Tuesday, April 25, 2017
Photograph by Bill Mohr
(c) Copyright 2017 Bill Mohr
Tuesday, April 25, 2017
Photograph by Bill Mohr
(c) Copyright 2017 Bill Mohr
Kevin Opstedal. CALIFORNIA REDEMPTION VALUE, University of New Orleans Press, 2011.
Kevin Opstedal — PACIFIC STANDARD TIME: New & Selected Poems. Edited by Noel Black and Julien Poirier. Brooklyn, New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2016
At the beginning of 2016, I posted an entry on the poetry of Kevin Opstedal entitled “The Poet Laureate of PCH.” That commentary focused on a set of chapbooks Opstedal has had published over the past couple of decades. Last summer, around August, Ugly Duckling Presse inquired about whether I would be interested in a review copy of Opstedal’s Pacific Standard Time: New & Selected Poems. “PST,” however, was not the first full-scale book in Opstedal’s ongoing saga of publication to arrive on Molino Avenue in Long Beach. My recollection is that a copy of California Redemption Value (“CRV”) had arrived shortly after my January post, so this past Fall found my desk being inhabited by two overlapping collections of “selected” poems by Opstedal.
It is difficult to recommend one of these volumes over the other, since both enable a reader to defamiliarize her or his usual habits of imaginative comprehension. This is to say that anyone who still believes in the consciousness-altering possibilities of reading needs to sit down with both these books and flense the preconditions that one has become all too comfortable with. A half-century ago, one would probably have been urged to imbibe various pharmaceuticals as a way to reconstructing reality. Opstedal’s poems offer the advantage of a much safer passage to renewed perceptions of the ordinary moment.
Lest one fear that some harrowing confrontation is in the offing, let me hasten to reassure you that Opstedal is not one of these visionary poets whose goal is to be your tutelary avatar. While his poems do possess, in fact, a peculiar seductive power, they exude a calm reassurance even in the midst of radiant uncertainty, and they do so with no sense of the writing being an effort to self-mythologize the author. This degree of equilibrium is different than that proposed by Walt Whitman’s shamanic aurora: “How quickly would the sunrise kill me / Could I not now and always send sunrise out of me.” Instead of turbulent pyrotechnics, Opstedal’s acrobatic centering takes place in slow motion, enabling your commitment as a reader to enfold itself with the palpable immanence of his imagery.
I wonder about the day, the way the sun climbs
inside its own radiance & warms the pavement
I think it’s akin to snorkeling but
just exactly how this can be so I’m not sure
This kind of reverent deferral represents yet one more extension of negative capability into an ecology of mutual recognition between environment and self. The next stanza both lures the speaker deeper into this particular chronotope and jolts him into a distant dimension: “waves strum a little pre-Cambrian / rhythm & blues.” Opstedal’s intermingling of the contemporary moment and evolutionary perspective suggests a transplanting of Charles Olson’s surveillance of Gloucester within a geological framework, and it does not take much perusing of Opstedal’s poetry to find another such instance:
The pier was all lit up
like Mortuary Day
the word on the street was
strung out along insect balconies
like drifting sand in the Paleolithic diorama
Olson, however, would never dream of titling his poems in a manner such as Opstedal does in the above two instances: “Performing Brain Surgery with a Crowbar” and “Meat Pie in Paradise,” respectively. The disjuncture between the sardonic titles and the lyrical renitence underscoring the verses themselves might well stem from Opstedal’s truculent skepticism about the immediate future of his native state: “Everything here is a natural disaster.” Rather than succumbing to a dystopic vision, however, Opstedal reinvigorates the potential of the planet to assist human beings in regaining access to its solemn spheres of wonder. If this sounds well nigh impossible within the intellectual and aesthetic currents of the present moment, I can only testify to the singular effervescence of Opstedal’s poetry. One can open Pacific Standard Time at random and find oneself gliding with the language’s undulations with an ease that belies the encompassing grip of the images. I can recall very few such instances of such “oneness” with the words on the page. Opstedal’s poems glow as if they have absorbed season after season of incandescence, and yet allow one to stare directly at the center of the vision without the least squint from too much glare. Get this book and start to live with it.
