Category Archives: Performance

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.

Jack Grapes remembers Bob Flanagan, too

January 5, 2016 — The day after the 20th anniversary of the death of Bob Flanagan

In 1983, the Reader, Los Angeles’s Free Weekly (as it formally called itself) ran a long review of books by Jim Krusoe, Bob Flanagan, and myself. One common feature that linked us received very little notice in an otherwise very fine article; all three had had our first major collections of poetry published by Bombshelter Press, which was edited by Jack Grapes and Michael Andrews. Grapes and Andrews had met, if recollection serves me correctly, because one of my first poet friends, Dennis Ellman, mentioned at a Beyond Baroque workshop that he was going to be giving a reading at a place in Hermosa Beach called the Alley Cat. Jack Grapes decided to attend the reading, met Michael Andrews there, and the two launched a series of anthologies featuring the poets who read at the Alley Cat under the imprint of Bombshelter Press. In addition to publishing books, Grapes and Andrews also edited and published a magazine called ONTHEBUS that featured the work of poets who might be considered the progeny of The Outsider magazine in New Orleans back in the early 1960s.

Grapes grew up in New Orleans, where he had the good fortune to be a young poet when The Outsider was one of the few magazines with enough editorial vision to make the category suggested by its title a widely inclusive term instead of an elitist form of marginality. There were not many handsome literary magazines back then that regarded poets such as Langston Hughes, Charles Bukowski, Allen Ginsberg, Russell Edson, and Marvin Bell as part of their roster. Grapes himself was one of the youngest – if not the youngest – poet to have a featured portfolio of his writing in The Outsider. In the late 1960s, Grapes moved to Los Angeles in pursuit of an acting career, but it turned out that the city and the region also served as a refuge for an enormously diverse assemblage of poets who did not easily fit into any of the schools or movements that got the most critical attention during the last three decades of the 20th century.

Grapes himself went on to become the literary equivalent of a multi-instrumentalist in music. He not only acted, he became a very accomplished playwright; his play, Circle of Will, pulled together more strands of contemporary theater than almost anything I’ve ever seen, with the possible exception of Marat/Sade. He also worked as a poet-in-the-schools for many years, an experience he refers to in a letter he wrote me yesterday after reading my post about Bob Flanagan. I have secured Jack’s permission to reprint a portion of his letter as a way of giving readers another glimpse at aspects of Bob’s life that made him one of the most remarkable artists to have lived in Los Angeles.

Dear Bill:

This is a very readable account of a poet who deserves more critical attention. That his performance art and singer/songwriting and other artistic endeavors seemed to widen the focus on his art to people’s inability to appreciate the specifics of just one part of it — his poems — is a sad commentary on how we do the same to other artists. And that, of course, is a larger question, indeed, in how we WANT artists to follow in some kind of expected path (Brando, for instance), and when they don’t, we assume they’ve fizzled or wasted their talents. I saw Bob’s show at the Santa Monica museum, and I attended his “lecture” retrospective on it a year or so later, which included slides and video, as well as his commentary, and it’s one of the most amazing artistic experiences I have ever witnessed in my life. This is not hyperbole. In some ways, while the art installation, which lasted a month I believe (titled “Visiting Hours”), was extraordinary, Bob’s presentation a year later with slides, video, etc., was even more astonishing, because it included documentation of other’s experience as well, something I couldn’t have seen since I “visited” him in the “hospital/museum” only once, and didn’t get to see the effect the show had on others. If ever an artist’s poetry, singing/songwriting, and art were all conduits to one significant event, this was it. The question is, has anyone conflated the two and made a video documenting BOTH the month-long installation at the museum AND his “lecture/presentation” a year later, which was every bit as extraordinary as the installation.

