John Harris, In Memoriam

Friday, March 10, 2017

John Harris, Poet and Owner of Papa Bach Bookstore

I first met John Harris back in the early 1970s when he was the co-leader of the Wednesday night workshop. By the fall of 1973, he had been appointed the new poetry editor of Bachy magazine. I was moving on from that position to start my own magazine, and the owner of the bookstore fortunately accepted my nomination of John as my successor. John went on to purchase the store in the mid-1970s, and he continued to subsidize the magazine for many years, as well as publish several fine books by L.A. poets such as William Pillin and Bert Meyers.

It is also important to note how much John Harris’s faith in Leland Hickman as an editor of Bachy magazine had consequences no one could have foreseen. The Language poets often point to Hickman’s Temblor magazine in the late 1980s as one of the crucial magazines that enabled their poetry to gain academic acceptance. Temblor would never have happened if John had not chosen and supported Lee’s first initial editorial work on Bachy’s final ten issues. Lee learned how to navigate the sometimes treacherous playing field of contemporary poetry under John’s aegis, and the experience Lee gained gave him a confidence that he did not always find easy to access in other parts of his life. It can be said without any exaggeration whatsoever that John indirectly had a profound impact on the course of American avant-garde poetry. All in all, it was quite a special time for LA poetry, and John was one of the poets who made it so memorable.

He loved Richard Hugo’s verse. I remember being up in the loft at the rear of the store one afternoon, and John pulled out one of Hugo’s books and read one of the poems to me with as much vigor and devotion as if he had written the words himself. John was a fine poet himself, but he cared even more for the art itself than for any personal acclaim. I think his last public reading would have been at the German Center for Culture in the Pacific Palisades. I remember that he read several poems that were not among his best known. He brought all the passion of a young poet to that reading, which must have been about seven or eight years ago. It was not long after that reading that I heard he had become ill. Truly, John, rest in peace.