Happy 50th Anniversary, Earth Day!! Hurrah for Jim Grabill’s Poetry!!!

April 22, 2020

Poet and ecological activist Lewis MacAdams died yesterday, and there is a part of me that believes he chose to leave this planet yesterday so that attention would be called not just to the L.A. River, but to all the rivers of Mother Earth.

In thinking of all the rivers as “One River,” I recall that one of the first books of poetry I published was Jim Grabill’s One River. I would to proclaim him as my choice for Poet Laureate of Mother Earth. If there is any poet who will be seen in retrospect as a William Blake of this period — someone who worked to a large extent in obscurity, but whose vision was the most pertinent — then I believe it will be Jim Grabill, a poet I have never met in person and perhaps never will.

May he somehow learn the high esteem I retain for his work. Should you wish to find some of his work in a magazine that shares my enthusiasm and that will also put you in touch with similar poetics at work, then I recommend Larry Smith’s Caliban, which will wrap up publication with the upcoming appearance of its 40th issues, many of which have contained Grabill’s writing.


Lewis MacAdams (1944-2020)

TUESDAY, April 21, 2020

The obituary of poet and ecological activist Lewis MacAdams that appeared in the online version of the L.A. Times today had the word “river” appear three dozen times in the course of remembering his impact on Los Angeles’s cultural environment. As the leading proponent of restoring the Los Angeles River to some semblance of its original joie-de-vivre, MacAdams certainly deserves that portion of his life to be foregrounded in the immediate notices given to his passing. But the word “poet” (or “poetry”) doesn’t appear often enough to reach the thumb in a finger count.

I can understand that an obituary of Lewis MacAdams would not provide a detailed overview of his many collections of poetry, but given that the article focused on the L.A. River, it seems almost obtuse to neglect citing The River, Books One, Two, and Three. In addition to a volume of significant cultural history, Birth of the Cool: Beat, Bebop, and the American Avant-Garde (New York: The Free Press, 2001), Lewis had books of poetry issued by important West Coast publishers such as Tombouctou Books and Little Caesar Press, and his work appeared in many anthologies, too. A poet deserves to be acknowledged for why he is remembered as a poet.

In addition to the people mentioned in the L.A. Times as survivors, Phoebe MacAdams-Ozuna, his first wife, should also have appeared in that list. It was Phoebe, in fact, who first told me five years ago at Beyond Baroque that Lewis had suffered a stroke and was in a rehabilitation facility. The word “valiant” is not used much anymore, perhaps because few people remain who deserve to have that word attached to their sense of integrity. In every instance in which I had the chance to spend time with him, I never left without feeling inspired to stay committed to an idealistic program that settled for nothing less than the pleasure of others in its fulfillment. Wherever people gather at the remnants of Lewis’s vision, they can frolic at their leisure because of the labor he freely offered to bring an alternative to actuality. I hope, though, that when his memoir “Poetry and Politics” is published, the word “valiant” will slip off to the side, like a retired espionage agent. Instead, let his “optimism of the will” be seen as his exemplary call to action.

*. *. *

MacAdams was one of the five dozen or so poets I included in my anthology, POETRY LOVES POETRY (1985). One of the poems I selected also turned up two years later in Andrei Codrescu’s anthology, UP LATE: American Poetry Since 1970. I have chosen “Moguls and Monks” not so much as a representative poem by MacAdams, but one that two very different editorial temperaments shared equal enthusiasm for, and that therefore might have a chance of being savored by you, too, regardless of your usual preferences in poetry.


A dollar-green Cadillac limousine
pulls from the gate at Paramount
and turns down Melrose.
The mogul passenger leans his bald head
back on his head rest and smiles,
his face a mass of pure contentment

as two Buddhist monks bow by,
waiting at the corner for the light to change
so they can bow across Gower.
Though they don’t see each other, I am them both
as I turn up Highland, cruising
in the twelve spiritual
directions, with the
thirteen calls for cash.

But last night I met someone who was fine.

Fates, be kind.

