Tag Archives: Cecilia Woloch

“Shadow Ball: New and Selected Poems” by Charles Harper Webb

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Charles Harper Webb’s “SHADOW BALL”

I had a job teaching fiction writing at Idyllwild Arts during the summer from 1995 til 2014, so I had a chance to hear Charles Harper Webb read at the Idyllwild Poetry Festival every time he taught there. The consistently high quality of his poems during the decade that Cecilia Woloch ran the festival was truly extraordinary. On each occasion on which I heard him, at least one of the poems he read deserved to appear in Best Poems of the Year. Here are some of those poems I was fortunate enough to hear back then:

“Prayer for the Man Who Mugged My Father, 72”
“In Praise of Pliny”
“The Shape of History”
“Biblical Also-Rans”
“Love Poetry”
“To Make My Countrymen Love Poetry”
“Rat Defeated in a Landslide”
“Conan the Barbarian”
“Superman, Old”
“The Animals Are Leaving”
“A Grand Opening of Hearts”
“The Open-Air Recital Survived a Shaky Start”
“You Missed the Earthquake, Bill”

I’m working from memory, it must be said, and if one were to review the tapes made of the Idyllwild readings, one might find that Webb did not read one or two of these poems. In point of fact, the rendition by Webb of “In Praise of Pliny” that I most clearly remember was at the Long Beach Poetry Festival a half-dozen or so years ago. Regardless of whether he read them at Idyllwild, every one of these poems contributed towards the establishment of Webb as a formidably comic presence in American poetry, and make no mistake about it: the poems as a whole have an extremely unusual amount of humor rumbling around in the basement.

That poetry should accommodate the comic spirit is hardly a revolutionary proposal, though perhaps Chaucer was rebuked more than we are aware of for the high-jinks in “The Miller’s Tale”; and it is the case that contemporary poetry on the whole regards itself as a solemn art. As I pointed out in my previous post, Webb was a late arrival in Los Angeles in terms of the emphasis on humor in the poetry of the “local scene,” so his role in the development of this particular poetics has been more akin to that of a real estate developer who realizes how a neighborhood is undervalued – considerably undervalued, in fact – and sets about making it “neighborhip.” And to his credit, he has indeed pulled it off, though ironically he has not received the credit that is his due, except in Laurence Goldstein’s masterful study of Southern California poetry, POETRY LOS ANGELES: Reading the Essential Poems of the City (University of Michigan Press, 2014).

Goldstein is perhaps the first critic to point out the Stand Up school’s affiliation with the New York School of Poets: “it, too, goes on its nerve, to cite Frank O’Hara’s description of his poetics, and delights in performance style and structure.” Nerve, in this poetics, also contains a sense of audaciousness, the willingness to say what appears to be an inappropriate sentiment. In an extended commentary on “You Missed the Earthquake, Bill,” Goldstein quotes Webb’s “farcical language in the opening stanzas” and notes that “Webb seeks to effect a subversion of discursive style and good taste by means of an extravagant rhetoric suited to the occasion” (269). The rambunctiousness of the earthquake, Goldstein argues, and the existential sense of contingent outcomes it engenders, Goldstein argues, give Webb free rein to play with “excessive simile” as a psychological counterweight to help establish an internal equilibrium.
Goldstein emphasizes that the elegiac turn of this poem is only “putatively consolatory”; underlying this characterization and Webb’s poetics

in general is an imaginative strategy best described by Norman Holland in The Dynamics of Literary Response. Although Fredric Jameson has tantalizingly extrapolated from Holland’s updating of Freudian analysis a model though which to critique mass culture, Holland’s scheme remains very useful as a way to understand the less commodified efforts of individual poems and poets. “The psychic function of the work of art,” according to Jameson’s account of Holland’s paradigm, involves a reconciliation of a pair of “inconsistent and even incompatible features of aesthetic gratification – on the one hand, its wish-fulfilling function, but on the other the necessity that its symbolic structure protect the psyche against the frightening and potentially damaging eruption of powerful archaic desire and wish-material…. the vocation of the work of art (is) to manage the raw material of the drives and the archaic wish or fantasy material.” Webb’s comic management of this “raw material” takes the less traveled road in contemporary poetry. The allure of his poetry depends on this dialectic of wish-fulfillment and symbol-producing affect, and it is a mark of his achievement that he is successful enough in managing his material’s emotional turbulence that readers can forget that the resolutions embedded in the closures of his poems yield only “purely symbolic satisfaction” in which the “psychic compromise” leaves provoked desires only “momentarily stilled” (“Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture”).

