same manner as a reading series at a coffee house. It was, in fact, a reading series I did with Cahuenga Press poet Phoebe (MacAdams) Ozuna at the Gasoline Alley coffee house that provided the critical impetus to do this show. Gasoline Alley was not the first reading series I’d done, and I felt a growing exasperation at the lack of any record of poets reading in their “youth.” Public Access TV was just starting to take off in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and it proved to be the perfect vehicle.

I hope you enjoy it.

“The Art of Losing”: An Accelerated Course

Saturday, October 28, 2017

In the past fortnight, I turned 70 years old. I feel as if I had been that age for months, perhaps because some part intuited that things were about to happen that would leave bereft and utterly disconsolate.

On Tuesday morning, October 17th, I woke up to find that at some point in the night my computer at home had “crashed,” and that the hard drive had suffered a mechanical failure. All of my files were lost. One might say that I should have backed up things, but I am very timid with anything technological and have rarely met anyone who is kind enough to help me overcome those fears. What is, on the other hand, more present in my professional life is an insatiable demand for my services, especially on committees at the college where I work.

Two days before my computer crashed, Linda’s car broke down on the freeway, and required over $800 to repair. The day before the computer crashed, there was an unpleasant confrontation with another individual who seemed to have no compunction about his completely unjustifiable use of physical superiority. Linda then came down with the flu. I fought off the virus for a couple of days, then I too succumbed to a slightly milder version.

I have six major projects due in the next two weeks. About 50,000 words worth of projects. Almost all of the work I had done on these projects was on the computer at home, along with drafts of poems and research for a long poem I have been working on for the past three years.

“I can’t go on. I will go on.”

I did find out, however, that my first wife’s oldest friend was spared the ravages of the Santa Rosa fires. I had feared not only for her life, but for her home, and found out through a phone call from Cathay that her home had been spared. I remain concerned about John Martin, the publisher of Black Sparrow Press. He is not someone I am in any way in contact with, but I know that he moved Black Sparrow to Santa Rosa in its final years of operation, and I profoundly hope that John and his family have been apared the loss of their homes and possessions. He is one of the great publishers of the 20th century, and it would be painful to learn that he lost everything in this overwhelming conflagration. If anyone has news about John Martin, which she or he feels free to share, then please write me William.BillMohr@gmail.com.

“Enter Here” — Alexis Rhone Fancher (KYSO Flash; 2017)

Sunday, September 10, 2017 (Sunday)

One can become so accustomed to the title of a book referring to the lead poem in the collection that when one has read around in the book and still not found the title, even as a phrase in a poem, the words begin to echo behind each line: first lines, last lines, and every line between. The title of Alexis Rhone Fancher’s recently published collection of poems began to emit that hypnotic shimmer as I read twenty or so poems at random in my first perusal. “Enter Here” is not an unfamiliar imperative, and yet within the domain of imaginative consciousness illuminated by erotic impulses, the book’s presence in one’s hands has an almost premonitory intimacy: “who touches this book touches a woman’s imagination.”

Readers fortunate enough to have started with Fancher’s How I Lost My Virginity to Michael Cohen will happily breathe in the pheromones swirling from these poems. One should be warned, as one often is in literature with directional indicators: reading these poems will arouse you, not so much carnally but with an adamant curiosity about that bondage that sexual desire imposes on us, if we but give it the slightest opening. The photograph on the book’s cover sums up how huge the consent is once we crack the door even slightly.

In Fancher’s poems, the speakers consent to as much intensity as will enable them to entangle themselves in the urgent illusion of the insatiable. In doing so, they risk having their candor taken for granted, as if it were no more than a carefully disguised substitute for self-gratifying narcissism. Fancher guards against that relaxed reading by being explicit only when it is needed. In “To My New Boyfriend with Oversized Blue Lips Tattooed on His Neck,” for instance, there is no dwelling upon “kinky sex.” What that might have been is left to the delicate extremes of the reader’s conjunctions. It is within the satiety of the bower of bliss, however, that revelation most forthrightly takes place:

one night, you let it slip:

how just before she kissed you off
she lead you on a leash,

sat you in the chair,
cupped your chin,

imprinted her lipsticked kiss on your
neck’s throbbing pulse,

and ordered the tattooist to begin.

