Category Archives: Autobiography

Beyond Baroque’s Gala Celebration Week

Friday, November 9, 2018

Around a dozen years ago, I told the artistic director of Beyond Baroque that the institution needed to do something to celebrate its upcoming 40th anniversary. I had returned to Los Angeles County in 2006 to take up my teaching post at CSU Long Beach, and was happy that Beyond Baroque was still managing to survive. In the five year stretch between 2003 and 2008, for instance, there would have been little point to anniversary party. The place was barely keeping its doors open. Twice during that period I arrived at 681 Venice Blvd. on the last day a grant application was due, and worked until midnight to help Fred Dewey get the grant to the post office in time. Twice, we arrived at the post office to get in line for the postmark with less than ten minutes to spare. I was hardly the only one that had to endure demands from its artistic director for assistance made necessary by his improvised planning, but I remember the second time as being especially exasperating. I had told him the first time, “Don’t ever do this to me again.” And of course, he did. Needless to say, there was no special observance of Beyond Baroque’s 40th anniversary, but the place did manage to hobble along until Richard Modiano took over in this decade, and things began to improve; Beyond Baroque is now poised to take a much deserved bow as one of the most deserving cultural resources of Los Angeles.

On Saturday, November 10th, there will be a sold-out gala celebration of Beyond Baroque’s 50th anniversary. Its founder, George Drury Smith, will be honored along with Viggo Mortensen, and John Doe and Exene Cervenka (who met at Beyond Baroque’s workshop) will perform together. In addition to the banquet on Saturday to be held in an outdoor tent in the parking lot beside the SPARC building, other events and honors include:

Thursday, November 8, 2018 – 7:30 at Beyond Baroque – “Beyond Mr. Smith”
The premiere screening of Peter Fitzgerald Adams’ documentary about George Drury Smith. It also includes a discussion of Beyond Baroque’s early days moderated by Richard, and featuring George, Exene Cervenka and Jim Krusoe.

Friday, November 16 – Beyond Baroque Proclamation Day at Los Angeles City Hall.

An official proclamation honoring Beyond Baroque will be made at the Los Angeles City Hall on Friday, November 16. The proclamation will be made at 11 am.

November 16,17, 18 – Southern California Poetry Festival

Nov.16 – 8 pm – Anne Waldman & Will Alexander
Anne and Will will read together in celebration of his lifetime achievement award. They’ll be joined by Janice Lee and Justin Desmangles.

https://www.facebook.com/events/2426449977582707/

Nov.17 – 4:30 pm – Beyond Baroque in Retrospect.
Bill Mohr and Laurel Ann Bogen will be joined by Amy Gerstler, Dennis Phillips, Suzanne Lummis, and S.A. Griffin. They’ll discuss they’ll read from the work of some of the key poets – including their own – to make Beyond Baroque their home over the years. It will be followed by a potluck.

https://www.facebook.com/events/193570338204455/

Nov. 17 – 8 pm – Kimiko Hahn, Morgan Parker, and Vanessa Viillareal
The second edition of the New Series. Three poets read work that Beyond Barqoue commissioned specially for the festival.

https://www.facebook.com/events/287707972074254/

Phil Alvin and John Hiatt: Guitar Mavens

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Years ago, John Hiatt recorded a song mocking the faux theatrics of those who destroyed their guitars on stage. What was once a gesture meant to italicize the collapse of high culture’s dominance (though far from complete control) of ideology had become a perfunctory gesture that bordered on self-indulgence. If you haven’t heard the song, “Perfectly Good Guitar” is waiting for your browser’s attention.

One person who never succumbed to the popular carnival act of disassembling a guitar on stage is the poet-songwriter-musical, Dave Alvin. Recently, his treasured guitar was stolen from his van when it was parked near where he was scheduled to perform. It’s a pleasure to report that Dave’s guitar was returned to him.

