Category Archives: Poetry

Laurel Ann Bogen’s New and Selected Poems

Monday, June 18, 2018

“The Terror to be a Magician”: Laurel Ann Bogen’s Metaurban Self-Portraits in Psychosis in the Produce Department

Midway through the second decade of the 21st century, American poetry written and published in the first decades of the Cold War has rapidly receded into movements or schools, such as the Beats or Confessional poetry, in which the best known examples seem to isolate themselves into a distant cul-de-sac. Indeed, the current century’s difficulties in accommodating the rapid oscillations of post-modernity have relentlessly enlarged the gap between mid-20th century poetry and contemporary verse. Literary criticism itself is largely responsible for generating this disenabling fiction in which a limited set of canonical writers in the Confessional school, born before the end of World War II, has become a self-enclosed pantheon that precludes their successors from redefining the legacy of that school’s poetic progeny.

The Confessional school is often presented as a closed case; actually, not just a closed case, but as a kind of minor sub-plot within post-modern poetry that does merit having a single anthology dedicated to its practitioners. Given the abundance of anthologies that manage to plump out volumes on comparatively smaller subsets, such as feminist avant-garde poetry, this aporia is extraordinarily puzzling, especially given how many of Confessionalism’s first generation have found their way into anthologies during the past thirty years. The assiduous campaign against this school’s alleged limitations seems to have been successful in confining its success to its mid-century insurrection against academic poetry dominated by New Criticism.

This widespread dismissal has genuine consequences, especially for poets on the West Coast who have chosen to work at least some of the time within the Confessional milieu. Even though Laurel Ann Bogen’s Psychosis in the Produce Department was published well over two years ago by Red Hen Press, I have not been able to locate any reviews whatsoever of it. The neglect would seem in part to be due to the discomfort that Confessional poetry still manages to generate. Stephen Burt, for example, notes that the “confessional model has become so predictable …. that it has become something many sophisticated poets and critics avoid or even disparage.” Confessional poetry in recent years, however, is no more predictable than Beat or Language or Feminist poetry; rather, it is the imagined template of sophisticated critics that is predictable.

Before considering Bogen’s volume of poems, therefore, let us examine the template of Confessional poetry that has become fixated in critics’ views as overly predictable. The confessional poem, according to Burt, derives from a quartet of suppositions, including its self-reflective performance as “part cri de Coeur and part diary; it draws contrasts between present and past self; its lack of obvious structural constraints connotes speech from the heart; and it deploys post-Freudian claims about generational succession, sexual attraction, or gender identity … as central to what and how we know and feel.” Nor is Burt alone in this assessment by contemporary critics. As seen in Miranda Sherwin’s preference for “psychoanalytic poetics” over Helen Vender’s term “Freudian lyric,” the general consensus in framing confessional poetry is to assign it a default mechanism of mental crisis, instability, and psychic redemption.

It is the second item in Burt’s checklist that I want to call particular attention to at this point, for it rather sloppily attempts to square the circle of personal consciousness. The “self” that Burt invokes in regards to confessional poetry is not subjected in his account to any interrogation whatsoever, let alone the kind of layered distinctions he makes in examining Terrance Hayes’s poetry. In Hayes’s case, the self becomes inherently deserving of post-modernist critique: “Is the self (whatever that means) a performance? What makes for a good performance, or an authentic one (what that means)? Such questions have generated enough recent scholarly books to weigh down an ocean liner, but they have proved hard to make into good poetry.” If so, these questions were not too hard for Terrance Hayes to take on with efficient playfulness, Burt would argue, and I would agree, but also add that so, too, have a number of poets working in the Confessional mode.

Furthermore, the uses of psychoanalysis and mythic figures as generative imaginative strategies for addressing emotional distress, vulnerability, and trauma are more widespread than has been critically acknowledged. While Bogen’s writing has been primarily categorized as belonging to the “stand up school,” as defined by Charles Harper Webb, her poetry is also an intriguing instance of the hidden heterogeneity of more recent practitioners of the Confessional School. It is in the ways that her poetry goes beyond the Confessional that we will find its most appealing value, though it is in being a permutation that it derives the primary impetus for its longevity.

Within the original poetic domain, Bogen’s title for her most comprehensive collection of poems, Psychosis in the Produce Department: New and Selected Poems 1975 2015 steps on stage with the casual confidence that a mature actress has exuded ever since she was a demurely witty, droll ingénue. As her title suggests, the intensity of mental breakdowns careers throughout the selection. Echoing rather deliberately the psychological travail of the narrator in Allen Ginsberg’s “With Walt Whitman in the Supermarket,” the easy way to categorize Bogen would be to consign her to the confessional bracket, and the book’s title rather flamboyantly – almost flippantly – announces the ordinariness of this debilitating mental condition. Even in the midst of plenty, the title suggests, one can easily dissolve into a state of acute mental distress.

Indeed, there are more than a sufficient number of poems in Psychosis in the Produce Department to stamp Bogen’s union card in the Confessional School. Titles such as “27 Years of Madness,” “The Power Lines Are Down,” “Vulnerable Street,” “Bones Dig This Dream,” “cold cold cold,” “Spankings I’ve Known,” “Doppelganger Redux,” “Guilt,” “I Eat Lunch with a Schizophrenic,” and the mordantly witty “The Virginia Woolf Guide to Rock Collecting” all intimate a coruscating set of self-portrait canvases. However, if a vulnerable candor underscores Bogen’s free verse lyricism, it entails a more rigorous imagination that one might expect from the confessional impetus. In a poem from the 1970s, she confronts the seductive ministrations of institutional psychiatry:

The hospitals were clever

They said: you have the gift
why do you want to destroy it?
And I will tell you now
it is not a gift
to know that words are not your own
to know you can produce
a prism from nothingness
it is a terror to be a magician

The dispossession of words, in this instance, is not meant to serve as a swift detour to the confrontation with language as it has played out in various avant-garde guises since the early 1970s. Rather, it is paradox and metaphor that Bogen summons as emotional states of consciousness aligned with that supreme emotion, surprise, without which all over emotions lose their internal momentum. To be a magician is to have the capacity to conjure both presence and absence.
In Bogen’s vision of the social identity of a poet, this polar paradox of affirmation and negation – “words are not your own” // “ a prism from nothingness” – goes to an extremity of absence-presence in “Live Steam at 8:40 a.m.”:

In this poem there are no words
all language has stopped
but the pumps boil
live steam
live team
live steam at 8:45

Heart poach / we rip at skin
alone and without noise
to get at the beat
the color
and where the words are
but this is a poem
where there are no words
and all the colors are extinct
rising like steam
that hisses in our throats
like wordless lies

In this poem the words sizzle
and evaporate

in this poem the words rise crazy

In this poem ourbodies ache
our fingers can nurder us
but even though we fear death
we offer ourselves to each other
as if the muscle and breath
of our bodies can also heal

This poem cradles in its palm
those things that cannot be said

It asks that you touch this page.

The deictic accentuation of “Live Steam at 8:45 a.m.” is far from the only poem in Psychosis in the Produce Department that pushes through the familiar boundaries of Confessional poetry and suggests that other discourses are at work, including the performative self-transformation of an imagined self within a specific urban environment. Among the poets who both live in Los Angeles and frequently perform their poems in a manner befitting the city’s flaunted ambiance, Laurel Ann Bogen stands out for the profuse invocation of her milieu as a trampoline for metaphors. It is the city’s incandescent awareness of itself as the producer of the individual’s theatricality that gives her poems a haunting plasticity. As in the case of that expert witness of flaneurship, J. Alfred Prufrock, Bogen is on very familiar terms with the significant role that fantasy plays in reassuring one’s fallibility, and how the dialogue between absence and presence coils and recoils; the erasure of intimate revelation by a voice “at home in the shadows” continuously palpitates in her poems.

In whose dreams will these stars shimmer
100 light years from now?
Their blown-up images snipped
of imperfections – the errant mole,
an ingrown hair, when paste
does not pass for diamonds.

Confined by fame, Pilates and exfoliation,
tucked in canyons, behind gated walls,
some corner the market on chihauhuas
others collect bags of kudos.
They tell me Rodeo Drive is a state of mind.