For a review of Pacific Standard Time as a prime instance of “surf noir,” I would highly recommend Mike Sonksen’s recent article (Feb. 7, 2017) in Entropy magazine; it is the best single appreciation of Opstedal’s poetry I have read by any poet-critic in the United States. Sonksen does a superb job of providing the contextual literary history of small press publishing relevant to Opstedal’s development as a poet alongside insightful commentary on the poems themselves.
Saturday, April 1, 2017
More Secret Locations
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.
Sunday, March 26, 2017
“Going in Style”: The Politics of Masculine Critique
When Linda Fry, Laurel Ann Bogen, and I went to see “The Last Word” a week ago, the previews included the upcoming release of a remake, “Going in Style.” I was disappointed instantly. The original starred a trio of men, and the remake has recast it with three males. As much as I enjoyed the original film back in 1979. I equally remember my main problem with it. The story-line involves three old men who decide that the possible benefits of robbing banks would probably outweigh the penalties, given that none of them had much likelihood of serving even a small portion of any lengthy prison sentence. As a comic premise, it served its purpose, but let us consider that the majority of individuals who might entertain that option as a solution to their predicaments would most likely be women. Impoverished old women confined to bleak circumstances far outnumber men, and if the comic requires the unexpected, a trio of aging women would easily provide a multitude of punch-lines and gags using the same premise.
The gender shift I proposed in my critique of the first “Going in Style” did in fact show up in a middle-aged variant a year later. The success of “9 to 5,” which starred Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Dolly Parton, demonstrated that a comedy in which women took the law into their own hands was certainly a viable project. If one were to propose a remake, I would be more inclined to see this one in a theater rather than the upcoming release featuring Morgan Freeman, Alan Arkin, and Michael Caine.
However, given the patriarchal backlash in this country right now, it is not surprising that this remake of “Going in Style” blithely presents the crisis of masculinity as the bedrock for its antics. The context for this remake has been building for years. At the end of the last century, Susan Faludi’s Stiffed, for instance, examined the challenges that working men faced within the economics of gender. Nevertheless, to have three men react to the loss of their pensions by launching careers as senescent criminals only serves to distract us from the machinations of an aging baby boomer in the recent presidential election. Trump and his inner circle are giving us a new definition of “style” and they don’t intend the aftermath to be comic.
Friday, March 24, 2017
While many cultural activists bemoan the disappearance of independent bookstores, another important link in the chain of cultural transmission that has also become endangered in the past 15 years is the book distributor. One of the most important figures in this regard in the United States during the past half-century is David Wilk, who ran Inland Book Company after first launching a Midwest book distribution project called Truck. David got in touch recently and asked to interview me for his radio program, Writerscast. I was delighted to have a chance to talk and catch up with him as well as to answer his questions about Momentum Press and the other editors who were working alongside me in Los Angeles County in the 1970s and 1980s.
The interview was conducted by phone from my office on campus on a chilly Sunday afternoon. The office lacked heat, but the memories were warm. You can listen to our conversation at the following link:
Monday, March 20, 2017
What, then, is to be done?
First, remember what is already being done.
The Earth is circling the sun at 17,000 miles per hour. Sit with as much stillness as possible and feel this extraordinary speed. Imagine your spine as being in alignment with this “magic prison” of a planet being centered on its axis. Breathe with those alignments.
What would be the point of a social revolution that did not provide the wherewithal for each human being, fed and clothed sufficiently, to be able to do this for at least an half-hour several times a week?
Sunday, March 19, 2017
A recent video made by Snoop Doggy Dog includes an image of a gun being pointed at a figure with a Donald Trump mask: the word “Bang” comes out of the gun.
As an initial comment, there is little else to say than this video is completely unacceptable, as it currently stands, and deserves denunciation by anyone who wants to preserve a constitutional civility in this nation. Snoop Doggy Dog needs to have a serious talk with a lawyer about what is protected free speech.
