Category Archives: Books

“From a Secret Location….”

Saturday, April 1, 2017

More Secret Locations

About: From Book to Web


I began working on a literary history of some of the communities of poets in Los Angeles County in the mid-1990s. I had no realization whatsoever how long this account and accompanying contextual analysis would take to complete. As I worked on the initial outline, however, worrying about the publication date was a luxury I could not afford, for it was primarily a project motivated by dire circumstances. After many years of making a living as a typesetter, I was unemployed and had no likelihood of ever finding work again in that occupation. One evening, in mid-November, 1995, I spotted a flyer on a lobby counter at Beyond Baroque. The Getty Research Institute was requesting applications from scholars and cultural workers who would contribute to a year-long seminar on Los Angeles. I set to work on a proposal that I spend two months doing research on the poets in Venice West, and turned it in on the last day of the application date. In mid-Spring, I received a special delivery notice that I had received one of the visiting scholar awards. It was a radical shift in my life, in that it led to a decision to engage in graduate study at UC San Diego, starting in 1997.

The first few years that I was in grad school were impatiently devoted to doing the coursework for a Ph.D., during which time I felt encouraged by the publication of A Secret Location on the Lower East Side. It was the kind of book that emanated a lifetime of passionate involvement in the underground publication of poetry in the two decades after Donald Allen’s anthology first appeared, and it bespoke the necessity of my own project, which I saw as a spoke on the Great Wheel of this compendium by authors/archivists, Steven Clay and Rodney Phillips. At the many points at which I felt discouraged, I thought of their book as proof that Holdouts was more than individual nostalgia for what L.A. Times book critic Robert Kirsch had called the “golden age” of Los Angeles poetry.

As was the case with Holdouts, in which I had to leave out vast amounts of information, A Secret Location was merely the first major sifting of the period under examination (1960-1980). In making the entire original book available for anyone with a computer and internet access to read, Steven Clay and Rodney Phillips have performed an extraordinary act of scholarly generosity. They have taken the project further, though, and added entries for other notable magazines and small press outfits, such as Abraxas, Extensions, Luna Bisonte Prods, New American Writing, Oink, Streets and Roads, Sugar Mountain, the, Tooth of Time Review, Grist, Long News in the Short Century, Sunshine, Unmuzzled Ox, Search for Tomorrow, and Tansy.

For those who missed the post a few days back, you can also listen to David Wilk’s recently posted interview with me as a way of hearing about some of the books that are mentioned in the checklist on this very personal instance of a Secret Location.

David Wilk interviews poet and publisher Bill Mohr

John Harris, In Memoriam

Friday, March 10, 2017

John Harris, Poet and Owner of Papa Bach Bookstore

I first met John Harris back in the early 1970s when he was the co-leader of the Wednesday night workshop. By the fall of 1973, he had been appointed the new poetry editor of Bachy magazine. I was moving on from that position to start my own magazine, and the owner of the bookstore fortunately accepted my nomination of John as my successor. John went on to purchase the store in the mid-1970s, and he continued to subsidize the magazine for many years, as well as publish several fine books by L.A. poets such as William Pillin and Bert Meyers.

It is also important to note how much John Harris’s faith in Leland Hickman as an editor of Bachy magazine had consequences no one could have foreseen. The Language poets often point to Hickman’s Temblor magazine in the late 1980s as one of the crucial magazines that enabled their poetry to gain academic acceptance. Temblor would never have happened if John had not chosen and supported Lee’s first initial editorial work on Bachy’s final ten issues. Lee learned how to navigate the sometimes treacherous playing field of contemporary poetry under John’s aegis, and the experience Lee gained gave him a confidence that he did not always find easy to access in other parts of his life. It can be said without any exaggeration whatsoever that John indirectly had a profound impact on the course of American avant-garde poetry. All in all, it was quite a special time for LA poetry, and John was one of the poets who made it so memorable.