The extent to which we can trust the narrators in Fancher’s poems is a central factor in her persona. Candor requires accurate memories, and Fancher is honest enough to present memories that do not go unchallenged. “Cousin Elaine from Chicago and I Are Naked” ends with a denial by the other person that the alleged sensual intimacy between the two characters was anything more than a dream. That a dream could have the same equal consequences as an actual encounter is left unconsidered by the character of the cousin.

Indeed, one of the most convincing aspects of Fancher’s delineations of sexual power draws upon the liminality of being awake and dreaming. Is the car the lover who can’t be shared, or is it the narrator’s fellow student in an acting class, Anjelica, who teases and provokes a male voyeur with merciless evasiveness?

“When I confess the affair to my boyfriend, he jacks himself off in the galley kitchen and comes all over his unattainable fantasies. He says that he doesn’t consider sex between women to be cheating, and begs me to set up a threesome. I tell him the T-bird’s a two-seater, and watch his face fall. I could end it, but why? All I can say is that I want her for myself. All I can say is that I’m a die-hard romantic. Anyone I do, I do for love.”
(“Tonight I Dream of Anjelica, My First Ex-Girlfriend, who Taught me the Rules of the Road”)

The wit in that poem surfaces again in a conversation that more than a few men have had at some point in their lives. As a writer, Fancher takes care to remember the basic rule of giving one’s characters the best possible chance to win a scene. One of the most laconic illustrations of her deft skill comes with protestation at the end of “Morning Wood:

I long to inhabit him.

“Do you think
of your penis

as an “It”
or a “He”?

“Neither,” he says.
I think of it as Me.”

It’s not often that a book of poems has over a dozen poems that will cause anthologists a fair amount of deliberation. In addition to the poems I’ve already mentioned, it would be difficult to stop an initial list with just the following:
“Housekeeping,” “I prefer pussy….,” “this small rain,” “I was hovering….,” “Cousin Elaine…,” “the sad waitress…,” “Bambi Explains It All,” the pair of “Tattooed Girl” poems. And “Dear Mrs. Brown…” “Doggy Style Christmas,” and “Tonight I Dream of My First True Love.”

Fancher’s books of poetry have begun to attract considerable praise from Los Angeles-based poets such as Laurel Ann Bogen, Michael C. Ford, Pam Ward, Gerald Locklin, and Michelle Bitting. Tonight Fancher will read her poems as part of Library Girl series (run by Susan Hayden) at the Santa Monica Airport. It is a sold-out show, and I hope extended applause rewards Fancher’s willingness to risk having the solidity of her poetics questioned by those who feel safest on tamped-down terrain. She is fearless, and should be fearlessly praised. She is on the verge of joining poets such as Kim Addonizio, Sharon Olds, Alicia Ostriker, and Lyn Lifshin as a memorable provocateur in contemporary poetry. Clare MacQueen, the publisher of KYSO Flash, deserves equal praise for assisting the emergence of this poet into the ranks of the most significant risk-takers.

Post-Script:
Years ago, a quarterly magazine called Yellow Silk devoted itself to a celebration of eros, and it was successful enough to generate an anthology in the early 1990s that in turn warranted some sequels. In the preface to the first collection, Richard Russo noted how small a role Eros played in the contemporary literary imagination. “When I sought out small-press and literary magazines available in this country, I found … (the writing) published there often had, and I mean this literally, death in the first paragraph.”

I, too, had noticed how rare it was to find a love poem – let along an erotic poem – in a literary magazine. I have to concur with Russo’s observation. I, too, noticed this almost perverse preference for the glamour of death, and one of my attempts to counter it was my editorial preference for love poems in my second anthology, Poetry Loves Poetry (1985). If Alexis Rhone Fancher had been writing and publishing these poems in Los Angeles thirty years ago, she would have been one of the stars of that anthology.

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: http://magrabooks.com.

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.

SECOND QUARTET (July, 2017)
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.

