NEA Link to Fellowship Winners (1965 – 2005)

December 15, 2020

I recently discovered a link to a website on which the NEA touts the prescience of its peer panels over a forty year period in selecting the very best poets in the United States to receive awards. Lest I seem too much like a cantankerous reproach, I do want to acknowledge that the NEA was very generous in supporting the writers that I believed deserved to have books published back between 1975 and 1985. Poets and writers such as Alicia Ostriker, Len Roberts, James Moore, Jim Krusoe, Kate Braverman, Holly Prado, Harry E. Northup, Leland Hickman, and Deena Metzger benefited through grants given to Momentum Press by the National Endowment for the Arts.

I also wish to thank the Getty Research Institute and the Huntington Library for giving me support for my scholarly work.

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LINK TO NEA CREATIVE WRITING FELLOWSHIPS AWARD WINNERS (1965-2005):

https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/NEA_lit.pdf

Needless to say, one won’t find my name in this list of winners. I applied a score of times over three decades and finally gave up. Now it’s true that there are more poets working at a fairly high level than there are awards to go around, but it was made quite clear to me that my writing was really not worthy of serious consideration. For a while, the NEA was willing to share the comments of the panelists on one’s work, and there’s nothing like reading what the most astute poets of a period have to say about your work to help explain one’s lack of success in the literary marketplace.

“The poems ramble and are uninteresting, and the titles unremarkable. The work is composed of large abstract thoughts that are not relevant to the incidents that supposedly spark them. There is a lack of compression and imagination. …. The language lacks sparks and interest. The poems fail to cohere…. The poems are so fragmentary in their mode that it is difficult for the poems to gain momentum. … The poems depend too much on a final epiphany, pulling the work down than elevating it …. The writing is inflated and wordy … there is a lack of feeling for rhythm, and the style is more like prose than poetry …. The poems lack distinction … The poems are too controlled, almost to the point of predictability … There is a need for more surprise in imagery, syntax, language and revelation … the poems felt overly like prose, and the narrative did not feel forceful enough to replace an invigorating and felicitous use of rhythm.”

NEA panelists’ comment on my work, 1989-1990-1991-1992

Given the consistency of the comments, I have to assume that they are representative of the entire twenty times that I applied for an award. I have sometimes thought of putting out a book of poems from this period and using the above as a kind of “anti-blurb” on the back cover.

Of course, not getting an award did not stop me from writing. No one needs an award to get their writing done, though the NEA emphasizes time and again on its website how important it is to have time to write. It is the recognition that one craves from one’s peers, if not a minimal gesture of respect. One keeps going, regardless.

It’s true that most people don’t “advertise” their bad reviews, but no doubt there are young writers out there who feel discouraged when they are told that they don’t have much talent, and I thought \ it might be helpful to remind them that the hardest part of writing is to persist, even when others don’t “get” what you are doing.

VEHEMENCE

At work the other day, a woman
five months pregnant wore black.
“You’ve seen this dress before.
I wore it to the funeral. It looks
a little different because I took
the belt off.” Afterwards I thought,
“the funeral.” She knows which one
it was. I don’t. Back at my
machine, I remember storm-
drenched Tijuana hills I saw
through childhood’s windows, rain,
wind, and lightning’s acidic
dexterity, and how these images
will one day vanish, utterly,
along with the hours I typed
radio station call letters
for trade paper ads: WMMS.
Just typing those four letters
makes my boss five dollars profit.
I don’t mind. I need a job, and will
until I die. I’ll visit friends
in dreams. A week after a brain
tumor made a friend capitulate,
I hugged her: palpable
and soft. I felt her bosom
and arms. I said, “You can’t
be here. You’re dead.” A few months
later we talked again. We stood
apart and didn’t embrace. 3:30pm
work break. I stand near a chair
on a parking garage’s roof, eye-level
with a tree’s crown, a bird settles
into the instant after it pushes
aside every twig surrounding
the point of its exultation.

