Category Archives: Teaching

Autobiography Ground Level Conditions Military Life Teaching

From the Greatest Generation to the Search Engine Generation: A Field Report

Sunday, August 19, 2018

It’s been almost a month since my last post. My mother seems to have settled in at the skilled nursing facility she moved into a month ago. I visited her this afternoon, after attending a meeting to welcome the new contingent of M.F.A. students in creative writing at CSULB. My mother’s face lit up when she saw me. Even though I have very few happy memories of my childhood, other than having enough food to eat and a warm place to sleep (no small things!), it’s hard to resist the appeal of a very elderly face realizing that the outside world has not completely forgotten her. She will be 97 years old in December, and she only dimly understands what I do from day to day as a teacher. If I were to have told her this afternoon that I was interviewed this past Tuesday by KCET for a television program on Venice West that will be broadcast in two or three months, it would mean no more than an announcement that I have had my 20 year old car painted by a local auto body shop, owned by a man whose son is studying marine biology at CSULB. There is no longer an hierarchy of significance to retain as a plumb line for social value and accomplishment. The impingements of frailty have left her unable to remember even how old she is, or how that span of endurance might even give her oldest son a reason in its comparative meditation to gaze beyond his own youthful privation. The stubbornness in my mother’s eyes has begun to yield to an acceptance that is less judgmental of her fate and misfortunes. Until recently, that stubbornness was the provisional aspect of her resilient willpower as a resource bestowed upon her in compensation for the penury of my father’s 20 year career in the U.S. Navy. Now she has let the grip of that lifetime of economic restrictions be someone else’w concern. I let her nibble at a very ripe banana. She savors it, not as if for the first time, or the last, but with a gratitude that it exists at all.

I will be on sabbatical this semester, so I could have excused myself from being at today’s MFA meeting, but I wanted to meet some of the students whose application I read in the spring semester. They seem eager to get to work, and I believe they will be pleased to have chosen CSULB to get their “union card” of a degree. We have an exceptional faculty: Stephen Cooper, Lisa Glatt, Suzanne Greenberg, and Ray Zepeda teach fiction; Patty Seyburn, David Hernandez, Charles Harper Webb, and I teach poetry. In the middle of the last decade, only half of the current faculty were on the roster of the Department of English, so it’s a program that has grown despite few chances for the students to work as teaching assistants. On the whole, it’s a veteran faculty, with over 200 years of combined teaching experience and publication in several hundred literary magazines. Not everyone necessarily benefits from academic training in creative writing, but if one is going to choose this path, then you can hardly do better than to study at CSULB.

I suppose one piece of encouraging news on the domestic side of things is that Linda has found some studio space in San Pedro. It’s a bit of a drive from our residence in Long Beach, but more than worth it to have space where we don’t have to worry about having a palette of oil paint traipsed though by a resident feline and then tracked across the floor. Linda will move in on September 1st, and we are looking forward to a chance to work on some big canvases, which is hard to do in one’s daily dwelling place.

Finally, it is hard not to comment on the political contretemps of current American life. The ghastliness of Trump’s administration is on a scale beyond the normal limits of human comprehension, if only because I fear so many worse developments are yet in the making. In gauging his expectations that we should trust him, I am hardly the only one who has noted that President Trump has no capacity for appreciating anything but adulation. Far worse, however, is his pathological self-absorption, in which anything that can be ascertained as positive is supposed to be credited to his acumen. The current economy, for instance, is not thriving because of Trump, although it’s not thriving because of Obama, either. Rather, I believe that the prosperity bubble is largely due to the “work” being done by computers. The efficiency of computers has generated a considerable amount of wealth in terms of job productivity, and it is this factor that buoys things up for the time being. Unfortunately, very few companies, let alone politicians, have any idea of how to make best use of the this temporary benefit.

A couple of years ago, in this biog, I discussed how the current generation of youth should be called “the search engine generation.” It is a generation that was humiliated by the economic collapse of 2007-2008. The revival of the economy in the past four years does not erase the harrowing penalties of that debacle and its impact on youth people as well as the baby boom generation. That Trump has made no effort to compensate either generation for what they endured is just one of the things that causes me to despise him more than ever. If Trump is to be disposed of, it will involve the commitment of the “search engine generation” to a campaign focused on making his mendacity a matter of complete public knowledge. Given that he is no doubt tracking negative commentary with fanatical diligence, the willingness to speak up and risk being categorized as an “enemy of the people” requires more courage on the part of “the search engine generation” because they are the ones whose careers can be most decimated by Trump and his allies. Nevertheless, the rest of the electorate is truly depending on them to lead the way. Onward!

