Category Archives: Contemporary Fiction

The Los Angeles-Minnesota Connection

Saturday, August 5, 2017

“Emerging Writers” Grants in Minnesota

In less than four weeks, I will have students asking, “So what did you do during your summer vacation, Professsor Mohr?” and I’ll respond that “vacation” will deserve yet another set of scare quotes. It’s been several decades since I had a summer off. This year, I had originally hoped to visit two former students in Croatia and spend a couple weeks reading and writing at an arts colony they founded a couple years ago near Pula, but the illness of one of Linda’s sisters impinged on those plans, and so we have stayed in Los Angeles County this summer. I ended up teaching a summer course in 20th century American literature in June and early July, during which time I began reviewing the applications of over 200 writers who live in Minnesota. As is well known to writers in California, Minnesota is the land of milk and honey in terms of literary support. Of course, we who labor at any art other than screenwriting in California tell ourselves that Minnesota has to bribe its writers to stay there. Unless an economic infrastructure provided some cultural largesse, why else would one endure those endless winters?

All envious kidding aside, I was very happy to serve on this panel because I have long felt a kinship with the literary community in Minnesota. I first noticed the editorial hospitality of Minnesota towards poets based in Los Angeles in The Lamp in the Spine, a magazine edited by Jim Moore and Trish Hampl in the 1970s. Their issues included work by Doren Robbins, Holly Prado, and Ameen Alwan. Subsequently, I visited The Loft in 1986 along with Doren Robbins to contribute to an two-day celebration of Tom McGrath’s poetry on the occasion of his 70th birthday.

Two hundred applications, each with an average of 20 pages of writing, is quite a pile to go through and comment on, so being on the panel turned out to be a major undertaking, but it was also very gratifying to see how much good work is being done in Minnesota by writers who have not yet published a substantial amount of work. The grants were for “emerging writers,” which meant that these applicants did not necessarily have to compete with those whose precocity had already allowed them to flourish. Many of the applicants whose work I read in the past couple months will not have to wait too long for a book to come out, however. I spotted at least two dozen manuscripts, in the samples of these portfolios, that will no doubt end up published or scheduled for publication by the end of this decade. For those not chosen for the award, please know that I read carefully, and I truly wish I could have doubled or tripled the number of awards. While a total of fourteen people were listed as winners, alternates, finalists, or deserving of honorable mention, there were at least a half-dozen others whose writing I found memorable. I wished, in fact, that I could have them as students in a workshop and watch their work grow even more compelling and intriguing.

The Loft has released the names of the writers selected by the panel for the “emerging writers” grants in 2017, and I will let its announcement speak for itself.

https://loft.amm.clockwork.net/_asset/4440d4/Winners-of-the-2017-Emerging-Writers-Grant.pdf

L.A.’s Literary Cartography — from Libros Schmibros to “Joyland”

Sunday, October 9, 2016

On Friday, October 7, Linda, Laurel Ann Bogen and I went to UCLA’s Powell Library for a reception to honor the permanent installation of a map of literary Los Angeles, which was drawn to scale by artist J. Michael Walker, within ten days of its commissioning, in the Fall of 2011. The haste of its cartography shows not a single wrinkle of the necessary improvisation that had to be part of its contingent, yet deftly evocative sketching. The map is not meant to be a definitive frieze; indeed, almost every figure portrayed on the map abuts a swath of empty space, as if to beckon the oncoming migration of writers past, present, and future.

David Kipen and Colleen Jaurretch, co-founders of Libros Schmibros bookstore, and J. Michael Walker, gave brief talks about the map, which had its debut at the Hammer Museum. The artist mentioned his fondness for the writing of the late Wanda Coleman, and cited in particular “Mad Dog, Black Lady,” the title of a poem I had the honor to publish in Momentum magazine in 1974. Wanda Coleman’s archives have recently been processed by UCLA’s Special Collections, and a display case containing a representative selection of printed material and holographs gave a hint of the resources that have now become available to critics of L.A.-based writing. (At the end of the month, there will be an event to celebrate this acquisition by UCLA’s Special Collections.) An additional display case featured correspondence by Raymond Chandler as well as books by and about another UCLA archival all-star, John Fante, one of which was written by my colleague at CSULB, Stephen Cooper.

Just before the formal presentation began, I spotted novelist and short story writer Julia Glassman in the audience. In the two decades during which I taught an annual fiction writing course at Idyllwild Summer Arts, Julia was one of my very best students, and she went on to get a MFA from the University of Iowa. She now works at the UCLA library, and was soon afterwards the first one to be cited in the roll call of those who had made the evening possible. Her first novel, “Other Life Forms,” was published by Dinah Press in 2012. Her most recent story, “Tourists,” appeared recently in “Joyland,” a superb on-line magazine that takes Peter Schjeldahl’s notion of “transmission cities” as its rubric.

