Category Archives: Poetry

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.

“There weren’t a lot of poets back then”: A Valentine for Our Muse

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Holly Prado Northup and Harry Northup sent me a link to an interview done with them by Aram Saroyan on the “Poet’s Cafe” show on KPFK. As I listened to it, one of the comments made by Aram Saroyan confirmed what many of us who have been working as poets for a half-century remember as being the case: “There weren’t that many poets back then.”

I don’t think it’s the case that there were only a few hundred poets in the United States back in the late 1940s, as Ron Silliman more than once suggested in his blog; nor do I think that a full census of poets in the mid- to late 1960s would have resulted in a tally only slightly over 2,000. But it is the case that poetry was not a career option between 1960 and 1975, as it appears to be now, for those born since that period. “Baby boomers” born between 1945 and 1955 who found themselves turning 20 years old and proclaiming to one and all that they had decided to commit their lives to poetry were individuals for whom life was so haphazard that nothing else could establish some inner equilibrium.

Yes, I know it will seem like sentimental nostalgia, but I preferred it the old way. And once again, I send the muse who has returned our devotion with her unceasing succor a valentine of profound appreciation.

To hear the interview:

Mike (The Poet) Sonksen reads from “Poetry Loves Poetry”

Sunday, February 11, 2018

In terms of anthologies of American poets, perhaps no other year in the past century marked the appearance of three distinctively influential volumes, In the American Tree, The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets, and Poetry Loves Poetry: An Anthology of Los Angeles Poets, all published in 1985. I was the editor and publisher of Poetry Loves Poetry, and I certainly appreciate the attention that Mike (The Poet) Sonksen gives to it in a recent video. In addition to a brief excerpt from my introductory essay, Sonksen reads the poems of several poets who were featured in that anthology: Lewis MacAdams; Michelle T. Clinton; Wanda Coleman; and Michael C. Ford. He also highlights the presence of poets such as Suzanne Lummis and Laurel Ann Bogen in my collection, both of whom were part of the poetry performance troupe, Nearly Fatal Women. In addition to Charles Bukowski, Ron Koertge, Nichola Manning, and Charles Harper Webb as representatives of an emerging “Stand Up” school of poets, other poets I included were James Krusoe, Peter Levitt, Leland Hickman, Holly Prado, Harry Northup, and Eloise Klein Healy, all of whom also appeared in my earlier anthology, The Street Inside: Ten Los Angeles Poets. This earlier collection tends to get pushed to the side, as do Paul Vangelisti’s incredibly important collections, Specimen ’73 and An Anthology of L.A. Poets. One cannot fully appreciate Poetry Loves Poetry, however, unless one is familiar with all three of these earlier surveys of various communities of Los Angeles poets. It is worth noting, of course, that poets as well-known as Bert Meyers and Henri Coulette do not appear in any of these collections. The definitive survey of poetry in Los Angeles between 1950 and 2000 has yet to be assembled.

My “re-discovery” of Sam Shepard’s “The Mildew” in 1983

Friday, February 9, 2018

John Brantingham, a poet who teaches at Mount Sac Community College, has announced in a Facebook post that the his college is going to stage Sam Shepard’s first known effort as a playwright. The play, “The Mildew,” was published in the school’s literary magazine, Mosaic, in the early 1960s, when he was still going under the name of Steve Rogers.

I was probably the first person to read the play in many years back in the 1980s, when I stopped by the school and dropped into their library to see if I could find the magazine. I had heard that Shepard had published a play in the school’s magazine back when I was an undergraduate at UCLA in the late 1960s. The theater department was primarily oriented towards turning out set designers, directors, and actors. My emphasis was playwrighting, which I mainly chose because the department didn’t care that much about that particular option. That gave me plenty of time to work on my poetry, which I had an equal passion for. During the summer of 1969, I took a course in “contemporary experimental theater,” and it may have been through that teacher that I heard about the play. I had acted in a production of “Icarus’s Mother” at UCLA in February of 1969 at UCLA and was completely smitten with his work, so hearing about this early play immediately became part of my permanent memory of literary knowledge. I believe the teacher of the course knew someone who knew Shepard when he was a student there seven years earlier, and that person had mentioned the play in the school’s magazine to him. No one else I ever met, including the playwrights I met at Padua Hills (such as Murray Medick and Irene Fornes) in the late 1970s, ever mentioned the play. In point of fact, I kept the knowledge to myself. I hoped someday to do some original research on it.