As for mine,
it skims along
Hollywood Boulevard like a chauffeur.
From the back seat
I hear my voice
at home in the shadows –
I don’t want to sleep yet, Bogen,

I can see and not be seen – invisible to a world
in which I was born. Now you see
me, now you don’t.

If the first half of the poem critiques both the illusions of immortality and the limitations of rewards and public recognition, the second half savors both the self-determined control and the pleasure of evasion. The poem anticipates the sleep that will bring dreams that are no more than “a state of mind.” The iconic street itself, with all its quotidian tawdriness, promises a more substantial cinematic arousal in which the narrator can embolden one’s imaginary biography. If Bogen’s poems concern themselves with the resilient vulnerability of her self-consciousness, they do so with a deliberate display of the consequences to the singular identity.

Funny how failure and falling
sound alike – the firings failing
and falling pling pling pling
in my brain
my managed care brain
my climate control brain
That fiction and fission
sound alike is funny
this friction and fiction
sound alike, ha-ha.

The final two parts of this eight part poem both point to the endless present tense of self-portrait work in an epiphora of apparent singularity.

The friction of my life
against my life is my life.

The fission of my life
despite my life is my life.

The singularity of “my life” is deceptive, though, for it is always already splitting into the fissures of other lives and other imagined roles, including that of the quintessential Los Angeles figure, the private detective, or as Bogen stamps her calling card: L.A. Bogen, Detective Supremo:

My very name
rolls on the tongue
like an apertif
or a recalled cheese
an open parenthesis of mayhem
on the make
in the sulky afternoon
of Los Angeles

The “private surveillance” she offers the reader, however, is that of the guidance that leads to unexpected encounters:
And suddenly
the bougainvillea greet you
like a happy extortionist

and it’s Cinco de Mayo
everywhere you look
as I melt into crowds
just one step behind you.

In this instance, the poet enables the reader to see the possibility of reconciliation between the self and the things of the world. The bougainvillea’s audacity is that it demands we surrender the “cherished image” that the “hardened arm” so deliberately clings to and experience the flowering in and of itself as the holiday of independence from self-dependency. It is not “crowds” of people that the Detective Supremo flows into, but crowds of meaning.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this collection is the number of poems that have little to do with any personal crisis. Bogen’s ability to distance herself as the author or even the protagonist of the poems would seem to run counter to Confessional poetry’s privileging of the first person pronoun. Indeed, even though there is a steady undercurrent / groundswell of references to the typical topics of confessional poetry such as guilt, corporal punishment, suicide, etc., Bogen’s poetry uses these topics as a means of grounding the transformation she has yearned for all the while, a transformation that can only be fully accounted for and comprehended if one embeds Confessional poetry within the discourse of the feminist poetry of the 1970s.

In thinking of the development of feminist awareness in the 1970s, when Bogen was first writing, publishing, and reading her poems in public, one must remember that group activities such as consciousness-raising were an important – indeed, crucial – ritual in breaking free of patriarchal domination. To read poets, born after World War II, who aligned themselves with the Confessional movement without emphasizing a feminist context is to oversimplify their literary project. As Alan Williamson has pointed out, “confessional poetry – almost from the moment that unfortunate term was coined – has been the whipping boy of a half a dozen newer schools.” Or instead of “whipping boy,” should we say “nasty woman,” which might clarify that point of the attacks on confessional poetry. Feminist poetry was the single area of poetic activity in the 1970s, but in poetry’s politics, it would not have been acceptable to cast aspersions on feminist agency. Dismissals of confessional poetry, however, were far more palatable, and accomplished a severance of the links between confessional and feminist, thereby reducing the power of continuity within the critical discourse.

In a poem such as “I Dream the Light of Reason II,” Bogen demonstrates that her confessional poetry has not confined her imagination to the genre of memoir-in-verse. As if dealing from a deck of cards to a table full of patriarchal gamblers, each face card demands to be played, “as it lays.”

The Reasonable Woman is a hope chest, a locked cabinet.

The Reasonable Woman is pleasant enough.

The Reasonable Woman is the converse of sex.

The Reasonable Woman is a durable good, a sound diagnosis.

The Reasonable Woman is a subordinate clause.

The Reasonable Woman is childproof, although Heidi is already up to her knee.

The Reasonable Woman is a skillet, a war bond.

The Reasonable Woman is a fugue heard on the intercom.

The Reasonable Woman is a graph of stock options, the percentage of return.

The Reasonable Woman is open to suggestion.

The Reasonable Woman is a string bean, a cauliflower, a field of potatoes.

The Reasonable Woman is a packet of Alka-Seltzer in the Accounts Payable file.

The Reasonable Woman is considering bankruptcy.

The Reasonable Woman is a stacked heel, a running shoe.

The Reasonable Woman is a pair of pantyhose in the bathroom sink.

The Reasonable Woman is fat free.

The Reasonable Woman is a shadow of herself.

Why would The Reasonable Woman become unreasonable?

Bogen’s sardonic titular character enumerates the options and expectations imposed on women as a collage list of grievances and conditions that can have but one outcome. To be “unreasonable” would be to make herself the primary clause of a sentence; it would mean that self-definition takes place in a social economy activated by a contract not dependent on war bonds, stock options, and the economic repression of bankruptcy.

The remote chance of success in this metamorphosis has been obvious from the start of Bogen’s calculations. In an early poem from the late 1970s, “The Disappearing Act,” the anonymous female narrator admits that:

women are such fools
I am like those fools
with my shackled independence
tunnel vision
of soiled diapers
and dishes

For this narrator, the choice to become otherwise will require the capacity to laugh at the outcome in choosing to be an author:

a pen to save me from the cold
my wits
forced autonomy

Yes, there is something to be said for farce

Nevertheless, Bogen reminds us of the power within each person’s grasp to confront these velleities and use the symbolic power she invokes in “The Red Pencil” and to start anew, even if crossing that boundary requires the surrender of everything marked with inextricable sentiment:

My fingers still close
around red pencils
still move blindly
across paper
canceling time and recrimination
like an exile returning without baggage.

Bogen’s poetry is unlikely to get the full measure of attention it deserves, but that could easily be said of a thousand working poets in this country right now. That it will not receive even a minimally sufficient recognition is more dismaying. Nevertheless, the work will find its own intriguing path in the years to come. Bogen has produced a body of work over a forty year period that has a vibrato of tonal consistency while being able to look into more than the mirror of her own self-consciousness, and the poems taken as a whole shimmer on the tongue of a reader’s memory unlike any other aftertaste. The difficult trek of a mind and body at odds with each other resolves in a quiet advice:

The unopened gift is still a gift. It is given like a forecast or traffic report – backgound to common cash and carry or extraordinary good fortune. There’s a high pressure front ahead: A hand is offered.
Take it.

Bill Mohr / Summer, 2017 / Long Beach, CA
(Accepted for publication in Poetry Flash a year ago. Printed in my blog out of frustrated impatience.)

(Note: An earlier version of this review was presented as a paper at a panel on poetry organized by Steven Gould Axelrod at the PAMLA conference in Pasadema, CA, in October, 2016. My thanks to those who attended and made comments and suggestions.)

“Route 66 through the Eyes of Poets”

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Tomorrow evening, seven Los Angeles poets will gather at the West Hollywood library for a follow-up reading to last year’s “Sunset Blvd. through the Eyes of Poets.” Sticking with a vehicular trope, Kim Dower selected Route 66, the subject of a famous song that has been reworked quite often over the years by a variety of musicians and bands.

The event is free, and starts at 7 p.m. Each poet will read for seven minutes.
The reading will feature Laurel Ann Bogen, Elena Karina Byrne, Brendan Constantine, Yvonne Estrada, Bill Mohr, Lynne Thompson, and the poet laureate of West Hollywood, Kim Dower.

625 N. San Vicente Blvd.
Wednesday, April 25

I will reading a poem that was published in Rob Cohen’s fine magazine of the 1990s, Caffeine, in addition to debuting a new poem, “The One Exception,” that I finished revising a few weeks ago. It’s the first “stand up” poem I’ve written in some time, and I’m looking forward to reading it very much.