Sunday, August 20th Update: $23,000 Raised on Behalf of Holly and Harry

Sunday morning, August 20, 2017

A week and a half ago, a half-dozen Los Angeles poets (Amelie Frank, Laurel Ann Bogen, Steve Goldman, Lynne Bronstein, Luis Campos, and Phoebe MacAdams Ozuna) launched a GoFundMe campaign on behalf of Holly Prado and Harry Northup, who recently lost their possessions in a nocturnal electrical fire in their apartment that nearly took their lives. Two hundred and twenty-five people have responded to the appeal, and slightly over $23,000 has been raised. The original goal was $20,000, and it speaks to the stature that Holly and Harry have within Southern California poetry that writers, readers, and artists have responded with such generosity to their need. If 75 more people contributed $25 each, the campaign would then have 300 total contributors to a $25,000 fund.

I do want to reiterate that once they are settled back in their residence, it would help them immensely to have a working library again. I would like to suggest that Beyond Baroque hold a book party to which the poets and readers of poetry of Los Angeles contribute as many books as possible. One possibility would be to have a “library committee” of poets go through the piles of books, pick out volumes they believe would most interest Holly and Harry, and then invite them to make their choices, after which we could haul their new library to East Hollywood.

Tuesday evening update:

The GoFundMe campaign to assist Holly Prado and Harry Northup has almost reached the $16,000 level of donations. The project is at the 80 percent mark. Over 170 people have contributed so far. If another forty or fifty people would make a small donation, we would all be able to savor the generosity of our community in helping two of our own recover from a devastating loss.

Once again, my thanks to all of you who have helped these old friends.

Tuesday morning, August 15, 2017

OVER HALFWAY TO THE GOAL OF HELPING HOLLY AND HARRY

Almost 150 people have responded to the GoFundMe campaign to raise funds to help Holly Prado and Harry Northup recover from the fire that devastated their apartment recently. After only four days, almost $13,000 has been pledged to their support. We are only $7,000 away from completing this project. I realize that many of the people who have given have already asked their friends and artistic colleagues to contribute, too, so this final third of the fundraising will not be as easy as the initial push. Nevertheless, I believe there are still many people who would be willing to contribute if they knew about Holly’s and Harry’s plight. Both of them are poets who have responded with absolute imaginative integrity to Cary Nelson’s question at the end of Repression and Recovery: “What is the social value of a life devoted to poetry?”

Harry and Holly met in the mid-1970s, shortly after I had published Feasts, Holly’s novella of “autobiographical fiction.” According to Harry, he felt inspired to meet Holly after reading Feasts. They have been inseparable since then.

Should any of you need quick and easy links to send to people who may not be familiar with Harry’s and Holly’s writing, please avail yourself of the following:

(for Holly Prado)

https://www.culturalweekly.com/holly-prado-three-poems/

http://www.oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/kt3199q9f8/
http://www.worldcat.org/title/feasts/oclc/610178149&referer=brief_results

(for Harry Northup)

http://articles.latimes.com/1993-05-21/news/va-37959_1_harry-northup

http://timestimes3.blogspot.com/2014/03/for-my-love-sleeping-by-harry-e-northup.html?view=sidebar

http://www.worldcat.org/title/enough-the-great-running-chapel/oclc/8506024&referer=brief_results

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.

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

In Memory of Len Roberts (1947-2007)

Thursday, May 25, 2017

LEN ROBERTS: On the Tenth Anniversary of His Death
Born: March 13, 1947, Cohoes, NY
Died: May 25, 2007, Bethlehem, PA

“I admire very much the technical achievement in Len Roberts’s poetry. This will probably come as a surprise because one would normally identify technical skills with a different kind of poetry than his, a poetry more formal, more contrived, an stiff. This is missing the whole idea of what the technical is in poetry. It is that which applies pressure to the reader to pay attention. It is that which liberates, and makes terribly important, what the poet is saying. What Len Roberts says is terribly important, and beautiful, and moving and original. He will last!” — Gerald Stern, author of Lucky Life, winner of the Lamont Prize

Back when I did Momentum Press, I was often improvising when it came to the production of the book itself. Most of the books didn’t have anything on the back covers, and as I recounted in one of a half-dozen long interviews this past summer for the Oral History project at UCLA, this starkness was thought by one person to reflect the influence of Black Sparrow. John Martin’s books didn’t have any promotional material on the back covers of his books, and I remember someone asking me in the early 1980s if my books were designed in his manner.