Webb’s choice of symbolic figures is highly unusual, and quite frequently reinforces the fantasized desire behind the wish. If we find ourselves filled with self-loathing about our appearances and how they have hindered our chances at worldly success, then Webb has just the ticket: “Rat Defeated in a Landscape” will deflate the grandiosity of our ambition and remind us of the all consuming fate of those who are too easily manipulated by the powers behind the throne. Aristophanes could not manage a better satire of our political perversity.
If one were to ferret out one central tension in Webb’s themes, it would be the desire for strength and the fear of weakness. That this tension enfolds itself in primarily a masculine domain contributes to the comic resilience of his poems and prose poems. In one of his best prose poems, for instance, “Conan the Barbarian,” Webb’s appropriation of a popular culture character provides the reader with the chance to indulge in an anecdotal reverie of infantile revenge. It’s a road rage joke in which Conan is the passenger, not the driver, and he is all the more sympathetic for his desire to blend in finally with all of his fellow travelers. Alas, the futility of hoping that ordinary objects simply do their job launches Conan back into his most familiar habits of instantaneous requital.

Webb can cover more than the average number of topics in his poems. These often seem like “one-off” efforts, as if he aware that it wouldn’t hurt his repertoire if he included an ecological poem. “The Animals Are Leaving”: check; and how about a poem that addresses the social environment of casual homophobia in which so many young men grow up? “Cocksucker”: check. These poems are masterfully adept at fulfilling their assignments, as is another examination of the strength-weakness binary in his poem, “Tenderness in Men.”

In his best poems, Webb handles the spatial cartography of his images with a fine touch of its inherent plasticity. His skill in this area, in fact, tends to hide a fairly pedestrian sense of rhythm. “Rhythm is the total sound of the line’s movement,” said Karl Shapiro in a book on prosody, and the total sound of Webb’s lines falls short of the cumulative resonance that one can find in another American master of sardonic narrative, E. A. Robinson, whose vowel-consonant combinations (when he’s at this best) are superbly backed by the backbeat. When Webb’s topic plays it safe with an imaginative counter-attack, his poems falter and quickly fade from memory’s reading list. “Losing My Hair,” for instance, is self-interrogation with too much rhetorical urgency and too little dramatic imagination.

It should also be noted that he seems to lack, almost by predisposition, any interest in the long poem. This is not a major failing in itself. Elizabeth Bishop is not in any danger of being thought of as an unimportant poet simply because she did not write a long poem. Indeed, Webb might well earn an equivalent stature in the field of stand up poetry.

In closing, I want to acknowledge that I have yet to read Webb’s latest book, Brain Camp, and while I would like to wrap up this commentary on his poetry with this posting, it would seem only fair to him and any assessment of his writing to include some reaction to this new volume. Therefore, let us pause at this point and return here soon.

The Blue Cut Fire and the Wheel of Mutability

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Blue Cut Fire and the Wheel of Mutability

The most recent post centered on water, but the pre-Socratic philosophers must be afoot in Southern California, because fire is the chief element at work right now. The Blue Cut fire in San Bernardino County has burned over 35,000 acres, at last report, which would roughly be equivalent to an area seven times the size of the City of Santa Monica. When I first learned of the outbreak and spread of this conflagration, I immediately thought of the proximity of the Love Art Gallery to the heat perimeter. According to a message from Hye Sook Park, the Love Art Gallery is still intact. From looking at maps posted on-line, however, it appears that the fire came within less than five miles, if not closer, to the gallery.

If one is an artist and writer in Southern California, it is difficult not to have had the annual fire season affect some part of one’s life. Those who have been following my blog since its inception will recollect that a major fire broke out in the mountains around Idyllwild less than six months after my first post; the town had to be evacuated, and almost everybody left, except for the brave owner of Gary’s Deli, who kept his place open in order to feed the fire crews on the front line.

