Category Archives: Small Press Publishing

A Pair of Readings in Santa Monica and Long Beach

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Peace Press - 1

(Photograph by Dinah Berland)

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

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

Arena One - 1A

Arena One - 2A

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

(Photographs by Linda Fry)

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

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

Quartet - Gatsby - 1

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

Quartet Gatsby - 2

(Photographs at Gatsby by Linda Fry)

Robin Myers, Poet-Translator: CONFLATIONS/Almagama

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Robin Myers, Poet-Translator: CONFLATIONS/Almagam

“Si tengo con qué escribir, sé que voy a detenerme a poner atención, a buscar entender cómo las cosas que me rodean se hablan entre sí.” — Robin Myers

Undergraduate students in creative writing often ask me about attending a MFA program. Since I myself do not have a MFA and often find myself in opposition to the constricted poetics that has dominated the Association of Writing Programs the past half-century, I am hardly the best person to go to for advice. I certainly encourage students to get the training that they feel is most appropriate for their talents and career goals. It’s important, for instance, for students to realize that the MFA is essentially a union card. It entitles one to apprenticeship status in the “brain factory,” which is to say that a person with a MFA can get teaching work at a college. Many MFA students who have attended CSULB have gone on to teach in the region’s community colleges, and a few have even taught at the four-year schools. Not only do they teach, but they continue writing, and several have gone on to publish novels and a fair amount of poetry. The success of the students is not surprising, given the quality of the MFA faculty. The other three poets who teach in the MFA program at CSULB (in seniority order, Charles Harper Webb, Patty Seyburn, and David Hernandez) all have national reputations; the fiction faculty includes two writers who have won N.E.A. creative writing fellowships. A student would be very hard pressed to find a better creative writing faculty at a public college, or many private colleges for that matter.

Any there other options, though? While it does require both aptitude and courage, one option is to empower oneself with thorough knowledge of a second language and to work as a translator. One young American poet who has done that is Robin Myers, who lives and works in Mexico City. She does not have a M.F.A., but she has developed something far more beneficial in the past several years; she has found a community of poets in Mexico whose commitment and knowledge of the art of poetry have enabled her to grow as a poet. Ultimately, one of the weaknesses of MFA programs in general is that they create networks and not communities. In undertaking this alternative course of maturing as a writer, Robin Myers has made herself part of a community which her affirmation of, in turn, has embraced her creative work.

Myers has just had her first book of poems, CONFLATIONS/Almagam, published in a bilingual edition in Mexico. I had the privilege of reading many of the poems in this book two years ago when the manuscript was still being finalized, and this collection deserves to be recognized as a superb debut by a poet who has just turned 30 years old. While this book might be difficult to obtain in the United States, you can find an interview with her that was published yesterday in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/a-sudden-taking-in-of-air-an-interview-with-poet-and-translator-robin-myers/

Her interviewer, Daniel Saldaña París, is an essayist, poet and novelist. Among Strange Victims was just published this month by Coffee House Press; it is his first novel to appear in the United States.

Here is the catalogue copy for Robin Myers’s book:

http://www.edicionesantilope.com
Amalgama / Conflations
Robin Myers
Amalgama, la palabra, está definida en el diccionario como la unión o mezcla de cosas de naturaleza contraria o distinta. Y eso es justamente Amalgama, el libro: un inventario que Robin Myers levanta para luego recordar no sólo las cosas en sí, sino la sensación de asombro al encontrarlas todas juntas. Con una sensibilidad poco común, la poeta observa el mundo y va recogiendo lo que encuentra para darle después un lugar a través del lenguaje. “Si tengo con qué escribir”, dice Myers, “sé que voy a detenerme a poner atención, a buscar entender cómo las cosas que me rodean se hablan entre sí”.

Peace Press Poetry Reading – June 17

Saturday, June 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_5413

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

The Direct Election of the Next L.A. Poet Laureate

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Direct Election of the Next L.A. Poet Laureate

One of the things I intensely dislike about the entire process by which a poet laureate is chosen is the social hierarchy that its bureaucratic administration reinforces. It mimics the manner in which direct control of governmental decisions is ceded to an indirect system, a kind of Electoral College of Art. Let me put this bluntly: it is time for poets in Los Angeles to demand an election in those who care enough about poetry – and this includes those who read it as well as those who write it – have control over the choice. In fact, anyone who is a resident of Los Angeles should be able to vote, though I would guess that the majority of those who would end up voting would prove to be readers and writers of poetry.

