Category Archives: Biography

Austin Straus: In His Youth (the recollection of a close friend)

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Austin Straus: In His Youth (the recollection of a close friend)

A little over a month ago, a letter showed up in my mailbox at school. I didn’t recognize the name in the return corner of the envelope, but I don’t get that many letters with my name and work address written by hand, so I was curious enough to open it immediately. The author of the letter turned out to be a childhood friend of the late poet, Austin Straus, who wrote me a second letter with some additional information about Austin. The letter itself was handwritten, too, which was a pleasure to read.

October 9, 2017

Dear Professor Mohr,

Looking at the websites pertaining to the death of Austin Straus, I gather that not much is known about his life before he moved to Los Angeles. In light of his upcoming memorial service I have written down some of my memories of that part of his life.

Austin was born in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn in June 1939 (June 9, I think), a working class neighborhood of mainly East European Jewish immigrants and their children.

While he was in the early years of elementary school (about eight years old, or so) his parents bought a house in East Flatbush, a middle class neighborhood, and moved from Hopkinson Ave. to Albany Ave., across the street from where I lived, my parents having made the same move a few years earlier. From then until his early twenties, Austin lived in that house together with his parents, Roz and Fred (only after moving to San Diego upon retiring did he call himself Franklin, which, unbeknownst to us, was apparently his name all along), and his younger (by 2 years) brother, Dennis, with whom he shared a bedroom. The third bedroom was occupied by his grandmother. As she was not comfortable speaking English, Austin picked up a fair knowledge of Yiddish. There was also a family dog, Lucky, a tan cocker spaniel. All in all, a fairly typical upbringing.

Austin and I became very close friends (I was a year older), a friendship which lasted from elementary school through our teenage years into our early twenties. While attending Hebrew school, Austin was part of a group of us who were religiously observant.

His father worked on a U.S. mail train, which meant that he was away for several days and nights and then home for several days and nights. While home, he would often take Austin, Dennis and myself in the old family car to play ball in Prospect Park. Fred was an excellent athlete. In summer, we used to go swimming in Riis Park.

As teenagers, Austin, Lucky, and I would take long walks at night, often ending up in Brownsville, the neighborhood where we both were born. Brooklyn was still safe in those days. We often played handball together (pink ball). He was a good handball player and I remember vigorous games in the hot summer sun in Lincoln Terrace Park at the age of 20 or 21.

Austin started attending Brooklyn College but transferred to City College Downtown (now known as Baruch College) which was primarily a business school with the intention of majoring in accounting. I suspected this idea came from his parents. Needless to say, it was not a good fit and Austin changed his major to psychology (or possibly philosophy, not sure of this). After graduating, he pursued a Master’s degree in Philosophy at NYU.

It was about this time that Austin broke away from his conventional upbringing, choosing a bohemian (so-called at the time) lifestyle, moving into a tiny Greenwich Village apartment with a girlfriend. By this time, I was married and also attending graduate school to pursue an academic career. We saw each other less frequently. He had demonstrated talent as an artist while young but the first time I recall him being interested in poetry was when he read a poem of his to me when he was 24. My overall impression of Austin as we grew up was that he was intelligent, imaginative and sensitive, prone to enthusiasms over people and ideas, often followed by disappointments.

I do not know how he met Ann Moody, but he did come with her to visit my wife and myself in our Brooklyn apartment. Some years later, when the marriage was in difficulty, I saw her again when Austin asked me to use the van I was driving to remove his belongings from the apartment they shared in the Bronx. We were no longer in regular contact but I was called upon again to remove his things from the Upper West Side apartment of his second wife, Patrocina (?), a lovely young Panamanian woman to whom he was married only very briefly. Austin told that she expected a more conventional marriage and way of life.

Shortly thereafter he moved to California and our only direct contact was an occasional phone call. Indirectly, I heard about him through my mother, who kept in regular contact with Austin’s mother, Roz, then a widow living in San Diego. She told my mother that Austin phoned her every day. Since he never pursued a career as such, he had frequent financial difficulties. At the age of 55 he was desperately trying to get into the California educational system, apparently unsuccessfully. He told me he could not be considered for a full-time position at Los Angeles City College, where he taught English as an adjunct, because his master’s degree was in philosophy. It was only in his last phone call to me, about a month or so before his death, that I learned of the success of his one-of-a-kind art books.