CRO-MAGNON

Bundling chrysanthemums, anemones,
and gladioli on my motorcycle’s
red gas tank, I headed off
to Peter Levitt’s house. He’s ill.
A wind churning from the deserts
jolted me so hard I was lifted
into the next lane.
No car was coming.
Peter staggered from his bed,
found a vase under a kitchen sink.
He said anemone means daughter
of the wind. Protected. This time.
Other nights I was spared
only by the subcutaneous radar
of terror: slow down. I don’t
ride motorcycles anymore and miss
riding beside the ocean
on summer nights. Ah, t-shirts!
The men and women at last night’s
party miss Beruit much more.
Their eyes and mine coiled
the same brown and yellow hues.
More than once, they asked,
“Are you Lebanese?” as though
I were a cousin who’d missed
the matriarch’s funeral.
This morning Cathay and I
walked through aisles of irises,
tulips, and hydrangeas, buying,
for once, as much as we pleased.
Each bouquet’s topped by a flower
we’ve never seen before, a pin
cushion protea. Today the wind
is very gentle. Orange
and blue petals of a bird
of paradise bulge at their
birth-seams and a trickle
of clear fluid seeps down
the side. I dip my finger in,
anoint my eyelids, and bless
this day, almost finished.

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During these years, I was working full-time as a typesetter at a weekly newspaper as well as teaching poetry workshops at Venice Continuation High School. (“My machine” refers to a Compugraphic 7500.) My only encouragement occurred in spring 1993, when New Alliance Records released a spoken word compilation of my writing. I remain grateful to Liza Richardson at KCRW for all the support she gave to VEHEMENCE, which also was praised by Ellen Krout-Hasegawa in the L.A. Weekly. “The kind of organic, free-verse, non-esoteric poetry associated with Los Angeles and its poets is usually written by working-class, or lower, folk such as Charles Bukowski. Today’s finest include Bill Mohr, who evocatively combines images of longing and desperation with wide-eyed wonderment.”

I also wish to reiterate my gratitude to Jack Grapes and Michael Andrews for publishing my book of poems in 1982. HIDDEN PROOFS eventually became the title of a selection of my poems published in a bilingual edition in Mexico five years ago: PRUEBAS OCULTAS. That collection was chosen by a panelists of critics in Mexico as one of the two dozen best books of poetry published in Mexico that year. Thanks to Gail Wronsky and Chuck Rosenthal, an expanded version of that book was published by What Books in Los Angeles a couple years ago.

One has to assume that all of the poets who have won these NEA awards have had at least one stand-alone book of their poems translated into another language and selected for distinction. After all, if their work is so much better than mine, how could they not be internationally recognized? In particular, of course, those who served as panelists for the years in which the above comments were made can hardly claim to be superior if they are not able to produce the evidence of such volumes.

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Praise for HIDDEN PROOFS (1982)

“Bill Mohr’s Hidden Proofs is vital writing. Mohr has often been more highly touted as a publisher than poet. Never again: His first collection is spectacular. These stories of sympathy and rage… (are) all enveloped in Mohr’s crisp descriptions of the Southland locale. Poetic truth captures what we know but never say. In this way, Hidden Proofs contains so much truth, remembering a language of caring and touch, making you feel so tender and good again that you’ll hate to see it end.”
— LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK REVIEW

“Best known as the publisher-editor of Momentum Press, Mohr has been building poems years, and Hidden Proofs reads less like a debut than a distillation. From the striking cover to the final poem’s shifting colors, the book dwells in illuminated moments, playing imagery of light and dark off the harsh material of autobiography and the quotidian rhythms of employment and politics. (Although) sensitive to dream, Mohr deals more with waking moments that get shaded from view in the interstices of experience. The poems in Hidden Proofs succeed in rescuing lost moments from the abyss of unexamined time in a simple moving way. For Mohr, this emotional rescue acts not to reintegrate experience but to demystify it. (Mohr’s) cadences recall Ginsberg without the anxiety of Zen orthodoxy, but Hidden Proofs usually locks into a humbler pitch, directing the reader to the indwelling proofs of living that hide in common sensations.”
— LOS ANGELES READER

“There are poems here full of heart, in which the emotions are screened by an artifice, not of trickery, but of craft. These are poems of clarity, intelligence, deep feeling and humor, about living a life and watching closely.”
— BEYOND BAROQUE POETRY NEWS

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I will leave it to those who continue to read contemporary poetry in the next forty years to decide which set of critics were the the most astute evaluators of my writing. Perhaps it will turn out, however, that the NEA peer panelists, who were some of the best known and highly respected poets in the nation in the late 1980s and early 1990s, were accurate in their commentary. It is the case, after all, that I decided to forego writing poems by the fall, 1997, and went to graduate school. In the past two decades, I have had far more success as an academic than I ever had or ever will have as a poet. Odd how life turns out, eh?

HOLDOUTS: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance, 1948-1992 (University of Iowa Press, 2011)
THE HEADWATERS OF NIRVANA: Reassembled Poems (A Bilingual Edition) (Los Angeles: What Books, 2018)

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epitaph

an ugly, awkward man
defied his talent’s span