Kate Braverman’s “First Draft Manifesto” (Friday, August 27, 1976)

February 10, 2020

Kate Braverman’s “First Draft Manifesto” — Negative Capability in mid-70s Los Angeles

About 70 people gathered this past Saturday night at Beyond Baroque to share their memories of Kate Braverman and to offer her rueful homage, including Janet Fitch, Laurel Ann Bogen, Samantha Dunn, Rod Bradley, Harry Northup, Michael Silverblatt, and L.A. Times writer Patt Morrison. Although writers from her workshops were the primary speakers, two of Kate’s literary agents also addressed Kate’s notorious personal ambivalence anything other than writing and drugs, and they gave among the very best comments of the evening. Her literary executor, Michael Clark, spoke at the very end, and afterwards gave me permission to reprint her “manifesto” in the very first anthology she ever appeared in, CAMEOES, which was published by Crossing Press in 1978, and edited by Felice Newman.

In this manifesto, one notes the unabashed self-identification with feminist poetry and with the “long poem.” The diatribe against the lack of ambition in academic poetry comes years before Donald Hall’s essay about McPoem. I’ll put it bluntly: anyone reprinting Hall’s essay or commenting on it needs to add a footnote that Braverman was far more prescient about this post-Vietnam War epidemic of stultifying conformity than institutional avatars such as Hall. If he had been oblivious to the Beats when he assembled his first edition of New Poets of England and America, he was equally obliviousness two decades later of the restlessness exhibited by the post-beat ensemble in Los Angeles and the Language contingent in San Francisco. In her statement for CAMEOS, she mentions that she has been thinking about these issues for four years, which more or less encompasses her most intense interactions with other poets who mentored and encouraged her development.

Braverman’s first extended affiliation with a public workshop was at Beyond Baroque, but along with several other impatient poets (Lee Hickman; Jim Krusoe; Harry Northup; Dennis Ellman; Peter Levitt; and myself) recused herself by 1975 to form a “coterie” workshop that met at our residences. These L.A. poets were not the only ones interested in the “long poem,” for we were joined in this preference by poets such as Holly Prado, Dennis Phillips, and Paul Vangelisti. In contrast, on the national arena of poetics, the anthology that Braverman attacks by name represented the Iowa workshop poem that we profoundly distrusted, if not loathed.

It was during her attendance at the Beyond Baroque workshop (“West Washington: West”) and the “West Washington: East” workshop in the mid-1970s that Braverman wrote many of the poems that went into her first book, MILK RUN, which I published under my imprint, MOMENTUM PRESS, with a cover designed by Rod Bradley. (His uncredited photograph is used in CAMEOS for the author’s photo.) Braverman was the youngest poet in the workshop that met in her apartment on West Washington: the average age of the other poets was slightly over 30; she was a half-dozen years younger. She was also the only one in the workshop who did not have any record of sustained employment. Jim was working as a housepainter; Dennis had put in a couple of years driving a liquor truck, and had begun teaching part-time at Santa Monica College; I was working at a Medi-Cal case worker for Department of Public Social Service, following two years as a blueprint machine operator; after appearing as a cheerful, obliging bartender in ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE, Harry Northup was spending a year driving a cab, which he might have thought of in retrospect as “field research” for his next movie role: he had a memorable minor role in TAXI DRIVER and went on to become a steady working character actor, as well a starring role in “OVER THE EDGE.”

In an e-mail interview I conducted with Kate Braverman, she mentions the impact of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude on her writing, but the chiaroscuro conjuring act of magical realism was quickly siphoned off, in my recollection, by the astonishingly chiseled prose of Malcom Lowry. The combination of UNDER THE VOLCANO and Blaise Cendrars’s “Prose of the Transiberian Railway” was far more influential. The latter was read at the WWE workshop by Leland Hickman one night, with every bit of passion he could summon.

The obvious influence (beyond that of Olson, via Lee Hickman) is that of John Keats, whose letter defining negative capability is the overwhelming contextual precedent.