Idyllwild is typical of many mountain communities in Southern California in being extremely vulnerable; the longer the area goes without a fire, the more devastating the embarkation is likely to be, once ignited. The close calls come with a price: Idyllwild still mourns the death of firefighter Captain Mark Loutzenhiser, in the Esperanza fire of October, 2006.

In thinking back, in fact, of the decade during which Cecilia Woloch ran the Idyllwild Poetry Festival, it is quite remarkable that not once did that festival get interrupted by a mandatory evacuation. Not every arts organization has been as lucky. Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, just outside of Temecula, had all of its venerable cabins burnt down in a fire in the late spring of 2004. It has been partially rebuilt, but nothing can replace the inspiring quaintness of the original setting, which I was fortunate enough to spend a couple months at during the winter of 1997.

And fire affects individual artists: perhaps fire spared the Love Art Gallery because it had already helped itself to enough of the art produced by one of its exhibitors. One thing I did not mention in my review of Hye Sook Park’s show at the Love Art Gallery (see “The Fall of St. Paula,” April 13, 2015) was that she had lost an immense amount of work in a studio fire about four years ago. The storage shed that contained dozens of her canvases somehow caught on fire and destroyed years of work. I am grateful to learn of the survival of the Love Art Gallery and look forward to seeing more of Hye Sook Park’s new paintings, which affirm the work yet to be done as always already being made vivid by the indestructibility of the joy of creation.

For those who want to visit:
Love Art Studio
15551 Cajon Blvd.
San Bernardino, CA 92407
(909) 576-5773

James Tate (1943-2015)

“The Stranger Getting Stranger By the Hour”

For the past twenty years, I have made an annual trek to Idyllwild, California to teacher fiction writing to teenagers at a summer arts camp. I decided the summer before last that I like round numbers more than ever, and so I let Steve Fraider know that 2014 would be my last time on the mountain as a summer teacher at Idyllwild Arts. One of the wonderful memories of being up there was watching Cecilia Woloch start up the Idyllwild Poetry Festival and keep it running so well year after year. Her skill at doing so played a large part in my decision to ask her to be my primary guest artist at “The Poet’s Metamorphosis” in Monterey Bay, which starts this coming Monday.

In the midst of final packing for the trip north, I heard from Brendan Constantine that James Tate has died. Although he was steadily prolific throughout his life, it is his early work that will continue to astonish readers. His first book, The Lost Pilot, has a handful of enduring poems, but on the whole is uneven. Given that he was in his very early 20s when he wrote these poems, it is hardly surprising that not every poem has gone through enough drafts. The next two widely available full-length collections, however, The Oblivion Ha-Ha and Absences, remain among the handful of books that are essential reading in their entirety. It’s not that Absences is perfect; that’s not the point of his poetics. His poems want to wake us up from our waking consciousness, that level of daily negotiation that leaves us frustrated with its explanations of reality. The “ordinary horseshit” of ideology gets washed away when we turn to his best poems and gives ourselves to his prancing logic.

In some ways, I believe that if Tate had been gifted with a more devious intellect, he might well have had the following career. Having reached the limits of his early affinities, in 1974 he renounces all his early work and devotes himself to the nascent Language movement. I wonder what would have happened, if that alternative life had somehow come to pass? Would the Language writers have truly welcomed him? I doubt it. There’s an edge of transgressive clowning — in the most sincere sense of the word — that would cause his work to remain suspect in their company. A paradox involving a vortex of welcome and farewell spins through Tate’s work with the grace of friendly solitude, and he refused to consider any other path. Tate was never in any danger of succumbing to the temptation of any poetics but his own quirkiness. As the years have gone by, and his poems missed more often than not, I began to wish that he would give himself a respite that would allow one final gush of utter brilliance. It never happened, but many of us are very grateful that he kept on trying. Without that compulsion, after all, we would not have the gift of his early poems. In the end, his work will always linger at the edges of the avant-garde while refusing easy assimilation into conventional schools, and the best of his work will continue to be a constant rediscovery of an imagination heading off towards unexpected destinations of  poignantly startling reverie. Carol Ellis’s recent collection of poems cites one of my favorite images from his poems:  “a dark star passes through you on your way home from the grocery.” His best poems are the darkest of stars, and once you have read them, you will never again be the same.