Obviously, the ballot could become unwieldy, but I am certain that a combination of practices that make use of internet communication can easily solve this challenge. There should certainly be more minimum requirements in place for the poet laureate. I would be in favor of a combination of length of residency in Los Angeles in the years directly before the appointment and some form of literary activism that had a direct impact on a community as a way of establishing eligibility. Luis J. Rodriguez, for instance, moved back to Los Angeles before becoming poet laureate here, but when he did move back, his projects were focused on empowering the cultural scenes of this city. He would easily qualify under the combination of residency and activism. Needless to say, the first poet laureate, Eloise Klein Healy, would have qualified for the ballot, too.

In looking forward to the process of selecting the next poet laureate of Los Angeles two years from now, I can safely predict one thing: a large number of the semi-finalists will be poets who have been published by Red Hen Press. There were 18 semi-finalists in the pool that led up to the selection of the current poet laureate, Robin Coste Lewis. I have no doubt that several of those semi-finalists had been published by Kate Gale. If not, then something was very skewed in the Cultural Affairs Department. Red Hen’s backlist is a truly impressive accomplishment. Kate Gale, who is a fine poet herself, has made an enormous difference in making certain that the hard work done by poets in the 1970s and 1980s in Los Angeles continues to flourish. Here is a list of some of Red Hen’s authors who live and work in Los Angeles or in its pertinent adjacent cities:
Chris Abani
William Archila
Tony Barnstone
Laurel Ann Bogen
Jeanette Clough
Brendan Constantine
Kim Dower
Eloise Klein Healy
Charles Hood
Douglas Kearney
Ron Koertge
Douglas Manuel
Holaday Mason
Keith Antar Mason
Deena Metzger
Jim Natal
Austin Straus
Amy Uyematsu
Charles Harper Webb
Terry Wolverton
Gail Wronsky

I have to say that it would be gratifying to have the next poet laureate be someone who has been published by a press based in Los Angeles. The current poet laureate has spoken of the need for more attention to be paid to poets whose lives reflect the multitude of immigrant communities. William Archila has not been particularly prominent in the discussion so far, and yet I would encourage him to begin thinking about making himself a candidate who would certainly merit finalist status as much as such poets as Lynne Thompson, Suzanne Lummis, Marisela Norte, and Gail Wronsky.

So much of literary politics involves personal connections. I want to go on record, however, as saying that I have no recollection of ever meeting Archila other than on the pages of anthologies in which we have both appeared. In that regard, I would point both to Wide Awake, which was published by Beyond Baroque Foundation, as well as the anthology, Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes & Shifts of Los Angeles, which has an introduction by Luis J. Rodriguez and is published by Tia Chucha Press. (Oddly enough, Robin Coste Lewis does not have work in the latter anthology.)

I have learned that William Archila is reading at the Pasadena Museum of California Art tomorrow, Friday, June 2nd. The reading, which will also include Douglas Manuel and Lisa C. Krueger, offers you a chance to hear someone who may well be poet laureate of Los Angeles in 2020. Especially if the poets and those who read poetry have a direct say in the matter.

Pasadena Museum of California Art
490 E. Union Street
Pasadena, CA 91101
Reading: 6 p.m.
Free admission.

The Always Already Redefining of L.A. Poetry

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Always Already Redefining of L.A. Poetry

https://entropymag.org/redefining-la-poetry-robin-coste-lewis-and-the-emerging-poets/

Jessica Ceballos has forwarded me an article by Mike Sonksen (aka Mike the Poet) which was recently published in Entropy magazine. Mike’s articles and reviews the past half-dozen years have in general been the most invigorating commentary on the current scenes in Los Angeles, and he has done his homework on the history of the city’s literary communities. I have to disagree with him, though, when he says that Robin Coste Lewis is “an excellent choice to carry on the work that Luis Rodriguez pioneered as poet laureate” and that “literary Los Angeles is thrilled with her appointment.” I can’t be thrilled with someone who demeans the work I’ve done for over 40 years.

