Category Archives: Poetry Readings

Backlit by Blackness: Kerry James Marshall’s “Mastry” at MOCA

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Backlit by Blackness: Kerry James Marshall’s “Mastry” at MOCA

A couple of weeks ago, Hye Sook Park reported that Kerry James Marshall’s retrospective exhibition at MOCA was a must-see event. Even before her enthusiastic commentary, in fact, I had made a note in my memory’s calendar of the closing date of his show, which grew ever closer as the month has gone by. Getting time to see his show has not been easy: my teaching work glided straight from the end of the spring semester into the summer session course I am teaching without the slightest pause.

Two days ago, on Friday, we might have headed north, but on Thursday the place where my mother is being cared wrote me and said that her doctor would be visiting her on Friday; since I had never talked to him face-to-face in the past eight months, that priority cancelled any other possibility. We did drive up to Beyond Baroque that evening, though, and heard David St. John read from The Last Troubadour, and Christopher Merrill read an account of his long friendship with Agha Shahid Ali. As always, it’s a long trip from Long Beach to Beyond Baroque, but this time it was truly worth it. David is one of this country’s very best poets, and Christopher’s recollections made Ali a living presence in the room. I would have liked to have heard Christopher read some of his poems, too, but his choice to read a single piece made it all the more memorable.

On Saturday, with a rare empty square on the kitchen calendar, we saddled up and headed north. Marshall’s show is easily worth more than one visit, and I hope to return before it closes, if only to spend more time with an unframed painting from 2003 entitled “7 a.m. Sunday Morning.” Before I briefly talk about that painting, I want to list several pieces that impressed me almost as much: “Beach Towel”; “Slow Dance”; “Red (If They Come In the Morning”; “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein”; “School of Beauty, School of Culture”; “Heirlooms & Accessories”; “Chalk Up Another One”; “Fingerwag”; and “The Actor Hezekiah Washington as Julian Carlton Taliesen Murderer of the Flank Lloyd Wright Family.” If I have not included the housing project paintings in this list, it is only because they have already drawn more than sufficient critical attention.

The scale of Marshall’s work is often startling in its acute depictions of personal identity within the encompassing hemispheres of economic and racial confinements. Circling in a room of fermenting ordinariness, the figures in “Slow Dance” are both holding tight to each other’s poignant desires for more than has been allotted them, and grateful that at least they have each other for the moment. It more honestly addresses the romantic plight of marginal individuals, no matter what their race, than any painting I have ever absorbed into my memory.

The room the dancers inhabit is exactly what could have been foreseen by anyone who looks closely at the furniture of an engagement scene in a cheap restaurant. Even if one imagines the couple looking back at each other, and then unclasping to reach for a celebratory sip of their drinks, one would hardly expect either one to feel more comfortable in the minimally padded chairs the restaurant has provided them. Their fond ebullience is as much a performance meant for themselves as the onlookers they are posing for. The mise-en-scene of the restaurant extends to the smallest details of an urban backyard: the pink flip-flops being worn by the sunbather in “Beach Towel,” for instance. Equally pertinent in scope, one should not overlook the oversized earrings of “Fingerwag.” Marshall has a profound ability to augment his excavation of that which the ideological normative would prefer not to be present at all.

Jed Rasula mentions the contrast between “the politics in the poem, and the politics of the poem” in his intriguing study of American poetry anthologies. One could use the same distinction to talk about Marshall’s work, too, since in his case the politics in a painting such as “Red (If They Come in the Morning” are equally about the cultural politics of abstract painting and its reluctance to accept work done in that domain by African-American painters.

The street scene depicted in “Sunday Morning, 7 a.m.” has no overt politics, and yet the speeding white car that the running child seems to avoid by not much than a second and a half can hardly be separated from the more obvious repression cited in “Chalk Up Another One.” The adults in the post-dawn background stay safely on the sidewalk with its immediate access to the liquor store. The child has other comforts in mind. What might await that young man is hinted at in the right hand portion of the painting, in which Marshall’s synaesthetic handling of urban light portends some future visitation. Softened by a prismatic uncertainty, as if a late spring day will fulfill its potential for revelation, one can almost hear Whitman’s pure contralto sing the organ loft of some unanticipated destiny. Redemption is not an option, so don’t get carried away with hope, this light suggests. On the other hand, there is no reason to settle for mere survival of one’s ideals.