He loved Richard Hugo’s verse. I remember being up in the loft at the rear of the store one afternoon, and John pulled out one of Hugo’s books and read one of the poems to me with as much vigor and devotion as if he had written the words himself. John was a fine poet himself, but he cared even more for the art itself than for any personal acclaim. I think his last public reading would have been at the German Center for Culture in the Pacific Palisades. I remember that he read several poems that were not among his best known. He brought all the passion of a young poet to that reading, which must have been about seven or eight years ago. It was not long after that reading that I heard he had become ill. Truly, John, rest in peace.

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.

And for a view of that poem “across the pond,” go to:

One of the better articles I’ve found on his poetry can be found at:
Issue 77 / Winter 1998-99 – Stuart Dischell

Kevin Starr (1940 – 2017)

Kevin Starr (September 3, 1940 – January 14, 2017)

On page five of Holdouts: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance 1948-1992, I cited Kevin Starr’s distinction between the kind of novels written about Los Angeles and the poetry produced by the poets living here. His comment echoes an observation made many years earlier by Paul Vangelisti, though I doubt that Starr was aware of Vangelisti’s commentary. In any case, we all owe an immense debt to Starr’s lifetime of work.

If by the final decade of the past century the Los Angeles novel had become stigmatized by its “phantasmagoric quality,” according to the primary chronicler of California history, Kevin Starr, the poetry scenes in Los Angeles had contrastingly produced a body of work that yielded “a most extraordinary connection between poetry and life, between poetry and the daily facts of Los Angeles” (480-481). Starr then optimistically conjectures that “someday, someone would figure out why the L.A. novel went one way while poetry took another path” (481).
(HOLDOUTS, page 5)

Starr is quoted from Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge 1990-2003. New York: Vintage Books, 2004

A New Year’s Sketch

January 1, 2017

I have only a little time this morning to jot a few quick notes, for Linda and I are heading to Ramona, California to visit her sisters and their families. We saw Anita and her grandson Brayden on the day after Christmas in Thousand Oaks, at Sharon Cleary’s home, but we haven’t seen Pam and Earl and her family in quite some time, and we are looking forward to the visit. I must admit that I feel nervous about the trip. My extended family has been involved in two serious automobile accidents in the past month, neither of which was their fault in any way. My mother handed in her driving license, at age 92, of her own volition and without any prompting whatsoever, because she said that she’d never been in any accidents during 70 years of driving and wanted to keep that perfect record. I doubt that many people in urban areas these days will be able to make the same claim at the end of this century.

I have a particularly challenging year awaiting my immediate attention: if I am up at 6:00 and writing my entry to this blog, it is because there is a long list of things to do to assist in my mother’s care. At this point, I am the one with power of attorney for a 95 year old woman. Each and every day there is some detail or a distinct errand to bear down on. Sometimes it is only a matter of luck that things get resolved. I was at my mother’s home branch of her bank in Imperial Beach this past Wednesday, and in talking with Ms. Hernandez I found out about a certain financial procedure, which two days later someone at my local branch of the bank in Long Beach said couldn’t be done. I suggested she call Ms. Hernandez, and the issue got resolved, but if I hadn’t visited my mother’s branch of the bank (over 100 miles from where I live) on Wednesday, I would have been out of luck in a very crucial matter on Friday.

I will be meeting with my brothers, Jim and John, later today to talk about my mother’s situation and what she can afford in terms of assisted care living. One other brother and two sisters are either cut off from the family or live elsewhere. There is a chance tomorrow that I will have a day without having to manage as aspect of my mother’s life. I have packed a couple of books to take with me, if that proves to be the case. One of them is James M. Cain’s Serenade, a novel about a down-and-outer in Mexico whose view of that nation and its citizens makes Donald Trump’s tweets seem diplomatically astute. I’ve long been a fan of Malcolm Lowery’s Under the Volcano; and Cain’s book in its own way is as equally well written. On a technical level, the control of tone and the rhythm of his sentence is masterful. Whether you want the narrator’s company for 200 pages is another matter. He certainly wins the Ancient Mariner award in my recent reading.