Biography Ground Level Conditions Photography Teaching

From a rooftop on Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. — July 4

July 6, 2018

I worked as a fiction writing teacher at Idyllwild arts for twenty consecutive summers, starting in the mid-1990s. Several of my students went on to become published writers, including Sara Wintz and Julia Glassman. During the first fifteen or so years, during which I built the fiction writing class up from one session per summer to three sessions each summer, the first introduction to the students always took place on the first Sunday after the July 4th weekend. Then, with the shift to an earlier start of school years, the students gathered at the top of the mountain on the first Sunday before the July 4th celebration.

In my professional as well as personal life, Idyllwild is a significant part of the commitments I have made in my life. I cannot look at the July page of the calendar on my kitchen wall without thinking of that cycle of packing to leave and unpacking on my return, which always took more than a single day. The past couple years have brought me a new ritual: Linda and I gather on the third story rooftop of Rod and Tamiko’s home on Martin Luther King Boulevard, and we watch the fireworks jettison their transient glow on a scythe-swath perimeter of Los Angeles County. Other friends, including Olivier Bochettaz, join in. Olivier and Pauline had a child six months ago, and Luna is an exceptionally beautiful baby.

Rod J-4 one

Bochettaz Salute One

Bochettaz Salute Two

Bochettaz Salutre - Three

Rod J-4 two

Rod J-4 three

Rod J-4 four

Autobiography Poetry Teaching

Alexandra Umlas and Randall Jarrell in RATTLE poetry magazine

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

At the start of the Fall semester, 1966, at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California, I was still 18 years old. I probably shouldn’t have started college until then, but the quirk of when I was born and my mother’s desire to get at least one of her four children off her hands for at least a few hours a day hustled me off to school at a young age. Unfortunately, I was very slow to mature physically, and not that much more agile on an intellectual level. Indeed, I would be leaving St. Mary’s Collge at the end of the semester. I wasn’t smart enough to deserve a scholarship, so I was attending Southwestern Community College by the Spring, 1967.

I did have a couple of very fine teachers that last semester, though. My French teacher changed my life, in fact. It’s a longer story that I have time to type up this morning, but the poets and writers I studied that semester in her class have remained inspirations all my life. Before we studied French poetry, though, she decided to show us examples of modern poetry in English, as a way of discussing figures of speech. One of the poems she showed us was Randall Jarrell’s “Death of a Ball-Turret Gunner.” The last line took my breath away, and in certain ways, I never looked back. I went on to write a paper, in French.on a poem by Jules LaForgue in her class. For those of you who might have, in some very small way, have appreciated any of my projects, she is the one who made the crucial difference in opening the door of this destiny.

This morning, one of my finest students – in truth, someone I regard as a peer in the art – had a poem published in I will leave it to you to find out how it feels as if I have come, once again, full circle.

November 28, 2017
“Touring the B-17 Bomber at the Palm Springs Air Museum” by Alexandra Umlas
Alexandra Umlas
a golden shovel after Randall Jarrell

Books Ground Level Conditions Small Press Publishing Teaching

The Large Economy of the Beautiful: Phoebe MacAdams’s New & Selected

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Phoebe MacAdams – The Large Economy of the Beautiful – Cahuenga Press (2016)

Cahuenga Press is a poets’ cooperative dedicated to publishing books by its four remaining poet-founders: James Cushing, Harry E. Northup, Holly Prado Northup, and Phoebe MacAdams. Founded in the very early 1990s, along with Cecilia Woloch and myself, it has published two dozen volumes of poetry. (Due to financial and time constraints, I dropped out after contributing typesetting time to the first two volumes.) Both Holly and Harry have been featured in my three most recent blog posts because of a poet-led campaign to raise money to assist them in recovering from a fire that obliterated much of their apartment. I have no doubt that the fire went beyond damaging their personal lives, but also caused grievous losses to their publishing project. I urge readers to go to Small Press Distribution’s on-line site and buy as many Cahuenga Press books as possible in order to help restore this project’s solvency.