Despite his illnesses, diabetes, and a previous bout with prostate cancer which he thought might be returning, he sounded very upbeat, saying that he was dating again, looking for the fourth Mrs. Straus. He had begun the conversation by saying that he thought he ought call me before one of us kicked the bucket. I don’t know whether he had a premonition of what was to come, but sadly, shortly thereafter, he died.

These are some of my memories of a very close friendship that lasted for over a decade and a half, and was less close thereafter. I shall, of course, try to answer any questions about the earlier part of Austin’s life that I am able to answer.

Sincerely yours,
Nathan Greenspan

October 30, 2017

Dear Bill,

A few more thoughts concerning Austin – Unlike most of his generation, myself included, born at the tail-end of the Great Depression, Austin did not seem overly concerned with earning a living. Unlike most of us, I do not recall him working during summer vacations. My wife, Vicki, had a summer job supervising a children’s playground at P.S. 235, the same public school Austin and I attended, which was very near his house. She went there during lunchtime to eat her brown bag lunch and chat with Roz Straus, Austin’s mother. One of her vivid memories is of Austin lying in a hammock in his backyard on one hot and sunny afternoon, and Roz calling out to him, “Austin, do you want your strawberries and sour cream now or later?”

Decades later, Austin phoned from California when I wasn’t home and spoke to Vicki (they knew each other well) for a long time, talking about his relationship with Wanda and other things going on in his life. She told me that all she said was “yes” or “um hum” every once in a while. At the end of the call Austin said to her excitedly, “You’re a great conversationalist!” We both had a good laugh over that. He was definitely more interested in talking about himself than in listening to others.

Austin and his two years younger brother Dennis were close growing up, sharing a bedroom as I mentioned in my previous letter. On one of his calls to me from California he mentioned that he and Dennis were not in contact with teach other. The break apparently came at Dennis’s initiative. He and his wife, Sheila Ascher-Straus, are published writers, describing themselves, I believe, as post-modernist.

…….Best regards,
Nate

(Nathan Greenspan)

Nathan Greenspan taught for about forty years full-time at Brooklyn College and Staten Island Community College, which later become the College of Staten Island. He also did some administrative work, serving as the political science coordinator for about a quarter-century.

The Austin Straus Memorial: “How’s it going, kid?”

Sunday, October 29, 2017

A week ago, in the midst of much personal travail, I drove up to Beyond Baroque to take part in the memorial service for Austin Straus, the late widower of Los Angeles poet Wanda Coleman. About 20 people attended, and I shared with them a letter that had been written to me by a friend of Austin’s who now lives in Oregon. I also cited some of the recollections of Austin’s childhood and youth that had been sent to me in a letter by Nathan Greenspan. Not wanting to speak longer than anyone else, I refrained from reading one of Austin’s poems, but did mention that if I had had time, I would have chosen Austin’s “The All Purpose Apology Poem.” It turned out that Laurel Ann Bogen had intended to read that poem, and she delivered a knock-out rendition. Michael C. Ford contributed an amusing account of poetic rivalry between Austin and Michael that played out based on the slight difference in their birth months in 1939. One of the most touching moments occurred when the relatives of Ann Moody got up to speak about Austin. Ann was one of the civil rights protestors who sat at the Woolworth’s lunch counter and refused to accept segregation. She was also Austin’s first wife and the mother of his only child, Sasha, who works as an artist.

With the permission of Richard Hammerschlag, I present his fond memories of Austin.

Remembrance of Austin Straus
Richard Hammerschlag
Portland, Oregon
October 19, 2017

“Birthday buddies” was Austin’s sweet term for us. Our friendship began with his knock on my door one evening in the mid-1980s, a Falstaff-like guy fundraising for Santa Monicans for Renters Rights. His request for demographic information to validate my donation led to the happy discovery that Austin and I were both born in 1939 on the very same June day in New York City. The friendship, borne of that chance encounter and longer-odds coincidence of birth, was maintained over thirty years, mainly by phone after I moved to Portland and he to Lancaster.

From a young age, our lives had traveled separate paths, his to the Arts, mine to Science, and we often talked about the economic inequalities resulting from the different manner that societal value is coupled to remuneration for the two professions. And yet, Austin and I were each fascinated by the types of challenges the other faced in living creative lives.