“Best Worst Thing that Ever Could Have Happened” and Stephen Sondheim’s Lyrics

April 20, 2020

Stephen Sondheim’s LYRICS

The publication last month of a volume of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics is a reminder to mention that one of the most overlooked documentary films of the past several years focuses on a musical that its creators all believed would be a hit, but proved to be resounding failure. Merrily We Roll Along, which opened in mid-November, 1981, and ran for 16 performances, accumulated a considerable amount of documentary footage in the process of auditions and rehearsals; one of its leading actors dug up this material and has interwoven it with interviews with the original cast, as well as conversations with Sondheim and Hal Prince. The compilation is deeply moving, and I say this as someone who pretended to enjoy “Company” when I saw it with friends at a theater in Century City almost a half-century ago. I’m not a fan of musicals. My youthful interest in theater was the dramatic strain.

Best Worst Thing that Ever Could Have Happened is both poignant and thoughtful; it reveals the wistfulness that fate keeps in store for those who choose lives imbued in the imagination, and it revels in the astuteness of acceptance that marks the maturity achieved by the cast and creators. Anyone born between 1945 and 1960 will especially find this movie to be a chance for personal reflection. My guess is that some people will suddenly remember friends from when they were young who also attempted to live with courage and dignity in the face of inexplicable disappointment. This film honors all those who made failure worth the risk, and gave it dignity.

Knopf recently sent out an email blast that contained a long portion of the lyric “Children Will Listen” from Into the Woods. Sondheim says it is not a poem, but it is hardly only a set of lyrics meant to mount the melody like a horse that can’t wait to return to the stable. The argument about how to categorize song lyrics within the realm of poetry remains a prolonged dispute. Professor Steve Axelrod and two of his friends, for instance, have assembled a three-volume anthology of American poetry that includes the work of many songwriters, including Yip Harburg and Bob Dylan. Dylan’s work, at its best, comes closer to being “a poem,” but Sondheim’s lyrics perhaps attain something that poetry cannot: a consciousness of the frailty of language as it grapples with the knowledge that perishes at the hands of experience. “If only we had known then, what we know now,” Sondheim’s lyrics say to us. And they comfort us, and allow us to forgive ourselves for not having known, and yet still willing to endure what is come.

Backstory: The Ten Commandments (Live on Zoom “at” the Victory Theater)

BACKSTORY: The Ten Commandments (Live on Zoom)

Governor Newsom’s orders to “Dim the Lights and Hunker Down” appear to be helping California to stymie the spread of the covid-19 coronavirus. Among the thousands and thousands of public events that have been cancelled or indefinitely postponed was the Victory Theater’s one-night only “Backstory” presentation of “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS” on Sunday, March 15th.

I am pleased to announce, however, that there will be a Zoom presentation of this show on Sunday, April 26, at 7:30 p.m.

Sign up for a free viewing at:
an evening of true stories, poetry, and flights of fancy told live around a theatrical theme.

ten commandments poster - new

The Social Imaginary of MOCA’s “Bill and Coo” (Larry Bell)

Friday, April 17, 2020

Norman Klein’s THE HISTORY OF FORGETTING was the first book in which I encountered a particular aspect of the “social imaginary”: the role of erasure in the gestation and maturation of the infinite Venn diagrams of social identification. If Dodger Stadium is a symbolic realm in which athletes are extolled for their contributions to a city’s self-mythology, all representations or invocations of that stadium must completely ignore the demolition of a neighborhood to build that stadium, if the stadium is to retain the power of its symbolic substitutions. “Something must be erased,” Klein emphasizes, for the social imaginary to wave its magic wand of ideological hypnosis.

Klein’s social imaginary is not just an embargo on acknowledging the verifiable extractions that took place at the hands of known parties. His examples also include more indeterminate elisions: the erasure of knowledge that the mise-en-scene of yesteryear was not the way it is represented now. What was Main Street of “yesteryear” like? Must it not have been like the one in Disneyland? Klein all but scoffs with derision.

