Kate Braverman: A Poet Recalls Her Youth

FRIDAY, February 14, 2020

Many of the writers who gathered at Beyond Baroque to share their recollections of poet and novelist Kate Braverman (1949-2019) on February 8 had probably not have seen Kate for quite some time. I suppose the last time I saw her was at Dutton’s Bookstore in Brentwood in the mid-1990s. We talked about Lee Hickman briefly, and then I had no contact with her for several years. As I began working on a post-dissertation draft of my literary history of L.A.’s poetry, however, I wrote and asked her to compose an account of being a young poet in Los Angeles; Kate responded with a long letter in an e-mail.

I will leave it to the reader to judge Kate as a reliable narrator. Here are some annotations. I believe that the article in the LA Times she refers to was a lengthy two-part piece by Jim Stingley in April, 1974 (“The Rise of L.A.’s Underground Poets). Beyond Baroque’s workshop met on Wednesday evenings, not Tuesday. Dennis E. is Dennis Ellman, whom I first met at San Diego State College and who went on to get a MFA at UC Irvine. One of my first Momentum Press titles was his lovely volume of poems, THE HILLS OF YOUR BIRTH; people still mention his poem “Tomatoes” to me when talk turns to the pre-Streets Inside days. The two poets who founded the Beyond Baroque workshop were John Harris, who went on to own Papa Bach bookstore, and Joseph Hansen, who was also the author the Dave Brandstetter private investigator series. I wrote an article about him for the Los Angeles Review of Books several years ago that was recently reprinted in a volume entitled STICKING IT TO THE MAN.

The minister at the The Church in Ocean Park, on Hill Street in Santa Monica, was Jim Conn, who later became mayor of Santa Monica. The two founders of the Alley Cat Reading Series in Hermosa Beach were Michael Andrews and Jack Grapes. Michael was a photographer as well as a poet, and Jack wos a working actor for several years in addition to being an award-winning playwright and poet (National Endowment for the Arts grant winner). Michael and Jack also edited ONTHEBUS for many years. The other Michael referred to as a friend with whom she had dinner is Michael Clark, who invited Kate to read out in Riverside because the poet Marine Robert Warden showed him Kate’s first book of poetry. (This piece of information was provided to me by Michael himself, in a conversation after the memorial tribute at BB.) “Bob” Warden’s first book, BEYOND THE STRAITS, was published by Momentum Press in 1980. The novelist in Riverside named Susan is, of course, Susan Straight.

Kate only worked as the poetry editor of BACHY magazine for one issue (number 8), after which Leland Hickman (1934-1991) took over. Harry E. Northup is a much admired actor and poet who was married to the late Holly Prado for many years. Jim Krusoe eventually concentrated on writing novels and short stories, which have been published to considerable acclaim. He continues to teach one of the nation’s most noteworthy fiction workshops at Santa Monica College. Peter Levitt now lives and works as a poet and translator in Canada.

Bradley refers to Rod Bradley, poet and photographer, who also worked on BACHY magazine. Eloise Klein Healy was the first poet laureate of Los Angeles. Dennis Cooper’s poems and editorial prowess as editor of LITTLE CAESAR magazine and LITTLE CAESAR remain one of the authentic legends of Los Angeles poetry. He ran the reading series at Beyond Baroque with handsome aplomb fo much of the first half of the 80s. Michael C. Ford is a poet and spoken word artist with many recordings to his credit. In appropriating the title of one of Michael’s books to make a point, Kate misquotes it. The actual title of Ford’s book is “THE WORLD IS A SUBURB OF LOS ANGELES” (Momentum Press, 1981). Finally, while the “Momentum Press Workshop” did primarily meet at her apartment on West Washington Blvd., we also occasionally met at my apartment in Ocean Park and I seem to also recall meeting once at Jim’s house in Venice.

This letter should have been part of HOLDOUTS: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance 1948-1992 (University of Iowa Press, 2011), but I was forced to cut 25 percent of the penultimate version, which at that point didn’t even include this letter. I hope that those poets and artists who feel neglected by their omission from my book will consider how little time Kate received in my book, even though she was one of the major figures in this city’s literary renaissance between 1970 and 1985. Her poems appeared in both of my anthologies, THE STREETS INSIDE and POETRY LOVES POETRY. I was the first editor to publish her poems (Momentum, issue number 3, Fall, 1974. She also appeared in issues five and six.

*. **. ***. *****. ******** *************

November 24, 2008

Dear Bill, it’s good to hear from you. I would still like to come down in April. It would be fun to see
everybody again.

In terms of your questions, number 1.) When and how I first heard about Beyond Baroque?

Actually, I read about it in the Los Angeles Times. I was writing poetry at home, by myself. I had just returned
to Los Angeles from seven years of being at Berkeley, and I chanced to read an article about poetry workshops. I
remember. There were photographs. I was writing, but hadn’t read them to anybody, or studied poetry. That
amazes me, that I had not studied or even been critiqued.