Our friendship was also enriched by a shared love of Borscht-belt humor, with Austin often recommending YouTube sites for me to re-live the hallowed stand-up routines of such stalwarts as Henny Youngman, Buddy Hackett, Mel Brooks and Lenny Bruce.

Austin and I, from our New York upbringing, also shared an abiding passion for the Dodgers. Never mind, as Austin wouldn’t let me forget, how Walter O’Malley snuck the team out of Brooklyn in the dead of night, and was a silent party to the city of Los Angeles’ removal of much of the populace of Chavez Ravine in a land acquisition to build Dodger Stadium. Somehow, our youthful inoculation of Dodger lore (highlighted by the storied beginnings of Jackie Robinson and Vin Scully) trumped the back room conniving of management.

Up to his passing in mid-July, Austin closely followed the exploits of this year’s amazing Dodger team. At this writing, in mid-October, it appears (I know you are smiling Austin) that this will be one of those ‘Next Years’ that Dodger fans are always waiting ‘til’.

So, here’s to you, Austin… multi-talented artist, and compassionate friend to so many of us. It was a great pleasure to know and hug you and Wanda. I know you’ll call me next June 12 and each June 12 after that.

Austin Straus Obituary — by Rev. Roscoe Barnes III

Friday, September 1, 2017

It’s a scorching afternoon in Long Beach, California, and the only relief from the heat has been the arrival of an e-mail from Reverend Roscoe Barnes III, who first wrote me about ten days ago and asked what I knew about the life of Austin Straus, a Los Angeles poet whose death I had taken note of in my blog. In particular, Rev. Barnes was curious about how much I knew about his life before he arrived in Los Angeles in the late 1970s.

“Not much,” I responded. “In fact, almost nothing at all.”

For those of you who share that response, I am pleased to post today the link to the first serious obituary of Austin Straus.

http://roscoereporting.blogspot.com/2017/09/poet-austin-straus-former-husband-of.html

My profound thanks to the Rev. Barnes.

First Read Playwrights, Then Poets

August 4, 2017

Instructions to Young Poets: First Read Playwrights, Then Poets

In going through a box of archival material the other day, I found a list of playwrights I had made several years ago. The list was not alphabetical, nor was it meant to be definitive. I believe I was giving a lecture on Sam Shepard’s True West in a course surveying 20th century American literature, and drew up the list to apprise a class of young English majors as to how many significant contemporary playwrights deserved more critical attention.

Theater is in a peculiar situation, especially in terms of playwrights. Trying to make a living as a playwright is like serving as a volunteer lifeguard at Death Valley. Over the years I have heard students comment about the difficulty of telling their parents that their main interest in life has become poetry. The students love to mimic the hysterical despair of their parents. “What did we do to deserve this?” I tell them that their parents should consider themselves lucky. “You could have told them that you wanted to be a playwright.”

I myself was first attracted mainly to playwrighting rather than poetry, and my preference in terms of a contemporary canon has not shifted over the years. If I don’t feel that I have much in common with most poets I meet, my admiration for playwrights is probably the heartbeat of that mutual repulsion.

If I have any recommendation for a young person who is interested in devoting decades to the art of poetry, then it would be to avoid reading contemporary poetry magazines and anthologies until one has read a total of 100 plays by an assortment of playwrights from the following list. It would amount to an average of two plays per playwright. My personal recommendation would be to start with Brian Friel’s “Translations.” Then, and only then, spend a few months reading poetry, after which they should stop and read another 100 plays, this time by the much shorter list of earlier 20th century playwrights. I would recommend starting with Sean O’Casey.

The key to reading these plays (and this is one of the things I learned at Padua Hills) is that one must imagine oneself on stage. If one is reading a play from the point of view of being in the audience, you will not absorb the importance of plasticity in your imagery, and you will never shake off the one-dimensional passivity that infects so much of contemporary poetry.