I hope to post reviews and commentary on several poets in the upcoming weeks, including Charles Harper Webb (in part three of a series on his editing and writing), Michael Hannon, and Kevin Opstedal. Opstedal’s collection of poems, Pacific Standard Time, is probably my favorite book of poems right now. I recommend that everyone get a copy of it right now and spend the first week of 2017 strengthening one’s imagination through an encounter with a poet who will enable you to alter the reality proposed by politicians and their compliant bureaucrats.

Finally, while we seek each other’s comfort in the struggles ahead, let us not forget that the divisions within this country are viewed as opportunities by nefarious individuals for their private profit. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3,000,000 votes. I had predicted a margin of almost 5,000,000 votes, so I was off considerably, but nevertheless this was not a close election, especially considering the Russian interference and complementary activism by agents within the Federal Bureau of Investigation. More people believed that Clinton was qualified to be President than Trump. That President-Elect Trump wants us to “move on with our lives” is a bit ridiculous, given his insistence on the need to investigate Hillary Clinton’s e-mail server.

Of the many concerns we should have about Trump, not least is his policy on nuclear weapons. That these weapons are intended to kill non-combatants, and in particular women and children, makes them immoral and evil beyond the reprehensible scale of ordinary war. If Trump does not care to remember what his advocacy of an increased number of these weapons means in regards to his moral well-being, then we will need to remind him in no uncertain terms that it is time for a reckoning with his conscience that cannot be tweeted away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edward Albee (1928-2016): A Master of Audacious Protest

Friday, September 16, 2016

Edward Albee (1928-2016): A Master of Audacious Protest

When I was young, it was not unheard of for a young person to say, “I want to be a playwright.” In fact, the decision to focus on writing for the theater was a far more practical one than aspiring to be a poet sixty years ago. Back then, playwrights held a far more esteemed position within contemporary American culture. Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams were legends by the mid-1950s, and reading plays by the great European playwrights was considered an ordinary part of a liberal arts education. As I pointed out in my book, “Holdouts: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance 1948-1992,” theater supplied far more momentum to the avant-garde in the 1960s and early 1970s than poetry. It wasn’t even a contest.

Edward Albee, who died today, did not begin as a playwright, however. He started as a poet and then turned to theater. In both of these cultural endeavors, Albee knew all too well how a comprehensive fashion show is hard at work; his advice about the stance that both playwrights and poets should take about this fashion show should be fervently adhered to: “Actually, the final evaluation of a play has nothing to do with immediate audience or critical response. The playwright, along with any writer, composer, painter in this society, has got to have a terribly private view of his own value, of his own work. He’s got to listen to his own voice primarily. He’s got to watch out for fads, for what might be called the critical aesthetics.”

In demonstrating the level of vigilance needed not to succumb to fads, Albee taught us how theater is the quintessential laboratory for discovering “the temper of the time, what is being tolerated, what is being permitted.” It is in protesting those limits that writers distinguish themselves in the manner that Albee sorted them into: “Good writers define reality; bad ones merely restate.” (Tweeted by Ryan Adams). Great writers transmogrify those definitions of reality, and Albee belongs to that cluster of superb visionaries.

Along with hundreds of other writers, I owe Albee more than a nod of gratitude: he was one of the writers whose work helped wake me out of the stupor of the military industrial complex in which I had spent my childhood and adolescence. By the time I first read him, in the fall of 1966, he was already a superstar among the young playwrights. His one-act plays, “The Zoo Story” and “The Sandbox,” transfixed me when I first read them. I had the good fortune to act in a school workshop production of “The Sandbox” at Southwestern Community College in the spring of 1967, and this distant memory flutters within me as I find myself caring for 94 year old mother. And how can one overstate the extent to which the monologue of the story of Jerry and the Dog reverberated as a model for many young playwrights throughout the 1960s and 1970s? The monologues in Sam Shepard’s one-act plays, for instance, can hardly be studied apart from this progenitor. Albee most certainly redefined my reality; my own trajectory in shifting from theater to poetry could not have happened without that initial impetus to which the surplus of Albee’s corrosive writing made an enormous contribution.