I’m going to eat a dish of blueberries in his memory tonight.


“Beveled Poise” — Cecilia Woloch

Tuesday morning, October 14, 2014

Cecilia Woloch read her poetry at CSU Long Beach last night. The Soroptimist House must have been closed up since Thursday, since the room seemed to have only been opened at a half-hour before the event. The space obviously had not been aired out at all for some time; the temperature of the room made it almost unsuitable for the event. Several fans were at work, but they were more effective in minimizing the usefulness of the microphone than in making the audience comfortable. Despite the performance conditions, Cecilia gave a very fine reading. Here is my introduction.

The first time I heard Cecilia Woloch read her poetry was at the Gasoline Alley Coffee House on Melrose Blvd. in Los Angeles. Phoebe MacAdmas and I were running a reading series that had originally been started by actor and poet Harry Northup, and Cecilia was a poet who was beginning to earn her living working as a poet-in-the-schools. This is almost impossible to do, and I can attest to the difficulty of doing so because I gave it a try myself. If Cecilia succeeded, it was because of two things: 1) she is simply the most inspiring teacher of poetry I have met; 2) her inspiration derives from a passion for poetry that never stops being curious about the origins of emotions and where their destinies might take us, both as readers and writers.

Indeed, Cecilia Woloch’s poetry invites us all to make more of a journey out of our lives, not necessarily a heroic journey, but the journey that surprises itself in the telling. In her case, it is the unexpectedness of form that keeps me alert to the true degree of risk that she takes as an artist. What’s next? – a prose poem? A pantoum? If L.A. poets are known for their formal variety, they are also known for how an emotional intimacy radiates from their poems like a voice that understands what Whitman whispered to each reader: “I may not tell everyone, but I will tell you.”

Her poetry, however, is not just an intense revelation of personal cross-purposes of life and fate. Like one of her favorite poets, Muriel Rukeyser, she summons history and demands that it account for its often preposterous occurrences. If she is able to recalibrate the narrative of tragic history, such as that imposed on the Romani during World War II, it is because she has traveled a distance (both literally and metaphorically) sufficient to understand the truth of art’s limited redemption.

In the first three paragraphs I hope that one can begin to detect the problem with introducing this wonderful poet. It is almost impossible to acknowledge the full range of qualities that make her such an intriguing figure in contemporary American poetry. One could focus on how rare it is that an outstanding teacher of poetry is also a poet who refuses to take any predictable path of poetics, or one could focus on the different way her writing can be contextualized. In terms of the latter, she is unabashedly a Los Angeles poet, and her love for this city and its poets shines throughout her work as the founding organizer of the Idyllwild Poetry Festival. As a teacher and poet, she has personified the indivisibility of those roles. To learn from her is to hear the language made anew. At the same time, she is a poet who can keep her visionary balance no matter what part of the world’s stage she finds herself writing about. Such a sense of internal centeredness and external poise is a gift that I savor each time I get to hear her poetry. I am delighted to present to you a poet whose poems are beveled with history, knowledge, and vision. Please join me in welcoming Cecilia to CSULB.



The Translation Crisis in American Poetry

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Recollections of the AWP in Seattle: The Translation Crisis

I spent most of my time at my first AWP convention (in late February) at the book fair, where I had several conversations with small press book editors and publishers that focused on the issue of translation. At the Copper Canyon booth, for instance, I picked up a copy of a large volume of Norman Dubie’s poetry. “Has he had a stand-alone volume of poetry published in translation in another country?” I asked his publisher. “Not that I know of. That would be a rarity.”

That seemed to be the general sentiment. The folks at Tupelo Press, which has published a gross of titles, said that they were not aware of any author who had a book published in another country. I asked them to nominate someone who would be worthy of the honor. The editor suggested that Jeffrey Harrison deserved serious consideration. I bought a copy of Mr. Harrison’s latest book, which showed every symptom of being poetry likely to be found in the New Yorker. I can’t say that I would recommend it to the editors of Words without Borders, which according to its website has published writing from over a hundred languages. If this is the best that Tupelo Press can come up with as work that would justify the effort required to translate poetry, then the editors need to start reading beyond the fashion show of current canonical assemblies of American poetry.