I had just enrolled in my first writing class at the University of California in the extension program. Dennis Ellman was teaching his first class. And I appeared, excited, I had never read my poetry before. Bill, I will never forget this. Dennis E. is asking for volunteers. I raise my trembling arm and he calls on me. I’ll tell you what I read. “Cobalt Blue” and “2½ Years Ago.” Bill, this is indelible. I read a few stanzas and Dennis said, who is that? Then Dennis said it that Sylvia Plath? I said no. He asked, is it Sexton? I said no. Dennis said who is that? I said it is me. It’s mine. I will never forget this. Dennis had been standing up. When I explained that the pages I was reading from were my own, Dennis sat down. His face turned white. Those are your own, you wrote those, that poetry? Those. I said yes. It is a turning point in my life. I saw in that moment, it was a singularity. I don’t know if I ever had such a lucid moment, well, despite the decades that surround me, across the acres, the inland oceans of all of words, the oceans of ink, this singularity stands like a neon punctuation floating. Dennis had been standing and my words, my first just written poems had the power to make a man sit down, as if the air inside of him leaked out. We stared at each other. I had not yet read Plath or Sexton.

I went to the Venice poetry workshop the next day. I think the newspaper said the workshop met once a week, Tuesday I think. So I went at the next available class. It was amazing what happened when I read for the first time at the Venice poetry workshop. John and the other man, I have momentarily for gotten his name. He wrote detective stories. It was crowded, smoky, perhaps you were there? I was writing my first poetry, my first of what would be the Milk Run poems. I read “Cobalt Blue” and everybody stood up and cheered. They didn’t just applaud enthusiastically. It was utterly kinetic. I could feel the room change temperature and I could feel trees in forests on other planets catch on fire.

Bill, I don’t remember another moment, another evening when a person reading was received with such a
sudden, collective, consensual recognition. You may remember a man who was always there act beyond baroque, his
name escapes me, but I remember what he said. He said I’ve never heard a woman write with the power of a man,” you
are owning the page like a man, like you had balls.” I remember this man because he sticks in my mind as
being my first fan. I didn’t have a name for such a person, he was very clever and witty and I think he did, in
fact ,live there, he slept there at night. So many ashtrays. And I remember that he died of AIDS, but then so did
everyone. That night at Beyond Baroque was my christening. Every one was clapping, they were cheering, and I felt my whole life was just beginning.

I remember reading in other places besides the original space on Washington Blvd. though I went to Beyond Baroque every week. And I wrote two new poems a week to read. All the Milk Run and most of the Lullaby For Sinners poems were written at BB. James K. got me my first reading outside of the workshop. It was in a church in Ocean Park. The thrill of reading. It was on Mothers Day. And my mother came to the reading and this would become one of the ingredients, the components, the recipe of my own personal disaster. There were many other venues. I read at the church several times, but the first time was on Mothers Day and my mother was with me. I remember a series of readings for the Alley Cat with a surfer named Michael and the actor named Jack. That’s where I first saw Eloise. It was in Redondo Beach or Manhattan Beach and it seemed so exotic. When the Women’s Building started, in 1974, I read there. I had fantastically enthusiastic crowds. I thought it would always be like that. The crowds, the enthusiasm, but kinetics. I learned because I read so much that I could use the audience as an instrument, my personal calculator or thermometer, my own just discovered seismograph. I used the audience as a way of editing.

When I tell people that I learned to edit by sensing the kinetics in the rooms, how people shifted when they
were bored or when the effort of their attention wasn’t worth it for them. I could feel them breathe, and gasp. But
the most staggering of all was when I made people cry and when I made them laugh. There is an alchemy that exists between the writer, the poet, and the audience. I learned to edit by reading with a pencil in my hand and I would cut as I read. You know when it’s not working you feel it. I read at UCLA. I read at Santa Monica College. I read at libraries. The first time I taught was at the Woman’s Building. One time, this seems like fiction but it isn’t, I went to the Woman’s Building at Christmas time. It was raining. Me and Christmas and rain and a lover I was trying to keep. Adrienne Rich was reading so the audience for her was enormous, and the response from the lesbians was astonishing, they understood me absolutely. My first audience as in people who came to hear me specifically was entirely gay and lesbian.

When Beyond Baroque moved to the venue of the Jail I read there many times. My mother would come and bring her boyfriend of the moment, and other friends, most often her dates, yes. I liked it when the room was filled with jail cells and my mother choreographed a routine where she would pretend to faint. Of course she had heard all of these poems before but she would pretend to faint, didn’t you bring her smelling salts? I read at rock and roll clubs. I read in Pasadena at the college and at coffee houses. Another moment which is ingrained in my neuronal structure is reading at the Whiskey a go-go in 1980. I was reading with punk bands in venues I don’t remember the names of.