There are several dozen poets I would have been thrilled to hear announced as the next poet laureate, and I named them when I wrote the Cultural Affairs Department and its laureate selection committee several months ago: Douglas Kearney, Sesshu Foster, Amy Uyematsu, Will Alexander, Gail Wronsky, Cecilia Woloch, Elena Byrne, Laurel Ann Bogen, Brian Kim Stefans, Ron Koertge, Charles H. Webb, Paul Vangelisti, Jack Grapes, Holly Prado, Harryette Mullen, Carol Muske-Dukes, Martha Ronk, and Suzanne Lummis.

My list of potential poet laureates reflected the long-standing relationship of these poets with the development of poetry scenes in Los Angeles, and it was not meant to be comprehensive. One could have assembled a list of the most likely potential finalists, though, by combining my list with those named in Mike’s article (December 9, 2016) that surveyed the field of potential candidates: https://www.kcet.org/arts-entertainment/the-rich-history-of-los-angeles-poetry-scene-who-will-be-the-2017-poet-laureate

In addition to many of the poets I listed, he pointed to Gloria Endedina Alvarez, Chiwan Choi, Brendan Constantine, Kamau Daaood, Peter J. Harris, Traci Kato-Kiriyama, Ruben Martinez, Marisela Norte, Pam Ward, and Terry Wolverton. Between Mike’s list and my list, one has a compilation of over two dozen poets with sustained continuity to the L.A. scenes. These poets have “always already” been redefining Los Angeles poetry as a multi-cultural phenomenon that reflects the contingencies of urban life and postmodern identity as it plays out in configurations of class, gender, and race. That Robin Coste Lewis did not appear in either list is perhaps a reflection of her dearth of community work as an activist in L.A. poetry scenes. Art is not a democracy, however, and she was chosen by the Mayor to be our representative public figure.

Back when I took what little money I had left over from my wages and “invested” in a magazine and small press that promoted the work of Wanda Coleman and Garrett Hongo, I envisioned a city that would have a flourishing set of poetry scenes. Thanks to the hard work of dozens and dozens of poets and cultural activists in Los Angeles who joined me in that effort in the past four decades, Ms. Lewis has at her disposal the resources of a diverse and crisis-tested region of poets. I look forward to learning of her specific plans as to how to strengthen the long-standing resistance of these poets to the “manufactured image of L.A.” First, though, she needs to do something she ought to have done before she applied to become poet laureate of Los Angeles: become articulately familiar in detail with the history of that resistance.

Robin Coste Lewis, the New Poet Laureate of Los Angeles

Sunday, May 28, 2017

“The Very Manufactured Stereotype of L.A.”: Robin Coste Lewis and the Past Half-Century of Los Angeles Poetry

https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/a-door-to-robin-coste-lewiss-los-angeles/

Slightly over a year ago, the newly appointed poet laureate of Los Angeles, Robin Coste Lewis, had an interview published in the Los Angeles Review of Books. According to Ms. Lewis, LA poetry possesses a media-embolded image promulgated by writers who are “white, Venice Beach, a little Beat, folks who came here and invested in the very manufactured stereotype of L.A.” Ms. Lewis did not cite any of these poets by name; perhaps she feels there are so many who fit that description that there is little point in reciting a laundry list of the usual suspects; or maybe she was hoping to nudge the main offenders into voluntarily undertaking a revival of self-criticism, as practiced back in the 1960s. If so, then here’s how I line up: White: check. Venice Beach. Well, I lived in Ocean Park, which is just north of Venice for 20 years, and I certainly hung around Beyond Baroque enough in those years, so: check. “a little Beat.” As with Venice Beach, I suppose there’s enough of a post-Beat aura about my writing to say, check. And yes, I did come here from elsewhere.