Bob and I were great friends since we met at the Venice Poetry Workshop around 1972. He and I taught in Poetry in the Schools for several years (as did you), and he and I often taught together. I got to witness Bob in the classroom with kids, all ages. He was simply electrifying. His imagination and ability to ignite the same among his students was unequaled. The cherry on the cake of everything he ever did was an assignment he gave once in which students had to bring in an artistic representation (a painting, a sculpture, etc.) of their imagination. To give physical form to the abstraction of imagination — not something produced by one’s imagination, but a representation in abstract form OF one’s imagination — and then to see 35 kids all bringing in examples of that — to this day I shake my head in wonder at the amazement of it all. Bob was an artist, and while the body of his work may have been small compared to the larger output of others (such as Sharon Olds), Bob was an original. We shouldn’t take that word to lightly. Original. A Singularity.
— Jack Grapes

Bob Flanagan – On the 20th anniversary of his death

Photo (c) by Rod Bradley

Photo (c) by Rod Bradley

THE KID IS THE ULTIMATE MAN: Bob Flanagan (1952-1996) and Sheree Rose

Today is the 20th anniversary of the death of Bob Flanagan, although this post happening to appear today is the result of pure accident. The photograph of Flanagan accompanying this post is from a set taken by Rod Bradley at a publication event for issue number 11 of Bachy magazine at Papa Bach Bookstore in the mid-1970s; I spotted the CD Bradley had given me with the photographs at my office last week and took another peek at them over the holiday weekend, at which point I decided to start work on a long overdue tribute to Bob Flanagan and his artistic collaborator, Sheree Rose. When I looked up Bob’s dates to get an exact bearing on his chronology, I found the anniversary of his death to be rapidly approaching, so I redoubled my efforts. It should be noted, by the way, that the title of this post is a reference to the words on the cover of a book in the lower left hand corner of the photograph.

Flanagan began reading his poems around Southern California beginning in the mid-1970s, when he was still in his early 20s. In point of fact, I attended a festival of poets that included Flanagan in what had to have been his first reading in any venue that got public attention whatsoever. The “festival” took place in an unfinished, multi-story office building somewhere near downtown Los Angeles. I suppose it would be possible to dig through my archives and find the name of the hapless organizer and the exact address, but this was not an event that merits much more citation than Flanagan’s appearance, which stood out because of the contrast between his earnestness and the abundance of clichés in his poems. Flanagan was not born with a natural flair for vivid imagery. I distinctly remember listening to him read at that festival and thinking to myself that he had as little talent as any young poet I had ever heard. The old truism that talent is mostly hard work is certainly demonstrated in Flanagan’s case, for it was due to his determination to become a good writer that he matured into one of my favorite poets. In addition to his willingness to work very hard at becoming a better writer, he also had the advantage of being a member of the Beyond Baroque workshop, where poets such as Jim Krusoe and Jack Grapes continued his education in poetry outside of the academy.

I published some of his poetry in Momentum magazine and was impressed enough by his first book, “The Kid Is the Man” (Bombshelter Press, 1978) to write a review of it. It was the first formal public notice that Flanagan’s writing received. “The Kid Is the Man” contained all of the poems that Flanagan had made famous within several coteries at work in Los Angeles back then. “Love Is Still Possible” and “The Bukowski Poem” remain two of the earliest instances of poems that deserve to be in the Hall of Fame for the Stand Up school, a point to which I will return in a moment. Nor did Flanagan cease to write poetry even as he increasingly began to focus on music, theater, and performance art as outlets for his creative impishness and considerable wit, not to mention his legendary masochism. When it came time to choose his poems for Poetry Loves Poetry (1985), the work was all from the period after his first book was published and included another stand-up classic, “Fear of Poetry.” He went on to publish several collections, including “The Slave Sonnets” and a superb collaboration with David Trinidad, “A Taste of Honey.”

Given all of this poetry by Flanagan and the degree of his visible presence through frequent readings in Los Angeles, it is astonishing to realize that he is absent from all three editions of “Stand Up Poetry,” the first of which appeared in 1990 as a project co-edited by Charles Harper Webb and Suzanne Lummis. I suppose one has to take on faith the sincerity of the editors when one reads in the first slim volume (84 pages) that the 22 poets appearing in the book are merely representative of the Stand Up poetry movement and are not intended to be seen as the essential members of its first wave. However, Flanagan does not appear in either of the subsequent volumes, either. In fact, Flanagan is also absent from “Grand Passion,” which was also co-edited by Webb and Lummis, and which appeared in 1994, while Flanagan was still alive.