I bought my copy of MacAdams’s most recent book several weeks ago at her house in Pasadena. She had given a reading to celebrate its publication to an appreciative audience in her backyard. Among the guests in attendance were Steve Anter and Steve Abee. It was a pleasure to hear her read her poems that afternoon. Her voice has a distinct timbre that serves both to soothe and reassure, as well as to remind us of how joyfully serious the present tense should be.

Although she has spent most of her adult life in California, first living in Bolinas, and then living in Ojai and Los Angeles, these poems reflect the influence of poets in New York City, such as Ted Berrigan, as well as poets who taught at Naropa in Boulder, Colorado. “Boulder,” in fact, is the title of the first poem in her first book, Sunday, from Tombouctou Books in Bolinas. The time she spent in Boulder largely resulted in prose poems, which is a form she should consider returning to. Few poets back then were interweaving the dream world and daily apprehension of contingent circumstances with the intrepid ease demonstrated by MacAdams, and young readers of poetry could well benefit from having more such models from her.

Each successive book from which MacAdams has chosen representative poems record a poet’s life as destiny. To write these poems required the work of paying close attention to the emotions lingering like scents within each task:

“The poems still look for the poet,
enter our lives naturally,
meandering and willing
to notice the blue flowers
carved out of inner space,
deep ordering that preserves.”
(“I Understand the Mystery of Scissors/In Feeling a Constant Longing”)

Ordinary Snake Dance remains my favorite of all of MacAdams’s books. and the poems she has selected from this collection deserve to be translated into many other languages. To speak to the moment of inspiration so that it transmits more than local knowledge is one of the primary tasks of lyric poetry. MacAdams modulates her voices (note the plural) so that we hear the knowledge of the many lives discovering the singular, and she does this with wit and compassion.

“All the roads lead home, and
all the roads leave home behind.”
(“About My Children Leaving Home”)

The individual book that benefits the most in this 240 page collection is Livelihood, which on its own as a stand-alone volume gained considerable traction by its focus on teaching and learning, but also risked being seen as a specialty book. In The Large Economy of the Beautiful, the flow of poetic vision from Ordinary Snake Dance buoys the ground level conditions of pedagogical challenges, routines, and rituals, and makes this summary of MacAdams’s life-long journey an authentic hybrid of spiritual enlightenment and deeply felt daily pleasure. MacAdams has lived in Los Angeles for well over 30 years at this point, and has made herself one of the essential poets of this city.

Collage Music Performance Teaching

The Gallantry of Bob Dylan, Winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature

Thursday, October 13, 2016


A dozen or so years ago, as I was finishing up my Ph.D. dissertation and working as a teaching assistant in the Humanities Program at Revelle College at UCSD, I had the good fortune to be assigned to William Arctander (“Billy”) O’Brien, an absolutely brilliant professor whose specialties included the final installment of a “Great Books” survey for undergraduates, most of whom were pre-med students. This intellectual forced march began in the Winter quarter of the students’ first year, and often started with Homer and Plato. By the end of their sophomore year, in the fifth quarter, the students were often reading Nietzsche and Beckett. O’Brien was the first professor I ever met who included Bob Dylan on his syllabus for this course, and O’Brien most certainly should be savoring his prescience in acknowledging the canonical value of Bob Dylan’s writing. So, too, should Steve Axelrod, whose recent three-volume anthology of American poetry includes a solid set of Bob Dylan’s lyrics (in Volume three, “Postmodernisms”). O’Brien, though, was far ahead of the curve and deserves considerable applause for his academic courage.

Following O’Brien’s example, I also teach Bob Dylan’s lyrics as part of a “Survey on Poetry” course at CSULB, and have always been puzzled at the unwillingness of so many other professors to include him. I doubt that the bestowal of the Nobel Prize on Bob Dylan will change their minds. For many contemporary poets, not much has changed since Robert Lowell conceded in the mid-1960s that Bob Dylan had written some fragments that might be considered poetry, but that he had not written anything that stood on its own all the way through as a poem. Lowell was essentially saying that music had to intervene and prolong the poetic touch of Dylan’s lyrics at the point that language failed in his verses.

It is after citing Lowell in my classes that the students read “Love Minus Zero/No Limit.” No music is played; no singing is heard. We look at the words on the page, and ask if they hold up as a poem. Indeed, the words do sustain the entire poem, and even more remarkably, it also turns out to have been set to a quietly imploring melody. Having established that Bob Dylan’s writing does more than partake of the “poetic,” but unfolds its essential imaginative logic with as much negative capability as Keats ever asked of a poem, we move on to a consideration of David Antin’s observation that Dylan is essentially a collage artist, a description that is most useful when examining “Desolation Row.”

