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