Edward Albee
John Arden
Doris Baizley
Amiri Baraka
Stephen Berkoff
Edward Bond
Ed Bullins
Caryl Churchill
Christopher Durang
Martin Epstein
Harvey Fierstein
Horton Foote
Irene Fornes
Brian Friel
Bruce Jay Friedman
John Guare
Walter Hadler
Susan Hansell
David Hare
David Henry Hwang
Arthur Kopit
Tony Kushner
Eduardo Machado
David Mamet
Leon Martell
Murray Mednick
Marsha Norman
Cherrie Moraga
Joe Orton
Rochelle Owens
Robert Patrick
David Rabe
Sarah Ruhl
Milcha Sanchez-Scott
Ntozake Shange
Sam Shepard
Neil Simon
Anna Deveare Smith
John Steppling
Tom Stoppard
David Storey
Megan Terry
Luis Valdez
Paula Vogel
Wendy Wasserstein
Peter Weiss
Lanford Wilson
August Wilson
Susan Yankowitz
Paul Zindel

Thomas Lux (1946 – 2017)

TOM LUX (December 10, 1946 – February 5, 2017)

Larry Goldstein was in town this past week, and we had lunch together at the Long Beach Museum of Art, where the upstairs gallery currently features some superb photographs of the Long Beach port. On our way to the museum, as I drove on Seventh Street, Larry mentioned that the Cortland Review was dedicating its next issue to the late Thomas Lux. I hadn’t heard that Tom had died, and I was as grateful for the slow traffic, as for the street’s familiarity. To have been told the same news on the 90 freeway last Friday night, as rain sliced down, might have had a different outcome, for the 90’s lane markers at night are very faint to begin with, and I struggled to detect exactly which lane I was traversing.

I first met Tom back in the early 1990s, when he was on a Southern California reading tour. He started at the Chateau Marmont on a weekend, headed over to Loyola Marymount at the start of the school week, and ended up at California State University Long Beach, by which time we ended up playing pool in the Student Union after his reading. I remember how surprised Tom was when I showed up at the second reading with a copy of Tarantulas on a Lifebuoy. He probably thought at that point that he had met everyone who had a copy of that early book. Not quite, I told him. Contrary to popular allegations from an individual he used to know in New York City, there were more than a handful of astute readers in Los Angeles.

Tom was a superb reader, and his poems fit perfectly into the Stand Up school that Charles Harper Webb was beginning to promote. Indeed, he unquestionably deserved his place in the second edition. He returned to the Los Angeles area in the late 1990s; along with Naomi Shihab Nye, he was the first poet-in-residence at the Idyllwild Poetry Festival. Idyllwild was the last place I saw him, in large part because my life as a scholar has diverted my creative energies outside of the contemporary poetry nexus. It was over a decade ago that we last wrote each other. His poems have been a constant presence in my teaching, though.

Thomas Lux radiated a multi-dimensional love of poetry that went beyond anything I have ever encountered in all but a few other people. If it seems that he is present now in my memory’s eye as a living presence, reciting lines of poetry by Hart Crane or Theodore Roethke to illustrate his point, then it is a measure of how much his invisible companionship has meant to me the past dozen years.

This sense of personal loss extends to Charles Harper Webb, one of my fellow poets at CSULB. I asked if he would be willing to contribute to this blog post about Tom Lux’s writing and presence in our lives and he immediately sent the following eulogy:

“I was beyond bummed to hear of the death of Tom Lux, one of the truly good guys in American poetry. Just last December, I sent him my new book of essays on poetry, and he promised to send me a copy of the collection of Bill Knott’s poems which he’d just finished editing. It never crossed my mind that I’d never see, or even e-mail him again. Since we lived on opposite sides of the country, I didn’t see him much; but he was my friend, and a world-class ally in the fight for clear, entertaining poetry. I love Tom’s poems. I wish I’d written them. Every virtue that I praise in my essays, his poetry exemplifies. Wit, passion, impropriety, brilliance of metaphor and conception—he gave it all to the world in clear, concise language that sounds like no one else. Because there was no one else like him. It’s our good fortune that, although his body’s gone, his voice still sings out of his books, loud and quirky, brave and clear.”

The Collected Poems of Tom Lux will be a book worth waiting for, and the second half of Charles’s assessment would be a spot on blurb for that book. In that kind of volume, it is a common practice to include an index of titles as well as first lines. I would recommend including an index of last lines, too, in that book as a way of giving young poets one more axis of inspiration. I have seen many determined and talented young poets emerging in the past twenty years, but few have the gift of Tom Lux’s quirky, encompassing, comic sense of poignant elucidation.