Since teaching Literature always involves introducing student to formal terms, it is at this point that I define epistrophe for the students, and during my remarks on “Desolation Row” I offer other examples of this rhetorical technique. I noticed that the newspaper articles carrying the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature cite many of the musical influences on Bob Dylan, as well as those whose work he has in turn influenced. Not a single article has mentioned Robert Burns, the poet whom Dylan acknowledged as having influenced his songwriting. In particular, of course, Burns would have been an influence in Dylan’s use of epistrophe, starting with “Hard Rain” and “Desolation Row.” “Tangled Up in Blue” remains one of the masterful instances of that ancient rhetorical arrangement, and it would behoove contemporary poets to follow Dylan’s example and draw upon Burns as a model.

One of the pivotal questions about Bob Dylan’s status as a writer and poet is ultimately not about him, but about his audience, for it is not just the selection of Robert Zimmerman (aka Bob Dylan) for this award that irks those who still cling to Robert Lowell’s assessment. Rather, it is the gnawing suspicion that this award in some way legitimates the audience that Dylan’s writings and music have attracted. “Do the people in his audiences read other books? Other poets?” Behind the all too foreseeable backlash to Dylan’s award, it will not be too difficult to detect a residual fear of the illiterate masses, whose preferences are easily seduced by a charismatic performance in the oral tradition.

I have no doubt that a significant number of people who listen to Dylan’s songs do not spend much time reading the poetry found in contemporary anthologies. His audience, however, also includes many poets whose commitment to their art was shaped by his vision of the public role that a poet could play, if only one dared to be audacious enough. Such a quest requires the one quality that Dylan himself assessed as possibly being the most enduring virtue of his writing: a sense of gallantry. I call upon those who feel reluctant to applaud the award of the Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan to remind themselves of this archaic ideal and to reexamine their own lives and writing within that context.

Thanks to Twitter, I learned of a link to a very thoughtful essay on Bob Dylan by Robert Polito:

Contemporary Fiction Poetry Teaching

“To Make It Memorable” — a fiction writing class at Idyllwild, California

Thursday, June 16, 2016

“To Make It Memorable” – a fiction writing class in its third decade

In the weeks since the graduation ceremonies for the College of Liberal Arts at CSULB in mid-May, I have been concentrating on addressing the health care issues of my mother, who is in her mid-90s at this point. Her particular problems are not new ones, and my youngest sister, Joni, is visiting her right now in an attempt to get her access to better doctors. While my family is certainly not the only one that has to mitigate the encroachments of old age on family connections, I will confess that the deviations in life choices between my mother and myself are so extreme as to make us almost unrecognizable as parent and offspring. The differences between my sister, Joni, and myself are only slightly less radical.

These kinds of disparities are, of course, the source for much of the creative writing that is characterized as fiction. Unfortunately, I have never been able to write fiction, although I was a fairly successful teacher of fiction writing for 20 years at the summer youth arts camp at Idyllwild Arts Academy. I got the job in the summer of 1995, less than six weeks after my ten-year run as a typesetter at Radio & Records had terminated. I had enough money in the bank to last me about three and a half months, but I had no idea of where I was going to find my next job. It certainly wasn’t going to be typesetting. Computers were eroding that occupation quite rapidly, and I found myself sitting at my desk, feeling slightly bemused, in my apartment at the corner of W. 18th and Robertson Blvd. on a Monday morning at 8:45 as the phone rang. “Hi, Bill, this is Steve Fraider at Idyllwild Arts.” We exchanged 20 seconds of pleasantries, and Steve cut to the chase. “Hey, Bill, I know you teach poetry, but do you also teach fiction?”

I had never taught a fiction class, but I certainly had read a lot of fiction and had had formal training as a playwright and written several full-length plays. In the two seconds after I heard his question, I thought to myself, “What do I have to lose if I say yes?”
“Sure, Steve, I teach fiction, too.”

“Well, would you be interested in teach a two-week class here at Idyllwild?” I said, yes, and asked when it would start. His answer jolted me: “Now.”

“You want me to start today?” I asked. “My car needs some work, and I’m not sure it can make it up the mountain.”