“A Bride Married to Amazement” — Mary Oliver’s “Devotions”

Sunday, April 8, 2018

“A Bride Married to Amazement” — Mary Oliver – Devotions

The first 120 pages of this book remind me that my most difficult years as a poet might be the coming decade. I turned 70 this past October, and I can only hope that my talent does not fade and wither so rapidly as it does in this instance. I wish I could say otherwise, especially since Mary Oliver has written several dozen poems that are worth reading many times. In fact, the odds are very much in your favor of finding a poem you will want to re-read immediately if you open the book at random to any page between pages 100 and 390.

The problem of what is missing in the poems in the first portion of the book, is summed up in a poem entitled “The World I live in”:

You wouldn’t believe what once
Or twice I have seen. I’ll just
Tell you this:
Only if there are angels in your head will you
Ever, possibly, see one.

Oliver’s didactic tone deserves the skepticism with which it should be read. What makes her think that we would be askance about her field reports? We do affirm what she has seen, as reported in her earlier poems, because the immediate believability of her metaphors has enabled us to savor her visions, such as the one in “Picking Blueberries, Austerlitz, New York, 1957.” A deer, traipsing along, engrossed in the whiffs of its rewarded appetite, stumbles across a human being taking a nap. The encounter suggests that consciousness of another as a continuum of reciprocity is a gift to those who awaken themselves to the spacious realm of “amazement.” (In this instance, Oliver is picking up the central lesson of Dickinson’s “This Was a Poet.”) Oliver is exceptionally skilled at blending diction and rhythm to create a glowing afterimage; one finishes the best of her poems with an equilibrium restored to one’s desire for self-knowledge. “What is it that truly matters?” Oliver’s poems ask us, time and again; and if we merely “visit” her poems, rather than absorb them, we will fall prey to a fate that horrifies Oliver, as it should us: to die merely having “visited the world.”

In reading poems such “The Egret” and “Rice,” one detects the presence of D.H. Lawrence, if not his direct influence. The absence of D.H. Lawrence’s poems from most of the “survey of poetry” anthologies I have seen in recent years attests to his suppression in the canon. Perhaps Oliver, a hundred odd years from now, will also vanish from the canonical anthologies, but I suspect that those who care about how to build the ship of death will find their way to poems such as “I Found a Dead Fox,” and from there find their way back to the deleted poetry of D.H. Lawrence, and hear the communion that gives us succor in the imminence of our perishing.

Here are some of my other favorites:

“1945-1985 – “Poem for the Anniversary”
(After reading this poem, ask yourself how “nature” is configured in this poem about the Holocaust, compared to Stuart Z. Perkoff’s “Feasts of Death, Feasts of Love.” Perkoff’s poem can be found in Donald Allen’s classic anthology, New American Poetry)

“Backyard” (206) – This poem has a more casual touch than most of Oliver’s work. The end-words are unusually muted, and the enjambment rather relaxes; nevertheless, the poem hovers in the reader’s imagination as a sanctuary of words that retain and embellish the flickering colors of the poem’s perspective.

“Fox” – Oddly enough, a poet who makes drastically different use of “Nature” than Oliver has a poem that has a congruent inner logic. As in this poem, the act of writing is foregrounded in Ted Hughes’s “The Thought Fox”; both end with an image of the page as an ineradicable horizon.

“The Sun” – This poem makes one think of part four of Anne Bradstreet’s poem, “Contemplations.”
Whether Oliver is aware of the protrusion I cannot say. I enjoy this poem, but Bradstreet’s stanza encompasses it all, said once and not needing any elaboration by another poet. Still, one can hardly fault Oliver for succumbing to the temptation to do so. I wish I could write something the equal of this poem. Ah! It suddenly comes to mind that I certainly tried: see “Slave of the Sun,” which originally appeared in Penetralia, and which was reprinted in “Poetry Loves Poetry.”

“The Loon” – (page 210) Ah! This poem features the writer as a reader, and the old-fashioned use of an animal as a symbol might well bring to mind, within a classroom, that chestnut of 19th century verse, “The Water-Fowl.” The lesson is not as obviously stated, but the interregnum of the stillness exemplified should encourage us to do the same after reading each poem. Certainly a poem such as “Lead,” which also features loons, or “Gethesemani,” a version of the tremulous night before Jesus Christ is publicly executed, are poems that should make you halt, and wait for however long it takes for the ear of one’s mind to need to be requited, again.

The Jackson Wheeler Poetry Reading Report

Friday, March 30, 2018

French Concrete One

Linda and I drove up to the Carnegie Arr Museum in Oxnard, California this past weekend for the reading with Vincent Mowry, a poet from Ojai who deserves to be much better known. The plan for the return trip was to stop by Linda’s sister house and relieve her of her care for Linda’s mother for a couple of days.

The reading went better than I ever could have expected. Almost 40 people showed up, which is over two dozen more than usually show up for readings in Los Angeles. I was especially grateful that several poets I knew as a youth showed up: Ricardo Means-Ybarra, Florence Weinberger, ellen, as well as their painter friend, Annie. The reading started with some earnest, intriguing work by a young poet, Sarah Krashefski, and then Marsha de la O introduced me with some very kind remarks.

I led off with “Big Band, Slow Dance,” and followed with “Why the Heart Does Not Develop Cancer”; I then read “The Eviction,” “Wrinkles,” “In the Ocean of Nothingness,” an untitled haiku that was recently published in Hummingbird, and a large section of “Scorpio in Transit,” which appeared in KYSO.

Vincent Mowry read several very fine poems, including one exquite poem that almost eerily served as a parallel vision to one of the poems I had read in the first half of the reading. I have almost never been combined with another poet in a reading whose work I don’t know ahead of time and found that we had much in common; somehow, though, it turned out that Vincent’s poetry had more in common with mine that either of us could ever have expected. His poem about a dream of swimming in the ocean took on the bleakness of Dickinson’s “without even a report of land / To justify despair” and broke through to another realm of vision, closer to that occasion she describes as being a vision of “morning’s nest.” Mowry’s poem about that vision was one of the best I have heard in recent years.

After the reading, neither Vincent nor I had any books for sale, so we mingled with the audience. The museum, though, made copies of Was I Asleep: New and Selected Poems by Jackson Wheeler available for purchase. The reading series is named in his honor, and he deserves it. Marsha read an extraordinary poem that Wheeler wrote about a visitation by his dead father, a World War II veteran, to his bedroom the night before leaving his Appalachian hometown. It’s as deeply moving and poignant as anything in Winesburg, Ohio. In other words, a classic poem. I have been reading Wheeler’s book since I returned, and certainly hope to review it by this summer.

By chance, in Oxnard the next morning, we happened to meet one of Linda’s oldest friend, Vicki, who was having breakfast with her companion, who turned out to a manager for a concrete delivery company. I told him that I had always liked those trucks and like many very young boys thought about driving one of them when I grew up. I mentioned to him that such a truck had recently been in my neighborhood to pour concrete for a roundabout at the intersection where we live, and I had taken photographs of its massive cylinder. When I showed him the photographs, he said, “That’s my company,” which turns out to be owned by a French family. In fact, he explained, the three dots inside the triangle represent the three generations of the family’s commitment to the company.

As Darwin pointed out, the success of any individual in an evolutionary scheme can be gauged by whether its offspring have offspring. It’s as true in poetry as it is in concrete. Here is to the names of the poets I have invoked in my lifetime of work being written in concrete along with their solemnly joyful affirmations of our shared journey.

Once again, thanks to Marsha and Phil for being kind enough to include me in this series.

French Concrete Two

A Reading to Honor the Poetry of Margaret Tynes Fairley

Saturday, March 18, 2018

The Years Wear The Seasons - BLOG

A number of years ago, one of the poets I most admire, Robert Mezey, worked assiduously to get the poems of Virginia Hamilton Adair into wider circulation. Ants on the Melon, Adair’s debut collection, was published in 1996, when she was 83 years old.

The poet and editor Bambi Here, whose imprint is Bambaz Press, has just published a book worthy to be set alongside Adair’s volume. The Year Wears the Seasons, by Margaret Tynes Fairley (1902-1986) is a collection of poems that contains some of the most exquisite lyrical poems to have been written in the 20th century. In drawing upon the metrical traditions of English poetry, Fairley makes it look easy to write in this manner. What impresses me the most, in fact, is how Fairley could be said to ride her lines like a jockey who trusts her mount. Her touch on the reins is light, but precise.