If I were to take part in a memorial reading, I would be hard pressed to choose which one of his poems to read. “Refrigerator, 1957” would probably be my choice, though given its popularity, someone else would probably have read it by the time I got to the podium. It is certainly one of the best poems to have first appeared in The New Yorker magazine.

https://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/thomas-lux/refrigerator-1957/
https://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/thomas-lux/refrigerator-1957/
http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1997/07/28/refrigerator-1957
http://happopoemouse.blogspot.com/2013/11/number-326-thomas-lux-refrigerator-1957.html

And for a view of that poem “across the pond,” go to:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jan/16/selected-poems-1986-to-2012-thomas-lux-review

One of the better articles I’ve found on his poetry can be found at:
http://www.cerisepress.com/01/01/life-on-a-piecemeal-planet-god-particles-by-thomas-lux/view-all

https://www.pshares.org/issues/winter-1998-99/about-thomas-lux-profile
Issue 77 / Winter 1998-99 – Stuart Dischell
http://www.news.gatech.edu/2017/02/07/campus-atlanta-communities-mourn-loss-thomas-lux-director-poetrytech
https://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2017/02/thomas-lux-obituary/516354/
http://www.dailyo.in/voices/tom-lux-death-poet-poetry-eulogy-tribute-vijay-seshadri/story/1/15523.html

Happy Birthday, Sylvia Mohr

December 25, 2016 — Christmas

Today is my mother’s 95th birthday. Although Sylvia Mohr has considerably weakened physically during the past six months, and is more and more confined to a wheelchair, she is still cognizant of her age and how few people live to be that old. My youngest brother, John, and my wife Linda gathered along with me at my mother’s bedside yesterday evening to sing “Happy Birthday.” Linda and I plan to return this morning to bring her presents and a small piece of cake to eat. We will then travel to Thousand Oaks to celebrate the holiday with Linda’s sister, Sharon, and their mother, Noreen, who is a decade younger than my mother, but also enduring the infirmities of age.

It’s possible that one of the readers of this blog will also have a parent or a sibling born on December 25, and if so, I hope that all goes well in giving that person sufficient attention on her or his natal anniversary. In addition to this birthday wish, I send out fond greetings to the sincere readers of this blog and thank you for bearing with the interludes between posts the past three and a half years. I have been surprised, by the way, at how the blog seems to be getting more attention now, so once again there is something to be said for just sticking to a project, regardless of its initial reception. Although the number of “hits” on a blog is a notoriously dubious means of gauging its impact, I have noticed that I am now averaging slightly more than a thousand hits a day, and will soon reach the cumulative total of a half-million hits. If I am still writing this blog in the summer of 2018, it will probably ascend to the million hit mark. Whether my mother or Linda’s mother will still be alive is harder to assess. For this day, at least, let us all give thanks that all of us can take a deep breath — a slow, deep breath — and release it with permeating gratitude.

Dead Solid Perfect: Gerald Locklin Verifies Bukowski’s Praise of John Thomas

Dead Solid Perfect: Gerald Locklin’s memoir poem about John Thomas and Charles Bukowski (or, From Beef Tongue to Tip of the Tongue: An Homage to Bukowski’s Friend, John Thomas, by Another of Bukowski’s Friends, Gerald Locklin)

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

On the verge of turning 24 years old, in the early autumn of 1971, I was asked to become the first poetry editor of a magazine its founder and publisher, Ted Reidel, intended to call Bachy. The name was meant to be a diminutive of his bookstore, Papa Bach Paperbacks. He put an advertisement in the Los Angeles Times announcing his new magazine and submissions started arriving. He gave me a desk in the upstairs loft and I worked there in the evenings after finishing my shift as a blueprint machine operator. I myself was an unpublished poet, and cannot account for Ted’s decision to entrust me with this role other than he must have had a great deal of faith in his one of his employee’s opinions. I had gone into the store to buy some poetry books in the late summer and had struck up a conversation with William (“Koki”) Iwamoto, who was working behind the counter. He invited me to read at an upcoming open reading at Papa Bach, and it was in the week after this reading that Koki said that Ted wanted to talk with me. He said he couldn’t pay me to work as the poetry editor, but that he would be happy to offer me a job at the store. I was making twice as much money as a blueprint machine operator, however, and overtime was helping me accumulate some savings, and so I remained strictly a volunteer presence at the store. Koki left within six months to start his own store, Chatterton’s, on Vermont Avenue. He, too, offered me a job, but that would have meant moving to the other side of Los Angeles and made visiting the Beyond Baroque workshop a long trek.