But now let us pause, and consider the way that Ms. Lewis’s rhetoric constitutes a classic case of how politicians operate when they want to smear a community and its affiliates and supporters. Political hit jobs work by first establishing an accurate or sufficiently accurate description of the target, and then one moving on to the inaccurate, which is meant to undermine the opponent’s legitimacy. Ms. Lewis obviously scorns the “folks who came here and invested in the very manufactured stereotype of L.A.,” as do I. The problem is that she regards me as one of those folks. I have no idea of how and why she would align me with the hegemonic ideology of the culture industries. Nevertheless, this is what has done, and let there be no mistake about it: she intends to smear all the work I’ve done as being no different in its values as those promoted by the entertainment industries and its concrete effects on the notion of success.

Nor does Ms. Lewis want there to be any ambiguity about her position. She proclaims that she plans to advocate for a group of poets who will enable her to “redefin(e) what ‘LA Poet’ means”; these poets include Wanda Coleman and Garrett Hongo, as well as Juan Felipe Herrera. “Do you know what I mean?” she inquires.

I do know what she means. I’ve just tweeted:

“L.A. poetry is Wanda Coleman and Garrett Hongo,” whom (RCL ought to know, but doesn’t) I was the first to publish.

I don’t expect anyone appointed as the Poet Laureate of Los Angeles to be an assiduous scholar of Southern California literary history. I do expect, however, the poet laureate of Los Angeles to have a basic familiarity with those who created a critical mass of “scenes” sufficiently prominent to make it feasible for a position such as poet laureate to be bureaucratically anointed by the Cultural Affairs Department of the City of Los Angeles.

Back in the mid-1970s, I took the money I had saved from two years of working as a blueprint machine operator and started a poetry magazine, Momentum. By the second issue, I had become the first editor to publish the poetry of Wanda Coleman and Garrett Hongo. My support of Coleman’s and Hongo’s poetry was complemented by my friend, Leland Hickman, whose editorial efforts included them in his first undertaking as an editor. I went on to publish the writing of many LA-based poets, including Aleida Rodriguez and Manazar Gamboa. Yes, it’s true that the overwhelming majority of the poets I published in my magazine fit the general category of “white and a little Beat,” but it would be quite a stretch to describe them as being collaborators with the culture industry. Has Ms. Lewis read the books I published by gay poets (Leland Hickman, Joseph Hansen, Jack Thomas) or the poetry I published that was aligned with one of the most important feminist institutions of the period, the Woman’s Building? Holly Prado’s Feasts remains one of the underground classics of that era; Kate Braverman’s Milk Run is probably one of the hundred best first books of the post-World War II American poetry. Deena Metzger’s Dark Milk contains forthright meditations on the political struggles of the period.

By the time I edited my second anthology, “Poetry Loves Poetry,” in the mid-1980s, the range of poets working in Los Angeles was exceptionally intriguing, and no one group was dominating the conversation. If anything, the scenes were only getting more complicated: thanks to the arrival of Douglas Messerli at the very moment PLP was getting its first reviews, the poets interested in avant-garde poetics received an enormous boost. Leland Hickman’s Temblor magazine (1985-1990) hardly qualifies as a representative instance of a scene that is “a little Beat.” On the other hand, S.A. Griffin, Scott Wannberg, and Doug Knott were “holdouts” in reinvigorating the Beat legacy. With ever increasing prominence in this later period, the poetry performing troupe of Nearly Fatal Women (Suzanne Lummis, Laurel Ann Bogen, Linda Albertano) invigorated the coalescence of the Stand Up poetry movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as championed by Charles Harper Webb. During the last dozen or so years of the past century, Lummis organized a city-wide celebration of poetry, the L.A. Poetry Festival, that reflected the multi-cultural maturity of the city’s expanding poetry scenes.

The diversity of Lummis’s festival was hardly a new feature of the region’s literary ecology. In the mid-1970s, Beyond Baroque launched its first wave of book publications with a volume of poems by K. Curtis Lyle, one of the charter members of the Watts Writers Workshop, and Beyond Baroque reiterated its belief in his poetry when it published Electric Church. Many people associate Beyond Baroque’s first two decades with the leadership provided by James Krusoe, Jack Grapes, and Dennis Cooper, but it also proved to be a crucial training ground for poets such as Michelle T. Clinton, whose poetry was first anthologized in “PLP”, and who then went on to co-edit an anthology entitled Invocation L.A., which proclaimed itself the first multi-cultural anthology of L.A. poets.