I thought of Klein’s rule of thumb for the social imaginary the other day, as I was clearing out a stack of mail that I had tossed in a pile of year-end appeals, I found a letter from MOCA (in DTLA) informing me that admission was now free, thanks to a donation from the President of the Board of Trustees, Carolyn Clark Powers. Free admission began on January 11th, but has obviously interrupted by the shelter-at-home policies brought about by the covid-19 outbreak.

In the letter, Carolyn Powers says she’s “thrilled to see the iconic Larry Bell on the Sculpture Plaza.” It’s been a while since I’ve been to the museum, and I don’t recollect this piece being on view. I hope the museum is open within the next four months, so that I can visit before the fall semester commences. Foreknowledge, however, is the aftertaste of context made visible. It will be a bit hard for me to see Bell’s sculpture without thinking of the plot behind the movie that is the armature extending from its imagined cultural armchair.

“Bill and Coo” sounds innocuous enough, but when one looks the film up, the story line is only partially represented on the plaza. It’s not just two parrots sidling up alongside heteronormativity; there is also the matter of the “antagonist”: a crow called “The Black Menace.” Oh…. Of course, “The Black Menace.” The racist ideology at work here needs no commentary, and I’m wondering if perhaps what might be appropriate is a reading of Wanda Coleman’s poetry at the Plaza. I can’t think of a better way to problematize the social imaginary of “Bill and Coo” than to read out loud “South Central Death-Trip.”

Coleman’s first major posthumous retrospective, WICKED ENCHANTMENT, has just been published by Godine. Edited by Terrance Hayes, this volume should be for sale in a special bookstall right next to Larry Bell’s sculpture. Or perhaps a more audible rebuke would be appropriate. Why not install a recording of Coleman reading her caustic perturbations on race, class, and gender so that the “cooing” of her voice counterpoints this idyllic lovenest of soothing surfaces.

One other possibility should be considered: in the fall, 2018, the University Art Museum at CSU Long Beach had a show by Lauren Woods, “American MONUMENT,” installed for public viewing, but upon hearing of the discharge of the person at UAM who had been instrumental in the development of this show, Woods silenced the tape machines that conveyed the testimony (or lack of testimony) about police violence in African-American communities. Woods’s show deserves an L.A. reprise, without reprisals.

In offering this commentary, I don’t want to make it seem as if I will regard Bell’s work as any less important to my own development as a cultural worker. His space-and-light pieces remain enormous influences on a couple of projects I have undertaken as a poet. Nevertheless, it would only make me complicit with the egregious effacements of the social imaginary if I were not to speak out about this aporia at MOCA’s plaza.

As if to confirm the pinpoint accuracy of “American MONUMENT,” here is today’s latest post reminding us of the disparities of racial profiling:

Bruce Baillie (1931-2020): “All My Life”; and Walt Whitman’s Hammock on Pine Island

April 11, 2020

If one were teaching James Wright’s poem, “Lying in a Hammock….,” it might help if one first asked the student to watch Bruce Baillie’s film “All My Life” several times, or often enough that finally they begin to ponder the fence as a variation of the following lesson’s theme.

As the evening meditation session grew near, two monks looked at each other and smiled. The smell of a storm that would arrive tonight was in the air. They breathed deeply, and gazed at the light grey ravines in the clouds. The wind picked up. They looked towards the front gate of their summer residence. They had recently reinforced the tall pole to which the entrance was hinged. Near the top of the pole, a loop of rope quivered as if it had hold of the kite of the monastery’s flag.

“Surely,” one said, “we can see illusion hard at work.” He paused. “The wind is subject to the flag’s undulations. The flag, and the flag alone, moves: all else spools by, as if it were cause, when it is only deceptively alluring effect.”

“No, no,” the other monk responded. “The wind spins like a spider the web of illusion, ceaseless in twisting and retwisting. The flag only appears to move.”

The sixth patriarch, walking by, said, “Surely this, too, is an unexpected knot on a prayer rope. Not the wind; nor the flag. Mind is moving.”