I had finished that sentence before he pounced on my concerns: “We’ll send a van.” And indeed, a van showed up at my apartment about 2:30 that afternoon, at which point I had packed a suitcase and a couple of boxes of books. The driver was a Native American animator who was studying at CalArts, I believe. His institutional van had air conditioning, which my car lacked, so the two and a half hour trip to Idyllwild went by in considerable comfort.

At 7:00 that evening, I was in a small classroom at the far rear edge of the campus. It was built into the start of a hillside, and was hoisted on thick wooden stilts. The ten students were quietly anxious. Their teacher had walked off the job, leaving a note in his room saying that he was going back to Redlands to think over a few things. My job was to soothe the students and assuage their sense of being abandoned. A few of them had studied with the teacher the summer before, I learned later, and they had looked forward to working with him again. I began teaching the class, and by the end of the session, at 9 p.m., they students were writing and seemed reassured that the class would help them become better writers. Two weeks later, the class had a culminating reading, and it was a thorough success.

I was not a fiction writer, however, and never expected to be asked back, but a few months after I returned to Los Angeles, I received a request from Steve to write catalogue copy for the course for the following summer. It was due by December. It turned out that all Steve cared about was that I was a published writer – and indeed, my publications did include prose – and that I was a very good teacher. During the first decade of summers that I worked at Idylliwild Arts, I taught a single two-week class, but we began to notice how quickly it was filling up. Word seemed to be getting around that my class was an invigorating experience of young fiction writers, and I suggested to Steve that we offer a second class. When that class also filled up fairly quickly, I told Steve that I would be willing to teach a third session, too. That, too, reached its enrollment goals.

About three years ago, I told Steve that my 20th anniversary was coming up and that I had decided to retire from Idyllwild Arts’s summer faculty. It seemed to be a nice, round number that had the ripeness of a cycle of time behind it. I taught my last workshop at Idyllwild in the summer of 2015, and there are ways that I miss it. On the other hand, by retiring, I get to feel the pride of seeing something that I helped build up continue at full strength. A program that only had one two-week session when I started is still currently offering three sessions.

I highly recommend the program and the arts camp as a place that young people can learn the advanced basics of fiction writing. Kim Henderson and Eduardo Santiago are the teachers this summer. Here is the link to the program and the class, which still carries the title that I gave to it when I wrote my first catalogue copy: “To Make It Memorable.”
There are three two-week sessions scheduled from July 3 to August 13.

There also is a poetry writing workshop for young people taught by Brendan Constantine, a very fine Los Angeles poet who attended high school at the Idyllwild Arts campus.

It is perhaps part of the odd twists of life that I always wondered if my mother would succumb to a sudden shift in her health when I was up at Idyllwild. If she had collapsed and died, for instance, when I mid-way through a six-week residence at Idyllwild, it would have been a situation fraught with divided loyalties. Idyllwild became a home for me in a way that I never experienced as a child. It would have been a very tough home to leave under duress. That I left my tenure there as a person should leave a fulfilled part of his or her life makes my time there as memorable as anyone could hope for. In addition to Steve, I want to especially thank Emma, Andrew, and Denise for making Idyllwild a second home for me in addition to my residence in Los Angeles County, and to Cecilia Woloch for introducing me to Steve Fraider.

Books Poetry Teaching

Review of Eloise Klein Healy’s ARTEMIS IN ECHO PARK

I first heard Eloise Klein Healy read her poetry at Immaculate Heart College, a Catholic college in Los Angeles that unflinchingly challenged the patriarchal hierarchy of that religion during the late 1960s. By the time I got to the campus around 1973 or 1974 to hear her read with Michael C. Ford, the nuns who taught there had already declared themselves to be free of the local bishop’s heavy hand. As a poet, Healy too was seeking alternative models of writing. At Immaculate Heart, Healy read a mix of poems, several of which were memorable enough on first hearing that I recognized them immediately when they appeared in her first collection, Building Some Changes (Beyond Baroque New Book, 1976). I included her in my first anthology, The Streets Inside: Ten Los Angeles Poets (Momentum Press, 1978), alongside Holly Prado, Deena Metzger, Kate Braverman, Jim Krusoe, Lee Hickman, and Harry E. Northup. Her poems have subsequently appeared in over a dozen anthologies, including Edward Field’s mass-market paperback, A Geography of Poets. Healy went on to devote a considerable amount of time to the Woman’s Building, all the while teaching at a variety of settings, including California State University, Northridge. In 2012, the Cultural Affairs Department of the City of Los Angeles selected her to serve as the first Poet Laureate of L.A.