One day, the pile of submissions included a fairly large number of poems from Charles Bukowski, whose poems I was not particularly enamored with. I did not own any books by Bukowski, but there were plenty of copies of Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame for sale at Papa Bach, and since I had heard other older poets at Beyond Baroque talk about his poetry, I spent some time with the book in the Papa Bach loft. His use of enjambment seemed far too arbitrary to suit my preferences for Hart Crane and John Berryman. On the other hand, I had seen some of his poems in the early issues of INVISIBLE CITY, and liked those poems much more. I was both excited and nervous as I read Bukowski’s submission. I knew that if I did not like the poems, I would face my first big challenge in writing a rejection note.

Fortunately, I liked several of Bukowski’s poems much more than I anticipated and ended up including his poetry in the first issue of Bachy along with the work of several young poets I knew from San Diego State College as well as some young poets (David St. John and Roberta Spear) to whom Phil Levine had mentioned my magazine after I had visited him in his office at Fresno State. It was Bukowski’s close friend, John Thomas, however, who ended up having a more profound influence on my development as a poet and editor. His first eponymous collection of poems was a spiral-bound publication that I reviewed in the second issue of Bachy. It was the general consensus in the community that Thomas was one of the best poets living in Los Angeles. He had stopped writing, however. Whenever a poem showed up in a magazine back then, it was simply a reprint of an earlier poem. No one seemed to mind. His poems were always worth rereading, and the respectful enthusiasm that Lee Hickman and Paul Vangelisti accorded Thomas gave his maverick aura a palpable voltage.

Recently, Gerald Locklin sent me a poem that reminisces about spending some time with Thomas. As anyone knows who has studied Bukowski’s career at all, Locklin is one of the few poets Bukowski retained any respectful affection for over any significant stretch of reading. Locklin has often admitted that the secret of their friendship was to limit the amount of time they spent together, and especially the amount of time that they spent drinking together. Thomas was not anywhere near as interested in alcohol as Bukowski, nor was he inclined (or so he once said) to indulge in marijuana. He liked to read, and he claimed to abstain from anything that would impede that pleasure. As testified to by Locklin’s poem, Thomas obviously retained much of what he read.

Once Again Bukowski Was Right On

In a poem called “Beef Tongue,”
About his old drinking buddy and fellow poet,
John Thomas, Buk speaks of his enormous
Intelligence: how he knew just about everything,
Had read just about everything,
And could discuss just about everything.
I’d met Big John (a pseudonym) a few times
And had taken a liking to him,
But I’d never gotten to know him well enough
To tell whether he was really as smart as
Buk claimed he was, or that maybe he had once been,
But had washed some of it away with the beer,
A substance that we had all consumed in quantity,

Then I was in a room with John once
When a bunch of other pretty bright people
Were displaying their erudition,
So I sprang on them, “What language is Welsh
Closest to? (because I had spent a semester there
On a teaching exchange), and, after a brief silence,
John answered, correctly, “Breton,”
And a few minutes later, John said something about
Byron having had a terrible voice, and someone asked him,
How he could possibly know that, and John said,
“Only from Trelawny, and the Countess Guiccioli,”
And he also cited the title of Trelawny’s masterpiece,
Which, frankly, I don’t remember myself anymore,
Now that I’m retired from teaching Brit Lit Survey Courses,
And thus have even less reason to carry relatively
Arcane knowledge on the tip of that tongue that has
Floated to the back of my brain. But when I looked
It up the next morning, John Thomas had gotten it
Dead Solid Perfect. So Charles Bukowski may not
Have had an encyclopedic memory himself, but he
Could sure spot the rare autodidactic friend
Who did.

For those who are curious about one of the poems by Bukowski that I selected for the first issue of Bachy magazine, here’s a link:
http://bukowskiforum.com/threads/purple-and-black-1972.1210/

“Music for Airports”: Brian Eno and 512 Hill Street, Ocean Park, CA

Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports” and Ocean Park, California

Back in the mid-1970s, I was living in an apartment in Ocean Park, California on Hill Street. I had originally moved into the neighborhood in early 1973, and ended up living in that same apartment for 20 years. With my 70th birthday only 15 months away, it’s doubtful I’ll ever have such a long stretch of residential stability. I still have dreams of walking around in that apartment, and the dream-time is as real as this keyboard feels to my fingertips, typing these words. Indeed, more palpable. My life as the editor and publisher of Momentum Press took place entirely within my occupancy of that space, and there isn’t a memory of all that publishing that is not intertwined with its pair of upstairs bedrooms. Over the years, I had a number of roommates, the most famous of which was Nick DeNucci.

