Tag Archives: ” Charles Harper Webb

Thomas Lux (1946 – 2017)

TOM LUX (December 10, 1946 – February 5, 2017)

Larry Goldstein was in town this past week, and we had lunch together at the Long Beach Museum of Art, where the upstairs gallery currently features some superb photographs of the Long Beach port. On our way to the museum, as I drove on Seventh Street, Larry mentioned that the Cortland Review was dedicating its next issue to the late Thomas Lux. I hadn’t heard that Tom had died, and I was as grateful for the slow traffic, as for the street’s familiarity. To have been told the same news on the 90 freeway last Friday night, as rain sliced down, might have had a different outcome, for the 90’s lane markers at night are very faint to begin with, and I struggled to detect exactly which lane I was traversing.

I first met Tom back in the early 1990s, when he was on a Southern California reading tour. He started at the Chateau Marmont on a weekend, headed over to Loyola Marymount at the start of the school week, and ended up at California State University Long Beach, by which time we ended up playing pool in the Student Union after his reading. I remember how surprised Tom was when I showed up at the second reading with a copy of Tarantulas on a Lifebuoy. He probably thought at that point that he had met everyone who had a copy of that early book. Not quite, I told him. Contrary to popular allegations from an individual he used to know in New York City, there were more than a handful of astute readers in Los Angeles.

Tom was a superb reader, and his poems fit perfectly into the Stand Up school that Charles Harper Webb was beginning to promote. Indeed, he unquestionably deserved his place in the second edition. He returned to the Los Angeles area in the late 1990s; along with Naomi Shihab Nye, he was the first poet-in-residence at the Idyllwild Poetry Festival. Idyllwild was the last place I saw him, in large part because my life as a scholar has diverted my creative energies outside of the contemporary poetry nexus. It was over a decade ago that we last wrote each other. His poems have been a constant presence in my teaching, though.

Thomas Lux radiated a multi-dimensional love of poetry that went beyond anything I have ever encountered in all but a few other people. If it seems that he is present now in my memory’s eye as a living presence, reciting lines of poetry by Hart Crane or Theodore Roethke to illustrate his point, then it is a measure of how much his invisible companionship has meant to me the past dozen years.

This sense of personal loss extends to Charles Harper Webb, one of my fellow poets at CSULB. I asked if he would be willing to contribute to this blog post about Tom Lux’s writing and presence in our lives and he immediately sent the following eulogy:

“I was beyond bummed to hear of the death of Tom Lux, one of the truly good guys in American poetry. Just last December, I sent him my new book of essays on poetry, and he promised to send me a copy of the collection of Bill Knott’s poems which he’d just finished editing. It never crossed my mind that I’d never see, or even e-mail him again. Since we lived on opposite sides of the country, I didn’t see him much; but he was my friend, and a world-class ally in the fight for clear, entertaining poetry. I love Tom’s poems. I wish I’d written them. Every virtue that I praise in my essays, his poetry exemplifies. Wit, passion, impropriety, brilliance of metaphor and conception—he gave it all to the world in clear, concise language that sounds like no one else. Because there was no one else like him. It’s our good fortune that, although his body’s gone, his voice still sings out of his books, loud and quirky, brave and clear.”

The Collected Poems of Tom Lux will be a book worth waiting for, and the second half of Charles’s assessment would be a spot on blurb for that book. In that kind of volume, it is a common practice to include an index of titles as well as first lines. I would recommend including an index of last lines, too, in that book as a way of giving young poets one more axis of inspiration. I have seen many determined and talented young poets emerging in the past twenty years, but few have the gift of Tom Lux’s quirky, encompassing, comic sense of poignant elucidation.

If I were to take part in a memorial reading, I would be hard pressed to choose which one of his poems to read. “Refrigerator, 1957” would probably be my choice, though given its popularity, someone else would probably have read it by the time I got to the podium. It is certainly one of the best poems to have first appeared in The New Yorker magazine.

https://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/thomas-lux/refrigerator-1957/
https://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/thomas-lux/refrigerator-1957/
http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1997/07/28/refrigerator-1957
http://happopoemouse.blogspot.com/2013/11/number-326-thomas-lux-refrigerator-1957.html

And for a view of that poem “across the pond,” go to:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jan/16/selected-poems-1986-to-2012-thomas-lux-review

One of the better articles I’ve found on his poetry can be found at:
http://www.cerisepress.com/01/01/life-on-a-piecemeal-planet-god-particles-by-thomas-lux/view-all

https://www.pshares.org/issues/winter-1998-99/about-thomas-lux-profile
Issue 77 / Winter 1998-99 – Stuart Dischell
http://www.news.gatech.edu/2017/02/07/campus-atlanta-communities-mourn-loss-thomas-lux-director-poetrytech
https://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2017/02/thomas-lux-obituary/516354/
http://www.dailyo.in/voices/tom-lux-death-poet-poetry-eulogy-tribute-vijay-seshadri/story/1/15523.html

“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”
“Cocksucker”
“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.