Miracle on Junipero: Blasters’ Phil Alvin’s stolen guitar is rescued

For those who wish to read some of Dave’s poetry, I recommend going to your nearest library that has a copy of POETRY LOVES POETRY, my 1985 anthology that also contained work by Exene Cervenka, John Doe, Wanda Coleman, Jim Krusoe, Laurel Ann Bogen, Ron Koertge, Suzanne Lummis, and Gerald Rocklin. Rocklin was one of Alvin’s teachers at CSU Long Beach, back when he was just starting out as a poet and musician. Alvin paid homage to Rocklin at his CSU Long Beach retirement party by attending the dinner and getting up and reading some of his work at the culminating tribute.

I have attended several shows over the years by Dave Alvin. I remember in particular one performance at the Belly Up Tavern, during which Alvin performed “Shenandoah,” dedicating it to a friend who had recently died, and “who had made it over the river.” His rendition of the song would suit me just fine when the time comes for me to be remembered.

Bolinas Visitation: Ellen Sander’s HAWTHORNE (Finishing Line Press)

Bolinas Arrow - 1996

I have only visited Bolinas once, back in the summer of 1996; it was part of a five-day trip north that included a visit to UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. I was preparing for my time as a visiting scholar at the Getty Research Institute in the Fall, and wanted to take a look at the archives of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and City Lights. There was also an exhibit at the library; a fair-sized room presented, in well-secured glass cases, a representative collection of materials of Beat writers. In all of the placards explaining the Beat movement to the visitors, the only scenes mentioned were in the Bay Area and Greenwich Village. There was not a single citation of Venice West. It was typical of the period to obliterate Venice West from any account of the Beat movement during the mid-century.

When I finished my work at the library, I rode out to Bolinas with Ellen Sander, a poet who had lived there for many years. First known as the one of the first — if not the very first — significant female rock critic, Ellen Sander went on to become the poet laureate of Belfast, Maine a few years ago. Finishing Line Press published her account of her home in Bolias and its place in the artistic community: Hawthorne, A House in Bolinas.

Hawthorne, a House in Bolinas by Ellen Sander

I had first heard of Bolinas in the very early 1970s as a place where poets had taken refuge from the chaos of New York City. As the century wore on, the poetry traffic between Los Angeles and Bolinas was probably among the most unusual circulations in American literary history; the best anthology to contextualize this exchange is the one I worked on with Neeli Cherkovski, Cross-Strokes: Poetry between Los Angeles and San Francisco. No other book brings together poets who have shared the same eco-cultural domains as a matter of positive freedom. In addition to Ellen Sander, I am thinking of Joe Safdie (who moved from Los Angeles to Bolinas, and now has moved back down the coast — to San Diego), as well as Phoebe MacAdams Ozuna and Lewis MacAdams, who both eventually moved from Bolinas to Los Angeles.

Should you want a poet’s take on the Bolinas scene, you should definitely set aside time to read Kevin Opstedal’s article in Big Bridge, “Dreaming As One.”

http://www.bigbridge.org/bolinas.htm.

It is an incredibly substantial and detailed account of a community of the famous (Robert Creeley, Bobbie Louise Hawkins; the Jefferson Airplane) and the obscure (Jack Boyce), all of whom made this backwater a major harbor of imagination’s counterpoints. Each of the eighteen segments has a set of photographs to give the reader some glimmer of the youthfulness of this scene.

There were other circulations north and south, too. About the same time that poets were moving to Bolinas from New York City, Stuart Z. Perkoff moved north and spent two productive years in Northern California. John Thomas, on the other hand, had moved back from San Francisco to Los Angeles in the late 1960s, though he did not then settle back in Venice, but in the Echo Park area, where he became friends with Charles Bukowski and mentored a young poet named Wanda Coleman. There is another anthology yet to be assembled, where the poets of Bolinas, who appeared in a collection entitled On the Mesa, edited by Joel Weishaus (City Lights, 1971) intermingle with those of Cross-Strokes.