This show will be up through next weekend. As hard pressed for time as you might be, make every effort to catch this show. I agree with Christopher Knight’s concluding assessment in the LA Times: “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry” is the first time in a long time that MOCA’s exhibition program has felt essential. Don’t miss it.”

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-cm-kerry-james-marshall-moca-20170320-htmlstory.html

A Pair of Readings in Santa Monica and Long Beach

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Peace Press - 1

(Photograph by Dinah Berland)

Traffic on the 405 freeway yesterday was every bit as bad as one might dread. One of the major problems of living and working in Long Beach is that I am often a three hour round trip away from attending any reading, and the task of driving to and from a reading I am part of is hardly less dispiriting. The reading itself at the Peace Press exhibition at Arena One Gallery in Santa Monica was a genuine pleasure, however.

Dinah Berland, the curator of the reading, had proposed to have the poets read in reverse alphabetical order, but Julia Stein was unable to make the event, so I led off the reading with a couple of poems that I don’t read that often: “The Big World and the Small World” (from Penetralia, 1984), and “Terrorism: The View from Century City,” which was published in the L.A. Weekly in the late 1980s when Deborah Drooz was the poetry editor. Her acceptance of that poem remains one of the more gratifying moments in my writing life. I also read “Complexities,” which had been featured on the Santa Monica bus system in the late 1980s for their poetry on the buses program, and “Slow Shoes,” which was published in Thoughtful Outlaw. Memoirist Deborah Lott followed me with a profoundly moving account of being at the Ambassador Hotel the night that Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. Michael C. Ford, whose book of poems The World Is a Suburb of Los Angeles, stands out as one of the ten best books of poems I published through Momentum Press, read as mellifluously as ever. His voice never seems to age or in any way lose its ability to pivot on the precisely illuminating syllable. Dinah Berland, the organizer of the reading, read ekphrastic poems that were not as explicitly political as the writing of the first three readers, but which pointed to the essential presence of the stranger’s gaze as the fundamental acceptance that makes politics possible. The surprise of the afternoon was Rhiannon McGaven’s presentation. The vocalization of her poems illuminated the room with their undulating cadences. Not to be mistaken for a slam poet, McGaven’s poems feature a mature diction for someone so young, and it is most likely the case that her poems will swirl with grace on the page, too. It would seem that she has been on tour quite a bit, but this was my first hearing of her writing, and I look forward to reading her debut volume of poems.

Arena One - 1A

Arena One - 2A

(From left to right: Bob Zaugh, Rhiannon McGaven, Doborah Lott, Bill Mohr, Dinah Berland, Michael C. Ford)

(Photographs by Linda Fry)

Bob Zaugh, as one of the founding spokespeople and prime instigators of Peace Press as a social, cultural, and literary force in Los Angeles, opened and closed the reading with brief remarks, and he received much deserved applause for all of his commitment to making this entire exhibit as well as reading possible. The most heartfelt applause in the course of the afternoon was most certainly for Gary Tyler, whose release two months ago from Angola prison, after over 40 years incarceration for a murder that he did not commit, was facilitated by Peace Press. Gary spoke to a small group of the audience in the dispersed conversations after the poetry reading, and his calm eloquence was a privilege to witness. He will be speaking at length at Arena One on July 1st, the final day of the exhibit.

