Category Archives: Performance

“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

Side Fence Toil and Sidle

Tuesday morning, May 23, 2017

I drove up to KPFK’s studio on Saturday morning to record three poems as a reprise of the “Sunset Strip, 1967” reading a few weeks ago at the West Hollywood Library. Kim Dower, who had organized the reading, asked us to be in North Hollywood by 10:00 a.m., and I was not the most cheerful person heading off early on a Saturday morning from Long Beach in order to get up there in time. The day turned out, however, to be a scorcher, and on the drive back I was grateful that the recording session had not been scheduled for 3 p.m. I would not have wanted to commence my round-trip shortly after noon. Perhaps someday I will have a car with air-conditioning, but until then the various commutes I undertake are often an exhausting grind. I had free tickets on faculty and staff day to see a CSULB Dirtbags baseball game at 2 p.m. They went unused. I was glad to hear in the days after that no player suffered heatstroke.

Kim divided the recording session into two half-hour parts, the first one featuring Yvonne Estrada, Brendan Constantine, and Laurel Ann Bogen. The second one included Lynne Thompson and myself, with Elena Carina Byrne being recorded over the phone afterwards. I’ve been to these studios a dozen or so times over the past several decades; like Beyond Baroque, it’s a quirky miracle that KPFK has survived. The music critic, Steve Hochman, introduced himself after the reading at the library, and mentioned that he had been at the Darden Smith show that is the subject of one of the poem I read, “Sunset Blvd.”; it was a pleasure to dedicate the poem to him at the KPFK recording.

By the very late afternoon, it had cooled off enough that I was able to work at the side of our rented residence, and by the last smudge of twilight I had dug up most of the weeds that had grown since the onset of the winter rains, a period of steady moist air that I am already growing too fond of in my memory. There is just enough room to do some more planting and add a little more color to our domestic edges, so a trip to the plant store will be one of the first things we do after I finish grading papers for the Spring semester.

KPFK
(l-r, clockwise: Kim Dower; Yvonne Estrada; Brendan Constantine, Laurel Ann Bogen)

Full Length Yellow Blooms

Flower Sun Plate

Greg Kosmicki: “Whenever I Peel an Orange”

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.

Don Waller: In Memoriam

Friday, November 18, 2016

My friend, Richard Agata, called me yesterday afternoon with the news that Don Waller died on Tuesday, November 15. While Don is probably best known as being the author of “The Motown Story,” he was also a musician, song-writer, music critic and historian, as well as a journalist who brought his skeptical stare to everything he edited. When it was time to do a final check on the boards we were about to send to the printer, there was no one I more trusted to be in the chair scanning the pasted-up columns.

For ten years (1985-1995) I worked alongside Don at Radio & Records, and it was a privilege to have a chance to see a professional at work in a field where many aspire, and most falter. It was an industry newspaper, and as such it was as much a part of the music industry as a newspaper enterprise. Our stand-out distinction was the integrity of our charts. You could buy an advertisement in our newspaper, but you couldn’t buy a boost in the chart position. We recorded what stations were actually playing, and if they decided to cheat on their reports, they risked losing being a reporter to our charts. My sense is that it was a risk that few were willing to take.

It was a weekly newspaper, and the schedule could be grueling. Even if one were inclined to shop on Black Friday, few of us at R&R ever did more than sleep that day. Monday of that week was a normal eight to nine hour shift, and then Tuesday would be a 14 hour shift, usually ending around 1:30 a.m. We would then return around 10:30 a.m. the next morning to work a ten to eleven hour shift to get all the work done that would normally be done on a Thursday and Friday. Waking up on Thanksgiving morning and starting to cook that day’s dinner took every bit of commitment I could summon. My guess is that Don Waller didn’t bother sleeping Wednesday night. He was as precise and devoted to perfection around the stove burners as he was at the keyboard.