The basic question is: Why is so little poetry written in the United States translated into other languages? Or at least, why is so little poetry endorsed by the National Endowment for the Arts translated into other languages? At this point, Copper Canyon has received over a hundred thousand dollars from the NEA. It defies literary credibility to believe that that not a single poet they’ve published who was born after 1940 has had a book of their poems published in another language. And yet that appears to be the case. I’m afraid that the editor of Copper Canyon had not a clue that this was something to be aspired to, and that a decision about whether to publish a writer should be based, at least in part, on whether someone in another language would find the poems worth translating. Instead, the provincial taste of monolingual cunning and homogenous exile within the academy seem to marginalize the visibility deserved by writers whose work is worthy of being translated. Two Los Angeles poets whose writing stands out in that regard are Anthony Seidman and Cecilia Woloch, both of whom merit much more attention for work that meets the ultimate challenge of a poem’s transmissible placement. Translation is a displacement, in which the connotations of the elusively literal (in being closely listened to) become the denotations of tantalizing metaphors, nestled in the sway and tug of replication.






Idyllwild Poetry Week


July 14, 2013

In the summer of 1999, Cecilia Woloch organized a week-long poetry conference at the Idyllwild Arts Academy. Over the course of the next nine summers, Woloch managed a rotating line-up of poets that could serve as an idiosyncratic model for that endangered species of literary projects, the anthology of contemporary poets. The following is not a complete list of those Woloch selected to give featured readings at Idyllwild, but it’s sufficiently comprehensive to provide an accurate survey of her curatorial sensibility:

Chris Abani

Ellen Bass

John Brandi

Christopher Buckley

Marilyn Chin

Lucille Clifton

Wanda Coleman

Billy Collins

Brendan Constantine

Richard Garcia

James Baker Hall

Eloise Klein Healy

Peter J. Harris

Terrance Hayes

Brigit Pegeen Kelly

Galway Kinnell

Carolyn Kizer

Ted Kooser

Yusef Komunyakaa

Maxine Kumin

Suzanne Lummis

Tom Lux

Bill Mohr

Harryette Mullen

Carol Muske-Dukes

Marilyn Nelson

Naomi Shihab Nye

Sharon Olds

Holly Prado

Doren Robbins

Aleida Rodriguez

Maurya Simon

Gerald Stern

David St. John

Natasha Tretheway

Quincy Troupe

Ellen Bryant Voight

Charles Harper Webb

Cecilia Woloch

Robert Wrigley

Of these 40 poets, half are women; one-fourth of the total represent a range of poetics within African-American poetry that is difficult, if not impossible, to find embedded in current anthologies. On a number count alone, Woloch deserves considerable recognition for going far beyond an all too prevalent tokenism that still seems to operate within American poetry, especially within the academy.

Unfortunately, the Idyllwild poetry festival had to scale back its programming after the international economic debacle in 2008. A week of workshops and readings still takes place in July under the direction of Ed Skoog, who brought in Diane Wakoski and Richard Kenney as featured poets this year. David St. John was originally scheduled to lead a workshop, but had to drop out at the last moment and Kenney took his place.

As in past years, I am only able to attend the poetry programming in the evening because I teach a day-long class in fiction writing at Idyllwild’s summer arts camp. This past Friday, however, I managed to catch the final quarter-hour of a lecture by Diane Wakoski. The culminating trope of her talk involved the layers of secrets intermingling in a poem’s undulations. She emphasized that the crucial tension in a poet’s work involves the knowledge of a secret that must be addressed in the poem but cannot be revealed. As Wakoski cited examples of how this oscillation works out in poets such as Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath, I thought of the way I explained poetry to young students in the San Gabriel Valley in the early 1980s: “A poem does not solve a mystery; it creates one.” I remember that at one school my comment was reported by the classroom’s teacher to the principal as a “dangerous” idea. I kid you not. On one hand, I was dismayed that what I was teaching grade school students about poetry could be categorized as insidious knowledge; on the other hand, I felt gratified that my work in various poet-in-the-schools programs was doing more than simply reinforcing the predictable habits of literacy.