On the other hand, if Snoop Doggy Dog had pointed the gun and had the words “Second Amendment” pop out of the barrel, we might have a very interesting artistic statement. For one thing, it would serve to remind us that Donald Trump himself has used a citation of the Second Amendment to indulge in a nod-and-wink comment that amounted to an assassination threat against Hillary Clinton. If Trump could toy with the Second Amendment to threaten the life of his opponent without any reprisal or public legal rebuke, why would a similar usage by Snoop Doggy Dog cause him to be treated any differently? Unfortunately, the video is already out.
Regardless of how Snoop Doggy Dog made his video, Trump’s threat remains a far more serious and permanent stain on the current discourse. Let there be no mistake about it. When Donald Trump casually dropped a suggestion, at a rally in Wilmington, North Carolina, in August, 2016, that the “Second Amendment people” could stop Hillary Clinton, anyone who understood the rhetoric of crude implication did not have to think very hard as to what Trump intended to underline with his body language: he meant that people could take the law into their own hands and assassinate her. Nor did his implications stop there. Was it not also implicitly a threat against the life of anyone supporting her? Why would anyone inspired by Trump’s alleged sense of humor stop with just HRC? Remember Ted Nugent’s call to action in 2012 to “chop their heads off in November”? Trump knew very well what he was saying and to whom he was speaking, and he needs to be reminded that he will continue to be held accountable for the “bang” that his words deliver.
And while we’re on the subject, let us remember that Trump’s dictatorial disdain for those who opposed him extended to Obama, too. As I pointed out last October 30 (and I reprint that post below), the entire nation saw a widely circulated image of President Obama with a lynch rope around his neck. Trump’s silence about that image equalled approval, and his refusal to denounce in no uncertain terms his extremist followers continues to be one of his few consistent traits. This has surfaced in particular in his reticence in speaking out against the numerous bomb threats against Jewish community centers in this country.
I’ll say it again because it cannot be said often enough: “Not everyone who voted for Trump is a racist, but every racist voted for Trump.” (Thank you, Michael Lally.) However, a video such as the one made by Snoop Doggy Dog is not going to transform the hearts and minds of those who voted for him. Of course, I doubt that what I have just written in today’s blog post will illuminate them, either.
What, then, is to be done?
* * * * *
Sunday, October 30, 2016
Darkness at the Center of Wisconsin
The story is that the fan was asked to remove the “offensive components” costume.
Why was the fan not immediately investigated for making a death threat against the President?
This is not a “costume,” but a death threat, and the specificity of advocating the execution of the President is made all the more clear by the fact that it is not the person wearing the costume whose hand is holding up the noose, but the arm of a person standing alongside the depiction of President Obama. In the photograph, an arm wearing a red sleeve juts into the air at an angle that can only mean that the white fist jerking the noose upwards belongs to another person. It is a blunt portrayal of a racist execution.
This is not an issue of free speech, which would include the right to wear a prison outfit with a mask of Obama, just as free speech includes the right to chant “Lock her up,” as Trump’s partisans do whenever Hillary Clinton’s name in mentioned. One may not like a message, but free speech allows messengers safe passage. Provocative and outrageous speech is protected by our Constitution. However, in depicting the execution of President Obama, the individuals at a football stadium in Wisconsin flagrantly transgressed the boundary of free speech.
Death threats are not free speech, especially in an image meant invoke the heyday of the KKK. Within the context of a newspaper associated with the KKK all but giving its straightforward endorsement to Donald Trump, this so-called costume represents crude propaganda at its most harrowing level.
If there is not at least a brief detention and interrogation of the fan and his “prop assistant” for making a death threat against President Obama, then it is fair to say that this costume represents the values of a cadre within the Secret Service; in this instance, the person in charge of the Secret Service has the obligation to act in a manner that proves otherwise.
I would note that a report that Secret Service conducted an investigation in an instance that involved a far less public venue.
Why should this incident in Wisconsin be treated with any less seriousness?