I would highly recommend her novel, her story, and the magazine “Joyland” itself. Here are some links to the bookstore, map, and the magazine.

http://www.librosschmibros.org
http://digital2.library.ucla.edu/viewItem.do?ark=21198/zz002h27qf
http://www.joylandmagazine.com/regions/los-angeles/tourists
http://www.joylandmagazine.com/about-us
You can order “Other Life Forms” from Dinah Press at:
P.O. Box 24711
Los Angeles, CA 90024
or go to www.dinahpress.com

On the Fiction and Poetry of Marge Piercy

Sunday, August 14, 2016

When the Insight of the Theme Is Less than the Sum of the Sentences: Marge Piercy and the Need to Write Less (and Better)

I first read Marge Piercy’s poems back in 1969, when I bought a copy of Breaking Camp at the UCLA Bookstore. Piercy was much younger than Philip Levine, whose Not This Pig had also been published by Wesleyan University Press the year before. I had purchased Levine’s book in large part because Glover Davis, his former student, had brought Levine to San Diego State to give a reading. It’s possible that Piercy’s book caught my attention because she, too, was born in Detroit and emphasized working-class themes of a struggle to keep one’s imagination intact in the face of numbing labor. In truth, though, despite the fact that I have been intermittently reading her poetry ever since, I have to confess that I would be hard pressed to name a specific poem of hers that I admire. I still buy her books, though, because there is something I admire about her gritty persistence. She is better known as a novelist than as a poet, though, so I will start with that portion of her body of writing.

I find myself writing about Piercy today because I have given myself a couple of hours of respite from the travail of assisting my 94 year old mother as she slips into dementia, and decided to work on my bookshelves, which are more chaotically organized than ever. One of the books I pulled off was Sex Wars: A Novel of Gilded Age New York, which was published in the middle of the last decade. Perhaps the coinciding hand of historical events guided my hand to the shelf with that book, for one of its primary characters is Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for President. Unlike Hillary Clinton, Woodhull faced an overwhelming number of obstacles in converting her candidacy into an electoral victory, not the least of which was her inability to vote for herself, since suffrage for women was still decades in the offing.

I wish I could say that Sex Wars is worth reading, but as I browsed its paragraphs, I recollected that I had had a similar problem with other novels by Piercy that I have looked at in the past. Her sentences, as sentences, are just not very interesting. I suppose it is the case that many readers don’t care about the quality of a writer’s sentences, but I fear that remaining silent in the face of mediocrity carries more of a penalty than I want to be held accountable for. I have no doubt that her readership will call me a male chauvinist snob and an academic elitist, but before any of the readers of this blog join in their assessment, I ask merely one question: why is it that I have no hesitation in calling P.D. James a major novelist of the 20th century? My indifference to Piercy’s writing is not an issue of the gender of the author. P.D. James writes marvelous sentences, one after another, and the cadences of her narratives are alluring and ooze wisdom and wit. I am not worthy to touch the ribbon of her typewriter. In the limited time I have on this planet, I want to spend as much of it as possible reading only work that has earned my attention to every syllable. It’s all in the coil and recoil of one’s sentences, and I do not want to settle for anything less. Nor am I alone in this. In saying all this, I do want to add that it gives no pleasure to write such a grouchy critique. But what can one do when what I call the Charles Dickens’ Syndrome is so actively sedating the very consciousness that imaginative sentences are meant to revivify?

Perhaps, of course, Piercy does not care whether she is remembered as a writer. She has had a career as a prolific writer, and she has continued to publish poetry as well as fiction. If she is satisfied, then I congratulate her on a life that has fulfilled her original impetus. Some of her best writing, in fact, in her most recent book of poetry, Made in Detroit, is about those days as a youthful writer. “Why did the palace of excess have cockroaches?” is a fine haibun in which youthful folly is mocked with rueful, disenchanted nostalgia, and “My Time in Better Dresses” decants the bittersweet discrepancies that branded one’s self-awareness from the days of one’s first job. On the whole, though, there are just too many poems with predictable or unsatisfying outcomes.

In thinking of Piercy’s writing, I suppose one might remember the distinction visual artists make between painters and illustrators, with the latter category not being particularly admired. Piercy does seem more like an illustrator, though when she is at her best, it is well done. In fact, better than well done. As a counterbalance, therefore, to the dismay I have reluctantly shared in today’s blog, I would like to end with the first stanza of “The Late Year,” in which the image lingers long after the words are read. To do that even once in a writer’s life is no small accomplishment. Piercy has done it more than once, of course. I just wish she had reached this level with more consistency.