The camera does not move. The fence does not move. Mind is moving. Otherwise, one has wasted one’s life.

“All My Life” — Bruce Baillie

(Today’s post is dedicated to the poet, William Slattery.)


Re your zen koan: flag, wind, or mind? The Slattery answer: Spacetime moves, mind surfs spacetime.

Zen puts observer at center, which accords with perception but is better understood as an illusion of perspective in expanding spacetime: no matter where you are, you seem to be at the center.

Zen, of course, contemplates not individual mind, but a posited all-mind from which individual minds emerge as temporary contingencies. That all-mind is centered everywhere, eludes locality.

So I explain it to myself, at least, when I am busy being here.

— William Slattery

Rainy Day Joke

Thursday, April 9th, 2020; 8:12 a.m.

It rained in Long Beach last night, and after an interlude at dawn, it’s started up again. Sipping coffee, I had a chance to go through e-mail and found that Alexis Rhone Fancher had sent a picture of a rabbit at a bar with its paws on a glass of beer. The caption reads: A priest, a rabbit, and a minister walk into a bar, and the rabbit says “I might be a typo.”

I wrote her back: “A priest, a rabbit, and a minister walk into a bar, and the rabbit says “In the great joke of life, everyone deserves a cameo, even if it is a typo.”

I feel fortunate, dear random reader, to have had a cameo in the quarantine of your life.

John Prine (1946-2020)

John Prine (October 10, 1946 – April 7, 2020

There wasn’t any MFA program for aspiring songwriters to attend in the late 1960s, so when John Prine got out of his two-year hitch in the U.S. Army, he went back to the same job he had before he got drafted: the U.S. Post Office. “I always likened the mail route to a library with no books,” he wrote on his website. “I passed the time each day making up these little ditties.”

I doubt the “ditties” would have been improved by workshopping.


Being a man who still stands with vinyl as well print culture, I walked across the room last night after I heard the news, and flipped through a stack of records. There it was:

Illegal Smile
Spanish Pipedream
Hello In There
Sam Stone
Pretty Good

Your Flag Decal Won’t Get you Into Heven Anymore
Far From Me
Angel From Montgomery
Quiet Man
Donald and Lydia
Six O’Clock News
Flashback Blues

Underneath the titles, Kris Kristofferson’s liner notes recalled his first encounter with Prine’s song. He had finished up one of his own shows and driven across town to a club where the manager was putting the chairs up on the table. At Kristofferson’s request, Prine bashfully got back up on the stage; his shyness belied his lyric maturity. Kristofferson did not hesitate to offer blunt praise: “It must’ve been like stumbling onto Dylan when he first busted onto the Village scene (in fact Al Aronowitz said the same thing a few weeks later after hearing John do a guest set at the Bitter End). One of those rare, great times when it all seems worth it, like when the Vision would rise upon Blake’s “weary eyes, Even in this Dungeon, & this Iron Mill.”

Dylan himself commented years later, “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mind-trips to the Nth degree.”

It wouldn’t hurt a lot of young poets in MFA programs right now to get a copy of “John Prine Beyond Words.” Maybe give it a try themselves. And that includes taking control of your publishing, as well as your writing.

Self-Quarantine Poem Number One: Walt Whitman’s Hammock on Pine Island

April 7, 2020

Self-Quarantine Poem Number One: Walt Whitman’s Hammock on Pine Island

At some point in the past quarter century, I acquired a used copy of the second edition of THE DISCOVERY OF POETRY by Frances Mayes (Harcourt College Publishers). According to a handwritten note on the inside of the front cover, it was previously owned by Caryn Bergquist, who had locker #193. Otherwise, I have no details on its provenance.