Bolinas - Pink Flowers

Bolinas Mural

From the Greatest Generation to the Search Engine Generation: A Field Report

Sunday, August 19, 2018

It’s been almost a month since my last post. My mother seems to have settled in at the skilled nursing facility she moved into a month ago. I visited her this afternoon, after attending a meeting to welcome the new contingent of M.F.A. students in creative writing at CSULB. My mother’s face lit up when she saw me. Even though I have very few happy memories of my childhood, other than having enough food to eat and a warm place to sleep (no small things!), it’s hard to resist the appeal of a very elderly face realizing that the outside world has not completely forgotten her. She will be 97 years old in December, and she only dimly understands what I do from day to day as a teacher. If I were to have told her this afternoon that I was interviewed this past Tuesday by KCET for a television program on Venice West that will be broadcast in two or three months, it would mean no more than an announcement that I have had my 20 year old car painted by a local auto body shop, owned by a man whose son is studying marine biology at CSULB. There is no longer an hierarchy of significance to retain as a plumb line for social value and accomplishment. The impingements of frailty have left her unable to remember even how old she is, or how that span of endurance might even give her oldest son a reason in its comparative meditation to gaze beyond his own youthful privation. The stubbornness in my mother’s eyes has begun to yield to an acceptance that is less judgmental of her fate and misfortunes. Until recently, that stubbornness was the provisional aspect of her resilient willpower as a resource bestowed upon her in compensation for the penury of my father’s 20 year career in the U.S. Navy. Now she has let the grip of that lifetime of economic restrictions be someone else’w concern. I let her nibble at a very ripe banana. She savors it, not as if for the first time, or the last, but with a gratitude that it exists at all.

I will be on sabbatical this semester, so I could have excused myself from being at today’s MFA meeting, but I wanted to meet some of the students whose application I read in the spring semester. They seem eager to get to work, and I believe they will be pleased to have chosen CSULB to get their “union card” of a degree. We have an exceptional faculty: Stephen Cooper, Lisa Glatt, Suzanne Greenberg, and Ray Zepeda teach fiction; Patty Seyburn, David Hernandez, Charles Harper Webb, and I teach poetry. In the middle of the last decade, only half of the current faculty were on the roster of the Department of English, so it’s a program that has grown despite few chances for the students to work as teaching assistants. On the whole, it’s a veteran faculty, with over 200 years of combined teaching experience and publication in several hundred literary magazines. Not everyone necessarily benefits from academic training in creative writing, but if one is going to choose this path, then you can hardly do better than to study at CSULB.

I suppose one piece of encouraging news on the domestic side of things is that Linda has found some studio space in San Pedro. It’s a bit of a drive from our residence in Long Beach, but more than worth it to have space where we don’t have to worry about having a palette of oil paint traipsed though by a resident feline and then tracked across the floor. Linda will move in on September 1st, and we are looking forward to a chance to work on some big canvases, which is hard to do in one’s daily dwelling place.

Finally, it is hard not to comment on the political contretemps of current American life. The ghastliness of Trump’s administration is on a scale beyond the normal limits of human comprehension, if only because I fear so many worse developments are yet in the making. In gauging his expectations that we should trust him, I am hardly the only one who has noted that President Trump has no capacity for appreciating anything but adulation. Far worse, however, is his pathological self-absorption, in which anything that can be ascertained as positive is supposed to be credited to his acumen. The current economy, for instance, is not thriving because of Trump, although it’s not thriving because of Obama, either. Rather, I believe that the prosperity bubble is largely due to the “work” being done by computers. The efficiency of computers has generated a considerable amount of wealth in terms of job productivity, and it is this factor that buoys things up for the time being. Unfortunately, very few companies, let alone politicians, have any idea of how to make best use of the this temporary benefit.