The work ethic at R&R, epitomized by Don Waller’s relentless enthusiasm, has carried over into my academic life. There are people I meet at the university who simply wouldn’t last at a place such as R&R. They couldn’t cut it, and Don would be the first to let them know, though not in a confrontational way. As Lucie Morris, my dear friend and fellow typesetter, noted in her Facebook post, Don’s nonchalant humor was inspirational. One night, decompressing at 2:15 a.m. around a long production table, Don mimicked a recently hired worker in the news sections who had explained her indolent work pace at that morning’s meeting: “I don’t want to burn out.”

“Baby, you haven’t even caught on fire yet,” he had retorted.

She was gone within another six weeks, and it surprised us all to hear that she had landed a job at a well-known news outlet in Washington, D.C., which must have obviously had a less challenging culture than its reputation would have suggested.

Don had been a musician in his youth and had a band called Imperial Dogs, which would have had more success had it launched itself two years laters in the early years of punk rock. In 1974, the world was not yet ready for confrontational rock and roll. For Don, though, shifting from guitar to typewriter allowed him to use his considerable intelligence in a way that gave his performances as a writer an enduring presence in the conversation.

“The Motown Story” is out-of-print, but is far from being unavailable. Over 300 libraries around the world have the book in their stacks, and I guarantee that you will get something out of this book. I still quote his comment about the relationship between the bass guitar and the drums as a way to help students understand what vowels and consonants are doing in a line of poetry.

Don knew I was a poet and that I organized readings in the community. A few months after I was no longer working at R&R, I set up one of my favorite readings, pairing Ellen Sander, whose first chapbook is being published this fall, and Don Waller. My recollection is that Richard Agata did the flyer. I have rarely worked as hard to make a reading successful, and the raucous applause of a large crowd that afternoon in October, 1995 was all the reward I needed.

Don stepped off-stage in the full spotlight of a supermoon. I bow to his presence in my life, as I will bow to his absence. Whatever chance conjugations brought a force field named Don Waller into the universe, I can only say I am grateful to have met him and to have worked with him. He is the only person I have ever met that I would trust to do liner notes for my next spoken word project. The old saying that “the graveyard’s full of irreplaceable people” doesn’t hold true in Don’s case. There isn’t anyone to replace him. The kind of obsessive discipline that drove him to demand more knowledge about music, each and every day he lifted his ears to listen, can’t be found anymore.

Affectionate nostalgia is often a narcissistic luxury, and yet I will indulge. How else can I describe the recollection of those moments passing in the hall at R&R when we would pause and somehow pull it all together: the work, the music, the need to do both, the honor of the ordinary moment under pressure in the company of an extraordinary comrade. Thank you, Don. I say farewell with a very heavy heart.

DON WALLER
September 1, 1951 – November 17.2016

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/music/la-et-ms-don-waller-20161118-story.html

http://www.allaccess.com/net-news/archive/story/159922/r-r-s-don-waller-passes-away
Joel Denver

http://www.rocksbackpages.com/Library/Writer/don-waller

Remembering Don Waller


Steve Hochman

http://www.laweekly.com/music/rip-don-waller-influential-music-journalist-and-imperial-dog-7625759
John Payne

The Gallantry of Bob Dylan, Winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature

Thursday, October 13, 2016

THE GALLANTRY OF BOB DYLAN, WINNER OF THE 2016 NOBEL PRIZE IN LITERATURE

A dozen or so years ago, as I was finishing up my Ph.D. dissertation and working as a teaching assistant in the Humanities Program at Revelle College at UCSD, I had the good fortune to be assigned to William Arctander (“Billy”) O’Brien, an absolutely brilliant professor whose specialties included the final installment of a “Great Books” survey for undergraduates, most of whom were pre-med students. This intellectual forced march began in the Winter quarter of the students’ first year, and often started with Homer and Plato. By the end of their sophomore year, in the fifth quarter, the students were often reading Nietzsche and Beckett. O’Brien was the first professor I ever met who included Bob Dylan on his syllabus for this course, and O’Brien most certainly should be savoring his prescience in acknowledging the canonical value of Bob Dylan’s writing. So, too, should Steve Axelrod, whose recent three-volume anthology of American poetry includes a solid set of Bob Dylan’s lyrics (in Volume three, “Postmodernisms”). O’Brien, though, was far ahead of the curve and deserves considerable applause for his academic courage.