Healy was among the small cluster of poets in Los Angeles who managed to be featured both in the Stand Up poetry anthologies edited by Charles Webb and to be part of the roster of Spoken Word performers recorded by New Alliance Records for which Harvey Kubernik served as producer.

You can find a selection of twenty poems from her books at:

Almost a quarter-century ago, I wrote a review of her collection, ARTEMIS IN ECHO PARK, that never found an editor willing to publish it. By the time I wrote this review, she had also appeared in my second anthology, Poetry Loves Poetry. I should emphasize that my comments on her poetry probably reflect my impatience with my own inability to bring a more lyrical touch to my poems than a dissatisfaction with her Healy’s verse. I present my review, though, without rewriting it. I would add only that her work has continued to mature, in the 20 years since I wrote this brief essay, both in its “ordinary wisdom” and in its formal dexterity. Her sestina, “Louganis,” which I first heard her read at the Idyllwild Poetry Festival, is memorable enough to make the task of memorizing it not anywhere near as daunting a task as learning to dive from a high board. It’s a 10, though it’s not the first time her poems have earned that mark.




Biography Ground Level Conditions Performance Poetry Teaching

Jack Grapes remembers Bob Flanagan, too

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

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

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

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

Dear Bill:

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

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

Poetry Teaching

James Tate (1943-2015)

“The Stranger Getting Stranger By the Hour”

For the past twenty years, I have made an annual trek to Idyllwild, California to teacher fiction writing to teenagers at a summer arts camp. I decided the summer before last that I like round numbers more than ever, and so I let Steve Fraider know that 2014 would be my last time on the mountain as a summer teacher at Idyllwild Arts. One of the wonderful memories of being up there was watching Cecilia Woloch start up the Idyllwild Poetry Festival and keep it running so well year after year. Her skill at doing so played a large part in my decision to ask her to be my primary guest artist at “The Poet’s Metamorphosis” in Monterey Bay, which starts this coming Monday.

In the midst of final packing for the trip north, I heard from Brendan Constantine that James Tate has died. Although he was steadily prolific throughout his life, it is his early work that will continue to astonish readers. His first book, The Lost Pilot, has a handful of enduring poems, but on the whole is uneven. Given that he was in his very early 20s when he wrote these poems, it is hardly surprising that not every poem has gone through enough drafts. The next two widely available full-length collections, however, The Oblivion Ha-Ha and Absences, remain among the handful of books that are essential reading in their entirety. It’s not that Absences is perfect; that’s not the point of his poetics. His poems want to wake us up from our waking consciousness, that level of daily negotiation that leaves us frustrated with its explanations of reality. The “ordinary horseshit” of ideology gets washed away when we turn to his best poems and gives ourselves to his prancing logic.

In some ways, I believe that if Tate had been gifted with a more devious intellect, he might well have had the following career. Having reached the limits of his early affinities, in 1974 he renounces all his early work and devotes himself to the nascent Language movement. I wonder what would have happened, if that alternative life had somehow come to pass? Would the Language writers have truly welcomed him? I doubt it. There’s an edge of transgressive clowning — in the most sincere sense of the word — that would cause his work to remain suspect in their company. A paradox involving a vortex of welcome and farewell spins through Tate’s work with the grace of friendly solitude, and he refused to consider any other path. Tate was never in any danger of succumbing to the temptation of any poetics but his own quirkiness. As the years have gone by, and his poems missed more often than not, I began to wish that he would give himself a respite that would allow one final gush of utter brilliance. It never happened, but many of us are very grateful that he kept on trying. Without that compulsion, after all, we would not have the gift of his early poems. In the end, his work will always linger at the edges of the avant-garde while refusing easy assimilation into conventional schools, and the best of his work will continue to be a constant rediscovery of an imagination heading off towards unexpected destinations of  poignantly startling reverie. Carol Ellis’s recent collection of poems cites one of my favorite images from his poems:  “a dark star passes through you on your way home from the grocery.” His best poems are the darkest of stars, and once you have read them, you will never again be the same.

I’m going to eat a dish of blueberries in his memory tonight.