A couple of years ago, in this biog, I discussed how the current generation of youth should be called “the search engine generation.” It is a generation that was humiliated by the economic collapse of 2007-2008. The revival of the economy in the past four years does not erase the harrowing penalties of that debacle and its impact on youth people as well as the baby boom generation. That Trump has made no effort to compensate either generation for what they endured is just one of the things that causes me to despise him more than ever. If Trump is to be disposed of, it will involve the commitment of the “search engine generation” to a campaign focused on making his mendacity a matter of complete public knowledge. Given that he is no doubt tracking negative commentary with fanatical diligence, the willingness to speak up and risk being categorized as an “enemy of the people” requires more courage on the part of “the search engine generation” because they are the ones whose careers can be most decimated by Trump and his allies. Nevertheless, the rest of the electorate is truly depending on them to lead the way. Onward!

Saturday night, July 7, 2018: Sylvia Mohr’s Sojourn

Of Old Age, and Very Old Age

The story of my mother’s foray into very old age is more complicated than any piece of fiction could begin to hint at; a non-fiction account, however, would soon become tedious with her protracted reluctance to take advantage of her once sufficient, though dwindling resources. If she is puzzled as to how she no longer inquires about the unfamiliarity of her surroundings, she keeps it to herself. I myself retain a bemused astonishment at the unlikelihood of her dependency on me. I have three brothers in San Diego, and she lived in southern San Diego County for close to 90 percent of the past seven decades. The odds would favor her playing out the hand she dealt herself in San Diego, but a granddaughter’s truculent intervention led to a disastrous adventure, and my mother was moved to my vicinity in the late summer of 2016 because none of my other five siblings could undertake being responsible for monitoring day-to-day care.

She is now 96 years old, and will turn 97 in December. In trying to make her life as comfortable as possible the past two years, I feel no sense of emotional solvency. It is an existential compassion. “They call me and I go….” On Monday evening, the place I moved her to in Seal Beach called me to say that an ambulance was taking her to the emergency room. It is still not clear what caused her to lose consciousness, briefly, six days ago, but I have since spent a good portion of every day at the hospital or on the road finding yet another place to move her to. Fortunately, a skilled nursing facility in Long Beach had an open bed, which she arrived at on a gurney about four hours ago.

Fate has not been completely unkind. I managed to get everything done in preparation for today’s move by Thursday night, and so I was to stay indoors all Friday, when the heat was obnoxiously brutal. And much to my surprise I did have enough energy on Wednesday to head north and spend a few hours on the rooftop of my dear friends on MLK, Jr. Blvd. Granted that today was an all-day engagement with several bureaucracies and sets of workers in the medical profession, and tomorrow will be devoted to my wife’s mother’s situation; nevertheless, I have managed to endure another week with some provisions for respite. I especially regret, however, missing Alexis Fancher’s poetry reading in the late afternoon, to which I could have walked from my house in five minutes, should today have had a normal schedule in any sense of the word.

I have final papers to grade for my summer session class, and an overdue article for a MLA project. The challenge is not just to get all this done, but to meet the dozens of small requests I get for service of one sort or another. Sometimes I think I should be ashamed of having such a feeble breaking point, and other times I wonder how others do not pause and ask themselves how a life so damaged from the start has achieved anything deserving of remembrance.

Sunrise - Mom - 2017

Sunrise mom - 2018

(Photographs of Sylvia Mohr, Autumn, 2017, by Bill Mohr)

Mike (The Poet) Sonksen reads from “Poetry Loves Poetry”