As much as I admired Martin’s book production, I didn’t consciously copy that aspect. Rather, in my case, I simply didn’t have time to get the authors to round up commentary for the books. It was also the case that most of the writers I knew didn’t have the kind of connections or affiliations that would have enabled them to snag “blurbs.” In the case of Len Roberts, though his first book (Cohoes Theater) had a single blurb, by Gerald Stern, which leads off today’s blog entry. Subsequent books published by other presses had even more generous assessments, which I will post at the end of my notations.

Today is the 10th anniversary of the death of Len Roberts, a poet I never met in person. I imagine that most of the people who take a peek at this blog think of me as an editor and publisher of Los Angeles poets, but I aspired to be more than a local publisher. (If the economy hadn’t been sundered between 1978 and 1984 by a vicious case of inflation followed by devastating recession, perhaps I would survived as a small press publisher. But that’s another story.) In point of fact, not only did I publish books by poets who lived outside of California, but to this day I still have not met Jim Grabill, who was one of the first poets to have a book come out from Momentum Press. Jim lived in Ohio at the time; he moved to Oregon sometime in the early 1980s, I believe, and has lived there ever since.

I become familiar with Roberts’s poetry because he sent some to Jim Krusoe at Beyond Baroque for consideration in BB’s magazine, and on the rejection note Jim suggested that he send some poems to me at my magazine. Indeed, Len’s long lines and long poems immediately struck me as the kind of work I was looking for, and he ended up sending me a manuscript entitled “Cohoes Theater.” The title poem, “Cohoes” was a ten-page six part poem that probably seemed inordinately long to most editors in those early poems of McPoem’s hegemony, but “Cohoes” felt only slightly longer than normal to a young editor whose ambition it was to be the publisher of Leland Hickman’s “Tiresias.” Somewhere along the line, someone put out the story that Allen Ginsberg was responsible for sending me Len’s manuscript. I had very little contact with Ginsberg over the years, and he played no role whatsoever in my reception and support of Len’s poetry. According to his widow, Nancy, Len did spend several hours talking with Ginsberg, which is twenty times the amount of time I spent in conversation with him, and perhaps the blurb that Ginsberg eventually contributed to one of Len’s books somehow attached itself to someone’s misunderstanding of Ginsberg’s contribution to the first book publication of Len’s poetry. I am proud to recall that Cohoes was cited by the Elliston Prize committee as one of the better books published in 1980, joining the other books I published in 1980 as the highwater mark of my publishing career.

I recently wrote his widow, Nancy, and asked for permission to reprint a couple of his poems on this anniversary memorial post. There are at least two dozen poems that I would post if I had the time to type them up: from Sweet Ones (Milkweed Editions, 1988), for instance, I would love to present you with “The Block” or with the haunting poem, “The Odds”; or “Beauty and the Nuclear Reactor at Three Mile Island” from Cohoes Theater, or the magnificent love poem, “Wrapping”; but as my initial entry, I believe I will start with “Stealing,” from From the Dark.

STEALING

Last night I woke up the in the dark knowing
my father was with me,
like the night I stole down the cold hall stairs
to take change from his breadman’s purse,
the green work pants hung on the peg,
boots placed neatly under the chair,
and then, as I hushed the click inside my shirt,
his soft breathing as I looked up
to see the lit cigarette rising and falling.
I don’t wonder anymore
that he didn’t sleep nights
only to rise before light
to perk coffee, shave, whistling
with the low tunes of the radio.
I don’t need to call him back from peddling bread
to the three-foot drifts
to ask how he could forgive
that night gathering now in my chest,
or how he could make me take
the coins he placed gently into my hands,
and silently wave me away.