There is indeed a tendency, especially on the part of inexperienced readers, to tense up when they hear the word “prosody.” Indeed, it is a word that can strike fear all too quickly into even experienced readers, as if the traditional use of meter transformed a reader into astronaut being dared to double-down on Hopkins’s sprung rhythm, and that some black hole of spondaic immersion hunches on its throne at the edge of a galaxy, waiting to pull you into its inescapable gravity.

Relax! Fairley has no desire to have you do anything other than begin to appreciate your own inner rhythms.

“The whole wide orchestra of earth gives sound
To each who tunes his fiddle simply
On his holy ground.”
(“Why Should We Seek to Do it All”)

No doubt this reassurance will not suffice, and there will be readers who first start reading Kay Ryan or Marilyn Hacker in hopes of making their prosodic muscles loose and nimble enough again to savor the swirl of Fairley’s dancing syllables. If you truly feel that ill at ease, however, I am not sure that any poet could accommodate your anxiety. At that point, I can only recommend that you go back to the best of Thomas Hardy or renew your acquaintance with that forgotten classic of English poetry, “The Listeners,” by Walter de la Mare.

For those who feel at home in reading a poet with subtle metrical dexterity that turns away all pretense about its use, however, then Fairley’s book has some memorable poems to share with you immediately: “The Question”; “Come look –“; and “Bodies Touch.” In particular, I would like to praise Fairley’s “Although Unasked,” which is a poem that deserves to be set aside the minor masterpiece of Janet Lewis’s marvelous “Baby Goat.” Rarely does metrical nuance embrace a set of images with so much forthright tenderness.

Only the new=born calf
Is real and intimate as hand.
He couldn’t wait for warmer days.
This was his hour, he learned to stand,
When other creatures shivered in some hole.
He had no time or chance to know
If there was room or even shelter from the cold.
The star that brands his knobby head
Is clear and soft and shining white;
Although, unasked, he came to birth
On this the coldest winter night.

On Sunday, March 19, starting at 12:30 p.m., Beyond Baroque will host a reading to celebrate the publication of The Year Wears the Seasons. Along with members of Fairley’s family, both Alexis Rhone Fancher and I plan on being there to read a few of her poems. We hope you can join us.

Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center
681 Venice Blvd.
Venice, CA 90291

Websignature - two

— Bill Mohr

Past Lives: Poet, Editor, Publisher, Continuation School Teacher, and the Beat

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Although I am working on new poems and thinking about which of my past academic talks I should begin revising in hopes of publication, the challenge of setting aside time to make those endeavors my sole concern remains as complicated as ever. A year and a half ago, one of the members of Beyond Baroque’s Board of Trustees asked me to join the Board, a move that I can hardly afford to undertake on a financial level, let alone how much time that requires. Even during times when the GDP of the United States indicates the system’s general economic stability, non-profit arts organizations must negotiate and bargain with a culture that did not particularly want them to last more than a decade or two. To attain the half-century mark is no small achievement, but Beyond Baroque is hardly assured of a sufficient budget for its future programming.

This weekend has been one of the highlights of the spring season. Funded completely out of his own pocket, S.A. Griffin has organized a celebration of the Beat movement, which concludes tomorrow evening with a musical performance by David Amram. Yesterday afternoon, I gave a talk on Venice West, and then moderated a panel at which two of the original members of that community recalled their experiences in considerable detail. Frank T. Rios Joseph Patton, and Gayle Davis talked with each other in an honest manner about the glorious sense of freedom that Venice West exuded along with the eventual confinements of drug addiction. Paton acknowledged that Rios has pulled him out of addiction. Rios, in turn, credited the Poem with saving his life.

Fortunately, UCLA had sent out a camera and a one-man crew to record this conversation, so future scholars of Venice West will understand how much visual art mattered to this scene. It was a pleasure to hear the work of Don Martin and Saul White cited so frequently. I am not certain when the tape will be available for viewing, but I hope that someday it can be posted on-line so that scholars and students have easy access to it.

Oddly enough, Venice West often gets summed up by a quick reference to a handful of poets, and yet the conversation yesterday barely got around to discussing John Thomas, and William Margolis was not mentioned at all. Margolis, who was a close friend of Bob Kaufman’s when he lived in San Francisco, is hardly neglected this weekend, though. He is the subject of a documentary film by Don Rothenberg that will be shown today from 3:30 to 4:00 p.m. There will also be a discussion of the Beat and Buddhism with Marc Olmsted, who was also read with Steve Silberman and Tate Swindell in a segment on Gay Beat writing (4:30 – 6 p.m.).

Considering how skittish L.A. residents can be about a rain storm finally showing up after months of a renewed drought, the audiences have been surprisingly large enough to make this festival of the Beat a satisfying occasion and more than worth S.A. Griffin’s extended efforts in putting it all together. Paul Vangelisti, for instance, was supposed to be part of the panel on Venice West, but a dead battery kept him tethered at home. He told me, however, that 30 people had shown up for his reading with Neeli Cherkovski.
About three dozen poets will have read their poetry or talked about the Beat and the Neo-beat by the time David Amram gives a musical performance tomorrow night (Monday, at 9:30 p.m. I truly wish that I had enough time to have been at all the events of this festival. I regret especially not being able to attend the opening ceremonies featuring Frank T. Rios and George Herms, as well as the “Women of the Beat Generation Reading.” I would have loved to have heard Yama Lake, Larry Lake’s son, read, too, as well Marc Olmsted. In addition, Michael C. Ford and Will Alexander were giving talks.

One of the highlights of this festival, however, was probably the “Punk & Beat reading” by Linda J. ALbertano, Iris Berry, Jack Brewer, Michael Lane Bruner, S.A. Griffin, Doug Knott, and A. Razor. All I can say is that I want an extended encore presentation at a time that allows me to absorb the full ramifications of these lifetimes of contumacious poetics.

It was perhaps appropriate that I began the day by meeting with Pedro Paulo Araujo, who is working on a short animated film based on the final two stanzas of Leland Hickman’s poem, “The Hidden.” That poem was one of ten “Elements” that was published in Hickman’s Great Slave Lake Suite in 1980. I met with Pedro at 10:00 a.m. at Portfolio Coffeehouse in Long Beach to discuss Hickman’s poetry in general and that poem in particular. I gave him a copy of “Lee Sr. Falls to the Floor,” which Lee had written in the mid-1960s, as a means of providing some background for Lee’s life-long wrestling with the sudden death of his father. Pedro became interested in Lee’s poetry because his film company is working on digitizing the audio tapes of readings at Beyond Baroque. One recent tape he worked on was a reading Lee gave with Barrett Watten in 1984, on one of the coldest nights that anyone in Venice could recall. The audience was very small – maybe about eight people – and almost all of us at one point or another had to get up and walk around the read area of the folding chairs in order to warm up. We were bundled up in sweaters and jackets, but it wasn’t enough. Still, it was one of the best readings I ever attended.

Before heading off to my meeting with Pedro, I took a quick look at the first set of galleys for my forthcoming book from What Books. The typeface seems on the comfortable and familiar side, and perhaps that will work out for the best. The poems, which appear in both English and Spanish, are varied enough in their shapeliness that a more unusual typeface might prove distracting. I’ve waited a long time for this book and can’t wait to send my closest friends a copy.

Finally, I want to mention how much I appreciated seeing Carolyn Rios at yesterday’s event at Beyond Baroque. I worked with Carolyn’s students at Venice Continuation High School for several years (1989-1996). Most of the time I was an artist-in-residence funded by the Cultural Affairs Department of the City of Los Angeles. The CPITS (California Poets in the Schools) program had largely lost its impetus, at least in Southern California, by the mid-1980s, and I had turn to other sources for support in order to teach poetry to young people. Although I worked at other continuation high schools, too, Venice Continuation High holds a special place in my heart. I guess I have indeed aged, though. Carolyn at first did not recognize me, even though we were in Beyond Baroque’s lobby for several minutes before we happened to start talking to each other. On the other hand, until she took off her beret, I did not recognize her, either. Once memory had adjusted to present perception, though, we both felt as young as ever.