Perhaps, though, the most telling aspect of Ms. Lewis’s comments on L.A. poetry concerns her elision of small press activity in this region. Although she mentions in her interview in LARB how she worked at Kitchen Table Press when she first arrived in New York City, her knowledge of literary magazine production in Los Angeles during the past 60 years seems to be abysmally blank. Professionally trained in New York and New England, and published by Knopf, it can hardly pass unnoticed that Ms. Lewis seems to have a typical East Coast attitude towards Southern California poetry magazines and small presses. Her failure to acknowledge the editorial work of John Martin, Paul Vangelisti, Aleida Rodriguez, Leland Hickman, Dennis Cooper, Jack Grapes, Doren Robbins, Harvey Robert Kubernik, Douglas Messerli, Kate Gale and Tim Green verges on outrageous. What about the publishing projects of Luis J. Rodriguez and his Tia Chucha Press? Is Ms. Lewis completely unaware of David Kippen’s important work at Libros Schmibros?

If Ms. Lewis is to serve as some kind of spokesperson for Los Angeles poets for the next two years, I would appreciate a more inclusive generosity on her part. She may have been born in Los Angeles, and feel entitled to use that fact to bolster her street cred, but those of us who have worked here for several decades to create a viable ecology of poetic variety, in which immigrant voices are welcome, have done nothing that deserves her sneering conflation of our efforts with the corporate media. The film and television industries are industrial projects with global domination in mind. Rather than conjuring up some self-serving fantasy of L.A. poetry history, in which she plays the redeemer rushing to the rescue, Ms. Lewis could make better use of her recent appointment by building on the long-standing resistance of poets in this city to those who would use their cultural capital to dominate and exploit. Being poet laureate of Los Angeles is not so much an honor for her, as it is her responsibility to respect those whose ill-paid labor the past half-century has brought the multitude of scenes in Los Angeles to this crucial point. I, too, want to keep redefining what it means to be a L.A. poet. I hope that her appointment encourages all the poets in this city to reexamine the definitions to which their activism first gave public credibility.

In Memory of Len Roberts (1947-2007)

Thursday, May 25, 2017

LEN ROBERTS: On the Tenth Anniversary of His Death
Born: March 13, 1947, Cohoes, NY
Died: May 25, 2007, Bethlehem, PA

“I admire very much the technical achievement in Len Roberts’s poetry. This will probably come as a surprise because one would normally identify technical skills with a different kind of poetry than his, a poetry more formal, more contrived, an stiff. This is missing the whole idea of what the technical is in poetry. It is that which applies pressure to the reader to pay attention. It is that which liberates, and makes terribly important, what the poet is saying. What Len Roberts says is terribly important, and beautiful, and moving and original. He will last!” — Gerald Stern, author of Lucky Life, winner of the Lamont Prize

Back when I did Momentum Press, I was often improvising when it came to the production of the book itself. Most of the books didn’t have anything on the back covers, and as I recounted in one of a half-dozen long interviews this past summer for the Oral History project at UCLA, this starkness was thought by one person to reflect the influence of Black Sparrow. John Martin’s books didn’t have any promotional material on the back covers of his books, and I remember someone asking me in the early 1980s if my books were designed in his manner.

As much as I admired Martin’s book production, I didn’t consciously copy that aspect. Rather, in my case, I simply didn’t have time to get the authors to round up commentary for the books. It was also the case that most of the writers I knew didn’t have the kind of connections or affiliations that would have enabled them to snag “blurbs.” In the case of Len Roberts, though his first book (Cohoes Theater) had a single blurb, by Gerald Stern, which leads off today’s blog entry. Subsequent books published by other presses had even more generous assessments, which I will post at the end of my notations.