Len Roberts deserves a COLLECTED POEMS. He published over a half-dozen volumes of very, very fine poems, and his achievement can only be appreciated if one sits down and allows oneself to absorb a large number of his poems. If you are in a hurry to find someone you think you can imitate in some way because copying a “successful” poet will hope you achieve success, move on to some other poet with all due impetuous haste. Roberts may seem to be writing in a mode made familiar by other poets of his generation, but something indefinable is pressing down on his poems that makes them memorable beyond the power of memorization to contain. His poems demand an inner recitation on the bare stage of one’s soul. Only then will you as the reader realize that you have encountered a poet whose writing possesses the nuanced heft of a major novelist.

“Sometimes the facts of Len Roberts’s world are raw, nearly coarse, the questions that it asks of experience nearly brutal, but there is always in the poems a gentle sensibility, a probing intelligence and an acute attentiveness to what is urgent in our lives that tempers the poems, and that situates them firmly in that precious space between poet and reader which is our common bond, and common exaltation.” — C.K. Williams

Sweet Ones is a fearless and beautiful book. I love its unwavering truthfulness and unwavering mercy – somehow the mercy always equal to the truth – its sweetness, and its subtle, powerful music. The intensity of emotion in these poems is stunning, yet they have a calmness which gives them the feeling of deep balance. When I read Len Roberts I feel my heart being broken and put back together stronger.” – Sharon Olds

“Discovering these new poems I was pleased – the compositions are readable and natural, real, American, they’re narrative epiphanies Pip’s asphalt accuracies, First Kiss’ lightning landscape, for instances, among many strong clear-minded poems. Marden Hartley’s Lewiston Is a Pleasant Place and your From the Dark are grounded in native humane & objective perceptions.” – Allen Ginsberg

“Len Roberts knows that indirectness of feeling is the poet’s (or anyone’s) greatest asset of: to love children one most fear the dark, etc. This is what makes ordinary things take on value without tricks of rhetoric. His poems are marvelous examples, simple, lucid, and powerful, and reading them gives me a continuous sense of the mythic process that not only enriches my understanding but entertains me vastly.” – Hayden Carruth

Side Fence Toil and Sidle

Tuesday morning, May 23, 2017

I drove up to KPFK’s studio on Saturday morning to record three poems as a reprise of the “Sunset Strip, 1967” reading a few weeks ago at the West Hollywood Library. Kim Dower, who had organized the reading, asked us to be in North Hollywood by 10:00 a.m., and I was not the most cheerful person heading off early on a Saturday morning from Long Beach in order to get up there in time. The day turned out, however, to be a scorcher, and on the drive back I was grateful that the recording session had not been scheduled for 3 p.m. I would not have wanted to commence my round-trip shortly after noon. Perhaps someday I will have a car with air-conditioning, but until then the various commutes I undertake are often an exhausting grind. I had free tickets on faculty and staff day to see a CSULB Dirtbags baseball game at 2 p.m. They went unused. I was glad to hear in the days after that no player suffered heatstroke.

Kim divided the recording session into two half-hour parts, the first one featuring Yvonne Estrada, Brendan Constantine, and Laurel Ann Bogen. The second one included Lynne Thompson and myself, with Elena Carina Byrne being recorded over the phone afterwards. I’ve been to these studios a dozen or so times over the past several decades; like Beyond Baroque, it’s a quirky miracle that KPFK has survived. The music critic, Steve Hochman, introduced himself after the reading at the library, and mentioned that he had been at the Darden Smith show that is the subject of one of the poem I read, “Sunset Blvd.”; it was a pleasure to dedicate the poem to him at the KPFK recording.

By the very late afternoon, it had cooled off enough that I was able to work at the side of our rented residence, and by the last smudge of twilight I had dug up most of the weeds that had grown since the onset of the winter rains, a period of steady moist air that I am already growing too fond of in my memory. There is just enough room to do some more planting and add a little more color to our domestic edges, so a trip to the plant store will be one of the first things we do after I finish grading papers for the Spring semester.

KPFK
(l-r, clockwise: Kim Dower; Yvonne Estrada; Brendan Constantine, Laurel Ann Bogen)

Full Length Yellow Blooms

Flower Sun Plate