Early on in the decade, though, I encountered John Brantingham at a poetry readings, and fearing that I might not ever get around to this particular project, told him about the play. He went to the library and told me that it was took some serioue effort to locate the magazine, but indeed it was there. Now I hear that there’s going to be a production, and I am happy to know that the play will now join the “Collected Works” of Shepard.

There is a part of me, of course, (and I confess it’s a selfish part) that wishes I had kept this knowledge to myself and that I had gotten to work on it a couple of years ago. Perhaps if the demands of caring for my mother and fatally ill sister-in-law had been less onerous, I would have found myself being recognized as the person who brought this play to people’s attention well before now.

For those who want to see the play, I will tell you in advance: do not be disappointed when you don’t hear one of those extended monologues that made Shepard’s early one-act plays such memorable theatrical events. In “The Mildew,” he is just beginning to taste what it means to explore the crystalline plasticity that makes theatrical space a poetic environment. Nevertheless, I remember what a thrill it was to read his play as I sat in Mount Sac’s library back in 1983. I confess that I found a photocopy machine back then and made a copy, if only because libraries are not absolutely protected from fire. I had my doubts that Shepard even had a copy of the play himself. I had read an early play of his called “Cowboys #2,” and I believe that title came about because the few copies of the script for the first “Cowboys” had somehow gotten lost or misplaced after its initial production.

I have no idea of who is writing his biography, but I do have a suggestion to pass onto him or her about a possible source of additional material, so if anyone knows a way to contact this person, please put him or her in touch with me.

“The Mildew” – a world premiere of a one-act play by Steve Rogers (Sam Shepard)

Mt. Sac Studio Theater
Tuesday, February 13, 2018; 8 p.m.
Wednesday, February 14, 2014, 8 p.m.
Thursday, February 15, 2018, 8 p.m.

Why Is “Best” in Scare Quotes?

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Why Is “Best” in Scare Quotes?: Stephen Burt’s The Poem Is You and the “Best” Poets

I recently posted a list-in-progress of the “best” books of poetry during the first two decades of this century. Since I am working on a list that will eventually cover a half-century (1970-2020), there are, of course, poets whose work I admire very much who are not in what amounts to the final 40 percent of this period. Garrett Hongo’s books, for instance, will appear in the first half of this list.

For the moment, though, my main question goes like this: why is “Best” in scare quotes?

Is it a sardonic gesture on my part, an immediate way to problematize the legitimacy of my assessment? After all, I have never served as the editor of a volume of “Best Poems of the Year,” nor has my own poetry ever won any kind of award or prize. Am I a distinguished professor at a major R-1 university? No, again. To put it even more bluntly, am I the equal of those whose work I have sorted through? Shouldn’t only those who are at the level of the field they judge have their assessment taken seriously? Perhaps, therefore, the scare quotes should be redoubled.

I have been reading poetry for a half-century, though, with a fair degree of commitment and curiosity; and for over a decade and a half, I worked (if one can call largely unpaid labor “work”) rather assiduously as an editor and publisher of a West Coast independent press. On the whole, I doubt poets who read my list will really care about my qualifications. What it will boil down to is this distinction: if you’re on my list, you will regard my opinion as sound and thoughtful; if your book is not listed, then I am a narrow-minded, semi-literate jerk.

I would hope, however, that you would give my list as much respectful attention as I have given Stephen Burt’s The Poem Is You, which by sheer coincidence I picked up at the college library and began to peruse as I was putting the finishing touches on yet another iteration. Let me start by praising Burt’s writing itself. His sentences and paragraphs are a pleasure to read, regardless of the poet he is writing about. The quality of Burt’s prose is very much the factor that keeps me reading, in fact, for I am not particularly interested in the majority of the poets he has selected as examples of compelling poetry.

One of the things that almost stunned me about The Poem Is You was how little correlation there was between his “list” and mine. If his table of content and my list were to be arranged as a Venn diagram, one would only see a sliver of shaded-in commonality. One might attribute this to the variety that oscillates, wobbles and cavorts through the proliferating scenes that make up contemporary poetry in this country, but I don’t think that’s the case. Our divergence in emphasis comes out of a fundamental disagreement about the actual evolution of contemporary poetry.

Nevertheless, there are a dozen or so featured poets in The Poem Is You whose work I am mutually intrigued by, and I have to give Professor Burt considerable credit for surprising me in a few instances. I never expected him to include Robert Grenier and Carla Harryman as poets worth discussion. In addition, his writing has gotten me interested in a few poets (such as Robyn Schiff and dg nanouk okpik) whose work I was not familiar with at all. Finally, it should be noted that even when there is overlap between our lists, an extended discussion would reveal my substantial reservations about the work of poets such as Albert Goldbarth, whose poems generate a surface dazzle, but rarely achieve the transmission of wisdom that would qualify them as worthy of translation. In other words, I want to emphasize again that a poet’s appearance in my list is not an unqualified endorsement.