Everything changed when I moved from Venice to Silverlake. When I moved to Silverlake, when Jack and I
broke up, I can’t separate the time’s or the consonants or continents. I read in the bookstores. Bookstores
in Venice, there were coffee houses and bars. Was it the sidewalk Café in Venice? I believe that in
Hollywood there were bookstores to read in. You didn’t need to have a book published. Or to have just published a book. There were more opportunities to read in bookstores without selling a book. It seems like two or three
or more poets would read at bookstores for special days like holidays or celebrations. Bookstores in Hollywood
and West Hollywood and the Sunset strip and art galleries. Yes I remember a great sequence of events and happenings
as if poetry erupted from the streets, the boats and off the piers, it was everywhere. I met my friend Michael, who I just had dinner with, at UC Riverside in 1977. In 1978, I taught my first real university class. I read at the barn in Riverside in 1977 and many people like Sharon Doubiago and Susan that Riverside novelist who gets lots of print. They remember that reading. I read at the Cal State colleges, in Long Beach, at the college and the bookstore. Colleges like Occidental and Claremont and USC, where I also taught and was offered a professorship which I turned down. Inexplicable. In my mind these were the glory days. Nobody made any money and nobody cared.

Yes, Bachy bookstore, John Williams, there were readings and Bachy magazine which I edited after I became friends
with Leland Hickman. Everything changed after Leland and I met. Of all the readings, re your question about readings of significance I can place myself at Riverside in 1977 and the Church in Ocean Park on MD in 74. Michael invited me to read because he had seen the book or read a review. I read at Riverside community college, in a
chambered room, a Spanish mansion– the old Mission that had been restored. I read there many times and in bookstores in Riverside. I had the book in hand when I first came to read at the bookstores like Cody’s and
Black Oak in Berkeley.

2.) No, I was not at Lee’s reading in 1971. I don’t think I knew him then or yet.

3.)The workshop that happened once every two weeks at my house on Washington Blvd. was my version of an MFA program. It was taking the heavy hitters from VPW and itwas closed, it was just us, the VPW seniors, so to speak.
Most of what I know about writing I learned in that workshop, we had with Lee, Jim, Harry, Peter, Dennis and you.

Bill, I didn’t know that you remember the Washington Boulevard workshop as being unique in its emphasis on the
long poem, but I am struck at the truth of seeing it that way. When Leland taught me (blaze sin drawers) (Cendrars)
and Prose on the Trans-Siberian can mark that time precisely. Prose on the Trans-Siberian is still one of
my favorite poems. We were looking for great writing. I remember for Christmas one year, the Washington Blvd. workshop gave me two copies of One Years of Solitude. I think that workshop somehow leaked out and welcomed highly charged cadence driven prose that could be, must be, read out loud.

My heart was broken when the group broke up. As I recall, you and Dennis were frustrated. Peter and Harry
came and went. But when Jim also became frustrated with the progress of his work, that’s when we broke up. I remember saying to Jim “Can I keep the furniture?” We laughed. That’s because I felt like breaking up the group
was getting a divorce and it was. I just kept getting better and better. Breaking up the group was the last thing I wanted. My entire repertoire, the ridge, the ravens, my entire foundation, my sensibility, virtually every writer I know now I learned from the workshop. It was the greatest time to be me. I was created by what I synthesized in those not-enough-of workshops. Lee would read to me, always, after the Washington Blvd. workshop broke up, and I do think of it in romantic terms, that’s why I keep describing the event as an abandoned lover might. The end of our workshop was my real divorce.Since I synthesized what was read to me, since Leland was working long and I could also write prose, there didn’t seem to be a real distinction between poetry and not- poetry, the prose we read together was just overgrown poems.

In fact, by the time the Washington Blvd. workshop ended, when you guys left and said you weren’t coming back, I was beginning to write Lithium for Medea. The emphasis on the long poem , which I hadn’t even thought of, made it natural for me to move from not traditional poetry to not traditional fiction. The only difference in poetry and prose for me is whether or not to break lines and to keep it around 2 pages instead of 200 or 2000. The way we ran our workshop was bring in a new poem, it was not obligatory, and or else you could bring a poet to read out loud to the others. To turn us onto someone new. Do you remember me then? How quickly I improved, how I eat out words. I ate, I consumed, inexhaustible. No one ever had such an education, so rare, astonishing, implausible, that we should find each other in the city where poetry was banned, Los Angeles and poetry were considered to be an oxymoron.