I like Rosh Hashanah late,
when the leaves are half-burnt,
umber and scarlet, when sunset
marks the horizon with slow fire
and the black silhouettes
of migrating birds perch
on the wires davening.
(from “The Late Year”; Made in Detroit, page 93)

This is not as skillful or well rendered as Sylvia Plath’s “Black Rook in Rainy Weather” or Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” but it’s a like a small oil painting over in a quiet corner of a museum. I am grateful for the nearby chair and for the fact that the room is empty except for me. Maybe it doesn’t take my breath away, but it reminds me to breathe more slowly, and to be grateful for that breath. The rest of the poem is worth reading, too, and it will more than repay the time it took for you to find it.

(I wish to thank Bird & Beckett bookstore in San Francisco for having Piercy’s MADE IN DETROIT for sale on their shelves. It is always a pleasure to support such an enterprise.)

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

A Petition to Restore Dennis Cooper’s Blog

Sunday, July 24, 2016

A Petition on Behalf of Dennis Cooper’s Blog and E-Mail Account

Thanks to a notice posted by Brian Kim Stefans, I became aware yesterday of a major literary crisis. Dennis Cooper’s blog and e-mail accounts have been summarily deleted by Google. He was not given any prior notification or warning about this public dismemberment of his creative and cultural work, nor has he received a single sentence from Google explaining their actions.

Mark Doten has started a petition to demand the restoration of Dennis Cooper’s writing to a domain of his own control. You can join me in signing this petition at:
https://www.change.org/p/google-restore-dennis-cooper-s-blog-and-email/u/17375624?tk=BQ7EC_yqjQ5JU3WsELxKKMVO0pMDJkdX5wonCb2tAGQ&utm_source=petition_update&utm_medium=email

As Mark Doten pointed out in a post on his July 21st Facebook page, “….surely the blog contained 10,000 hours or more of Dennis’s labor.” I myself can testify to the longstanding work ethic that Dennis possesses. No one, including me, worked as hard as Dennis did back in the late 1970s and early 1980s to make poetry more visible in Los Angeles. It seemed as if every time I stopped by Beyond Baroque’s New Comp Graphics to do some typesetting for my own Momentum press, there was Dennis at the Compugraphic keyboard, pounding out page after page for some issue of his magazine, Little Caesar or a book for his press. What part of work does Google not understand? It takes substantial work to accomplish the body of work produced by Dennis Cooper. In contrast, anybody in a state slightly more alert than torpor can sit at a machine and with a couple dozen keystrokes, gleaned from an operations manual, obliterate another person’s thoughtful cultural work. It doesn’t take much effort to figure out who is more admirable.

I suspect, by the way, that the hand of a censor is at work in this instance. Many of us might think that the trial of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” in the mid-1950s settled once and for all the rights of serious writers to have their work protected from censorship. I am afraid that the battle to keep the censoring hand from the writer’s keyboard is never completely won. The situation is rather like that of abortion rights and the issue of a woman’s control over her own body. Roe versus Wade was just an important turning point; so, too, was Ferlinghetti’s victory in a San Francisco court. I certainly hope that Dennis Cooper does not have to take this case to court. Doten’s petition, if it receives the vigorous support it deserves, might well help resolve this crisis before it reaches that point.

Fortunately, in promoting this petition, Dennis is not without friends and allies who are willing to speak up on his behalf. If you want to find out more about this crisis of imagination and censorship, please read Jennifer Krasinski’s article at the “Culture Desk” at The New Yorker:
http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/why-did-google-erase-dennis-coopers-beloved-literary-blog

And once again, I urge you to join me and over 3,000 other people in signing Mark Doten’s petition to Google.

“To Make It Memorable” — a fiction writing class at Idyllwild, California

Thursday, June 16, 2016

“To Make It Memorable” – a fiction writing class in its third decade

In the weeks since the graduation ceremonies for the College of Liberal Arts at CSULB in mid-May, I have been concentrating on addressing the health care issues of my mother, who is in her mid-90s at this point. Her particular problems are not new ones, and my youngest sister, Joni, is visiting her right now in an attempt to get her access to better doctors. While my family is certainly not the only one that has to mitigate the encroachments of old age on family connections, I will confess that the deviations in life choices between my mother and myself are so extreme as to make us almost unrecognizable as parent and offspring. The differences between my sister, Joni, and myself are only slightly less radical.