Bob Flanagan – On the 20th anniversary of his death

Photo (c) by Rod Bradley

Photo (c) by Rod Bradley

THE KID IS THE ULTIMATE MAN: Bob Flanagan (1952-1996) and Sheree Rose

Today is the 20th anniversary of the death of Bob Flanagan, although this post happening to appear today is the result of pure accident. The photograph of Flanagan accompanying this post is from a set taken by Rod Bradley at a publication event for issue number 11 of Bachy magazine at Papa Bach Bookstore in the mid-1970s; I spotted the CD Bradley had given me with the photographs at my office last week and took another peek at them over the holiday weekend, at which point I decided to start work on a long overdue tribute to Bob Flanagan and his artistic collaborator, Sheree Rose. When I looked up Bob’s dates to get an exact bearing on his chronology, I found the anniversary of his death to be rapidly approaching, so I redoubled my efforts. It should be noted, by the way, that the title of this post is a reference to the words on the cover of a book in the lower left hand corner of the photograph.

Flanagan began reading his poems around Southern California beginning in the mid-1970s, when he was still in his early 20s. In point of fact, I attended a festival of poets that included Flanagan in what had to have been his first reading in any venue that got public attention whatsoever. The “festival” took place in an unfinished, multi-story office building somewhere near downtown Los Angeles. I suppose it would be possible to dig through my archives and find the name of the hapless organizer and the exact address, but this was not an event that merits much more citation than Flanagan’s appearance, which stood out because of the contrast between his earnestness and the abundance of clichés in his poems. Flanagan was not born with a natural flair for vivid imagery. I distinctly remember listening to him read at that festival and thinking to myself that he had as little talent as any young poet I had ever heard. The old truism that talent is mostly hard work is certainly demonstrated in Flanagan’s case, for it was due to his determination to become a good writer that he matured into one of my favorite poets. In addition to his willingness to work very hard at becoming a better writer, he also had the advantage of being a member of the Beyond Baroque workshop, where poets such as Jim Krusoe and Jack Grapes continued his education in poetry outside of the academy.

I published some of his poetry in Momentum magazine and was impressed enough by his first book, “The Kid Is the Man” (Bombshelter Press, 1978) to write a review of it. It was the first formal public notice that Flanagan’s writing received. “The Kid Is the Man” contained all of the poems that Flanagan had made famous within several coteries at work in Los Angeles back then. “Love Is Still Possible” and “The Bukowski Poem” remain two of the earliest instances of poems that deserve to be in the Hall of Fame for the Stand Up school, a point to which I will return in a moment. Nor did Flanagan cease to write poetry even as he increasingly began to focus on music, theater, and performance art as outlets for his creative impishness and considerable wit, not to mention his legendary masochism. When it came time to choose his poems for Poetry Loves Poetry (1985), the work was all from the period after his first book was published and included another stand-up classic, “Fear of Poetry.” He went on to publish several collections, including “The Slave Sonnets” and a superb collaboration with David Trinidad, “A Taste of Honey.”

Given all of this poetry by Flanagan and the degree of his visible presence through frequent readings in Los Angeles, it is astonishing to realize that he is absent from all three editions of “Stand Up Poetry,” the first of which appeared in 1990 as a project co-edited by Charles Harper Webb and Suzanne Lummis. I suppose one has to take on faith the sincerity of the editors when one reads in the first slim volume (84 pages) that the 22 poets appearing in the book are merely representative of the Stand Up poetry movement and are not intended to be seen as the essential members of its first wave. However, Flanagan does not appear in either of the subsequent volumes, either. In fact, Flanagan is also absent from “Grand Passion,” which was also co-edited by Webb and Lummis, and which appeared in 1994, while Flanagan was still alive.