Sunday, February 11, 2018

In terms of anthologies of American poets, perhaps no other year in the past century marked the appearance of three distinctively influential volumes, In the American Tree, The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets, and Poetry Loves Poetry: An Anthology of Los Angeles Poets, all published in 1985. I was the editor and publisher of Poetry Loves Poetry, and I certainly appreciate the attention that Mike (The Poet) Sonksen gives to it in a recent video. In addition to a brief excerpt from my introductory essay, Sonksen reads the poems of several poets who were featured in that anthology: Lewis MacAdams; Michelle T. Clinton; Wanda Coleman; and Michael C. Ford. He also highlights the presence of poets such as Suzanne Lummis and Laurel Ann Bogen in my collection, both of whom were part of the poetry performance troupe, Nearly Fatal Women. In addition to Charles Bukowski, Ron Koertge, Nichola Manning, and Charles Harper Webb as representatives of an emerging “Stand Up” school of poets, other poets I included were James Krusoe, Peter Levitt, Leland Hickman, Holly Prado, Harry Northup, and Eloise Klein Healy, all of whom also appeared in my earlier anthology, The Street Inside: Ten Los Angeles Poets. This earlier collection tends to get pushed to the side, as do Paul Vangelisti’s incredibly important collections, Specimen ’73 and An Anthology of L.A. Poets. One cannot fully appreciate Poetry Loves Poetry, however, unless one is familiar with all three of these earlier surveys of various communities of Los Angeles poets. It is worth noting, of course, that poets as well-known as Bert Meyers and Henri Coulette do not appear in any of these collections. The definitive survey of poetry in Los Angeles between 1950 and 2000 has yet to be assembled.

My “re-discovery” of Sam Shepard’s “The Mildew” in 1983

Friday, February 9, 2018

John Brantingham, a poet who teaches at Mount Sac Community College, has announced in a Facebook post that the his college is going to stage Sam Shepard’s first known effort as a playwright. The play, “The Mildew,” was published in the school’s literary magazine, Mosaic, in the early 1960s, when he was still going under the name of Steve Rogers.

I was probably the first person to read the play in many years back in the 1980s, when I stopped by the school and dropped into their library to see if I could find the magazine. I had heard that Shepard had published a play in the school’s magazine back when I was an undergraduate at UCLA in the late 1960s. The theater department was primarily oriented towards turning out set designers, directors, and actors. My emphasis was playwrighting, which I mainly chose because the department didn’t care that much about that particular option. That gave me plenty of time to work on my poetry, which I had an equal passion for. During the summer of 1969, I took a course in “contemporary experimental theater,” and it may have been through that teacher that I heard about the play. I had acted in a production of “Icarus’s Mother” at UCLA in February of 1969 at UCLA and was completely smitten with his work, so hearing about this early play immediately became part of my permanent memory of literary knowledge. I believe the teacher of the course knew someone who knew Shepard when he was a student there seven years earlier, and that person had mentioned the play in the school’s magazine to him. No one else I ever met, including the playwrights I met at Padua Hills (such as Murray Medick and Irene Fornes) in the late 1970s, ever mentioned the play. In point of fact, I kept the knowledge to myself. I hoped someday to do some original research on it.

Early on in the decade, though, I encountered John Brantingham at a poetry readings, and fearing that I might not ever get around to this particular project, told him about the play. He went to the library and told me that it was took some serioue effort to locate the magazine, but indeed it was there. Now I hear that there’s going to be a production, and I am happy to know that the play will now join the “Collected Works” of Shepard.

There is a part of me, of course, (and I confess it’s a selfish part) that wishes I had kept this knowledge to myself and that I had gotten to work on it a couple of years ago. Perhaps if the demands of caring for my mother and fatally ill sister-in-law had been less onerous, I would have found myself being recognized as the person who brought this play to people’s attention well before now.

For those who want to see the play, I will tell you in advance: do not be disappointed when you don’t hear one of those extended monologues that made Shepard’s early one-act plays such memorable theatrical events. In “The Mildew,” he is just beginning to taste what it means to explore the crystalline plasticity that makes theatrical space a poetic environment. Nevertheless, I remember what a thrill it was to read his play as I sat in Mount Sac’s library back in 1983. I confess that I found a photocopy machine back then and made a copy, if only because libraries are not absolutely protected from fire. I had my doubts that Shepard even had a copy of the play himself. I had read an early play of his called “Cowboys #2,” and I believe that title came about because the few copies of the script for the first “Cowboys” had somehow gotten lost or misplaced after its initial production.

I have no idea of who is writing his biography, but I do have a suggestion to pass onto him or her about a possible source of additional material, so if anyone knows a way to contact this person, please put him or her in touch with me.

