Category Archives: Obituaries

Larry Colker (1947-2018)

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Last night, at Beyond Baroque, many poets from around Los Angeles gathered to honor the memory of Larry Colker, a poet who ran the Coffee Cartel poetry readings in Redondo Beach for 20 years. It was an extraordinary service to the community, and Colker managed to keep a sense of gracious humor and genuine enthusiasm throughout the marathon of open readings that bolstered the attendance for the featured poets, which included Richard Garcia, Charles Harper Webb, and many others.

Larry had recently retired and moved back to North Carolina, but was diagnosed with late stage lung cancer, and died without most of us having much of a warning that he was mortally ill. Thanks to the efforts of poets such as Elena Karina Byrne and Brendan Constantine, we were able to have an evening for the community to mourn his loss and affirm our gratitude for the gift of his life to poetry.

Richard Modiano started the evening off by reminding everyone that Larry did more than lead the Coffee Cartel. He served with great distinction on the Board of Trustees of Beyond Baroque at a time when the Board was in need of devoted members, and one can see that Richard was all too aware of how no one but himself truly understood how much Larry’s contribution made a difference in getting Beyond Baroque that much closer to this anniversary year. Only someone in the day-to-day operations of a literary non-profit can know how one other person can determine whether an organization flourishes or merely survives. Because of Larry’s efforts, Beyond Baroque moved closer to flourishing.

Other noteworthy poets who participated in the evening were Suzanne Lummis, Beth Rusico, Cathi Sandstrom, and Michael C. Ford. Thanks to Alexis Rhone Fancher, and with her permission, here are some photographs of the event. In order, from the top photograph down: Richard Modiano, poet and Artistic Director, Beyond Baroque; Beth Rusico; Michael C. Ford; Cathi Sandstorm; and Suzanne Lummis at the podium with other poets. All photographs, copyright (c) Alexis Rhone Fancher, 2018.

Brendan Constantine was not able to make the event, so I started off my tribute by reading his blurb for Larry’s collection of poems, Amnesia and Wings:

“Sometimes thing just / end,” write Larry Colker, “but we name it / change.” In his new collection of poems, Amnesia and Wings, the poet has reinvented the ode, the ballad & the planet. it tuns out we never leave this world; it leaves us, touch by touch and thing by thing. But here are enchantments in the empty spaces if we would only look for them. We will never be made whole again but, “That’s not the point: enchantment, even for a day, / can make a whole life bearable.” — Brendan Constantine

I noted that the other two blurbs were written by Cecilia Woloch and Charles Harper Webb, both of whom were central to Larry’s experiences as a poet studying with other master poets at the Idyllwild Poetry Festival. Larry’s life as an audible presence in our community was hardly limited to Redondo Beach.

In one of the photographs below, Cathi Sandstorm can be seen reading one of Larry’s best poems. I told the audience last night that I had been reading that very poem earlier in the day and that I had heard Larry’s voice adding a line to the poem. Indeed, he is still present in our lives as working poets.

You can find “The Leap” at the following link:

Larry Colker: Four Poems

It was originally published in The Sun magazine.

https://www.thesunmagazine.org/contributors/larry-colker

Richard Moidano - Colker

Beth Rusico - Colker

Michael C Ford - Colker

Cathi Sandstrom - Colker

Colker - Group

Tom Clark (Poet; Editor; Biographer): R.I.P.

Tom Clark (March 1, 1941 – August 18, 2018)

No sooner had I finished a draft of yesterday’s blog post than I learned of Tom Clark’s death. I had known that Frank Rios was dying, for it was a great disappointment a week earlier to everyone gathered at KCET’s video recording for the Venice West segment of “Lost Los Angeles” that Frank was not well enough to attend the shoot. Clark, though, was killed as a result of being a hapless pedestrian in an area of Berkeley regarded by automobile drivers as their privileged domain. The abruptness of his passing has shocked his many admirers and friends.