I find Flanagan’s absence from this evolving series of anthologies to be nothing short of astonishing, especially since Flanagan had a generous selection of poems in my anthology, “Poetry Loves Poetry,” which appeared in 1985 and which contained the poems of Webb and Lummis, too. In other words, his work was right there in front of them. Now it’s true that by 1990 Flanagan was primarily known as a performance artist, but he was still active as a poet. In fact, Flanagan was one of the primary poets who ran the Beyond Baroque poetry workshop between 1985 and 1995. Despite the way that his notoriety as a “Super-Masochist” began to overshadow his poetry, I certainly regarded Flanagan as worthy of consideration as a working poet in the early 1990s; and when I asked him to be a guest on my poetry video show, “Put Your Ears On,” he did not hesitate to accept. It turned out to be one of my most successful shows. We had a monitor on stage with a video of David Trinidad reading his lines from A Taste of Honey that alternated with Bob reading his lines live in the studio. His wit was on full display: when I asked him if he ever considered moving to NYC, where he had been born, he responded that he “preferred his creature comforts, and New York is mostly creatures.”

In addition, his poems in “Poetry Loves Poetry” were among the very best one in that anthology. “Fear of Poetry” remains a classic example of a metapoem that should be studied by every young poet. It should also be mentioned that Flanagan’s prominence within the poetry community in the mid-1980s because his lover and artistic collaborator Sheree Rose was a very fine photographer. When I decided that full-page photographs of the poets should be included in “Poetry Loves Poetry,” it was Sheree Rose who drew the assignment of persuading several dozen poets to relax enough to let their private masks become somewhat visible in a public portrait. She did a superb job and I hope some day that Beyond Baroque can have a retrospective of her work.

Finally, to square the paradoxical circle of his absence, I would also note that Flanagan studied at California State University, Long Beach, where Gerald Locklin taught for 40 years. Locklin and his colleague Charles Stetler are the poets known for using the title of Edward Field’s book, Stand Up, Friend, with Me, as the basis for a moniker to describe a kind of poetry that became increasingly popular in Southern California in the years after the Beat scenes in Los Angeles and San Francisco began a period of diminishing returns. Both Locklin and Stetler are in the first volume of Stand Up Poetry, along with another CSULB professor, Eliot Fried, whose poetry I had also published in the first issue of Bachy magazine in 1972.

The line-up of poets in the first volume of “Stand Up Poetry” (Red Wind Books, 1990) is very impressive: Laurel Ann Bogen, Charles Bukowski, Billy Collins, Wanda Coleman, Edward Field, Michael C. Ford, Elliot Fried, Manazar Gamboa, Jack Grapes, Eloise Klein Healy, Ron Koertge, Steve Kowit, Jim Krusoe, Gerald Locklin, Suzanne Lummis, Bill Mohr, Charles Stetler, Austin Straus, Charles Webb, and Ray Zepeda. There are also two poets named Ian Gregson and Viola Weinberg. That the poems of Bob Flanagan and Scott Wannberg should have been there in place of Gregson’s and Weinberg’s is obvious now.

The importance of Bob Flanagan’s writing and art and of his collaborations with Sheree Rose recently was recently confirmed by the acquisition of his archives by the University of Southern California. You can access information about that archive at:
http://one.usc.edu/bob-flanagan-and-sheree-rose-collection/

On the 20th anniversary of his death, I would urge those who are looking for material to analyze through the lens of disability theory or queer theory to consider visiting that archive and to get to work. In doing so, it would also be worth remembering that Flanagan is an exemplary Stand Up poet and one of the primary members of the original core group. Those of us who were here in the early and mid-1970s know the accuracy of that statement, even if editors who didn’t arrive in Los Angeles until the late 1970s prefer a version that might reflect a fear of being tainted by Flanagan’s transgressive art. In equally emphasizing his stature as a Stand Up poet, critics might also consider how his writing fits within the Confessional school of poetry, which is all too often viewed as a movement with no important contributors after 1980. How about someone taking on an article with a stark contrast: Sharon Olds versus Bob Flanagan. Now that would generate an incandescence worthy of the audacious risks that Flanagan took and lived to tell about, far longer – decades longer – than anyone ever suspected he would, even those of who feel very lucky to have heard him read his poetry or to offer up his body to the demons of pain. Suffering is not redemption, but it is hard to know what is worthy redeeming if one does not suffer to test those boundaries. Flanagan’s art and poetry offer us a chance to redraw our boundaries and set off anew.