I find Flanagan’s absence from this evolving series of anthologies to be nothing short of astonishing, especially since Flanagan had a generous selection of poems in my anthology, “Poetry Loves Poetry,” which appeared in 1985 and which contained the poems of Webb and Lummis, too. In other words, his work was right there in front of them. Now it’s true that by 1990 Flanagan was primarily known as a performance artist, but he was still active as a poet. In fact, Flanagan was one of the primary poets who ran the Beyond Baroque poetry workshop between 1985 and 1995. Despite the way that his notoriety as a “Super-Masochist” began to overshadow his poetry, I certainly regarded Flanagan as worthy of consideration as a working poet in the early 1990s; and when I asked him to be a guest on my poetry video show, “Put Your Ears On,” he did not hesitate to accept. It turned out to be one of my most successful shows. We had a monitor on stage with a video of David Trinidad reading his lines from A Taste of Honey that alternated with Bob reading his lines live in the studio. His wit was on full display: when I asked him if he ever considered moving to NYC, where he had been born, he responded that he “preferred his creature comforts, and New York is mostly creatures.”

In addition, his poems in “Poetry Loves Poetry” were among the very best one in that anthology. “Fear of Poetry” remains a classic example of a metapoem that should be studied by every young poet. It should also be mentioned that Flanagan’s prominence within the poetry community in the mid-1980s because his lover and artistic collaborator Sheree Rose was a very fine photographer. When I decided that full-page photographs of the poets should be included in “Poetry Loves Poetry,” it was Sheree Rose who drew the assignment of persuading several dozen poets to relax enough to let their private masks become somewhat visible in a public portrait. She did a superb job and I hope some day that Beyond Baroque can have a retrospective of her work.

Finally, to square the paradoxical circle of his absence, I would also note that Flanagan studied at California State University, Long Beach, where Gerald Locklin taught for 40 years. Locklin and his colleague Charles Stetler are the poets known for using the title of Edward Field’s book, Stand Up, Friend, with Me, as the basis for a moniker to describe a kind of poetry that became increasingly popular in Southern California in the years after the Beat scenes in Los Angeles and San Francisco began a period of diminishing returns. Both Locklin and Stetler are in the first volume of Stand Up Poetry, along with another CSULB professor, Eliot Fried, whose poetry I had also published in the first issue of Bachy magazine in 1972.

The line-up of poets in the first volume of “Stand Up Poetry” (Red Wind Books, 1990) is very impressive: Laurel Ann Bogen, Charles Bukowski, Billy Collins, Wanda Coleman, Edward Field, Michael C. Ford, Elliot Fried, Manazar Gamboa, Jack Grapes, Eloise Klein Healy, Ron Koertge, Steve Kowit, Jim Krusoe, Gerald Locklin, Suzanne Lummis, Bill Mohr, Charles Stetler, Austin Straus, Charles Webb, and Ray Zepeda. There are also two poets named Ian Gregson and Viola Weinberg. That the poems of Bob Flanagan and Scott Wannberg should have been there in place of Gregson’s and Weinberg’s is obvious now.

The importance of Bob Flanagan’s writing and art and of his collaborations with Sheree Rose recently was recently confirmed by the acquisition of his archives by the University of Southern California. You can access information about that archive at:
http://one.usc.edu/bob-flanagan-and-sheree-rose-collection/

On the 20th anniversary of his death, I would urge those who are looking for material to analyze through the lens of disability theory or queer theory to consider visiting that archive and to get to work. In doing so, it would also be worth remembering that Flanagan is an exemplary Stand Up poet and one of the primary members of the original core group. Those of us who were here in the early and mid-1970s know the accuracy of that statement, even if editors who didn’t arrive in Los Angeles until the late 1970s prefer a version that might reflect a fear of being tainted by Flanagan’s transgressive art. In equally emphasizing his stature as a Stand Up poet, critics might also consider how his writing fits within the Confessional school of poetry, which is all too often viewed as a movement with no important contributors after 1980. How about someone taking on an article with a stark contrast: Sharon Olds versus Bob Flanagan. Now that would generate an incandescence worthy of the audacious risks that Flanagan took and lived to tell about, far longer – decades longer – than anyone ever suspected he would, even those of who feel very lucky to have heard him read his poetry or to offer up his body to the demons of pain. Suffering is not redemption, but it is hard to know what is worthy redeeming if one does not suffer to test those boundaries. Flanagan’s art and poetry offer us a chance to redraw our boundaries and set off anew.