I got more than a frequently anthologized poem out of my co-habitation with Nick, however. After HIDDEN PROOFS came out, I got a phone call from a stranger one afternoon. “Are you Bill Mohr?” “Yes.” “Did you really know a fellow named Nick DeNucci?” When I admitted, somewhat reluctantly, that he had indeed been a real life roommate, and not just a character in a poem, the person calling me shared his experience of knowing Nick DeNucci. Nick had been a musician, and he had swooped in and out of number of other lives rather briefly. In the case of Brooks Roddan, the person calling me, the brief encounter did not even involve meeting him face to face. According to Brooks, Nick knew Brooks’s roommate, and had occasionally borrowed his roommate’s car to get to a gig. Unfortunately, on one particular night, that car was not available, but Brooks happened to have an extra car parked in front of their place, and the roommate lent DeNucci Brooks’s vehicle, which didn’t surface again for a couple of weeks, when it was found wrapped around a telephone pole on Vermont Avenue.

Instant commiseration! Brooks and I felt bonded immediately, and I am grateful to the auspicious fate that has kept us loyal, dear friends. I would think of him as a profound friend, in fact, even if we were never to spend any time in the same physical space again. I doubt that will happen, but I believe there is an intimacy each of us finds in our artistic solitude that is similar to the intimacy of our friendship.

The intimacy of this imaginative friendship also involves experiences that have no originating attribution. I have no recollection, for instance, of who encouraged me to buy Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports.” All I I remember is standing at the kitchen sink, doing the breakfast dishes, and listening to that album one or twice a week for about a month. It was as close to some profound communion with the Eternal Pulse of Being as I will ever come. A winter month, overcast, and there were many slightly damp mornings, and rainy nights. As I ran hot water over each clean plate and bowl, I could feel the cool grey from the Pacific Ocean just eight blocks away from back door.

I had not yet begun reading the poets associated with the Language movement., but in the middle of the next decade I would write a piece that was absolutely grounded in the poetics of “Music for Airports.” Thanks to Rod Bradley and the sculptor Mineko Grimmer, you can see a performance of the poem I wrote out of my meditations on Eno’s music.

“BARELY HOLDING DISTANT THINGS APART”

An Inside-Out Outsider: Jack Grapes and the Cherished Nouns of Stand Up Haiku

Monday, August 10, 2016

The Phantom Dwelling of an Inside-Out Outsider: Jack Grapes and the Cherished Nouns of Stand Up Haiku

“So much ink wasted on verbs. / Stand still — cherished nouns.”

When Jack Grapes sent me a copy of WIDE ROAD to the edge of the world: 301 haiku and One Long Essay: “A Windswept Spirit” a month or so ago, I was surprised by both the size of the book and the print run. It’s an odd size, around three inches high and four inches wide, but at an inch thick, it’s enough of a block of paper to shoulder its way onto your bookshelf. Well over two-thirds of its 600 plus pages are devoted to a long essay on haiku, which specialists might read in its entirety, but I am going to pass on it. For one thing, the type is just too small; moreover, a spot check of randomly selected passages did not rev up my curiosity enough to want to start at the beginning and read it all the way through. I must be getting more impatient in my old age than I ever realized: an uninteresting look at WC Williams’s classic poem about a red wheelbarrow was in itself almost enough to deter any further perusal of this long treatise. Fortunately, I did keep browsing and encountered another section about a haiku club established by Grapes with a fellow fifth grade student back when the Brooklyn Dodgers won their only World Series. Inspired by one of Issa’s lesser known haiku, the elementary school haiku club ended up naming itself “The Bats.” Though I recollect a chapbook by C.K. Williams devoted to translations of Issa’s haiku, he is still not known as well as he should be in the United States, and you will probably find at least one of his poems in Grapes’s essay that you had not previously encountered.
Writing shit about new snow
for the rich
is not art.
Perhaps Grapes published the essay in a limited edition book out of a distrust of the permanence of the electronic library. The recent case of Dennis Cooper’s on-line material being completely jettisoned by corporate overlords is a cautionary tale about the internet, and so I’m happy that Grapes has chosen the road less traveled on these days to preserve his meandering essay. Nevertheless, having invested so much time on this project, he should post it in larger print on some website posthaste, and I do mean larger print. Obviously, the advantage of public distribution on a website is that there isn’t any limit to an essay’s length, but the scroll bar is actually a tougher adjudicator of a reader’s attention span. Not only does it not take long to let up on that descending pressure point, but nothing about the experience rewards one on a sensory level with anything comparable to the solace of paper’s caress of a fingertip. In the case of this essay, I would still cast my lot with a much shorter essay on paper.