The kind of book that Burt has produced is gaining in popularity. Both Edward Hirsch and Camille Paglia have produced similar surveys and commentaries, and I hope the success of these volumes encourages other such efforts.

Here, for the record, is Burt’s list of poets most deserving of attention now:

Tato Laviera
Lucille Clifton
Carla Harryman
John Hollander
Carl Dennis
Liam Rector
Czeslaw Milosz
Robert Grenier
Rita Dove
A.R. Ammons
Yusef Komunyakaa
Diane Glancy
Lucie Brock-Broido
Killarney Clary
John Yau
Robert Creeley
Charles Wright
Allen Grossman
Adrienne Rich
Louise Gluck
James Merrill
Linda Gregerson
Kay Ryan
Albert Goldbarth
Harryette Mullen
Stanley Kunitz
Michael Palmer
Robert Hass
C.D. Wright
Juan Felipe Herrera
Carter Revard
Allan Peterson
Rae Armantrout
Elizabeth Alexander
Liz Waldner
kari edwards
Agha Shahid Ali
D.A. Powell
Angie Estes
W.S. Merwin
Bernadette Mayer
Donald Revell
Terrance Hayes
Jorie Graham
Laura Kasischke
Frank Bidart
Robyn Schiff
Mary Jo Bang
Lucia Perillo
Melissa Range
Joseph Massey
dg nanouk okpik
Rosa Alcala
Gabby Bess
Brenda Shaughnessy
Claudia Rankin
Brandon Som
Ross Gay

“Best” U.S. Poetry Books, 2000 – 2020 (a list in progress)

“Best” U.S. Books of Poetry, 2000 – 2020 (a list in progress)

I Am Flying into Myself: Selected Poems – by Bill Knott (edited by Thomas Lux) (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2017) – NOTE: My choice for the best book of the year. All genres.

Imperfect Pastorals — Gail Wronsky What Books, 2017

Calligraphy / Typewriters: The Selected Poems of Larry Eigner, edited by Curtis Faville and Robert Grenier (University of Alabama Press, 2017)

So Where Are We? — Lawrence Joseph (FSG, 2017)

The Trumpiad — Cody Walker (Waywiser Press, 2017)

Waiting for the Light — Alicia Ostriker University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017

Enter Here — Alexis Rhone Fancher (KYSO Flash, 2017)

The Stars of Earth: New and Selected Poems — Emily Grosholz (Able Muse Press/Word Galaxy, 2017)

Whereas — Layli Longsoldier (Graywolf Press. 2017)

I Will Not Be A Butcher For The Wealthy — Anthony Seidman (Eyewear Publishing, 2017)

Moonglow á Go-Go: New and Selected Poems — Joan Jobe Smith (NYQ Books, 2017)

Quickening Fields – Pattiann Rogers (Penguin Books, 2017)

Star Journal — Christopher Buckley (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017)

Thousand Star Hotel — Bao Phi (Coffeehouse Press. 2017)

The Darkening Trapeze — Larry Levis, edited by David St. John (Graywolf, 2016)
NOTE: One of the extraordinary collections of the decade. A must-read.

Psychosis in the Produce Department — Laurel Ann Bogen (Red Hen Press, 2016)

Olio – Tyehimba Jess (Wave, 2016)

Questions of Poetics: Language Writing and Consequences — Barrett Watten (University of Iowa Press, 2016)
(NOTE: This book should be read simultaneously with any book on this list that you choose to sit down or stretch out with.)

Squander – Elena Karina Byrne (Omnidawn, 2016)

Porridge — Richard Garcia (Press 53, 2016)

Night Sky with Exit Wounds – Ocean Vuong (Copper Canyon, 2016)

Last Train to the Missing Planet — Kim Dower (Red Hen Press, 2016)

Pacific Standard Time: New & Selected Poems — Kevin Opstedal (Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse; 2016)

Wide Road to the Edge of the World — Jack Grapes (Bombshelter Press, 2016; Second Edition, 2017)

The City Keeps: Selected and New Poems 1966-2014 — John Godfrey — 2016

Border Music — Paul Vangelisti (Talisman House, 2016)

The Age of Reasons: Uncollected Poems 1969-1982 — Ted Greenwald; edited by Miles Champion (Wesleyan University Press, 2016)

The Couple Who Fell to Earth — Michelle Bitting. (C&R Press, 2016).

