Robin Coste Lewis, the New Poet Laureate of Los Angeles

Sunday, May 28, 2017

“The Very Manufactured Stereotype of L.A.”: Robin Coste Lewis and the Past Half-Century of Los Angeles Poetry

Slightly over a year ago, the newly appointed poet laureate of Los Angeles, Robin Coste Lewis, had an interview published in the Los Angeles Review of Books. According to Ms. Lewis, LA poetry possesses a media-embolded image promulgated by writers who are “white, Venice Beach, a little Beat, folks who came here and invested in the very manufactured stereotype of L.A.” Ms. Lewis did not cite any of these poets by name; perhaps she feels there are so many who fit that description that there is little point in reciting a laundry list of the usual suspects; or maybe she was hoping to nudge the main offenders into voluntarily undertaking a revival of self-criticism, as practiced back in the 1960s. If so, then here’s how I line up: White: check. Venice Beach. Well, I lived in Ocean Park, which is just north of Venice for 20 years, and I certainly hung around Beyond Baroque enough in those years, so: check. “a little Beat.” As with Venice Beach, I suppose there’s enough of a post-Beat aura about my writing to say, check. And yes, I did come here from elsewhere.

But now let us pause, and consider the way that Ms. Lewis’s rhetoric constitutes a classic case of how politicians operate when they want to smear a community and its affiliates and supporters. Political hit jobs work by first establishing an accurate or sufficiently accurate description of the target, and then one moving on to the inaccurate, which is meant to undermine the opponent’s legitimacy. Ms. Lewis obviously scorns the “folks who came here and invested in the very manufactured stereotype of L.A.,” as do I. The problem is that she regards me as one of those folks. I have no idea of how and why she would align me with the hegemonic ideology of the culture industries. Nevertheless, this is what has done, and let there be no mistake about it: she intends to smear all the work I’ve done as being no different in its values as those promoted by the entertainment industries and its concrete effects on the notion of success.

Nor does Ms. Lewis want there to be any ambiguity about her position. She proclaims that she plans to advocate for a group of poets who will enable her to “redefin(e) what ‘LA Poet’ means”; these poets include Wanda Coleman and Garrett Hongo, as well as Juan Felipe Herrera. “Do you know what I mean?” she inquires.

I do know what she means. I’ve just tweeted:

“L.A. poetry is Wanda Coleman and Garrett Hongo,” whom (RCL ought to know, but doesn’t) I was the first to publish.

I don’t expect anyone appointed as the Poet Laureate of Los Angeles to be an assiduous scholar of Southern California literary history. I do expect, however, the poet laureate of Los Angeles to have a basic familiarity with those who created a critical mass of “scenes” sufficiently prominent to make it feasible for a position such as poet laureate to be bureaucratically anointed by the Cultural Affairs Department of the City of Los Angeles.

Back in the mid-1970s, I took the money I had saved from two years of working as a blueprint machine operator and started a poetry magazine, Momentum. By the second issue, I had become the first editor to publish the poetry of Wanda Coleman and Garrett Hongo. My support of Coleman’s and Hongo’s poetry was complemented by my friend, Leland Hickman, whose editorial efforts included them in his first undertaking as an editor. I went on to publish the writing of many LA-based poets, including Aleida Rodriguez and Manazar Gamboa. Yes, it’s true that the overwhelming majority of the poets I published in my magazine fit the general category of “white and a little Beat,” but it would be quite a stretch to describe them as being collaborators with the culture industry. Has Ms. Lewis read the books I published by gay poets (Leland Hickman, Joseph Hansen, Jack Thomas) or the poetry I published that was aligned with one of the most important feminist institutions of the period, the Woman’s Building? Holly Prado’s Feasts remains one of the underground classics of that era; Kate Braverman’s Milk Run is probably one of the hundred best first books of the post-World War II American poetry. Deena Metzger’s Dark Milk contains forthright meditations on the political struggles of the period.

By the time I edited my second anthology, “Poetry Loves Poetry,” in the mid-1980s, the range of poets working in Los Angeles was exceptionally intriguing, and no one group was dominating the conversation. If anything, the scenes were only getting more complicated: thanks to the arrival of Douglas Messerli at the very moment PLP was getting its first reviews, the poets interested in avant-garde poetics received an enormous boost. Leland Hickman’s Temblor magazine (1985-1990) hardly qualifies as a representative instance of a scene that is “a little Beat.” On the other hand, S.A. Griffin, Scott Wannberg, and Doug Knott were “holdouts” in reinvigorating the Beat legacy. With ever increasing prominence in this later period, the poetry performing troupe of Nearly Fatal Women (Suzanne Lummis, Laurel Ann Bogen, Linda Albertano) invigorated the coalescence of the Stand Up poetry movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as championed by Charles Harper Webb. During the last dozen or so years of the past century, Lummis organized a city-wide celebration of poetry, the L.A. Poetry Festival, that reflected the multi-cultural maturity of the city’s expanding poetry scenes.

The diversity of Lummis’s festival was hardly a new feature of the region’s literary ecology. In the mid-1970s, Beyond Baroque launched its first wave of book publications with a volume of poems by K. Curtis Lyle, one of the charter members of the Watts Writers Workshop, and Beyond Baroque reiterated its belief in his poetry when it published Electric Church. Many people associate Beyond Baroque’s first two decades with the leadership provided by James Krusoe, Jack Grapes, and Dennis Cooper, but it also proved to be a crucial training ground for poets such as Michelle T. Clinton, whose poetry was first anthologized in “PLP”, and who then went on to co-edit an anthology entitled Invocation L.A., which proclaimed itself the first multi-cultural anthology of L.A. poets.

Perhaps, though, the most telling aspect of Ms. Lewis’s comments on L.A. poetry concerns her elision of small press activity in this region. Although she mentions in her interview in LARB how she worked at Kitchen Table Press when she first arrived in New York City, her knowledge of literary magazine production in Los Angeles during the past 60 years seems to be abysmally blank. Professionally trained in New York and New England, and published by Knopf, it can hardly pass unnoticed that Ms. Lewis seems to have a typical East Coast attitude towards Southern California poetry magazines and small presses. Her failure to acknowledge the editorial work of John Martin, Paul Vangelisti, Aleida Rodriguez, Leland Hickman, Dennis Cooper, Jack Grapes, Doren Robbins, Harvey Robert Kubernik, Douglas Messerli, Kate Gale and Tim Green verges on outrageous. What about the publishing projects of Luis J. Rodriguez and his Tia Chucha Press? Is Ms. Lewis completely unaware of David Kippen’s important work at Libros Schmibros?

If Ms. Lewis is to serve as some kind of spokesperson for Los Angeles poets for the next two years, I would appreciate a more inclusive generosity on her part. She may have been born in Los Angeles, and feel entitled to use that fact to bolster her street cred, but those of us who have worked here for several decades to create a viable ecology of poetic variety, in which immigrant voices are welcome, have done nothing that deserves her sneering conflation of our efforts with the corporate media. The film and television industries are industrial projects with global domination in mind. Rather than conjuring up some self-serving fantasy of L.A. poetry history, in which she plays the redeemer rushing to the rescue, Ms. Lewis could make better use of her recent appointment by building on the long-standing resistance of poets in this city to those who would use their cultural capital to dominate and exploit. Being poet laureate of Los Angeles is not so much an honor for her, as it is her responsibility to respect those whose ill-paid labor the past half-century has brought the multitude of scenes in Los Angeles to this crucial point. I, too, want to keep redefining what it means to be a L.A. poet. I hope that her appointment encourages all the poets in this city to reexamine the definitions to which their activism first gave public credibility.

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