Along with Ted Berrigan, James Schuyler, and Peter Schjeldahl, Clark was one of the leading influences from various strands of the New York School of Poets and their poetic progeny on the Los Angeles scenes between 1978 and 1985. Certainly his poem, “Baseball and Classicism” was among the favorites of AIB (Artists Interested in Baseball), an informal group of poets and artist friends who attended Dodger baseball games as a group back in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

“Baseball and Classicism”
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47076/baseball-and-classicism

http://www.baseball-almanac.com/poetry/po_clmt.shtml

The best two commentaries I can pass on to you at this moment are Terence Winch’s commentary and Erik Noonan’s long article in Tupelo Quarterly.

http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/the_best_american_poetry/2018/08/tom-clark-try-to-look-upon-death-as-a-friend-terence-winch.html

A Calmer Unease: Tom Clark’s Truth Game

Noonan’s article is long and substantial enough to catch the average reader off-guard, if only because so few poets receive an in-depth consideration of their books in the 21st century. Clark taught at the New College of California for many years, and it’s possible that Noonan’s critique reflects his appreciation for Clark’s work as a teacher and mentor.

Clark’s literary efforts were fairly comprehensive. In addition to poetry, he wrote biographies of several other poets (Edward Dorn; Charles Olson; Ted Berrigan; Jack Kerouac, and Robert Creeley) and a fair amount of reviews. He was one of the few critics outside of Los Angeles to pay attention to the poets in the scenes here back in the 1980s. Not only was he one of the very first to take notice of Amy Gerstler, but he also had considerable praise for another much under-appreciated project, Peter Schneider’s Illuminati Press. My guess is that Clark will be the subject of more than one biography. He certainly will be a presence in many other biographies, if only as an antagonist who made it clear that poetry was a matter of serious gambling: one is playing for the whole casino. Nothing less is on the table. The fact that Clark grew up in the Midwest, attended college in Michigan, and was then a major presence in New York City in the early 1970s and Bolinas, California in subsequent decades will enable Clark’s biographers to work with a shifting backdrop of landscape and cultural horizons. It is a tempting project.

Joe Frank and “The Shape of Water”

Joe Frank — (Aug. 19, 1938 – January 15, 2018)

Back in the days and nights when I worked as a typesetter, it seems as if I had more time for my own writing and for reading and listening to what I was interested in. Among other places where I keyboarded for hours on end on a Compugraphic 7500, I spent ten years at Radio & Records, a trade newspaper for the music industry. In the production department, the radio was on almost constantly, primarily tuned to a station that played a lot of INXS and Depeche Mode, or so it seemed in the years when they were most popular. One shift was particularly long: Tuesdays started at 11 a.m. for typesetters, and went until 1:30 a.m. on Wednesday. Dinner was catered, and it was usually pizza eaten at one’s work station. One learned how strong a bond could develop when a crisis hit, and it took a 24 hour shift to get the paper to the printer.

Off the job, I could devote my energies to my writing, as well as projects such as the Gasoline Alley Reading Series, which I ran for two years with Phoebe MacAdmans, and Put Your Ears On, a cable-television poetry show I did at Century Cable. I also had far more time to listen to radio programs that I enjoyed than I do these days. One favorite show that I shared with many people who had grown tired of hearing about the eccentricities of the inhabitants of Garrison Keillor’s updated version of Winesburg, Ohio was Joe Frank’s program. In truth, I haven’t thought of Joe Frank for several years now. In fact, I don’t recall having listened to one of his broadcasts in the past twenty years. Back in the last decade of the past century, however, it was a special treat if life found one driving on L.A.’s freeways at night, and suddenly Joe’s voice was on the radio. If you were driving home, for instance, from a good visit with a friend, and it was a long drive, then the distances between friends in Los Angeles weren’t something to regret. One just eased one’s car into a right hand lane and drove at a steady speed, and let Joe’s voice ride shotgun.