Following O’Brien’s example, I also teach Bob Dylan’s lyrics as part of a “Survey on Poetry” course at CSULB, and have always been puzzled at the unwillingness of so many other professors to include him. I doubt that the bestowal of the Nobel Prize on Bob Dylan will change their minds. For many contemporary poets, not much has changed since Robert Lowell conceded in the mid-1960s that Bob Dylan had written some fragments that might be considered poetry, but that he had not written anything that stood on its own all the way through as a poem. Lowell was essentially saying that music had to intervene and prolong the poetic touch of Dylan’s lyrics at the point that language failed in his verses.

It is after citing Lowell in my classes that the students read “Love Minus Zero/No Limit.” No music is played; no singing is heard. We look at the words on the page, and ask if they hold up as a poem. Indeed, the words do sustain the entire poem, and even more remarkably, it also turns out to have been set to a quietly imploring melody. Having established that Bob Dylan’s writing does more than partake of the “poetic,” but unfolds its essential imaginative logic with as much negative capability as Keats ever asked of a poem, we move on to a consideration of David Antin’s observation that Dylan is essentially a collage artist, a description that is most useful when examining “Desolation Row.”

Since teaching Literature always involves introducing student to formal terms, it is at this point that I define epistrophe for the students, and during my remarks on “Desolation Row” I offer other examples of this rhetorical technique. I noticed that the newspaper articles carrying the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature cite many of the musical influences on Bob Dylan, as well as those whose work he has in turn influenced. Not a single article has mentioned Robert Burns, the poet whom Dylan acknowledged as having influenced his songwriting. In particular, of course, Burns would have been an influence in Dylan’s use of epistrophe, starting with “Hard Rain” and “Desolation Row.” “Tangled Up in Blue” remains one of the masterful instances of that ancient rhetorical arrangement, and it would behoove contemporary poets to follow Dylan’s example and draw upon Burns as a model.

One of the pivotal questions about Bob Dylan’s status as a writer and poet is ultimately not about him, but about his audience, for it is not just the selection of Robert Zimmerman (aka Bob Dylan) for this award that irks those who still cling to Robert Lowell’s assessment. Rather, it is the gnawing suspicion that this award in some way legitimates the audience that Dylan’s writings and music have attracted. “Do the people in his audiences read other books? Other poets?” Behind the all too foreseeable backlash to Dylan’s award, it will not be too difficult to detect a residual fear of the illiterate masses, whose preferences are easily seduced by a charismatic performance in the oral tradition.

I have no doubt that a significant number of people who listen to Dylan’s songs do not spend much time reading the poetry found in contemporary anthologies. His audience, however, also includes many poets whose commitment to their art was shaped by his vision of the public role that a poet could play, if only one dared to be audacious enough. Such a quest requires the one quality that Dylan himself assessed as possibly being the most enduring virtue of his writing: a sense of gallantry. I call upon those who feel reluctant to applaud the award of the Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan to remind themselves of this archaic ideal and to reexamine their own lives and writing within that context.

Post-script:
Thanks to Twitter, I learned of a link to a very thoughtful essay on Bob Dylan by Robert Polito:

http://riggio.americanvanguardpress.com/portfolio/bob-dylans-memory-palace-robert-polito/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“BARELY HOLDING DISTANT THINGS APART”

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

Tribute by Bill Mohr to Bob Flanagan at Beyond Baroque

This video must have been shot at a memorial service for Bob Flanagan at Beyond Baroque, shortly after he died in 1996. The poem I read, “One Miracle,” was first published by Marvin Malone’s underappreciated magazine, WORMWOOD REVIEW (Vol. 36, number 2; issue 142). It subsequently was included in my collection of poems published by Brooks Roddan’s IF/SF publishing house, “BITTERSWEET KALEIDOSCOPE.” It was also translated into Spanish by Jose Luis Rico and appeared as “Un Milagor” in “Circulo de Poesia: Revista Electronica de Literatura” and in “PRUEBAS OCULTAS” (Bonobos Editores, 2015). “One Miracle” was also included as one of three poems in “WIDE AWAKE: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond,” edited by Suzanne Lummis (Pacific Coast Poetry Series: Beyond Baroque, Venice, 2015).