These kinds of disparities are, of course, the source for much of the creative writing that is characterized as fiction. Unfortunately, I have never been able to write fiction, although I was a fairly successful teacher of fiction writing for 20 years at the summer youth arts camp at Idyllwild Arts Academy. I got the job in the summer of 1995, less than six weeks after my ten-year run as a typesetter at Radio & Records had terminated. I had enough money in the bank to last me about three and a half months, but I had no idea of where I was going to find my next job. It certainly wasn’t going to be typesetting. Computers were eroding that occupation quite rapidly, and I found myself sitting at my desk, feeling slightly bemused, in my apartment at the corner of W. 18th and Robertson Blvd. on a Monday morning at 8:45 as the phone rang. “Hi, Bill, this is Steve Fraider at Idyllwild Arts.” We exchanged 20 seconds of pleasantries, and Steve cut to the chase. “Hey, Bill, I know you teach poetry, but do you also teach fiction?”

I had never taught a fiction class, but I certainly had read a lot of fiction and had had formal training as a playwright and written several full-length plays. In the two seconds after I heard his question, I thought to myself, “What do I have to lose if I say yes?”
“Sure, Steve, I teach fiction, too.”

“Well, would you be interested in teach a two-week class here at Idyllwild?” I said, yes, and asked when it would start. His answer jolted me: “Now.”

“You want me to start today?” I asked. “My car needs some work, and I’m not sure it can make it up the mountain.”

I had finished that sentence before he pounced on my concerns: “We’ll send a van.” And indeed, a van showed up at my apartment about 2:30 that afternoon, at which point I had packed a suitcase and a couple of boxes of books. The driver was a Native American animator who was studying at CalArts, I believe. His institutional van had air conditioning, which my car lacked, so the two and a half hour trip to Idyllwild went by in considerable comfort.

At 7:00 that evening, I was in a small classroom at the far rear edge of the campus. It was built into the start of a hillside, and was hoisted on thick wooden stilts. The ten students were quietly anxious. Their teacher had walked off the job, leaving a note in his room saying that he was going back to Redlands to think over a few things. My job was to soothe the students and assuage their sense of being abandoned. A few of them had studied with the teacher the summer before, I learned later, and they had looked forward to working with him again. I began teaching the class, and by the end of the session, at 9 p.m., they students were writing and seemed reassured that the class would help them become better writers. Two weeks later, the class had a culminating reading, and it was a thorough success.

I was not a fiction writer, however, and never expected to be asked back, but a few months after I returned to Los Angeles, I received a request from Steve to write catalogue copy for the course for the following summer. It was due by December. It turned out that all Steve cared about was that I was a published writer – and indeed, my publications did include prose – and that I was a very good teacher. During the first decade of summers that I worked at Idylliwild Arts, I taught a single two-week class, but we began to notice how quickly it was filling up. Word seemed to be getting around that my class was an invigorating experience of young fiction writers, and I suggested to Steve that we offer a second class. When that class also filled up fairly quickly, I told Steve that I would be willing to teach a third session, too. That, too, reached its enrollment goals.

About three years ago, I told Steve that my 20th anniversary was coming up and that I had decided to retire from Idyllwild Arts’s summer faculty. It seemed to be a nice, round number that had the ripeness of a cycle of time behind it. I taught my last workshop at Idyllwild in the summer of 2015, and there are ways that I miss it. On the other hand, by retiring, I get to feel the pride of seeing something that I helped build up continue at full strength. A program that only had one two-week session when I started is still currently offering three sessions.

I highly recommend the program and the arts camp as a place that young people can learn the advanced basics of fiction writing. Kim Henderson and Eduardo Santiago are the teachers this summer. Here is the link to the program and the class, which still carries the title that I gave to it when I wrote my first catalogue copy: “To Make It Memorable.”
http://www.idyllwildarts.org/page.cfm?p=843
There are three two-week sessions scheduled from July 3 to August 13.

There also is a poetry writing workshop for young people taught by Brendan Constantine, a very fine Los Angeles poet who attended high school at the Idyllwild Arts campus.

It is perhaps part of the odd twists of life that I always wondered if my mother would succumb to a sudden shift in her health when I was up at Idyllwild. If she had collapsed and died, for instance, when I mid-way through a six-week residence at Idyllwild, it would have been a situation fraught with divided loyalties. Idyllwild became a home for me in a way that I never experienced as a child. It would have been a very tough home to leave under duress. That I left my tenure there as a person should leave a fulfilled part of his or her life makes my time there as memorable as anyone could hope for. In addition to Steve, I want to especially thank Emma, Andrew, and Denise for making Idyllwild a second home for me in addition to my residence in Los Angeles County, and to Cecilia Woloch for introducing me to Steve Fraider.