Today is the 10th anniversary of the death of Len Roberts, a poet I never met in person. I imagine that most of the people who take a peek at this blog think of me as an editor and publisher of Los Angeles poets, but I aspired to be more than a local publisher. (If the economy hadn’t been sundered between 1978 and 1984 by a vicious case of inflation followed by devastating recession, perhaps I would survived as a small press publisher. But that’s another story.) In point of fact, not only did I publish books by poets who lived outside of California, but to this day I still have not met Jim Grabill, who was one of the first poets to have a book come out from Momentum Press. Jim lived in Ohio at the time; he moved to Oregon sometime in the early 1980s, I believe, and has lived there ever since.

I become familiar with Roberts’s poetry because he sent some to Jim Krusoe at Beyond Baroque for consideration in BB’s magazine, and on the rejection note Jim suggested that he send some poems to me at my magazine. Indeed, Len’s long lines and long poems immediately struck me as the kind of work I was looking for, and he ended up sending me a manuscript entitled “Cohoes Theater.” The title poem, “Cohoes” was a ten-page six part poem that probably seemed inordinately long to most editors in those early poems of McPoem’s hegemony, but “Cohoes” felt only slightly longer than normal to a young editor whose ambition it was to be the publisher of Leland Hickman’s “Tiresias.” Somewhere along the line, someone put out the story that Allen Ginsberg was responsible for sending me Len’s manuscript. I had very little contact with Ginsberg over the years, and he played no role whatsoever in my reception and support of Len’s poetry. According to his widow, Nancy, Len did spend several hours talking with Ginsberg, which is twenty times the amount of time I spent in conversation with him, and perhaps the blurb that Ginsberg eventually contributed to one of Len’s books somehow attached itself to someone’s misunderstanding of Ginsberg’s contribution to the first book publication of Len’s poetry. I am proud to recall that Cohoes was cited by the Elliston Prize committee as one of the better books published in 1980, joining the other books I published in 1980 as the highwater mark of my publishing career.

I recently wrote his widow, Nancy, and asked for permission to reprint a couple of his poems on this anniversary memorial post. There are at least two dozen poems that I would post if I had the time to type them up: from Sweet Ones (Milkweed Editions, 1988), for instance, I would love to present you with “The Block” or with the haunting poem, “The Odds”; or “Beauty and the Nuclear Reactor at Three Mile Island” from Cohoes Theater, or the magnificent love poem, “Wrapping”; but as my initial entry, I believe I will start with “Stealing,” from From the Dark.

STEALING

Last night I woke up the in the dark knowing
my father was with me,
like the night I stole down the cold hall stairs
to take change from his breadman’s purse,
the green work pants hung on the peg,
boots placed neatly under the chair,
and then, as I hushed the click inside my shirt,
his soft breathing as I looked up
to see the lit cigarette rising and falling.
I don’t wonder anymore
that he didn’t sleep nights
only to rise before light
to perk coffee, shave, whistling
with the low tunes of the radio.
I don’t need to call him back from peddling bread
to the three-foot drifts
to ask how he could forgive
that night gathering now in my chest,
or how he could make me take
the coins he placed gently into my hands,
and silently wave me away.

Len Roberts deserves a COLLECTED POEMS. He published over a half-dozen volumes of very, very fine poems, and his achievement can only be appreciated if one sits down and allows oneself to absorb a large number of his poems. If you are in a hurry to find someone you think you can imitate in some way because copying a “successful” poet will hope you achieve success, move on to some other poet with all due impetuous haste. Roberts may seem to be writing in a mode made familiar by other poets of his generation, but something indefinable is pressing down on his poems that makes them memorable beyond the power of memorization to contain. His poems demand an inner recitation on the bare stage of one’s soul. Only then will you as the reader realize that you have encountered a poet whose writing possesses the nuanced heft of a major novelist.

“Sometimes the facts of Len Roberts’s world are raw, nearly coarse, the questions that it asks of experience nearly brutal, but there is always in the poems a gentle sensibility, a probing intelligence and an acute attentiveness to what is urgent in our lives that tempers the poems, and that situates them firmly in that precious space between poet and reader which is our common bond, and common exaltation.” — C.K. Williams

Sweet Ones is a fearless and beautiful book. I love its unwavering truthfulness and unwavering mercy – somehow the mercy always equal to the truth – its sweetness, and its subtle, powerful music. The intensity of emotion in these poems is stunning, yet they have a calmness which gives them the feeling of deep balance. When I read Len Roberts I feel my heart being broken and put back together stronger.” – Sharon Olds