The failure of University of Wisconsin officials to understand the gravity of the image is quite remarkable. Simply asking a person to remove the “offensive parts” of the costume represents a lack of courage in standing up to a bully. In making a statement that was nothing short of a death threat against the President, the person wearing the costume and his assistant forfeited their right to remain at the game and should have been removed from the stadium.
The University was probably afraid of being accused of censorship. There is an easy answer. The people were removed from the stadium in order to have their identities firmly established by police officials so that the Secret Service could begin their investigation.
Finally, we should all take note: the desire expressed by these two people in the football stands in Wisconsin is not limited to President Obama. First him, then his supporters. If anyone is so naïve to think that the two people who concocted this outfit will be satisfied with President Obama’s death, then they need to review 20th century history. As the poet Don Gordon said, “We are only on leave from Auschwitz.”
As a postscript that occurred to me a couple hours after posting this, I think it is fair to say that those who doubted the legitimacy of President Obama’s birth certificate would most likely be the ones inclined to defend this person’s advocacy of a Presidential death certificate as free speech. “If attacking one end of a life spectrum doesn’t work, then try the other extreme,” would seem to be their preference.
I do look forward to the conclusion of the current general election, and the chance to concentrate on books of poetry again. To neglect the havoc generated by a fascist with international ambitions would be an unforgivable omission on my part, however.
CORRECTION: The original post for this commentary mistakenly stated that the football game took place in Nebraska, whereas the University of Nebraska was playing a road game in Wisconsin.
Sunday, March 12, 2017
Greg Kosmicki: Whenever I Peel an Orange”
Greg Kosmicki sent me a link to a video made of his poem “Whenever I Peel an Orange.” In watching it, I noticed how certain images lingered in my imagination even as the words of the poem moved on in a quiet pas de deux the visual layering on the screen.
Kosmicki’s poem is a meditation on mortality in the midst of the collaborative community of a shared workplace. It is a “portrait” poem, both a compassionate tribute to and acknowledgement of a deceased co-worker for whom there was no retirement party. His last day on the job is no different than any other; his evanescence is a set of phone calls from his spouse, in which tests for a lesion swirl lead incrementally to more and more serious medical interventions, all of which prove futile. The poem makes the peeling of an orange a kind of cenotaph in remembrance of this man, whose revelation of his son’s problem proves to be the kind of resistance that conservative people are prone to and yet that makes complete sense upon reflection. One of the ways Kosmicki’s poems has the tart juice its central symbol suggests is in the implication of this story within a story. The co-worker’s son keeps getting his car towed because he won’t get a parking sticker for the complex he lives at. That his son resists the change of the bureaucratic demand to secure permission to park at a place that he is already paying for makes sense to those of us who have to endure the impediments of tasks imposed simply to keep our lives busy. The father, too, the poem recounts, resisted changes on the job, and the spiral of the orange peel comes to stand for the DNA helix of contumacious integrity. The poem was originally published in Rattle magazine.
The lingering of the images as I read the poem reminded me of my recent visit to a book I had looked at a couple of years ago, Imagination by Mary Warnock. Although Warnock at one point suggests that the co-habitation of images is something that happens without any particular strain (one drives a car, for instance, in her example, and thinks of other images while absorbing and reacting to the images arriving through the windows of the car), in any encounter requiring the full circumference of the imagination, a kind of smudging must take place. If I imagine Kosmicki’s co-worker pinning the spiral of his orange peel to the side of his work cubicle, it has the underlayer of the image of the skinned fur of a hunted animal nailed to a barn wall. And I continue to meditate on this image as the video swirls off into other images, all of which I am coiled within as the poem peels itself. I don’t peel the poem. The poem peels me.
Tuesday, February 21, 2017
On the day after I posted my comment on the “Twinkie Cabinet,” Ron Silliman posted a list of twitter accounts that will enable you to stay abreast with others who are engaged in resisting the rise of a nationalistic, xenophobic, racist, autocratic government. If you have a Twitter account, then I recommend going to “ronsilliman.blogspot.com” and availing yourself of these resources for information, which you can then circulate to your friends and provide them with the succor of your insight.
A friend wrote me the other day: “It’s not that Trump is not my president; it’s that I CAN’T BELIEVE he’s my president.”