Book Review: THE SLEEP GARDEN by Jim Krusoe

Sunday, January 31, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Sleep Garden — Jim Krusoe (Tin House, 2016)

It’s a rainy, blustery afternoon in Los Angeles County, but if you feel like stirring out of the house, ease on over to Diesel Books in Santa Monica, where Jim Krusoe will be reading from The Sleep Garden, his best novel yet, at 3 p.m. His first several published volumes of writing were poetry (History of the World; Small Pianos; Jungle Girl), and The Sleep Garden circles back to the scoured diction of that early work and brings his vision of life and afterlife to fruition. Given that an early meditation on the spondee of “rectum” adumbrates the irony of the characters’ exit, stage left, through the kitchen to their ultimate dissolution, it is a surprisingly and often humorous journey.

Krusoe’s control of tone in this existential fable is pitch-perfect. It begins with a mild echo of Beatrix Potter and Emily Dickinson all rolled into a delicate omelet of forestalled tragicomedy. The characters in The Sleep Garden have no doubt arrived at their current residence, The Burrow, with the same trepidation experienced by Dickinson’s anonymous narrator in “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” but the horses’ heads have been forgotten as they settled in, and life in this cloistered suburban complex has proved to be much the same as it was above ground. In fact, the characters seem to have picked up exactly where they might have left off in their previous condition, which is to say Viktor is just as obsessed with making money for the sake of playing that game, and Heather is still called upon and put upon by males who need a vocal prosthesis to accompany their masturbatory fantasies.

On one level, Krusoe has written an updated version of Sartre’s Huis Clos, except that the characters seems to be much more accommodating of each other. Well, most of them are accommodating. In a metatext that serves as the underside to the comic dalliances of the main cast, there is a set of “technicians” who keep the stage show afloat. They are the stage crew who are waiting for their own Godot to show up, and serve as a kind of slow-witted Brechtian chorus. No doubt there are operations manuals that the author had access to, but we as readers were spared that labor. That irony can work on the level of authorial excision is not the least tangy part of Krusoe’s jesting in the face of “Zero,” the sum of the game played mostly (if not entirely) in the minds of the novel’s characters.

It helps, of course, to have done enough reading so that one catches the allusions. The Captain’s “memory breaks like low waves against a distant shore in search of an answer. Break break break … nothing.” Given the eventual revelation of the funerary nature of the Burrow, it helps the immediate accumulation of hints for one to hear the opening syllables in that passage of Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar.” One doesn’t have to know this to remain entranced with the narrative, but the subtle coloring is otherwise lost.

Other references will be caught by most people without too much of an effort. Raymond, for instance, has a photograph from a sports magazine tacked up on his wall. The model in the picture is a woman in a swimsuit, and it’s not hard to attribute this clipped image to Sports Illustrated and its famous annual display of swimming attire. However, what no reader can possibly anticipate is the model’s metamorphosis into a post-modern Diogenes. As with so many other instances throughout The Sleep Garden, the aftertaste of the laugh is just as delicious as the first bite.

The audience for this novel will primarily be those who have not watched much television during the past forty years, but I mention this bifurcation because a fictional short-lived television show has a major role in the novel’s droll commentary on contemporary life, and the relationship of the characters in the novel to the characters in “Mellow Valley” constitutes one of the major mordant temblors of The Sleep Garden. Let not your ignorance of popular culture trivia dismay you, and do not fret if a show such as “Friends” does not evoke any specific image more than “Welcome Back, Kotter.” The predominance of the culture industry gets its comeuppance in this novel, but not in a vindictive manner. In this case, the spoiled child of popular culture spanks itself. It could be said, in fact, Horkheimer and Adorno might enjoy The Sleep Garden, though they might grouse afterwards that it let the culture industry off too easily.

Those two aside, most other readers will look forward to reading this novel a second and a third time. Ballerina Mouse is one of the most heartbreaking aging ingénues to ever undertake an existential rehearsal. Even very minor characters, such as the Vietnam veteran, Sgt. Moody, leave the reader with a haunting layer of the untold as being more brutal than anything that could be told.

The Sleep Garden awaits us all, Krusoe hints, no matter what endeavors we commit ourselves to. Some commitments are easier than others, however. Rather than worrying about your own personal failures in whatever you might have tried to do in your life, I would recommend the best therapy session that you will ever attend. By the end of reading this novel, you will be able to accept much that seemed too difficult to bear just a short time ago.