Managing to get back through even more daunting traffic on the way back to Long Beach, it turned out that we were not late to the late afternoon/early evening reading at Gatsby Books, where Suzanne Lummis, Elena Karina Byrne, Richard Garcia, Charles Harper Webb, and Cynthia A. Briano read their poems. The four best poems were Lummis’s “The Lost Poem,” which was incredibly hilarious, Byrne’s “Richard Tuttle Behind Richard Tuttle,” the title piece of Richard Garcia’s latest collection of prose poems, Porridge, and a poem by Briano whose title I can’t remember but which I did mention to her afterwards as a poem with a gorgeous logic to its images. Briano’s soprano voice gave her poems a vigorous lilt, but there was a deeper register to the poems that made me wish that they could be recorded both now and at some future point decades from now when age has deepened her register. If one could mix those tapes, one would have a duet worth listening to repeatedly. One of the poems that Webb read seemed to be a revision of an e-mail scam satire that I remember hearing in 2010 at the Avenue 50 gallery. It was funny then, and even funnier now, and should help his forthcoming book of poems rebound from the slough of Brain Camp.

Quartet - Gatsby - 1

(from left to right: Sean Richard Moor, Suzanne Lummis, Charles Harper Webb, Cynthia A. Briano, Richard Garcia, Elena Karina Byrne, and Bill Mohr)

Quartet Gatsby - 2

(Photographs at Gatsby by Linda Fry)

Peace Press Poetry Reading – June 17

Saturday, June 10, 2017

I was sitting at my desk this morning, reviewing some applications by writers who live outside of California for grants from the state they live in, and suddenly realized that I should double-check the date of the Peace Press poetry reading. I grabbed the catalogue for the art exhibition at the Arena One Gallery, and much to my surprise, the catalogue’s first page listed Saturday, June 10th, as the date of the reading. “Huh?” I thought. I was certain that the reading was on the 17th, but I’ve made mistakes about this kind of thing before, and so I quickly checked e-mails. According to every e-mail from Dinah Berland, the organizer of the reading, the date of this reading is Saturday, June 17th, a week from today. Her Facebook posting about this event also lists June 17.

The Poets and Poet-Publishers of Peace Press
Saturday, June 17
2 – 4 p.m.
Arena One Gallery
3026 Airport Avenue
Santa Monica, CA 90405

Readers: Dinah Berland, Michael C. Ford, Deborah Lott, Bill Mohr, Julia Stein, and Rhiannon McGavin.

THE ART OF THE COOKS OF PEACE PRESS is sponsored by the Ash Grove Music Foundation, and is partially underwritten by the Irene B. Wolt Lifetime Trust, and Anonymous. It should also be noted that this art exhibition came about in response to the multi-site exhibition project of the Getty Trust entitled “Pacific Standard Time.” According to the catalogue, “The Arts of the Cooks of Peace Press” was proposed too late in the organizational process of “PST” to be included in that project. Nevertheless, this exhibit demonstrates that the show continues to generate a legacy.

I myself have been invited to be part of this poetry reading not as a poet whose book was printed by Peace Press, but because as the editor and publisher of Momentum Press, I chose Peace Press to be the printer for three of my most important titles: Holly Prado’s Feasts, James Krusoe’s Small Pianos, and Leland Hickman’s Tiresias I:9:B Great Slave Lake Suite. Jim Krusoe might well have been the person who pointed me toward Peace Press, since he had had a chapbook entitled Ju-Ju printed at Peace Press at least a year before I hauled the paste-up board for Feasts to Culver City with the help of my Suzuki Twin-500 motorcycle. In the case of Holly’s book, I was a complete neophyte in terms of publishing, and without the reassuring assistance of the workers at Peace Press, especially Bob Zaugh and Bonnie Mettler, I never would have been able to bring out my first significant publication as an editor/publisher.

As recounted in HOLDOUTS: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance 1948-1882, the typesetting portion of producing these books was done at NewComp Graphics at Beyond Baroque, and both books were done on machines that had no memory discs to expedite revisions. It was a process of keystroke by keystroke composition, and given that both books were not by any means a standard-format for prose or poetry, it was an arduous challenge to get both books to the printer. Given these struggles and my ambitions to make the work of these poets known beyond Los Angeles, it was very important to me that both of these books look as good as possible; and to this day, I read the books not just for the resonant music of the text, but for the way that the poetry on the page was printed by Peace Press with such sympathetic care as to make it completely absorbable.

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(from left to right: Michael C. Ford; Dinah Berland; Bill Mohr