For those who love short poems and who still prefer an experience of reading embedded in print culture, then I would recommend a magazine that I wish Grapes had sent some of his haiku to before he published this collection. If any periodical would have proved hospitable to Grapes’s renewed devotion to haiku, it would be none other than Hummingbird, which is currently edited by CX Dillhunt. The saddle-stitched magazine was founded over twenty years ago by Phyllis Walsh, and it almost folded after she died, but it’s a tribute to the inspiring quality of her editing that her admiring readership refused to let it expire. For those who read Grapes’s haiku and wish they could receive some regular infusion of short poems, then I urge you to subscribe to this magazine:
HUMMINGBIRD
7129 Lindfield Road
Madison, Wisconsin 53719

Until your first issue of HUMMINGBIRD arrives, I offer you several of my favorite haiku in “Wide Road”:

Circumcision day.
Little brother in his crib.
The bloody diaper.

Why is it five seven five?
Seven five seven
works just fine, if you ask me.

Okay pal, hands up
Gimme all your money, punk,
and your heartache, too.

The dialectic’s
undeniable power:
appropriation.

Once I was a dog.
No one was afraid of me.
I licked people’s hands.

I would be with you
if I could not be alone.
But I can. I can.

Where are we going?
Body outside of body
Mind inside of mind

We’re fresh in the grave
when the grim minister speaks:
blah blah blah blah blah

This last one I’ve cited is Grapes’s response to one of the haiku by Issa that he cites in his essay. Like Issa, Grapes is by his own account “an inside-out outsider.” As uneven as this book is, it still remains worth tracking down, and any serious library will want to have a copy on its shelves.

Jack will be reading along with other contributors (Meg Eden and Mari Werner) to recent issues of RATTLE poetry magazine on Sunday, August 14, at the La Canada/Flintridge Bookstore and Coffee House,
1010 Foothill Blvd, at 5pm.
www.flintridgebooks.com

His featured poem in the most recent issue of RATTLE is “Any Style,” and you can find it at: http://www.rattle.com/any-style-by-jack-grapes/

The Plasticity of Reenactment’s Homage

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Plasticity of Reenactment’s Homage

I first read John Rechy’s novels back in the late 1960s, when my roommate Tony Landmesser loaned me his copies of City of Night and Numbers. In many ways, Rechy’s forthright accounts of hustling on the streets of Los Angeles enabled me to have an immediate context for the poetry of Leland Hickman, when he sent me the first five sections of “Tiresias” to publish in Bachy magazine’s second issue. There is more of an echo of Rechy in Lee’s writing than he was ever willing to admit; the echo, however, is not so much an imitation as a complementary flowering of the compressed chaos that both Rechy and Hickman drew upon as the groundswell of their internal muses.
A pair of Rechy’s novels are the current project of Los Angeles artist Tim Youd, who has embarked on the close reading of typing up 100 novels. He finished his reiteration of City of Night about three weeks ago, and I would guess that he has almost finished – if not in fact finished – typing up Numbers. According to an article in the L.A. Times, he began working on Numbers at the Fern Dell entrance to Griffith Park on July 6. Given the heat wave of recent weeks, I wouldn’t blame him if his pace had slowed down a bit, and he were still working on this book.
For those who might be working as scholars on Rechy’s writing, I would recommend taking a look at the interview that Lee Hickman conducted with Rechy on February 7, 1980. It was published in issue number 17 of Bachy magazine. To read an interview with Tim Youd about his experience of typing up Rechy’s City of Night, see:

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/miranda/la-et-cam-tim-youd-city-of-night-20160628-snap-story.html