Frances Mayes (born 1940) earned her M.A. at San Francisco State University and taught there for at least two decades. She has had over a half-dozen books of poems published and has primarily focused on fiction and non-fiction in the past quarter-century. I gather from her website that she prospered considerably. Among her best-selling books is an account of restoring a farm in Tuscany, Italy. I wonder if she has a hammock there and ever thinks about the poem she led off Chapter 10 of THE DISCOVERY OF POETRY, James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock….” In reading this reprinting of the poem, which was followed by a piece of student commentary, I realized that I had never taught the poem, and I began making notes on it, and today I will share some of them. In “survey of poetry” courses, I usually focus on Wright’s “A Blessing” and “Autumn Begins…”

At a moment in which we’re all instructed to “self-quarantine” as much as possible, Wright’s poem is exemplary. There doesn’t seem to be a person within a mile of his hammock. Not that there were a lot of people on Pine Island in 1960 to interrupt Wright’s idyll. Its total population back then was about 1300 in a little less than six square miles.

Wright doesn’t say what kind of farm William Duffy operates. In fact, we don’t learn much more about Duffy other than his house is empty. Perhaps the family has gone away for a day to visit relatives; or perhaps he is a bachelor and has no family. One might think it is a dairy, but the cows that are alluded to could just as well be part of a contiguous farm. The ravine could form the boundary line between Duffy’s farm and his neighbor. Perhaps the key implicit image is one of friendship. Wright might be alone, but he is at rest in saturated acceptance. He is not there as an employee, nor has he been asked to help out during some crisis. He is not needed by William Duffy to do anything but be there and enjoy a respite from his ordinary tasks.

If Wright is by himself, and quite content in being so, Wright’s poem has plenty of company. About six pages after reprinting Wright’s poem, Mayes quotes Robert Frost about noticing the presence of others in the poem: “A poem is best read in the light of all other poems ever written.” Our personal comparative search engines don’t have to work very Long, however, to come up with obvious matches: If any American poem is present in Wright’s brief free verse lyric, it is Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” which contributes both an opening motif and closing trope. If Whitman has fulfilled his promise to stop somewhere, it is at William Duffy’s farm.

“I lean and loafe…” says Whitman, and Wright’s title indicates he has renewed his subscription to the Quarterly Journal of Imaginative Dalliance. Nor is the narrator the only one at rest or balanced without seeming effort. The poem opens with a butterfly in repose, and by the end of its quick local survey (cows and horses) circles back to another air-borne creature, a hawk, which also happens to be the final animal in “Song of Myself” (“A spotted hawk swoops by…). In contrast, Wright’s hawk “floats,” even as the speaker does. One could say that the extension of the titular image is implicit. The thermal is a hammock, in which the hawk rests, both at ease in the instant but engaged with the outer world. “I think I could turn and live with animals,” Whitman says, and Wright in his hammock savors self-acceptance as no more or less a part of this domain than any other inhabitant.

If Wright’s poem is an instance of transcendental satori, it also reveals the brushstrokes of other poets. The “green shadow” in which the butterfly is compared to a leaf is an obvious steal from Andrew Marvell (“annihilating all that’s made/to a green thought in a green shade”); and the “off-screen” image of the cows has strong echoes of the kind of sentence that William Wordsworth might have found, and appropriated, in the journals of his sister, Dorothy.

The last line of the poem is the one that has provoked the most commentary in the decades since it first appeared in the Paris Review (Spring-Summer, 1961). In addition to Wright’s own understanding of the poem as a conversion narrative, I myself have come to regard the moment as a counterfactual framing; there is a hidden “if” before the poem’s final sentence. “*(If) I have wasted my life, it was for this moment — and it is worth it,” is Wright’s assessment. “Yes, I could have been the go-getter who became rich and famous, but instead I have lived in a manner that has given this extraordinary, other-worldly equilibrium: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like…..’ ”

Indeed, Wright is already, in this moment, in one of the mansions of heaven.

Acknowledging the transformative aspects at work in the poem should not completely distract us from being aware of the specificity of the poem’s details. “The bronze butterfly” is not a case of Wright playing at the coloring book of nature and deciding that he will use the bronze crayon. It is “lycaena hyllus,” which you can find described on Wikipedia. The pines are not meant to be generic either. Most likely, it is an Eastern white pine.