A week ago I read the announcement that Joe Frank had died, and I took advantage of my access to search engines and listened to a couple of his programs, which can be found on his website. I picked them out at random, since I didn’t remember any particular titles of shows.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4qkKFWkCHRc

As is the case with many successful artists and writers, Frank knew that the “secret” is to find the prototype of content and form that can be identified instantly as having your signature. One walks around a corner at a museum and sees a sculpture of a horse made out of sticks and mud. “Deborah Butterfield,” one thinks instantly. Intoned with a resonance befitting the opening notes of a medieval prayer being chanted in a cathedral on the eve of a feast day, Frank’s stories remind me of a comment made by Jean Luc Godard, “Editing is the process by which contingency becomes destiny.” (Thank you, Amy Davis.) One knows that Frank is editing these stories as one listens to them, and yet one doesn’t feel manipulated. One trusts Frank, to a degree that is unusual in the co-dependent world of authors and readers.

In retrospect, thinking of having seen The Shape of Water about a week before Frank’s obituary brought him back to mind, I wish somehow that it had been his voice that had accompanied the opening images of that film. The Shape of Water is, of course, just a re-telling of The Beauty and the Beast, a realization that hit me about a third of the way into the film. Perhaps there is a way in which that binary is also at work in almost all of Frank’s work. Most certainly, the afterglow is just as haunting as that moment in Cocteau’s version, where the arms hold up their lamps in a tunnel of uncertainty.

May eternal sleep be a feast for you, Joe Frank.

Domenic Cretara — Masterful Artist and Extraordinary Teacher — R.I.P.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Domenic Cretara (March 29, 1946 – December 22, 2017)

When Linda and I got home from Thousand Oaks last evening, we learned through social media that one of the professors I most admire at CSULB, Domenic Cretara, had died on Friday, December 22nd. The news put a very somber glow on the day’s festivities, for Domenic still had much more drawing and painting awaiting his pencils and brushes, and I am very sorry that his studio will no longer hear the quiet shifting of the models’ bodies.

I met Domenic when Linda was taking classes at CSULB to get her BFA. I would occasionally find myself in a Fine Arts building when he had his students’ work spread out along a hallway, and I always felt compelled to stand at the edge and watch him praise, cajole, and verbally nudge his students to aspire to the highest degree of their potential. He always made useful suggestions as to what the student should think about in continuing to work on a particular painting or drawing. There was nothing vague about his critique. He got right to the point, and it was specific advice that even I as a non-artist could see was exactly what the painting needed. Quite simply, he was one of the best teachers I ever saw, and I never left his presence without feeling rededicated in my profession as a teacher of literature.

Truly fine teachers are often at a disadvantage in having their work admired as much as it deserves. While Domenic was an internationally recognized and admired artist, he carried none of egregious aura of “success” as he went about his daily life. He was a rare human being, and I feel very fortunate to have known him.

If anyone who reads this knows of someone who studied art at CSULB, you might pass on the word that Domenic Cretara’s memorial service will be on Friday, Dec. 29 at 10:30 AM, at the Luyben Dilday Mortuary Chapel, 5161 Arbor Road, Long Beach, CA 90808.

Here are some links to learn more about his art and skill as a teacher:

http://www.cretaraart.com

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domenic_Cretara

https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/485022

In Memoriam: Brenda Frye

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Linda and I drove to Topanga this morning for a gathering meant to help us heal from the death of the youngest sister in my wife’s family. Linda was the second child and the first daughter in her cluster of seven siblings. Five girls followed. Their mother is still alive, and now has a total of 14 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I wish to thank Gleen Fisher, the father of Brenda’s two very special teenage sons, and Jill Ha for hosting the gathering at Irony Gallery, the newly opened art exhibition space in Topanga.

Brenda was very much her own person, as the saying goes. “Quirky” was her preferred self-description, according to Sharon. One of her sisters, Pam, told a story of when Brenda was five years old and about to head out of the house to play with her friend across the street. She paused at the kitchen door, looked up at her mother, Noreen, and asked, “Do bugs have ears?” Maybe the “e” Brenda added to her last name stood for the “ears” with which she listened to a different set of grace notes than most of us had the flexibility to absorb. Most certainly I do not have sufficient courage to endure what she did in her battle with breast cancer the past half-dozen years.

Farewell for the moment, Brenda. “Teach peace.”