The Los Angeles Times had a mission and it was this. There is no indigenous art. If you came from Los Angeles,
no one in Los Angeles would believe you were the real thing. The real thing came from New York. Our newspaper felt charged with a mission, a moral imperative. I mean mission in its most Christian sense. No poetry could exist in Los Angeles, ever, because the people who live in Los Angeles were so shabby of intellect, so stripped of human qualities, the higher ones, the pedigreed ones, this is making me nauseous, it’s giving me vertigo, another paragraph of this and you and I will both have stigmata. This situation was completely absurd. It is grotesque to be unrecognized in the city where you live, that you know with intimacy, that you write about, obsessively, and the local newspaper will not celebrate its writers. Remember? UC L.A. never had local poet’s come in. Also the Times only told you about New York writers.

Bill, no one knows better than you how LA poets, artists, writers, novelists and others were rudely excluded, brutally excluded. I do take comfort in the new demographic. (Iraq oh bomb a) Barack Obama is the name of our president and this machine cannot figure out what to do. It’s an ASP white. Ass-wipe. This program will not let me
past its fire-walled syntax, I’m training it and believe it was programmed in a way that if you try to say something dirty or unusual, it won’t go there. I call it lost fall. I call it the fall of New York, with print becoming obsolete, New York is just a city with many banks. Period. Without print, which NY had and has a monopoly on, it’s an old city. Chicago has style, warmth, I just went there 3 or 4 years ago for the first time and was surprised by how welcoming it was. I do think that New York, by chance, by being 19th century city, it’s had the magazines and newspapers. It decided.

Bill, consider this. NY Times endorsed Clinton. I expected the Chron here to come through and even the LA Times endorsed Obama. NY is stuck in a different paradigm. And, of course, NY had the universities to recognize and call national attention to their writers.

LA was ignored by their newspaper and colleges. Unseen at home and unwanted elsewhere, it’s been unspeakable.
And now print is disappearing, no one reads, I don’t care what they say, I don’t care about statistics, people
get their information, entertainment, divergence, died versions from computers, TV, long listening snakes of cables on fire, the wires, the bridges, and monsters and demons we don’t talk about except now. Also about the long poem, was it the idea of the group is that there was no division, no separation between the poem and the novel? We were reading the Spanish, Garcia Marquez and Neruda and it all seemed to flow together, organically, and we were young, and we read that beats and we put it together and created something new, or so it seemed, so very long ago.

I don’t think the big difference occurred on till Dennis Cooper came. It was geographical. When I moved the
East, well first Venice disappeared. We didn’t have a neighborhood anymore, even though we never had a real
neighborhood it was always a conceptual neighborhood, a barrio of the aesthetic, actually it was said very
well by Michael C. Ford in quote the 20th century is a suburb of Los Angeles, and observation to brilliant to be
buried by time and the cul-de-sac, the playing sax, in coffee house up. The way he made his life of bohemian
squalor and Michael C. Ford was there, he called it moored at not anchored. Many people were in and out of the VP
workshop were Wanda Coleman and Jack Grapes. The point is that when Dennis Cooper came, everything changed.

By then, after our private group on Washington Blvd. broke up, the new people who came in, like Exene and John
Doe and then Dennis Cooper and I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t have history with the new people. I knew Bob
Flanagan. It was unfortunate, the people who left Venice and went to Pasadena, Long Beach, Santa Barbara the
barrio in Silverlake and Echo Park. The VPW had served as a focal point it wasn’t real, it was conceptual, were bound by a single ritual. I tell you this now because it must be known and remembered and guides us
bear witness. The original people of the VPW were. This was our ritual. We had readings, at the original place on
Washington Blvd. or that other street yeah but it’s the readings were announced ahead of time and public and
official. We needed to build an audience from scratch, from people taught to resist the indigenous, to not take
their art seriously, like they do in New York. Holly Prado. Eloise Klein Healy.I remember Bradley. But we all
wanted art. Then a new circle sprung up. ……

Bill, I could write 100K words of all this. Once I started to remember, it flowed out. I saw “our” workshop
at my apt as grad school versus the new VPW with new folks, like Dennis Cooper. When I draw a line, it’s
with Dennis Cooper. Lee and I didn’t think he was “serious” about the poetry, but using poetry for a springboard to celebrity. When I’m doing critical apparatus work, I am trying to find lines where pop culture breaches art,
and you cd see it w/Cooper, etc. Didn’t we have a joke about Cooper? Like, once poetry came to LA, the joke is, it
isn’t poetry? It’s such a shame that WE aren’t known, like the writers in an MFA program, or NY or SF.

We’re unknown. In S.F.. if you didn’t have a personal thing with one of the Famous Beats, you don’t count. If you didn’t have sex or get drunk with one of the Angels of Beatness, you can never come in. L.A. was an impossible
environment and once we broke up, lost our geographic identity, we lost it, broke into smaller and more isolated fragments. I am writing the screenplay for LFM, so I want to come in April. Is it too late? Can I keep on working on my memories? It floods out. Love, K