Partly: New & Selected Poems 2001-2015 — Rae Armantrout (Wesleyan University Press, 2016)

Sober Cooking — Lynn McGee (Spuyen Duyvil Press, 2016)

The Missing Museum — Amy King (Tarpaulin Sky, 2016)

A Sleepless Man Sits Up in Bed — Anthony Seidman (Eyewear Publishing. 2016)

In the Empire of the Air: The Poems of Donald Britton — Donald Britton (Nightboat Books, 2016)

Ask Me about My Poetry — Julien Poirier (City Lights, 2016)

The Large Economy of the Beautiful: New and Selected Poems — Phoebe MacAdams (Cahuenga Press, 2016)

The Swimmer — John Koethe (FSG, 2016)

Coastal Zone — Joe Safdie (Spuyten Duyvil, 2016)

Poems Hidden in Plain View — Hank Lazar (Presses Universities de Rouen, 2016)

Antidote for Night — Marsha de la O (Boa Editions, 2015)

Canto Hondo / Deep Song — Francisco X. Alarcon (University of Arizona Press, 2015)

The Official Language of Yes — Scott Wannberg (Perceval Press, 2015)

What Snakes Want — Kita Shantiris (Mayapple Press, 2015)

Sea-Level Nerve (Book Two) (Prose Poems) — James Grabill (LeGrande, Oregon: Wordcraft, 2015)

The Yellow Door — Amy Uyematsu (Red Hen, 2015)

Twin Extra — Doren Robbins (Wild Ocean Press, 2015)

How to Be Drawn — Terrance Hayes (Penguin, 2015)

As Luck Would Have It — Mark Weiss (Shearsman Books, 2015)

All You Ask For Is Longing: New & Selected Poems — Sean Thomas Dougherty (Boa Editions, 2014)

Contraband of Hoopoe — Ewa Chrusciel (Omnidawn, 2014)

The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven — Brian Teare (Ahsahta Press, 2015)

Earth — Cecilia Woloch (Two Sylvias Press, 2015)

Scattered at Sea — Amy Gerstler (Penguin, 2015)

The Voyage of the Sable Venus — Robin Coste Lewis (Knopf, 2015)

The Chronicles — Ramon Garcia (What Books, 2015)

Against Conceptual Poetry — Ron Silliman (Counterpath Press, 2014)

Panic Cure: Poetry from Spain for the 21st Century Forrest Gander, Editor & Translator (Otis Books/ Seismicity Editions, 2014)

The Chair — Richard Garcia (Boa Editions, 2014)

The Other Odyssey – Richard Garcia (Dream Horse Press, 2014)

Messenger to the Stars: A Luis Omar Salinas (New Selected Poems & Reader), edited by Christopher Buckley and Jon Veinburg. (Tebot Bach, 2014)

Open 24 Hours — Suzanne Lummis (Lynx House Press, 2014)

Towards the Primeval Lightning Field — Will Alexander (Litmus Press, 2014)

Like a Beggar — Ellen Bass (Copper Canyon, 2014)

I Want a Job — Carol Ellis (Finishing Line Press, 2014)

Ice Children — Edward Harkness (Split Lip Press, 2014)

Borderless Butterflies: Earth Haikus and Other Poems / Mariposas sin fronteras: Haikus terrenales y otros poemas — Francisco X. Alarcon (Poetic Matrix Press, 2014)

The Magicians Union — James Cushing (Cahuenga Press, 2014)

Revising the Storm — Geffrey Davis (Boa Editions, 2014)

Patter — Douglas Kearney (Red Hen Press, 2014)

Oh, Salt/Oh Desiring Hand — Holly Prado (Cahuenga Press, 2013)

Lightning Dialogues — Michael Kincaid (Nemesis, 2013)

Imaginary Burdens: Selected Poems — Michael Hannon (Word Temple Press, 2013)

Vital Signs — Juan Delgado (with photographs by Thomas McGovern) (Heyday/Inlandia, 2013)

Our Obsidian Tongues — David Shook (Eyewear Publishing; 2013).

A Wild Surmise: New & Selected Poems & Recordinss — Eloise Klein Healy (Red Hen Press, 2013)

Start with a Small Guitar — Lynne Thompson (What Books, 2013)

Bleed Through: New and Selected Poems — Michael Davidson (Coffeehouse, 2013)

Varieties of Religious Experience — Christopher Buckley (Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2013)

Spiral Trace — Jack Marshall (Coffeehouse, 2013)

The Story of My Accident Is Ours — Rachel Levitsky (Futurepoem Books, 2013)

Urban Tumbleweed: Notes from a Tanka Diary — Harryette Mullen Greywolf Press, 2013.