Caliban; KYSO; and Rae Armantrout

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Larry Smith has posted the latest edition of Caliban Chronicles, which is emphatically worth reading at this turning point in our country’s history. It is perhaps more than a little ironic that the heroic evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940 is being recounted in a major film right now. One might watch this film and be lulled into believing that World War II settled the matter of fascist government as an acceptable form of civilized social rule once and for all. Not so. Like an insidious, implacable virus, fascism has returned. Do not be deceived by the seemingly benign familiarity of its current malefactors. They are intent on imposing a firm, remorseless dictatorship on the American people that will be every bit as ruthless as that exacted on the people of Iraq subsequent to the American invasion. The prisons for those who resist will be administered by the same rule-book. Unless we act now in a vigilant manner, our fate will approach a precipice that will allow very little room to maneuver. Acting now, though, is not a matter of all work and no celebration. Larry Smith calls for us to affirm a balance in our lives in which joy also has time to cavort.

One of the very best magazines in the country right now, KYSO (Knock Your Socks Off) has just published its ninth issue. Clare MacQueen has kept this project going for five years now, and her roster of writers is growing more familiar with each issue. She is one of the five best editors to have emerged in the independent press movement in the past two decades. In particular, she has championed micro-fiction, transgressive poetry, and hybrids of those genres.

Finally, it is a personal pleasure to post a link to an interview with Rae Armantrout, a poet born in the same year as I was (1947) and who also briefly studied with the same teacher I had at San Diego State University, Glover Davis. Rae Armantrout is indeed one of very best poets of the Baby Boomer generation, and I have long admired her work. I think back on a meal at a restaurant in Ocean Park I shared with Ron Silliman and Rae Ron had come down from San Francisco to give a talk and reding at Beyond Baroque, which was also attended by Lee Hickman. Ocean Park had not yet gentrified, and eating at a restaurant within walking distance of my apartment on Hill Street gave his weekend’s presentations a celebratory touch. There was a sense of lively humor, in part because my girlfriend at the time, Cathay, was not particularly interested in poetry and had no stake in literary jostling. She primarily read mysteries, and it was thanks to her that I began to read Raymond Chandler seriously. Oddly enough, I had read Ross MadDonald lin the mid-1970s, but skipped right back to my usual fare of novels without moving on to Chandler. Cathay, Ron, and Rae seemed both to enjoy Cathay’s push-back wit. As we ate our pasta, the discussion hardly hid the fact that Ron, Rae, and I were all ambitious for our work, although we did not necessarily expect any larger recognition than what we were then receiving.

We would not eat together again until Ron gave a reading in San Diego while I was a graduate student. We had by then achieved more acclaim, but Ron had not yet published The Alphabet; Rae was still working as an adjunct; and I was a teaching assistant over the age of 50, which is to say that the odds were heavily against me getting a tenure-track job. Rae was not that much more optimistic. A literary life is not feasible if one is easily discouraged or given to stultifying self-reproach.

In thinking fondly, therefore, with retrospective appreciation of that meal in Ocean Park, and all that Ron, Rae, and I have done since then (and how it has not been easy), I post this link of Rae being interviewed at the Library of Congress. All three of us are fortunate enough to still be ambitious for our work.

Beyond Baroque Celebrates the Deep State of the Beat Mind

Sunday, March 4, 2018

BEYOND BEAT at BEYOND BAROQUE: “It’s not a generation. It’s a state of mind.” — Diane Di Prima

I drove up to Venice yesterday afternoon to attend George Drury Smith’s talk about his life before he founded Beyond Baroque in 1968. There was also a meeting of a half-dozen members of the Board of Trustees to discuss a major event in November. When I walked into the main lobby, the first thing I saw was a flyer for this coming week’s celebration of Beat inspired poetry, music, and art. Organized by S.A. Griffin, who was one of the editors of The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, “Beyond Beat” is a five-day crash course in a literary movement that is well over 60 years old. Contrary to the claims of the Language and post-avant poets, Beat poetics is still an active principle in contemporary American poetry and therefore constitutes the eldest surviving movement of literate consciousness in the United States.

The entire program can be found at:

“Beyond Beat” starts on Thursday, March 8 and runs through Monday, March 12th. Poets, performers, and presenters include Frank T. Rios, Will Alexander, Phoebe MacAdams, Paul Vangelisti, Brian Chidester, David Amran, Linda J. Albertao, Jack Brewer, Eve Brandstein, Pegarty Long, Laurel Ann Bogen, Rich Ferguson, Lorraine Perrotta, Michael C. Ford, Marc Olmsted, Gayle Davis, Joseph Patton, and Neeli Cherkovski.

I will be giving a talk on Venice West on Saturday, March 10, at 1:00 p.m. and moderating a panel from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m.

Beyond Baroque
681 Venice Blvd.
Venice, CA 90291

Beyond Beat: March 8 – 12, 2018
Organized by S.A. Griffin

Cross-Strokes — Reviewed by Mike (The Poet) Sonksen

March 3, 2018

I wish to thank David Lau and Cal Bedient for giving me permission to reprint Mike (The Poet) Sonksen’s review of Cross-Strokes: Poetry between Los Angeles and San Francisco (Seismicity Editions/Otis College of Art and Design). The review was first published in Bedient’s and Lau’s magazine, Lana Turner.

Lana Turner Blog
(front cover design of Cross-Strokes by Bill Mohr)

Cross-Strokes: A Reunion Party of Poets
by Mike Sonksen
(Originally published in Lana Turner, January 2017)

As much as this era is defined by division – even in the Poetry world – most poets and writers share far more commonalities than differences, even if they are from different regions. Such complex similarities and unities in difference are highlighted in Cross-Strokes, a recent California poetry anthology published by Otis Books/Seismicity Editions. Subtitled, “Poetry between Los Angeles and San Francisco,” the collection is comprised of 35 poets and many specters of comparison. Many of the voices are well known writers like Kenneth Rexroth, Francisco X. Alarcón, Nathaniel Mackey, former San Francisco Poet Laureate Alejandro Murguia, David Meltzer, Jack Hirschman, Jack Spicer, Lewis MacAdams and Paul Vangelisti. There are also lesser-known but nonetheless skilled writers like Bruce Boyd, Michelle T. Clinton, S.A. Griffin, Richard Garcia, Phoebe MacAdams and Kevin Opstedal. Cross-Strokes spotlights these unfamiliar and mysterious poets, revealing strengths that rival their well-known counterparts. Edited by Neeli Cherkovski and Bill Mohr, the anthology was a five-year project that goes a long way to show that Los Angeles and the Bay Area have much more in common than some of their respective poets would sometimes like to admit.

The collection is bookended by essays from each of the editors. Neeli Cherkovski’s brief “Preface” explicates their selection process and the ethos of the anthology. “Cross-Strokes extends the idea of an anthology based on geography. There have been many regional anthologies before, usually centered in major cities, but this one is more rare, more of an oddity.” He explains the commonalities between the two regions and their shared poetic history dating back to the Spanish past, the rapid growth in the early 20th Century along with the spirit of the Beat poets in both North Beach, San Francisco and Venice West. The book chronicles poets from locations immediately adjacent to Los Angeles and the Bay Area such as Bolinas, Berkeley, Cal State L.A., Long Beach, Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara. Collectively, the 35 poets in this collection go a long way towards mapping West Coast poetic history.

Wanderlust along the Shores

The transitory life of poets often requires being nomadic; thus the independent and restless spirit of West Coast poets. As Cherkovski declares, “This book is a gathering of many voices — poets of the same terrain walking many roads.” Mohr reaffirms the defining temperament of the book in his concluding essay, where he writes: “While both Los Angeles and San Francisco possess a radiant charisma distinctive unto themselves, the West Coast is even more powerful in exerting its subtle wanderlust along its shores.” Though there are a number of poets in the book that have been loosely affiliated with the Beat Generation group of poets, the anthology is an eclectic selection of aesthetic styles from the San Francisco Renaissance, avant-garde Surrealists to street poets.