Ground Level Conditions Poetry Teaching

Phoebe MacAdams on Teaching

Friday, May 16, 2014

I first met Phoebe MacAdams after she moved to Los Angeles from Ojai, or at least that’s how she remembers it. I did, in fact, meet Phoebe very briefly in Boulder, Colorado in the mid-1970s, but the “hello” of introduction that occurred before some reading we both found ourselves at was so brief that I can’t fault her for not remembering it. We ran the Gasoline Alley reading series on Melrose Avenue for a couple of years and in 1989 both of us were founding members of the Cahuenga Press poetry collective. Somewhere I have a photograph of all six of us (Harry Northup, Holly Prado, Phoebe MacAdams, Jim Cushing, Cecilia Woloch, and myself) gathered together in front of the side wall of some store near Cahuenga Boulevard. We had met at a restaurant to discuss the launching of this project and when it came time to talk about the name, which we wanted to echo Los Angeles in some way, I thought how the street the restaurant was on would make a perfect allusion: Cahuenga Press. I dropped out after the first two books got produced, but that was due to my own financial situation, and not to any aesthetic disagreements.

Phoebe spend several decades working as a teacher; one of the books that Cahuenga Press published was her year-long journal-meditation on the craft of teaching. She recently wrote me that Susan Suntree made use of her book, Livelihood, and invited Phoebe out to talk to her class of students about the practice of teaching. Phoebe wrote up a set of notes to share with the students and recently sent them to me. With her permission, I enclose them in today’s entry.


For Susan Suntree’s students at East Los Angeles College


 School has always been a refuge for me. I had a difficult home life, and school was a place where I felt secure. One of my earliest memories is of the library at my small school in New York City, nestled in a big armchair –sitting and reading and feeling safe, surrounded by books.

My feelings about school translated in wanting to do well, which added another level of pleasure. Nothing feels better than doing well and being praised for it. Once that started,  studying became a habit – a good one. It got me out of my house and into college. When I began to think about earning a living, teaching was a natural choice. My stepdad was a teacher and then a principal at Fountain Valley School in Colorado Springs, and one of the most inspiring men I have ever met. He, too, loved teaching. He thought it was a noble endeavor and the best job in the world. We had long talks about it.

I loved teaching.  I taught in a variety of situations – from a small boarding school in Ojai, California, with 100 students to Roosevelt High School with 5000 students. When I started in 1986, there were as many students at Roosevelt as there were people living in Ojai at that time.

I loved teaching for many reasons. I got to talk about various aspects of reading and writing all day – my favorite things to think about; and also, being with kids is good for the soul. It is never boring.


 I like teachers a lot. I found that most teachers are good people. People go into teaching primarily for unselfish reasons. Sure, there are some bitter and burnt out people in the profession, but on the whole, I think teachers have humanity’s best interests in mind. I made it a point to hang out with teachers who loved teaching and were hard working innovators, people who inspired me.

Inspired teachers are what make a good school – not test scores, not computers in every classroom, not State Standards or Common Core Standards – but good teachers who love kids and want to inspire and engage them. The most important decision a principal makes is who he hires. We had a principal at Roosevelt, Mr. Henry Ronquillo, who had a knack for hiring good teachers. He could tell by talking to someone who would work out well. Not every principal has this instinct. I was on a hiring committee at Roosevelt and I know how difficult it is to tell who will be good.

Teaching and Writing:

I am a poet. I am working on my seventh book of poems, and, in 1989, I co-founded a small literary press called Cahuenga Press. There are four of us in the Press: Harry Northup, Holly Prado, Jimm Cushing, and myself. We are about to publish our 22nd book.

Balancing a job and creative work can tricky. One of my poetry heroes is William Carlos Williams, an extraordinary poet and prose writer, who was also a doctor in Rutherford, New Jersey. He had a typewriter (no computers then) on a shelf under his desk that he would pull out to type up poems in between patients. That impressed me.

Very few poets make enough money from their poems to live. It is rare. Most poets teach. Teaching English or literature allows you to think about writing all day. It also gives you time to write. Even in high school teaching, there are long breaks – Christmas, spring and summer – which are times that you can spend writing.

Teaching won’t make you rich, but it does provide enough money. I taught at Roosevelt for 26 years and retired in June of 2011. It is hard work, but because of its secure income, I didn’t have to spend time worrying about money. The lack of anxiety was important for my mental health. It allowed me to relax and therefore, to write more.