Deep Meanings: Selected Poems 2008-2013 — Gerald Locklin (Presa Press, 2013)

Plume — Kathleen Flenniken (University of Washington Press, 2013)

The Cineaste — A. Van Jordan (Norton, 2013)

Even So: New and Selected Poems — Gary Young (White Pine, 2012)

Collected Poems — Ron Padgett (Coffeehouse, 2013)

Revelator — Ron Silliman (BookThug, 2013)

Spectrum of Possible Deaths — Lucia Perillo (Copper Canyon, 2013)

This Constellation Is a Name: Collected Poems 1965-2010 — Michael Heller (Nightboat Books, 2012)

Life on Mars — Tracy K. Smith (Greywolf Press, 2012)
(NOTE: This book was translated and published, in its entirety, in Mexico.)

Western Practice — Stephen Motika (Alice James, 2012)

Thrall — Natasha Trethewey (Houghton Mifflin, 2012)

The Naked Eye: New and Selected poems, 1987-2012 — Jack Grapes (Bombshelter Press, 2012)

Gaze — Christopher Howell (Milkweed Editions, 2012)

Tomorrow, Yvonne: Poetry & Prose for Suicidal Egotists — Yvonne de la Vega (Foreword by Ray Manzarek) (Punk Hostage Press, 2012)

Olives — A.E. Stallings (Triquarterly, 2012)

Walking Across a Field We Are Focused on at This Time Now — Sara Wintz (ugly duckling press (2012)

notes from irrelevance — Anselm Berrigan (Wave, 2011)

Music for the Black Room – Sarah Maclay (What Books, 2011)

Invisible Strings — James Moore (Graywolf, 2011)

Steady, My Gaze — Marie-Elizabeth Mali (Tebot Bach, 2011)

Of Indigo and Saffron: New and Selected Poems — Michael McClure (edited, and with an introduction by Leslie Scalapino) (University of California Press, 2011)

THE GRAND PIANO: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography (Parts 1 – 10) — Rae Armantrout; Steve Benson; Carla Harryman; Lyn Hejinian; Tom Mandel; Ted Pearson; Bob Perelman; Kit Robinson; Ron Silliman; Barrett Watten (Mode A/This Press, 2010)

Two — Paul Vangelisti (Talisman House, 2010)

Mean Free Path — Ben Lerner (Copper Canyon, 2010)
(This book owes more than has been generally acknowledged to Barrett Watten’s poetry. Whether Lerner has read him or not, he’s absorbed much of the implications of Watten’s formidable and inspiring writing. The dispersal of a poet’s influence often leads casual commentary into overlooking the commitment required by those who prepared the way.)

Lighthead — Terrance Hayes (Penguin, 2010)

So Quick Bright Things — Gail Wronsky (What Books, 2010)

Usher — B.H. Fairchild (Norton, 2010)

The Judy Grahn Reader — Judy Grahn (Aunt Lute Books, 2009)

Odalisque — Mark Salerno (Salt, 2009)
(This book deserved a major prize.)

Styrofoam — Evelyn Reilly (Roof Books, 2009)

Lucifer at the Starlight — Kim Addonizio (Norton, 2009)

Easy — Marie Ponsot (Knopf. 2009)

Under the Quick — Molly Bendall (Parlor Press)

Upgraded to Serious — Heather McHugh (Copper Canyon, 2009)

TIRESIAS: Collected Poems — Leland Hickman (edited by Stephen Motika; afterword by Bill Mohr) (Nightboat/Seismicity Editions, 2009)

Hammers and Hearts of the Gods — Fred Voss (Bloodaxe, 2009)

Hilarity — Patty Seyburn (New Issues Pres, 2009)

Indigo — Ron Koertge (Red Hen, 2009)

The White Bride — Sarah Maclay (University of Tampa Press, 2009)

Shadow Ball: New and Selected Poems Charles Harper Webb (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009)

Half the World In Light: New and Selected Poems — Juan Felipe Herrera (University of Arizona Press, 2008)

It’s Go in Horizontal: Selected Poems 1974-2006 — Leslie Scalapino (University of California Pres, 2008)

My Piece of the Puzzle — Doren Robbins (Eastern Washington University, 2008)

The Pleasures of the Damned: Poems 1951-1993 — Charles Bukowski (Ecco, 2008)

God Particles — Tom Lux (Houghton Mifflin, 2008)

The Alphabet — Ron Silliman (University of Alabama Press, 2008)

The Messianic Trees: Selected Poems — Kit Robinson (Adventures in Poetry, 2008)