“Discovering these new poems I was pleased – the compositions are readable and natural, real, American, they’re narrative epiphanies Pip’s asphalt accuracies, First Kiss’ lightning landscape, for instances, among many strong clear-minded poems. Marden Hartley’s Lewiston Is a Pleasant Place and your From the Dark are grounded in native humane & objective perceptions.” – Allen Ginsberg

“Len Roberts knows that indirectness of feeling is the poet’s (or anyone’s) greatest asset of: to love children one most fear the dark, etc. This is what makes ordinary things take on value without tricks of rhetoric. His poems are marvelous examples, simple, lucid, and powerful, and reading them gives me a continuous sense of the mythic process that not only enriches my understanding but entertains me vastly.” – Hayden Carruth

UNAM Poetry Workshop; FILU in Xalapa

Sunday, April 30, 2017

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I received an invitation from Magali Velasco to read at the FILU book fair in Xalapa, Mexico several months ago, but she received a post-doc fellowship and turned over the planning to others. Fortunately, continuity in planning was maintained and thanks to the efforts of Eliza Rodriguez Castillo and many others, I was able to travel to Xalapa this past week and read my poetry on a panel with Rachel Lewitsky, as well as attend panels on translation featuring David Shook and Forrest Gander. On Thursday, David did a superb job of translating for Rachel and me as three different TV stations and newspapers conducted almost non-stop interviews.

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Rachel Levitsky and David Shook (with genius loci) in Xalapa

My first stop on Wednesday, April 26, though, was Mexico City, where I taught a three-hour poetry workshop to a large group of students at a campus of UNAM. I was very impressed with the quality of their writing and hope I get a chance to work with them again. I wish to thank Professor Aurora Piñeiro, Elizabeth Andión, and Amber Aura for organizing and coordinating this gathering.

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(left to right: Ana Laura Araujo, Bill Mohr, Daniela Zárate, Emilia Alcalá)

After the workshop, I had a bite to eat in mid-afternoon and then reconnoitered with David Shook and Rachel Lewitsky to make a four-hour trip to Xalapa. Rachel and I read together the next afternoon, and David read on Friday. I have rarely enjoyed the company of two poets as much as I did theirs this past week. It was one of the special accompaniments of the past dozen years. Our only regret was that Anthony Seidman, who was also one of the original poets invited to FILU, was unable to make the trip due to circumstances beyond his control. However, both David and I were pleased to be standing near a book fair booth when we heard a voice intone the name Forrest Gander in a microphone and we turned around towards a stage in a corner of the convention hall. Indeed, Forrest was sitting at a table on a stage, but it turned out that his name was being sounded out in appreciation by the moderator. We had arrived too late for that panel, but he did speak again the next day, and I was pleased to catch that presentation. All in all, it was one of the more gratifying weeks I have ever spent as a poet and teacher.

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Laura Emilia Pacheco and Forrest Gander (after their panel on translation, Friday, April 28)

Kevin Opstedal’s “PACIFIC STANDARD TIME”

Kevin Opstedal. CALIFORNIA REDEMPTION VALUE, University of New Orleans Press, 2011.
Kevin Opstedal — PACIFIC STANDARD TIME: New & Selected Poems. Edited by Noel Black and Julien Poirier. Brooklyn, New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2016

At the beginning of 2016, I posted an entry on the poetry of Kevin Opstedal entitled “The Poet Laureate of PCH.” That commentary focused on a set of chapbooks Opstedal has had published over the past couple of decades. Last summer, around August, Ugly Duckling Presse inquired about whether I would be interested in a review copy of Opstedal’s Pacific Standard Time: New & Selected Poems. “PST,” however, was not the first full-scale book in Opstedal’s ongoing saga of publication to arrive on Molino Avenue in Long Beach. My recollection is that a copy of California Redemption Value (“CRV”) had arrived shortly after my January post, so this past Fall found my desk being inhabited by two overlapping collections of “selected” poems by Opstedal.