“The Mildew” – a world premiere of a one-act play by Steve Rogers (Sam Shepard)

Mt. Sac Studio Theater
Tuesday, February 13, 2018; 8 p.m.
Wednesday, February 14, 2014, 8 p.m.
Thursday, February 15, 2018, 8 p.m.

Happy 96th Birthday, Sylvia Mohr

December 25, 2017

My mother turns 96 years old today. Since her last birthday, she has lost the ability to remember my name, though she does still recognize me as part of her family. “At first I thought you were my father,” she said to me yesterday afternoon. She was by herself in the living room space of the facility she lives at; “Miracle n 34th Street” was on the television set. “I’ve never seen this movie before,” she said.

She seemed more vulnerable and grateful than I am used to encountering. Lately she has been enjoying her afternoon naps as if they were a recent invention whose popularity has ensnared her in its enveloping familiarity. May you rest well on your birthday, Sylvia Mohr.

The Typesetter in “The Post”: “The Hand of Labor”

December 23, 2017

Yesterday, Linda and I took Laurel Ann Bogen out to a movie and dinner as a Christmas present. She wanted to see “The Post,” which turned out to be a surprisingly good film for its category. The main driving point is the publication of “The Pentagon Papers” by the New York Times and the Washington Post. The latter paper is facing a financial bind, and the hopes of providing some relief on that pressure depend on a successful stock sale, which is up for grabs at the very time that its publisher (Kay Graham) and its editor (Ben Brantley) must decide whether to challenge a court injunction that blocked the New York Times from further publication of this material.

Rather than add to the commentary of the typical aspects of a review, I have decided to concentrate on two very, very minor moments in “The Post.” This idiosyncratic preference for minuscule meaning drove my English teachers crazy when I was a freshman in college. Obviously, this is one other feature of a blog that I truly love. I get to do what I want.

Laurel, Linda, and I all worked at newspapers at various times in our lives, and each of us at dinner expressed the pleasure we got from the film during its moments when it displayed the production process of the paper itself. Bringing a newspaper into a reader’s hands, each of us knew, was not some magical process, but involved considerable physical labor, effort, and concentration. Towards the end of the film, the publisher stands behind a typesetter. Not a word is spoken, but the body itself of the typesetter was remarkably full of history. A Korean War veteran, most likely, whose son had forestalled being drafted by going to college. This typesetter was not a combat veteran like the protagonist of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” In fact, he had learned to be a typesetter in the military. Did he vote for Humphrey or Nixon in 1968? Or did he vote at all? To a certain extent, he is a more representative character than anyone else in the film of the pressures that have faced the American electorate the past half-century. Yet he does not have a voice, only the nimble fingers that reflect “The Hand of Labor.”

The second moment in the film that I want to comment on involves a scene where the publisher, played surprisingly well by Meryl Streep, is sitting on the edge of a bed. The left third of the screen is taken up by a lamp on a small table. The camera does not move for quite some time. No doubt it was less than 90 seconds, but it seemed more like three minutes. I had an odd “Fluxus” moment: I wanted the whole screen to fill up with the image of the lamp and for the soundtrack of John Williams’s fine understated music to play without any human voice, and then for the people who worked at the factory that made the lamp to appear and for them to begin to speak, out of history to history. If a newspaper is the “first rough draft” of history, it is their words that need to be recorded in its opening paragraphs and in the intonement of its final pronouncements.

Note: It was hard to resist making the headline of my blog post today about a milestone in my blog: 1,000,000 total hits. At some point in the next few hours, my blog will surpass that symbolic figure. When I woke up and checked this morning, the official number was 999,751, so it won’t be long before my blog’s dispersal over the past year and a half reflects a wider audience than it was getting in its first two and a half years. I am not under any illusion that this mean my blog has some kind of wide readership. That is hardly the case. To a large extent, I write this as a version of an intermittent diary, albeit one that is available for others to read. To those of you who read it, and have on occasion written me, thank you for your attention and care.

“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.