One of the quintessential poets in the anthology is David Meltzer, who has associated with several of the movements noted above. Connected to the Bay Area for the last 55 years, he first arrived on the West Coast, where he landed in Hollywood. “I relocated to Hollywood when I was 16,” Meltzer told me last year. “I was exiled from Brooklyn. Took a sabbatical from high school and worked at an open air newsstand on Western & Hollywood Blvd. Saved by movies, jazz, the library, I remember going regularly to the Highland/Hollywood newsstand and saw my first City Lights book — Ferlinghetti’s Pictures of a Gone World which knocked my funky sweat socks off.” A few years later in 1957, Meltzer moved to the Bay Area and by 1960, he was the youngest contributor to Donald Allen’s anthology, New American Poetry. His poem, “The Veil,” in the anthology deftly meditates on the difference, “between what’s called heart / and the real evil.”

Overlapping Identity

Organized alphabetically, the first poet in the anthology is Francisco X. Alarcón, who passed away shortly after the text was published. Born in Southern California in 1954, Alarcón was close comrades with current National Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera dating back to their time together at Stanford in the Bay Area in the late 1970s. Six of Alarcón’s poems are included, three of which are also translated into Spanish as well as printed in English. In the poem, “Poor Poets,” Alarcón laments the plight of financially impoverished poets who,

courteous as ever
they ask empty
park benches
for permission to sit
nobody knows
not even they
why wings sprout
on their shoulders
maybe one day
they’ll finally use
that key they carry
forever in their pocket.

In the following poems, “From the Other Side of Night,” “Of Dark Love,” “Mestizo,” and the “X in My Name,” Alarcón meditates on overlapping identity in Aztlan and North America. These overlapping layers are a signature theme in his career and also connect to this anthology’s efforts to juxtapose competing narratives of geography.

The next poet, Bruce Boyd, “Zen poet of Venice West” studied in San Francisco with Robert Duncan in San Francisco. Participant in the San Francisco Renaissance, he later came back down to Venice and serving as one of the figureheads of the Venice West cadre. Boyd’s well-known “Venice Recalled” appears here and captures the urgency and excitement of the Venice movement where, “a new poem was something / the making, something / that asked to be shared at once.” This piece is explicated in great detail by Mohr in his 2011 monograph, Hold Outs: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance, 1948-1992. In this earlier book, Mohr writes that, “Boyd’s oscillation between San Francisco and Venice is yet another piece of the mosaic in which poets on the West Coast are using the entire stretch of the territory to test out possibilities of parallel community.” Mohr goes on to explain how, “The poem is closer in its lyric strategy and central theme to Wallace Stevens’s ‘Of Modern Poetry’ than to avant-garde experiment.” This poem was published in Donald Allen’s 1960 anthology, New American Poetry. Boyd mysteriously disappeared never to be seen again after 1969.

From Bukowski to Multicultural Poetry

Born in Santa Monica, Cherkovski has engaged deeply in West Coast Poetry since his early 20s when he co-edited both a magazine and an anthology in the early 1970s. Cherkovski and Charles Bukowski’s Laugh Literary and Man the Hunting Guns appeared just before 1971’s Anthology of L.A. Poets, co-edited this time with Bukowski and Paul Vangelisti. Cherkovski, who moved to the Bay Area in the mid-1970s, has an extensive oeuvre including poetry and several literary biographies: Ferlinghetti: A Biography, Whitman’s Wild Children and Bukowski: A Life. In the Bukowski biography, Cherkovski shares many stories of his journeys across Los Angeles with the “Dirty Old Man.” Among his four poems included in Cross-Strokes, “To the Poet at Twenty,” echoes sentiments Cherkovski must have heard from Bukowski: ‘you will not stay young / your sound will deepen.”

Michelle T. Clinton made big waves in the Southern California poetry scene during the 1980s and 90s with her published poetry, spoken word recordings, anthologies she edited and her Beyond Baroque poetry workshops. Clinton co-edited Invocation L.A. in 1989 along with Sesshu Foster and Naomi Quiñonez. This collection, subtitled, “Urban Multicultural Poetry,” was a groundbreaking book that went along way to demonstrate the range of poetry being produced in Los Angeles in the late 1980s. Clinton’s workshops are where writers like the late great Michele Serros and Pam Ward started their ascendancy into literary Los Angeles. Moreover, Clinton’s 1992 spoken word recording “Black Angeles,” on New Alliance Records with Wanda Coleman remains a watershed moment in Los Angeles poetry.

In “Manifesting the Rush/How to Hang,” Clinton offers a litany of ways to survive and thrive in the big city with an edgy, tongue-in-cheek tone that still holds up 30 years after she wrote it. Clinton advises, “Laugh at everything you can” and concludes, “Never sleep with anybody crazier than you. Unless you up for a wild ride. Keep your hands cupped over your heart. Do not fall in love.” Though she has been a less active writer over the last two decades, she was so influential during the apex of her career that her work still resonates.

San Francisco plays a role here. City resident Sharon Doubiago was born in Los Angeles and she is one of several poets in the collection to study at Cal State L.A. Over the last 50 years, poet-professors there-Thomas McGrath, Henri Coulette, Timothy Steele and Lauri Ramey-have mentored young bards. In addition to being a poet, Doubiago is an award-winning fiction writer. Her poems, “100 Memories I Don’t Remember,” and “Abalone,” discuss the Los Angeles River and Terminal Island within their complex narratives. The San Francisco-born poet Richard Garcia’s clever sestina, “Dreaming of Sheena,” along with two other poems-“Their Words,” and “Naked City”- possess an irreverent tone and clever wordplay. The latter begins, “She was the kind of gal who would look elegant/even if she was wearing nothing but handcuffs.” Garcia’s subtle poetic humor is another pervasive trope in Cross-Strokes.

Street Generation Not Beat Generation

The spirit of the streets cuts across the book. Bay Area-born S.A. Griffin, who came of age during the Punk Rock era and found his voice in the Los Angeles art community in the late 1970s and 80s, has four poems here. Titles alone give a sense of the ethos “I Choose Not to Believe in War Holy or Not,” and “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” which notes, “she was more beautiful/than I could have known at the time/Vietnam was waiting for me/rents were cheap & inflation/was just approaching upon the/landscape of our Yankee lexicon/if we only knew.” These days Griffin travels the country performing poetry with a 7-foot “bomb”-painted and filled with hundreds of poems.

A generation before he became the San Francisco Poet Laureate, the incendiary Jack Hirschman was a professor at UCLA, where he taught figures like Jim Morrison and Michael C. Ford during the 1960s. Hirschman was later fired for his political views, which included open encouragement for students burning draft cards. Before departing LA for San Francisco in 1973, he penned “The Burning of Los Angeles,” a canonical work poem of Southern California. (It features in Laurence Goldstein’s Poetry Los Angeles (2014)). The poem is one of the three Hirschman pieces in Cross-Strokes and it depicts the surreal and eerie atmosphere every Angeleno has experienced during fire season with the Santa Ana Winds. Hirschman begins: “Smelled her before the eyes saw her/going east from the sea on Sunset/got a whiff of her through the smog valved exhausts/nagging motor grind of the winding road/She was lining them up for miles at the pass/of the freeway under me.” Fire, in Hirschman’s characterization, is a powerful woman, a mesmerist and conjurer in the ecology of Los Angeles. The poem captures both 60s-era hillside and political fires in the Southern California imagination, their inducement of quasi-apocalyptic fear.
Hirschman’s vital work, which takes place at the intersection of politics and poetry, street and academy, began in concert with his youthful career in the latter; his exit from academia and his intensifying Marxist outlook across the decades have worked doggedly against the current. Hirschman’s poetry for the people is rooted in the streets; he has marked innumerable community poets on the West Coast. In an interview with David Meltzer (collected in San Francisco Beat: Talking with the Poets (City Lights, 2001)), Hirschman says, “I see a street generation rather than the Beat Generation. Poets like Bobby Kaufman and Jack Micheline are the ones I identify with.”

Stephen Kessler was one of the poets in Hirschman’s UCLA class in 1966 and the Los Angeles native eventually moved up to Santa Cruz for graduate study. Kessler emerged as editor of Alcatraz, which published Bukowski, Coleman and F.A. Nettelbeck. “Synchronicity” recalls a wandering writer Kessler met one day in Hirschman’s class. Later Kessler saw the nomadic poet hitchhiking up Highway 1: “The bridge of his disbelief was blown—/it got him going—/all the way into the city he spewed prophecy.” The other two Kessler poems, “Vallejo Remembers,” and “Chaos Theory,” participate in a similar fantastical irony. In “Chaos Theory,” Kessler exclaims, “Do the math. / It all adds up. Saul Bellow said so. / One is born under a deadline with no outline. / You open up the blank blue book for the final and let fly.” Such spontaneity is a central thread in Cross-Strokes.