It is difficult to recommend one of these volumes over the other, since both enable a reader to defamiliarize her or his usual habits of imaginative comprehension. This is to say that anyone who still believes in the consciousness-altering possibilities of reading needs to sit down with both these books and flense the preconditions that one has become all too comfortable with. A half-century ago, one would probably have been urged to imbibe various pharmaceuticals as a way to reconstructing reality. Opstedal’s poems offer the advantage of a much safer passage to renewed perceptions of the ordinary moment.

Lest one fear that some harrowing confrontation is in the offing, let me hasten to reassure you that Opstedal is not one of these visionary poets whose goal is to be your tutelary avatar. While his poems do possess, in fact, a peculiar seductive power, they exude a calm reassurance even in the midst of radiant uncertainty, and they do so with no sense of the writing being an effort to self-mythologize the author. This degree of equilibrium is different than that proposed by Walt Whitman’s shamanic aurora: “How quickly would the sunrise kill me / Could I not now and always send sunrise out of me.” Instead of turbulent pyrotechnics, Opstedal’s acrobatic centering takes place in slow motion, enabling your commitment as a reader to enfold itself with the palpable immanence of his imagery.

I wonder about the day, the way the sun climbs
inside its own radiance & warms the pavement
I think it’s akin to snorkeling but
just exactly how this can be so I’m not sure

This kind of reverent deferral represents yet one more extension of negative capability into an ecology of mutual recognition between environment and self. The next stanza both lures the speaker deeper into this particular chronotope and jolts him into a distant dimension: “waves strum a little pre-Cambrian / rhythm & blues.” Opstedal’s intermingling of the contemporary moment and evolutionary perspective suggests a transplanting of Charles Olson’s surveillance of Gloucester within a geological framework, and it does not take much perusing of Opstedal’s poetry to find another such instance:

The pier was all lit up
like Mortuary Day
the word on the street was
strung out along insect balconies
like drifting sand in the Paleolithic diorama

Olson, however, would never dream of titling his poems in a manner such as Opstedal does in the above two instances: “Performing Brain Surgery with a Crowbar” and “Meat Pie in Paradise,” respectively. The disjuncture between the sardonic titles and the lyrical renitence underscoring the verses themselves might well stem from Opstedal’s truculent skepticism about the immediate future of his native state: “Everything here is a natural disaster.” Rather than succumbing to a dystopic vision, however, Opstedal reinvigorates the potential of the planet to assist human beings in regaining access to its solemn spheres of wonder. If this sounds well nigh impossible within the intellectual and aesthetic currents of the present moment, I can only testify to the singular effervescence of Opstedal’s poetry. One can open Pacific Standard Time at random and find oneself gliding with the language’s undulations with an ease that belies the encompassing grip of the images. I can recall very few such instances of such “oneness” with the words on the page. Opstedal’s poems glow as if they have absorbed season after season of incandescence, and yet allow one to stare directly at the center of the vision without the least squint from too much glare. Get this book and start to live with it.

Post-Script:
For a review of Pacific Standard Time as a prime instance of “surf noir,” I would highly recommend Mike Sonksen’s recent article (Feb. 7, 2017) in Entropy magazine; it is the best single appreciation of Opstedal’s poetry I have read by any poet-critic in the United States. Sonksen does a superb job of providing the contextual literary history of small press publishing relevant to Opstedal’s development as a poet alongside insightful commentary on the poems themselves.

https://entropymag.org/pacific-standard-time-the-surf-noir-poetics-of-kevin-opstedal/

“Echolocation” in CALIBAN #27

“Echolocation,” a portion of my long poem “Barely Holding Distant Things Apart,” has just been published in issue #27 of CALIBAN magazine, edited by Larry Smith. While a print version of the title poem appeared in ASYLUM magazine, edited by Greg Boyd, the video version that includes the collaboration with sculptor Mineko Grimmer, is available on-line. Other contributors to this new issue of CALIBAN include Anthony Seidman, James Grabill, Ray Gonzalez, Cathie Sandstrom, Jeff Harrison, Guy R. Beining, Andrew Joron, Timothy Liu, Karen Garthe, Naomi Ruth Lowinsky, Gerald Vizenor, and George Kalamaras.

http://calibanonline.com/27/