The disbelief is understandable. The monster in the closet that children are told is just imaginary has transmogrified into the master of the house.
Believe it, and refuse to accept its ethical legitimacy.
February 19, 2017
President Trump’s Twinkie Cabinet
There are two ways to take the title of today’s post. The first is obvious. If there is anyone who can possibly vet their diet, please be vigilant: under no circumstances whatsoever should anyone serving in Trump’s cabinet be allowed to consume Twinkies. The individuals appointed to Trump’s cabinet possess rapacious impulses that are already out of control, and the slightest increase in their consumption of such confections might well result in the entire world being treated as if it were the reincarnation of George Moscone and Harvey Milk.
On a more quotidian economic level, of course, the Twinkie Cabinet is a reference to the financiers who exploited the workers of the Hostess Company. If Trump found himself the beneficiary of a miniscule margin of victory in just enough states to tip the Electoral College in his favor, it was in large part because of the displaced anger of workers at companies such as Hostess, whose executives walked away with their portfolios intact during the bankruptcy proceedings earlier this decade.
The problem confronting these workers, when they had to make a choice in the 2016 election, was that no major party offered any remedy for their plight. If you were an employee of Hostess, age 53 years old, and you faced the loss of everything you had worked for, what was your choice during the spring primaries of 2016? If you had been such a worker, the question you should have asked yourself was “What would have turned out different if any of these candidates had been president between 2011 and 2013?”
We absolutely know that nothing different would have happened if one of the GOP candidates had been President, but would there have been a different outcome if Hillary Clinton had been President? Or Bernie Sanders?
It’s not that I would be sad if Clinton or Sanders had been president then, or now for that matter. But let’s be blunt about it: Would Apollo Global Management and Dean Metropoulos have operated any differently five years ago, if Bernie Sanders had been president then?
The laws under which capitalism eviscerates the lives of those whose work generates wealth would have been no different under Sanders, when Hostess declared bankruptcy, than under Obama, just as they were no different under Bill Clinton than under George W. Bush.
“Betrayal without remedy” is the phrase that appears in “The Great Twinkie Caper – how U.S. Workers Get Flipped” by Lawrence J. Hanley.
Justifiable rage blinded workers into settling for vague promises of how America could be made “great again,” as a result of which one of the great political tragedies of this epoch is unfolding in front of our unbelieving eyes.
I wonder how many months will go by before these workers realize that they have been duped. What they deserve is a future retirement with some sense of dignity that includes decent shelter, excellent health care, and nutritious food to eat. This is the minimum that any person who has worked all of her or his life deserves. I would hope that a candidate would emerge in 2020 who will bluntly campaign on this kind of platform.
Until then, let us hope that another complete meltdown of the economy will not happen again. The risk of that kind of collapse is accelerating. Laws are being expeditiously revised right now to make the U.S. economy vulnerable to the same set of plundering usurers who drove this nation to the precipice ten years ago. The current Money Mob will make certain that the same laws invoked in the last crisis remain on the books to save them from prosecution, too.
It is indeed “betrayal without remedy.”
Well, not quite. There is one remedy, and it is radical beyond anything ever witnessed in this nation. Something much more radical than anything called for by Bernie Sanders is needed. It begins with changes in our diet, both physical and intellectual. Hard as it is to break old habits, we must do so if the pursuit of human dignity is to prove itself worthy of that ideal. And it ends with the complete abolition of the death penalty, for above all, we must confront the fact that as long as nuclear weapons exist, we have all been judged and sentenced to death. This is an unacceptable horror, and must be utterly reversed.
In between those two points, much will have to change in the hierarchies of privilege and power, and it will be an unfamiliar discomfort for those presently ensconced at the highest levels of administrative turpitude.
Let us start with a good night’s sleep, having faith that this can be accomplished.
Post-Script: I woke up to find an article in the Los Angeles Times giving an account of a speech at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles on Sunday, February 18. When I posted this blog entry, I had no idea that he was in town asking his audience to identify with the workers who have been traumatized by massive shifts in the global economy.