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Brenda Frye (1965 – 2017)

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

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

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

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

October 9, 2017

Dear Professor Mohr,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely yours,
Nathan Greenspan

October 30, 2017

Dear Bill,

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

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

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

…….Best regards,
Nate

(Nathan Greenspan)

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

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

Sunday, October 29, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Ashbery (1927-2017)

John Ashbery (Born July 28, 1927 – September 3, 2017)

An extraordinary number of “contemporary” poets were born in 1927. I put scare quotes around the word because if a poet is dying at 90, the math is fairly straightforward: when Ashbery was 25 years old, Wallace Stevens, W.C. Williams, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound were all alive. I doubt he thought of them at that point as “contemporaries.” Yet a young poet today might be asked to study an anthology of contemporary poetry in which John Ashbery and Tracy K. Smith are listed in the index as contributors. The word seems to have a peculiarly supple elasticity.

Even though Ashbery is hailed on the occasion of his death’s announcement with the same reverent praise that has been bestowed on him for the past 40 years, such deferential tribute was not always the case. While he was one of the poets in Donald Allen’s classic anthology, he did not stand out in the mid-1960s (as he approached age 40) as one of the top ten poets in that anthology most likely to achieve sustained global acclaim. Yet by the time he was 50 years old, Ashbery’s stature far exceeded that of many poets who had been listed in the index of M.L. Rosenthal’s The New Poets: American and British Poetry since World War II. Rosenthal’s book was meant to be a comparative study of the major poets who had appeared in either the Hall-Pack-Simpson anthology or Donald Allen’s NAP. Given that Rosenthal’s book appeared in 1967, when Ashbery was 40, one sees how crucial the years between ages 40 and 50 were to Ashbery’s eventual, immutable maturity, for that period is when he mastered the singular combination of chords and grace notes that make his work as inimitable as it is influential in provoking variations.

Although he was more associated with the world of the visual arts than with music, it is a commentary from the latter that I wish to present for your consideration tonight.

“I greatly admire this piece, but don’t really consider it a song. It’s more a meditation, or – to borrow a term that didn’t exist at the time (Miles) Davis recorded ‘Blue in Green’ – a type of improvised ambient music. …. Indeed, the casual listener could be forgiven for thinking that the work is just a free-form improvisation, without clear beginning or end.
….
“Despite its popularity, musicians need to be brave to call this song at a gig. ‘Blue in Green’ has no catchy hooks or flamboyant interludes, and unless you have earned a chamber music reverence from the audience, you run the risk of losing their attention. I would keep it under wraps at a noisy nightclub, but in the right setting with listeners who are willing to participate in a collective meditation, this work can be a springboard to an experience that almost transcends jazz.”

As the experience of Ashbery’s work almost transcends poetry.

Commentary on “Blue in Green” from Ted Gioia’s The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire (Oxford University Press, 2012), pages 37-38.

John Ashbery, 1927–2017

Austin Straus Obituary — by Rev. Roscoe Barnes III

Friday, September 1, 2017

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

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

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

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

My profound thanks to the Rev. Barnes.

“Success is succession”: The Poetics of a Luthier

Friday, July 28, 2017

“Success is succession”: The Poetics of a Luthier
Bill Collings (August 9, 1948 – July 14, 2017

“Why did the sound of some guitars haunt me while others didn’t?” the luthier Bill Collings remembered asking himself as a young man.

One could ask the same question about poems, and inquire why more poets don’t take the tonal and thematic propensities of their writing more seriously. In poetry, the question that haunts is whether the poem not merely deserves but demands translation. This does not require that the poem be perfect. Imperfection will be inherent in the original, as it was in every guitar that was turned out by Bill Collings’s company, and then put to equally imperfect use by some of the best-known masters of songwriting, including Lyle Lovett, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and Keith Richards.

The impact of acknowledging imperfection’s role in the process turns out to be one of the prime motivations for building guitars. “Can you pick the perfect piece of wood? …. Can you make it the perfect thickness?” Collings asks, knowing all too well what the response is. “No, but you can get really close. …. Success is succession, over and over and over, and it comes from failure. Failure, failure, failure — knowing that if you stop, you’re done.”

Bill Collings, Luthier