Bolinas to Los Angeles

Lewis MacAdams, author of over 12 books of poetry, numerous articles, and a book on the Beat Generation and jazz, The Birth of the Cool, was one of the youngest members of the New York School before he pursued graduate studies with Charles Olson at the University of Buffalo. MacAdams left New York in 1970 and lived in Bolinas, California, from 1970 to 1980. During this time, MacAdams served for three years as the director of the Poetry Center at San Francisco State University and began working in environmental activism.

By the time he came to Los Angeles in 1980, MacAdams was very much an “eco-poet,” and this stance inevitably led him to start the Friends of the Los Angeles River in 1985-86. “The Soccer Field” reveals the man versus nature theme that MacAdams has indefatigably engaged through the course of his career. He contemplates the futility of curbing man’s restless pursuit of progress and development when he writes, “It’s like holding back the future with a string. / the hunger that is driving these people / is more powerful than an electronic battlefield.” MacAdams’ battlefield career he continues to this day. His collected poems, Dear Oxygen (2011), contains almost five decades of poems that grapple with the relationship between nature and the city.

Phoebe MacAdams, the ex-wife of MacAdams, now remarried and known as Phoebe Ozuna, is listed in the anthology as Phoebe MacAdams. The 25-year veteran English teacher at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights near East Los Angeles, she is also one of the co-founders of Cahuenga Press, a Los Angeles-based imprint. The first poem of hers here, “Happy Birthday Bolinas,” is dedicated to her longtime friend Joanne Kyger, icon of Bolinas poets. The following poems, “The Sounds of the City,” and “The Memory of Light,” combine candid observation with a transcendental tone. “I remember when the days unraveled / in tangles of children and chocolate / fierce daisies and bodhisattvas / when only the protection of / poetry stopped me at street corners / as our cars reeled out of control.” Each of Phoebe MacAdams’ poems in this collection pulse with the restless West Coast spirit.

The National Book Award winner Nathaniel Mackey follows Phoebe MacAdams. Mackey’s surrealist jazz poetics have brought him many book awards and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He taught at USC during the 1970s and then spent 31 years teaching at UC Santa Cruz until 2010. An excerpt of Mackey’s “Song of the Andoumboulou,” is included in the anthology. Mackey’s poetics play with paronomasia and sing syllables like a scat singer sings with a saxophone. Witness the poem’s opening: “Asked his name, he said,/’Stra, short for stranger.’/Sang it. Semisaid, semisung./’Stronjer?’ I asked, semisang,/half in jest. ‘Stronger,’/he/whatsaid back. Knotted/highness, loquat highness,/rope turned inward, tugged./Told he’d someday ascend.” Mackey employs assonance, alliteration and internal rhyme while he turns meaning inside out. He remains among the most progressive poets writing today.

As mentioned in the beginning of this essay, David Meltzer is a quintessential West Coast poet with deep roots in both the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Meltzer is one of the only scribes that intersected with both the Venice West writers and the cadre known as the San Francisco Renaissance. Meltzer’s most recent books have been published by City Lights and he taught for many years at the New College of California in San Francisco. Meltzer even released a few musical albums with a group of musicians in the 1960s and 70s. His jazz poem in the book, “The Veil,” reflects on, “the moment when nothing is left.”
The recent San Francisco Poet Laureate Alejandro Murguía grew up in Los Angeles and went to LA City College before moving up to the Bay Area like so many poets do. In 1976, when he was 26, Murguía became first director of the Mission Cultural Center in San Francisco’s legendary Mission District. His activism with youth and community issues around San Francisco as well as with the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua over the last three plus decades made him a popular choice for San Francisco’s sixth Poet Laureate in 2012. His prose poem in the anthology, “Caracas is Not Paris,” epitomizes his international awareness. In the work, Murguia recalls Cesar Vallejo’s time in Paris and his celebrated tome about that time of his life, Poemas Humanos: “My copy of Poemas Humanos so read and re-read and yet not a place mark on it, my dog-eared page, not one fold or wrinkle on it, but worn down at the spine from the many times it has been cracked open in Paris, Mexico City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, the pages yellowed, frail and brittle like our lives.”

Murguía is followed in the anthology by the venerated Beat poet Harold Norse who passed in 2009 at 93 years old. One of Norse’s poems in the anthology, “At the Cafe Trieste,” recalls the Golden Age of music of Ancient Greece and Rome and connects it to the spirit of North Beach, San Francisco. The poet asks: “Will the Golden Age ever come?/ Same faces throw up each generation,/ same races, emotions, struggles!/ all those centuries, those countries!/languages, songs, discontents!/They return here in San Francisco/as I sit in the Cafe Trieste.” Norse wants to remind us that, “this is the only Golden Age/there’ll ever be.”

Between Surf Surrealism and California Zen

Then there are lesser-known, mysterious writers tucked in like Kevin Opstedal. Venice-born, now forty-year Santa Cruz resident Opstedal leans on enchantment, a surf surrealism. In “Playa de los Muertos” his register is pure California, echoing a Jeff Spicoli like, “Once on a beach just north of Malibu I left my body for a while I think.” The next two poets following Opstedal are among the best known in the collection: Stuart Perkoff and Kenneth Rexroth. Perkoff is generally considered the poet laureate of the Venice West poets from the late 1950s until he passed in 1974 and Rexroth was a leading figure in the San Francisco Renaissance from the 1940s well into the 1960s. Perkoff’s poem, “Letter to Jack Hirschman,” asserts, “Let’s insist on vision / I will accept nothing less than miracles.” Perkoff’s career is mythical in many poetic circles for his spontaneity and carefree spirit. Both street and Beat, he wandered Venice exclaiming poetry and making trips up to San Francisco.

Rexroth, though associated with the Beats, was tersely influenced by Chinese and Japanese poetic sensibilities. His work exhibits more minimalism than many of his peers. Rexroth lived the last 14 years of his life in Santa Barbara while he taught at UC Santa Barbara after spending 41 years in San Francisco from 1927 to 1968. Much of Rexroth’s poetry has a Zen sensibility like the poem, “On Flower Wreath Hill,” included in Cross-Strokes. An excerpt epitomizes his ethos: “In the darkness every moment/Grows longer and longer, and/I feel as timeless as the/Two Thousand year old cypress.” The poet and professor Doren Robbins has a poem called, “Hummingbird.” “Bursting from his branch,” Robbins writes, in a spirit akin to Rexroth. “[H]e dipped all the way in,/the iridescent throat wet with honeysuckle juice./his wings so wild with motion/the untouched red blossoms/float backwards while he’s there.”

Seasonal change, economics, and the varied geography of California form a distinct pattern here. Joe Safdie’s sestina “September Song,” celebrates autumn in Bolinas. The two-part poem “The Poorhouse: Two Sonnets,” asks, “is it the third great depression / or the great recession?” He wonders about “the 1.7 million unemployed / whose benefits have been cut off.” Ellen Sander follows Safdie and she like Phoebe MacAdams was in Bolinas in the 1970s before coming to Los Angeles. In her poem, “Daybreakage,” she writes, “sea smoke upriver, streetlamp / dims, the very last star drowns / in something brighter.”
Aram Saroyan shares similarities with Lewis MacAdams in that he started as an early member of the New York School in the 1960s, lived in Bolinas during the 70s and made his way to L.A. in later years, teaching at USC. Saroyan’s poem, “The Moment,” contemplates the void and asks the question: “For in the end might not the beautiful be defined as whatever empties the mind, causing the seeing to become pure, mirror-like?”

Poetry of Place

Poetry of place is another key theme in this collection and two poets who explicitly address this are Standard Schaeffer and Michael Shepler. All five of Schaeffer’s pieces in the anthology cover California mountains, rivers and the desert. The first, “Water & Power,” is more of an overview on California ecology concluding that, “they came down ‘to see the elephant’ / on this burdened archipelago of bad options and enthusiasms.” Schaeffer’s other poems address the mountains near Death Valley, the city of Ojai, the Mojave Desert and the Los Angeles River. Michael Shepler, mentored by Henri Coulette at Cal State LA, is represented by poems addressing an apartment building on Santa Monica Boulevard and the Angels Flight Funicular Railway in Downtown Los Angeles. Though he is now up in the Bay Area, Shepler grew up in L.A. and was very active in Los Angeles poetry for many years.