187 Reasons Mexicanoes Can’t Cross the Border —Juan Felipe Herrera (City Lights, 2007)

Desire — Lyn Lifshin (World Parade Books, 2008)

Backscatter: New and Selected Poems — John Olson (Black Widow, 2008)

The Age of Huts (Compleat) — Ron Silliman (Futurepoem, 2007)

Murmur — Laura Mullen (Futurepoem, 2007)

Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005 — Robert Hass (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2007)

All that Is Not Given Is Lost! — Greg Kuzma (Backwaters Press, 2007)

Elegy — Mary Jo Bang (Greywolf, 2007)

Vertigo — Martha Ronk (Coffee House, 2007)

Beg No Pardon — Lynne Thompson (Perugia Press, 2007)

The Wind-Up Gods — Stefi Weisburd (Black Lawrence Press, 2007)

The Pleasures of the Damned — Charles Bukowski (edited by John Martin) (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2007)

The Kitchen Sink: New and Selected Poems 1972-2007 — Albert Goldbarth (Greywolf, 2007)

DRIVE: The First Quartet (1980-2005) — Lorna Dee Cervantes (Wings, 2006)

City Eclogue — Ed Roberson (Atelos, 2006)

Facts About the Moon — Dorianne Laux (Norton, 2006)

The Persistence of Objects — Richard Garcia (Boa Editions, 2006)

Toward the Winter Solstice — Timothy Steele. (Ohio University Press/Swallow, 2006

The Good City — Sharon Olinka (Marsh Hawk Press, 2006)

Red Snow Fence — Harry E. Northup (Cahuenga Press, 2006)

Days By Themselves — Brooks Roddan (Blue Earth Press, 2006)

Blue Guide — Stephen Yenser (University of Chicago, 2006)

A Wreath for Emmett Till — Marilyn Nelson (Houghton Mifflin, 2005)

A Room in California — Laurence Goldstein (Northwestern University Press, 2005)

A Word Like Fire — Dick Barnes (Handsel, 2005)

My Nature Is Hunger: New and Selected Poems — Luis J. Rodriguez (Curbstone, 2005)

Ostinato Vamps — Wanda Coleman (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004)

Poems for Infidels — Gail Wronsky (Red Hen Press, 2004)

The Face: A Novella in Verse — David St. John (Harper, 2004)

The Temperature of This Water — Isle Yi Park (Kaya Books, 2004)

Sparrow: Poems — Carol Muske-Dukes (Random House, 2004)

Abracadabra — Eric Priestley (foreword by Quincy Troupe) (Heat Press, 2004)

The Urban Poems — David Hernandez (Fractal Edge Press, 2004)

The Subsequent Blues — Gary Copeland Lilley (Four Way Books, 2004)

Million Poems Journal — Jordan Davis (Faux Press, 2003)

Call Me Ishmael Tonight — Agha Shahid Ali (Norton, 2003)

Late — Cecilia Wolch (Boa Editions, 2003)

Collected Works — Lorine Niedecker (edited by Jenny Penberthy) (University of California Press, 2002)

Memoirs of a Street Poet — Frank T. Rios (Sawbone/Temple of Man, 2002)

The Splinter Factory — Jeffrey McDaniel (Manic D Press, 2002)
(It is worth noting that he is one of the few poets on this list to have a substantial number of poems translated into another language and published in a stand-alone volume in that language. Tom Lux is another such poet, as are Ben Lerner, Tracy Smith and Cecilia Woloch.)

Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry — Alan Dugan (Seven Stories, 2002)

walking barefoot in the glassblowers museum — ellyn maybe (manic d press, 2002)
NOTE: One of the best titles for a book of poems since Stephen Keller’s The Nostalgia of the Fortune Teller.)

Hip Logic — Terrance Hayes (Penguin, 2002)

Tsigan, The Gypsy Poem — Cecilia Woloch (Cahuenga Press, 2002)

Freud by Other Means — Gene Frumkin (La Alameda Press, 2002)

Embarrassment of Survival: Selected Poems 1970-2000 — Paul Vangelisti (Marsilio/Agincourt, 2001)

The Unraveling Strangeness — Bruce Weigel (Grove, 2002)

The Laugh We Make When We Fall — Susan Firer (The Backwaters Press, 2001)

The Street of Clocks — Tom Lux (Houghton Mifflin, 2001)

Mercurochrome — Wanda Coleman (Black Sparrow, 2001)

Sonnets to Madness and Other Misfortunes — Francisco X. Alarcon (Creative Arts Book Co., 2001)