In a future post, I will provide you with the complete interview. In the meantime, these words at the beginning of her career serve just as well as her parting shot.

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

Kate Braverman

(UNTITLED)

There are many things to be said at this point. So grab a cigarette (does anyone read poetry and not smoke?), a cup of coffee and let’s chat a bit.

I have to tell you something about where I’m at. And it’s hard to articulate. I haven’t published much in the last eight months. I have sixty poems in the mail right now at twelve different magazines. And that’s jus the stuff I bothered to type up. I’m half way through my third unpublished book, not chapbook books but a hundred and city page manuscripts, for or sixty long poems. God knows how many chapbooks. The “feminist” (women/rage — woman/angry…. how dare she) is very hard to publish. The very person poems are very hard to publish. The brand new, ten-page long poems I’m doing now are impossible to publish.

First of all, it seems that the poems currently being published by “name” small magazines are interchangeable. Halpern’s anthology (The American Poetry Anthology) reads like one long poem. The currently acceptable style (the Iowa and New York style) can be loosely characterized as: safe and middle of the road. The poems are generally short, one page. By safe, I mean that the poet is dealing with subject matter he/she already understands. The poet is merely restating what he already knows about the world. With this fundamental aspect in mind, the only problem is how to freshly restate what he already knows. This leads to academic poetry, poetry of strain, poetry that is called “experimental” but is actually mechanistic, artificial and soulless, anything but what experimental should really mean. The acceptable poem is flawless. It is a poem of technique and it makes no mistakes. The problem with the currently acceptable poem as I see it is that in addition to not making any mistakes, it doesn’t take any chances, it doesn’t take any risks, it isn’t ambitious. Poetry must (my fundamental assumption) deal with what the poet does not yet know. It must be a work of exploration. The poetry of exploration, by confronting what the poet doesn’t know, by taking the enormous risks of shining a flashlight into the pitch black has the advantage of stumbling on the brilliant connections that make us human. (On other words, art). I see that as Plath’s greatest strength, that she stumbled on connections. That’s what gives her work (to me, and I’m only talking about Ariel) such fantastic energy. Connection spark/sizzle/energy.

Now, I don’t know ho much you are or are not seeing where I’m at so far. Iv’e basically disconnected myself from the mainstream of current poetry buy operating on a fundamentally different set of principles. I’ve written my poems of careful restatement. I call them exercises. O.K. Once severed from the the Iowa/New work mainstream, there is the problem of L.A.

L.A. poetry poetry (if anyone thinks about it at all) is noted or called the Bukowski school. If you’ve read Buskowski and his disciples, certain generalizations can be made. The L.A. school deals with the superficial. The eye sees what is obviously there — the billboards, neon, freeway nightmare. Bukowski has managed to confuse the painful problems of human self-awareness with the painful problems associated with a hangover. The substance of his art is material generally reserved for aspiring commercials That’s the L.A. school.

(At this point, violins will please strike up a chorus of ONE AGAINST THE WORLD……)

There is a sub school of L.A. poetry. L.A. has always existed in artistic isolation. There are a handful of people I know who have responded to this isolation by experimenting, by exploring, by dealing with a very emotional internal reality, an examination of their humanity….. art.

Basically we have commitment and energy, but can’t define/articulate what we are doing in an academic, win a critical sense. We are too close to it? Too involved? It’s been six years since I set foot in a university, and the critical tools I once had have eroded. I don’t believe that we can be a movement until we define our uniqueness.

It’s taken me four years to come up with the ideas in this letter and two and a half hours to write this letter. I hope I have said something of interest.

August 27, 1976

POST-SCRIPT: Does the above sound a lot like a certain essay written by Donald Hall several years later? Yes, it does, and quite frankly I wonder why Hall did not give Braverman any credit or acknowledge her earlier, pithier, piss-off manifestation — if not full-fledged manifesto — of contumacious poetics.