I have continued to read Albee’s work throughout all the years in which I primarily have devoted myself to poetry; and cannot imagine my poetics having developed in their peculiar manner, in fact, without having had the guidance of Albee’s ear for the theatrical puncture point. In the entire history of theater, less than fifty playwrights have equaled his capacity for a shimmering clarity of self-examination made visible in imaginary people. Even more rare is how tirelessly the dialogue he coaxed out of his characters can coil and recoil within a stage’s “empty space.” He made the performance of a private vision an occasion of public urgency. In Albee’s case, I remember in particular a production of “Seascape” that I saw in Century City. The theater itself no longer exists, but the theater of my memory glows, and I remain spellbound.

One of the aspects of theater that makes the experience precious is its singularity: productions cannot be revisited like novels; yet that only makes one cling more closely to theater’s oscillating essence. Theater is the most porous art: it must be absorbed straight through the skin of one’s consciousness. This instantaneous envelopment marked Albee’s theatrical instincts. Even in plays that some regard as his minor work, his audacious imagination magnified the possibilities of what hides under the surface of contingency.

I have no doubt that Albee knew, in his final years, how much difference he made in the lives of so many writers whose work he never read a page of. What better reward can any writer hope for? Surely these are the unseen bouquets at any memorial service his friends will gather for in the days to come.

(See my blog entry on February 23, 2014 for a review of a production of Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” by the California Repertory Company.)

This blog entry, originally written on the day of Albee’s death, has been revised on Sunday morning, September 17.

Post-Flaneur Poet: “I Want a Job” by Carol Ellis

Thursday, September 15, 2016: I WANT A JOB – Carol Ellis (Finishing Line Press, 2014)

“Post-Flaneur Poet”: “I Want a Job” by Carol Ellis

Back when I was just getting this blog underway, in the late spring of 2013, I wrote a brief comment on Oriana Ivy’s prize-winning chapbook, April Snow (Thursday, June 20). Finishing Line Press did a very handsome job on the printing of Ms. Ivy’s collection, and I have over a half-dozen other chapbooks from the same press with production values at least within the same range as April Snow. One has to wonder what happened to their sense of pride in the dismal job done on Carol Ellis’s very fine collection, I WANT A JOB. The printing looks no better than photocopying done on a machine that is running low on toner, and the small type only increases the text’s smudgy quality. Ellis deserved a far more substantial effort put into the publication of her writing.

Ellis, who now lives in Portland, Oregon, was born in Detroit and educated at the University of Iowa. After getting a Ph.D., with a dissertation on James Wright, she has (in her own words) “been around the academic block.” In punching the adjunct second-hand clock, with all of its constrictions on one’s own time to write, she somehow has enabled her imagination to sustain itself; the variety of tones in the poems and prose poems in her first book suggests that this collection barely serves as a representative presentation of that self-determination.
Chapbooks tend to be fallible collections; they all too often present a false sense of familiarity with the featured poet. In

Ellis’s collection, one has a sense of three or four poems missing between each individual selection. I have never read a full-length manuscript by Ellis, so I confess that this is sheer guesswork, but rarely have encountered a first chapbook of poems that hinted at a substantial reservoir of other work awaiting revelation. As for the form of that undisclosed work, it is an equal guess as to how much of it might be prose poetry. Of the 25 poems in I WANT A JOB, 15 are prose poems, but Ellis is at ease in both arrangements, so the 60-40 proportion remains at the level of conjectural contingency. One could argue that the collection opens and closes with a prose poem; that simply reflects mathematical odds.