Rancho Notorious — Richard Garcia (Boa Editions, 2001)

Dying for Beauty — Gail Wronsky (Copper Canyon, 2000)

“Notes from Irrelevance” and “Revelator”

Friday, December 12, 2018

I have withheld two books from the list of “best” books of the current decade until this point so that they can receive a special note of commendation. It’s all too easy for a list to mute the distinctiveness of a particular item, and today I want to call attention to a pair of books that are each a single poem. From first line to last, each book is in the mid-sixties in terms of page length; these are books, therefore, that can be read at a single sitting, in the same way that one could listen to a double-album. You’ll want to have some liquid refreshment close by, though reading these books may well absorb you so thoroughly that you will neglect that sip of tea or ice water in favor of scribbling a note to yourself about your favorite lines. Of course, you might also find yourself wishing you had a manual typewriter, so that you could sit and type up a copy of the poem for yourself, slowing down your “impression” of the poem by imagining how each word arrived, unexpectedly, to the poem’s realm.

Notes from Irrelevance — Anselm Berrigan (Wave Books, 2011)

Revelator — Ron Silliman (BookThug, 2013)

(For those who know of my work as an editor and publisher, my interest in and preference for “long” poems will come as no surprise.)

BACKLIST (Best poetry books 2000-2010)

Wednesday, January 10, 2018 — A follow-up list of best poetry books from the preceding decade

Lid Three

Several days ago, I posted a list of books worth looking at if you want to be part of a complicated discussion involving contemporary poetry. A few of the books I listed would probably be regarded as belonging to the category known as “difficult” poetry, which no doubt left some people wondering exactly where I stand. Like some people’s relationship, it’s “complicated.”

I know some poets don’t like “difficult” poetry, but I don’t hold that against them. Some of these poets have written work I truly admire. The late Steve Kowit, for instance, is one of those whose poems I often savor and reread, but he was still haplessly beating a dead horse the last time he read at the Long Beach poetry festival, in mocking the influence of critical theory on contemporary poetry. I had heard it years before, and it really wasn’t that funny then. To lambast the alleged deleterious effects of theory on contemporary poetry in this decade came across like a comedian in 1969 telling jokes about beatniks. Anachronistic humor is so tedious. (Fortunately, the best poems of Steve Kowit will be work that endures, in part because the emotions that these poems summon end up being difficult ones to think about.)

I often wonder how academic poets, especially those whose primary job is training aspiring poets in MFA programs, expect discussions about poetry not to be difficult. I’m not just referring to the acolytes of Billy Collins, by the way, whose anecdotal, mildly humorous verse has worn all too thin, all too quickly. Metrical verse can be “difficult,” too, and poets who espouse avant-garde poetics often flounder when they encounter metrical verse. For that matter, all too many MFA teachers seem to have no idea of what a caesura in a line of metrical verse actually does. I am not, under any circumstances, defer to the massive and inexcusable ignorance that seems to be acceptable at the university level right now. If you can’t hear the poem, then you haven’t read it. Then, too, if you’re one of these purists who has to have it one way or the other, then take your homogeneity elsewhere and clone away, baby, clone yourself away into insipidity. I intend to have the best of both ways.

I’ve been fine-tuning the list for the current decade, and in the process discovered that I had mistakenly assigned one book to the “backlist” of the previous decade’s “Best of.” Ultimately, by 2020, what I aspire to compile is a list of books that will intrigue those who read contemporary poetry enough to make them want to investigate the unfamiliar titles. As a brief installment of books that will certainly be substantial contenders for that final list, and which appeared in the first decade of the century, here goes:

Mean Free Path — Ben Lerner (Copper Canyon, 2010)
(This book owes more than has been generally acknowledged to Barrett Watten’s poetry. Whether Lerner has read him or not, he’s absorbed much of the implications of Watten’s formidable and inspiring writing. The dispersal of a poet’s influence often leads casual commentary into overlooking the commitment required by those who prepared the way.)

Lighthead — Terrance Hayes (Penguin, 2010)

Odalisque — Mark Salerno (Salt, 2009)
(This book deserved a major prize.)