Put Your Ears On: poetry videos

Monday, February 8, 2016

In the late 1980s, poet and actor Harry Northup asked me to take over a poetry reading series he had started at a coffee house on Melrose Avenue called Gasoline Alley. Running a weekly series halfway across town from where I lived in Ocean Park was not something I wanted to undertake alone, and I only agreed to be Harry’s successor because Phoebe MacAdams said that she would share the job. This was not the first series I had run; a decade earlier I had been in charge of the reading series at Intellectuals & Liars Bookstore in Santa Monica. After running the series for two years, I realized that very good readings were not being recorded at all. In fact, a lot of the writing in Los Angeles was not being documented on film or on tape in any way. It was about that time that cable television was establishing itself as a major alternative to the traditional format of television broadcasting; in order for cable franchises to make inroads, they had to make concessions that the major networks had long taken off of any negotiating table. One concession to the customers who had to accept the exclusive domination of the cable franchise system in their neighborhood was to provide a public access channel and studio space with which to make programs for broadcasting.

I decided to sign up for a couple of classes at Century Cable in Santa Monica that would enable me to become a producer of a show that focused on Los Angeles poetry. Starting in 1990, I hosted a program called “Put Your Ears On,” which featured poets such as Lee Hickman, Harry Northup, John Thomas, Bob Flanagan, Scott Wannberg, Jim Krusoe, Ellen Sander, Laurel Ann Bogen, and Richard Garcia. I have just posted on YouTube several of these programs.

“Substitute Teacher” – Bill Mohr – YouTube Link

Ball of Tension – Bill Mohr – YouTube Link

“My Turtle’s Passport” – Bill Mohr – YouTube Link

HARRY E. NORTHUP — REUNIONS

Bernie Sanders and the NSA – A Double-Take on Paul Simon’s “America”

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The use of Paul Simon’s “America” by Bernie Sanders’s campaign has generated considerable commentary, which is why I’m aware of it. I’m hardly an accessible target audience; it’s been a while since I’ve seen an advertisement on television or even heard one on a radio. In point of fact, very little advertising for presidential campaign runs in California except during primary season. Why waste precious dollars in a state that is in its current political make-up a foregone conclusion? If Sanders continues to use this ad at all, however, he should be prepared to be asked about the obvious excision from the song and the policy choices he would have to make if he were elected president.

The song, you’ll remember, is a free verse poem (note that there are no rhymes in it), about two young people doing their own version of Kerouac’s On the Road. The reality is less glamorous than the fantasy: “It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw,” and the fade-out image of cars streaming by the bus on the New Jersey Turnpike suggests that the urban reality of New York City just ahead of them at the Port Authority will be less than comforting. In fact, let us consider what that turnpike image shifts into. The next song on the “Bookends” album is “Save the Life of My Child,” which mocks a New York police officer’s comment on young people: “The kids got no respect for the law today, and blah blah blah.” The two songs, a la Sergeant Pepper’s, flow musically one into the other with not a hemidemisemiquaver of a pause, as if to say, “Hey, Kathy and your young poet friend, this is what awaits you.”

What no one seems to have remarked on, though, is the elimination in the advertisement of the dialogue in the first part of the song. “Laughing on the bus playing games with the faces / She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy. / I said, “Be careful. His bow tie is really a camera.” It’s a playful send-up of the paranoia at that time among the counter-culture of the government’s intrusion into daily life, and how people were even then being monitored and tracked. Simon’s slightly tongue-in-cheek, deadpan humor defuses the genuine fear that many young people felt at the time. The question of police state monitoring cannot be so easily laughed off now. So what is Bernie Sanders planning to do with the National Security Agency? The NSA is looking for America, too, but not in the way that Simon’s song portends.