Being a Poet and Teaching:

 I consider writing poetry a sacred activity. Here is a poem I wrote about what a poet does. It is called Poet’s Work:


This morning the birds

ate most of the black sunflower seeds.

I fill up the feeder,

watch squirrels on grass

look at asparagus fern in garden

and read old poems.

I move from room to room,

think about my mother, my sister.

I sit quietly for a long time

then mail letters and observe the hummingbird.

I am thinking of the Eastern Sierras

and the sweep of mountains up to

the red tailed hawk’s air current glide.

Now I am looking at the yellow Buddha cat

and the bright red minutes of Holly’s clock.

The first time I heard a poem,

the poet fell right off the stool

and I thought:   why yes,

that must be the voice of God.


This poem talks about the noodling quality of poetry. The mind wanders – here, there, the bird feeder, letters, the Eastern Sierras, relatives, the swoop of a bird, and then in the last line, a memory of the first time I begin to understand exactly what poetry is. Poetry is a tracking of spirit: keeping track of spirit through the breath and through words. It is a very important job, but it is not a skill that is really marketable. Adding the market, selling spirit – how to do that? It would ruin it, no?

Perhaps it is a good thing that poets can’t market themselves strictly as poets. It is important to keep this activity separate, to keep it in a sacred space.

However, one has to figure out how to have a decent life while maintaining that space – not an easy task. I decided I wanted to do something that mattered to me, that I thought was an important job, and that provided enough money for me to live a relatively comfortable life. Teaching fulfilled all these criteria.



 I tried to write a little at night after papers and preparations were done. I tried to write on the weekends, to get something down on paper. Over vacations I would edit and expand what I written during the semester. Because my time was limited, I didn’t have any time for writers’ block – I just had to keep writing. The discipline of the job helped me. It kept me disciplined in my creative life as well.

For me, having a job in the world is important. Writing is an interior, lonely activity. I spend a lot of time looking at the inside of my mind, and at my computer screen. I can get very isolated. Teaching brought me back to the world and it was very good for me.

Here is a poem about a dream:


I sit in my red chair,

a quiet afternoon where

the poems of Frank O’Hara

are a lyrical bell.


I think of my room at school,

full of students, posters,

rubber bands and paper clips,


but this is a moment of poetry.

My neighbor is salsa dancing in her driveway.

I sit under my quilt and play hooky,

getting well, leaving my students with a substitute.


In my dream last night I was in a canoe,

rowing toward the light on a still lake.

I paddled first on one side,

then the other.


It is always the same:

the world leads me away,

poetry leads me back.


In my dream, I am rowing across a lake on a beautiful moonlit night, rowing towards the light. I row first on one side, then the other. If I row only on one side, the boat swerves. When I woke up, the meaning of this dream was clear. I need both sides of my life – my work life in the world, and my interior life as a poet. Only with both of these do I keep going toward the light.


This book is about teaching. I asked myself – what is teaching anyway? What is it I do every day? I wanted to explore that. I decided to keep a poetry journal for a year, to write a poem every day about what I was doing that day during the 2001-2002 school year.  I kept it up, writing most days. I love the poetry journal form. If I don’t know where I am going next in my writing, I revert to it, sit down every day and write a poem as a journal entry. It is a wonderful form. Not all of the pieces are great poems, of course, but it is a wonderful way to track oneself. Because it is a poem and not a prose journal, it is an elevated kind of writing. Poems do that – elevate language – and it has a more significant tone than a regular journal. I recommend this form.

I had a lot of journal entries over the course of the year. I chose the ones I liked the best to include in the third section of the book. It covers all kinds of things that go on in a school – the classroom, teachers, teacher meetings, the insane goings on of LAUSD; it is all there.

At the end of the year, I had a book which tracked teaching for a year, but

I discovered that I still could not really explain exactly what teaching is! Teaching is a process of learning that you do together with your students, a dialogue. It is not something that you can exactly define.  I learned as much as my students did. I realized that you are teaching content, but you are also teaching yourself. You are teaching who you are and you are teaching your life. That is one reason why teachers can’t be replaced by a computer screen. It is just not the same thing. As a teacher you bring life to your curriculum – your life! I think that is what makes your teaching significant, what makes it matter. As you examine literature, you are also examining your life and helping your students examine their lives.

It is an honor to be part of this worthwhile occupation.

Phoebe MacAdams

April 18, 2014