Lucifer at the Starlight — Kim Addonizio (Norton, 2009)

Easy — Marie Ponsot (Knopf. 2009)

TIRESIAS: Collected Poems — Leland Hickman (edited by Stephen Motika; afterword by Bill Mohr) (Nightboat/Seismicity Editions, 2009)

Hilarity — Patty Seyburn (New Issues Pres, 2009)

Indigo — Ron Koertge (Red Hen, 2009)

It’s Go in Horizontal: Selected Poems 1974-2006 — Leslie Scalapino (University of California Pres, 2008)

The White Bride — Sarah Maclay (University of Tampa Press, 2009)

Shadow Ball: New and Selected Poems Charles Harper Webb (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009)

Half the World In Light: New and Selected Poems — Juan Felipe Herrera (University of Arizona Press, 2008)

My Piece of the Puzzle — Doren Robbins (Eastern Washington University, 2008)

God Particles — Tom Lux (Houghton Mifflin, 2008)

Backscatter: New and Selected Poems — John Olson (Black Widow, 2008)

The Alphabet — Ron Silliman (University of Alabama Press, 2008)

The Messianic Trees: Selected Poems — Kit Robinson (Adventures in Poetry, 2008)

187 Reasons Mexicanoes Can’t Cross the Border —Juan Felipe Herrera (City Lights, 2007)

The Age of Huts (Compleat) — Ron Silliman (Futurepoem, 2007)

Murmur — Laura Mullen (Futurepoem, 2007)

Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005 — Robert Hass (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2007)

All that Is Not given Is Lost! — Greg Kozma (Backwaters Press, 2007)

Elegy — Mary Jo Bang (Greywolf, 2007)

Vertigo — Martha Ronk (Coffee House, 2007)

The Wind-Up Gods — Stefi Weisburd (Black Lawrence Press, 2007)

The Pleasures of the Damned — Charles Bukowski (edited by John Martin) (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2007)

DRIVE: The First Quartet (1980-2005) — Lorna Dee Cervantes (Wings, 2006)

Facts About the Moon — Dorianne Laux (Norton, 2006)

The Persistence of Objects — Richard Garcia (Boa Editions, 2006)

Toward the Winter Solstice Timothy Steele. (Ohio University Press/Swallow, 2006)

Red Snow Fence — Harry E. Northup (Cahuenga Press, 2006)

A Wreath for Emmett Till — Marilyn Nelson (Houghton Mifflin, 2005).

A Word Like Fire — Dick Barnes (Handsel, 2005)

Ostinato Vamps — Wanda Coleman (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004)

The Face: A Novella in Verse — David St. John (Harper, 2004)

The Temperature of This Water — Isle Yi Park (Kaya Books, 2004)

Sparrow: Poems — Carol Muske-Dukes (Random House, 2004)

Late — Cecilia Woloch (Boa Editions, 2003)

Collected Works — Lorine Niedecker (edited by Jenny Penberthy) (University of California Press, 2002)

Memoirs of a Street Poet — Frank T. Rios (Sawbone/Temple of Man, 2002)

The Splinter Factory — Jeffrey McDaniel (Manic D Press, 2002)
(It is worth noting that he is one of the few poets on this list to have a substantial number of poems translated into another language and published in a stand-alone volume in that language. Tom Lux is another such poet, as are Ben Lerner, Tracy Smith and Cecilia Woloch.)

Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry — Alan Dugan (Seven Stories, 2002)

walking barefoot in the glassblowers museum — ellyn maybe (manic d press, 2002)
NOTE: One of the best titles for a book of poems since Stephen Keller’s The Nostalgia of the Fortune Teller.)

Hip Logic — Terrance Hayes (Penguin, 2002)

Tsigan, The Gypsy Poem — Cecilia Woloch (Cahuenga Press, 2002)

Embarrassment of Survival: Selected Poems 1970-2000 — Paul Vangelisti (Marsilio/Agincourt, 2001)

The Laugh We Make When We Fall — Susan Firer (The Backwaters Press, 2001)

The Street of Clocks — Tom Lux (Houghton Mifflin, 2001)

Mercurochrome — Wanda Coleman (Black Sparrow, 2001)

Rancho Notorious — Richard Garcia (Boa Editions, 2001)

No one should think, by the way, that having a book just listed means that everything he or she has written deserves equal attention. Past success is not a reliable indicator of future success, at least in art. In sports, past success can be useful in creating gambling odds (for bettors) and WAR (“Win above replacement”) statistics (for coaches). In poetry, past success more typically is a source of bewilderment. How did a poet who wrote many very fine poems (among some of the best of his generation, in fact) in Shadow Ball turn out such a mediocre collection of poems in Brain Camp? One can only hope that it was a temporary lapse, and that his next book will mark him as comeback poet of the decade. This falling off, however, should not efface the level of accomplishment in Shadow Ball. With the exception of a few poets, Webb’s poetry is far better than the bulk of the work published by Tupelo Press, for instance. I will have more to say about that press in a future post. In the meantime, rest assured that the absence of its books from my list is not an accident.