Born in L.A. Jack Spicer’s short life produced groundbreaking works like his 1957 book, After Lorca and his 1965 collection, Language. There have been at least three posthumous collections of his and Spicer’s work has been rediscovered in a number of critical essays over the last decade. My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, published in 2008, was one of the Village Voice’s Best Books of 2008. His poem, “Apollo Sends Seven Nursery Rhymes to James Alexander,” juxtaposes Greek Mythology, chess, baseball and the La Brea Tar Pits amidst its seven segments. Spicer laments, “I died again and was reborn last night/That is the way we mirror people/Forgive me, I am a child of the mirror and not a child of the door.” Spicer merges the metaphysical with the commonplace to reveal what it means to be human.

John Thomas was one of the most influential poets in the Venice West scene. Thomas also spent some time in the Bay Area during the early 1960s. Thomas passed in 2002 at 72 years old and by the time he passed, he was the patriarch and grand old man of the Venice Beat poets. His poem in the anthology, “Variations on the Decay of Satire,” reminds us that, “in these quiet times the samurai becomes the tea man,/builds temple gardens, floats plum blossoms/in a shallow bowl before the image.”

Otis College Professor, Paul Vangelisti career dates back to the early 1970s, when he co-edited the legendary literary magazine Invisible City. Though he did his undergraduate work at the University of San Francisco, he’s been in L.A. since 1968 when he came to USC to get his Masters. For four decades Vangelisti’s poetry has combined avant-garde sensibilities, surrealism, and humor. “Days Shadows Pass” exemplifies his mode: “Gardeners sport evening dress or overalls / for those who want to reassess anything / like postmodernism or modernism / so why keep practicing desolation?”

The Santa Monica-born Scott Wannberg grew up in Venice. Quasi-mythical, he went to college at San Francisco State University where he earned an M.A. in 1977 before moving back down to Los Angeles. For many years he was a book clerk and buyer at Dutton’s Books in Brentwood before they closed in 2008. As the years went on, Wannberg toured the United States and Canada with S.A. Griffin and their collective of poets, The Carma Bums from 1989 to 2009. Wannberg is the author of five books and he died before his time at 58 in 2011. His poetry bridges free jazz, the spirit of the Beats and the ethos of Punk Rock.
S.A. Griffin told me that the first time he heard Wannberg riff live accompanied by a musician in the early 1980s, he thought he found, “the source.” In 2015, Percival Press published a 306-page, posthumous collection, The Official Language of Yes. I met Wannberg on several occasions and recall his generous spirit. Standing over six feet three inches and close to 300 pounds, his poetry and charisma were as large as his physical appearance. Wannberg’s poem in the anthology is a segmented poem with 21 sections and it playfully ruminates on Dan White, the man who killed San Francisco Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978.

Wannberg simultaneously mocks Los Angeles Police Chief Darryl Gates as well as Dan White’s defense that twinkies made him kill the two men: “We don’t know why Dan White came to L.A./Darryl Gates said and kicked his foot against the moon/We don’t know why he came here/We most certainly don’t need him here/We have enough trouble with Twinkies as it is.” Nonetheless Wannberg notes, “I believe in the world./Come and sing./Against this cold night/light. Against this/street of fear. Come/and I will play my music/until they throw us out.” This poem captures Wannberg’s spirit and also that iconic time period and this episode of California history with the flair that only a skilled poet could.

Maw Shein Win studied at Cal State Long Beach in the 1980s and she is now the first Poet Laureate in El Cerrito, a city adjacent to Berkeley. Among her six poems in Cross-Strokes, “Cast Away” has her reader “on an island, the sand / and the land / where the pair / made a pact / to swim in separate / tides, trunks, / truncation, a vacation / now here, not here.” Win like the rest of the poets in the collection takes her readers on a journey through the human condition. Her meditation epitomizes the West Coast wanderlust all of these poets share in common.

A Reunion Party
In co-editor Bill Mohr’s concluding chapter, “A Reckoning of the Circumambulation of West Coast Poetry (1945-2015), Mohr pontificates on the unpredictable nature of an individual poet’s life. Mohr reaffirms the purpose of the anthology when he states, “The goal was simply to provide readers of contemporary poetry a glimpse at the circulation of poets on the fertile crescent of the West Coast and to disabuse the notion of static, immiscible communities in L.A. and San Francisco.” Mohr than clarifies further by writing, “While it remains the case that the majority of poets living in California identify either Los Angeles or San Francisco as an omphalos for their poetics, anyone truly familiar with both cities will greet this volume’s table of contents as a long forestalled reunion party.”

Cherkovski and Mohr have done a great service to the poetry community in putting this anthology together. Mohr addresses other factors to consider in future anthologies like San Diego poets and he also notes that a second edition of Cross-Strokes could include Juan Felipe Herrera, Suzanne Lummis, F.A. Nettelbeck and Susan Suntree. The book maps poets from Long Beach, Los Angeles, Venice, Santa Barbara, to Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Berkeley and Bolinas and the eclectic identities of these various bards range from street poets to academics, beat poets, surrealists and avant-garde leftists. Nonetheless, there is a unity in their differences and this is why this collection so aptly epitomizes the West Coast Spirit.

“Wichita Vortex Sutra” and the Valentine’s Day High School Massacre

February 15, 2018

“Language language almost all our language has been taxed by war.”

Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems is one of the dozen best first book of poems ever published in the United States. It is rare for a first book to have several poems that end up being frequently anthologized in the half-century following the book’s initial printing, and Ginsberg’s reputation will continue to derive not only from these reprinting, but from the sheer physical presence of his first book. I believe that over a million copies are in circulation, an impressive figure for any book, let alone a volume of poems.

As is the case with musicians, where one’s toughest audience is one’s fellow practitioners, poets often prefer the work of fellow poets that is less known than their most popular work. In Ginsberg’s case, “Wichita Vortex Sutra” is often cited as a favorite poem. I remember including a portion of it in an anti-war theatrical presentation I put together at the Burbage Theater in 1974. “WVS” was recently on display in a drawing by Dominic McGill at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. McGill’s conversion of Ginsberg’s text into a labyrinth of lines included a vortex of words pouring from the dark screen of a television set like an insidious transfusion of diabolical plasma. Given the exacerbated use of social media by politicians, especially as regards the obnoxious diplomacy of the White House, Ginsberg’s poem seems more relevant than ever. President Trump seems intent on making the Korean peninsula an even more devastating scene of carnage than Vietnam, and Trump’s use of language continues to tax our patience and the limits of our patriotism.

Trump’s reaction to the Valentine’s Day mass murder at a high school in Florida is an all too typical example of his inability to go beyond an obvious comment.

“”My prayers and condolences to the families of the victims of the terrible Florida shooting. No child, teacher or anyone else should ever feel unsafe in an American school. We are working closely with law enforcement on the terrible Florida school shooting.”

In this three sentence tweet, Trump ends two of them with the phrase “the terrible Florida school shooting.” Does he really believe that we are incapable of assessing the magnitude of this event unless he repeats the word “terrible”?

But of course what is truly terrible is that Trump’s “we” is not working with anyone to change the gun laws. Notice that Trump says nothing in the third sentence about how to make American schools safer. What was needed in his tweet was not a trite reference to the current employees of law enforcement, but a promise to advocate the enforcement of new laws regarding gun control.

Instead, Trump’s budget proposal reduces funds for background checks of those who wish to purchase weapons. He does not care about the safety of children and their teachers as anything other than a public pose.

I started my late afternoon class yesterday by telling students that I’ll never be able to watch Some Like It Hot again in quite the same way. Billy Wilder’s great film opens with a scene that invokes the infamous Valentine’s Day massacre of the Depression-Era gang wars in Chicago. No matter how much love, in the years ahead, comes into the lives of the families that endured Florida’s Valentine’s Day massacre first-hand, the anniversaries of this sentimental celebration will be horrifically imbrued with this memory and its cauterizing loss.