The poems in the second half of I WANT A JOB are especially noteworthy, and one in particular glows like a lyric translated from some obscure language into yet another language, before finding its unexpectedly perfected by this manumission from a long meditation. “First It Was Hot and Then It Was Dark” is not at all a typical poem, and part of its aura of tender supplication derives from the candid depiction of existential solitude in many of the accompanying poems. “Hot/Dark,” however, can more than stand on its own merits; it shimmers with tones of both restraint and an overflowing suffusion of the completely incomplete.

All this time trying hard to be alive,
the earth famously gone. Nothing to think
because one was thinking.

First it was hot and then it was dark.
She took off her sweater, turned on a light,
thought past the point of thinking.

Was there ever such a world repeated,
the entire place entirely too interesting
and entirely too forgotten?

This is one of those occasions in reading a collection of poems where one can do little else but put the book down, walk away, and challenge oneself to answer that question. A good place to begin would be to work on translating it into another language, for surely such a distillation of human consciousness can only be fully apprehended if reflected in the mirror of another concise diction and syntax.

Most likely, in fact, readers will find themselves putting this book aside after reading two or three pieces and giving themselves a chance to absorb sudden little bursts of sideways illumination. Ellis’s poetry is different enough from the fashion show of American poetry that it will take several readings to begin absorbing its whispered defiance of a lifetime of erasure. Ellis quotes James Tate’s poem, “Consumed”: “you are the stranger who gets stranger by the hour” in a poem entitled “Leaving Portland.” Ellis savors this transmogrification as a chance to help the reader apprehend the undercurrents of daily life, of how the visits to a plant nursery (“Getting Around Women”) or library (“The Book of Dad”) or bookstore (“Divinia Comedia”) or farmer’s market (“Repetition”) contain the rebuke of forestalled epiphanies. Her strategy is not that of a flaneur, however, for she is only too aware of how others thoughtlessly diminish one’s efforts to nourish the compassion of simple dignity (“Whore, Driving”).

In not flinching when confronted with this depleting pattern, this poet exhibits more courage than she will ever be given credit for. She’s not the only one, of course, of whom this can be said, but she is one of the few poets who understands the full measure of the imbalance.

“my future appears in leaves – the goodbye that does not think – the end of thinking – so I try to think more now – in the short space remaining – in the space allowed – but rather think about the sun and how right now it has the frightening power of a god – never underestimate a god – pray for mercy – gather nerve as one gathers flowers – the chuckling frogs – tucked into steep sides and the hard ache of a tall bird coming to find them.”
(”Frog Chuckle”)

Other poems by Carol Ellis can be found at:

Earth by Carol Ellis

Her Dance

The Restoration of Dennis Cooper’s Blog

Friday, August 26, 2016

I have just received word that Google has restored all of Dennis Cooper’s data to him so that he can re-install his blog. Almost 5,000 people signed the petition in support of Dennis’s cause, and it was gratifying to see how the story became more public than those engaged in arbitrary censorship ever expected.

Now that this matter is settled, Dennis has become free to speak of what caused this debacle to occur. You can read it for yourself at:

I did hear about 10 days that things were beginning to move in a propitious direction, but it was implied that the good faith of negotiating required that nothing be revealed about the peculiarities of this odd juncture in Dennis Cooper’s literary work. Now that I have learned of some of the more salient aspects of the case, I must say that it reminds me of my first foray on Facebook. One day several years ago, I logged on and found my account disabled. I asked for an explanation. There was a complaint about your use of the account, I was told. When I asked for details about the alleged misuse, I received no answer whatsoever.

I still have no idea of what I could have done that would have justified having my Facebook account blotted out without any recourse. After a year or two, when enough people asked what had happened (“Weren’t we friends on Facebook?” more than a few acquaintances inquired via e-mail), I opened up another Facebook page, and slowly started adding friends again.

I was sorry to hear that Dennis is going to have to put a considerable amount of time into reconstructing his blog, post by post, in a manner requiring a lot of manual energy. At least, though, the material will be preserved for both current readers and those who explore his archives.

Bravo to all of us who joined this effort, but a special round of applause to those cited in the above entry by Dennis, including former Beyond Baroque artistic director Tosh Berman.

“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.