Finally, I would urge readers to revise the poem for themselves. Type out a copy in which any use of the first person pronoun is eliminated from the poem until the final line. Focus entirely on the images. The only hint of a subjective viewpoint would be the initial word: “Overhead,….” This would suggest that an individual is speaking and has started to report on their surroundings by pointing upwards. After that first eidetic note, let the “self” vanish from the poem until its wry, final declaration of independence from the foolishness of self-imposition.

I have typed out such a version, but would probably be infringing on copyright if I were to include it in this post. I will mention, however, that my version divides the poem up into three-line stanzas, which only goes to show that my presumptuousness will never cease to leave me abashed.

I am equally abashed to admit that as much as I enjoy Wright’s poem and look forward to reading it many times, I am even more of a fan of James Schuyler’s “Korean Mums,” and if you don’t know that poem, you owe to itself to become familiar.

Computer Chess Self-Quarantine

Saturday, April 4, 2020 – Sunday, April 5, 2020

(In Memory of Arianne Caoili (1986-2020)

I am adding to Saturday’s initial post because by late Sunday morning Dr. Deborah Birx had urged all Americans not to go to the grocery store or the pharmacy unless it was “essential.” I learned of this new emphasis when I returned from an early morning trip to the store wearing a mask provided by a neighbor, who mentioned that she had acquired several from the local organic cleaners. I put in a call for several masks when I got back. I placed an auto shop blue towel inside as a way of giving it a little extra reinforcement.

In addition to preparing for the rest of the semester, I had a number of projects to work on during the spring break, including the final version of an article on Venice West as well as production work on a book of poems from one of the members of that scene, Eileen Ireland. Confinement, though, even for a writer, becomes an itch diffcult to scratch.
One of the ways to endure the “stay at home” order is to play chess on the computer. At best, I can play a decent game at level 4, at which I am lucky if I win every fourth time. If I were a baseball player, I’d call myself a .243 hitter at level 4. I believe I have won one game at level 5, but count it as a victory if I can extend the match past 20 moves if I am so foolish as to try to play at level 7 or 8.

In chess, each move is like playing “paper, scissors, rock,” but with the difference that the choice one makes now will only have its consequences fully visible when the choice of “paper covers rock” pounces eight moves later. The question is: are you paper eight moves later, or rock? You have to anticipate the accrual of pattern.

Here’s one of my “at-bats.”
In this game, I led off with the first move, and managed to checkmate my “opponent” three dozen moves later. This notation was cut and pasted from the sidebar that seemed to record each move. I have yet to verify its accuracy or to see if it retained an odd moment; I accidentally made a move and took it back. It was truly an accident in which I had clicked on a piece and then the potential moves showed up, and I decided to move another piece but somehow that shift in choice did not register, but instead the rejected move occurred; so I took it back, since the computerized program did not respond to my actual request to move a particular piece.

Computer Level 4

1.Nc3 e5
2.e4 Ne7
3.Bb5 h5
4.a4 a6
5.Be2. d6
6.Nf3. h4
7.g3 Nec6
8.gxh4 f6
9.Nd5. Ne7
10.c4. Rh7
11.a5. Bh3
12.Qa4+ Nec6
13.d4. Rh8
14.Be3 Bd7
15.dxe5 Ne7
16.Qd1. Nxd5
17.Qxd5. Bc8
18.O-O- Oc6
19.Qd4. Bg4
20.Qb6. Qxb6
21.axb6 fxe5
22.h3 Bd7
23.c5. d5
24.Nxe5. a5l
25.Nxd7. Nxd7
26.exd5. g6
27.dxc6 Bh6
28.cxd7+. Kd8
29.Rhg1. a4
30.Rxg6. Bf8
31.c6. Rh5
32.Bxh5. Rc8
33.dxc8=. Q+Ke7
34.cxb7. a3
35.bxa3 Bh6
36.Bxh6 Kf7


Today, I dedicate the pleasure I derive in playing chess to the memory of Arianne Caoili, who recently died as a result of injuries from a car crash.